What was wrong was the theory. The price level is not a leading, but a lagging, indicator. Asset bubbles can coexist with a stable price level, even while the rest of the economy is starting to slide into depression. And this, in essence, is what Keynes believed was happening in the late 1920s. Money, he argued, was being switched from production to speculation. The rich were getting very much richer, while the incomes of the rest were stagnating. "Profit inflation," fueled by collateralized debt, went together with an "income deflation." Share prices were being driven up to dizzying heights even as farmers were finding it harder to service agricultural mortgages. Every financial crash is different in detail -- today's started in the banking system, not the stock market -- but the anatomy of all is surprisingly similar: A speculative frenzy, triggered by some technical innovation such as mortgage-backed securities, that collapses when reality -- in the form of more sober valuations -- kicks in.
No one has bettered Keynes in his understanding of the psychology of financial markets. "Most . . . of our decisions to do something positive . . . can only be taken as a result of animal spirits . . . If animal spirits are dimmed . . . enterprise will fade and die" is one famous remark. "Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done" is another. Professional investment, he wrote, is like "a game of Snap, of Old Maid, of Musical Chairs," whose object is to pass on the Old Maid -- the toxic debt -- to one's neighbor before the music stops. What makes the game toxic is not greed, which is universal, but uncertainty masquerading as certainty.
"The outstanding fact is the extreme precariousness of the basis of knowledge on which our estimates of prospective yield have to be made," Keynes wrote in his great book "The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money" in 1936. We disguise this uncertainty from ourselves by assuming that the future will be like the past, that existing opinion correctly sums up future prospects, and by copying what everyone else is doing. But any view of the future based on "so flimsy a foundation" is liable to "sudden and violent changes. The practice of calmness and immobility, of certainty and security suddenly breaks down. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct . . . the market will be subject to waves of optimistic and pessimistic sentiment, which are unreasoning yet in a sense legitimate where no solid basis exists for a reasonable calculation." Keynes accused economics of being itself "one of these pretty, polite techniques which tries to deal with the present by abstracting from the fact that we know very little about the future."
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Take it or leave it, but this is a good discussion of Keynes in light of the financial crisis.