Friday, 29 July 2011

My next (academic) book

... is one step closer to completion. Peter Temin and I have been working away in the archives of Hoare's Bank for a some years now, producing a couple of articles along the way [for a "best off", click here or here]. We now have a book manuscript, entitled "Prometheus Shackled: Goldsmith Banks and England's Financial Revolution after 1800", which we are circulating prior to a book conference at Yale in early October.

The argument? Over the last 30 years, economic historians have learned that growth was "slow" in Britain after 1750 (Crafts, Harley, Antras and Voth). At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that the "mechanical arts" progressed quickly (Mokyr, Temin) - a wave of useful gadgets found its way into the British workplace. How do we explain the disconnect? Our answer is - finance. Or, more precisely, the absence of it, as well as the wrong kind. Scholars have long talked about a "financial revolution" after 1700 in Britain (Dickson). This revolution was about public finance, not credit intermediation. Using detailed micro-evidence, we examine why, in Postan's words:

“the reservoirs of savings were full enough, but conduits to connect them with the wheels of industry were few and meagre … surprisingly little of her wealth found its way into the new industrial enterprises …”

Our answer is that government regulations in the form of the usury laws and the Bubble Act stifled the development of private finance; government borrowing shocks - crowding out - in addition made financial intermediation much more difficult. In combination, this slowed things down a lot. Britain's industrial transformation after 1750 could have been a lot faster if private finance had played a bigger role. The fact that private capital did not find its way into enterprise readily, and that most financing took the form of retained profits, is a cause for the big rise in the capital share of output, as recently documented by Bob Allen (amongst others).

We document all these challenges through the lens of five goldsmith banks, whose records have survived to the present. The banking in industry in 1700 looked more like Silicon Valley today - lots of entry, lots of exit, little permanence. By 1750 or so, stability had become the norm -- this is what Peter and I call the "Triumph of Boring Banking". We show how these firms survived and eventually learned to prosper, despite stifling government regulations. We like to think it's an interesting exercise in "business history meets macro and financial history", but now it's time for advice from some of our readers.

You can have a peek here:


Temin-Voth book manuscript

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The reigns of power...

pass to Fernando Broner at the end of the month - I am stepping down as the director of the ITFD Master. Fernando has been the deputy director for most of the last 3.5 years. Time whizzed by rather quickly -- it seems like yesterday that we planned the program in 2007, and started in 2008-09 with 18 students. In September, we will probably have 40 or so, from all over the globe. Less apparent from the outside, perhaps, is that we have a bit of a special governance structure, with a steering committee of four academics (Fernando, Jaume Ventura, Antonio Ciccone, me) setting the broad academic path, and the director being in charge of implementation and day-to-day running of the program. From my perspective, the structure has worked well, and fine-tuning over the years has made the master a lot stronger.

One of the pleasures of the job is keeping in touch with alumni, and following their trajectories. Just recently, I heard from Antonella Liberatore (who now has a permanent position at the Economic Research and Statistics Division of WTO in Geneva) and Jasper Hamerlynck (VP at the Institutional Equity Division of Morgan Stanley). If any ITFD students are reading this - do drop us a line, or even better, drop in when you are in town!

Friday, 22 July 2011

if this is private sector pain...

I want some. The EU finally got its act together: There will be a selective default to make the private sector pay... but the banks and insurance companies that agreed to the bond swap are not the only private investors out there. There was news that vulture funds were buying Greek bonds for 50 Eurocents on the € in early July, and now, the EU deal is making some people out there a lot better off. Some of the price action today:

Greek Eurobonds, inflation-indexed, 2003 (25) + 28.9%
EO-notes 2009 (19) + 21.1%
EO-notes 2009 (14) + 14.4%

...and so on, across the entire maturity spectrum. The rally started at a very low level, as we all know, and the 2009(14) for example is still trading at 63% of face value, for a yield to maturity of 24.9% p.a. That's down from over 35% a few days ago. Over the last year or so, every additional aid measure has been greeted with a relief rally, only to be followed by an ever-deeper slump. Will this one come to stay? I think it just might. Once markets factor in the lower bond yields, debt sustainability will look a lot better. That justifies lower yields, and so on. The mountain of debt hasn't gone away, but paying for it will have become just that much easier so that, together with the EU generously sprinkling aid on Greece, an outright default might not be on the cards after all...

Monday, 18 July 2011

The "transfer problem"

Larry Summers today wrote an interesting piece for Reuters. His first point - worth considering - is that the German obsession with wrapping the private sector's knuckles and enforcing discipline is overblown + dangerous. It is, indeed, what many thought before Lehman, and that one didn't end well. The second point he makes is about the chances of Greece actually paying up. Summers says "...no country can be expected to generate huge primary surpluses for long periods for the benefit of foreign creditors." Of course, if true, it also means that countries cannot credibly run up sizeable foreign debt positions. Pointing to Keynes' famous point in the Economic Consequences of the Peace, he argues that transferring so much money abroad is simply politically infeasible.

If I get my numbers right, Greece would have to produce primary surpluses of 5-10%, to be transferred to the rest of the EU (in the main) for the next 20 years or so. Of course, many regions in Europe transfer this much to other regions -- but not in exchange for past goods + services received, contrary to the Greek case. One example, close to home? Catalunya. One of the most productive regions in Spain, it is currently sending approximately 9% of its GDP to the rest of the country. Of course, Catalunya is not a separate country, but part of Spain, and all the taxes for which its citizens get precious little payback were not exactly embraced enthusiastically. But pay they do, regardless. This simply shows that open revolt need not follow on the heels of high transfers of a region's riches elsewhere; it depends on the way this is sold to the population. Catalans, while grumbling, are on the whole remarkably placid on the issue. What surprises me is that, in contrast to the rest of the Europe, where regions with their own culture + language are normally "bribed" to stay, Catalans end up paying for being part of a larger entity they do not much care about. Perhaps they should take some lessons from Southern Sudan, and sign up George Clooney to push their case internationally...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Debt trouble

I was teaching "Financial Crises" in the CREI Macro Summer School last week (link here). As I was brushing up the syllabus, I realized just how much great work Mian and Sufi have done on the recent crisis. I already knew their paper in the QJE on the subprime crisis, where they show that areas with high latent demand for mortgages in 1997 (i.e. high denial rates) saw a big increase in lending, lower denial rates, higher LTVs, without any improvement in economic conditions. 

Now, they also have a paper (with Francesco Trebbi, in the AER) on the voting of Republicans and Democrats on the bailout packages for homeowners, and for the financial industry. Guess what? Your ideology matters.... but only up to a point. What also matters a lot are the economic interests of your constituents. So if you are a god-fearing Republican who believes in small government, Ronald Reagan, the right to bear arms, and not helping anyone in need... you may rethink the last bit if your constituents are looking at a lot of foreclosures. As Groucho Marx said - these are my principles, and if you don't like them, I have others.
Mian and Sufi also have a small new paper, published in the SF-Fed's Economic Letters, on which areas of the US are suffering the most from the current recession... and it's all about debt levels. The first thing that is stunning is the size of the debt binge in the last 10 years (figure above). The second killer chart in the paper looks at the differential performance in auto sales:
Counties with a lot of household debt saw a big decline in sales in the run-up to 2008 already, and have stayed depressed. The low-debt counties have roared back, as everyone should have done in a normal recovery. Slow recovery? Maybe there is something more to it than a bit of pump-priming via the government deficit, and QE1-3. Without inflation, it's hard to see what will help those suffering counties reduce their debt burdens.

All of this goes to show that the analogy of debt binges and alcohol-infused parties is quite apt - fun while the punch is on tab, less so the next morning. That was also the argument about the Great Depression, made by Barry Eichengreen and Kris Mitchener almost a decade ago (in a much underappreciated paper). The title? The Great Depression as a credit boom gone wrong.

Surprise of the day... another bad idea

from the EU. This time, the collected EU finance ministers seem to think that by buying back Greek debt at depressed prices, they can really make those irritating, overpaid bankers pay. There may be clever ways of engineering such an outcome, but the basic idea doesn't work. In one of their classic papers, Bulow and Rogoff (QJE 91) show that buying back debt is no way to reduce the burden of too much debt. Open market buybacks, at least, "allow creditors to reap more than 100 percent of any efficiency gains". Why? A country's repayment capacity is its repayment capacity. As you buy back debt, you effectively spread that capacity over ever fewer bonds - there is more blood, sweat, and tears squeezed from the Greek taxpayer for each bondholder remaining. The secondary market price of debt rises as repurchases proceed. Most likely, the market value of all bonds outstanding stays roughly constant as the face value declines. So, what to do? Maybe buy-backs are the answer, but to get it right, get a good advisor to design the process - like Paul Klemperer of Nuffield, Oxford, who advised the UK government on G3-spectrum auctions.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

hack attack!

The Barcelona GSE website was hacked last week, and remained down for much of it. I hope prospective students didn't get worried -- this kind of thing happens all the time, and the elves downstairs assure me nothing has been lost. As of Sunday, 11-7, we are back in business!

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Happy memories... or not?

I have just come back from the BGSE graduation ceremony, at the AXA forum at the other end of town. It was the normal mixture of fun and speeches, saying good-bye to students that I had come to get to know and greeting the parents that produced the interesting, alert, curious boys and girls that we taught. I feel a bit nostalgic about everyone leaving - didn't I just get to know you a few months ago?

But before I get all bleary-eyed, perhaps I should heed a bit of advice that comes out of really interesting research. Ever found yourself moaning silently when some postmodernist quack cr***ed on about how reality is socially constructed? Well, it turns out that there is some truth to that. In Science, there is an incredible bit of research showing that people who can perfectly well remember events change their view if you surround them by people who say something else. The scientists in question used MRI scanners to find out how this happens. Turns out that two parts of the brain, linked to fear and emotion, are involved in us changing our memories -- the hippocampus and the amygdala. Get a computer to tell people they remember wrong, and these parts of the brain do nothing. With people, it's the opposite. So maybe that's the point of ceremonies -- to create salient events that help us recall all that was great about a really great class!