I have just had the following paper published in the freely accessible online journal Economic Analysis and Policy, which is published by the Queensland branch of the Economic Society of Australia.The citation is:
Keen, S. (2011). "Debunking Macroeconomics." Economic Analysis & Policy 41(3): 147-167.
I've been published in peer-reviewed journals that are freely accessible online before of course—such as the Economics E-journal paper "Solving the Paradox of Monetary Profits“. I think Economic Analysis and Policy does a better job of blending the old paper-style journal with the new, with a home page that emulates the cover of a paper journal while providing hot links to the papers from that page.
The paper can be downloaded from this link, and you can download the whole issue from here. If you enjoy my analysis, I recommend also downloading Mark McGovern’s paper “Beyond the Australian Debt Dreamtime: Recognising Imbalances”. Here is the abstract to Mark’s paper:
Sadly, all the efforts of a generation of Australian men and women have only made them more indebted to the rest of the world. Australia’s external net wealth is negative, soon passing minus $900b on an accelerating downward trajectory. This ongoing dissipation of national resources is unsustainable. Australians live in a debt dreamtime, one from which the rest of the world has been rudely awakened. After years of inadequate policies, the nation has a large external debt and significant government exposures. Servicing pressures are growing as rising uncertainties permeate global credit markets. Reserve Bank policies are worsening Australia’s external position and needlessly driving up internal costs. Major policy rethinking is warranted. Relevant issues are still little considered, crowded out of dialogues by comforting myths that accompany the Australian Debt Dreamtime. Imbalances need proper recognition with new approaches and strategies developed. Automatic corrections will not occur as history and current overseas experiences demonstrate. A real awakening, improved positioning and a touch of luck are required if Australians are to avoid being seriously impoverished by world events and their own confused Dreaming.
This paper summarises the arguments I make at much greater length on macroeconomics in the second edition of Debunking Economics. The one extension to that argument here is a more detailed discussion of Hicks’s IS-LM model–and in particular, Hicks’s admission in 1981 that IS-LM was a pre-Keynesian, neoclassical model dating from 1934, which his 1936 “review” of the General Theory falsely passed off as a model of Keynes’s General Theory.
The failure of neoclassical models to warn of the economic crisis has led to some rare soul searching in a discipline not known for such introspection. The dominant reaction within the profession has been to admit the failure, but to argue that there is no need for a drastic revision of economic theory.
I reject this comfortable conclusion, and argue instead that this crisis illustrates the point made beforehand by Robert Solow, that models in which macroeconomic pathologies are impossible are not adequate models of capitalism. Hicks’s critique of his own IS-LM model also indicates that, though pathologies can be imposed on an IS-LM model, it is also inappropriate for macroeconomic analysis because of its false imposition of equilibrium conditions derived from Walras’ Law. I then focus upon what I see as the key weakness in the neoclassical approach to macroeconomics which applies to both DSGE and IS-LM models: the false assumption that the money supply is exogenous. After outlining the alternative endogenous money perspective, I show that Walras’ Law must be generalized for a credit economy to what I call the “Walras-Schumpeter-Minsky Law”. The empirical data strongly supports this perspective, emphasizing the need for a “root and branch” reform of macroeconomics.
Defending the indefensible
That modern neoclassical macroeconomic models failed to forewarn of the economic crisis that began in 2007 is undisputed. What is in dispute is the implications this should have for macroeconomic theory.
Prominent members of the discipline have argued that there should be no consequences. Ben Bernanke (Bernanke 2010), recent Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Sargent (Rolnick 2010) and the founding editor of the AER: Macro Olivier Blanchard (Blanchard et al. 2010) have all asserted that neoclassical models helped guide policy during the good times, and should not be abandoned simply because they did not see the bad times coming. Bernanke’s argument is representative of this perspective:
‘the recent financial crisis was more a failure of economic engineering and economic management than of what I have called economic science…
Do these failures of standard macroeconomic models mean that they are irrelevant or at least significantly flawed? I think the answer is a qualified no. Economic models are useful only in the context for which they are designed. Most of the time, including during recessions, serious financial instability is not an issue. The standard models were designed for these non-crisis periods, and they have proven quite useful in that context. Notably, they were part of the intellectual framework that helped deliver low inflation and macroeconomic stability in most industrial countries during the two decades that began in the mid-1980s.’ (Bernanke 2010, pp. 3, 17; emphasis added)
I make no apology for describing this argument as specious, on at least two grounds.
Firstly, this argument would only be tolerably acceptable if neoclassical economics also had well-developed models that were suitable for periods of crisis, but it does not. Secondly, this blasé acceptance that there can be bad times sits oddly against the triumphalism that characterized neoclassical discourse on macroeconomics prior to this crisis. This is best exemplified by Lucas’s Presidential Address to the American Economic Association in 2003, in which he asserted that neoclassical economics had succeeded in eliminating the possibility of extremely bad times like those we are now experiencing:
‘Macroeconomics was born as a distinct field in the 1940’s, as a part of the intellectual response to the Great Depression. The term then referred to the body of knowledge and expertise that we hoped would prevent the recurrence of that economic disaster. My thesis in this lecture is that macroeconomics in this original sense has succeeded: Its central problem of depression prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades.’ (Lucas, Jr. 2003, p. 1 ; emphasis added)
The proposition that there can be separate models for good and bad times also implies that there is no causal link between good and bad times, which would be true if they were simply the product of exogenous shocks to the macroeconomy. This is in fact how most neoclassical modelers have reacted: by retrospectively treating the crisis as being due, not merely to unprecedentedly large exogenous shocks, but shocks which varied in magnitude over time—while still remaining negative rather than positive:
‘the Great Recession began in late 2007 and early 2008 with a series of adverse preference and technology shocks in roughly the same mix and of roughly the same magnitude as those that hit the United States at the onset of the previous two recessions…
The string of adverse preference and technology shocks continued, however, throughout 2008 and into 2009. Moreover, these shocks grew larger in magnitude, adding substantially not just to the length but also to the severity of the great recession…’ (Ireland 2011, p. 48, see also McKibbin and Stoeckel 2009)
The fact that these shocks came from the financial sector—which the ordinary public would tend to regard as being part of the economy, and therefore to be more of an endogenous economic phenomenon than an exogenous event—has been treated as largely irrelevant by leading neoclassicals:
‘The crisis has shown that large adverse shocks can and do happen. In this crisis, they came from the financial sector, but they could come from elsewhere in the future—the effects of a pandemic on tourism and trade or the effects of a major terrorist attack on a large economic center.’ (Blanchard, Dell’Ariccia and Mauro 2010, p. 207)
Given the severity and persistence of this crisis, this is also specious reasoning: if the crisis was merely due to a large exogenous negative shock, surely by now it would be over? Surely too, since the “shocks” emanated from the finance sector, and the standard neoclassical doctrine that permits a separation of economics from finance has now been empirically rejected (Fama and French 2004), the treatment of disturbances in the finance sector as “exogenous” to the economy should also be rejected?
These reactions of neoclassical theorists and modelers are therefore no more than a plea that the core neoclassical vision of the macroeconomy as a stable system subject to exogenous shocks should be preserved, despite an unprecedented empirical failure. This proposition has been put openly by Blanchard et al., amongst others:
‘It is important to start by stating the obvious, namely, that the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.’ (Blanchard, Dell’Ariccia and Mauro 2010, p. 204)
However, no lesser Neoclassicals than John Hicks (Hicks 1981) and Robert Solow (Solow 2003, 2001, 2008) have put the contrary case that these babies— both today’s DSGE models and the IS-LM model that preceded them—should never have been conceived in the first place.
Hicks’s disowning of IS-LM appears to have disappeared without trace in neoclassical literature. Solow’s voice was at least acknowledged by Blanchard when he published his excruciatingly badly timed survey of modern macroeconomics (Blanchard 2009, Blanchard 2008), in which he stated that:
‘after the explosion of the field in the 1970s, there has been enormous progress and substantial convergence.„ largely because facts have a way of not going away, a largely shared vision both of fluctuations and of methodology has emerged… Not everything is fine… But none of this is deadly. The state of macro is good.’ (Blanchard 2009, p. 210; emphasis added).
In a footnote, he added “Others, I know, disagree with this optimistic assessment (for example, Solow 2008)”, but he did not engage at all with Solow’s critique. As the globe is now in its fifth year of unrelenting economic turmoil, it is time Solow was listened to.
Solow’s critique of DSGE
Solow became a critic of neoclassical macroeconomics because he was simply incredulous that the growth model he developed could be even considered as a basis for modeling the business cycle:
‘The prototypical real-business-cycle model … is nothing but the neoclassical growth model…
The puzzle I want to discuss—at least it seems to me to be a puzzle, though part of the puzzle is why it does not seem to be a puzzle to many of my younger colleagues—is this. More than forty years ago, I … worked out … neoclassical growth theory… [I]t was clear from the beginning what I thought it did not apply to, namely short-run fluctuations in aggregate output and employment … the business cycle…
[N]ow … if you pick up an article today with the words ‘business cycle’ in the title, there is a fairly high probability that its basic theoretical orientation will be what is called ‘real business cycle theory’ and the underlying model will be … a slightly dressed up version of the neoclasssical growth model. The question I want to circle around is: how did that happen?’ (Solow 2001, pp. 23, 19)
Solow identified the search for microfoundations for macroeconomics as the fountainhead of DSGE modeling, and though he surmised that “The original impulse to look for better or more explicit micro foundations was probably reasonable” (Solow 2003, p. 1), he dismissed the defense that microeconomics justified DSGE macroeconomic models as “a delusion”:
‘Suppose you wanted to defend the use of the Ramsey model as the basis for a descriptive macroeconomics. What could you say?… (I take it for granted that “realism” is not an eligible defense.)
You could claim that it is not possible to do better at this level of abstraction; that there is no other tractable way to meet the claims of economic theory. I think this claim is a delusion.
We know from the Sonnenschein-Mantel-Debreu theorems that the only universal empirical aggregative implications of general equilibrium theory are that excess demand functions should be continuous and homogeneous of degree zero in prices, and should satisfy Walras’ Law. Anyone is free to impose further restrictions on a macro model, but they have to be justified for their own sweet sake, not as being required by the principles of economic theory.’ (Solow 2008, pp. 244)
Solow rejected both the “Saltwater” and “Freshwater” approaches to macroeconomics. The base model itself, the “Freshwater” real business cycle model, was unsuitable for macroeconomics because it ruled out the very behavior that macroeconomics is supposed to explain:
‘The preferred model has a single representative consumer optimizing over infinite time with perfect foresight or rational expectations, in an environment that realizes the resulting plans more or less flawlessly through perfectly competitive forward-looking markets for goods and labor, and perfectly flexible prices and wages.
How could anyone expect a sensible short-to-medium-run macroeconomics to come out of that set-up?…
I start from the presumption that we want macroeconomics to account for the occasional aggregative pathologies that beset modern capitalist economies, like recessions, intervals of stagnation, inflation, “stagflation,” not to mention negative pathologies like unusually good times. A model that rules out pathologies by definition is unlikely to help.’ (Solow 2003, p. 1; emphasis added).
He dismissed the “New Keynesian” variant that came to dominate the profession as no more than window-dressing to improve the apparent fit of a bad model to the data:
‘The simpler sort of RBC model that I have been using for expository purposes has had little or no empirical success, even with a very undemanding notion of ‘empirical success’. As a result, some of the freer spirits in the RBC school have begun to loosen up the basic framework by allowing for ‘imperfections’ in the labor market, and even in the capital market…
The model then sounds better and fits the data better. This is not surprising: these imperfections were chosen by intelligent economists to make the models work better...’ (Solow 2001, p. 26; emphasis added)
One need not wonder how Solow would react to neoclassical macroeconomists, after the crisis, adding not merely imperfections but adjustable exogenous shocks to improve the model’s fit to data that “imperfections” alone cannot explain, since he gave his opinion beforehand:
‘It is always possible to claim that those “pathologies” are delusions, and the economy is merely adjusting optimally to some exogenous shock. But why should reasonable people accept this?’ (Solow, 2003, p. 1; emphasis added)
Though Solow saw the destination that neoclassical macroeconomics had reached as an impasse, he provided no alternate route forward. Some hark for a reversal of direction back to IS-LM models (Manfred Gärtner and Florian Jung, 2010), in which pathologies at least appear feasible. However that route was blocked three decades ago by one John Hicks.
Hicks’s Critique of IS-LM
In 1981, John Hicks admitted that, though regarded as a model of Keynes, IS-LM is neoclassical model that predates Keynes’s General Theory (J. M. Keynes, 1936). Hicks noted that though he first spelled out the IS-LM model in detail in “Mr. Keynes and the Classics” (J. R. Hicks, 1937, his review of The General Theory), the model was first developed in a less well-known paper, “Wages and Interest: The Dynamic Problem” (J. R. Hicks, 1935). Hicks was adamant that this paper, and not “Mr. Keynes and the Classics”—let alone The General Theory itself—was the real foundation of the IS-LM model:
‘The other, much less well known, is even more relevant. “Wages and Interest: the Dynamic Problem” was a first sketch of what was to become the “dynamic” model of Value and Capital (1939). It is important here, because it shows (I think quite conclusively) that that model was already in my mind before I wrote even the first of my papers on Keynes.’ (Hicks 1981, p. 140; emphasis added)
Of course, that IS-LM is in fact a Neoclassical model and not a Keynesian one is no reason per se to dismiss it: it could still be an adequate model of the macro economy. But Hicks argued that on its own merits, it failed.
The model in “Wages and Interest” had an ultra-short-run of a week in a “bread economy” in which prices were decided on a Monday and then applied for the remainder of the week. But IS-LM, which Hicks described as “a translation of Keynes’ nonflexprice model into my terms”, was a ““short-period,” … we shall not go far wrong if we think of it as a year” (John Hicks, 1981, p. 141). In Hicks’s model, events during the week were not allowed to affect anything—a device which Hicks described as “a very artificial device, not (I would think now) much to be recommended”, but which let him treat expectations as constant. Therefore, equilibrium applied:
‘That is to say (it is equivalent to saying), we may fairly reckon that these markets, with respect to these data, are in equilibrium.’ (Hicks 1981, p. 146)
However, this artifice could not be extended to a year, and used to derive an LM curve since:
‘for the purpose of generating an LM curve, which is to represent liquidity preference, it will not do without amendment. For there is no sense in liquidity, unless expectations are uncertain.’ (Hicks 1981, p. 152; emphasis added)
This in turn meant that markets had to be in disequilibrium—but IS-LM itself was derived from equilibrium analysis, as Hicks also explained:
‘the idea of the IS-LM diagram came to me as a result of the work I had been doing on three-way exchange, conceived in a Walrasian manner. I had already found a way of representing three-way exchange on a two-dimensional diagram (to appear in due course in chapter 5 of Value and Capital). As it appears there, it is a piece of statics; but it was essential to my approach (as already appears in “Wages and Interest: the Dynamic Problem”) that static analysis of this sort could be carried over to “dynamics” by redefinition of terms. So it was natural for me to think that a similar device could be used for the Keynes theory.’ (Hicks 1981, p. 141–142)
But in fact, extending an equilibrium model with a timeframe of a week to a timeframe of a year in which liquidity preference played a key role led to a hopeless muddle which Hicks, with hindsight, could now appreciate. His final judgment on his own model was scathing:
‘I accordingly conclude that the only way in which IS-LM analysis usefully survives—as anything more than a classroom gadget, to be superseded, later on, by something better—is in application to a particular kind of causal analysis, where the use of equilibrium methods, even a drastic use of equilibrium methods, is not inappropriate…
When one turns to questions of policy … the use of equilibrium methods is still more suspect. … There can be no change of policy if everything is to go on as expected—if the economy is to remain in what (however approximately) may be regarded as its existing equilibrium. It may be hoped that, after the change in policy, the economy will somehow, at some time in the future, settle into what may be regarded, in the same sense, as a new equilibrium; but there must necessarily be a stage before that equilibrium is reached. There must always be a problem of traverse. For the study of a traverse, one has to have recourse to sequential methods of one kind or another.’ (Hicks 1981, p. 152–153)
Hicks’s fundamental conclusion therefore is that macroeconomic analysis must assume disequilibrium rather than equilibrium—and this does even more damage to IS-LM than Hicks himself appreciated. To reduce macroeconomics to the interplay of simply the goods and money market, Hicks had used the Walrasian assumption that, if n-1 markets are in equilibrium, then the nth market must also be in equilibrium, so that he could ignore the market for loanable funds:
‘One did not have to bother about the market for “loanable funds,” since it appeared, on the Walras analogy, that if these two “markets” were in equilibrium, the third must be also. So I concluded that the intersection of IS and LM determined the equilibrium of the system as a whole.’ (Hicks 1981, p. 142)
But this Walrasian logic cuts both ways: if disequilibrium applies in one market, then at least one other—and probably all others—must also be in disequilibrium. Therefore, as soon as disequilbrium is acknowledged, markets whose very existence has been ignored in equilibrium analysis—such as, obviously in IS-LM, the labor market—can no longer be ignored. Their disequilbrium dynamics must now be considered, and the IS-LM model can give no guidance as to how they will behave.
An alternative macroeconomics
Solow’s key observation is that macroeconomics should seek to “account for the occasional aggregative pathologies that beset modern capitalist economies”. Hicks’s key contribution was that macroeconomics must be a study of disequilbrium dynamics—a point made decades earlier still by Irving Fisher when he penned “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions”:
‘We may tentatively assume that, ordinarily and within wide limits, all, or almost all, economic variables tend, in a general way, toward a stable equilibrium… But … New disturbances are, humanly speaking, sure to occur, so that, in actual fact, any variable is almost always above or below the ideal equilibrium…
Theoretically there may be—in fact, at most times there must be—over-or under-production, over– or under-consumption, over– or under-spending, over– or under-saving, over– or under-investment, and over or under everything else. It is as absurd to assume that, for any long period of time, the variables in the economic organization, or any part of them, will “stay put,” in perfect equilibrium, as to assume that the Atlantic Ocean can ever be without a wave.’ (Fisher 1933, p. 339; emphasis added)
These principles point in the direction first indicated by Hyman Minsky, that since capitalist economies have experienced Depressions in the past, to adequately model capitalism:
‘it is necessary to have an economic theory which makes great depressions one of the possible states in which our type of capitalist economy can find itself.’ (Minsky 1982 , p. 5)
Minsky’s alternative was the “Financial Instability Hypothesis”, and it was based on an explicit rejection of the neoclassical paradigm:
‘The abstract model of the neoclassical synthesis cannot generate instability. When the neoclassical synthesis is constructed, capital assets, financing arrangements that center around banks and money creation, constraints imposed by liabilities, and the problems associated with knowledge about uncertain futures are all assumed away. For economists and policy-makers to do better we have to abandon the neoclassical synthesis.’ (Minsky 1982 , p. 5)
I have developed mathematical models of this hypothesis (Steve Keen, 1995, 2008, 2011b, 2000) which are based on a considered rejection of virtually every precept of neoclassical theory. Explaining all these methodological decisions requires a book rather than a journal paper (Steve Keen, 2011a), so here I will concentrate on what experience has convinced me is the key reason why neoclassical economists failed to foresee the crisis, and why to this day they cannot understand why it remains so intractable. This is their vision of how money is created.
Endogenous Money, Economic Growth and Disequilibrium
Non-economists might expect that economic models of how money is created would be based on empirical research. There is such a model, but it is the province of the non-neoclassical school of thought known as Post Keynesian economics. Neoclassical economists have instead persisted with the “fractional reserve banking/money multiplier” model, which argues that banks need excess reserves before they can lend, that these are created initially by an expansion of government-created “fiat” money, and that a sequence of bank deposits by recipients of fiat money, and loans of all but a fraction of this deposit by banks, creates credit money that is a multiple of the initial injection of fiat money.
This is in turn married to a vision of banks as mere intermediaries, so that they can be formally ignored in macroeconomic modeling. Finally, the level of private debt is also ignored in neoclassical macroeconomics, since a loan is regarded as simply a transfer of spending power from a saver to a borrower. With one person’s spending power going down and another’s going up by the same amount, only the distribution of debt could matter—not its aggregate level. As Bernanke explained, this is why Fisher’s “Debt Deflation” explanation of the Great Depression was ignored by neoclassical economists:
‘Fisher’s idea was less influential in academic circles, though, because of the counterargument that debt-deflation represented no more than a redistribution from one group (debtors) to another (creditors). Absent implausibly large differences in marginal spending propensities among the groups, it was suggested, pure redistributions should have no significant macro-economic effects…’ (Bernanke 2000, p. 24)
Over forty years ago, the then Senior Vice-President of the New York Federal Reserve, Alan Holmes, pointed out that this perspective in which the aggregate level of debt does not matter, and banks are mere intermediaries between savers and lenders, was erroneous. He argued that the view “that the banking system only expands loans after the [Federal Reserve] System (or market factors) have put reserves in the banking system” was based on “a naive assumption”. Instead, he argued,
‘In the real world, banks extend credit, creating deposits in the process, and look for the reserves later. The question then becomes one of whether and how the Federal Reserve will accommodate the demand for reserves. In the very short run, the Federal Reserve has little or no choice about accommodating that demand; over time, its influence can obviously be felt.’ (Holmes 1969, p. 73; emphasis added)
Holmes was thus arguing that banks do not need deposits in order to lend—that in fact the act of lending simultaneously creates a matching deposit—and that banks can therefore endogenously create new spending power (new deposits) by issuing a loan, without thereby reducing the spending power of savers.
This experience-based judgment was subsequently confirmed by empirical research by the Post Keynesian economist Basil Moore (Basil J. Moore, 1979, 1988, 2001, 1983), and even by the founders of Real Business Cycle theory (Finn E. Kydland and Edward C. Prescott, 1990). This led to the development of the model of “endogenous money”, in which a loan is regarded not a transfer of spending power from a saver to a lender, but a creation of spending power for the borrower by the bank ab initio. This modern Post Keynesian theory in fact rediscovered an argument first put by Schumpeter, that banks create money simply by an accounting operation: a loan extended to a borrower creates both debt and spending power “out of nothing”:
‘It is always a question, not of transforming purchasing power which already exists in someone’s possession, but of the creation of new purchasing power out of nothing…’ (Schumpeter 1934, p. 73)
This means that the increase in debt actually adds to aggregate demand, so that total spending is the sum of both incomes generated in “the circular flow” —which primarily finances consumption—plus the growth in debt—which primarily finances investment. Since this concept is so foreign to neoclassical economists, it is worth citing Schumpeter at length on it here:
‘the entrepreneur—in principle and as a rule—does need credit, in the sense of a temporary transfer to him of purchasing power, in order to produce at all, to be able to carry out his new combinations, to become an entrepreneur. And this purchasing power does not flow towards him automatically, as to the producer in the circular flow, by the sale of what he produced in preceding periods. If he does not happen to possess it … he must borrow it… He can only become an entrepreneur by previously becoming a debtor… his becoming a debtor arises from the necessity of the case and is not something abnormal, an accidental event to be explained by particular circumstances. What he first wants is credit. Before he requires any goods whatever, he requires purchasing power. He is the typical debtor in capitalist society.’ (see also Biggs and Mayer 2010, Biggs et al. 2010, Schumpeter 1934, p. 102)
Schumpeter does not deny that some investment is financed by a transfer of existing funds from savers—hence resulting in a fall in spending by saver-consumers and an offsetting increase in spending by borrower-investors, with no overall macroeconomic implications. But he insists that the primary source of investor spending comes from the endogenous expansion of the money supply, which gives spending power to entrepreneurs without sacrificing the existing spending power of savers, so that rising debt does have macroeconomic effects:
‘Even though the conventional answer to our question is not obviously absurd, yet there is another method of obtaining money for this purpose, which … does not presuppose the existence of accumulated results of previous development, and hence may be considered as the only one which is available in strict logic. This method of obtaining money is the creation of purchasing power by banks…’ (Schumpeter 1934, p. 73)
This leads Schumpeter to what he happily describes as a “heresy… that processes in terms of means of payment are not merely reflexes of processes in terms of goods” (Joseph Alois Schumpeter, 1934, p. 95). Instead, in a growing capitalist economy, aggregate demand is the sum of demand from the sale of goods and services plus demand from the growth in credit-money, where the latter is the primary source of investment. Fama and French confirmed this hypothesized relationship between change in debt and investment in an empirical study:
‘These correlations confirm the impression that debt plays a key role in accommodating year-by-year variation in investment.’ (Fama and French 1999, p. 1954)
This combination of the endogenous expansion of spending power by bank lending, plus the use of that by entrepreneurs to finance investment, means that the change in the level of private debt does have macroeconomic significance—and it plays a central role in Schumpeter’s theory of the business cycle. However it is not the end of the matter, because entrepreneurs are not the only ones who borrow money: so do key actors in Minsky’s explanation for Great Depressions, “Ponzi Financiers”.
These borrowers do not primarily invest with borrowed money, but buy existing assets, and hope to profit by selling those assets on a rising market. Unlike Schumpeter’s entrepreneurs, whose debts today can be repaid from profits tomorrow, Ponzi Financiers always have debt servicing costs than exceed the cash flows from the assets they purchase with borrowed money. They therefore must expand their debts or sell assets to continue functioning:
A Ponzi finance unit is a speculative financing unit for which the income component of the near term cash flows falls short of the near term interest payments on debt so that for some time in the future the outstanding debt will grow due to interest on existing debt… Ponzi units can fulfill their payment commitments on debts only by borrowing (or disposing of assets)… a Ponzi unit must increase its outstanding debts.’ (Minsky 1982, p. 24)
Therefore in a credit-based economy, there are three sources of aggregate demand, and three ways in which this demand is expended:
Demand from income earned by selling goods and services, which primarily finances consumption;
Demand from rising entrepreneurial debt, which primarily finances investment; and
Demand from rising Ponzi debt, which primarily finances the purchase of existing assets.
Schumpeter’s and Minsky’s perspectives thus enable us to integrate credit, asset markets and disequilibrium analysis into an alternative macroeconomics. In a credit economy, aggregate demand is the sum of income plus the change in debt, and this demand is expended on both goods and services and purchases of existing assets. Debt therefore has both positive and negative connotations for the economy: it finances the expansion of economic activity via innovation and investment, but it can also cause asset bubbles and eventually, an economic crisis if too much of this debt is directed to Ponzi Finance. This is precisely what occurred in the last two decades.
Comparing Endogenous Money to “the Money Multiplier”
As is well known, Bernanke blamed the Fed for causing the Great Depression:
‘there is now overwhelming evidence that the main factor depressing aggregate demand was a worldwide contraction in world money supplies. This monetary collapse was itself the result of a poorly managed and technically flawed international monetary system (the gold standard, as reconstituted after World War I).’ (Bernanke 2000, p. ix)
The money multiplier theory of money creation played a large role in his argument that the Great Depression was triggered by the Federal Reserve’s reduction of the US base money supply between June 1928 and June 1931:
‘the United States is the only country in which the discretionary component of policy was arguably significantly destabilizing… the ratio of monetary base to international reserves … fell consistently in the United States from … 1928:II … through the second quarter of 1931. As a result, U.S. nominal money growth was precisely zero between 1928:IV and 1929:IV, despite both gold inflows and an increase in the money multiplier.
The year 1930 was even worse in this respect: between 1929:IV and 1930:IV, nominal money in the United States fell by almost 6 [percent]… The proximate cause of this decline in M1 was continued contraction in the ratio of base to reserves, which reinforced rather than offset declines in the money multiplier. This tightening … locates much of the blame for the early (pre-1931) slowdown in world monetary aggregates with the Federal Reserve.’ (Ben S. Bernanke, 2000, p. 153)
Bernanke’s statistical evidence focused on the relationship between change in M1 and the level of unemployment. Using a longer and more detailed series for M1 than Bernanke used (Friedman and Schwartz 1963, Table A1), there is indeed a robust negative correlation between change in M1 and unemployment (see Figure 1; unemployment is inverted on the right hand axis to show the negative correlation more clearly). The R2 is –0.33 for the whole period, –0.31 for 1920–1930 and a strong –0.67 for 1930–1940.
Figure 1: Change in M1 and Unemployment, 1920–1940
However M1 includes money created by the banks, and blaming the Federal Reserve for its collapse in the 1930s takes the money multiplier for granted as a valid explanation of money creation—which the endogenous money approach disputes. Only M0 or Base Money is strictly under the Fed’s control, and (using the St Louis FRED AMBSL data), the relationship between unemployment and that part of the money supply over which the Fed has undisputed control is very different (see Figure 2). The correlation for the whole time period now has the wrong sign (+0.44); moreover there is a break in the relationship. In the period 1920–1930, the correlation is small with the correct sign (-0.22); in the period 1930–1940, it is small with the wrong sign (+0.28).
Figure 2: Change in Base Money and Unemployment, 1920–1940
There is also a break in the relationship between changes in M0 and changes in M1. In the 1920s, the correlation was strong and positive (+0.89)—in line with the “money multiplier” argument. But in the 1930s, while still positive it was much weaker (+0.34). From the data too, it is obvious that the 1930s Fed was trying to boost the money supply from 1931 till 1937. It then reduced its stimulus in 1937 when it falsely believed that the crisis was over as unemployment began to fall, only to see it start to rise once again from 11 back to 20 percent. Shocked, it rapidly reversed direction, increasing base money by more than 20 percent per annum from mid-1938 on. Arguably the direction of causation was not that changes in M0 and M1 drive unemployment, but that changes in unemployment drive Federal Reserve policy and hence changes in M0—but with little impact on the overall growth of the money supply and hence little impact upon economic activity.
Clearly the “The Fed Did It” argument is on shaky grounds with respect to the Great Depression, and as Bernanke is now finding out the hard way, it is an even more suspect argument today. Firstly the relationship of growth in M3 to unemployment is even stronger than the M1 to unemployment relation from 1920–1940: the R2 is –0.7 for the whole period.
Figure 3: M3 Change and Unemployment are strongly negatively correlated (R^2 = –0.72)
However the M0 to unemployment correlation has the wrong sign, and is even stronger than the wrong correlation for the 1930s at +0.51 (see Figure 4). The biggest boost to Base Money in recorded history did little to avert the collapse into the Great Recession, and repeated boosts are doing very little to end it.
Figure 4: The Correlation of M0 Change and Unemployment has the “Wrong” Sign
The “Money Multiplier” also has even less effect on the money supply itself now than back in the Great Depression: the correlation between changes in M0 and changes in M3 is effectively zero for the whole period since 1990 (-0.07), strongly of the wrong sign for the pre-crisis period from 1990–2008 (-0.55), and only barely positive for the post-crisis period (+0.14).
Figure 5: Change in M0 has no Correlation with Change in M3
In contrast, the endogenous money analysis of both the Great Depression and the “Great Contraction” (http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/rogoff83/English) is substantially more robust. To test the endogenous money explanation, I put the proposition that aggregate demand is the sum of income plus the change in debt, and that this is expended on both goods and services and purchases of existing assets, in an equation where the left hand side represents monetary flows and the right hand side represents the monetary value of physical supplies and turnover of financial claims on physical assets:
NAT stands for “Net Asset Turnover”, which can be factored into the price index for assets PA, times their quantity QA, times the turnover TA expressed as a fraction of the number of assets
The endogenous money hypothesis thus asserts that there is a relationship between the change in debt and the level of both economic activity (GDP) and activity on asset markets. Since the strength of this relationship vis-a-vis the impact of income on economic activity and asset markets depends on the size of the change in debt relation to the level of income, in the following correlations I consider change in debt relative to GDP rather than change in debt per se.
The correlation between change in debt and unemployment is far stronger than the correlation between change in M1 and unemployment during both periods:
Figure 6: Change in Debt Drives Economic Performance
Figure 7: Change in Debt Drives Economic Performance
This relation can be seen as a generalization of Bernanke’s “Financial Accelerator” (Bernanke et al. 1996) to both asset markets as well as goods markets, and without the false Neoclassical restriction that only the distribution of debt, and not its aggregate rate of change, has macroeconomic significance.
The data strongly support the endogenous money proposition that the acceleration of debt has macroeconomic significance. The correlation between credit acceleration and change in unemployment in the 1920–40 period is significant and has the correct sign.
Figure 8: Debt Acceleration and Unemployment Change, 1920–1940
The correlation for the period 1990-Now is stronger still (-0.75) and in fact is larger than the correlation of change in M3 with the level of unemployment—let alone its rate of change.
Figure 9: Debt Acceleration and Unemployment Change, 1990–2012
The correlation of the acceleration of debt with change in asset prices is also substantial. In strong contrast to the now discredited Efficient Markets Hypothesis claim that debt plays no role in determining the value of even a single corporation, the acceleration of debt has a substantial influence upon the change in valuation of the entire asset market.
Figure 10: Credit Acceleration & the DJIA, 1922–1940
Figure 11: Credit Acceleration and the DJIA, 1990-Now
This is especially marked in the case of housing, when the acceleration of mortgage debt can be isolated. The correlation of the acceleration of mortgage debt with the change in real house prices is 0.8.
Figure 12: Mortgage Acceleration and Change in Real House Prices
Since debt cannot accelerate indefinitely, this is also why asset bubbles, ultimately, have to crash—and therefore also a reason why macroeconomic policy should attempt to prevent them in the first place.
Conclusion: towards a new macroeconomics
The analysis here is still only preliminary, but the data gives far stronger empirical support to the endogenous money, credit-driven perspective than to the neoclassical. For both theoretical and empirical reasons, Neoclassical macroeconomics does indeed deserve to be “thrown out with the bathwater”, and a new dynamic, disequilibrium macroeconomics constructed in its stead.
Failure to honestly confront the theoretical weaknesses and empirical failures of the dominant school of economics will not preserve it. Indeed, continuing to ignore the gulf between the predictions of neoclassical economic models and the state of the economy will simply accelerate the steep decline in the public respect accorded to economists since this crisis began. Ultimately, complacency and denial will lead economics back to the position of disdain that Keynes described so well during the last Depression:
But although the doctrine itself has remained unquestioned by orthodox economists up to a late date, its signal failure for purposes of scientific prediction has greatly impaired, in the course of time, the prestige of its practitioners. For professional economists, after Malthus, were apparently unmoved by the lack of correspondence between the results of their theory and the facts of observation; a discrepancy which the ordinary man has not failed to observe, with the result of his growing unwillingness to accord to economists that measure of respect which he gives to other groups of scientists whose theoretical results are confirmed by observation when they are applied to the facts. (J. M. Keynes, 1936, p. 33)
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