The ‘Classical’ Treasury view of the 1920s and 30s was that extra government spending or tax cuts were not the solution to depression and mass unemployment. Instead, it would crowd out private expenditure if the money supply were not allowed to rise as it would drive up interest rates. But if money supply were allowed to rise, this would be inflationary. The solution was to reduce budget deficits to increase confidence in public finances and to encourage private investment. Greater price and wage flexibility were the answer to markets not clearing.
Keynes countered these arguments by arguing that the economy could settle in a state of mass unemployment, with low confidence leading to lower consumer expenditure, lower investment, lower incomes and lower employment. The situation would be made worse, not better, by cuts in public expenditure or tax rises in an attempt to reduce the budget deficit. The solution was higher public expenditure to stimulate aggregate demand. This could be achieved by fiscal and monetary policies. Monetary policy alone could, however, be made ineffective by the liquidity trap. Extra money might simply be held rather than spent.
This old debate has been reborn since the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the subsequent deep recession and, more recently, the lack of recovery. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The articles below consider the current situation. Many economists, but certainly not all, take a Keynesian line that austerity policies to reduce public-sector deficits have been counter-productive. By dampening demand, such policies have reduced national income and slowed the recovery in both investment and consumer demand. This has at best slowed the rate of deficit reduction or at worst even increased the deficit, with lower GDP leading to a reduction in tax receipts and higher unemployment leading to higher government social security expenditure.
Although monetary policy has been very loose, measures such as record low interest rates and quantitative easing have been largely ineffective in stimulating demand. Economies are stuck in a liquidity trap, with banks preferring to build their reserves rather than to increase lending. This is the result partly of a lack of confidence and partly of pressure on them to meet Basel II and III requirements of reducing their leverage.
But despite the call from many economists to use fiscal policy and more radical monetary policy to stimulate demand, most governments have been pre-occupied with reducing their deficits and ultimately their debt. Their fear is that rising deficits undermine growth – a fear that was given weight by, amongst others, the work of Reinhart and Rogoff (see the blog posts Reinhart and Rogoff: debt and growth and It could be you and see also Light at the end of the tunnel – or an oncoming train?.
But there is some movement by governments. The new Japanese government under Shinzo Abe is following an aggressive monetary policy to drive down the exchange rate and boost aggregate demand (see A J-curve for Japan?) and, more recently, the European Commission has agreed to slow the pace of austerity by giving the Netherlands, France, Spain, Poland, Portugal and Slovenia more time to bring their budget deficits below the 3% of GDP target.
Of course, whether or not expansionary fiscal and/or monetary policies should be used to tackle a lack of growth does not alter the argument that supply-side policies are also required in order to increase potential economic growth.
A Keynesian Victory, but Austerity Stands Firm The New York Times, Business Day, Eduardo Porter (21/5/13)
With Austerity Under Fire, Countries Seek a More Balanced Solution Knowledge@Wharton (22/5/13)
Keynes, Say’s Law and the Theory of the Business Cycle History of Economics Review 25.1-2, Steven Kates (1996)
Is Lord Keynes back in Brussels? The Conversation, Fabrizio Carmignani (31/5/13)
Keynes’s Biggest Mistake The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (7/5/13)
Keynes’s Not So Big Mistake The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (7/5/13)
The Chutzpah Caucus The New York Times, The Conscience of a Liberal blog, Paul Krugman (5/5/13)
Keynes and Keynesianism The New York Times, Business Day, Bruce Bartlett (14/5/13)
Japan Is About To Prove Keynesian Economics Entirely Wrong Forbes, Tim Worstall (11/5/13)
The poverty of austerity exposed Aljazeera, Paul Rosenberg (24/5/13)
Britain is a lab rat for George Osborne’s austerity programme experiment The Guardian, Larry Elliott (26/5/13)
Eurozone retreats from austerity – but only as far as ‘austerity lite’ The Guardian, Larry Elliott (30/5/13)
Europe’s long night of uncertainty Daily Times (Pakistan), S P Seth (29/5/13)
Abenomics vs. bad economics The Japan Times Gregory Clark (29/5/13)
European countries to be allowed to ease austerity BBC News (29/5/13)
U.K. Should Restore Growth, Rebalance Economy IMF Survey (22/5/13)
Now everyone is a Keynesian again – except George Osborne The Observer, William Keegan (2/6/13)
Austerity Versus Growth (III): Fiscal Policy And Debt Sustainability Social Europe Journal, Stefan Collignon (30/5/13)
- Explain what is meant by Say’s Law and its implication for macroeconomic policy.
- Why have many governments, including the UK government, been reluctant to pursue expansionary fiscal policies?
- What is meant by the liquidity trap? What is the way out of this trap?
- In the first article above, Eduardo Porter argues that ‘moral views are getting in the way of reason’. What does he mean by this?
- Explain what are meant by the ‘paradox of thrift’ and the ‘fallacy of composition’. How are these two concepts relevant to the debate over austerity policies?
- What are the dangers in pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
- What are the dangers in not pursuing aggressive Keynesian policies?
Under the Basel II arrangements, banks were required to maintain particular capital adequacy ratios (CARs). These were to ensure that banks had sufficient capital to allow them to meet all demands from depositors and to cover losses if a borrower defaulted on payment. Basel II, it was (wrongly) thought would ensure that the banking system could not collapse.
There were three key ratios. The first was an overall minimum CAR of 8%, measured as Tier 1 capital plus Tier 2 capital as a percentage of total risk-weighted assets. As Economics 7th edition page 509 explains:
Tier 1 capital includes bank reserves (from retained profits) and ordinary share capital, where dividends to shareholders vary with the amount of profit the bank makes. Such capital thus places no burden on banks in times of losses as no dividend need be paid. What is more, unlike depositors, shareholders cannot ask for their money back. Tier 2 capital consists largely of preference shares. These pay a fixed rate of interest and thus do continue to place a burden on the bank even when losses are made (unless the bank goes out of business).
Risk-weighted assets are the value of assets, where each type of asset is multiplied by a risk factor. Under the internationally agreed Basel II accord, cash and government bonds have a risk factor of zero and are thus not included. Inter-bank lending between the major banks has a risk factor of 0.2 and is thus included at only 20 per cent of its value; residential mortgages have a risk factor of 0.35; personal loans, credit-card debt and overdrafts have a risk factor of 1; loans to companies carry a risk factor of 0.2, 0.5, 1 or 1.5, depending on the credit rating of the company. Thus the greater the average risk factor of a bank’s assets, the greater will be the value of its risk weighted assets, and the lower will be its CAR.
The second CAR was that Tier 1 capital should be at least 4% of risk weighted assets.
The third CAR was that equity capital (i.e. money raised from the issue of ordinary shares) should be at least 2% of risk weighted assets. This is known as the ‘core capital ratio’.
Before 2008, it was thought by most commentators that these capital adequacy ratios were sufficiently high. But then the banking crisis erupted. Banks were too exposed to sub-prime debt (i.e. debt that was excessively risky, such as mortgages on property at a time when property prices were rapidly declining). Much of this debt was disguised by being bundled up with other securities in what were known as collateralised debt obligations (CDOs). On 15 September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy: the largest bankruptcy in history, with Lehmans owing $613 billion. Although its assets had a book value of $639, these were insufficiently liquid to enable Lehmans to meet the demands of its creditors.
The collapse of Lehmans sent shock waves around the world. Banks across the globe came under tremendous pressure. Many held too much sub-prime debt and had insufficient capital to meet creditors’ demands. As a result, they had to be bailed out by their governments. Clearly the Basel II regulations were too lax.
For several months there have been discussions about new tighter regulations and, on 12 September 2010, central bankers from the major countries met in Basel, Switzerland, and agreed the Basel III regulations. Although the overall CAR (Tier 1 and 2) was kept at 8%, the Tier 1 ratio was raised from 4% to 6% and the core Tier 1 ratio was raised from 2% to 4.5%, to be phased in by 2015. In addition there were two ‘buffers’ introduced.
As well as having to maintain a core Tier 1 ratio of 4.5%, banks would also have to hold a ‘conservation buffer’ of 2.5%. “The purpose of the conservation buffer is to ensure that banks maintain a buffer of capital that can be used to absorb losses during periods of financial and economic stress. While banks are allowed to draw on the buffer during such periods of stress, the closer their regulatory capital ratios approach the minimum requirement, the greater the constraints on earnings distributions.” In effect, then, the core Tier 1 ratio will rise from 2% to 7% (i.e. 4.5% minimum plus a buffer of 2.5%).
The other buffer is a ‘countercyclical buffer’. This will be “within a range of 0% – 2.5% of common equity or other fully loss absorbing capital and will be implemented according to national circumstances.” The idea of this buffer is to allow banks to withstand volatility in the global economy. It will be phased in between 2016 and 2019.
The Basel III agreement will still need to be ratified by the G20 countries meeting at Seoul on 10 and 11 November this year. That meeting will also consider other elements of bank regulation.
So will these extra capital requirements be sufficient to allow banks to withstand any future crisis? The following articles discuss this question.
Global bankers agree new capital reserve rules BBC News (12/9/10)
Q&A: Basel rules on bank capital – who cares? BBC News, Laurence Knight (13/9/10)
Basel III and Sound Banking New American, Charles Scaliger (17/9/10)
Wishy-washy rules might come back to haunt regulators Financial Times, Patrick Jenkins (18/9/10)
Basel III proposal released Newsweek, Joel Schectman (17/9/10)
New Bank Rules May Not Prevent More Meltdowns FXstreet, Henrik Arnt (16/9/10)
Basel III CBS Money Watch, Mark Thoma (14/9/10)
Basel III: To lend or not to lend Investment Week, Martin Morris (16/9/10)
Taming the banks The Economist (16/9/10)
Basel’s buttress The Economist (16/9/10)
Do new bank-capital requirements pose a risk to growth? The Economist, guest contributions
Myners: New rules ‘ignore bank liquidity’ BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston and Lord Myners (18/9/10)
Official press releases and documents
Group of Governors and Heads of Supervision announces higher global minimum capital standards Bank for International Settlements Press Release (12/9/10)
The Basel iii Accord Basel iii Compliance Professionals Association (BiiiCPA)
Details of the new capital requirements Bank for International Settlements
Details of the phase-in arrangements Bank for International Settlements
- What impact will a higher capital adequacy ratio have on banks’ behaviour?
- For what reasons may the Basel III regulations be considered too lax?
- When there is an increase in deposits into the banking sector, banks can increase loans by a multiple of this. This bank deposits multiplier is the inverse of the liquidity ratio. Is there a similar bank capital multiplier and, if so, what determines its size?
- Why will Basel III be phased in over a number of years? Is this too long?