Author Archives: chechurris

Are Macroprudential Tools as Caring and Forethinking as They Claim to Be? Financial Stability and Monetary Policy in the Long Run

An Historical Perspective on the Quest for Financial Stability and the Monetary Policy Regime

By Michael D. Bordo (Rutgers University)

Abstract: This paper surveys the co-evolution of monetary policy and financial stability for a number of countries across four exchange rate regimes from 1880 to the present. I present historical evidence on the incidence, costs and determinants of financial crises, combined with narratives on some famous financial crises. I then focus on some empirical historical evidence on the relationship between credit booms, asset price booms and serious financial crises. My exploration suggests that financial crises have many causes, including credit driven asset price booms, which have become more prevalent in recent decades, but that in general financial crises are very heterogeneous and hard to categorize. Two key historical examples stand out in the record of serious financial crises which were linked to credit driven asset price booms and busts: the 1920s and 30s and the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008. The question that arises is whether these two ‘perfect storms’ should be grounds for permanent changes in the monetary and financial environment.

URL: https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nbr:nberwo:24154

Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2018-01-15

Review by: Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa (Bangor University)

Summary 

In this paper Michael Bordo presents empirical historical evidence to analyze the incidence of credit-driven asset price booms and the extent to which they cause deep financial crises. The main argument of the paper is that we have to consider very carefully whether monetary policy should suffer a structural transformation whenever a rare “perfect storm” event occurs. Bordo supports this argument by looking at the correlation between and possible causality from credit-driven asset price booms to financial crises. The relation, he argues, is rather weak. Nonetheless, the consequences of implementing restrictive monetary policies when these events happen can be significantly bad in the long run.

The paper begins by reviewing the historical evolution of monetary and financial stability policy. In section 2 the author summarizes the appearance of central banks and the evolution of their functions and responsibilities, mainly as lender of last resort (LLR), across five diBordosq.jpgfferent periods: the “Classical Gold Standard”, the “Interwar and World War II”, the “Bretton Woods” period between 1944-1973, the “Managed Float Regime” between 1973-2006, and the “Global Financial Crisis”.

The next section of the paper deals with the measurement of financial crises in historical perspective. It starts by clarifying the definition of financial crises and looking at how this definition has changed from describing a banking panic to include “too important to fail” institutions, currency crises, sovereign debt crises, credit-driven asset price booms, sudden stops, and contagions. Of these crises, Bordo identifies five of them as global: 1890-1891, 1907-1908, 1913-1914, 1931-1932, and 2007-2008. He then turns to report the output losses of those global financial crises, using the cumulative percentage deviation of GDP per capita from the pre-crisis trend level of per capita GDP. He finds that in “the pre-1914 era the losses ranged from 3% to 6% of GDP. For the interwar period, driven by the Great Depression they are much larger – 40%. In the post Bretton Woods period losses are smaller than the interwar but larger than under the gold standard”. Finally, he finds that output losses in the period after 1997 are larger than in the pre-1914 period. The author ends this section by analysing the determinants of financial crises. Using a meta-study he concludes that financial crises are quite heterogeneous, and no particular factor stands out as a main determinant for their occurrence.

Section 4 of the paper reviews the historical narrative of a subset of 12 cases to evaluate the extent to which credit-driven asset price booms have been an important cause of financial crises. Bordo argues that although after the 2007-2008 crisis this factor has become more relevant, this was not the case before the collapse of Bretton Woods, with a few exceptions before World War II. Section 5 looks deeper into the relationship among credit booms, asset price booms, and financial crises using a business cycle methodology with a sample of 15 advanced countries from 1880 onwards. Once again, there is evidence that “suggests that the coincidence between credit boom peaks and serious financial crises is quite rare”. Moreover, credit booms do not seem to be highly correlated with asset price booms (except for the Great Depression and the Global Financial Crisis).

 The paper concludes by stating that there are four key principles to be followed to have a stable monetary policy regime that can be compatible with financial stability. These are: price stability, real macro stability, a credible rules-based LLR, and sound financial supervision and regulation and banking structure. These principles do not suggest that financial stability has to be elevated to the same level of importance as price stability or macroeconomic stability, and that implementing macroprudential tools to restrict monetary policy after a “perfect storm” can be more dangerous than beneficial in the long run.

Comments 

This paper brings important elements to the debate of whether implementing macroprudential tools is the right path to achieve financial stability. Moreover, Bordo raises a critical question that has not been properly addressed in the literature. To what extent can macroprudential tools be harmful for long-run economic growth? Additionally, the author invites us to question whether central banks should undertake activities that go beyond monetary policy (as bailing out failing institutions) to the point of putting at risk their credibility and even their independence, as it has already happened in the past.

Once again economic history becomes relevant to understand and shed a new light to contemporary debates. In particular, this paper implements a transparent and simple methodology to analyze whether credit-driven asset price booms can cause financial crises and if monetary policy should be fundamentally transformed when financial markets are hit by a “perfect storm”. The author is quite skeptical of the implementation of restrictive monetary policies to deal with serious financial crises, although there is still considerable room for more research to clarify this debate. Even though Bordo avoids using econometrics to assess this issue, the methodology proposed in this paper can still be subject to the Lucas critique (Lucas 1976). Therefore, there is still the need for a robust methodology that can provide evidence to produce a sound and testable economic theory to thoroughly study and understand this phenomenon.

More important, we still have to ask whether we can differentiate real productivity booms from bubbles. If there is still a lack of knowledge in this area we will not be able to know if we have the appropriate tools to diagnose a bubble and defuse an asset price boom before it bursts. Therefore, we cannot state for sure whether central banks should follow the Greenspan doctrine (Bernanke and Getler 2001), or if they should be more proactive in the procurement of financial stability. Even more and following the main argument of the paper, it is very important to ask and understand if financial stability should be granted the same importance as price stability or the stability of the real macroeconomy. For now, the answer seems to be no, but there also seems to be sufficient evidence to argue that banking should be made boring again (Krugman 2009).

References

Bernanke, Ben and Mark Gertler (2001). “Should Central Banks Respond to Movements in Asset Prices?” American Economic Review91(2), 253-257.

Krugman, Paul (2009). “Making banking boring.” New York Times, April 10.

Lucas, Robert (1976). “Econometric Policy Evaluation: A Critique.” In Allan H. Meltzer and Karl Brunner. The Phillips Curve and Labor Markets. Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy. 1. New York: American Elsevier, 19–46.

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A Conceptual Framework for New Entrepreneurial History

Reinventing Entrepreneurial History

By R. Daniel Wadhwani (University of the Pacific, USA) and Christina Lubinski (Copenhagen Business School, Denmark)

Abstract: Research on entrepreneurship remains fragmented in business history. A lack of conceptual clarity inhibits comparisons between studies and dialogue among scholars. To address these issues, we propose to reinvent entrepreneurial history as a research field. We define “new entrepreneurial history” as the study of the creative processes that propel economic change. Rather than putting actors, hierarchies, or institutions at the center of the analysis, we focus explicitly on three distinct entrepreneurial processes as primary objects of study: envisioning and valuing opportunities, allocating and reconfiguring resources, and legitimizing novelty. The article elaborates on the historiography, premises, and potential contributions of new entrepreneurial history.

Keywords: entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial processes, history, theory, temporality, uncertainty, agency, opportunity, resources, legitimation

URL: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007680517001374

Business History Review, 2017, 91 (4): 767-799 – doi:10.1017/S0007680517001374

Review by Nicholas D Wong (Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University)

This article by Wadhwani and Lubinski proposes the reinvention of ‘entrepreneurial history as a research field’ with the aim of promoting greater ‘conceptual clarity’ between comparative studies and dialogue amongst scholars in the field. This engaging and well-written paper provides a new way of considering entrepreneurial activities over time with the emphasis placed on the processes that drive entrepreneurship rather than the individuals or institutions. Following a call to arms for history to join other social sciences (“management, economics, sociology, finance and anthropology”) in developing a distinct sub-field for the study of entrepreneurship the authors provide a neat structure to the paper which begins by providing an historiographical assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of what they term the “old entrepreneurial history”. This is followed by an insight into the parameters of the concept of “new entrepreneurial history”; one which considers the development temporally and defined succinctly as “the study of the creative processes that propel economic change”. This conceptualization foregrounds entrepreneurial processes rather than focusing on particular actors, institutions, or technologies.” The third section develops a set of core processes that frame the object of study in entrepreneurial history, “(i) envisioning and valuing opportunities, (ii) allocating and reconfiguring resources, and (iii) legitimizing novelty”. The paper concludes by highlighting the important contributions new entrepreneurial history can make to the field of business history.

‘So that’s my presentation. When do I get the half million dollars?’

In assessing the historical foundations of entrepreneurship, the authors follow the well-trawled path through the German Historical School of Schmoller and Weber and ultimately on to Schumpeter which, over time, helped promote the concept of “historical change focussed on entrepreneurial processes”. It was perhaps Schumpeter more than any other who ardently proclaimed the centrality of history in enabling the understanding the role of the entrepreneur as the driving force of capitalism and “central to the operation of markets and the dynamics of economies”. However, despite the strength of scholarship that developed during the immediate post-war period, the authors highlight how the field of entrepreneurial history dissipated in later decades being replaced by formulaic, normative and structured research that was “increasingly focussed on how norms, laws and other institutions shaped entrepreneurial roles and functions”. The authors highlight how this approach ultimately led to the demise of the field in the late 1960s as Chandlerian theory on organisational form and managerial hierarchies dominated business history. The 1970s and 80s saw entrepreneurship studies receive increasing attention from business-people and policy makers alike as a way of understanding how economies and markets operate (and what drives them). However, it was still largely ignored by business historians.

To demonstrate the difficulty for historically-orientated scholarship in defining and framing the concept of entrepreneurship, the authors provide some quantitative analysis of the number of articles published in Business History Review during the period 1954-2015 which mention entrepreneurship in the full text, including references. The figures are startling, with only 44 of 1044 featuring the term ‘entrepreneurship’ and when excluding the phrase appearing in citations this figure reduces to only twenty-six articles. This provides clear evidence of the lack of engagement with entrepreneurship by business history scholars. Moreover, of those articles that directly use the term, ‘entrepreneurship’, there is a general lack of clear definitions (most rely on Schumpterian definition, whilst more recently, Mark Casson’s definition has been widely-used). The authors use this evidence to demonstrate the lack of engagement in entrepreneurial studies (beyond the individual entrepreneur at least!) in business history. This is interesting research method although it could possibly have been improved by extending the analysis into other prominent business history journals such as Business History or Enterprise and Society – this would have strengthened the conclusions drawn from this section of the study. This section finishes by highlighting how historians have tackled entrepreneurship in recent years, with Popp, Raff, Amatori, Friedman, Jones and others using a variety of approaches including biography, microlevel process (such as agency over time) and macrolevel approaches which consider the consequences of entrepreneurship for structural change (such as the industrial revolution or globalisation).

“You told him he should start his own business.”

Following the illuminating section on the historiography of entrepreneurship, the next section tackles the concept of entrepreneurship as it relates to field of history. Here the authors provide a succinct and applicable definition of entrepreneurial history: “the study of the creative processes that propel economic change”. Here they are keen to point out that, “the definition focuses on the study of entrepreneurial processes and their relationship to change”. They provide three key premises that link entrepreneurial history to historical change over time: the temporal foundations of agency; multiplicity in the forms of value; and the collective and cumulative character of entrepreneurship. With reference to the first premise, the authors cite the work of Popp et al., and Beckert, by suggesting that understanding entrepreneurial agency “hinges on examining the processes by which they envision and pursue futures beyond the constraints of the present context”. Here they are making clear linkages to the concept of forward projection, that being the idea that the study of entrepreneurial history requires the researcher to understand the necessity of entrepreneurs to think-forward and plan for an “unpredictable future”. This is a novel approach, although it is reliant on a particular set of sources that work as evidence for qualitative research that can enable the historian to penetrate the mindset of the entrepreneur. The two papers cited by Popp and Holt both rely on extensive sets of letters between entrepreneurs and their familial, social and business networks which help construct a picture of the entrepreneur and the strategic forward planning for key developments such as succession, diversification, or international expansion. The second premise, multiplicity in the forms of value, suggests that entrepreneurs can find value beyond baseline profitability. Here the authors infer that entrepreneurs can seek future forms of (non-economic) value such as civic, environmental, academic, and industrial. This again is linked to the idea that the pursuit (or accumulation) of intangibles such as reputational and social capital can provide competitive advantage in the market place and, perhaps, can be considered as entrepreneurial as innovation, expansion and diversification. The final premise, the collective and cumulative character of entrepreneurship, refers to the domino effect of entrepreneurial opportunities that provide the foundation for, and provoke, further streams of entrepreneurship. This is linked to the notion that entrepreneurs have a sense of collective identity and the idea that “they belong to a generation, group or epoch”. The importance of this premise is that it moves away from what the authors refer to as the “heroic individual”. Here, new entrepreneurial history calls for further analysis of “cumulative entrepreneurial processes across multiple actors over time that propel historical change”.

The third section of the article points to processes that act as primary objects of study in entrepreneurial history. The first of these, envisioning and valuing opportunities, is linked to the classical characteristics of entrepreneurship such as forecasting market changes, seeking new opportunities, accessing and creating new technologies, exploiting new markets/territories and developing new practices. However, the authors highlight how new entrepreneurial history deviates from the old forms by explaining how the new opportunities are enacted rather than discovered. This is because actors define value and worth in different ways and this changes over time. The second process is allocating and reconfiguring resources; here they suggest that entrepreneurial history can “explore the processes and mechanisms by which actors allocated and reconfigured resources towards uncertain, future ends”. This section highlights the value of history in analysing the process and motivation for entrepreneurs to influence macro-level developments in terms of institutional or societal change and how this influences their allocation of resources. The final process identified by the authors, legitimizing novelty, builds on the previous processes as, in their view, legitimacy can pose ‘a problem in the entrepreneurial process because the new forms of value and new combinations of resources entrepreneurs introduce often fail to conform to widely shared expectations regarding rules, norms, beliefs, and definitions. Legitimation processes thus form another important focus of research in entrepreneurial history”. The key contribution of the historian in this area is understand the process of legitimation and to analyse how and why societal or institutional change occurs over time.

Congratulations on starting your own firm.

In terms of the potential contributions that new entrepreneurial history can make the authors have compiled a helpful table that compares it to Chandlerian business history, new institutional business history, and new economic histories of business. This table, in part, helps reinforces the central tenets of new entrepreneurial history (such as the emphasis on the process of entrepreneurship, the cumulative and collective approaches, the impact on development of society and institutions, the methods of assigning value over and above profit etc.) and how it diverges or challenges traditional schools of business history. The eclectic approach to entrepreneurship as designed by the authors provides a framework for future research to follow in order to consider the development of entrepreneurship over time but also in understanding how entrepreneurship influences, and is influenced, by, individual, institutional and societal micro and macro-level factors. Perhaps the greatest contribution, as highlighted in the conclusion, is the implications or influence that new entrepreneurial history can have on entrepreneurs today. Here the authors demonstrate the strength of the historian in enabling entrepreneurs to understand the world and “acting in it”. By following the framework developed in this paper, business historians have opportunity to develop a richer and deeper insight into the core factors that influence and drive the process of entrepreneurship.

A couple of minor observations: the definition provided by the authors, in my opinion, could be broadened out slightly. In the case the authors raise the point that new entrepreneurial history focuses on the study of the creative processes that propel economic change, [my emphasis], however, this framework could be used to study processes far beyond the purely economic (including, for example, environmental, technological, cultural, management, social, political). Indeed, the section on ‘multiplicity in the forms of value’ highlights how value can be assigned to non-economic factors, such as the accumulation of social and cultural capital, environmental, civic, academic, esthetic, industrial etc. The definition in this instance seems too narrow in enabling the researcher to understand change and the authors themselves provide insight into factors beyond market forces. In terms of broadening out the concept, I feel this particular theme has potential to inform research beyond business history and could have relevance to research in other branches of management and organisational studies, and perhaps even other disciplines in social sciences. My second observation concerns the blurring or overlap between premises two and three concerning the recruiting and allocation of resources on one hand and gaining of legitimacy on the other hand. Both sections cover similar areas with regards to the winning institutional support or driving institutional change in order to gain support or enhance legitimacy. I feel there is scope to draw greater distinctions between these two processes.

To conclude, this article presents a well-considered and well-structured contribution to the field of entrepreneurial history. The authors establish a real need for their approach and then provide a strong, clear and adaptable framework that can open the field to future researchers. As a business historian myself, I am always sympathetic to papers championing a historical or temporal approach and found this paper extremely useful to my ongoing research projects. I am sure it will make a strong contribution to the field and provoke much discussion and research in the years to come!

Acknowledgements

I am extremely grateful to Andrew Popp and Niall Mackenzie for their feedback on an earlier draft of this review.

Populism is Back! Why has this happened and why does it matter?

Populism and the Economics of Globalization

By Dani Rodrik (Harvard University)

Abstract: Populism may seem like it has come out of nowhere, but it has been on the rise for a while. I argue that economic history and economic theory both provide ample grounds for anticipating that advanced stages of economic globalization would produce a political backlash. While the backlash may have been predictable, the specific form it took was less so. I distinguish between left-wing and right-wing variants of populism, which differ with respect to the societal cleavages that populist politicians highlight. The first has been predominant in Latin America, and the second in Europe. I argue that these different reactions are related to the relative salience of different types of globalization shocks.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:cpr:ceprdp:12119

Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-07-09

Review by Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa (Bangor University)

Summary

Populism has been at the front of news headlines for a while now. Whether it was the controversial campaign for Brexit led by Nigel Farage from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Boris Johnson from the Conservative Party in Great Britain, or the equally controversial campaign and victory of Donald Trump in the recent United States elections, the rise of anti-immigrant and anti-European political parties in countries like France, Greece, and Spain, the so called “anti-imperial Castro-Chavist” movements and governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, or the opposition of the Democratic Center Party (a right-wing political agrupation led by ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez) to the peace treaty in Colombia, populism is back and very strong, and according to the author, it is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Dani Rodrik combines the use of economic history and economic theory to analyze the recent surge of these populist movements across Europe and America (see a blog-post version of the paper on VOX here). The main argument of the paper is that “advanced stages of globalization are prone to populist backlash” and the specific form populism takes will depend on the different societal cleavages that politicians can exploit to promote anti-establishment movements. There will be a tendency for left-wing populism when “globalization shocks take the form of trade, finance, and foreign investment”. The opposite will happen when “the globalization shock becomes salient in the form of immigration and refugees”.

Dani_Rodrik_small_400x400

Rodrik first presents a rather short summary of what economic history has to say about the appearance of populism during the first globalization era. He points out to the abolition of the Corn Laws in Britain in 1846 as the origin of a series of commercial treaties that, combined with the Gold Standard and free mobility of capital and people, made the world almost as globalized as it is today. Nonetheless, the decline of agricultural prices in the 1870s and 1880s motivated an increase in agricultural tariffs in almost all of Europe, and later on, the United States instituted a series of acts to reduce immigration from several countries. Moreover, Rodrik argues that the first self-consciously populist movement appeared in the US during the 1880s, with the farmers’ alliance against the Gold Standard, bankers and financiers.

The author moves on to analyze the effects of trade on redistribution. Based on the theorem developed by Stolper and Samuelson (1941), Rodrik argues that in most international economic models where trade does not lead to specialization, “there is always at least one factor of production that is rendered worse off by the liberalization of trade. In other words, trade generically produces losers”. Moreover, he argues that the net profits of trade openness decrease relatively to the redistribution costs, as the initial barriers to trade are lower. He backs this argument with empirical evidence from the literature on NAFTA and the US trade with China, and a model that looks at the effect of the size of the initial tariff being removed on the change in low-skill wages and the increase in real income of the economy.

Rodrik also argues that although there could be a form of compensation for the affected industries, this is usually very costly and not practical. Also, one of the reasons why populist movements in Europe have not been anti-trade might be the existence of safety nets that made unnecessary ex-post mechanisms of compensation. Very important as well is the general perception of the masses on the degree of fairness of the increase in inequality perceived after reducing trade tariffs. Namely, populism is more likely to appear when the losses derived from globalization and increases in inequality are deemed to be produced by a group taking unfair advantage of the new economic atmosphere.

The author also analyzes the perils of financial globalization, whereby looking at the current literature of the effects of capital mobility on inequality, he concludes that countries prefer when capital adopts the form of a long-term flow, like direct foreign investment, rather than short-term, volatile financial flows. Rodrik comments that the literature has found that financial globalization tends to increase the negative impact of low-quality domestic institutions. There is also a high correlation presented by Reinhart and Rogoff (2009) between capital mobility and the incidence of banking crises.

The article concludes with an analysis of the possible determinants of the specific type of populism that spreads in a given country. In a different paper (Mukand and Rodrik, 2017) Rodrik presented a model that could explain to some extent the reason why populist movements in Europe have traditionally been right winged, whereas in Latin America they have been usually left winged. The main determinants in the model were the presence of an ethno-national/cultural or an income/social cleavage. Rodrik also provides empirical evidence of this phenomenon with a newly constructed dataset.

Comments

During my training as an economist I was well aware of the distributional effects that trade has on the economies involved. Nonetheless, the argument I heard was always that trade is a positive-sum game and net profits from it could be redistributed among the losers, thus alleviating any negative effects. The usual argument to explain why trade openness was sometimes not so popular was that the potential losers from trade were better represented and had more lobbying power, thus preventing tariff reductions. As Rodrik argues in this paper, sometimes, especially at advanced stages of globalization, not only are there problems redistributing the potential net profits; it looks as the net effects of opening more the economy at this stage might be actually negative.

This paper comes out at a moment when academics, politicians, the media, and the general public are trying to understand the reasons why these movements have appeared somewhat all of a sudden. Rodrik’s argument is that these events were predictable. The implications of the development of a particular form of populism on economic welfare are still not clear yet: analyzing this could be one of the lines of future research opened by this paper. Very often populism is associated with demagoguery, and it will be very important to differentiate between the two in the future. It is not the same that an anti-corrupt-establishment movement aims to change the political structure of a country, than filling the public opinion with lies and false promises as it happened with Brexit in the UK and with the peace treaty referendum in Colombia. In the former, the Leave campaign promised to the general public that the resources spent on the EU could be directly transferred to funding the National Health Service, which turned out to be a false statement. In the latter, leaks of recordings from the campaign opposing the peace treaty clearly showed how different socio-economic groups were fed different false arguments to gain their sympathy.

Finally, the paper shows the relevance of economic history for the discussion of present problems. Rodrik uses economic history to acknowledge that populism has sprung in the past at advanced stages of globalization. Following his example, economic historians should contribute to the literature by further explaining the channels through which populism has developed, to help us understand which are the consequences of different types of populism on economic development and societal welfare.

References

Mukand, Sharun, and Dani Rodrik, 2017. The Political Economy of Liberal Democracy. Harvard Kennedy School.

Reinhart, C.M. and Rogoff, K.S., 2009. This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. Princeton University Press.

Stolper, W. F. and Samuelson, P.A., 1941. “Protection and Real Wages.” Review of Economic Studies 9(1), pp. 58-73.

How do we eliminate wealth inequality and financial fragility?

The market turn: From social democracy to market liberalism

By Avner Offer, All Souls College, University of Oxford (avner.offer@all-souls.ox.ac.uk)

Abstract: Social democracy and market liberalism offered different solutions to the same problem: how to provide for life-cycle dependency. Social democracy makes lateral transfers from producers to dependents by means of progressive taxation. Market liberalism uses financial markets to transfer financial entitlement over time. Social democracy came up against the limits of public expenditure in the 1970s. The ‘market turn’ from social democracy to market liberalism was enabled by easy credit in the 1980s. Much of this was absorbed into homeownership, which attracted majorities of households (and voters) in the developed world. Early movers did well, but easy credit eventually drove house prices beyond the reach of younger cohorts. Debt service diminished effective demand, which instigated financial instability. Both social democracy and market liberalism are in crisis.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:nuf:esohwp:_149

Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2017-01-29

Review by: Sergio Castellanos-Gamboa, Bangor University

Summary

This paper emerged from Avner Offer’s Tawney Lecture at the Economic History Society’s annual conference, Cambridge, 3 April 2016 (the video of which can be found here).

In this paper Offer discussed two macroeconomic innovations of the 20th century, which he calls “the market turn”. These are the changes in fiscal policy and financialisation that encompassed the shift  from social democracy to market liberalism from the 1970s onwards. Social democracy is understood as a fiscal innovation which resulted in the doubling of public expenditure (from aprox. 25 to 50 per cent of GDP between 1920 and 1980). Its aim was reducing wealth inequality. Market liberalism encompassed a monetary innovation, namely the deregulation of credit which allowed households to increase their indebtedness from around 50 to 150 per cent of personal disposable income, mainly for the purpose of home ownership. According to Offer the end result of market liberalism was increasing wealth inequality. See Offer’s depiction of this process in the graph below.

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration. (Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Two macroeconomic financial innovations in the 20th century, UK calibration.
(Note: Diffusion curves are schematic, not descriptive.)

Offer considers that both social democracy and market liberalism are norms captured by the single concept of a “Just World Theory” (Offer & Söderberg, 2016).The ideals behind social democracy are said to be supported by ideas found in classical economics, while the ideals behind market liberalism are said to have emerged from a redefinition of the origins and nature of economic value found in neoclassical economics. Contrasting the ideas behind social democracy and market liberalism brings about  questions such as:

  • Where does value come from?,
  • Is it from production or is it from personal preferences and demand for the good/service?,
  • What is just and fair?,
  • What do we as individuals deserve as reward?, and
  • Is there really a trade-off between equality and efficiency?

Answering any of these question is not simple and heated debates abound around them. Offer, however, rescues the idea of life-cycle dependency, where the situation of the most vulnerable individuals is alleviated through collective risk pooling rather than financial markets. According to Offer,  life-cycle dependency was the dominant approach to reducing poverty in most developed countries until the oil crisis of the early 1970s. Then collapse of the Bretton Woods accord that followed, led to the liberalization of credit by removing previous constraints. This in turn resulted in the “market turn”.

Avner Offer

Professor Avner Offer (1944). MA, DPhil, FBA. Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford since 2011.

Offer then turns to analyse the events after the collapse of Bretton Woods that led to the increase of household indebtedness while focusing on the UK. The 1970s was a very volatile decade for Britain.  For instance, oil price increases and the secondary banking crises of 1973 resulted in the highest annual increase of the inflation rate on record. Offer argues, while citing John Fforde (Executive Director of the Bank of England at that time), that the Competition and Credit Control Act 1971 was as a leap of faith in the pursuit of greater efficiency in financial markets. This Act was accompanied by a new monetary policy where changes in interest rates (the price of money) by the central bank was to bring about the control of the quantity of money. Perhaps unexpectedly and probably due to a lack of a better understanding of the origins of money, that was not the case. Previously lifted credit restrictions had to be reinstated.

Credit controls were again lifted in the 1980s. This time policy innovations went further by allowing clearing (ie commercial) banks to re-enter the personal mortgage market. The Building Societies Act 1986  allowed building societies to offer personal loans and current accounts as well as opened a pathway for them to become commercial banks (which many did after 1989 and all those societies that converted  either collapsed or were taken over by clearing banks or both). Initially and up to the crash of house prices in September, 1992, personal mortgage credit grew continuously and to levels never seen before in the UK. According to Offer, during this period both political parties supported the idea of homeownership and incentivised it through programs like “Help to Buy”. However, the rise in the demand for housing combined with the stagnation in the supply of dwellings pushed up house prices, making it more difficult for first-time buyers to become homeowners. Additionally, according to Offer, the wave of easy credit of the 1980s brought with it an increase in wealth inequality and an increase in the fragility of the financial system. As debt repayments grew as proportion of income, consumption was driven down, with subsequent effects on production and services. On this Offer opined:

“In the quest for economic security, the best personal strategy is to be rich.” (p. 17)

The paper ends with possible and desirable futures for public policy initiatives to deal with today’s challenges around wealth inequality and mounting personal credit. He argues that personal debt should be reduced through rising inflation,  a policy driven write-off or a combination of both. He also argues to reinstate a regime where credit is rationed. He states that financial institutions should not have the ability to create money and therefore the housing market funding should return to the old model of building societies. He has a clear preference for social democracy over market liberalism and as such argues that austerity should end, since it is having the exact opposite effects to what was intended.

Brief Comment

Offer’s thought provoking ideas comes at a time when several political and economic events are taking place (e.g. Brexit, Trump’s attack on Dodd-Frank, etc.) which, together, could be of the magnitude as “the market turn”. Once again economic historians could help better inform the debate. Citing R. H. Tawney, Offer opened the lecture (rather than the paper) by stating that:

“to be an effective advocate in the present, you need a correct and impartial understanding of the past.”

Offer clearly fulfils the latter, even though some orthodox economists might disagree with his inflationary and credit control proposals. As per usual his idea are a great contribution to the debate around market efficiency in a time when the world seems to be in constant distress. Perhaps we ought to generate more and better research to understand the mechanisms through which market liberalism generated the current levels of wealth inequality and financial instability that Offer describes. More importantly though, is analysing if social democracy can bring inequality down as it did in the past. In my view, however, in a world where productivity seems to be stagnated, real wages are decreasing, and debt keeps growing, it is highly unlikely that the public sector can produce the recipe that will set us in the path of economic prosperity for all.

Additional References

Offer, A., & Söderberg, G. (2016). The Nobel Factor: The Prize in Economics, Social Democracy, and the Market Turn. Princeton University Press.
(Read an excellent review of this book here)