Must-read: John Plender: Uncertainty Principles: ‘The End of Alchemy’, by Mervyn King

Must-Read: John Plender: : “King’s hugely ambitious aim in his book is to put an end to the alchemy…

…that has made financial crises a permanent feature of the landscape and allowed money — a public good — to become the byproduct of credit creation by private-sector banks. Above all, he argues that the crisis of 2007-09 reflected not just a failure of individuals or institutions, but a failure of the ideas that underpin current economic policymaking…. King argues that in a world of what economists now call ‘radical uncertainty’… there is simply no way of identifying the probabilities of all future events and no set of economist’s equations that describe people’s attempts to cope with that uncertainty…. In King’s terms, the coping strategy of households, businesses and investors involved adopting a narrative of stability while the level of spending ran at unsustainably high levels….

Western consumers’ urge to spend was not strong enough to offset the greater urge of northern Europeans and Asians to save, [so] global interest rates fell. Banks then satisfied investors’ desperate search for income by creating increasingly complex and risky financial products…. Bank balance sheets grew explosively…. The financial crisis changed the narrative. In King’s estimation, policymakers were right to adopt a Keynesian stimulatory response in 2008-9…. They averted a repetition of the Great Depression but, in doing so, created what King calls a paradox of policy. Interest rates today, he says, are too high to permit rapid growth of demand in the short run but too low to be consistent with a proper balance between spending and saving in the long run….

King argues that Bagehot’s famous dictum on central bank crisis management — lend freely on good collateral at penalty rates — is out of date because bank balance sheets today are much larger and have fewer liquid assets than in the 19th century. Central banks are thus condemned in a crisis to take bad collateral in the shape of risky, illiquid assets on which they will lend only a proportion of the value, known as a haircut…. King suggests this lender of last resort role should be replaced by what he calls, with a pleasing irreverence towards central banking mystique, a pawnbroker for all seasons…. Banks would decide how much of their asset base to lodge in advance at the central bank to be available for use as collateral. For each asset, the central bank would calculate a haircut…. The system would displace what King regards as a flawed risk-weighted capital regime ill-suited to addressing radical uncertainty…

March 9, 2016


Brad DeLong
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