“Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit and Fixing Global Finance” by Adair Turner (2015)

This book is worth reading, if only because it challenges a number of preconceptions that bankers may have about the value of what they do. The book also benefits from the fact that author was the head of the UK Financial Services Authority during the GFC and thus had a unique inside perspective from which to observe what was wrong with the system. Since leaving the FSA, Turner has reflected deeply on the relationship between money, credit and the real economy and argues that, notwithstanding the scale of change flowing from Basel III, more fundamental change is required to avoid a repeat of the cycle of financial crises.

Overview of the book’s main arguments and conclusions

Turner’s core argument is that increasing financial intensity, represented by credit growing faster than nominal GDP, is a recipe for recurring bouts of financial instability.

Turner builds his argument by first considering the conventional wisdom guiding much of bank prudential regulation prior to GFC, which he summarises as follows:

  • Increasing financial activity, innovation and “financial deepening” were beneficial forces to be encouraged
  • More compete and liquid markets were believed to ensure more efficient allocation of capital thereby fostering higher productivity
  • Financial innovations made it easier to provide credit to households and companies thereby enabling more rapid economic growth
  • More sophisticated risk measurement and control meanwhile ensured that the increased complexity of the financial system was not achieved at the expense of stability
  • New systems of originating and distributing credit, rather than holding it on bank balance sheets, were believed to disperse risks into the hands of those best placed to price and manage it

Some elements of Turner’s account of why this conventional wisdom was wrong do not add much to previous analysis of the GFC. He notes, for example, the conflation of the concepts of risk and uncertainty that weakened the risk measurement models the system relied on and concludes that risk based capital requirements should be foregone in favour of a very high leverage ratio requirement. However, in contrast to other commentators who attribute much of the blame to the moral failings of bankers, Turner argues that this is a distraction. While problems with the way that bankers are paid need to be addressed, Turner argues that the fundamental problem is that:

  • modern financial systems left to themselves inevitably create debt in excessive quantities,
  • in particular, the system tends to create debt that does not fund new capital investment but rather the purchase of already existing assets, above all real estate.

Turner argues that the expansion of debt funding the purchase or trading of existing assets drives financial booms and busts, while the debt overhang left over by the boom explains why financial recovery from a financial crisis is typically anaemic and protracted. Much of this analysis seems to be similar to ideas developed by Hyman Minsky while the slow pace of recovery in the aftermath of the GFC reflects a theme that Reinhart and Rogoff have observed in their book titled “This time is different” which analyses financial crises over many centuries.

The answer, Turner argues, is to build a less credit intensive growth model. In pursuing this goal, Turner argues that we also need to understand and respond to the implications of three underlying drivers of increasing credit intensity;

  1. the increasing importance of real estate in modern economies,
  2. increasing inequality, and
  3. global current account imbalances.

Turner covers a lot of ground, and I do not necessarily agree with everything in his book, but I do believe his analysis of what is wrong with the system is worth reading.

Let me start with an argument I do not find compelling; i.e. that risk based capital requirements are unreliable because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between risk (which can be measured) and uncertainty (which cannot):

  • Distinguishing between risk and uncertainty is clearly a fundamental part of understanding risk and Turner is not alone in emphasising its importance
  • I believe that means that we should treat risk based capital requirements with a healthy degree of scepticism and a clear sense of their limitations but that does not render them entirely unreliable especially when we are using them to understand relative differences in risk and to calibrate capital buffers
  • The obvious problem with non-risk based capital requirements is that they create incentives for banks to take higher risk that may eventually offset the supposed increase in soundness attached to the higher capital
  • It may be that Turner discounts this concern because he envisages a lower credit growth/intensity economy delivering less overall systemic risk or because he envisages a more active role for the public sector in what kinds of assets banks lend against; i.e. his support for higher capital may stem mostly from the fact that this reduces the capacity of private banks to generate credit growth

While advocating much higher capital, Turner does seem to part company with M&M purists by expressing doubt that equity investors will be willing to accept deleveraged returns. His reasoning is that returns to equity investments need a certain threshold return to be “equity like” while massively deleveraged ROE still contains downside risks that are unacceptable to debt investors.

Turning to the arguments which I think raise very valid concerns and deserve serious attention.

Notwithstanding my skepticism regarding a leverage ratio as the solution, the arguments he makes about the dangers of excessive credit growth resonate very strongly with what I learned during my banking career. Turner is particularly focussed on the downsides of applying excessive debt to the financing of existing assets, real estate in particular. The argument seems to be similar to (if not based on) the work of Hyman Minsky.

Turner’s description of the amount of money that banks can create as being “infinitely elastic” seems an overstatement to me (especially in the Australian context with the Net Stable Funding Ratio (NSFR) weighing on the capacity to grow the balance sheet) but the general point he is making about the way that credit fuelled demand for a relatively inelastic supply of desirable residential property tends to result in inflated property values with no real social value rings true.

What banks can do about this remains an open question given that resolving the problem with inelastic supply of property is outside their direct control but it is obviously important to understand the dynamics of the market underpinning their largest asset class and it may help them engage more constructively with public policy debates that seek to address the problem.

Turner’s analysis of the downsides of easy monetary policy (the standard response to economic instability) also rings true. He identifies the fact that lower interest rates tend to result in inflated asset values (residential property in particular given its perceived value as a safe asset) which do not address the fundamental problem of over-indebtedness and may serve to increase economic inequality. His discussion of the impact of monetary policy and easy credit on economic inequality is also interesting. The banks providing the credit in the easy money environment may not necessarily be taking undue risk and prudential supervisors have tools to ensure sound lending standards are maintained if they do believe there is a problem with asset quality. What may happen however is that the wealthier segments of society benefit the most under easy money because they have the surplus cash flow to buy property at inflated values while first homebuyers become squeezed out of the market. Again their capacity to address the problem may be limited but Turner’s analysis prompted me to reflect on what increasing economic inequality might mean for bank business models.

In addition to much higher bank capital requirements, Turner’s specific recommendations for moving towards a less credit intensive economy include:

  • Government policies related to urban development and the taxation of real estate
  • Changing tax regimes to reduce the current bias in favour of debt over equity financing (note that Australia is one of the few countries with a dividend imputation system that does reduce the bias to debt over equity)
  • Broader macro prudential powers for central banks, including the power to impose much larger countercyclical capital requirements
  • Tough constraints on the ability of the shadow banking system to create credit and money equivalents
  • Using public policy to produce different allocations of capital than would result from purely market based decisions; in particular, deliberately leaning against the market signal based bias towards real estate and instead favouring other “potentially more socially valuable forms of credit allocation”
  • Recognising that the traditional easy monetary policy response to an economic downturn (or ultra-easy in the case of a financial crisis such as the GFC) is better than doing nothing but comes at a cost of reigniting the growth in private credit that generated the initial problem, creating incentives for risky financial engineering and exacerbating economic inequality via inflating asset prices.

For those who want to dig deeper, I have gone into a bit more detail here on what Turner has to say about the following topics:

  • The way in which inefficient and irrational markets leave the financial system prone to booms and busts
  • The dangers of debt contracts sets out how certain features of these contracts increase the risk of instability and hamper the recovery
  • Too much of the wrong sort of debt describes features of the real estate market that make it different from other asset classes
  • Liberalisation, innovation and the credit cycle on steroids recaps on the philosophy that drove the deregulation of financial markets and what Turner believes to be the fundamental flaws with that approach. In particular his conclusion that the amount of credit created and its allocation is “… too important to be left to bankers…”
  • Private credit and money creation offers an outline of how bank deposits evolved to play an increasing role (the key point being that it was a process of evolution rather than overt public policy design choices)
  • Credit financed speculation discusses the ways in which credit in modern economies tends to be used to finance the purchase of existing assets, in particular real estate, and the issues that flow from this.
  • Inequality, credit and more inequality sets out some ways in which the extension of credit can contribute to increasing economic inequality
  • Capital requirements sets out why Turner believes capital requirements should be significantly increased and why capital requirements (i.e. risk weights) for some asset classes (e.g. real estate) should be be calibrated to reflect the social risk of the activity and not just private risks captured by bank risk models
  • Turner defence against the argument that his proposals are anti-markets and anti-growth.

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

5 thoughts on ““Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit and Fixing Global Finance” by Adair Turner (2015)”

    1. The hard part is that regulation can take you back to the financial system we had pre deregulation. People get nostalgic about more conservative lending standards but forget how hard it was to actually borrow. An opinion piece in the past few days even talked up the days where people had to take a second mortgage so that their bank’s first mortgage had a great LVR.

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