Opinion

Edward Hadas

A dangerous lie about debt

Edward Hadas
Aug 21, 2013 09:41 UTC

I have spent much of the last five years searching for financial villains. The 2008 crisis and the extremely slow subsequent economic recovery have exposed a deeply flawed system, and some people, groups or ideas must be responsible.

There are many obvious culprits: greedy bankers, undercapitalised banks, lax monetary policymakers, reckless governments, weak international institutions and imprudent lenders and borrowers. They’re all guilty, but some of the worst offenders are intellectual – the dangerous ideas that encouraged overconfidence during the credit bubble and ineffective policy in the aftermath. Financial theory is a big problem. In particular, I accuse the risk-free rate of return of being the devil’s work.

Some aspects of the theory have already received a great deal of criticism, but the complaints are mostly quite technical. Beta, or market return, is too often dressed up as alpha, the extra return attributed to an investor’s skill (or luck) picking particular investments. And the distribution of daily returns is actually not mathematically normal, as much of the theory assumes. But I think the problem starts right at the beginning, with the assumption that there is a readily available, perfectly safe investment. The theory basically compares the range of likely returns on every other investment to the certain gain from the risk-free alternative. Additional returns are expected to compensate for additional risk.

Stocks are not risk-free – their future prices are unpredictable. Corporate bonds might default. That leaves bonds issued by the most creditworthy governments. Financial modellers generally start with the 10-year U.S. Treasury bond. Some sophisticated practitioners now use inflation-protected bonds (called TIPS in the United States), but the theory was developed in the 1960s and 1970s, when such instruments did not exist. The theoretical need for a risk-free security was so great that the ravages of inflation were simply ignored.

But even TIPS do not offer a perfectly predictable and safe real return, because they rely on a somewhat arbitrary measure of inflation. Besides, if the U.S. government gets into serious enough trouble, it could decide to restructure its finances – perhaps eroding the real value of fixed debts through inflation or simply imposing a write-off on TIPS. But even if super-safe versions of TIPS could be designed, they wouldn’t solve the most substantial problem of a theory which starts with a risk-free rate. It looks at investments the wrong way.

Bond markets and failed theory

Edward Hadas
Jun 5, 2013 14:00 UTC

In theory, interest rates are one of the jewels of capitalist economies. The theory has been well tested over the past half-century, and it has failed. Interest rates have become a mark of shame. The recent increase in yields on government bonds in much of the world – by a quarter, from 1.65 percent to 2.1 percent since the beginning of May for 10-year U.S. government bonds – is only the latest chapter in a long and depressing story.

The theory starts well, with a plausible behavioural generalisation. A lower interest rate encourages less saving and more consumption today, while a higher rate encourages saving now and boosts consumption in the future. But the theoreticians are not content with that; they want mathematical precision. They get it by adding some extraordinarily unlikely assumptions about knowledge, uncertainty, defaults, growth, and inflation.

The result is almost magical: a single “natural” interest rate which serves as a sort of economic fulcrum. At this ideal rate, saving and consumption are supposed to be balanced correctly, and the financial system is perfectly aligned with the real economy of making and selling.

Banker-think in welcome retreat

Edward Hadas
Mar 27, 2013 09:45 UTC

For once, investors have got it right. In 2008, their panic turned a financial crisis into a long multinational recession, but they have mostly yawned right through the drama in Nicosia. They hardly twitched at a stream of warnings from investment banks and pundits: bank deposits are no longer sacrosanct; the European Union has been exposed as despotic and incompetent; the Russians are coming; the Russians are going; capital controls will destroy everything; “bail in” (taking losses on loans that cannot be repaid) is the end of the world as we once knew it.

Such talk was out of proportion. Cyprus is a small country – its GDP would put it at 116 on the Fortune 500 list of the largest quoted U.S. companies – with a financial sector that had expanded excessively for two decades, almost entirely by attracting flight capital from Russia. A national financial collapse was both insignificant and merited. Besides, the EU and the International Monetary Fund had a plan to deal with the collapse: a combination of financial help from other countries and managed pain for depositors in Cypriot banks.

Alarmists could not deny all this, but they invoked the great demons of financial crises: precedent and contagion. That was silly. Cyprus was obviously a special case, and the European Central Bank was clearly determined, and able, to keep its problems from spreading. Even if Cyprus had left the euro zone, there would have been no dangerous precedents or grim effects, just a demonstration of a bizarre desire for economic self-harm. For everyone else, Cyprus would still be like a flea-bite – scratch for a minute and forget about it.

Market tantrums should be tamed

Edward Hadas
Jul 4, 2012 14:10 UTC

The headline could have come from a hundred places any time in the last hundred years. “Market has gone wild”, it read. The accompanying news report explains that the price of a crucial financial asset is in “free fall”. Traders and businessmen are calling on the government to step in.

The asset in question could be peripheral euro zone government debt today, global equity markets in early 2009. The wild market could have been soaring rather than falling: the stocks of 1929 and 1999, the house prices in Florida or London in the 2000s, or the supposedly safe government bonds today.

The actual headline comes from a Hong Kong newspaper in 1983, when investors in the then British colony began to fear the worst from a Chinese takeover. The UK’s Minister of State told the locals to “have confidence in yourselves”, but, as today’s Spanish and Italian politicians can ruefully confirm, such rhetoric is not enough to stop an investor stampede. A few weeks later, the Hong Kong authorities did indeed take the matter out of traders’ hands – they fixed the exchange rate between Hong Kong and U.S. dollars.

Mr. Fine Suit visits Europe

Edward Hadas
Nov 30, 2011 06:00 UTC

Once upon a time there were 11 prosperous merchants who lived in a land of peace and plenty. They decided to form a league that would work together for everyone’s greater good. But then a charming man in a fine suit came around with a tempting speech: “I love your project and trust your businesses. I will lend you money at a very attractive interest rate”. How nice, thought the merchants. Our customers will love us if we use the money we borrow to give them better deals.

All went so well that six other merchants were proud to join the league. Mr. Fine Suit seemed pleased. He reduced the already low interest rate on the loans. The merchants all planned to repay, but today was never quite right. Today, in fact, was always a good day to borrow more, while tomorrow always looked like a better day to raise prices.

Then one day Mr. Fine Suit changed his tune. “You know, you have a mighty nice little enterprise going here. But business is business, my friends. Interest rates are going to rise for some of you.” The merchants were angry, but what could they do? They promised to be more frugal, but still had to pay up. As the months went by, Mr. Fine Suit became more hostile. Just last week he came to the G-store, the most prosperous and prudent of all the merchants, with a really nasty threat. “You know, between us, I’ve never liked your stupid league. You’re much smarter than the rest. Leave the league and I’ll keep on lending you money at a low rate. If not, well, here’s a little reminder of what I can do.” He increased the interest rate by two notches before leaving the room with a menacing smirk.

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