July 13, 2009

Financial Engineering, Gambling and Deflation

TomDispatch.com has a nice summary of the gambling associated with structured finance, written by Barbara Garson. She has been searching for unemployed people that were handling those structured financial products, especially credit default swaps, that seemingly brought the whole world down. She was absolutely unable to find such people, even from Lehman Brothers or AIG. (Note to Garson: These people like to call themselves financial engineers.)

At the last paragraph Ms. Garson reviews the situation from the point of view of the real economy, where productive people are kicked out of jobs, while financial engineers keep on pushing their wares.
In other words, people are speculating on derivatives and derivatives of derivatives because there's no action in the real world. You can't invest in new real businesses or lend money to old real businesses for expansion unless people can afford to buy the products they'll produce. That brings me back to where I started: our real world. You know, the one where just about everyone's unemployed except those swap guys.
In a deflationary environment, real assets, like factories, start to look like huge risks. To keep investors from withdrawing from the real economy, financial assests need to be equally scary to investors. Governmental bailouts of financial assets simply encourage people to withdraw their capital from the real economy to plunk it into government-guaranteed gambling.

Safe financial assets, like cash and government securities, that have no backing in the real world, need to be scary as well. To achieve this, some inflation expectations are required. The Federal Reserve has been quite aggressive on this front, and clearly quite successful. Unfortunately, the European Central Bank does not seem to take this thankless task quite seriously.

Even if holding cash could be turned into a scary proposition, there are ways to store value that, even though physical, are equally as useless to the real economy. With this I naturally mean precious metals. Naturally some of the "real" economic activity has not much value either. Activity with negative value is quite possible. (Let's call it the salad shooter economy, in honor of James Howard Kunstler.)

All this trouble was brought to us by a financial market that grew to be bigger than the real economy. The solution to our problems should not necessarily proceed by making the real economy even smaller. That route will only result in a self-reinforcing deflationary spiral. Instead, the real economy should be functioning, while the financial economy should deleverage and shrink. A complete government bailout of the speculative financial system will achieve the exact opposite.

Let gamblers take their losses. That alone will give a boost to the attractiveness of the real economy. There's a problem with that proposition: all of us with savings at financial institutions are part of the gamblers through our funding of it. But as we have all gambled, we must all bear the losses.

Even though deflation is the immediate issue, as credit is collapsing, ultimately existing savings that are invested in credit will lose some value, because of the eroding base of credit worthy debtors on which its value was based. This loss of value can happen through a process of default, through being diluted by new savings, or through a devastation of the real economy.

The third option initially involves massive deflation, which might make it attractive to those that hold cash assets. However, it will ultimately result in people with cash assets facing empty store-shelves, at which point the deflation will suddenly turn into massive inflation, quite similar to the receding shoreline before a tsunami.

We have to remember that inflation has both a numerator and a denominator. In this situation, increasing the numerator (in the dilution scenario) is much preferable to a collapse of the denominator. Unfortunately, this might already be somewhat too late. If the collapse advances from industrial production to food production, there will be real trouble.

July 8, 2009

Paradox of Thrift, Savings and Investment

There was such a great comment by reader "es" on a post about the paradox of thrift at Paul Krugman's blog that I just have to copy it here verbatim.


The story behind the paradox of thrift goes like this. Suppose a large group of people decides to save more. You might think that this would necessarily mean a rise in national savings. But if falling consumption causes the economy to fall into a recession, incomes will fall, and so will savings, other things equal. This induced fall in savings can largely or completely offset the initial rise.

Which way it goes depends on what happens to investment, since savings are always equal to investment. If the central bank can cut interest rates, investment and hence savings may rise. But if the central bank can’t cut rates — say, because they’re already zero — investment is likely to fall, not rise, because of lower capacity utilization. And this means that GDP and hence incomes have to fall so much that when people try to save more, the nation actually ends up saving less.

Okay, I admit I don’t really understand this. I always seem to get hung up on S = I (Savings equals Investment). What would happen if you worked from the hypothesis that S = I + W, with W standing for Waste? Sure it muddies things, because it’s hard to weight whatever you are measuring as to its true productivity. But this is reality. When the old paradigm doesn’t work, or leads to paradox, you have to question your basic assumptions. Not all savings lead to purposeful investment. Witness the proverbial gold under the mattress. Witness wheat put by for a bad harvest and then mouldering in a badly maintained storage facility. Check out the over-elaborate plastic toys that over-stimulate and maybe poison our already hyper-active children. Especially pertinent, witness a population underfed and under educated and inadequately protected from disease to guard against the future possibility of debt.

Already in your columns I see you speaking of saving and investment as different entities, and then when you get “wonkish” (I guess you mean mathematical) you fall back to S = I.

I recommend that you assign a graduate student to work on the need to incorporate more variables into the S=I axiom. It might get him a Nobel prize, or save the world, or something.
I just love the snark in that last paragraph.

Of course, the identity of savings and investment doesn't make any common sense, but since when such a thing has been expected of economic theory?

I'm not sure either if it makes any sense to think of this identity in terms of any units of currency, but in addition to the waste term on the right, there should at least be a term for credit expansion on the left. I would also amend the equation to

S + C = I + W,

where C is the net amount of credit creation. Of course this equation is not a real equation. There are severe time lags in all the processes that are part of it. It can only be discussed in a statistical sense:

E[S + C] = E[I + W],

where E denotes the expected value. In addition to a temporal sense for this statistical dependence, one must also think about the ensemble statistics to account for people with different concepts for value, etc.

Credit has the ability to create investment without any net savings. Somebody gets into debt, which is equivalent to negative saving. Somebody else gets the loaned sum of money, and decides to save it. The net savings are zero.

However, there would have possibly been an investment that was made with the borrowed money. All is well, as long as the debtor pays the money back. Credit is a form of delayed savings. Investment is made first, then come the savings, little by little.

Problems occur when too much credit is extended. What if there is no income from which to save? People default on their loans. Oops... Now (nominal) investment has been much higher that the "savings" from which it was supposedly made. Savings are actually smaller than investment.

This is where the identity asserts itself with a lag. The value of savings increases while the value of investment decreases. Result: deflation.