The lesson of Ireland’s fall from grace is that we must relearn how money and finance really work

Felix Martin's "Real Money" column.

The publication by the Irish Independent on 24 June of taped telephone conversations between senior executives of Anglo Irish Bank in the days after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 has served up a sad reminder of the catastrophe that has befallen the country that was once the European Union’s star performer.

 Asked how he had come up with the figure of €7bn for the emergency funding that was being sought from the Irish government, the bank’s then head of capital markets boasted that he had “picked it out [of] my arse” and admitted “. . . the reality is that actually we need more than that”. Asked why they were taking this loan from the public purse, he joked: “This is a €7bn bridging . . . it is bridged until we can pay you back . . . which is never.”

Of all the disasters of the eurozone debt crisis, Ireland’s fall from grace was the most spectacular. Until 2008 Ireland was the “Celtic Tiger” – a rare example of a European economy in which productivity growth rates exceeded those of the US and the government balanced its books. The crisis suddenly uncovered a very different picture: a Ponzischeme economy that had been built on a property bubble, inflated by hypertrophied banks run by a bunch of shysters.

Fortunately, Ireland has another and more positive claim to fame in this context. It happens to be blessed with one of the richest and most enterprising concentrations of economic academics and journalists in Europe today. If understanding what has gone wrong is the first step to building a better future for the eurozone, then Ireland is in the vanguard. An important new book, The Fall of the Celtic Tiger, by Donal Donovan and Antoin E Murphy, is a case in point.

Donovan and Murphy represent the strength and breadth of contemporary Irish economics. Donovan is an experienced technocrat, a veteran IMF staffer with scars from many financial crises to prove it. Murphy is a distinguished economic historian, as well as one of the world’s leading authorities on the history of monetary thought.

The great virtue of their book is that it does not flinch from asking the question that has been uppermost in the general public’s mind from the start but that has proved mysteriously elusive in most official discussion: who or what, at root, was responsible for the crisis? It is a question that is just as urgent in Britain and the US as it is in the eurozone and Donovan’s and Murphy’s study of Ireland provides a compelling answer.

Yet the answer is one that will seem counter-intuitive to many. This is because, as is the case in the rest of the world, there is already a well-entrenched conventional wisdom about the origins of Ireland’s crisis. This is that a cabal of venal financiers colluded with corrupt politicians to bamboozle incompetent regulators. The subtitle of the journalist Fintan O’Toole’s bestselling exposé Ship of Fools (2009) says it all: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger. Or, as the American director Charles Ferguson put it in the title of his Oscar-winning documentary about the US financial crisis, it was all an Inside Job.

There is ample truth to that version of events, as the recently exposed Anglo Irish tapes have once again demonstrated. Yet how was it that these individuals were able to dominate proceedings? How was the presence of a few bad apples able to spoil the whole harvest?

It is in addressing this crucial question that Donovan and Murphy make their most valuable contribution. The answer to what caused the Irish crisis, they argue, is to be found not at the level of vested interests but at the level of ideas.

The problem in Ireland – a problem that will sound familiar to those in the UK, the US and most other developed countries – was not just “a largely passive government, reckless banks and greedy property developers”. Underlying all of these was “the climate of public opinion”, which not only tolerated but actively endorsed the way these institutions operated.

Where did this unhealthy climate originate? Drawing on financial history, Donovan and Murphy show that Ireland is hardly the first society to get caught up in the idea that innovation and endlessly inflating asset prices are sure signs of success.

Drawing on the history of economic thought, they also show that what is distinctive about the 2008 crisis is that, on this occasion, these mistaken judgements were not just improvised in the heat of the moment, as they usually are. They were given the rigorous approval of a uniquely powerful analytical framework for understanding the economy that a generation of policymakers and the general public alike had imbibed with their mothers’ milk: modern, orthodox macroeconomics. The sin was principally one of omission. This dominant conceptual apparatus “saw little role for investigating the inner workings of the financial system since, ultimately, markets could be largely trusted to self-regulate”.

This analysis of what was ultimately responsible for the Irish crisis is of major significance because it urges a different cure from the ones that are usually offered. If the fun - damental problem was at the level of ideas, then it is at the level of ideas that reform is necessary. Economics must relearn how money and finance work and communicate that understanding to the public.

That might not sound as sexy or as im - mediately satisfying as shaking up the regulators, turfing out the politicians and putting the bankers on trial. Yet Donovan and Murphy are right that without an intellectual shift of this sort nothing will change in the long run.

In a summer when already the governments of Portugal, Greece and Cyprus have been straining once again under the pressure of the crisis in the eurozone, that is a message with wide significance.

A man walks past a Bank of Ireland cash machine. Photograph: Getty Images

Felix Martin is a macroeconomist, bond trader and the author of Money: the Unauthorised Biography

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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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?