The Fisher-Keynes-Minsky theory of debt-deflation

13 July, 2012 at 19:18 | Posted in Economics | Leave a comment

In his End This Depression Now Paul Krugman maintains that “there’s a good reason why old books are back in vogue” and that “arguably the most important thinking” among econmists “has been a renewed appreciation for the ideas of past economists”. He especially points to Irving Fisher, Hyman Minsky and John Maynard Keynes, and then goes on trying to explain why so many now – rather belatedly when it comes to the two first names – are invoking these names when trying to get a firm perspective of the latest financial crisis and why we are still not out of it.

In an absolutely splendid essay published a couple of months ago, Zoltan Pozsnar and Paul McCulley explained what a liquidity trap means and why mainstream neoclassical economics has nothing to offer in way of solving the problems that it brings along – and why it is so important to get hold of the insights that Fisher, Keynes and Minsky have given us on debt-deflation processes and liquidity traps if we are to be able to expplain the deeper roots of financial crises:

A liquidity trap is a circumstance in which the private sector is deleveraging in the wake of enduring negative animal spirits caused by the bursting of joint asset price and credit bubbles that leave privatesector balance sheets severely damaged. In a liquidity trap the animal spirits of the private sector cannot be revived by a reduction in short-term interest rates because there is no demand for credit. This effectively means that conventional monetary policy does not work in a liquidity trap …

Deleveraging can be rational for an individual household. It can be rational for an individual corporation. It can be rational for an individual country. However, in the aggregate it begets the paradox of thrift1: what is rational at the microeconomic level is irrational at the community, or macroeconomic, level.

This is not to say that the private sector should not deleverage. It has to. It is a part of the economy’s healing process and a necessary first step toward a self-sustaining economic recovery.

However, deleveraging is a beast of a burden that capitalism cannot bear alone. At the macro level, deleveraging must be a managed process: for the private sector to deleverage without causing a depression, the public sector has to move in the opposite direction and re-lever by effectively viewing the balance sheets of the monetary and fiscal authorities as a consolidated whole.

Fiscal austerity does not work in a liquidity trap and makes as much sense as putting an anorexic on a diet. Yet, “diets” are the very prescriptions that fiscal austerians2 have imposed (or plan to impose) in the U.S., U.K. and Eurozone. Austerians fail to realize, however, that everyone cannot save at the same time and that in liquidity traps, the paradox of thrift and depression are fellow travelers that are functionally intertwined.

Historically, austerity has only worked when accompanied by monetary easing – where wealth effects and stronger private demand for credit helped offset the effects of fiscal austerity – and/or a weaker currency – which helped steal others’ demand.

In a liquidity trap, however, austerity cannot work because monetary policy is neither functioning correctly nor able offset lost demand, and weak currencies work only at a time of strong global demand and only for individual countries, not for several major countries at one time. Imposing austerity without potential offsets and at a time of weak global aggregate demand is deflationary, which makes deleveraging much harder, balance sheet repair much slower and recovery much less likely to achieve. In a liquidity trap, governments have no logical option but to borrow and to invest.

How could governments borrow more if government debt is also a problem everywhere? Would it not be irresponsible to increase borrowing at a time of record government debt levels? Fiscal austerians are quick to invoke age-old textbook orthodoxies: (1) that additional borrowing will be too much for future generations to handle, citing the law of Ricardian equivalence; (2) that increased borrowing will crowd out private sector borrowing and will most likely delay the economic recovery; and (3) that bond investors will stop buying and send yields higher.

However, in the topsy-turvy world of liquidity traps, these textbook orthodoxies do not apply, and acting irresponsibly relative to orthodoxy by increasing borrowing will do more good than harm. Austerians argue that reducing deficits and putting nations’ fiscal houses in order will help growth through confidence. However, Ricardian equivalence does not work in reverse! It is not confidence, but Godley’s tyranny of arithmetic that matters: someone simply has to borrow and invest to fill missing demand.

Crowding out, overheating and rising interest rates are also not likely to be a problem as there is no competition for funds from the private sector. For evidence, look no further than the impact of government borrowing on long-term interest rates in the U.S. during the Great Depression, or more recently, Japan …

Held back by concerns borne of these orthodoxies, however, governments are not spending with passionate purpose. They are victims of intellectual paralysis borne of inertia of dogma that, in the present circumstances, do not apply. As a result, their acting responsibly relative to orthodoxy and going forth with austerity may drag economies down the vortex of deflation and depression.

The importance of fiscal expansion and the impotence of conventional monetary policy measures in a liquidity trap have profound implications for the conduct of central banks. This is because in a liquidity trap, the fat tail risk of inflation is replaced by the fat tail risk of deflation. In turn, the fatness of the deflation tail is a function of the government’s willingness and ability to pump-prime, i.e. to borrow and spend.

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