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Principles of Banking: A Review of a Review of Adamati & Hellwig’s The Bankers’ New Clothes

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 7th September 2014

The capacity of an economy to grow is dependent on the nature of financial institutions besides other factors. Financial institutions, particularly banks, channelise savings (via deposits) into investment (via loans for economic activity). That is, they play a vital societal function. Hence, Roger Myerson, the author of the review essay, writes: ‘So there is an essential role for public regulation of banks: to maintain stable trust in channels of credit that are vital to our society’ (p. 197). This blog post is a review of a review essay of Admati and Hellwig’s The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It by R. Myerson in the Journal of Economic Literature.

Banks are unlike other economic entities. Manufacturing firms do not require public trust to carry out their daily operations in the same way as banks do. If the public find the banks to be untrustworthy, no deposits will be made and nor will anyone borrow. This affects the saving-investment intermediation and consequently other ‘real’ economic activities (agriculture, manufacturing and services) are affected. What happens in the banking system does not stay within it but it both directly and indirectly impacts other parts of the economy – a financial contagion, as it is called. Thus, banks need to be publicly regulated. And, as Myerson points out, ‘the reliability of any regulatory system must depend on broad public monitoring of the regulatory process itself’ due to the vast wealth involved in the business of banking (p. 198). This is not all. According to Myerson, ‘any meaningful financial regulatory reform must include a clear explanation of its principles to millions of informed citizens and investors’ (p. 198).

For Amati & Hellwig, the problem is that bank owners have lost the incentive to keep their banks afloat. Why is this so? First, the owners’ stake in the bank’s investments has dwindled. In other words, banks possess less equity. Equity is the difference between the value of assets or investment the bank owns and all the debt liabilities the bank owes to its depositors and other creditors (p. 198). From about 25 percent equity capital in early 20th century, it fell to about 3 percent or less in 2008 (pp. 198-9). A large value of equity capital signals to the depositors that their deposits will be safe. This provides reassurance due to two reasons – (1) ‘the probability of investment losses large enough to affect the depositors become smaller when the bank has more equity’ and (2) ‘the owners who control the bank have more incentive to avoid risks of such large losses’ (p. 199). The second reason for a decline in bankers’ incentive is the ‘creation of government deposit insurance programmes in America and elsewhere’. Now, the risks of the owners of the banks get transferred to the government and therefore to the tax-paying public. Hence, as Myerson writes:

…when creditors are publicly insured, bank default risk becomes a public problem. Thus, the requirement that banks should have adequate equity has become a responsibility of public regulators. (p. 199)

Given the wider economic function banks play and the contagion effects, it is important that banks are not allowed to fail. Admati & Hellwig recommend banks’ equity levels to be 20-30 percent of their total assets (p. 209).

A firm can finance its investment by issuing debt or equity. The proportion of equity to total liabilities (sum of equity and debt capital) matters because the risks are borne by different groups. Government deposit insurance enables banks ‘to borrow at low rates that do not properly respond to the greater risks that their creditors must pay when the bank has less equity’ (p. 200).  Also, financial fragility intensifies if tax laws encourage financial institutions to use more debt than equity in financing investments (p. 201).

When short on cash, the banks go to the Central Bank, the lender of last resort, for assistance. It lends only to solvent banks. An assessment of solvency requires the Central Bank to be able to assess the assets of the bank – whether its collateral is ‘good’ and whether it has positive equity (p. 202). This also points to the importance of capital regulation for banks as it is ‘fundamental to liquidity’. A slight digression is in order here. Owing to the fundamental role of liquidity in all economic processes, the provider of liquidity ought to be publicly controlled. In fact, as Myerson rightly states:

…the role of monitor and lender of last resort should be recognized as a vital natural monopoly, maintain costly expertise to provide public information, but with monopoly power that should be publicly controlled. (p. 203)

The lender of last resort is therefore consequent on the central banks’ ability to monitor the equity of banks. Thus, measurement (financial accounting, imputing values, risk weighting and so on) assumes great importance (pp. 203-9).

To conclude, banks perform a fundamental socio-economic function in channelling savings into productive investment. The ability of banks to conduct their business depends on public trust. Public trust in turn depends on the proportion of equity capital to total liabilities which is deemed acceptable by the financial regulator. This acceptable ratio is computed by private experts who do not fully take into account the social cost of a low ratio. Given the high possibility of moral hazard in banking and the threat of financial contagion, it is imperative that there is public regulation of banks with the principles made transparent to the tax-paying public who have a direct stake as savers and an indirect stake as contributors to the deposit insurance.

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Posted in Economics, Government, Macroeconomics, Monetary Economics | No Comments »

On Competition in Economic Theory

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st July 2014

The assumption of ‘perfect competition’ is central to marginalist (neoclassical) economics. In classical economics, a strand of non-orthodox economics, a seemingly similar but fundamentally different assumption of ‘free competition’ is made. This blog post is about the differences between classical and marginalist economics with respect to their definitions of competition. A further comment relating to the method of economics is also made in connection with this matter in the concluding paragraph.

In marginalist economics, under conditions of ‘perfect competition’, the demand and supplies of commodities and all factors of production are in equilibrium. There is no unemployment of labour or any underutilization of capacity (‘capital’). What are these conditions of ‘perfect competition’? A large number of firms is assumed to exist, each too small to be able to set the price. That is, all firms are price takers and they attempt to maximize their profits. There are no barriers to entry or exit. Further, it is assumed that whatever the firms supply, there always exists sufficient demand. One wonders whether there is any real agency to these price-taking firms and entrepreneurs. When questions are posed in classrooms about their correspondence with reality, the response provided is that such conditions do not actually exist but are a first and a necessary abstraction so as to examine conditions of oligopoly or monopolistic competition. So, what is profit in marginalist economics under ‘perfect competition’? It is the marginal product of ‘capital’, which is zero entailing that profits just cover the interest costs; that is, are no returns to entrepreneurs undertaking risk and uncertainty? Ignoring the capital theoretic problems faced by marginalist economics, underlying this conception is the view that capitalists and workers are (‘justly’) rewarded for their contribution to production.

On the other hand, classical economists, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, and contemporary economists following the classical tradition, after its revival by Piero Sraffa in 1960, assume ‘free competition’. There is free mobility of labour and ‘capital’. Firms and entrepreneurs are profit maximizers as in marginalist economics. No restrictions are imposed on the number of firms or their ability to set prices. The process of competition – profit-maximizing behaviour plus mobility of factors – tends to make the market prices gravitate towards long-period normal prices and a uniform rate of profit is obtained on the capital advanced. Note that the rate of profit is not zero as in marginalist economics. Alterations in demand and supply affect the market prices. If market prices fall below normal prices, production is not profitable and depending on their permanence the affected firms might exit the industry. Alternatively, production may be cut down because of the lack of adequate demand. Moreover, real wages are determined by wider social and political forces. If real wages are given (and given technology), the rate of profit and the configuration of normal prices are determined. Or, if the rate of profit is determined via the rate of interest set by monetary authorities, the real wage and the set of normal prices are determined. That is, distributive variables are capable of being determined exogenously. This is in stark contrast with the marginalist theory – the marginal productivity theory of distribution, as it is called. Classical economics in contrast to marginalist economics has a logically consistent theory of value and distribution embedded in a framework of competition with realistic conditions. Also, classical economics is able to accommodate institutions, be it collective bargaining or monetary policy, within its framework without any difficulties.

To conclude, besides other logical problems marginalist economics faces, it also possesses a rather restrictive notion of competition. But, does economic theorizing require such an assumption? My answer is in the affirmative. To identify casual chains, however short they might be, an environment of ‘free competition’ must be assumed. With free mobility of labour and ‘capital’ – a genuine conception of a competitive economy, a uniform rate of profit is obtained. But, note that a classical competitive equilibrium does not entail full employment. [Non-competitive elements will generate differential profit rates.] So, should we abandon the study of economic phenomena under ‘free competition’? No, because it conveys to us tendencies in a competitive economy and non-competitive processes are conceptualised as a departure from competitive ones.

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Posted in Classical Economics, Economics, Employment, Marginalist economics, Markets, Neoclassical Economics | No Comments »

On the Determinants of Investment

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 30th June 2014

It is well known that an economy’s output levels and employment levels are determined by the level of investment. The popular story presented in mainstream textbooks and taught in conventional courses is that of planned saving adapting to planned investment, with the rate of interest as the equilibrating factor. This is the supply-side vision of the economy wherein demand can never be a constraint except temporarily due to frictions or imperfections. Additionally, this view reaches the conclusion that that there is a tendency to full-employment in capitalist economies. This blog post revisits the saving-investment relationship, the investment function and the link between the rate of interest and investment. Given the crucial role investment plays in an economy, it is important that we critically appraise its determinants.

By investment, economists mean the purchase of capital goods and not financial assets. Saving refers to the income that is not consumed. Saving is a leakage from the economy while investment is an injection. Marginalist (neoclassical) economics maintains that planned saving and planned investment are equilibrated through variations in the rate of interest which is assumed to be sufficiently sensitive to any saving-investment disequilibrium. Planned saving is a positive function of the rate of interest while planned investment is a negative function of the rate of interest. When planned saving is in excess of planned investment, there is excess savings which puts a downward pressure on the rate of interest and vice versa. However, is such an a priori functional link between the rate of interest and the rate of accumulation a correct one? The 1960s capital theory debate demonstrates the implausibility of an interest-elastic investment function on logical grounds. Also, in a world where the rate of interest is set by monetary policy (and therefore exogenous to the saving-investment process) it is unclear how it can play the role of an equilibrating force as suggested by marginalist economics.

The non-orthodox approach to activity levels and growth draws inspiration from the principle of effective demand of Kalecki and Keynes. The investment function is not interest-elastic in this theoretical approach, also called the demand-led approach. Here, investment depends on ‘the future expected level of effective demand (D+1), which tells us how much capacity firms will need, and on the current technical conditions of production (represented in this simple model by the normal capital-output ratio)…’ (Serrano 1995: 78; available freely here). In this simple model, note that production is assumed to be carried out with circulating capital only. So, I = aD+1 where a is the capital-output ratio. A change in technology will affect the capital-output ratio, which indicates how much of capital is required to produce one unit of output. Further, we make the realistic assumption that firms do not systematically err in their expectations. The expectations of firms of course depend on policy certainty. Policy uncertainty affects consumption and investment decisions in an adverse manner.

As a matter of fact, a recent IMF working paper on the situation of India provides partial support to the demand-led approach. They note: ‘Real interest rates account for only one quarter of the explained investment slowdown.’ For them, the key factor is policy uncertainty, but, the demand-led growth theorists, I think, will advocate the examination of the exact mechanisms through which monetary and/or fiscal policies have deterred investment. Without explaining further in this blog post, the answer might be found in the manner in which autonomous elements of demand such as autonomous consumption, research & development expenditures, government expenditures and foreign expenditures are affected by policy uncertainty. To conclude, it is time that the interest-elastic investment function is seriously questioned both on theoretical and empirical grounds, and subsequently discarded.

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Posted in Economic Growth, Economics, India, Macroeconomics, Marginalist economics, Michal Kalecki, Neoclassical Economics, Sraffa, Supply side economics | No Comments »

Kunkel on David Harvey and Robert Brenner: Demand, Profits and Employment

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 19th May 2014

The link between demand and profits, and consequently employment, is visible in the works of the classical economists and Marx. In this blog post, we set out the link between these variables by way of assessing the contributions of David Harvey and Robert Brenner, as narrated and presented by Benjamin Kunkel in his 2014 collection of essays, all previously published – Utopia or Bust: A Guide to the Recent Crisis (and not on the basis of Harvey’s and Brenner’s original texts).

Karl Marx has already presented us with the possible reasons for the occurrence of crises in capitalist economies. Kunkel treats these crises as profitability crises (pp. 34-6); they can occur because of (1) profit squeeze, (2) a rising organic composition of capital, and (3) underconsumption. A capitalist crisis causes activity levels to drop and results in wide-spread unemployment. The three factors mentioned above reduce the profits of capitalists, consequently affecting their decision to produce and therefore adversely affecting their decisions to employ workers and purchase capital goods. The first – a profit squeeze, is self-explanatory, but its causes need not be. A rise in real wages, ceteris paribus, leads to a decline in the rate of profit. The organic composition of capital, according to Marx, refers to the ratio between constant capital and variable capital. Constant capital refers to the investment expenditure on plant, machinery, tools and other constant/fixed capital. Variable capital refers to the investment expenditure relating to the workers – wage costs, training costs and the like. When the ratio of constant to variable capital rises, or equivalently, when the organic composition of capital rises, the rate of profit (the ratio between profits and capital advanced) falls. The third cause is underconsumption, by workers. This occurs, by definition, since the value of the real wage is less than the value they add to the commodity. In Marxian terms, this difference measures the surplus-value that the capitalists extract from the workers.

I

Strong bargaining power on the side of the workers can generate a rise in the real wages; although, note that the terms of agreement are usually set in money wages. The rising organic composition of capital is not a law, but a contingent proposition. As for underconsumption, if workers’ wages are just sufficient for their survival, it can result in goods lying unsold and therefore affect capitalist profits. To put it differently, there arises a gap between aggregate supply and aggregate demand. This, according to Harvey, places a ‘limit to capital’.

What can possibly eliminate underconsumption, a facet of capitalism, a consequence of positive capitalist profits and a cause of economic crisis? Harvey points out that it is credit which eliminates this cause, at least, temporarily.

‘Any increase in the flow of credit to housing construction, for example, is of little avail today without a parallel increase in the flow of mortgage finance to facilitate housing purchases. Credit can be used to accelerate production and consumption simultaneously.’

(Harvey; as quoted on p. 32)

But, Kunkel cautions us that even if credit can fund the required aggregate demand, changes in income distribution brought about by the struggle between workers and capitalists will affect the aggregate equilibrium, and will render it unstable.

‘If there exists a theoretical possibility of attaining an ideal proportion, from the standpoint of balanced growth, between the amount of total social income to be reinvested in production and the amount to be spent on consumption, and if at the same time the credit system could serve to maintain this ratio of profits to wages in perpetuity, the antagonistic nature of class society nevertheless prevents such a balance from being struck except occasionally and by accident, to be immediately upset by any advantage gained by labor or, more likely, by capital.’ (p. 37)

It is not entirely clear what mechanisms and processes Kunkel is referring to when he makes the above claim about income distribution rendering the equilibrium unstable. Indeed, if the available credit is not sufficient to counter the depressed wages and high profits, the aggregate equilibrium will be unstable.

Another route through which capitalist crisis can be postponed is via long-term infrastructural projects. ‘Overaccumulated capital, whether originating as income from production or as the bank overdrafts that unleash fictitious values, can put off any immediate crisis of profitability by being drawn off into long-term infrastructural projects, in an operation Harvey calls a “spatio-temporal fix”’ (p. 39). Here again, it is contingent on the extent to which the workers gain from the surplus generated by these projects, both in the short and long-term. For example, the employment guarantee programme in India creates infrastructure as well as provides employment and wage income.

‘So what then are the “limits to capital”’ (p. 41)? ‘Keynesians complain of an insufficiency of aggregate demand, restraining investment. The Marxist will simply add that this bespeaks inadequate wages, in the index of a class struggle going the way of owners rather than workers’ (p. 43). Inadequate wages, as previously indicated, does generate demand deficiency. To that extent, Marx’s and Keynes’s account of capitalist crises are very similar.

Kunkel points out the role of environmental degradation, a consequence of capitalist drive for profits, in capitalist crises. ‘Already three-concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere, loss of nitrogen from the soil, and the overall extinction rate for nonhuman species-have been exceeded. There are impediments to endless capital accumulation that future crisis theories will have to reckon with.’ This can be easily integrated into the theories of output and of growth, as Ricardo’s diminishing returns to land, has been. Environmental depletion poses constraints on the supply side primarily and for economic growth, positive capital accumulation is necessary. Therefore, environmental degradation poses a strong constraint on the supply side of the economy.

II

Robert Brenner made a ‘frontal attack on the idea of wage-induced profit squeeze’ (p. 87). As Kunkel puts it, ‘increased competition exerted relentless downward pressure on profits, resulting in diminished business investment, reduced payrolls, and-with lower R&D expenditure-declining productivity gains from technological advance. The textbook result of this industrial tournament would have been the elimination of less competitive firms. But the picture drawn by The Economics of Global Turbulence is one of “excessive entry and insufficient exit” in manufacturing’ (p. 87). In other words, the profit squeeze was not wage-induced.

Marx’s realization crisis finds a mention in Kunkel’s essay on Brenner too. ‘If would-be purchasers are held back by low wages, then the total mass of commodities cannot be unloaded at the desired price. Capital fails to realize its customary profits, and accumulation towards stagnation’ (p. 91). This is the crucial point. Capital has to realize its customary profits, a magnitude which includes a return on risk and undertaking (a return on enterprise, if you like) and the rate of interest. Capital that is invested in a riskier enterprise is expected to provide higher returns. The search for demand (or markets) is not new. Mercantilism was precisely that. More recently, ‘[i]n Germany and Japan, and then in China, catering to external markets won out over nurturing internal demand’ (p. 94) However, currently, there are signs of a reversal as external demand is falling, and net-exporting countries are reorienting towards domestic demand (p. 95).

But, what is to be done? According to Kunkel, ‘[g]lobal prosperity will come about not through further concessions from labor, or the elimination of industrial overcapacity by widespread bankruptcy, but through the development of societies in which people can afford to consume more of what they produce, and produce more with the entire labor force at work’ (p. 98). Kunkel rightly advocates better wages and the full-employment of labour. For, it is only such a society which can afford its citizens with a dignified and economically comfortable life. As a matter of fact, ‘[m]ore leisure or free time, not less, would be one natural-and desirable-consequence of having more jobs’ (p. 103). A similar call is visible in Robert & Edward Skidelsky’s How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life published in 2012. We urgently need an economic architecture where goods can flow easily across regions, workers earn good wages, capital earns its customary profits, labour is fully employed and the environment is respected. In working towards this goal, it is necessary to possess an accurate understanding of the link between demand, profits and employment.

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Posted in Economic Crisis, Economics, Employment, Karl Marx, Macroeconomics, Prices, Unemployment, Wages | No Comments »