Sunday, June 30, 2013

Distributional Politics of the Ice Cream Parable

. Sunday, June 30, 2013

Tyler Cowen is thinking out loud:

This parable assumes that [monetary] injection effects are important, namely where the new money goes first. This Austrian-like view is unfashionable, has weak theoretical foundations, and violates the Modigliani-Miller theorem, but at the moment markets seem to believe it. Should we believe it too?
Yes we should. Or at least we shouldn't let Modigliani-Miller stop us. In his 2011 Presidential Address to the American Finance Association, John Cochrane said the following:
Discount rates vary a lot more than we thought. Most of the puzzles and anomalies that we face amount to discount-rate variation we do not understand. Our theoretical controversies are about how discount rates are formed. We need to recognize and incorporate discount-rate variation in applied procedures.
If discount rates are varying a lot -- across time, space, and actors -- then a representative agent model such as Modigliani-Miller is not going to perform very well. And, as it turns out, it doesn't. I have paper, while I'll be sending out for review soon, which drills down at banks' activities (at the firm level) across countries and time. It turns out that there is all kinds of variation being driven by a whole host of variables at multiple levels of analysis. Which, you know, we all know intuitively... but it's not what our models expect. So let's ditch Modigliani-Miller. Capital structure is clearly not irrelevant in the real world.

Going back to Cowen, here's something with which we might be concerned. Central banks act by trading debt instruments for others at price. In normal times the swap is either short-term sovereign debt for cash or present dollars for future dollars plus interest. In our current environment, it's practically anything for cash. Who benefits from this situation? Those who can create debt that can be sold to the central bank for cash. In normal times this has primarily been governments, but governments are doing everything they can to stop creating debt. So who does that leave? Banks.

Because central banks want to be active they have been broadening the range of debt instruments that they will conduct business in. So here's a worrisome dynamic: governments are trying to reduce debt, while banks are being encouraged by central banks to create debt instruments which they can trade for cash. Karl Whelan may be correct that traditional solvency concerns don't apply to central banks, but that doesn't mean that there aren't knock-on effects from this.

The upshot is that expansionist central bank policy requires somebody to lever up. If governments won't do it and households can't do it then banks and large corporations pretty much have to. The more activist the central bank wants to be and the less indebted the government wants to be, the more banks have to create debt instruments however they can. Possibly that could mean loans to individuals and smaller firms, which could be stimulative, but households and firms are deleveraging. Meanwhile, bank regulators are telling banks to stop lending to risky groups. So where's the debt going to come from?

Banks and big credit-worthy firms are going to do very well. They're getting debt finance for free, so their equity can be deployed elsewhere or held in reserve. This is why stock markets are up so much. This is why Apple and other corporations are taking out loans when they don't even need the cash and have no real plans to do much of anything with it in the short run. Everyone else is not going to do very well, because the traditional mechanisms for distributing from central banks to the citizenry -- fiscal policy plus bank loans to individuals and small firms -- is being cut out of the story. In one sense that might be okay if the future costs of debt servicing are higher than the expected return folks would get from borrowing. But the distributional implications of this are clear: the economy is going to become more unequal and less efficient. Credit is not being allocated to facilitate productive investment -- there might not be many -- but to create debt instruments to sell to central banks for cash. The policy mix we have right now practically requires inequality to go up, which is a sign that the economy is seriously imbalanced.

One alternative is to let risk back into the system but I don't hear anybody calling for that right now.

At some point central banks will be pressured to tighten. It looks very likely that this will be under conditions of steady but slowish growth. This is where the Big Unknown comes in. When that day comes will banks (and corporations) start using their cash productively or keep hoarding it? Given the experience of the past decade or so, will there be many people who even want to borrow in order to build a McMansion or buy a luxury car or MBA? If they did, will regulators let banks lend to them? Will the originate-securities-and-distribute-to-surplus-countries market come back as strong as before?


Nick Weininger said...

Another point in favor of interfluidity's monetary-stimulus-by-helicopter-drop, I suppose.

Distributional Politics of the Ice Cream Parable

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