This is a special edition of the Vivek Kaul Diary. This is the first time I am interviewing someone for the Diary. In this interview I speak to Satyajit Das, an internationally respected commentator on financial markets, credited with predicting the current financial crisis. He has also featured 2010 Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job.
I would like to say here that personally I have learnt a lot from reading what Das has written over the years. His two books Traders, Guns and Money and Extreme Money have been a master class on derivatives as well as how they caused the financial crisis.
Honestly, if you were to read only one book on the financial crisis, it has to be Extreme Money.
In this interview I speak to Das around his new book The Age of Stagnation—Why Perpetual Growth is Unattainable and the Global Economy is in Peril. Like his earlier books this book is also a terrific read and a must for anyone who seriously wants to understand how things haven’t really changed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and why the future continues to remain bleak.
This is the first part of a three-part interview. The other two parts will appear over the next two days.
I would like to start with a clichéd question. Why did very few economists and experts see the economic crisis coming?
I think Richard Breeden, a former chairman of the SEC, probably identified the reason best: “It’s probably a better question for a psychologist. There’s a group dynamic…nobody likes to be the person who sends everybody home from the party when they’re having a good time.”
People rarely see what is front of them because of a mixture of ideology, biases and incentive structures. Proponents of markets are never going to concede that the mechanisms had failed or were even capable of failure.
Most economists and experts are guilty of ‘groupthink’. People with similar backgrounds and largely insulated from outside opinions tend to make decisions without critically testing, analysing and evaluating ideas or evidence. They collective rationalise, convinced about the inherent morality of their views, their unanimity and invulnerability. They also hold stereotyped views of outsiders and do not tolerate dissent. People work in neat silos and don’t look outside their narrow specialisation.
People employed by financial organisations are deeply compromised, forced to propagate the party line. Upton Sinclair was correct in noting that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it”.
What made you feel that a crisis was on the way?
My only advantage is that I am not beholden to anybody or any organisation. I don’t have strong ideologies. My interest is in facts and trying to understand them. I am extremely pragmatic, adhering to what works or doesn’t. It is a luxury.
But you also need to be lucky, especially on timing of events.
One of the first things you write in your book is “future generations may have lower living standards than their parents”. This I would guess is one of the key points of the book as well. Why do you say this?
Future economic historians may come to regard the last two centuries and especially the post WW2 period, as an exception in terms of large improvements in livings standards.
Ultimately, prosperity depends on economic growth. If growth is slower and more volatile in the future then future generations will have lower living standards. The reasons are fairly simple.
First, much of the recent prosperity was built on debt funded growth which is not repeatable. An unknown portion of this debt will have to written off either explicitly (default/ restructuring) or implicitly (through reduction in purchasing power through inflation or financial repression). A large amount of wealth will be wiped out.
Second, environmental damage will restrict future growth. This will be through acceptance of lower levels of economic activity as the world restricts the use of fossil fuels which is unlikely. The alternative will be lower growth as a result of the catastrophic costs of climate change, in terms of damage, dislocation or shortages of essential goods and services.
Can you give us an example?
For example, India will have to accept the problems of water shortages and lower food production as well as having to deal with the forced displacement of a large part of the population of Bangladesh. There are also ancillary costs like health costs from air, water and soil pollution.
Third, resources like water, food and energy will get scarcer and therefore more expensive.
Fourth, our model for dealing with these issues is simply to extend and pretend and kick the problem further down the road. In effect, past and present generations will have enjoyed the benefit but the costs will be borne by future generation, reducing their living standards.
The problem will manifest itself at an individual level in three ways. A large part of future generations will find employment, particularly secure and well-paid jobs, more difficult to obtain. A commentator in Greece argued, with black humour, that the government could save money on education because it was unnecessary to prepare people for jobs that did not exist.
Purchasing houses and large capital goods may become harder. Also, the idea of a finite working life followed by retirement will become a luxury for most. People will have to work till they die or are unable to work.
We see all these trends already in many societies.
Much of the world’s population (probably 5-6 billion of the 7 billion on earth) are already in the position that I have described. It is the other 1-2 billion who aspired to a better life for themselves and their children who will have to adjust their expectations, which have been set too high.
You write that “we may never know the real cost of the financial crisis”. Why do you say that?
Costs of crisis are always complex. There are measureable losses in the value of financial assets like equities, property and loan write-offs. There are structural effects which economist refers to as hysteresis; that is a single disturbance which affects the course of the economy. An example is the delayed effects of unemployment. As unemployment increases, more people adjust to a lower standard of living. There is reduction of potential output. There are complex questions about what period we measure losses over.
The 2007/2008 financial crisis illustrates this point. Large financial institutions throughout the world collapsed or suffered near fatal losses. Values of houses and financial assets, like shares, fell sharply. In the real economy, there was a sharp downturn in economic activity, unemployment often for prolonged periods, housing foreclosures and evictions and failures of businesses.
What is the biggest number you have come across with regard to the cost of the financial crisis?
In 2009, the IMF estimated the cost to that stage at around US$12 trillion, equivalent to around 20 percent of the entire globe’s annual economic output. In 2013, Tyler Atkinson, David Luttrell and Harvey Rosenblum, three economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, tentatively quantified the loss to the US economy as between US$6 and US$14 trillion, around US$19,000 to US$45,000 per person. Under certain assumptions, they found that the loss could be higher – US$25 trillion or over 150% of GDP, almost US$80,000 per American. No one may ever know the full cost.
There are huge indirect costs like lost human potential and suffering, which we do not measure. A diary entry at the time of the Great Depression in Siri Hustvedt novel Sorrows of An American reads: “A depression entails more than economic hardship, more than making do with less. That may be the least of it. People with pride find themselves beset by misfortunes they did not create; yet because of this pride, they still feel a pervasive sense of failure… People become powerless.” We don’t measure that.
On page 34 you write: “everybody, it seemed, agreed with Oscar Wilde that living within one’s income merely showed a lack of imagination”. Why do you say that? Isn’t it a very fierce indictment of the Western World?
Developed economies are now 60-70% consumption.
If we look at the post war period then you see a persistent pattern of promoting consumption. Initially, it was about meeting unsatisfied needs. Over time, it shifted to manufacturing demand though a variety of strategies ranging from advertising to planned obsolescence.
Consumption driven economies require you to keep consuming to drive economic activity to provide employment to give you income to buy more things you don’t really need. There is a piece of graffiti art by Bansky which I have always liked. It reads: “join a hilarious adventure of a lifestyle – work, buy, consume, die”.
In Das Kapital, Karl Marx identified this inherent tendency of capitalism towards overproduction. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr saw society as enslaved to its productive process, reversing the normal process of producing to satisfy consumption needs. Economists dismiss overproduction, arguing that supply creates its own demand (known as Say’s Law). They view consumer needs as essentially unlimited, with people wanting more and better goods.
It may be an indictment of Western economic system. My objective was not judgemental. It was to describe what was happening. In essence, economic growth and prosperity were by-products of consumption, unsustainable resource exploitation and serious environmental damage. It would be fair to say in recent decades nobody was took the advice of 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill “[seeking] happiness by limiting … desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them”.
There is a great belief among economists that borrowing leads to economic growth. How true is that? Has the impact of debt on growth come down over the years?
There is nothing inherently good or bad about debt. It can be used to drive economic growth, allowing immediate consumption or investment against the promise of paying back the borrowing in the future. Spending that would have taken place normally over a period of years is accelerated because of the availability of debt.
The use of debt can be beneficial, where the economic activity generated is sufficient to repay the borrowing with interest. This requires borrowing to finance assets or investments which generate income or value to repay principal and interest. A significant proportion of current debt does not meet this test.
Only (around) 15-20% of total financial flows went into investment projects with the remaining 80-85% being used to finance existing corporate assets, real estate or unsecured personal finance to facilitate consumption. Borrowings were frequently used to finance pre-existing assets where anticipated price rises were to be the source of repayment.
Under these conditions, a slowdown in the ability to borrow ever increasing amounts can lead to a sharp fall in asset prices to levels below the outstanding debt creating repayment difficulties. This is precisely what happened in 2007/2008 and is likely to happen again, sooner than people think.
The build-up of debt over the last quarter of a century has been excessive, beyond repayment capacity.
Could you elaborate on that?
In the lead up to 2007/2008, there was a rapid build-up in debt in developed economies. Between 2000 and 2009 total global credit grew from US$57 trillion to US$109 trillion, equating to a growth of 7.5% per annum, around double the growth in economic activity. In many countries, debt reached three to four times Gross Domestic Product (“GDP”), levels not normally reached other than in wartime (i.e. 1914-1918 and 1939-1945) when the result was losses for creditors of the losing states.
The other problem is that you need to borrow ever increasing amounts to both repay existing borrowing but also to maintain economic growth. By 2007/2008, the US needed $4-$5 of debt to create $1 of economic growth, compared to an additional $1-$2 of debt per additional $1 of GDP in the 1950s.
To be continued…
Disclosure: Satyajit Das wrote the foreword to my book Easy Money: Evolution of Money from Robinson Crusoe to the First World War