Category Archives: ECONNED

Economics Debunked: Chapter Two for Sixth Graders

Readers gave high marks to Andrew Dittmer’s summary of a dense but very important paper by Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat of the BIS and asked if he could produce more of the same.

While Andrew, a recent PhD in mathematics, has assigned himself some truly unpleasant tasks, like reading every bank lobbying document he could get his hands on to see what their defenses of their privileged role amounted to, he has yet to produce any output from these endeavors that are ready for public consumption.

However, I thought readers might enjoy one of Andrew’s older works.


The Very Important and of Course Blacklisted BIS Paper About the Crisis

Admittedly, my RSS reader is hardly a definitive check, but it does cover a pretty large number of financial and economics websites, including those of academics. And from what I can tell, an extremely important paper by Claudio Borio and Piti Disyatat of the BIS, “Global imbalances and the financial crisis: Link or no link?” has been relegated to the netherworld. The Economist’s blog (not the magazine) mentioned it in passing, and a VoxEU post on the article then led the WSJ economics blog to take notice. But from the major economics publications and blogs, silence.

Why would that be? One might surmise that this is a case of censorship.


“Freedom Versus Markets”

Yves here. Blogger Sell on News echoes an argument made in ECONNED, namely, that “free markets” are a contradictory and incoherent construct, albeit from a different perspective. He also advocates another view near and dear to our heart, namely getting rid of economists (actually, that is overkill and will never happen. Keynes had it right: “If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people on a level with dentists, that would be splendid.”)

By Sell on News, a macro equities analyst . Cross posted from MacroBusiness

Probably the most wicked intellectual subterfuge of the last three decades — and goodness knows there have been many — has been the pretence that democracy and markets are two sides of the same coin.


Philip Pilkington: Neoclassical Dogma – : How Economists Rationalise Their Hatred of Free Choice

By Philip Pilkington, a journalist and writer living in Dublin, Ireland

What if all the world’s inside of your head
Just creations of your own?
Your devils and your gods
All the living and the dead
And you’re really all alone?
You can live in this illusion
You can choose to believe
You keep looking but you can’t find the woods
While you’re hiding in the trees
– Nine Inch Nails, Right Where it Belongs

Modern economics purports to be scientific. It is this that lends its practitioners ears all over the world; from the media, from policymakers and from the general public. Yet, at its very heart we find concepts that, having been carried over almost directly from the Christian tradition, are inherently theological. And these concepts have, in a sense, become congealed into an unquestionable dogma.

We’ve all heard it before of course: isn’t neoclassical economics a religion of sorts? I’ve argued here in the past that neoclassical economics is indeed a sort of moral system. But what if there are theological motifs right at the heart of contemporary economic theory? What does this say about its validity and what might this mean in relation to the social status of its practitioners?

Let us turn first to one of the most unusual and oft-cited pieces of contemporary economic doctrine: rational expectations theory.


Felix Salmon Misreads AAA Bond Demand to Say “Overcaution” Caused Crisis

Lordie, I can’t believe someone who professes to understand markets has written, at length, that caution, no, “excess of overcaution,” was a major contributor to the criss. Or has Felix Salmon been spending too much time with lobbyists from ISDA and SIFMA?

I hate seeming rude, but Felix has a habit of tearing into Gretchen Morgenson for errors much less significant than the one he made in a post today. He wrote, apropos this chart, which comes from FT Alphaville:


The Sorrow and the Pity of Economists (Like DeLong) Not Learning from Their Mistakes

I hate to seem to be beating up on Brad DeLong. Seriously.

As I’ve said before, he is one of the few economists willing to admit error and not try later to minimize or recant his admission (unlike, say, Greenspan). And he seems genuinely perplexed and remorseful. This puts his heads and shoulders above a lot of his colleagues, at least the sort whose opinion carries weight in policy circles.

Even with DeLong making an earnest effort to figure out why he went wrong, his latest musings, via a Bloomberg op-ed, “Sorrow and Pity of Another Liquidity Trap,” show how hard it is for economist to unlearn what they think they know. And as the great philosopher Will Rogers warned us, “It’s not what you know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know that ain’t so.”

So it’s important to regard DeLong as an unusually candid mainstream economist, and treat his exposition as reasonably representative if you could somehow get his peers to take a hard, jaundiced look at how wrong they have been of late.

DeLong’s mea culpa is about how he and his colleagues refused to take the idea that the US could fall into a liquidity trap seriously. As an aside, this is already a troubling admission, since many observers, including yours truly, though the Fed was in danger of creating precisely that sort of problem if if dropped the Fed funds rate below 2%. It would leave itself no wriggle room if the crisis continued and it had to lower rates further into the territory where further reductions would not motivate changes in behavior. That’s assuming we were in a “normal” environment. But the big abnormality is that we are in what Richard Koo calls a balance sheet recession. And as we will discuss below, Keynes (and Minsky) had a very keen appreciation of the resulting behavior changes, but those ideas were abandoned by Keynesians (it is key to remember that Keynesianism contains significant distortions and omissions from Keynes’ thinking.

But notice how he starts his piece:


Bhidé Cites “Rampant, Extensive Criminality” As Proof That Bank Reform Has Gone Down the Wrong Path

I though readers might welcome an antidote from the nonsense that bank industry touts like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency’s John Walsh routinely puts forth.

I’ve known Amar Bhidé, who is now a professor at Tufts, for thirty years; we both worked on the Citibank account at McKinsey (although never on the same study). He’s long had a reputation for being incredibly smart and iconoclastic.

Amar enjoys annoying people by saying completely commonsensical things that are not acceptable and watching chaos ensue.


JP Morgan Pays $153.6 Million to Settle SEC Charges on Toxic Magnetar CDO

The SEC announced that JP Morgan has agreed to pay $153.6 million to settle charges related to a $1.1 billion heavily synthetic CDO called Squared which JP Morgan placed in early 2007 and was managed by GSC Partners, a now defunct CDO manager. The SEC has a cute but not all that helpful visual on the site, save it reflects the role of Magnetar as the moving force behind the deal.

Per the SEC’s complaint against JP Morgan, Magnetar provided $8.9 million in equity and shorted $600 million notional, or more than half the face amount of the CDO (this is consistent with our analysis, which had suggested that Magnetar, unlike Paulson, did not take down the full short side of its deals, since it like staying cash flow positive on its investments. The size of its short position was limited by the cash to be thrown off by the equity tranche). And needless to say, this was a CDO squared, meaning a CDO made heavily of junior tranches of other CDOs, so it was a colossally bad deal.

The complaints (one against JP Morgan and the other against GSC employee Edward Steffelin) make clear that the SEC had gotten its hands on some pretty damning e-mails. The core of the allegation against JPM was that all the marketing materials represented that the assets in the CDO were selected by GSC when they were in fact to a significant degree chosen by Magnetar.

Magnetar made clear that it regarded its equity position as “basically nothing” and really wanted to “buy some protection”, meaning get short and that Magnetar was actively involved in choosing the exposures for the deal.


Mirabile Dictu! SEC Probes Relationship Among Toxic CDO Sponsor Magnetar, Merrill, and CDO Manager

It has taken forever for the SEC to probe the workings the biggest sponsor of toxic CDOs and of course the agency is going after only one highly publicized doggy deal. Nevertheless, the SEC has finally decided to look at the less than arm’s length relationship between the hedge fund Magnetar, whose Constellation program played a central role in blowing up the subprime bubble, and its collateral manager, which in this case a Merrill affiliated firm called NIR. As we will discuss, collateral managers were critical because they effectively served as liability shields for the other participants.

Note that Magnetar does not appear to be the target; the Financial Times reports that the SEC is examining how the deal’s underwriter Merrill sold the deal and how it worked with NIR.


Stephanie Kelton: What Happens When the Government Tightens its Belt?

Yves here. This post is certain to annoy some readers. Note that Kelton does not address under what circumstances it is desirable to have the government run a surplus versus a deficit, merely what the implications are. Bill MItchell is rather forceful on this matter:

The US press was awash with claims over the weekend that the US was “living beyond” its “means” and that “will not be viable for a whole lot longer”. One senior US central banker claimed that the way to resolve the sluggish growth was to increase interest rates to ensure people would save. Funny, the same person also wants fiscal policy to contract. Another fiscal contraction expansion zealot. Pity it only kills growth. Another commentator – chose, lazily – to be the mouthpiece for the conservative lobby and wrote a book review that focused on the scary and exploding public debt levels. Apparently, this public debt tells us that the US is living beyond its means. Well, when I look at the data I see around 16 per cent of available labour idle in the US and capacity utilisation rates that are still very low. That tells me that there is a lot of “means” available to be called into production to generate incomes and prosperity. A national government doesn’t really have any “means”. It needs to spend to get hold off the means (production resources). Given the idle labour and low capacity utilisation rates the government in the US is clearly not spending enough. The US is currently living well below its means. But the US government can always buy any “means” that are available for sale in US dollars and if there is insufficient demand for these resources emanating from the non-government sector then the US government can bring those idle “means” into productive use any time it chooses.


UBS’s Magnus Warns of Risk of Chinese Minsky Moment

UBS strategist George Magnus helped popularize economist Hyman Minsky’s thinking in the runup to the financial crisis by warning of the likelihood of a “Minsky moment.” For those not familiar with Minsky’s work, a short overview from ECONNED:

Hyman Minsky, an economist at Washington University, observed [that] periods of stability actually produce instability. Economic growth and low defaults lead to greater confidence and, with it, lax lending.

In early stages of the economic cycle, thanks to fresh memories of tough times and defaults, lenders are stringent. Most borrowers can pay interest and repay the loan balance (principal) when it comes due. But even in those times, some debtors are what Minsky calls “speculative units” who cannot repay principal. They need to borrow again when their current loan matures, which makes
them hostage to market conditions when they need to roll their obligation. Minsky created a third category, “Ponzi units,” which can’t even cover the interest, but keep things going by selling assets and/or borrowing more and using the proceeds to pay the initial lender. Minsky’s observation:


Magnetar Strikes Again: JP Morgan Negotiating Settlement with SEC on Toxic CDO

As longstanding readers of this blog presumably know, we broke the story of Magnetar, a Chicago-based hedge fund. Magnetar was arguably the biggest player in driving toxic subprime demand through its program of creating hybrid CDOs (largely consisting of credit default swaps, but also including cash bonds by design).

Magnetar constructed a strategy that was a trader’s wet dream, enabling it to show a thin profit even as it amassed ever larger short bets (the cost of maintaining the position was a vexing problem for all the other shorts, from John Paulson on down) and profit impressively when the market finally imploded. Both market participant estimates and repeated, conservative analyses indicate that Magnetar’s CDO program drove the demand for between 35% and 60% of toxic subprime bond demand. And this trade was lauded and copied by proprietary trading desks in 2006.

As a source who worked in the structured credit area of a firm that did Magnetar trades explained in ECONNED: