↳ Finance

August 3rd, 2020

↳ Finance

Nocturnal Pasture


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.
⤷ Full Article

July 20th, 2020

Dramatic Fire


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.
⤷ Full Article

July 16th, 2020

The Dollar and Empire

How the US dollar shapes geopolitical power

What does the US dollar’s continued dominance in the global monetary and financial systems mean for geo-economic and geo-political power? In a recent article, Yakov Feygin and Dominik Leusder question whether the United States actually enjoys an “exorbitant privilege” from the global use of the USD as the default currency for foreign exchange reserves, trade invoicing, and cross-border lending. Like Michael Pettis, they argue that the USD’s primacy actually imposes an exorbitant burden through its differential costs on the US population.

Global use of the dollar largely benefits the top 1 percent by wealth in the United States, while imposing job losses and weak wage growth on much of the rest of the country. This flows from the structural requirements involved in having a given currency work as international money. As Randall Germain and I have argued in various venues, a country issuing a globally dominant currency necessarily runs a current account deficit. Prolonged current account deficits erode the domestic manufacturing base. And as current account deficits are funded by issuing various kinds of liabilities to the outside world, they necessarily involve a build-up of debt and other claims on US firms and households.

⤷ Full Article

July 1st, 2020

Balanced Sheets

On the conceptual and methodological stakes of Trade Wars Are Class Wars by Matthew C. Klein and Michael Pettis

Good writing on international macroeconomics reads like a detective novel. There’s a suspicious event—hundreds of millions of dollars in phantom FX swaps, a container port’s worth of missing exports—and an enormous cast of closely-linked characters. But instead of a preternatural ability to see the clear-cut means, motive, and opportunity of fictional characters in a pulp whodunit, the macroeconomic detective is armed with the knowledge that balance sheets always balance. This simple insight, that every transaction has two sides, means that there are certain aggregate relationships between transactions that must obtain for the world economy. Knowing this, it’s possible to chase actors across seemingly unrelated balance sheets to find where the system as a whole was forced to balance. From here, the skillful economist can identify the long-run tendencies that a given balance is likely to create. (Wynne Godley famously predicted the Global Financial Crisis in just this way, following US mortgage debt around the world and back.) This kind of detective work is difficult, and often unpopular. The balance sheet approach cuts through political and media platitudes to reveal who the winners and losers are in a given regime. By taking this approach to examining trade policy, Michael Pettis and Matthew Klein have, with Trade Wars Are Class Wars, written the ideal book for understanding the long-run trends that have shaped our dysfunctional present.

Pettis and Klein tell a broad story about the last fifty years of global economic development, which links the dynamics of global supply chains and tax evasion, and the historical shift from wage-led to profit-led growth.

⤷ Full Article

June 13th, 2020

Trade Wars Are Class Wars

A discussion between Adam Tooze, Michael Pettis, and Matthew Klein

Michael Pettis and Matthew Klein's new book Trade Wars Are Class Wars begins with an epigraph from John A. Hobson: "The struggle for markets, the greater eagerness of producers to sell than of consumers to buy, is the crowning proof of a false economy of distribution. Imperialism is the fruit of this false economy." Pettis and Klein's book updates the Hobsonian thesis for the twenty-first century, arguing that, while trade wars are often thought to be the result of atavistic leadership or the contrasting economic priorities of discrete nation states, they are best understood as the malign symptoms of domestic inequalities that harm workers the world over. In a panoramic account of the shifts in the global economy over the past several decades, Pettis and Klein detail the development of the economic ills that define modern international political economy. It is essential and provocative reading with broad implications for international politics, the study of inequality, and the future of the global monetary system.

On May 28, Pettis and Klein were joined by Adam Tooze, author of Crashed, for a discussion about their new book. A recording of the conversation can be watched here. The transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.

⤷ Full Article

May 1st, 2020

The Class Politics of the Dollar System

Managing an international public good

The global dollar system has few national winners. The typical frame for understanding the US dollar is that of “exorbitant privilege.” But the role of the dollar in structuring the international financial system and defining the relationship between a hegemonic US and the rest of the world is ambiguous—as is the question of who exactly benefits from the current arrangement. Dollar primacy feeds a growing American trade deficit that shifts the country’s economy toward the accumulation of rents rather than the growth of productivity. This has contributed to a falling labor and capital share of income, and to the ballooning cost of services such as education, medical care, and rental housing. With sicknesses like these, can we say for certain that the reserve currency confers substantial benefits to the country that provides liquidity and benchmark assets denominated in that currency?

For the rest of the world, the ills are clear enough. In developing countries, the need to insure their economies against currency crises and debt deflation has meant the accumulation of dollars at the expense of necessary domestic investment. These policies are usually accompanied by a suppression of consumption and incomes to establish a permanent trade surplus vis-à-vis the dollar system. And in many countries, the dollar system allows corrupt elites to safely transport their ill-gotten earnings to global banking centers located in jurisdictions with opaque ownership laws.

⤷ Full Article

September 3rd, 2019

Eye Machine


The failures of research on fin-tech and poverty alleviation

Last week, we considered how social and political standards can pressure climate scientists to under-report their findings, introducing an underestimation bias into published climate research. In a recent thread, Nicholas Loubere examines the development buzz around mobile money, showing how similar factors can serve to exaggerate the findings of academic studies.

In a new article quoted in the thread, MILFORD BATEMAN, MAREN DUVENDACK, and NICHOLAS LOUBERE contest a much cited study on the poverty alleviating effects of mobile money platforms like M-Pesa. The criticism rests largely on grounds of omission: the study, they argue, ignores the closure of nearly half of microenterprises opened with M-Pesa, the jobs and incomes lost with the introduction of new businesses into fragile markets, the burgeoning debt accrued through digital loans, the overwhelmingly foreign ownership of M-Pesa and its profits, and the wealthy networks composing its primary users. Methodologically, it had no control group, used a small sample size, and overlooked the potential for reverse causality.

Why was a potentially flawed study so well regarded? According to Bateman, Duvendack, and Loubre, it's in part because its results told researchers and policymakers what they wanted to hear. From the article:

"The rapid popularization of fin-tech as a developmental solution is premised on the continued prominence of microcredit and the broader concept of financial inclusion. The microcredit movement was established and validated in the 1980s on overblown and ultimately false claims that providing small loans to groups of poor women was a panacea for global poverty reduction—claims that were especially associated with Dr Muhammad Yunus. Empirical justification came from an impact evaluation undertaken in Bangladesh by then World Bank economists Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker, which claimed that microcredit programs had significant beneficial results for impoverished female clients. For many years, Muhammad Yunus used Pitt and Khandker’s findings to successfully ‘sell’ the microcredit model to the international development community, generating a consensus that the microcredit model was the most effective way to efficiently provide enormous benefits to the global poor."

Link to the article, and link to a blogpost in which the authors outline their key findings.

  • "Kenya’s new experience of debt reveals a novel, digitized form of slow violence that operates not so much through negotiated social relations, nor the threat of state enforcement, as through the accumulation of data, the commodification of reputation, and the instrumentalization of social ties." Kevin P. Donovan and Emma Park report on the consequences of mobile debt for poor borrowers. Link.
  • In an article from 2017, Loubere "examines examples of exploitation, fraud, instability, and extraction related to expanded digital financial coverage in contemporary China." Link. At Bloomberg, David Malingha compares credit markets in Asia with those of sub-Saharan Africa. Link.
  • "This article claims that to bring finance back to serve the real economy, it is fundamental to (a) de-financialize companies in the real economy, and (b) think clearly about how to structure finance so that it can provide the long-term committed patient capital required by innovation." Mariana Mazzucato on governments' role in ensuring that finance serves public ends. Link.
⤷ Full Article

June 10th, 2019

Sketch for a Counter-Sky


On central bank independence and the rise of shadow money

Debates over the political impacts of Central Bank Independence (CBI) reached their peak in the late 90s and early 2000s, due to rising inequality and the volatility of financial markets. Initiated with the 1977 Federal Reserve Act and Paul Volcker’s subsequent term as chairman of the Fed, CBI was, and remains, a means of isolating the more "mechanical" field of monetary policy from the fleeting interests of politicians. In order to preserve stability and credibility, independent central banks have made inflation targeting the center point of their agenda. Critics of CBI have argued that the distinction between economic science and political incentives are not as clear as they might seem; low levels of inflation may benefit creditors and investors, but they harm those whose income entirely depends on rising wages. While monetary policy has distributional and political consequences, its decision makers are insulated from public accountability.

Expanding the literature on the politics of CBI, BENJAMIN BRAUN and DANIELA GABOR examine its financial consequences. In a recently published paper, they argue that the anti-inflationary policies of central banks have catalyzed dependence on shadow money and shadow banking, key components of a broader trend towards financialization:

"In the late 1990s, the US Federal Reserve was confronted with a peculiar predicament. While the world was celebrating central bank independence as a mark of 'scientific' economic governance after the populist era of monetizing government bonds, the US Federal Reserve worried about projections that the US government would pay down all its debt by 2012. A world without US government debt, they worried, was a world filled with monetary dangers. Market participants would not have a safe, liquid asset to turn to in times of distress.

Rather than seeking to limit shadow money supply, the Fed actively encouraged its expansion, seeking market solutions to political problems. It lobbied Congress to ensure that holders of shadow money backed by private (securitized) collateral had the same legal rights to collateral as those holding shadow money issued against US government debt. The Fed also changed its lending practices, allowing banks to issue shadow money backed by private collateral to borrow from the Fed. These concrete steps contrast starkly with the picture of central banks watching passively from the margins, as financial institutions find new ways to monetize credit and circumvent rules."

Link to the article.

  • More contemporary iterations of the debate over CBI can be found in the comparison between a 2018 HKS working paper, which distinguishes between "political oversight" and "operational independence," and a 2014 Levy Institute working paper which argues there is no practical meaning of operational independence at all. Link and link.

  • A primer on shadow banking, from Stijn Claessens and Lev Ratnovski at Vox EU. Link.

  • A new article by Andreas Kerna, Bernhard Reinsbergc, and Matthias Rau-Göhring finds that the IMF’s targeted lending practices actively encouraged the proliferation of independent central banks in low income economies. Link.

  • On CBI, inflationary targets, and the 2010 Eurocrisis, by Mark Copelovitch, Jeffry Frieden, and Stefanie Walter. Link.

⤷ Full Article