17 June 2012

"Pragmatism Refreshed" ends: so does Lane Pryce

Final entry for this blog. From this day forward, I'll be blogging at Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed, and the URL will be http://jamesian58.blogspot.com/ So for now, let's say something about Mad Men, which has also of late been about endings!

Episode 12 will be dominated in the mind of most viewers by the death of a character who has been a mainstay of the show since the beginning of the third season, Lane Pryce, as played with uniform greatness, by Jared Harris.

This death, a suicide, happens as most of the office continues to float on a sense of elation about landing a big automotive account: Jaguar.
The writers bring these two facts: Lane’s despair and his co-workers’ elation, into several layers of collision. We see for example that the Jaguar of the time was mechanically a rather shoddy piece of work, and this in fact dooms Lane’s first effort to kill himself, by asphyxiation. He can’t get the ignition to work when he needs it to!      

When Lane does manage to kill himself, it is with a noose, in his office, and after typing out what should have been a suicide note but was in fact just a “boilerplate” letter of resignation.

Why not pills, Lane? The thing about pills is: they leave some room for doubt. The coroner may call it an accidental overdose rather than a suicide, which may make a difference to grieving relations and their insurers.  A noose, though, doesn’t leave any doubt. So does that mean that a real suicide note would have been, in methodical Lane’s eyes, redundant?
Also, the events leading up to the suicide are designed to leave Don feeling as guilty as possible. Don demanded that resignation, after discovering Lane’s embezzlement. He thought that Lane would and could recover from this and make a new life for himself back in England. Indeed, he said as much. “I’d had to start over a couple of times in my life. This is the worst part,” he assured Lane.
Well, no. Don is not Lane and neither of his start-overs seems analogous. Don learns how badly he had misjudged the matter with that chipper assurance only when he sees the body.
Likewise episode 13, the season finale, will likely be dominated in many minds by one scene – that in which Don encounters Lane’s widow, Rebecca. Indeed, the title of this episode is “The Phantom,” indicting I think that the writers meant for Lane to hang over the whole of it. Except of course there is another “phantom” involved. The titles always have multiple meanings. Don thinks he sees his dead brother.   
But let’s get back to Don and Rebecca. He gives her a check meant in effect to buy out Lane’s share of the partnership. She accepts it, but wants Don to know that however this may alleviate his own sense of guilt, it does nothing to make matters square between them. She blames the agency for giving her husband “ambition.” She appears to see him as always having been a frail reed, always best shielded from ambition and other potentially sharp things.
Also, it is in the course of this confrontation that Rebecca discloses she found the photo of a mystery woman in Lane’s wallet.  The photo brings us back to the start of the season.
I’ve wondered through this season why the writers would introduce that photo (and the trouble to which Lane went to keep it, and the single phone call he made to the woman it represents) without doing more with it than they have. I still wonder.  Will Rebecca start looking for her? Is that one respect in which Lane’s phantom will continue to hover next season?
Strong season over-all. The series' best since but not inclusive of its first.  

16 June 2012

New Lions for the Chariot

Starting next week, this blog will have a new name and URL.

I believe I know why it has become so difficult to post on this blog in recent weeks. I've just been doing it too long.

My new blog will have the name, "Jamesian Philosophy Refreshed." That's a better name: it is the philosophy of William James I most admire, not "pragmatism" in the broader and narrower sense. Aspects of James' philosophy that don't come under that label do come within the scope of my admiration, and various pragmatists who had views at odds with James' -- less so.

I hope and expect to see you all on the other side.

I'll try to leave one final blog at this dysfunctional site, tomorrow.  I may need some lions to pull my chariot forward, though.

15 June 2012

Not the O.K. Corral

My recent reading includes THE LAST GUNFIGHT by Jeff Guinn.

This is a 2011 publication, from Simon & Schuster, about the showdown popularly known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. More broadly the book is about Tombstone AZ and its surroundings in its heyday as a mining town.

And a mining town is what it was. Its brief golden age began with a major strike in 1878 of so-called “horn silver”  in the San Pedro Valley. The location of the strike was too far away from Tucson for that town to serve as a home base for the wave of prospectors who inevitably followed the first strike. So Tombstone grew up -- impression one gets from this book is that it almost immediately sprouted up out of the Arizona Territory desert floor!  and fulfilled just that function.

At its height it was important enough that when a San Francisco based acting troupe did a tour of the southwest, bringing a performance of the hot new comic opera “HMS Pinafore” to the unwashed – Tombstone was inevitably one of its stops.

But nowadays we only remember Tombstone for the confrontation on October 26, 1881, when seven men faced off, four to three, separated by only six feet of air, and fired about thirty shots at one another over the course of about as many seconds. It would have been four against four except that Ike Clanton, who had been very busy for hours provoking this confrontation, actually fled the scene just as guns were being drawn, or perhaps even five to four had not another of their companions likewise made himself scarce.

Ike Clanton’s brother and two of his friends were killed in that exchange. Among the party opposing, Doc Holliday and two of the Earps were seriously injured. Only Wyatt Earp walked away unscathed.

The fight was not literally at the OK Corral, although it is known as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral” because that became the title of a movie in 1957, which was still the golden age for westerns.  John Sturges’ movie made no pretense of historical accuracy.

Nonetheless, the connection between this confrontation (a block away) and that particular corral is not entirely accidental.  At one point in the crowded timeline leading to those terrible 30 seconds, the Clantons and their allies postured in that corral, in what Guinn calls “the worst tradition of overweening male pride” they were there “boasting loudly about what they would do if the Earps were foolish enough to bother them any further.”

There are a lot of reasons to recommend this book. I won’t recite them now, though. I’ll simply say that it inspires thought not only about what happened, but about how we know what happened, about the epistemological troubles in sorting through the conflicting accounts.

14 June 2012

Classic Johnny Carson

Two jokes from Junes long gone.

On June 14, 1985, Johnny asked the Tonight Show audience whether they had ever been to a barbecue in Beverly Hills? It's a little different from a barbecue elsewhere. "What your chauffeur does, he drives the hamburger patties over to a tanning salon."

On June 8, 1989, Johnny helpfully pointed out that the Census Bureau had taken to using combo forms for city names to describe metropolitan areas. Thus, there was the area between Chicago and Pittsburgh, known as Chipitts. "I'm not making all this up. Now, if you live exactly midway between Burbank, Gardena, Dublin, Cheeseborough, Smolensk, and Freiburg, Germany, you are in Burger-Double-Cheese-Small-Fries."

And here is a photo of Johnny in Carnac regalia, just for the heck of it.

10 June 2012

Schopenhauer on Music

"For music everywhere expresses only the quintessence of life and of the events taking place in it, never these themselves, and so distinctions within these do not always influence it. Precisely this universality, exclusive as it is to music, together with the most exact precision gives music its high value as the panacea for all our suffering. Thus if music ties itself too closely to words or tries to model itself on events, it is tryingf to speak a language that is not its own. Nobody has avoided this error as completely as Rossini; which is why his music speaks its own language so clearly and purely that it has no need of words at all and retains its full effect when performed in instruments alone." That sounds rather equivocal praise for Rossini, who composed for opera, i.e. specifically for words and a stage set, not the concert halls Schopenhauer seems to have in mind here.

09 June 2012

In Defense of GwBC: Conclusion

I am confident I have accomplished all I meant to accomplish with this series of posts, stimulated as they were by Gravelle's critique of my book, GwBC. In conclusion, I will speak to the notion, widespread today, and present in Gravelle's review, that a moderate and non-accelerating level of inflation is a good thing, in that it is predictable on the one hand and it accomodates the growing demand for money that comes with a growing population and economy on the other. This notion is presumably why Gravelle instructed me that only an "accelerating" rate of inflation should be considered "easy money."

This underlying idea is a fallacy. Price level unpredictability is one of the kinds of harm that inflation can do, but not the whole of it by any means. Yes, if every price and every wage reliably increases at, say, 2 percent a year every year: buyers, sellers, lenders, investors and so forth can all quickly become accustomed to this, draft contracts that presume it, etc. The predictability would be a positive thing, and the debasement of the currency would be merely a matter of form, not something that ought to bug anyone. That is what many economists (and Gravelle) seem to presume actually happens in real-world inflation when they write as if a “non-accelerating” rate is benign.

But in the real world, the average price levels measured by consumer prices indexes and so forth are just that, averages. If we know that the CPI has increased 2% over the last year we have no reason to believe that every good – even every good and service explicitly included in the CPI – even any respectably large number of those goods for that matter -- has increased by that benign-seeming amount. Nor do we know that there is some narrow range of possibility around 2% where most price changes comfortably reside. You can of course quickly get in over your head trying to wade a stream with an “average” depth of only half a foot.

A related point: new money infused into the economy doesn’t come into it all at once. It isn’t as if helicopters have dropped it evenly over the whole landscape, or as if we could all wake up one random morning with more money in our bank accounts than we had thought we had the day before.

No … money enters the economy because the Federal Reserve buys assets. If you’re one of the lucky few who get to sell assets to the Fed then, poof!, the new money suddenly appears in your bank account first. The new money in time radiates outward from the first recipients to those with whom they do business, and so forth, out to ‘the economy at large’ if we may. But the process is a sloppy one, and it does in the nature of things create winners and well as losers. It redistributes real wealth and creates perverse incentives, even if it is kept at a slow and non-accelerating rate over time.

A related fallacy is the notion that inflation is a good thing because a growing economy needs a growing money supply. Why? In a free market the prices will automatically adjust should the economy grow more rapidly than the money supply. Suppose the money supply is linked to gold, and privately held gold supplies are freely convertible into paper notes. If the supply of gold falls beneath demand, gold becomes more valuable. This means that gold in jewelry is converted into monetary use, and gold coins that had been hoarded, stashed away in a safe, are brought out and put back into circulation. Also, promising gold mining operations become more valuable and people line up to invest in mining technologies.

In the meantime, since gold is becoming more valuable, in such an economy, prices of all non-monetary goods are falling. We’ve just conjured up a deflationary scenario. A lot of energy has gone into persuading people that deflation is necessarily disastrous, but there is no evidence it needs to be.

My final thought in this connection is the eminently pragmatic one, that we shall all have to do a lot of new thinking, in matters economic and financial, in order to get ourselves out of the mess in which through the old thinking, still the mainstream thinking, we have gotten ourselves.

08 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part V

My book, Gambling with Borrowed Chips, calls for the abolition of legal tender laws.
For a sense of what that means, dear (American) reader, please take a dollar out of your wallet. Above and to the left of George Washington’s head, you’ll see in small print the words, “The Note is legal tender for all debts, public and private.”

Once upon a time, not too long ago, the words in that spot offered the prospect of redemption of the dollar bill in specie, gold or silver.
Between the one sort of engraved bill and the other, the notion of a “legal tender” stipulated by law has replaced the idea of redemption by a backed currency. The system of fiat money, then, is one in which legal tender laws require people to accept unbacked paper that they might not otherwise take, arbitrarily forcing a medium of exchange upon the populace. For those who like the particulars of codification: the “legal tender” status of these bits of paper is secured at 31 USC §5103.

Those of us who speak of repealing legal tender laws, are, then, in effect proposing a return to commodity backed money. We speak this way not for the delight of talking in codes, but simply as a way of focusing on the difficulty: not so much what the government isn’t doing, but what it is doing (installing its paper by fiat as the Ur-money).    
I don’t really feel like a “gold bug.” I do believe there are lots of ways of hardening a money supply, as I mentioned in yesterday’s entry. Still, for the remainder of our discussion (and we near its end), I will accept the shorthand account of what I am proposing here. I am advocating a gold standard as a geology-backed medium of exchange.

When Gravelle writes: “In fact, most economics textbooks, for good reason, devote no more than a page or two to explaining the gold standard and how the U.S. and other countries’ economies moved away from commodity money to fiat money….” she merely confirms my own pessimistic assessment of the textbook publishing industry.
She then adds her own definition of “fiat money” in a parenthetical comment. She calls it “money backed by the promises of the government.” Sorry but, no. This is not what it is! The promise of the government to do …? Fiat money is backed only by the demands of the government, as expressed 31 USC §5103. There is no “promise” involved. That word suggests the long-discontinued redemptions.
But then say: for purposes of discussion, let us make this about gold.

Gravelle writes: “Faille seems to believe that the gold standard was restored after World War II, but that standard only applied to international transactions and even then only in a limited fashion.”

She suggests here that I am confused about the nature of the Bretton Woods monetary system. In fact, I explain explicitly that “U.S. citizens were not allowed to convert their dollars into gold” during the Bretton Woods period. I also say, though, that through the Bretton Woods accords the U.S. “committed itself to tying the value of its dollar to the price of gold.” Both assertions are true. Yes, the tie in question was not what it had been before 1933, or before the creation of the Federal Reserve twenty years before that, but all that establishes is that there is more than one way to harden the money supply, even more than one way to alloy it with gold.   

Indeed, in December 2011 (too late, alas, for mention in Gambling with Borrowed Chips) the Bank of England issued a white paper, its “Financial Stability Paper No. 13,” that reviews the global financial crisis from a monetary perspective and that confirms many of my book’s points.

The authors of this paper – Oliver Bush, Katie Farrant, and Michelle Wright –list three objectives for an international monetary and financial system: internal balance, allocative efficiency, and financial stability. They conclude that the system now in place “has performed poorly against each of its three objectives, at least compared with the Bretton Woods System.”

The key fact about gold is that its supply is limited by the nature of the planet we’re on, and that adding new gold supplies to the world system will always require investment, risk, and expenditure. Such additions cannot be accomplished by fiat. This is why Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank, said recently, “The system should … consider employing gold as an international reference point of market expectations about inflation, deflation, and future currency values.”  Indeed it should.

The problem, finally, is that the "business cycle" is not really a circle. The turns don't leave us where they found us. The business cycle is in many respects a downward spiral. So long as we grease up the money making machinery each timne around to save us from each bust, we preserve old inefficiencies and create new ones. In the best of times they are hidden, in the worst of times they are obvious. We should take advantage of that obviousness to address them head on.

That is my point, and I am happy -- or at least content -- to have gone outside of the mainstream to make it.

There is just one final point I need to make, and this arises from Gravelle's casual observation in her review that the only worrisome symptom of "easy money" would be "accelerating inflation while at full employment." I passed that remark by rather lightly in an earlier entry in this series. Tomorrow I hope to come back to it. It gives us a bang-up close.

07 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part IV

We now get to the core of our dispute. (“At last!“ you cry.) Lament not, for we have passed through some essential preliminaries.

What is core is that Gravelle takes issue with my recommendation that the U.S. abolish its central bank, the Federal Reserve.

She says (quite accurately) that the Federal Reserve existed for 20 years before the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933. The Fed was founded by an Act signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on December 23, 1913.

I can’t agree with her about the “why” of that decision, though. She writes that the Fed was “needed in part to deal with the rigidity of the gold standard itself, which provided insufficient money, particularly around harvest time.”

No, the Fed wasn’t needed. It came into existence as a simple matter of coalition management. What was needed, politically, was the passage and enactment of something that could be called a “banking reform bill.” There were a lot of reasons for this, most of them terrible, the best of them only slightly muddled. But the vacuity of the Federal Reserve Act as any sort of genuine reform may be seen by the four distinct currents of thought that contributed to it.

There were some important voices at the time who wanted a private and centralized banking system. They found their champion in Nelson Aldrich.
There were others who wanted a system that would be private but decentralized -- this was the guiding idea of Carter Glass, chairman of the House Banking Committee when Wilson entered the White House. There was another group who demanded a system both public and decentralized -- that would describe William Jennings Bryan, for example, who was Wilson’s Secretary of State, and whose interest in monetary/banking issues was a critical source of his own appeal to his own following. Finally, there was a faction that wanted a system both public and centralized, in effect an adjunct to the U.S. Treasury. Among these was William Gibbs McAdoo, who was Wilson’s Secretary of the Treasury.

[You can find an account of all of this in the biography, Woodrow Wilson (2010), by John Milton Cooper Jr., which I reviewed for The Federal Lawyer that spring. See especially pp. 219 et seq. of that book. ]

Along the two axes involved (private/public on one side, central/decentralized on the other), there were then four possibilities and for various mutually inconsistent reasons all four factions were unhappy about the banking system, all four wanted a change. Some change was almost certain to come about, and that change (when nominally led by a Wilson, a man with no firm settled convictions of his own on the subject, but a strong desire to please everyone, or at least everyone with a suitably progressive pedigree) was bound to be a jerry-rigged mess.
We have inherited that mess, and I for one am certain that it does us all much more harm than good.
It was merely a mess for the first twenty years of its existence. After 1933, it became something much worse than a mess. The Fed became a nexus of power in its own right, and the center of machinations against the soundness of the dollar. There are always such machinations -- and there are always constituencies for them. What has proven disastrous is that they have had this great institutional leverage.

Their leverage was somewhat diluted by the Bretton Woods accord of 1944, which brought a precious metal back into the system. That brings us to the relation of hard metals and gold in particular to the value of money, which is the fourth and final point I must contest with Ms Gravelle.

Before I do, though, allow me to say this: gold is not logically necessary for the existence of a sound currency. There are other ways of achieving that goal. For example, as I write, the Republic of Greece stilll has a sound currency. That currency is known as the euro, and it is sound because its quantity is outside of the control of any politicians or central bankers within Greece. Thus, the soundness of the currency (which is as it happens not backed by gold) is forcing the Greek political system to make difficult decisions -- decisions that ought to be made but that all participants there would plainly much rather avoid.

It  is possible that Greek politicians may in fact avoid those decisions by abandoning their sound currency, and re-creating the drachma, which they can then manipulate at will. If they succumb to that temptation, though, they will I am sure rue the day.

With that understood, allow me to agree: yes, the abolition of fiat currency means, in the U.S. context and as a practical matter, the re-introduction of some role for gold. This is the one of my policy prescriptions that I haven’t yet discussed, and I will come to it tomorrow.

03 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part III

Still working, as I was yesterday, from the recommendations in my final chapter: I proposed that "we must learn to let the failures fail." As a closely related point, I also said that  this would involve a reform of corporate bankruptcy law. This is worth some emphasis, so I'll quote myself here:

"Well-functioning bankruptcy courts perform the vital role of allowing the assets of a failed enterprise to find new owners -- owners who will be in a better position to find their highest-return use. Unfortunately, the courts at present do not accomplish that function effectively, and this contributes sadly to the too-big-to-fail mentality."

Gravelle takes issue with me here, saying if I understand her that some institutions really are too big to fail, and that government (in association with its central bank) needs the authority to rescue them as necessary if doing otherwise "means disaster for the broader economy, as well it might."

Yet her meaning requires some cross-examination. Does she really mean that some institutions have to be rescued outside of the context of bankruptcy courts, because the latter aren't doing their jobs? Is a bankruptcy filing the sort of "failure" that sometimes cannot be allowed?


Certainly in the 1970s there was a widespread opinion that Chrysler was too big to fail. It was too big for its fate to depend upon our existing corporate bankruptcy system. Thus, in 1979, the U.S. Congress passed a loan guarantee act, which President Carter signed into law in January 1980.

Obviously, that act did not cure what ailed the US auto industry. Both Chrysler and Gemeral Motors would have to pass through the bankruptcy system nearly thirty years later, after a generation's worth of stop-gaps, hems, and haws. Would it not have been better done, when it could have been done more quickly, in 1979-80?

Bankruptcy is an important concept here because it is through bankruptcy filings and reorganizations that common-law jurisdictions re-jigger ongoing enterprises in ways that sacrifice the value of the old equity to the owners of debt. Through that process the significance of equity as the residual bearer of risk is acknowledged, and in fact (unless the process ends in liquidation) a new group of claimants become the bearer of that residual risk, the risk of the next failure.

The role of government bail-outs outside of bankruptcy is all too often to short-circuit this healthy process, diluting our core sense of what equity is, of what ownership means in the corporate context.

And ... why? To save the assets involved, so they'll continue to be of productive use? The assets of a Chrysler (or a Lehman) don't disappear when it goes into bankruptcy. Ownership may pass, over time, to the next round of owners of equity. Or (if it is feared that some of the assets are blocks of ice on a summer day -- liable to disappear entirely unless someone inherits them immediately) ownership may pass much more quickly to new owners through an auction arranged by a bankruptcy trustee.

This, after all, is what happened to the more valuable, and 'melting,' assets of Lehman. The British bank Barclays had been unable or unwilling to come to Lehman's rescue in any alternative-to-bankruptcy arrangement, but it did buy up the choice assets almost immedisately after Lehman's actual filing. Whatever was the productive capacity of those assets: that was not lost by virtue of the bankruptcy filing.

Gravelle (following Bernanke's lead in this) says that it is too simplistic to dedicate ourselves to the proposition that failures should be allowed to fail. Her solution, and his, are "regulatory changes" that will limit the moral hazards associated with bail-outs.

At their very best, if we agree to be wildly optimistic in our assessment of the ongoing or likely regulatory changes, what they'll be able to do is give us something akin to a finctioning bankruptcy system -- a way of letting the failures fail, having the equity owners take their loss, and finding someone else to carry on with the valuable assets of the failed enterprise.  Yet that very best is, as it happens, what I proposed. If the "regulatory changes" are not to work through the reforming the bankruptcy system and facilitating its operation, they'll only be (at best) a pale duplicating of a bankruptcy system elsewhere.

And really ... why duplicate? Why not fix up the original?

Or maybe it isn't about productive use of assets. Maybe, (some of you are thinking this now, surely) the real reason the Treasury and central bank need the flexibility for bailing out 2B2Fail firms is to "avert panic." But consider that for a second ... as a matter of mass psychology, do bailouts real calm the waters?

The events of 2007-08 would seem to indicate that they do not. After all, in the spring of 2008, the authorities effectively bailed out the counterparties of Bear Stearns by arranging a shotgun marriage between Bear and JPMorgan. That doesn't seem to have had any very soothing consequences. It merely stimulated traders to look for "who's next." They settled on Lehman. So a bailout at one site generally shifts panic to another.

I have not yet encountered any point of view that would make sense out of the 2B2Fail mentality. Indeed, I'm delighted to read where Gravelle complains that "a gold standard ... does not allow flexibility to manage the economy." I'm not an unequivocal advocate of a gold standard, but that contention is surely a big point in its favor for those of us who don't believe an economy should really be "managed." With a gold standard (or any other hard money system)  central bankers cannot conjure money up out of thin air, so bail-outs are much trickier to arrange. That would suggest that there will be fewer of them, and that in many more cases failures will be allowed to fail.

Still and all, I have not yet gotten to the core of my quarrel with Gravelle, and hers with me. I'm enjoying this so much that, frankly, I've been spinning it out. I do believe that money must be 'hardened' -- and I think that this may involve the repeal of existing U.S. legal tender laws and will surely have to involve the abolition of the Federal Reserve. Both of these ideas leave Gravelle aghast.

We will discuss some final points next week: Thursday and Friday.  See you there!

02 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part II

My recommendations, in Gambling with Borrowed Chips, are as follows:

1)      That  the U.S. government must repeal its legal tender laws, allowing Americans to find our own money.

2)      That there ought to be a simple and complete abolition of the Federal Reserve System

3)      That we must learn to let failures fail, without Greenspan or Bernanke “puts” and, finally,

4)      That “we need as a people to accept an important cultural change – we need to learn greater respect for the profession of accounting and for its independence.”

That’s the list as I presented it in my conclusion and as Gravelle considers it. In this blog, I propose to reverse the order. Starting with number 4 then, my reviewer plainly thinks this the runt of the litter. She isn’t “sure what Faille specifically proposes” in this line, so she won’t comment on it.

Well, perhaps in the PowerPoint sense I don’t “specifically propose” anything. It is hard to reduce a critical cultural shift to a list of specific proposals. It isn’t a matter for departmental white papers.  It is a matter of focus.

But I’ll dwell on this point today because recent newspaper accounts of JPMorgan and its billions of dollars lost on portfolio hedges tell a story that may assist with the needed cultural shift if anything can. These losses have stiffened the resolve of advocates of the “Volcker rule,” and of a stern construal thereof, and have at the same time confused those who have been trying to rejigger that rule to allow some flexibility, so this incident may end up having a lot to do with the future of investment banking in the US.  

JPM’s CEO, James Dimon, has said that "affiliated but asymmetric accounting" may have contributed.

Does this bore you, dear reader?  Are you saying, “oh, no, a discussion of accounting.” I suggest you resist the impulse to say that. That is all I “specifically propose” in such matters.

The problem in this case may have been that (a) derivatives on credit default swaps are marked to market – their value is constantly re-adjusted under existing accounting principles, but (b) the value of a bank’s outstanding loans are not marked to market – they are carried at original value, and adverse market condition are acknowledged through the creation of a reserve. If derivatives are used to hedge risks inherent in the loan portfolio then, as the “Heard on the Street” column in the Wall Street Journal has recently noted, the derivative can distort apparent earnings, and distort the bank’s own managerial processes.

I would certainly hope that bankers will correct this asymmetry by marking loans to market, and that the professional (private sector) bodies that maintain accounting standards will press toward this end. Prospects for that are not good at the moment, for reasons that were foreshadowed by the discussion in chapter eight of my book.  The leaders of the standards-setting bodies have been spineless and various politicians have introduced demagogy into accountancy issues over the years, cowing the spineless into indecision when the bases for sensible decisions were fairly clear.

If the politicians were to stand back, the accounting profession would hash out its own issues. And if the public were informed, if there was a general cultural acceptance of the importance of independent integral accounting standards, the leaders of that profession might exhibit the necessary backbone. Then we wouldn’t need a Volcker rule to do their work for them.

01 June 2012

In Defense of Gambling with Borrowed Chips, Part I

I’ll pick up where I left off last week in a discussion of Gravelle’s review of my book, Gambling with Borrowed Chips.
She writes as if my analyses are unclear, i.e. she isn’t sure what Faille “really intends.” Yet she does seem to get the interpretation right in what follows, and I take that as evidence for the proposition that I was tolerably clear after all.

She says that my analysis is “that the commonly cited causes of the crisis – speculation combined with leveraging, deregulation, and other problems – are not, in fact, its causes.”
Right so far: and those aren’t even, in themselves, “problems” either!

She continues that Faille “apparently views the cause as the expansionary monetary policies of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, a claim that he appears to make based on the low interest rates set by the Fed. (In other parts of the book, he also seems to blame the Fed for shoring up the economy when asset prices were falling during the Greenspan years.)”
Yes, I make both of those points, and I “really intend” them both. Let us pause on them in that order. My book makes the point that entering the new century, the Fed Funds rate (a rate target not under direct Fed control, but a measure of its self-defined success) was at 6.5 percent. Greenspan pressed to lower the target in several steps starting in January, so that in early September, before the 9/11 attacks, the rate was 3.5 percent.

Of course, after those attacks the Fed sought to forestall panic by lowering the rate further, to 1.25. If you only have a hammer (or only think you have a hammer) all problems look like nails.

Gravelle thinks it odd, though; that I should consider these repeated lowerings to be at all inflationary. She says that “accelerating inflation while at full employment, rather than low interest rates, should be the sign of easy money.” Huh? What, after all, is an interest rate? It is the rate at which one party allows another to use a certain sum of money over a specified period. Any lowering of interest rates indicates, ceteris paribus, that money has gotten easier to get: in other words, it is precisely a sign of “easy money.” Easy relative to what? Well, relative to the condition before that lowering of the interest rates, for a start. Relative to a healthy economic condition? That’s the 64 thousand/million/billion dollar question.

She cites Bernanke as an authority for the proposition that monetary policy was not "closely related to the principal trigger -- the housing finance crisis." My own concern isn't simply how was the trigger pulled, but rather how did we end up pointing a loaded gun at our collective heads in the first place? And since I regard Bernanke as part of the problem, not part of the solution, I hope she understands that I look elsewhere for counsel.

I look for instance, to Jurgen Stark, a central banker in good standing himself, specifically a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank, who delivered a paper to a meeting in Hong Kong in April 2011, in which he acknowledged and discussed with some candor the role of central banking in the financial crisis. He said that during the 1990s, a period of "great moderation," when monetary policy seemed to be working in just the way the textbooks said it should, trouble was actually brewing. Central bankers acquired the false "impression that the monetary policy battles of yesteryear had been won once and for all." Hubris, if you will.

My own view is that it will prove much easier to live without central bankers than it ever will to train central bankers who will be free of hubris.   

What about Gravelle’s quizzical parenthesis? The Fed “shored up the economy” on certain occasions during the Greenspan years. What, she seems to want to ask me, could possibly be wrong with that? Actually, in response to the peso crisis, the east Asian troubles, the Long Term Capital Management meltdown, what the Fed actually shored up was the values of certain assets, not the “economy” as such. There is a difference between treating symptoms and treating the underlying disease processes.

When the Fed invoked what came to be known as the “Greenspan put” repeatedly in the 1990s, in effect it gave the US economy a few pills each time of Mother's Little Helper. This “shored up” wakefulness and attentiveness, but that didn’t make it a good thing. If you keep yourself awake artificially, the come-down, when it does arrive (and in the nature of things it will) must be that much more dramatic. In the literal instance, such as come-down from stimulants is known as … a crash. Intriguing term, no?          
Let's look to Jurgen Stark's speech again. He said that the central bank activism of the 1990s could have encouraged "and did encourage, in my view -- markets' tendency to opt for risky strategies, over-exposures and exuberance."  Yes, too much "shoring up" did that. The more perceptive of the central bankers see that themselves, these days.

So yes, for both of the sets of reasons that puzzle Gravelle, I find that Greenspan and his associates at the Fed culpable, in over-reacting both to the crises of the 1990s and to the rather mild recession of 2000-2001, of giving us an over-hyped economy through the Bush years, one that had to end in something much like the way it did in fact end.
I realize that is a view with which many “mainstream” economists will differ. Everybody who thinks for themselves ends up non-mainstream in something though; and I am happy to be non-mainstream in this.    

Gravelle doesn’t really argue with my analysis in any very sustained way. She notes that she finds contrary arguments “compelling,” but she then quickly sets the matter aside and moves on to something that bugs her more, that does get her sustained attention, my “prescriptions.” That's where we really seem to be crossing swords. Wait for it, though, fencing fans.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.