Central banks wouldn’t have printed money if…

3D chrome Dollar symbolVivek Kaul

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the president of Argentina, was visiting the United States in the autumn of 2012. A part of her itinerary included speeches at the Harvard and Georgetown universities.
Students at these universities asked her about the rate of inflation in Argentina. As Bill Bonner writes in his new book
Hormegeddon—How Too Much of a Good Thing Leads to Disaster, “Her bureaucrats put the consumer price index—at less than 10%. Independent analysts and housewives know it as a lie. Prices are rising at about 25% per year.”
Fernandez turned the tables at a press conference and asked her accusers: “Really, do you think consumer prices are only going up at a 2% rate in the US?”
This is a very important question to ask given that inflation is one of the most important numbers that are put out in the public domain. As Bonner writes “The ‘inflation’ number is probably the most important number the number crunchers crunch, because it crunches up against most of the other numbers too.”
What does Bonner mean by this? If your house price has doubled and if the price of everything else doubled as well during the same period, then you haven’t made any gains at all. The same stands true for your salary as well.
At a broader level, the economic growth (as measured by the growth in the gross domestic product (GDP)) is also adjusted for inflation. So, if the growth is 8% and inflation is also 8%, then there is no real growth. For real growth to happen the rate of growth has to be greater than the rate of inflation.
The point being that the rate of inflation is used to correct distortions that creep into other numbers. As Bonner writes “In pensions, taxes, insurance, and contracts, the CPI[consumer price inflation] number is used to correct distortions caused by inflation. But if the CPI number is itself distorted, then the whole [thing] gets twisted.”
Moral of the story: It is very important to measure the inflation number correctly. But is that really happening in the United States? As Nick Barisheff writes in
$10,000 Gold—Why Gold’s Inevitable Rise Is the Investor’s Safe Haven, “The need to distort actual values of inflation became even more important once governments began prodding social programs and indexed government pensions [i.e. government pension went up at the rate of inflation]. A single-point rise in the official rate of inflation would likely cost the U.S. government hundreds of billions of dollars in indexed government pension payments.”
The Boskin Commission was set up in 1995. It was formally called the Advisory Commission to Study the consumer price index. The commission came to the conclusion that the consumer price index overstated inflation. “These findings also concluded that since the CPI was used to measure indexed pensions, the projections for budget deficits were too large,” writes Barisheff.
The recommendations of the commission changed the way inflation was measured in the United States. As Barisheff writes “The changes implemented after the Boskin Commission’s report were significant, with the main distinction being that the CPI used to measure a “fixed standard of living” with a fixed basket of goods. Today, it measures the cost of living with a constantly changing basket of goods, measured with metrics that are themselves constantly changing.”
This change in methodology led to the inflation being understated due to various reasons. A World Gold Council report titled
Gold Investor: Risk Management and Capital Preservation released by the World Gold Council points out “The weights that different goods and services have in the aforementioned indices do not always correspond to what a household may experience. For example, tuition has been one of the fastest growing expenses for US households but represents only 3% of CPI (consumer price index). In practice, tuition costs correspond to more than 10% of the annual income even for upper-middle American households – and a higher percentage of their consumption.”
Then there is the issue referred to as “hedonic” adjustments. Let’s say you go to a buy a computer. The computer is being sold at the same price as last year. But its twice as powerful. “Now you are getting twice as much computer for the same price. You don’t really need twice as much power. But you can’t buy half a computer. So, you reach in your packet and pay as much as last year,” writes Bonner.
Those calculating inflation look at the scenario differently. They assume that since the new computer has more power, it has basically gone down in cost. “This reasoning does not seem altogether unreasonable. But a $1,000 computer is a substantial part of most household budgets. And this “hedonic” adjustment of prices exerts a large pull downward on the measurement of consumer prices, even though the typical household lays out almost exactly as much one year as it did last,” writes Bonner.
Further, hedonic adjustment does not take into account the rapid change in technology. As Barisheff points out “Hedonics overlooks hidden inflationary events, such as the rapid pace of technological development and lower production standards, which combined mean we need to replace appliances more often. In the 1960s, we bought one home telephone every decade, if that. We purchased a new television perhaps a little more frequently. Now we are changing our tech devices every couple of years. Hedonics, to be, fair, should account for this extra cost, but it does not.”
Other than hedonics, the substitution bias is at work as well. In this case, it is assumed that consumers substitute “cheaper goods for more expensive goods when relative prices change.” As Barisheff writes “The government is saying that when steak gets too expensive, people will forgo steak for hamburger. Somehow, this does not account for the fact that steak is getting more expensive, or that consumers do not automatically substitute.” Using, susbstitution, the government determined that food prices rose by 4.1% between 2007 and 2008. Nevertheless, the American Farm Bureau which tracks exactly the same basket of goods said prices rose by 11.3%.
Long story short, the inflation as it is being measured is being under-declared. Bonner points out that if they measured inflation now like they did in 1980, the rate of inflation in the United States would have been 9% and not 2%.
And if that were the case a lot of other things would change. If inflation would have been 9% and 2%, the Federal Reserve of the United States and other central banks around the developed world would not have printed the quantum of money that they have.
Economist John Mauldin in a recent column titled The End of Monetary Policy estimates that central banks have printed $7-8 trillion since the start of the financial crisis.
This was done primarily to ensure that with so much money floating around the interest rates would continue to remain low. At low interest rates people would borrow and spend. This would create some inflation. Looking that prices were going up, people would come out and shop, so that they don’t have to pay more later.
What has happened instead is that financial institutions have borrowed money at low interest rates and invested it in financial markets all over the world.
Nevertheless, if the inflation was 9% and not less than 2% as it stands now, central banks wouldn’t have printed all the money that they have in the first place.
This leads Bonner to ponder that “the problem with the “inflation” number runs deeper than just statistical legerdemain.” “It concerns the definition of inflation itself. Does the word refer only to rise in consumer prices? Or to the rise in the supply of money? The distinction has huge consequences. Because, in years following the 08′-09′ prices, it was the absence of the former that permitted central banks to add so much to the latter…As long as consumer price inflation didn’t manifest itself in a disagreeable way, central bankers felt they cold create as much agreeable monetary inflation as they wanted,” writes Bonner.
And that is something worth thinking about.

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Dec 2, 2014
(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

What Uday Kotak should learn from Citi: Bigger banks can end up as liabilities

635266189203244874_Kotak Mahindra Bank
Over the weekend Pramit Jhaveri, the CEO of Citi India, had a thing or two to say about the size of Indian banks. He said that other than needing more banks, India needs bigger banks to compete on the world stage. “At this point, sensible consolidation would be one way to achieve scale,”
he said.
The comment comes right at a time when the Kotak Mahindra Bank has decided to acquire the ING Vysya Bank. The irony here is that Citigroup, of which Jhaveri is a part of, was rescued by the Federal Reserve of the United States from going bust, only a few years back.
The Fed came into rescue Citigroup because it was too big to fail. And if it had been allowed to fail, the repercussions would have been felt by the entire financial system.
The United States Congress passed the the Glass–Steagall Act in1933. This Act was passed after the stock market crash of 1929 and essentially drew a line between commercial banking and investment banking on the grounds that the riskiness of the latter would lead to the required safety and soundness of the former being compromised upon.

This made banking a very boring business with commercial banks having to stick to borrowing money from depositors, and lending it out, and making the difference in interest rates as their income. This meant banks which raised deposits could not trade in stocks and other financial securities. They could not get into the brokerage business either.
The Glass–Steagall Act was replaced with a new Act in 1999 (the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) to clear the merger of Citicorp, a commercial-bank-holding company, with the insurance company Travelers Group. This led to the formation of Citigroup, which was a company that had several different financial service brands under it. There was Citibank, which was a bank, Smith Barney, a stock brokerage firm, Primerica, a firm that sold insurance products and Travelers, an insurance company.
Long story short, what emerged was basically a very unwieldy company. A firm which was too big to fail.
On October 31, 2007, Meredith Whitney, an analyst of financial firms at Oppenheimer and Co., went all out against Citigroup. She said that the bank had so mismanaged its financial affairs that it would have to slash its dividend or go bust. The market heard out Whitney. The share price of Citigroup was down by 8.8 percent, to $38.51, by the end of that day.
Chuck Prince, the lawyer CEO of Citigroup, quit seven days later, on November 7, 2007. The stock price by then had fallen by 20 percent, to $33.41, from where it stood before Whitney’s pro­nouncement on the bank. What was interesting was the way Prince looked at things. Only a few months earlier, on July 7, 2007, he had said that things could get complicated in the days to come “But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” “We’re still dancing,” he had remarked.
The troubles for Citigroup just erupted after this. It had made huge investments in subprime securities and other financial securities using the structured investment vehicles (SIVs) route which started to go wrong (this story is too long to go into detail here). Once the financial crisis broke out in September 2008, the market did not expect Citigroup to survive.
But Citigroup was too big to be allowed to fail. On October 14, 2008, the treasury department of the United States (or what we call the ministry of finance in India) invested $250 billion in 10 financial institutions as a part of the capital purchase programme.
The Citigroup was a part of this and got $25 billion from the US government. After receiving the investment from the government, the then CEO of the firm, Vikram Pandit, said that the investment would give his firm more flexibility to borrow as well as lend.

But the market wasn’t too confident about the chances of Citigroup surviving, given its huge investments in subprime and other shady securities through the structured investment vehicle route.
The trouble was that like AIG, Citi was also deemed to be too big to fail. So, on November 25, 2008, the government decided to inject $20 billion cash into the firm. This was over and above the $25 billion that Citigroup had already received as a part of the capital purchase programme a little over a month earlier. The government also decided to guarantee $306 billion worth of troubled mortgages and other assets of the firm. And this is how Citigroup, like many other financial institutions was rescued by the government, simply because it was too big to fail.
A firm like Citigroup, which is present in a large number of financial service businesses as well as investment banking businesses, was and continues to be extremely unwieldy to manage. But, at the same time, the firm was so big and into so many different businesses that letting it go, would have led to a lot of job losses and other firms going bust as well.
To his credit, Alan Greenspan, who was the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1988 to 2006, had pointed out the risk of big banks as far back as October 1999. He had said in a speech that “megabanks being formed by growth and consolidation are increasingly complex entities that create the potential for unusually large systemic risks in the national and international economy should they fail.”
Hence, it is important to make sure that there are no institutions which are too big to fail. As Bob Swarup puts it in
Money Mania,If the vanishing of an institution will destroy the network of our economy, it is too large to survive. Citigroup will one day go bust. Probability and evolution tell us that. Therefore, we can either keep trying to postpone the inevitable or remove that anomaly. This can be done over time by shrinking the institution through incentive or breaking up the institution.”
Interestingly, research carried out by the Federal Reserve has been unable to find any economies of scale of operation beyond a certain size. As Greenspan asks in
The Map and the Territory: “I often wondered as the banks increased in size throughout the globe prior to the crash and since: Had bankers discovered economies of scale that Fed research had missed?”
In fact, there is little to suggest that banks benefit from any economies of scale, when they grow beyond $100 billion in assets, suggest Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig in
The Bankers’ New Clothes. (On a different note Kotak Mahindra Bank had Rs 1,22,237 crore as on March 31, 2014. Hence, as far as economies of scale are concerned it is still well below Admati and Hellwig’s cut off point).
Moral of the story: bigger banks aren’t necessarily better, especially in an environment where governments cannot let a bank go bust in case it runs into trouble. As Swarup points out “No government will ever take the electoral risk of bank failure. Governments throw money at the problem, even if it is in vain, because the incentives are based on perpetuating their political hegemony.”
And this is something worth remembering every time a banker talks about bigger being better.

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Nov 25, 2014

Investing lessons from football penalties

goalkeeperVivek Kaul 

By the time you get around to reading this, the football World Cup would have already started. And hopefully the referees would have awarded a few penalty kicks by then as well.
A penalty kick is by far the easiest way to score a goal in football. As Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner write in
Think Like a Freak “75 percent of penalty kicks at the elite level are successful.”
In fact, the goalkeeper cannot wait for the footballer taking the penalty to kick the ball. The ball takes around 0.2 seconds to reach the goal after it is kicked. Hence, this does not give enough time to goalkeeper to figure out the direction in which the ball is kicked. He has to take a guess in which direction the ball will be kicked and jump (either to his right or his left). If he gets the direction wrong, then the chances of a goal being scored “rise to about 90 percent”.
Given this, which direction do goalkeepers jump in? As Levitt and Dubner write “If you are a right-footed kicker, as most players are, going left is your “strong” side. That translates to more power and accuracy—but of course the keeper knows this too. That’s why keepers jump toward the kicker’s left corner 57 percent of time, and to the right only 41 percent.”
What does this mean? It means that they stay in the centre only 2 percent of the time. Hence, the for a footballer taking the penalty it makes immense sense to aim for the centre of the goal. He is more likely to succeed in scoring a goal. But only 17 percent of kicks are aimed for the centre of the goal.
Now why is that the case? Why don’t kickers hit the ball towards the centre of the goal where the chances of scoring the goal are the highest? A simple reason is kickers want to maintain some mystery instead of doing the same thing all the time (i.e. aim towards the centre of the goal). If every kicker started kicking the ball towards the centre of the goal all the time, goalkeepers would soon figure out what is happening and factor that in.
But there is a more important reason than just trying to be unpredictable. As Levitt and Dubner point out “Picture yourself standing over the ball. You have just mentally committed to aiming for the center. But wait a minute—what if the goalkeeper
doesn’t dive? What if for some reason he stays at home and you kick the ball straight into his gut and he saves [the goal]…without even having to budge? How pathetic will you seem!”
So you decide to take the “traditional route” and aim for one corner of the goal. If the goalkeeper saves the goal, then so be it. At least you won’t seem pathetic and be accused of doing a dumb thing.
At a more general level what this means is that people feel more comfortable being a part of a “herd” and doing things that everybody else around them seems to be doing. And this applies to the investment industry as well.
An excellent example of this comes from the dot-com bubble. By the end of 1999, even though the stock market had reached astonishingly high levels, the Wall Street analysts were still recommending that investors should continue to buy stocks. According to data from Zack Investment Research, only about one percent of the recommendations on some 6,000 companies were sell recommendations. The remaining 99 percent was divided between 69.5 percent buy recommendations and 29.9 percent hold recommendations (i.e., don’t buy more shares but don’t sell what you already own). The dot-com bubble started losing steam March 2000 onwards.
Bob Swarup explains this phenomenon in
Money Mania in the context of investment managers.As he writes “Don’t stick your head above the parapet. Run with the pack. There is safety in numbers, especially in bad times. It may not the rational human’s choice but it is the sensible human’s choice.”
Running with the herd is a sensible human’s choice due to two reasons. “First, the notion of inclusivity is powerful and can create perverse economic incentives that encourage crowding. Second, having decided to go with the flow, we are good at convincing ourselves that there are strong rational bases for what is essential a primal urge to belong and conform.”
An excellent recent example of this phenomenon is the current upgrading of the Sensex/Nifty targets by almost all stock brokerages. Targets as high as the Sensex reaching 35,000 points by December 2015, have been bandied around. This is not to say that the Sensex will not reach the target. It may. It may not. That time will tell and I really don’t know.
But the point is that there is not one stock brokerage out there which has a different point of view. How is that possible? Every stock brokerage is telling us that the economic problems of this country are over because a new government which “seems” to be reform oriented will deliver and set everything right. And happy days will be here again.
But as we all know, hope as an investment strategy, can be a pretty dangerous thing. Shouldn’t at least one brokerage be discounting for that? But they are not. As Swarup explains “no financial institution wants to be an outlier.”
Further, it needs to be pointed out here that investment managers are not the only ones who like to move in a herd. Economists do that as well, specially the ones who work on the policy side with the government. Given this, it limits their ability to spot bubbles and financial crises. In order to that they need to move against the herd. And that is a huge risk to take.
As Alan Greenspan writes in
The Map and the Territory —Risk, Human Nature and the Future of Forecasting “In my experience, if policy makers are in a minority and wrong, they are politically pilloried. If they are in a majority, and wrong, they are tolerated and the political consequences are far less dire.”
To conclude, John Maynard Keynes explained this phenomenon brilliantly when he said “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the 
reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”
The article originally appeared in the Mutual Fund Insight magazine July 2014  

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]

Decoding Rajan’s Frankfurt speech: Why central banks fuel bubbles

 ARTS RAJANVivek Kaul  
Alan Greenspan, when he was the chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank, used to say “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
Greenspan was known to talk in a very roundabout manner, never meaning what he said, and never saying what he meant. Thankfully, all central bank governors are not like that. There are some who like calling a spade a spade.
Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI), was in Frankfurt yesterday to receive the 
Fifth Deutsche Bank Prize for Financial Economics. In his speech he said things that would have embarrassed central bank governors of the Western nations, who are busy printing money to get their economies up and running again.
In the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in late 2008, Western central banks have been printing money. 
With so much money going around, the hope is that interest rates will continue to remain low (as they have). At low interest rates people are likely to borrow and spend more. When they do that this is likely to benefit businesses and thus the overall economy.
But what has happened is that the citizens of the countries printing money are still in the process of coming out of one round of borrowing binge. When interest rates were at very low levels in the early 2000s, they had borrowed money to speculate in real estate in the hope that real estate prices will continue to go up perpetually. This eventually led to a real estate bubbles in large parts of the Western world.
Eventually, the bubbles burst and people were left holding the loans they had taken to speculate in real estate. Hence, people who are expected to borrow and spend, are still in the process of repaying their past loans. So, they stayed away from taking on more loans.
But money was available at very low interest rates to be borrowed. Hence, banks and financial institutions borrowed this money at close to zero percent interest rates and invested it in stock, real estate and commodity markets all around the world. Some of this money also seems to have found its way into fancier markets like art. And this has again led to several asset bubbles in different parts of the world. As Rajan put it in Frankfurt “
We seem to be in a situation where we are doomed to inflate bubbles elsewhere.”
Economists still do not agree on what is the best way to ensure
 that there are no real estate or stock market bubbles. But what they do agree on is that keeping interest rates too low for too long isn’t the best way of going about it. It is a sure shot recipe for creating bubbles. Even the once great and now ridiculed “Alan Greenspan” agrees on this. In an article for the Wall Street Journal published in December 2007(after he had retired as the Fed chairman), he wrote “The 1% rate set in mid-2003…lowered interest rates…and may have contributed to the rise in U.S. home prices.”
What he was effectively saying was that by slashing the interest rate to 1%, the Federal Reserve of United States may have played a part in fuelling the real estate bubble in the United States. Rajan in his Frankfurt speech for a change agreed with Greenspan. As he said “
We should wonder whether lower and lower interest rates are in fact part of the problem, I say I don’t know.”
It is easy to conclude from the statements of Greenspan as well Rajan that central bank governors do understand the perils of printing money to keep interest rates low. Given that why are they still continuing to print money? Ben Bernanke, the current Chairman of the Federal Reserve hinted in May 2013, that the Fed plans to go slow on money printing in the months to come. He repeated this in June 2013. But when the Federal Reserve met recently, nothing happened on this front and it decided to continue printing $85 billion every month.
As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale put it in a February 2013 report titled 
Is Mark Carney the Next Alan Greenspa…? I keep seeing Central Bankers saying again and again that QE(quantitative easing, a fancy term for printing money) and more recently, helicopter money is not only necessary but essential.”
So the question is why do central banks in the Western world continue to print money? Dylan Grice, formerly of Societe Generale, has an answer in his 2010 report 
Print Baby Print. As he writes “What’s interesting is that central banks feel they have no choice. It’s not that they’re unaware of the risks…They’re printing money because they’re scared of what might happen if they don’t. This very real political dilemma… It’s like they’re on a train which they know to be heading for a crash, but it is accelerating so rapidly they’re scared to jump off.”
Sometimes the withdraw symptoms are so scary that it just makes sense to continue with the drug. Dylan compares the current situation to the situation that Rudolf von Havenstein found himself in as the President of the Reichsbank, which was the German central bank in the 1920s.
Havenstein printed so much money that it led to hyperinflation and money lost all its value. The increase in money printing did not happen overnight; it had been happening since the First World War started. By the time the war ended, in October 1918, the amount of paper money in the system was four times the money at the beginning of the war. Despite this, prices had risen only by 139%. But by the start of 1920, the situation had reversed. The money in circulation had grown 8.4 times since the start of the war, whereas the wholesale price index had risen nearly 12.4 times. It kept getting worse. By November 1921, circulation had gone up 18 times and prices 34 times. By the end of it all, in November 1923, the circulation of money had gone up 245 billion times. In turn, prices had skyrocketed 1380 billion times since the beginning of the First World War.
So why did Havenstein start and continue to print money? Why did he not stop to print money once its ill-effects started to come out? Liaquat Ahamed has the answer in his book The Lords of Finance. As he writes “were he to refuse to print the money necessary to finance the deficit, he risked causing a sharp rise in interest rates as the government scrambled to borrow from every source. The mass unemployment that would ensue, he believed, would bring on a domestic economic and political crisis.”
The danger for central bank governors is very similar. If they stop printing money then interest rates will start to go up and this will kill whatever little economic growth that has started to return. Hence, the choice is really between the devil and the deep sea.
As far as Rajan is concerned he is possibly back to where it all started for him. The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, one of the twelve Federal Reserve Banks in the United States, organises a symposium at Jackson Hole in the state of Wyoming, every year.
The 2005 conference was to be the last conference attended by Alan Greenspan, as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Hence, the theme for the conference was the legacy of the Greenspan era. Rajan was attending the conference and presenting a paper titled “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier?
Those were the days when Greenspan was god. The United States was in the midst of a huge real estate bubble, but the bubble wasn’t looked upon as a bubble, but a sign of economic prosperity. The prevailing economic view was that the US had entered an era of unmatched economic prosperity and Alan Greenspan was largely responsible for it.
Hence, in the conference, people were supposed to say good things about Greenspan and give him a nice farewell. Rajan spoiled what was meant to be a send off for Greenspan. In his speech Rajan said that the era of easy money would get over soon and would not last forever as the conventional wisdom expected it to. “The bottom line is that banks are certainly not any less risky than the past despite their better capitalization, and may well be riskier. Moreover, banks now bear only the tip of the iceberg of financial sector risks…the interbank market could freeze up, and one could well have a full-blown financial crisis,” said Rajan.
In the last paragraph of his speech Rajan said it is at such times that “excesses typically build up. One source of concern is housing prices that are at elevated levels around the globe.”
He came in for a lot of criticism for his plain-speaking and calling a bubble a bubble. As he later recounted about the experience in his book Fault Lines – How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, “Forecasting at that time did not require tremendous prescience: all I did was connect the dots… I did not, however, foresee the reaction from the normally polite conference audience. I exaggerate only a bit when I say I felt like an early Christian who had wandered into a convention of half-starved lions. As I walked away from the podium after being roundly criticized by a number of luminaries (with a few notable exceptions), I felt some unease. It was not caused by the criticism itself…Rather it was because the critics seemed to be ignoring what going on before their eyes.”
The situation is no different today than it was in 2005, when Rajan said what he did. The central bank governors are ignoring what is going on before their eyes and that is not a good sign. Or as Rajan put it in Frankfurt “When they (central banks) say they are the only game in town, they become the only game in town.”
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 27,2013

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Five years after Lehman Brothers went bust, the same mistakes are being made

A logo of Lehman Brothers is seen outside its Asia headquarters in TokyoVivek Kaul 
Graham Greene’s fascinating book The End of an Affair starts with these lines: “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”
If the current financial crisis were a story (which it is) its beginning would be on September 15, 2008, when Lehman Brothers, the smallest of the big investment banks on Wall Street, went bust. It was the largest bankruptcy in the history of the world. Lehman Brothers started a crisis, from which the world is still trying to recover.
While the American government and the Federal Reserve(the American central bank) let Lehman Brothers go under, the got together to save AIG, one of the largest insurance companies in the world, a day later. This was followed by a spate of other rescues in the United States as well as Europe. These rescues cost the governments around the world a lot of money. As Mark Blyth writes in Austerity – The History of a Dangerous Idea “The cost of bailing, recapitalizing, and otherwise saving the global banking system has been depending on…how you count it, between 3 and 13 trillion dollars. Most of that has ended up on the balance sheets of governments as they absorb the costs of the bust.”
It’s been five years since Lehman Brothers went bust. Hence, enough time has elapsed since the financial criss started, to analyse, if any lessons have been learnt. One of the major reasons for the financial crisis was the fact that governments across the Western world ran easy money policies, starting from the turn of the century. Loans were available at low interest rates.
People went on a borrowing binge to build and buy homes and this led to huge real estate bubbles in different parts of the world. Take the case of Spain. Spain ended up building many more homes than it could sell. Estimates suggest that even though Spain forms only 12 percent of the GDP of the European Union (EU) it built nearly 30 percent of all the homes in the EU since 2000. The country has as many unsold homes as the United States of America which is many times bigger than Spain.
Along similar lines, by the time the Irish finished with buying and selling houses to each other, the home ownership in the country had gone up to 87%, which was the highest anywhere in the world. A similar thing happened in the United States, though not on a similar scale.
Housing prices in America had already started to fall before Lehman Brothers went bust. After that the fall accelerated. As per the Case-Shiller Composite-20 City Home Price Index, housing prices in America had risen by 76% between mid of 2001 and mid of 2006. The first time the real estate prices came down was in January 2007, when the Case-Shiller Composite-20 City Home Price Index suggested that housing prices had fallen by a minuscule 0.05% between January 2006 and January 2007. This fall came nearly two and half years after the Federal Reserve started raising interest rates to control the rise in price of real estate.
The fall gradually accentuated and by the end of December 2007, housing prices had fallen by 9.1% over a one year period. The fall continued. And by December 2008, a couple of months after Lehman went bust, housing prices, had fallen by 25.5%, over a period of three years. The real estate bubble had burst and the massacre had started. Similar stories were repeated in other parts of the Western world. Soon, western economies entered into a recession.
Governments around the world started tackling this by throwing money at the problem. The hope was that by printing money and putting it into the financial system, the interest rates would continue to remain low. At lower interest rates people would borrow and spend more, and this in turn would lead to economic growth coming back.

Hence, the idea was to cure a problem, which primarily happened on account of excess borrowing, by encouraging more borrowing. The question is where did this thinking come from? In order to understand this we need to go back a little in history.
As Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Lucas said in a speech he gave in January 2003, as the president of the American Economic Association: “Macroeconomics was born as a distinct field in the 1940s, as a part of the intellectual response to the Great Depression. The term then referred to the body of knowledge and expertise that we hoped would prevent the recurrence of economic disaster.”
Given this, the economic thinking on the Great Depression has had a great impact on American economists as well as central bankers. This is also true about economists across Europe to some extent.
In 1963, Milton Friedman along with Anna J. Schwartz, wrote 
A Monetary History of United States, 1867-1960, which also had a revisionist history of the Great Depression. What Friedman and Schwartz basically argued was that the Federal Reserve System ensured that what was just a stock market crash in October 1929, became the Great Depression.
Between 1929 and 1933, more than 7,500 banks with deposits amounting to nearly $5.7 billion went bankrupt. This according to Friedman and Schwartz led to the total amount of currency in circulation and demand deposits at banks, plunging by a one third.
With banks going bankrupt, the depositors money was either stuck or totally gone. Under this situation, they cut down on their expenditure further, to try and build their savings again. This converted what was basically a stock market crash, into the Great Depression.
If the Federal Reserve had pumped more money into the banking system at that point of time, enough confidence would have been created among the depositors who had lost their money and the Great Depression could have been avoided.
This thinking on the Great Depression came to dominate the American economic establishment over the years. Friedman believed that the Great Depression had happened because the American government and the Federal Reserve system of the day had let the banks fail and that had led to a massive contraction in money supply, which in turn had led to an environment of falling prices and finally, the Great Depression.
Hence, it was no surprise that when the Dow Jones Industrial Average, America’s premier stock market index, had a freak crash in October 1987, and fell by 22.6% in a single day, Alan Greenspan, who had just taken over as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, flooded the financial system with money.
After this, he kept flooding the system with money by cutting interest rates, at the slightest hint of trouble. This led to a situation where investors started to believe that come what may, Greenspan and the Federal Reserve would come to the rescue. This increased their appetite for risk, finally led to the dotcom and the real estate bubbles in the United States.
In fact, such has been Friedman’s influence on the prevailing economic thinking that Ben Bernanke, who would take over as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, after Greenspan, said the following at a conference to mark the ninetieth birthday celebrations of Friedman in 2002. “I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”
At that point of time, Bernanke was a member of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System and hence, the use of the word “we”. What Bernanke was effectively saying was that in the days and years to come, at the slightest sign of trouble, the Federal Reserve of United States would flood the financial system with money.
And that is precisely what Bernanke and the American government did once the financial crisis broke out in September 2008. The Bank of England, the British central bank, followed. And so did the European Central Bank in the time to come. Recently, the Bank of Japan decided to join them as well.
Central banks around the world have been on a money printing spree since the start of the financial crisis in late 2008. Between then and early February 2013, the Federal Reserve of United States has expanded its balance sheet by 220%. The Bank of England has done even better at 350%. The European Central Bank came to the money printing party a little late in the day and has expanded its balance sheet by around 98%. The Bank of Japan has been rather subdued in its money printing efforts and has expanded its balance sheet only by 30% over the four year period. But during the course of 2013, the Bank of Japan has made it clear that it will print as much money as will be required to get the Japanese economy up and running again.
The trouble is that people in the Western world are not interested in borrowing money again. Hence, the little economic recovery that has happened has been very slow. The Japanese economist Richard Koo calls the current state of affairs in the United States as well as Europe as a balance sheet recession. The situation is very similar to as it was in Japan in 1990 when the stock market bubble as well as the real estate bubble burst.
Hence, Koo concludes that the Western economies including the United States may well be headed towards a Japan like lost decade. In a balance sheet recession a large portion of the private sector, which includes both individuals and businesses, minimise their debt. When a bubble that has been financed by raising more and more debt collapses, the asset prices collapse but the liabilities do not change.
In the American and the European context what this means is that people had taken on huge loans to buy homes in the hope that prices would continue to go up for perpetuity. But that was not to be. Once the bubble burst, the housing prices crashed. This meant that the asset (i.e. homes) that people had bought by taking on loans lost value, but the value of the loans continued to remain the same.
Hence, people needed to repair their individual balance sheets by increasing savings and paying down debt. This act of deleveraging or reducing debt has brought down aggregate demand and throws the economy in a balance sheet recession.
While the citizens may not be borrowing, this hasn’t stopped the financial institutions and the speculators from borrowing at close to zero percent interest rates and investing that money in various parts of the world. And that, in turn, has led to other asset bubbles all over the world.
These bubbles have benefited the rich. 
As The Economist points out “THE recovery belongs to the rich. It seemed ominous in 2007 when the share of national income flowing to America’s top 1% of earners reached 18.3%: the highest since just before the crash of 1929. But whereas the Depression kicked off a long era of even income growth the rich have done much better this time round. New data assembled by Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Thomas Piketty, of the Paris School of Economics, reveal that the top 1% enjoyed real income growth of 31% between 2009 and 2012, compared with growth of less than 1% for the bottom 99%. Income actually shrank for the bottom 90% of earner.”
Once these bubbles start to burst, the world will go through another round of pain. Satyajit Das explains the situation beautifully 
in a recent column for the Financial Times, where he quotes the Irish author Samuel Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
To conclude, there are many lessons that history offers us. But its up to us whether we learn from it or not. As the German philosopher Georg Engel once said “What experience and history teach is this – that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it”
And why should this time be any different?
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 16, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)