September 25th, 2021

Dionysus, Silver and Red

REAL ESTATE

The possible collapse of Evergrande, China's second largest property developer, has reverberated through global financial markets. With over $300 billion in outstanding debt, 3.8 million jobs on the line, and investments across consumer industries, the scale of the impact could be great.

The company's fall bodes poorly for China's over-leveraged and over-expanded real estate market. In a 2012 paper, YA PING WANG, LEI SHAO, ALAN MAURIE, and JIANHUA CHENG present a detailed history of the sector.

From the text:

"In 1981, over 82% of urban housing was in public ownership but by 2002, 80% of public housing had been sold, mainly to their occupiers. Comprehensive reform policies that commercialised urban housing were implemented in the early 1990s. In this reformed system, most urban housing would be provided through the market but some 15% of low-income families, with insufficient financial power to become homeowners, would require socially rented housing. Government supported affordable housing was to be the main source of urban housing and would cater for low to middle-income urban households (~70% of the population), including most public sector employees. On top of the housing market was commercial housing provision for the rich (~15% of the population).

Nominally, in two decades China had changed from a nation renting from state owned enterprises to a nation of homeowners. However, a large proportion of homeowners had not been fully exposed to the market; they purchased as sitting tenants, at prices that did not fully reflect market values. In 1997, China’s central bank encouraged all government owned banks to undertake mortgage business. The bank reduced basic interest rates seven times between 1996 and 1999, and introduced a 20% income tax on interest earned from savings. Mortgage interest rates were gradually reduced from 10.5 per cent in 1997 to 5.7 per cent in 2002. These policies were accompanied by a continuous and steady increase in housing supply. Between 2000 and 2002, over 2 million new homes were built each year in cities and towns. This urban housing development helped China successfully avoid serious impacts from the Asian financial crisis. The real estate industry emerged as a key economic sector and in some cities contributed more than half of total local GDP."

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September 11th, 2021

Brassieres of Atlantis

CAPITAL FLOWS

Long held to be essential for development, capital flows have come under increasing scrutiny for their impact on the financial stability and autonomy of low and middle income countries.

A recent paper by Karsten Müller and Emil Verner fuels the debate. Using a novel database of private credit in 116 countries since 1940, and drawing on more than 600 sources, it analyzes how the sectoral allocation of credit impacts financial stability in recipient countries. The findings suggest that credit to the non-tradeable sector (where goods cannot be sold internationally, such as construction, repairs, food services, and real estate) predicts lower medium-run growth, while tradable sector credit leads to higher growth in the medium-run.

From the text:

"Why does credit to households and non-tradable sectors, but not to the tradable sector, foreshadow lower future economic growth? First, credit growth to non-tradables and households may reflect that credit finances a demand boom, which may sow the seeds of a future bust. Consistent with this prediction, we find that household and non-tradable credit expansions are associated with a relative expansion in consumption relative to GDP, increasing shares of the non-tradable sector in output and employment, an appreciation of the real exchange rate, and an increase in house prices.

Second, lending to non-tradables and households can increase financial fragility if these sectors face tighter (ex-ante) financing constraints or are more sensitive to changes in credit supply. We document that non-tradable sector firms are, on average, smaller and more reliant on loans collateralized by real estate compared to tradable sector firms. Credit expansions to the non-tradable sector are associated with a considerably higher likelihood of future systemic banking crises. In contrast, lending to the tradable sector has essentially no relationship with banking crises and also falls less after the onset of crises. Third, credit booms may lead to a misallocation of resources away from more productive sectors. Because the level and growth rate of productivity is generally higher in tradable industries, a reallocation away from tradables can cause lower aggregate productivity growth in the medium run. Taken together, the patterns we document suggest that credit expansions are not created equal. They highlight that “good” and “bad” booms can be differentiated based on what the borrowed money is used for along dimensions emphasized by economic theory."

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July 17th, 2021

Inextinguishable Fire

CLIMATE PLANNING

Earlier this week, the EU published a series of proposals aimed at reducing its carbon emissions by 55 percent by 2030. The legislation has revived debates on the economic models best suited to facilitating investment and decarbonization.

A Financial Times article by MAX KRAHÉ was circulated widely this week, in which he argued for the importance of central planning in the green energy transition. In an April report for the Royal Belgian Academy, Krahé examines the structural justifications for his position.

From the text:

"As of today, we lack an agreed-upon, reliable methodology for distinguishing between sustainable and non-sustainable investments. Unfortunately, this is not a problem of insufficient data or the imperfect implementation of a theoretically sound methodology. Instead, the problem lies with the basic methodology of the dominant approach that has been used to draw this distinction so far: a bottom-up approach that tries to rate the sustainability performance of individual companies by looking at firm-level performance indicators—such as emissions, the use of land, water, or energy, average and minimum wages, corporate governance structures, and so on—without taking into consideration the wider context into which these firms are embedded. As the report shows, there are deep, conceptual reasons that stand in the way of determining the contribution that individual investments make to sustainable development. In particular, where we cannot identify counterfactuals, the question of sustainability can only be asked of systems as a whole, and not of their individual components. While there is a combination of methods that allows downwards translation, from system-level sustainability to identifying individual sustainable investments, there is no reliable method to translate upwards, from individual investments to their impact on a system’s overall sustainability, and hence to the unsustainability of that individual investment. Concerning this link, the report’s central finding is that upwards translation is impossible in dynamic systems. The link between individual investments and system-level sustainable development is a one-way street."

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June 2nd, 2021

Risks and Crises

Market makers and risk managers after 2008

In the 1945 film It’s a Wonderful Life, banker protagonist George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) struggles to exchange his well-functioning loans for cash. He lacks convertibility—known as liquidity risk in modern finance—and so cannot pay impatient depositors. Like any traditional financial intermediary, Bailey seeks to transform short-term debts (deposits) into long-term assets (loans). In the eyes of traditional macroeconomics, a run on the bank could be prevented if Bailey had borrowed money from the Fed, and used the bank’s assets as collateral. In the late-nineteenth-century, British journalist Walter Bagehot argued that the Fed acts as a “lender of last resort,” injecting liquidity into the banking system. As long as a bank was perceived solvent, then, its access to the Fed’s credit facilities would be almost guaranteed. In an economy like the one in It's A Wonderful Life, the primary question was whether people could get their money out in the case of a crisis. And for a long time, Bagehot’s rule, “lend freely, against good collateral, but at a high rate,” maintained the Fed’s control over the money market and helped end banking panics and systemic banking crises.

This control evaporated on September 15, 2008, with Lehman Brothers’ collapse. On that day, an enormous spike in interbank lending rates was caused not by a run on a bank, but by the failure of an illiquid securities dealer.

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May 13th, 2021

Investment and Decarbonization: Rating Green Finance

A proposal for a public ratings agency for green finance

The Biden administration has committed the United States to cutting its carbon emissions in half by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that the global transition to a low-carbon future will require \$131 trillion in infrastructure investment by 2050. With the US share of global GDP and carbon emissions around 16 percent, a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts its gross financing needs at roughly \$21 trillion—or 100 percent of GDP over the next three decades. In other words: approximately 3.3 percent of GDP per annum in investment has to be financed to achieve Biden’s commitments. But the aggregate climate-related financing promised by the twin bills introduced by Biden is no more than \$100 billion, or 0.5 percent of GDP per year over the next eight years. How is the rest going to be financed?

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October 10th, 2020

Supermoon

RENTAL HOUSING

With millions facing housing insecurity, the economic downturn has sparked concerns of a new housing crisis. Where the subprime mortgage crisis thrust the centrality of unsustainable housing financing practices in the global economy into view, the Covid-19 recession has brought increased attention to widespread housing insecurity among the roughly forty-three million renter households in the US. And these units, too, are increasingly financialized.

A 2017 article by geographer DESIREE FIELDS examines these trends with a focus on New York City:

"Rental housing today constitutes an important new node for financializing projects globally, most noticeably in the US single-family market, as well as Spain and Ireland. Private equity funds have taken advantage of sharp price drops, surging rental demand and constrained mortgage credit to buy distressed real estate assets, convert them into rental housing and roll out novel rent-backed financial instruments. Tenants' homes may be subject to financialization even though residents themselves do not have mortgages.

Whereas private equity firms only discovered single-family rental post-2008, they had established themselves in New York City’s rental market in the years leading up to the crisis. New York has been characterized as a testing ground for neoliberal urban restructuring, experimentation made possible by its 1970s fiscal crisis. Three decades later, the city's mid-2000s real estate boom, together with the incomplete dismantling of postwar-era state rent protections in the 1990s, created the conditions for another round of experimentation: private equity firms, in concert with local banks and landlords, set about transforming the city's rent-regulated housing into a novel asset class for capital seeking investment opportunities, subjecting tenants to harassment, displacement and unsafe living conditions to extract financial yield. This experiment represents an important step towards incorporating rental housing into global circuits of capital."

Link to the piece.

  • In another paper, Fields and co-authors Rajkumar Kohli and Alex Schafran trace the growth of single-family rental securitization in the US post-2008. Link.
  • Joe Beswick et al. document the rise of corporate landlords in post-crisis London's rental market. Link. Manuel B. Aalbers and Andrej Holm compare privatized social housing in Amsterdam and Berlin. Link. Michael Byrne examines asset-management companies and financialized real estate in Ireland. Link.
  • For more on the financialization of real estate, see Herman Mark Schwartz's work linking the US housing market and global capital flows. Link. See also: Saskia Sassen on mortgages, and David Harvey on capital and urbanization. Link, and link.
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September 12th, 2020

Technological Improvements

FINANCE AND FARMLAND

Land acquisitions have been on the rise since 2008, when rising oil prices and an international food crisis dramatically increased demand. Changing ownership patterns have the potential to influence not only the terms of agricultural supply chains, but the structure of political power in economies across the Global South.

A new book by MADELEINE FAIRBAIRN analyzes the trajectory of global land grabs, focusing especially on the expanding role of the financial sector.

From the introduction:

"The giant US pension fund Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), one of the largest players in the emerging farmland investment sector, illustrates how recently financial interest in farmland has emerged—and how rapidly it has grown. In 2007, TIAA suddenly began acquiring enormous tracts of farmland as part of the investment portfolio it manages on behalf of retired teachers and other professionals. By 2012, it already controlled $2.8 billion worth of farmland in the United States, Australia, Brazil, and Eastern Europe, making it one of the largest farmland owners and managers in the world. This included more than four hundred individual farm properties totaling 600,000 acres, most of them leased out to tenant farmers and operating companies. By the end of 2017, less than a decade after its first farmland purchase, TIAA—a firm created to manage the retirement accounts of teachers—had come to control over 1.9 million acres of farmland worldwide.

The amount of financial-sector capital so far invested in global farmland markets is fairly paltry. But financial-sector spittle has the potential to buy a lot of land. In Iowa, where farmland cost an average of $7,943 per acre in 2014, $40 billion could buy slightly over 5 million acres—approximately a sixth of the state’s farmland. In Brazil’s soy frontier state of Piauí, where farmland cost around $1,000 an acre in 2014, it would buy well over half the state. Ultimately, the prospect of landownership concentration in the hands of the financial sector matters because it has the potential to propel economic inequality. It matters greatly if the financial institutions that control much of the accumulated wealth of society decide that land is a preferred route for storing that wealth and generating income from it."

Link to the book.

  • "We devised a new methodology for uncovering corporate organization and actors who benefit from farmland investment through an analysis of creditors and proprietors." Loka Ashwood, John Canfield, Madeleine Fairbairn and Kathryn De Master draw on county-level tax parcel data to analyze corporate land ownership structures in Illinois. Link.
  • International investment law, which construes land as a commercial asset, can facilitate access to land for foreign investors and impose discipline on the exercise of regulatory powers in land matters. But shifts in the political economy that underpins international investment law can create new opportunities to reflect the non-commercial relations within which land rights remain embedded in many societies." Lorenzo Cotula's 2013 article on the legal underpinnings of global land acquisition. By the same author, a 2013 book looks at landgrabs across Africa. Link, link.
  • Another new book by Stefan Ouma presents an ethnography of agricultural-focussed asset management, through case studies of New Zealand and Tanzania. Link.
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August 13th, 2020

Geoeconomics and the Balance of Payments: A Reading List

Suggested readings on the savings glut, critical macrofinance, and the balance of payments

Below is a rough reading list assembled by the panelists in the August 13, 2020 discussion on “Geoeconomics and the Balance of Payments.”

A recording of the discussion—with Mona Ali, Daniela Gabor, Izabella Kaminska, Matt Klein, JW Mason, Michael Pettis, Brad Setser, Jon Sindreu, Colby Smith, and Nathan Tankus, and moderated by Adam Tooze—can be found here.

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August 3rd, 2020

Nocturnal Pasture

OFFSHORING

Much research has documented the vast sums of "missing wealth" stored in tax havens, and detailed its implications for inequality, fiscal policy, and economic growth. Less present in the discussion is the institutional and political history of these offshore financial centers.

In a 2017 paper, VANESSA OGLE recounts the making of what she terms the offshore "archipelago"—the various institutions that, outside of the core of powerful nation-states, became central to the international financial system. From the paper:

"Contemporary definitions of tax havens are often too static to capture the more fluid and multifaceted legal constellation among such sites as they appear to the historian. In the age of empire, the natural state of affairs entailed legal unevenness. This world was made up of centralized nation-states, multiethnic land empires, overseas empires with their colonies, protectorates, settlements, and dominions, as well as 'informal empire' with its regimes of extraterritoriality and legal pluralism. Local administrations in overseas territories had considerable leeway in drafting company and bank laws or tax codes and accounting standards for these respective entities and sub-entities. Legal and political unevenness greatly benefited tax avoidance on a global scale.

As empires came undone, an archipelago-like landscape of distinct legal spaces re-created some of the unevenness that had characterized the nineteenth century. Yet in the twentieth century, this offshore world and the unevenness it offered existed in and for a world order in which bounded, homogeneous national state spaces and generally sizable nation states had eventually become the norm. The New Deal, the European welfare state, decolonization, and the Bretton Woods system were state-based and government-driven projects. The offshore world emerged on a more significant scale precisely at the moment when these state-based projects began to assume their greatest importance. It consisted of tax havens, flags of convenience registries, offshore financial markets and banking institutions, and special economic zones. This landscape allowed free-market capitalism to flourish on the sidelines of a world increasingly dominated by larger and more interventionist nation-states."

Link to the piece.

  • Antonio Coppola, Matteo Maggiori, Brent Neiman, and Jesse Schreger recalculate global capital flows, accounting for cross-border financing and tax havens: "We find that portfolio investment from developed countries to firms in large emerging markets is dramatically larger than previously thought. The national accounts of the United States, for example, understate the U.S. position in Chinese firms by nearly $600 bn, while China’s official net creditor position to the rest of the world is overstated by about 50 percent." Link.
  • Drawing on interviews with key informants from banks, shell companies, foreign real estate, and investor citizenship programs, Alexander Cooley and J. C. Sharman argue that "professionals in major financial centers serve to lower the transaction costs of transnational corruption by senior foreign officials." Link.
  • Daniela Gabor and Cornel Ban's 2017 paper on the political economy of shadow banking. Link. And Jan Fichtner's 2016 "anatomy" of the Cayman Islands offshore financial center. Link.
  • The 2011 book The New Fiscal Sociology, edited by Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad, marks and collects interdisciplinary research in the comparative history and politics of taxation. Link.
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July 20th, 2020

Dramatic Fire

CENTRAL BANKS AND CLIMATE

Common wisdom around central bank independence (CBI) is increasingly a matter of debate. Before the Covid-19 crisis, a growing number of scholars and commentators have proposed means by which central banks can address looming climate catastrophe—either by integrating new risks into their assessments, or by promoting more active resource allocation—and argued that central bank's attention to climate risk has focused too squarely on financial stability.

In a 2018 working paper, SIMON DIKAU and ULRICH VOLZ outline how, despite the "second-best" nature of this kind of intervention, the shift is already occurring:

"Allocating financial resources toward or away from certain sectors and companies implies favoring certain segments of the economy over others and appears to be incompatible with our modern understanding of independent central banks. Nonetheless, many central banks in emerging and developing economies have resorted to these policies as viable, second-best solutions to promote sustainable development and green investment. The notion of the neutrality of monetary policy has come under intense scrutiny more recently, not least in the context of discussions about the distributional consequences of the negative interest and quantitative easing policies adopted by major central banks. It is apparent that central banks in developing and emerging economies especially, and in Asia in particular, have been at the forefront of using a broad range of instruments to address environmental risk and encourage green investment."

Full paper available here.

  • On VoxEU, Markus K. Brunnermeier and Jean-Pierre Landau on the applicability of central banking tools for the climate crisis: "The conventional wisdom on monetary policy is that it has no impact on long-term growth; its influence is mostly felt on a 1.5 to 2.5 years horizon. By contrast, climate change is all about the long term; effects and policies materialize and matter over several decades." Link.
  • An IMF report by Pierpaolo Grippa, Jochen Schmittmann, and Felix Suntheim surveys the field: "Climate change will affect monetary policy by slowing productivity growth (for example, through damage to health and infrastructure) and heightening uncertainty and inflation volatility." Link.
  • As governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney gave an oft-cited 2015 speech, proposing a scheme of physical risks, liability risks, and transition risks. Link. And Jean Boivin argues for abandoning CBI in the face of Covid. Link.
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