Monday, June 28, 2010

Keen: debt and deflation

Steve Keen, a non-mainstream economist who is one of a mere handful to have predicted the Great Financial Crisis, has put his latest academic paper on his website. It has a lot of mathematical equations and technical terms, as you'd expect, but I think it's possible to get the general drift if you don't get disheartened by all that. As a non-pro myself, I'll try to pick out some of the main points that appear relevant to investment (I am sorry that I cannot yet reproduce his graphs but in any case that might infringe his copyright).

Keen attempts to model the economy including the role of debt, which appears to be a major factor insufficiently considered by classical economic theory. Using past data, he observes that from 1920 -1940 "rising debt was strongly correlated with falling unemployment" (p.4).

But in the last 20 years private debt has risen far faster than production (fig. 5, page 5) and rising debt now appears to be associated with rising unemployment (fig. 12, page 11). Keen blames what he forthrightly calls "Ponzi finance", i.e. speculative money poured into assets, causing them to become overpriced. In the aftermath of the 1929 Great Crash, the biggest debt load was among businesses and government; now, most of the debt is concentrated in the financial sector and households (fig. 13, page 12). Running his model, Keen finds (fig. 14) that there is an inbuilt tendency for speculative debt (as opposed to debt-financed investment in production) to take off and ultimately account for almost all the debt in the economy.

Another of Keen's themes is that economics has confused the amount of money with the flow of money. This has misled the USA into supporting banks on the assumption that the latter would lend out the usual multiple of their deposits (they didn't), whereas in Australia the emphasis was on financial support to households. Consequently, unemployment in the USA has doubled to 10%, but in Oz it seems to have stabilised at around 5% (fig. 23).

It seems that as total debt reaches a critical size, there is an alteration in the way in which money and the economy interact (I think chemists call this sort of thing a "phase change"). Prior to this point, the system appears to be settling down, rather as milk does in the saucepan before suddenly frothing over and burning on the hob. Kenn quotes (p.12) Hyman Minsky: "Stability—or tranquility—in a world with a cyclical past and capitalist financial institutions is destabilizing".

In Keen's model, the first effects of the crackup are felt by workers: wages spiral around from 100% of GDP, centring towards c. 70%, but then suddenly collapse down to below 50% (fig. 33, page 43). For about 10 years in this final decline, business profits appear fairly unaffected; then they slump catastrophically into deep losses (page 44). At the same time, the banker's share of national income soars. Economic growth turns into economic contraction, and we move from an apparent settling-down of the inflation rate into a savage deflation exceeding 35%.

As with any mathematical model, there is always the question about how far it fits observed reality, and in economics it seems hard to get exact figures and generally-agreed definitions, especially where debt is concerned (see my previous post). But Keen's seems to be a model operating on strict internal logic based on clear theoretical data and correlations, with outcomes that chime with phenomena we've see so far. His model has very worrying implications for the next part of the cycle.

An unknown factor is what government will do. Whatever the economic machinery, politicians are liable to throw a spanner into it, if only to be seen to be doing something. Keen's prediction of a housing price collapse was refuted by the financial measures the Australian government introduced to help householders, and internationally it is widely feared that governments will ultimately attempt to mitigate the effects of deflation by debauching the monetary system and introducing hyperinflation; hence the shrilling of the "gold bugs".

So every economic model will have to be updated to incorporate the new cogs, axles and valves invented by our desperate leaders. The value of Keen's model is, I think, not so much to offer accurate predictions of the future as to show that the system as it stands appears to tend to equilibrium but actually is highly unstable. He is predicting the burning of the Phoenix, not its reincarnation.

UPDATE: Keen's dynamic model, with its self-reinforcing trends, has something in common with George Soros' ideas of market feedback loops. Soros terms this process "reflexivity" and set out his theories in his 2008 book "The New Paradigm for Financial Markets". In his speech at Berlin's Humboldt University last week, Soros argues that Germany would be damaged by an exit from the Euro and should be less purist about financial rectitude at a time when weaker Eurozone countries are struggling to support their banking systems.

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