Monday, April 6, 2015

How the Credit Cycle Forms the Basis of the Business Cycle

Within the world that we have constructed, agents and objects take on discrete states.  Agents do not experience the world continuously, but rather, in chunks. For example, when an agent purchases some quantity of a good, very often that good can only be sold in whole units. For example, an agent must purchase some discrete number of computers as defined by an integer. Wholesalers must hold some quantity of goods on hand. Agents and firms must constantly adjust their output to avoid shortages or relieve surpluses of goods and services.

Sometimes economic data changes so quickly that suppliers are unable to avoid loss. Particularly troublesome is a scenario where total demand for goods collapses. This is the bust that comprises the latter part of the boom-bust cycle. After a period of relative prosperity, firms may find themselves holding excess stocks of goods that they can only discard if they lower prices. By lowering prices, the marginal revenue earned by the firm falls. In  extreme cases, the firm finds itself subject to an accounting loss. This is a signal to the firm that it has overproduced and must therefore slow production. By slowing production, the firm will also need to cut expenditures on inputs. This is equivalent to a decrease in demand for intermediate goods produced by firms higher in the supply chain. This reduction in expenditures also includes a reduction of the quantity of labor hired by the firm. 

The bust represents a cluster of errors by entrepreneurs and firms. A large proportion of market participants find that they have erred in their expectation of the future and face subsequent losses. These losses accumulate such that total demand for goods and services – i.e., aggregate demand – falls across the economy. Losses extend beyond only those agents who had taken large risks. Prices and output plummet as agents seek to acquire money to repay debts and increase the security of their positions. The process continues until agents regain confidence in the market, however, the timing of the rebound is far from certain.

What is the nature of the business cycle and why does it occur? The first of these questions can be answered succinctly:

A business cycle is a cyclical fluctuation in the aggregate economic activity of a nation, or a cyclical change in the rate of economic growth.” Business cycles involve coherent changes in output quantities and prices of consumer goods and capital goods, input costs, employment and wage rates, profits, productivity, investment, total and per capita income, the quantity of money, volume of credit and interest rates. (Wood 1997)

The business cycle represents a recurring pattern of a increases and decreases in the value of goods and services produced across all markets, The cause of the business cycle is not exactly obvious. Many economists have attempted to explain the causes of these fluctuations, but few have adequately explained a substantial number of features of the cycle. The most salient explanation of which I am aware comes from Ralph Hawtrey. Hawtrey describes the elements that comprise aggregate demand:

. . . The consumers’ outlay is the whole effective demand for everything that is produced, whether commodities or services. The trader who buys to sell again is merely an intermediary passing on a portion of this demand to one of his neighbours. The cyclical alternations in effective demand must therefore be alternations in the consumers’ outlay. (Hawtrey 1919, 52)

Consumer outlays fluctuate concurrently with production as incomes of both laborers and capital owners are dependent upon total productivity. In a world where money was super-neutral or in a world where capital could somehow trade costlessly for other capital, the business cycle would not exist as a recurring phenomena. But this is not the world that we live in. Exchange occurs indirectly. Agents sell their goods and labor for money in order purchase goods and services from other agents. This would not be a problem except that there occur periods where either the stock of money, demand for money, or both, fluctuate. Fluctuations in the money stock and income are dominated by changes in total volume of credit extended. In a world with a static monetary base, changes in the volume of credit extended are driven primarily by changes in expectation of the value of goods and services produced. An investor who purchases a bond must expect that the borrower can repay his loan and the interest it accumulates. When businesses borrow, the money soon ends up in the hands of the laboring class.

It may be pointed out that the consumers’ outlay is increased as soon as producers begin to borrow. The producers and their employees have more to spend while the orders are still uncompleted. (Hawtrey 1919, 55)

A increase in consumer income translates to an increase in aggregate demand assuming that agents spend at least a portion of this increase. In industries where the new money is spent to purchase goods that otherwise would not have been purchased, prices will tend to increase and so too will production in the short-run relative to prices given the same scenario absent credit expansion. The reverse is also true. A contraction of total credit expanded promotes a fall in incomes.

The business cycle arises when the expectations of a substantial number of investors and entrepreneurs are upset, meaning that at the time of initial investment these agents expected incomes to be higher than turned out. If enough borrowers are unable to repay their loans, bank who suffer these defaults must begin to slow their rate of credit expansion so as to allow there reserve ratios to recover. An increase in the reserve ratio is equivalent to a decrease in the broader money stock. This contraction leads to a fall in incomes which worsens the problem. With less credit available, firms must begin to rely more on savings for repayment of debt. This further contracts the money stock. Firms whose managers sense that the business outlook has turned for the near future also begin to increase their balances of cash and reduce their reliance on borrowing, both of which lead to reductions in the total stock of credit, and therefore, money. (Hawtrey 1919, 14). As agents sense that the economy is in a state of consolidation, many begin to form expectations of price deflation. Demand falls in the short-run and the fall in prices accelerates. Only after banks have increased reserve ratios to a level that pleases managers, and ultimately depositors, may banks interrupt this fall in prices by expanding credit on net. They must wait to expand credit, however, until businesses feel safe to expand production.

This story of credit expansion and contraction gives the theorist a starting point from which to build an understanding of the business cycle. Credit seems the primary driver, but what drives credit? It is expectation by financiers that will be an increase in production that drives the expansion of credit. The process of credit creation creates a natural oscillation in productivity, and therefore, oscillating expectations concerning productivity. Credit is not the only driver of expectations. Innovation brings new products and increases the efficiency of production. The expansion of production made possible by new technology certainly affects the expectations of financiers and bankers and of producers. New technology raises opportunity for economic profit and therefore serves to attract the funds of perceptive financiers. Not only must entrepreneurs sense profit opportunities, but financiers must be apt to perceive that the entrepreneur is correct. (It is worthwhile to consider how they accomplish this. Consider that as a rule of thumb, successful venture capitalists, which are one class of financiers, are sure to bet on a person, which includes that person’s network, vision, and creativity, not simply an idea.) Thus Schumpeter is to some extent correct when he claims:

We agree with him [Hawtrey], first, in recognizing that the fundamental cause, whilst in its nature independent of the machinery of money and credit, could not without it produce the particular kind of effect it does. (86)

He is incorrect in claiming:

Booms and consequently depressions are not the work of banks: their cause is a non-monetary one and entrepreneurs’ demand is the initiating cause even of so much of the cycle as can be said to be added by the act of banks. (86)

I have shown that there exists a natural fluctuation in credit driven by errors in expectations of entrepreneurs and financiers, the effects of those errors on the position and expectations of banks, and therefore, on the available stock of money and demand for a portion of that stock. The high level of expected profits that emerges from knowledge of an innovation attracts more capital into the market than would otherwise exist. As long as the expectation of economic profit exists, the innovation will increase total credit extended in the market. If expectations of creditors are on average correct, this expansion of technology is responsible for a long-run increase in the volume of production and its real value to consumers. It is possible that a sector centered around a new innovation will attract a large portion of available credit during an expansion, but this would only serve to increase the amplitude of cycles where financiers overinvested in the sector of innovation.

Aside from encouraging credit expansion, innovations that increase efficiency tend also to devalue capital whose role the innovation has displaced. What was the fate of the horse and buggy after Henry Ford began production of the model-T? Was it not appropriate that the mass production of telephones and computers contributed to the waning of the telegram? This capital lost most of its value as agents in society no longer demanded them. This devaluation of capital can hardly be blamed for a tendency toward depression for the whole economy. Neither overinvestment in new innovation or devaluation of obscelescent capital are necessary or sufficient to generate the cycle in its most essential form.

There a number of other models that describe the business cycle, some of them ad hoc. These include, in no particular order, Lucas’s Island Model, New Keynesian theories of market imperfections, Real Business Cycle Theory, and the Austrian Business Cycle. Of special note are modern monetarist theories concerning fluctuations in the money stock and money demand as they are closely related to the creit cycle. I have posted on these before, including in this short summary. For more on the Austrian Business Cycle see here and here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Emergence of the Clearinghouse

We continue our journey through the evolution of banking with the rise of the clearinghouse association. First, let’s review the evolution of economic development thus far. Imagine a world of scarcity where we have instantiated agents. These agents own property and take action according to their preferences. As agents interact, direct (barter) exchange arises. Each agent trades some good or goods that he owns for some other good or goods that he or she values more than the item or bundle given up. In each exchange, agents pays only as much for a good or goods as they are willing. Sometimes, a good desired by an agent can only be acquired by multiple exchanges. Imagine that agent A owns an apple, agent B owns an orange, and agent C owns an avocado. Agent A is willing to trade her apple for an avocado, but agent C will only trade her avocado for an orange. It just so happens that Agent B would like to trade his orange for an apple. Agent A, sensing an opportunity to attain her desired end, trades her apple for agent B’s orange. Then she trades the orange for an avocado. This is indirect exchange. Over time, some types of commodities, say oats, come into use for indirect exchange. The commodity used for indirect exchange comes to gain value for its use in indirect exchange. This value is its exchange value.

Eventually, one or several of these moneys comes to dominate markets of indirect exchange. Money has developed whose price tends to reflect its supply and demand. One interesting feature of a commodity money is that its quantity is, in the long run, dependent on its supply and demand. If money becomes dearer due to an increase in demand for it, its price will rise and thereby increase the quantity of money supplied. A fall in demand will allow the quantity supplied in a given time period to fall. Thus, the quantity of money stock is self-regulated with respect to changes in demand.

Commodity moneys are costly for agents carry. If the commodity money is not standardized, it may be difficult to measure. If it is heavy, like gold or silver, it may be costly, or even dangerous, to carry on one’s person. Owing, at least in part, to these reasons, agents find that they benefit from leaving their money entrusted to a third party at a secure location. The agent will likely receive a deposit slip in exchange which can be used as money. Thus we have the emergence of fiduciary currency. Eventually, the agent or firm entrusted with the gold realize that they might profit from lending out some portion of the existing deposits. This allows the latent media to earn a return. This return allows the agent or firm to pay interest on deposits. The cost of holding gold is no longer borne by the agent who owns the commodity. Fractional-reserve banking is born.

Any bank in operation chooses to keep on hand some commodities whose value is equal to a portion of its reserves. This is needed in the case that some depositors want to immediately withdraw their currency from the bank. If too many depositors attempt to withdraw from the bank simultaneously, the bank may risk being unable to make a repayment. Absent any institution designed to aid the bank in such a crisis, the bank will have to borrow from another bank in order to stave off hysteria. Of course, if no other bank is willing to lend to the bank, it will have to close until it can acquire the funds. This option is a last resort as it will certainly attract the attention of risk-averse depositors. Bankers realize that they have incentive to minimize the occurrence of this scenario as a wave of collapses may have repercussions for the entire economy. It so happens that a clearinghouse association is an organization in prime position to provide stability during a run. 

A clearinghouse is the location at which multiple banks may hold some of their reserves and keep their records. By holding their reserves and records at a common location, banks can clear debits and credits between one another and use the reserves on hand to pay remaining debts between one another. The clearinghouse is also a nexus for information concerning the creditworthiness of borrowers, thus serving a role in risk mitigation. The clearinghouse might also mitigate risk by producing temporary currency during a crisis. The clearinghouse has plenty of reserves on hand. During a crisis the clearinghouse, ostensibly drawing from these reserves, can lend out emergency currency. This emergency currency allows banks that consider themselves to be at risk and that the clearinghouse deems to be only illiquid - not insolvent - to build up their reserves without depleting the supply of available credit. Since credit is employed predominantly for business, a net decrease in available credit typically diminishes the level of future production, and consequently, real income. Likewise, a collapse in the credit markets leads to a collapse in production until the collapse reverses (assuming it reverses). A wave of banking failures, like the one that occurred during the Great Depression, can turn an economic recession into a depression. For the sake of self-preservation, the clearinghouse has incentive to prevent such an extreme crisis.

Given the risk of a credit crisis, the clearinghouse also takes on a proactive role in regulating the positions of its member banks. If may, at random or on the suspicion of a bank’s malhealth, withdraw a large amount of funds from a member bank in order to test its capacity to handle adverse clearings. This serves to discourage excessive risk taking by member banks and represents yet another means of promoting the stability within the system. 

Having mechanisms that promote stability does not suggest that the system is itself perfect. Every system has bugs. There will always be some banks that take on excessive risk. There will always be failures. Irresponsible banks must fail or else they corrupt the whole system. The significance of the clearinghouse system is not that it prevents any instability, but that it places bounds on that instability. Regulation and stability are themselves properties of the system as entrepreneurs earn profit by finding ways to mitigate risk.