Feb 192009

[Note: this is another entry in my attempt to make sense of the crash and see how it is tied to the Attention Economy. Some earlier entries are here, here, here, here and here.]

I attended an informative, thought-provoking and amusing talk by Prof. Brad DeLong of UC Berkeley on Tuesday on the financial crisis “of 2007-2009” (he expects the crisis to have diminished by the end of this year). (The talk was part of the OLLI series on the crisis).

DeLong is primarily an expert on finance, and perhaps for that reason I felt his focus was a bit off. Along with most economists he seems to assume:

1. Nothing has fundamentally changed; industrial capitalism will go on much as it has “once the crisis is over”
2. There is no problem with the assumption of endless growth and endless increases in productivity, and no contradiction between these and full employment
3. The source of the crisis is fundamentally financial in nature.

I disagree with all three of these assumptions. (Of course, finance is far from my specialty. )As DeLong made clear, unlike most recessions since 1950, this one was not caused the Federal Reserve’s raising interest rates in order to dampen inflation. Further, a graph at the beginning of his talk, showing employment as a percentage of adults  (I assume from 18 to 65 years old) revealed that while employment ratios grew tremendously from 1970 on as a result of feminism and women’s  entering the workforce in droves (voluntarily or not), the employment ratio fell sharply in 2000-2002, and did not recover at all completely before this current sharp downturn.

In my view the unwarranted growth of the financial sector over recent decades, and especially more recently, covered up declining incomes among much of the populace. Further, the issuance of low cost and even poorly vetted mortgages and other forms of credit, including home equity lines, covered over the reduced buying power of ordinary workers. That arose from the more intense international and automation-related competition of the past decade and a half. Construction work cannot easily be off-shored, but it was eventually bound to come to a halt or at least sharply slowed down. So the lowered purchasing power, which  was hidden by too-great credit expansion and construction work combined, is now visible. Increasing credit and even a stimulus package, unless it is to be repeated again and again, cannot prevent this buying power reduction. Also, as labor productivity continues to rise, barring hugely increased government spending (on what?) consumption cannot reasonably be expected to rise at a rate that will allow full employment.

What of the financial  sector itself, with its rich profits in recent years and high wages and other remuneration? To be sure, capitalism requires a financial sector to move credit to new areas, etc. But how big should it be? Just as computer-based automation has cut jobs or lowered wages in other sectors, it should have done this even more dramatically in finance.  Given any fixed set of financial transactions, most steps are routine and can easily be turned over to computers, as anyone engaged in personal online banking, purchasing and bill paying should be well aware.

But rapid computation and rapid money transfers via the Internet, etc., have allowed a new  kind of financial activity, including all the vaunted derivatives. While some minimal level of trade in such things may have had beneficial effects outside the confines of finance itself, to a large extent it has become a sector that operates completely in its own sphere. The only actual connection to the rest of the world are the dividends to bank-holding-company shareholders, returns to hedge-fund investors, and the super-high bonuses paid to many finance-sector workers. Many of these gains, of course, were reinvested, and have now partly or wholly disappeared, but others were spent on various luxuries, which did create considerable employment outside the pure financial sphere.

The essential activity of this sector, however, amounts to the equivalent of shaving the coins passing through, but, using electronic funds transfer and operating digitally, the returns per finance worker appear much larger, and there are no tell-tale shaved coins to be seen. To the extent the financial activity encourages investment by outsiders in the stockmarket or other kinds of instruments, it also appears to create wealth by inflating purely financial prices, such as the prices of bundled mortgages or of many common stocks. But that mythical wealth simply disappeared in the downturn.

Risky financial shenanigans, as DeLong eloquently argued, are hard to prevent or regulate, but they can be seen as adding only mythically to the GDP. When the balloon is punctured, the more accurate state of affairs returns, though very much to many people’s discomfort.

My uses of terms such as “mythical” and “accurate” in the preceding two paragraphs is perhaps slightly slanted. If prices are what people will pay, these inflated values are no less accurate or no more mythical than any others. So let me instead suggest that in addition to what may be called industrial-product value and what might be referred to as attention value, the finance sector creates an additional sort of value of its own, call it “transactional value”, that has little basis in either of the others and has a balloon-like quality of growing until it bursts, which describes what happened recently and what can happen again. But the underlying question as to why it happened now is not fully explained by that description.

Further into his talk, DeLong presented a slide stating that, of 80 trillion dollars of financial assets before the meltdown, only one trillion had been invested in bad mortgages. Nonetheless net financial assets have declined by 25%.  The other 19 trillion were, according to him, reduced because too many assets have been discounted either because of risk or because of lack of information. I see it somewhat differently. Assets, such as stocks, were overvalued before the crash on the same basis as mortgages, that is with the assumption of endless growth. For example, stocks are priced to reflect prevailing assumptions not about present profit levels continuing but about future growth of profits. In most cases these assumptions were just hopeful and not fully warranted. Because there was so much money floating around, it had to go somewhere and ended up in the stock-market, driving prices up. Anyone who had invested in a typical stock earlier saw the asset growing in value, even if there was nothing besides these more recent stock purchases underlying that appreciation in price. Similarly, new inventions and commercial real estate, as well as other sectors, had gained because of unwarrantedly rosy assumptions. Now that  it is evident that Americans are in debt and have no further home equity to draw on, they are on the whole in a much worse position to purchase anything, or even to pay off loans. Thus the current credit crunch and reduced spending are not due to jitters beyond the mortgage crisis but directly related to it.

In the question period, someone asked DeLong whether the crisis was partly caused by flat average wages since 2000. Pausing to consider this question, as if for the first time, DeLong opined that that was not a very significant factor in the current troubles. Had the questioner asked whether the growing inequality of incomes and wealth between the rich and everyone else were  partially at fault, would the answer have been the same? Had wages risen as in earlier periods, keeping pace with productivity growth, the need for borrowing would have been much less, so either ordinary people would have been able to save, or consumption would have been at a higher level. The financial sector would not have gotten so far out of balance. So a key question is, just why did wages not grow?

One answer is that the existence of home equity and easy borrowing lowered labor pressure on wages, but I doubt that is the whole answer. Workers were afraid to ask for  wage increases, because the more they took home, the greater the danger that their work would somehow be off-shored or automated. If, as I have suggested repeatedly, we are moving towards an attention economy,we are the stage in which income crudely speaking tends to reflect the attention a person gets. DeLong gets paid more than a typical factory worker, for instance, because he gets more attention. Still, he get not nearly as much attention as Alex Rodriguez, and that is reflected in the difference in their emoluments. Higher productivity would increase incomes only to the extent that the workers in the automated factories impart some essential aspects of themselves; if they are fully replaceable, they remain pretty much invisible. Within the ordinary manufacturing and services sector, only the designers of processes and products have much chance to get attention, however indirectly. But even they must compete for attention. That leads to a limit to growth. All acts of consumption are acts of attention paying, and there is only so much attention to go around.

Why has this not always been so? Because the competition for attention has kept heating up of late. Thus attention inequality and wealth inequality partly track each other. The financial wealth that is now disappearing was somewhat outside that, so attention and wealth May be even more fully aligned in the future. Insofar as this is an industrial depression, more off-shoring and faster productivity growth will coincide with further downward wage pressure and more invisibility for ordinary workers and for many corporations that do not have compelling visions at their heart.

Finally, let me add some thoughts about the stimulus and its likely effects. I’ve long been a Keynesian as far as the standard economy, so I do welcome a stimulus, and wish it were even larger. DeLong didn’t say much about it in  his talk, although generally agreeing with me so far. But he does say more on his blog. He suggests there that the ‘multiplier” could be greater than one. In other words, for every dollar the government spends in stimulus, more than dollar’s increase in GDP could result. DeLong cites studies of various American wars to argue that in the past the multiplier was about 0.8. I must say I would have thought it would have been larger. To some extent the multiplier must depend on how rapidly money turns over, that is how quickly money can move from pocket to pocket. It also depends on how  many times the money is spent in the community in question as opposed say to leaving the country. As a crude guess, we should now expect some of the money to be put into savings or to pay off existing loans, but since banks are unwilling to lend, those payments may not help create further employment. Also, money spent on standard consumer goods will partially leave the country, probably at a higher rate than in the past. Thus the stimulus will certainly put people to work but not do quite as much as is hoped.

But the idea of the stimulus package is also to help in other ways, by preparing the US capitalist economy to work better, so that further stimuli are not needed. Of that, I am skeptical. On its own, the stimulus will not do much to create greater equality. It also can do little to redirect rising attention inequality which will be of increasing importance. It will not prevent off-shoring of industrial jobs in both manufacturing and services, nor prevent increases in productivity. While I am an ardent supporter of good education, I also do not believe that increased education or even better eduction necessarily translates into high-end jobs for everyone. (See also here , third graf from the end). Some people will be able to turn their educations into getting more attention for themselves, but others probably won’t. One can hope that educators will instill a necessary sense of community, but at present that seems like a long shot.

I think we are entering a new stage of history, and we don’t yet see how it will play out well for most people.

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