Reviewed: The Bankers’ New Clothes by Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig

Profits of doom.

The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do About It
Anat Admati and Martin Hellwig
Princeton University Press, 392pp, £19.95

The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis
Ben S Bernanke
Princeton University Press, 144pp, £13.95

Historians will not be forgiving of the past 30 years. Western governments, with Britain in the vanguard, indulged an explosion in bank balance sheets supported by declining levels of equity and by borrowing that ran into many trillions of dollars, euros and pounds. This created a long and apparently impregnable private-sector-led boom; but it was a mountain of lending underwritten by a molehill of equity. Bankers claimed that they had invented new tools to handle what previous generations would have regarded as impossible risks. They were wrong. The inevitable exposure of the system’s fragility has left the world – and Britain in particular – saddled with a combination of private debt and crippled banks that, even if policy were clever and well resourced, which it is not, would take years to restore to something like normality. Instead, we have austerity and a long, barely contained depression. Never have so few lent so much to so many so recklessly, escaping the consequences while imposing hardship on others.

This raises fundamental questions about the sheer unfairness of capitalism and its vulnerability to those at the top creating dynastic personal fortunes. Nor could bankers and the high priests of modern finance – hedge-fund managers and private equity partners – ever have pulled this off without an accompanying ideology that vaunted the efficiency of private markets animated by personal selfishness and was self-serving nonsense. This was propagated by powerful, privately owned media cheerleaders, feeding off well-financed neoconservative think tanks, which persuaded the gullible public that this was the only way that wealth and jobs could be generated.

Given the scale of what has happened, the response from civil society and the left has been feeble. True, there have been groups such as UK Uncut and the Occupy movement. But even now, the left continues to take aim at the wrong targets. As I was writing this review, Cypriot banks, vastly overborrowed (mainly from the Russian superrich, allegedly laundering their money) and supported by minimal amounts of equity, were repeating the drama of RBS and Lehman Brothers. If anything was to go wrong with the assets against which they had directly or indirectly lent the borrowed money, there was too little equity to absorb the impact. Greece’s partial write-down of its debts in which Cyprus’s banks had invested was such an event, and inevitably a crisis ensued.

Yet, with dismal regularity, leading left-of-centre commentators – indistinguishable in their analysis from their counterparts on the right – decided that the culprit was not the structure of modern banking but the euro, austerity and the flint-eyed German government. In an alternative world of floating exchange rates and governments with an unfettered capacity to borrow and print money, they argued, the crisis would have passed fairly painlessly. This is yet more self-serving tosh. It is the bastardisation of Keynesian economics and the infantilisation of liberal-left thinking – a refusal to think hard about capitalism in favour of taking refuge in anti-austerity slogans and Ukip-style populism. With floating exchange rates, Cyprus, given the epic mistakes of its banks, would now be confronting hyperinflation as its currency collapsed, or else the takeover and rundown of its banks by the IMF. Rants about the euro or the reluctance of German taxpayers to foot the bill for the crisis dodge the issue. The pressing question is how western banking is to be reinvented and restored to health – in Cyprus, Britain and elsewhere – so as to relieve economies of the crushing legacy of private debt.

One of the most important contributions to answering these questions is a new book co-written by the leading German economist Martin Hellwig and his US counterpart Anat Admati. The Bankers’ New Clothes is a lucid exposition of the intellectual falsehoods deployed by banks to justify the ways in which they went about growing their business beyond any reasonable assessment of risk in the run-up to the crisis of 2008 and which they continue to peddle today.

Admati and Hellwig cut through the debates about whether it was too little or too much regulation that was to blame, whether central banks could and should have acted faster, and the rights and wrongs of securitisation or separating commercial and investment banking, and go to the heart of the matter. Western banks, they argue, borrowed far too much with far too little equity in their balance sheets to act as a buffer if things went wrong in any part of their business, from trading on their own account in the multitrillion-dollar derivatives markets to extravagant and reckless lending on real estate.

Less than 70 years ago, banks operated with between 20 and 30 per cent of their liabilities as equity; by 2008, that had shrunk to just 3 per cent. They believed that they had invented instruments that removed the risk, allowing them to run their banks with a tenth of the buffer they had before. It could only lead to disaster.

Admati’s and Hellwig’s constant refrain is that banks are no different from any other organisation or individual. In effect, managements and shareholders elected to run banks as if they were homeowners with mortgages worth 97 per cent of the value of their home, with only 3 per cent of equity. This makes sense when house prices are rising but it will only take a 3 per cent fall in house prices to wipe out your stake. Homeowners might take the risk once in their lives and hope as they steadily pay off the mortgage that any fall in house prices could be ridden out. However, banks adopted this as their standard approach, running their affairs on the finest of margins. British banks’ total liabilities are worth just less than five times our GDP – but supported by tiny amounts of equity.

Admati and Hellwig challenge all the bankers’ justifications for their behaviour. Having more equity is neither more expensive nor a deterrent to new lending. It has only been possible to grow balance sheets to such a gargantuan size with so little equity because banks have known that, in extremis, the risks would be underwritten by the state – either directly by insuring our deposits with them, or indirectly by bailing them out.

Having little equity is at the core of the one-way bet that the bankers have made: when times are good, they make fabulous profits and bonuses; when times are bad, the state picks up the pieces. As a result of this explicit subsidy and the state’s promise of underwriting the banks’ risks, banks never had to worry about their solvency: that was guaranteed. All they had to concern themselves with was their liquidity – that come what may they have enough cash to give depositors if they withdrew it. Here, central banks, with their capacity to print legal tender, enter the picture. As long as they are proactive enough to generate the cash that banks need in a crisis and at sufficient scale, through being the lender of last resort, then, with solvency underwritten and liquidity on tap, even the worst banking crisis can be managed.

Admati and Hellwig think that this is economically inefficient and unfair. After all, it is not as though periodic financial crises don’t impose huge costs on society. One could go further still. If banking relies entirely on having the state as a backstop, then society can reasonably ask for some quid pro quo in return.

One of the bitterest aspects of the lending boom of the past 30 years is that Britain has so little to show for it. We don’t have great industries or great infrastructure. Instead, we have loaded households and many firms with insupportable levels of debt. Even in good times, the banks have been unable or unwilling to support innovation, business-building and investment.

Instead, their focus has been on property lending or funding takeovers by private equity partners of perfectly good companies that did not need to be overwhelmed with debt to enrich their new owners. If more people understood what has happened and why, the outrage and clamour for change would be irresistible.

The trouble is that too few make the effort to understand and those who do are deterred by the apparent complexity of modern finance, or the unwillingness of so many practitioners and top officials to be honest about its deficiencies. In this respect, a collection of Ben Bernanke’s lectures on the role of the US Federal Reserve in the financial crisis is a classic of the genre – uninquiring, complacent and, unless you are fascinated by the minutiae of central banking, unilluminating.

Yet he is the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the most powerful central bank in the world. For Bernanke, financial crises are like hurricanes: they are just part of the climate of capitalism. If that is right, then it is imperative to have a watchful central bank led by a resourceful chairman such as Bernanke; someone who is ready to pump trillions of dollars into the system when the hurricanes occur, in order to provide crucial liquidity. And with that, the hurricane should pass.

In fairness to Bernanke, he operates in an intellectual and political environment in which suspicion of the state is so endemic that some on the Republican right want to abolish the central bank altogether. His lectures were, in part, a response to that crazed tendency, explaining in simple language why central banks’ capacity to provide the system with cash when it is in crisis is so crucial – and how the Fed set about doing that in the most recent crisis.

Bernanke skirts around the issues raised by Admati and Hellwig. Yet they are fundamental – not just to the stability of the financial system but for the question of how capitalism is to be better organised (which is surely the issue, more than any other, that the New Statesman needs to address in its centenary year).

We need banks to be run with more equity. We need them to accept that their decisions about how much they lend, to whom and on what terms have profound implications for our economy and society. That needs to be part of a wider reframing of the principles on which firms are constituted. Remuneration needs to return to earth. We need careful economic policies that offer the prospect of a sustained increase in demand and prices over time, gradually inflating away the real value of debt. Excessive private debt does not just imprison economies – it suffocates personal lives.

All of this should be part of a wider debate about what constitutes a good society. If a potential Labour government is to be successful, it will be because it is riding an intellectual tide that answers these questions. The New Statesman is one of the few catalysts for developing ideas that we have. The next two years are arguably the most important in its history: I hope it rises to the task.

Will Hutton’s most recent book is “Them and Us: Changing Britain –Why We Need a Fair Society” (Abacus, £10.99)

Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

Show Hide image

We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?