7 September 2009

No one saw this coming?

A paper published in June by Dirk Bezemer describes why most economists didn’t see the current crisis coming and—more importantly—why some of them did. The key missing ingredient: financial flows. The growth of the financial sector relative to the rest of the economy should have been an early warning sign of trouble ahead.

Bezemer summarized his paper 1 in the FT today:

“Central to the contrarians’ thinking is an accounting of financial flows (of credit, interest, profit and wages) and stocks (debt and wealth) in the economy, as well as a sharp distinction between the real economy and the financial sector (including property). In these “flow-of-funds” models, liquidity generated in the financial sector flows to companies, households and the government as they borrow. This may facilitate fixed-capital investment, production and consumption, but also asset-price inflation and debt growth. Liquidity returns to the financial sector as investment or in debt service and fees.

“It follows that there is a trade-off in the use of credit, so that financial investment may crowd out the financing of production. A second key insight is that, since the economy’s assets and liabilities must balance, growing financial asset markets find their counterpart in a growing debt burden. They also swell payment flows of debt service and financial fees. Flow-of-funds models quantify the sustainability of the debt burden and the financial sector’s drain on the real economy. This allows their users to foresee when finance’s relation to the real economy turns from supportive to extractive, and when a breaking point will be reached.

“Such calculations are conspicuous by their absence in official forecasters’ models in the US, the UK and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. In line with mainstream economic theory, balance sheet variables are assumed to adapt automatically to changes in the real economy, and can thus be safely omitted. This practice ignores the fact that in most advanced economies, financial sector turnover is many times larger than total gross domestic product; or that growth in the US and UK has been finance-driven since the turn of the millennium.” 2

1 No One Saw This Coming: Understanding Financial Crisis Through Accounting Models, Dirk Bezemer 16 June, 2009

2 Why some economists could see the crisis coming, FT, 7 September, 2009

d. sofer