A Review of Mian & Sufi’s House of Debt

Lawrence Summers, a Professor of Economics at Harvard University and a Financial Times columnist, hailed Atif Mian & Amar Sufi’s book as ‘the most important economics book of the year’. The book was published in 2015 by the University of Chicago Press. This is a very readable book on issues of debt (particularly household debt in America), determination of activity levels, and on how to do good economics.

        Mian & Sufi begin by discussing the leverage ratio – ‘the ratio of total debt to total assets’ (p. 20). For the poorest homeowners, this ratio was near 80% and for the richest 20%, this ratio was only 7%. This is because the poor households borrow to purchase their assets (for example, a house). At the same time, the rich households deposit (credit) money with the banking sector to earn interest. The banking sector mediates the financial needs of the borrowers and the lenders. As Mian & Sufi write:

A poor man’s debt is a rich man’s asset. Since it is ultimately the rich who are lending to the poor through the financial system, as we move from poor home owners to rich home owners, debt declines and financial assets rise. (p. 20)

This observation immediately points to the need for looking at inequalities of income and wealth when studying debt or credit. Indeed, ‘[a] financial system that relies excessively on debt amplifies wealth inequality’ (p. 25). This is because when house prices fall, the decline in net worth for the indebted poor households will be more than proportional (p. 22-3).

       The authors rightly note that ‘the Great Recession was consumption-driven’ (p. 30) for ‘the decline in overall household spending in the third and fourth quarters of 2008 was unprecedented’ (p. 33). However, the dominant view in the US and across the world is what the authors term the ‘banking view’.

According to this view, the collapse of Lehman Brothers froze the credit system, preventing businesses from getting the loans they needed to continue operating. As a result, they were forced to cut investment and lay off workers. In this narrative, if we could have prevented Lehman Brothers from failing, our economy would have remained intact. (p. 31)

The dominant view locates the problem to be the lack of credit in the economy. And, they believe that if credit is made available at cheap rates (low rates of interest), the economy will revive. This view ignores the purpose of credit in an economy. Individual and firms demand money for consumption and investment (in a two-sector economy, aggregate demand is the sum of consumption and investment), and if aggregate demand falls so will the demand for credit. A fall in aggregate demand, as Keynes demonstrated in The General Theory, results in the reduction of activity and employment levels. This is precisely what happened during the Great Recession.

Job losses materialized because households stopped buying, not because businesses stopped investing. In fact, the evidence indicates that the decline in business investment was a reaction to the massive decline in household spending. If businesses saw no demand for their products, then of course they cut back on investment. (p. 34)

In other words, investment is not independent of consumption. This insight is of value in emerging economies like India where actual output is far below the potential output (large presence of disguised unemployment and underemployment), and political campaigns like ‘Make in India’ must be viewed with great caution. The dominant view is based on, what in growth theory is called, the supply-side growth theory. According to this theory, a growth in aggregate supply automatically generates an equivalent growth in aggregate demand. In House of Debt, the authors label this as the ‘fundamentals view’.

The basic idea behind the fundamentals view is that the total output, or GDP, of the economy is determined by its productive capacity: workers, capital, and the technology of firms. The economy is defined by what it can produce, not by what is demanded. Total production is limited only by natural barriers, like the rate at which our machines can convert various inputs into output, the number of working hours in a day per person, and the willingness of people to work versus relax. This is sometimes called the supply-side view because it emphasizes the productive capacity, or supply, of resources. (pp. 47-8)

That is, lower spending in the fundamentals view does not lead to contraction or job loss. Remember, output in the fundamentals view is determined by the productive capacity of the economy, not by demand. In response to a sharp decline in consumption, the economy in the fundamentals view has natural corrective forces that keep it operating at full capacity. These include lower interest rates and consumer prices … Obviously, however, these corrective forces weren’t able to keep the economy on track. (p. 49)

This view ignores the fundamental insight provided by Keynes in 1936. In a sense, the Say’s Law still lives on. And, in this theory, ‘[i]nvoluntary unemployment can only exist … if there are some “rigidities” that prevent wages from adjusting and workers from finding jobs’ (p. 56). These rigidities or frictions may be the following: presence of non-tradable jobs (that is, jobs which only cater to the local economy); wages do not fall; workers do not move; and the costs of reskilling if workers have to reallocate (p. 58, p. 63). For a critique and an alternative, see Thomas 2013.

       The marginal propensity to consume (MPC) varies across classes and therefore the assumption that everyone has the same MPC cannot be admitted. The MPC is high for poor households and low for rich households. ‘The larger the MPC, the more responsive the household is to the same change in wealth’ (p. 39; also p. 44). In fact, ‘the higher the leverage in the home, the more aggressively the household cuts back on spending when home values decline’ (p. 42). Therefore, debt matters. According to Mian & Sufi, ‘[t]he higher MPC out of housing wealth for highly levered households is one of the most important results from our research. It immediately implies that the distribution of wealth and debt matters’ (p. 42). Moreover, ‘[t]he MPC of households is also relevant for thinking about the effectiveness of government stimulus programs for boosting demand’ (p. 41).

       Very often, during recessions, the dominant policy response is the lowering of interest rates via monetary policy. But does the lowering of rates help? Is the problem a lack of availability of funds at cheap rates?

To help answer this, there is evidence from surveys by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). Proponents of the bank- lending view are particularly concerned about credit to small businesses. Because small businesses rely heavily on banks for credit, they will be disproportionately affected. Large businesses, however, can rely on bonds or commercial paper markets for debt financing. The NFIB is informative because it surveys exactly the small businesses that should be most vulnerable to being cut off from bank lending. The survey asks small businesses to list their most important concern, where “poor sales,” “regulation and taxes,” and “financing and interest rates” are a few of the options. The fraction citing financing and interest rates as a main concern never rose above 5 percent throughout the financial crisis— in fact, the fraction actually went down from 2007 to 2009. It is difficult to reconcile this fact with the view that small businesses were desperate for bank financing. On the other hand, from 2007 to 2009, the fraction of small businesses citing poor sales as their top concern jumped from 10 percent to almost 35 percent. As indebted households cut back sharply on spending, businesses saw a sharp decline in sales. (p. 128)

As the survey indicated in the passage shows, the problem is a lack of aggregate demand, particularly consumption demand. ‘Companies laying off workers in these hard-hit counties were the largest businesses. This is more consistent with businesses responding to a lack of consumer demand rather than an inability to get a bank loan’ (p. 128). There is another issue here; this has to do with the effectiveness of the monetary policy mechanism. Hence, Mian & Sufi write: ‘[a]n increase in bank reserves leads to an increase in currency in circulation only if banks increase lending in response to the increase in reserves. If banks don’t lend more— or, equivalently, if borrowers don’t borrow more— an increase in bank reserves doesn’t affect money in circulation’ (p. 154) limiting the ‘effectiveness of monetary policy’ (p. 155). And there is no strict connection between interest rates and household spending; at the very least, a strong association cannot be assumed (see p. 161).

       This brings us to the end of this book review. It was noted in the introductory paragraph that this book is also about doing good economics. Mian & Sufi point to the need for have a good theory to make sense of the macroeconomic phenomena. This blog concludes with their view on the role of theory.

The ability to interpret data is especially important in macroeconomics. The aggregate U.S. economy is an unwieldy object – it contains millions of firms and households. … But unless an economist can put some structure on the data, he or she will drown in a deep ocean of numbers trying to answer these questions.

Which brings us to the importance of an economic model. Macroeconomists are defined in large part by the theoretical model they use to approach the data. A model provides the structure needed to see which data are most important, and to decide on the right course of action given the information that is available. (p. 47)

The Macroeconomics Underlying the Economic Survey of India 2013-14

This blog post critically evaluates the first two chapters of the Economic Survey of India 2013-14 in order to get a sense of the macroeconomic theory underlying it. [This blog has assessed previous ones for the years:2012-13,2009-10;2010-11;2011-12.] What conceptual framework does the Economic Survey adhere to, implicitly and/or explicitly? This is of significance not just for those interested in theory but also for those who want to understand how economic policies are formulated. Attention will be mainly divided among the following macroeconomic themes: (1) role of investment in economic growth, (2) labour market flexibility and economic growth, (3) policies emanating from (1) and (2), and (4) the overarching aim of economic policy.

I

It is well-known and widely accepted that investment, be it private or public, is necessary for economic growth. By investment, we primarily refer to additions to fixed capital – machinery, tools, storage facilities, transport equipment, etc. Investment in education, health and environment should also be included, for they expand the productive capacity of the economy in the long term. Two questions may be posed now. First, what is the source of investment? Second, what ensures that the growth in productive capacity will be matched by an equivalent growth in demand?

Prior to the path-breaking work of Keynes, it was widely believed that investment is savings constrained and that saving and investment are equilibrated through variations in a sufficiently sensitive interest rate. Keynes convincingly argued that investment is not savings constrained, rather, it is finance constrained. Moreover, he demonstrated that it is activity levels (output and employment) which equilibrate saving and investment, and the causation runs from investment to saving. This is the principle of effective demand, also to be found in the work of the Polish economist Kalecki. The Economic Survey adopts the pre-Keynesian view, which, not surprisingly is still around, embedded in the neoclassical school of economics – the dominant school in economics teaching and publishing. This marginalist idea of saving-investment equilibrium is mirrored by the market equilibrium for ‘capital’ – the demand for and supply of capital is brought into equilibrium by variations in the interest rate; this is nothing but the marginal productivity theory of distribution.

Implicit in the Economic Survey is the pre-Keynesian view, an essential part of neoclassical economics. ‘…higher investment required for raising growth had to come from higher domestic savings…’ (p. 9). However on p. 11, the slowdown in investment growth is attributed to policy uncertainty, sluggish demand and high interest costs. Despite the reference to demand deficiency on the same page (on p. 13, it is acknowledged that an increase in aggregate demand has a positive impact on economic growth), the conclusion on the same page supports ‘structural reforms’ and the elimination of ‘supply-side bottlenecks’. Also, Keynes’s finance-constrained investment view is expressed when the ‘bank credit flow to industry’ is briefly discussed (p. 25); due to sluggish demand, the demand for credit was lower. [See an earlier post on the determinants of investment.]

Income earners make saving decisions (commonly referred to as households or wage earners) whereas it is the firms and entrepreneurs who make investment decisions in a decentralized economy as India. Firms also make use of their retained earnings for purposes of investment (p. 14). The intermediation of saving and investment is carried out via the banking and financial system – the suppliers of credit, so to speak. The point I wish to highlight is this: abundant savings or a low rate of interest is not sufficient for (physical) investment. There should be demand for the commodities and services produced. Also, there are no mechanisms which ensure that supply will create its own demand, famously known as the Say’s Law. At various points, it appears that the architects of the Economic Survey believe in the Say’s Law. In other words, they do believe that a growth in productive capacity will engender an equivalent growth in demand.

Policy uncertainty & investment

Policy uncertainty emanates from ‘difficulties in land acquisition, delayed environmental clearances, infrastructure bottlenecks, problems in coal linkages, ban on mining in selected areas, etc.’ (p. 11; also see p. 33). This particular statement is reflective of a view which does not take common property resources, ecosystems and environmental sustainability seriously and with caution. The uncertainty in policy vanishes when the government is clear, transparent and committed to socio-economic and environmental justice. Policy uncertainty arises from vague, untimely and arbitrary policy decisions. In fact, this approach to securing higher economic growth is inconsistent with the position adopted in the Economic Survey on sustainable development and climate change which, on paper, appears committed to environmental justice and inter-generational equity. And it is such inconsistencies which cause confusion and policy uncertainties for firms wishing to invest in India.

II

The marginalist growth theory (Solow’s growth model being the exemplar) makes use of the marginal productivity theory of distribution. Put simply, a growth in the factors of production (or factor endowments) is sufficient for economic growth. And, supply creates its own demand. According to this view, widely taught in macroeconomics courses, growth is supply-side. The impediments to growth then become imperfections in the factor markets, particular labour markets. Consequently, policy is supposed to make labour markets flexible/free/perfect so that the economy can gravitate towards the full-employment position. But, this theoretical view has been shown to be unsatisfactory given the logical problems associated with the marginal productivity theory of distribution. In addition, the creation of a just society must necessarily ensure a minimum wage for all workers sufficient for a decent living, the scope of which ought to widen as societies progress.

According to the Economic Survey, ‘[t]he inflexibility of labour markets have prevented high job creation’ (p. 30). For those brought up in the marginalist tradition, the usual culprit is the labour market. Of course, labour laws, like any other law, should be just and provide opportunities for workers to support each other given that the employers are more powerful than the workers. Also, working conditions, social security, equal opportunity across gender, caste and class and so on must be provided to the workers. This is the responsibility of institution builders – the government together with the civil society. Yes, labour market reforms are necessary: ‘changes in the legal and regulatory environment for factor markets’ (p. 31).

Reforms, unfortunately, have come to possess a single meaning in economics and politics. Reforms have come to refer to policies which make markets more free. There is no reason why reforms need to be thought of in this manner. Politics is about possibilities, and economics suggests some ways of engineering these possibilities in order to provide a decent life to all. There is nothing intrinsically good in any economic or political sense about reforms. The efficacy and goodness of reforms lies in its details.

‘Factor markets such as those for labour, land, and capital, however, remained largely unreformed. This has proved to be a constraint for growth and employment generation’ (p. 48). This statement also is very marginalist or neoclassical in nature. Moreover, one has to be cautious for the three factors of production are very different from one another. Capital refers to produced means of production – commodities and services. Barriers to entry and exit need to be reduced and firms need to operate in a competitive environment. Land is a resource which needs to be treated very carefully and on a case-by-case basis; it has immediate impacts on livelihood as well as on the natural environment. Labour market constitutes people, and there should be strong social security for workers and good working conditions.

III

Policy prescriptions include primarily supply-side measures. This is not surprising owing to the Economic Survey being fundamentally neoclassical. Investment, a component of aggregate demand, is rightly considered crucial. But, public investment is not much favoured. Investment, as noted in section I, will be revived if supply bottlenecks are removed – that is, projects get easily cleared. Policies are targeted at boosting productivity. Provision of physical and social infrastructure is of utmost importance. A market for food (reducing distortionary interventions in agriculture) needs to be created. Manufacturing must be improved.

IV

What is the central aim of these economic policies? Repeatedly, in these two chapters, the objective is to create a ‘well-functioning market economy’ (p. 29; also 26, 46). This is much needed, but the ‘reforms’ need to be socially and environmentally sensitive. Also, just as with reforms, many different configurations of a market economy are possible. This must not be forgotten, and nor should social, economic and environmental justice be overlooked. To conclude, I would add a few words to the first sentence in chapter 2: ‘The defining challenge in India today is that of generating employment and growth’ (p. 29) which is economically, socially and environmentally inclusive. These additional words make all the difference, both in terms of economics and politics.

On the Determinants of Investment

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.

Understanding India’s Economic Growth and Development

This post is a review of the recent book by Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen titled An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions. An earlier post in this blog has dealt with the vexed relation between economic growth and development and elsewhere, I have discussed the need to focus on the structure of economic growth. Drèze and Sen’s book contains 10 chapters including the introduction (‘A New India?’) and the conclusion (‘The Need for Impatience’); the main text spreads across 287 pages. Their argument is buttressed with comparative exercises between Indian states, international comparisons, historical facts, surveys, published data sources and contemporary events apart from ample secondary literature. However, this review does not engage with their empirical findings.

For Drèze and Sen, the aim of any society should be the expansion of human capabilities. And, institutions such as markets and democracy are a means to that end. Similarly, economic growth ‘generates resources’ which can be used to improve human capabilities. As they write in the preface, ‘the achievement of high growth must ultimately be judged in terms of the impact of that economic growth on the lives and freedoms of the people’ (p. viii). Human capabilities, as is to be expected, refer to a spectrum of endowments and the ability to access all of them. For instance, it includes, in no particular order, nutrition (pp. 157-162), education (see ch. 5), health (see ch. 6), clean environment (pp. 41-44), access to energy (pp. 84-87), transportation, communication and banking infrastructure. The ability to access them, however, is severely constrained by caste (pp. 218-223). And some of them are also constrained by gender (pp. 224-239) besides other power relations.

Given India’s high growth rate, the authors pose one major question: why has the ‘pace of change … been excruciatingly slow’ for majority of the Indian populace (p. 29)? According to Drèze and Sen, the major cause for this is the abysmal situation of public education and health in India. (There are some Indian states which have done relatively better.) This is because of issues relating to accountability and also due to insufficient public spending. Moreover, the authors harshly criticize the Indian media for their ‘excessive focus on a relatively small part of the population whose lives and problems are much discussed’ (p. 261; see also pp. 262-267). This wide gap in public discourse provides their motivation in writing the book. Hence, they point out the ‘importance of enlightened public reasoning’ as ‘a central part of the general thesis of this book’ (p. 239). Furthermore, they state that ‘this book is aimed much more as an attempted contribution to public reasoning, including discussion in the media, than at giving professional advice to the government in office’ (p. 253).

Is their account of economic growth and development entirely satisfactory? Their second chapter is about ‘Integrating Growth with Development’. First, what determines economic growth? According to mainstream (neoclassical) economics, a growth in physical capital, human capital (educated and healthy workforce) and technological progress causes economic growth. This is known as the supply-side view of economic growth. If we accept this growth account, then clearly an improvement in the quality of life directly contributes to faster economic growth. Drèze and Sen do not have theoretical dissatisfactions with mainstream economics, as is made very clear in the following passage written in the context of a discussion on markets.

Relying solely on the market has become a strongly advocated theme in India on the basis on highly exaggerated expectations, often based on a misreading of the conclusions of mainstream economics, which includes much scepticism of the performance of markets in the presence of externalities, public goods, asymmetric information and distributional disparities. We do not have to look for any “alternative economic paradigm” to see what the market cannot do, in addition to what it can do – and do very well. (p. 184; emphasis added)

They also approvingly cite Joel Mokyr and Elhanan Helpman who emphasize the importance of ‘accumulation of knowledge’ and ‘total-factor productivity’ through education in economic growth respectively (p. 35). This is the supply-side production function approach in understanding the growth determinants. No one denies their significance. However, if one is convinced by such a theory/view of economic growth, the popular version of it being the Cobb-Douglas production function in various clothes, then, theoretically, physical capital can be substituted with human capital. And, this would entail a very different method of attaining economic development from that mentioned in the book. Moreover, aggregate demand does not play a role in this growth account; as the authors write in the preface, the ‘expansion of human capability, in turn, allows a faster expansion of resources and production, on which economic growth ultimately depends’ (p. x). That is, economic growth is entirely determined by the growth of aggregate supply, without considering the problems which can arise from aggregate demand deficiency (such as a fall in wage income or decrease in government spending). Without getting into the details of the argument, it appears that their conception of economic growth and development sits more comfortably with the economics of the classical economists (such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx) combined with the effective demand theories of Michal Kalecki and John Maynard Keynes.

The surplus generated from economic growth can be utilized for societal needs which is further determined through socio-political movements and economic considerations of the entrepreneurs as well as the state. To put it differently, ‘the fruits of growth’ need to be allocated intelligently – based on our physical, economic, environmental, social and cultural needs (p. 9; cf. p. 14, p. 18, p. 38). There are two very different kinds of distribution that takes place – income distribution between wage-earners and profit-earners and the expenditure of the government from the revenue they collect as taxes and duties. They also observe,

The impact of economic growth on the lives of the people is partly a matter of income distribution, but it also depends greatly on the use that is made of the public revenue generated by economic expansion. (p. 37)

They mention the importance of collective bargaining (p. 141) and point out that the NREGA ‘strengthened the bargaining power of rural workers’ (p. 201). But their focus in the book is how to utilize public revenue in improving the quality of life (p. 269). Since this public revenue can be utilized in a variety of ways, Drèze and Sen assert ‘the constructive role of the state for growth and development’ (p. 39; italics in original). Hence, the organs of the state need to be made more accountable (ch. 4).

Since democracy offers ‘significant opportunities’ for improving the quality of life as well as its pace, the authors are ‘contingently optimistic’ (p. xii). In fact, the issues addressed by the authors are intended to be a contribution to a wider debate on how to construct a better society. Thus, the book aims to provide ‘reasoned solutions to the problems’ (p. 3). They also write that ‘economic reforms, even when appropriate, require informed public debate’ (p. 28). In sum, there ought to be a ‘greater use of informed reasoning in the practice of democracy’ (p. 181). As they observe, and correctly, I think, that daily troubles are ‘less spectacular and less immediate – [and hence] provide a much harder challenge’ to politicize (p. 14). The book is primarily about these issues and since they cover a vast terrain, there have been some omissions. Two very varied issues come to my mind: the influence of public debt on economic growth is only addressed briefly (p. 18) and the gap between English and non-English speakers get barely one paragraph (pp. 215-6). In addition, there is no mention of freedoms relating to sexuality. To conclude, the book is an excellent contribution in so far as it provides an accessible introduction to several social concerns such as armed conflicts, child mortality, corporate power, corruption, land ownership, minimum wages, nutrition, open defecation, pollution and sanitation.