Debt jubilees revisited

I flagged a post by Michael Reddell (Croaking Cassandra) on the (admittedly wonky) topic of debt jubilees. This is not a general interest topic by any means but I am interested in economic history and the role of debt in the economy in particular so this caught my interest.

Michael has returned to the topic here focussing on a book by Michael Hudson titled “… and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption from the Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year” and a call by Steve Keen calling for widespread government funded debt forgiveness as part of the response to the COVID 19 recession. Michael is not a fan of the idea and I think sets out a quite good summary of the case against a modern debt jubilee.

I have copied a short extract from his post here

Keen, for example, emphasises the high level of housing debt in countries like New Zealand and Australia.  But it is mostly a symptom not of hard-hearted banks but of governments (central and local) that keep on rendering urban land artificially scarce, and then –  in effect –  compelling the young to borrow heavily from, in effect, the old to get on the ladder of home ownership.   I count that deeply unconscionable and unjust.  But the primary solution isn’t debt forgiveness –   never clear who is going to pay for this –  but fixing the problem at source, freeing up land use law.  The domestic-oriented elites of our society might not like it –  any more than their peers in ancient Mesopotomia were too keen on the remission –  but that is the source of the problem.  Fix that and then there might be a case for some sort of compensation scheme for those who had got so highly-indebted, but at present –  distorted market and all –  the highly indebted mostly have an asset still worth materially more (a very different situation from a subsistence borrowing in the face of extreme crop failure).

… and you can read the whole post here.

Michael has I think some good points to make regarding the causes of escalating housing debt. One thing he does not cover is the extent to which direct bail outs and extraordinary monetary policy support has contributed to the escalating level of debt. This is a huge topic in itself but I suspect that some of the increasing debt burden can be attributed to the fact that we have chosen not to allow debts to be written down or restructured in previous crises. I think there were legitimate reasons for not imposing losses on bank debt during the GFC but the subsequent development of a “bail-in” capacity should mean that bank supervisors and the government will have a better set of choices in the next banking crisis.

Tony – From The Outside

Talking about a debt jubilee

This might be post for the super wonks but Michael Reddell (Croaking Cassandra) is debating with Steve Keen on the merits of writing down the value of debt under what is known as a debt “jubilee”. For those unfamiliar with the term, Michael offers a short summary including a link to the passage in the Old Testament where the practice appears to have started.

“In the Western tradition, the idea of the year of jubilee comes to us from the Old Testament. The idea was to avoid permanent alienation of people from their ancestral land – in effect, land transfers were term-limited leases, and if by recklessness or bad luck or whatever people lost their land it was for no more than fifty years. In the fiftieth year – the Year of Jubilee – all would be restored: land to the original owners and hired workers could return to their land. It wasn’t a recipe for absolute equality – the income earned wasn’t returned etc – but about secure long-term economic and social foundations.

My understanding is that the process was a lot simpler in biblical times in part because all the players knew that the write-down would occur (and so adjusted their lending behaviour accordingly) and also because the debt was owed, for the most part, to the King and the political elite associated with the King. From my reading, this was not just an act of generosity on the part of the King. Michael refers to its place in securing the economic and social foundations of the kingdom which included the capacity to raise an army from the population when required.

If you are interested then you can read his whole post here …

A debt jubilee? https://croakingcassandra.com/2020/04/30/a-debt-jubilee/

What is the value of information in the money market?

“Debt and institutions dealing with debt have two faces: a quiet one and a tumultuous one …. The shift from an information-insensitive state where liquidity and trust prevails because few questions need to be asked, to an information-sensitive state where there is a loss of confidence and a panic may break out is part of the overall system: the calamity is a consequence of the quiet. This does not mean that one should give up on improving the system. But in making changes, it is important not to let the recent crisis dominate the new designs. The quiet, liquid state is hugely valuable.”

Bengt Holmstrom (2015)

The quote above comes from an interesting paper by Bengt Holmstrom that explores the ways in which the role money markets play in the financial system is fundamentally different from that played by stock markets. That may seem like a statement of the obvious but Holmstrom argues that some reforms of credit markets which based on the importance of transparency and detailed disclosure are misconceived because they do not reflect these fundamental differences in function and mode of operation.

Holmstrom argues that the focus and purpose of stock markets is price discovery for the purpose of allocating risk efficiently. Money markets, in contrast are about obviating the need for price discovery in order to enhance the liquidity of the market. Over-collateralisation is one of the features of the money market that enable deep, liquid trading to occur without the need to understand the underlying risk of the assets that are being funded .

 “The design of money market policies and regulations should recognise that money markets are very different from stock markets. Lessons from the latter rarely apply to the former, because markets for risk-sharing and markets for funding have their own separate logic. The result is two coherent systems with practices that are in almost every respect polar opposites.”

From “Understanding the role of debt in the financial system” Bengt Holmstrom (BIS Working Papers No 479 – January 2015)

Holmstrom appears to have written the paper in response to what he believes are misconceived attempts to reform credit markets in the wake of the recent financial crisis. These reforms have often drawn on insights grounded in our understanding of stock markets where information and transparency are key requirements for efficient price discovery and risk management. His paper presents a perspective on the logic of credit markets and the structure of debt contracts that highlights the information insensitivity of debt. This perspective explains among other things why he believes that information insensitivity is the natural and desired state of the money markets.

Holmstrom notes that one of the puzzles of the GFC was how people traded so many opaque instruments with a seeming ignorance of their real risk. There is a tendency to see this as a conspiracy by bankers to confuse and defraud customers which in turn has prompted calls to make money market instruments more transparent. While transparency and disclosure is essential for risk pricing and allocation, Holmstrom argues that this is not the answer for money markets because they operate on different principles and serve a different function.

 “I will argue that a state of “no questions asked” is the hallmark of money market liquidity; that this is the way money markets are supposed to look when they are functioning well.”

“Among economists, the mistake is to apply to money markets the lessons and logic of stock markets.”

“The key point I want to communicate today is that these two markets are built on two entirely different, one could say diametrically opposite, logics. Ultimately, this is because they serve two very different purposes. Stock markets are in the first instance aimed at sharing and allocating aggregate risk. To do that effectively requires a market that is good at price discovery.

 “But the logic behind transparency in stock markets does not apply to money markets. The purpose of money markets is to provide liquidity for individuals and firms. The cheapest way to do so is by using over-collateralised debt that obviates the need for price discovery. Without the need for price discovery the need for public transparency is much less. Opacity is a natural feature of money markets and can in some instances enhance liquidity, as I will argue later.”

“Why does this matter? It matters because a wrong diagnosis of a problem is a bad starting point for remedies. We have learned quite a bit from this crisis and we will learn more. There are things that need to be fixed. But to minimise the chance of new, perhaps worse mistakes, we need to analyse remedies based on the purpose of liquidity provision. In particular, the very old logic of collateralised debt and the natural, but sometimes surprising implications this has for how information and risk are handled in money markets, need to be properly appreciated.”

There is a section of the paper titled “purposeful opacity” which, if I understood him correctly, seemed to extend his thesis on the value of being able to trade on an “information insensitive” basis to argue that “opacity” in the debt market is something to be embraced rather than eliminated. I struggled with embracing opacity in this way but that in no way diminishes the validity of the distinction he draws between debt and equity markets.

The other useful insight was the way in which over-collateralistion (whether explicit or implicit) anchors the liquidity of the money market. His discussion of why the sudden transition from a state in which the creditworthiness of a money market counter-party is taken for granted to one in which doubt emerges also rings true.

The remainder of this post mostly comprises extracts from the paper that offer more detail on the point I have summarised above. The paper is a technical one but worth the effort for anyone interested in the question of how banks should finance themselves and the role of debt in the financial system.

Money markets versus stock markets

Holmstrom argues that each system displays a coherent internal logic that reflects its purpose but these purposes are in many respects polar opposites.

Stock markets are primarily about risk sharing and price discovery. As a consequence, these markets are sensitive to information and value transparency. Traders are willing to make substantial investments to obtain this information. Liquidity is valuable but equity investors will tend to trade less often and in lower volumes than debt markets.

Money markets, in contrast, Holmstrom argues are primarily about liquidity provision and lending. The price discovery process is much simpler but trading is much higher volume and more urgent.

“The purpose of money markets is to provide liquidity. Money markets trade in debt claims that are backed, explicitly or implicitly, by collateral.

 “People often assume that liquidity requires transparency, but this is a misunderstanding. What is required for liquidity is symmetric information about the payoff of the security that is being traded so that adverse selection does not impair the market. Without symmetric information adverse selection may prevent trade from taking place or in other ways impair the market (Akerlof (1970)).”

“Trading in debt that is sufficiently over-collateralised is a cheap way to avoid adverse selection. When both parties know that there is enough collateral, more precise private information about the collateral becomes irrelevant and will not impair liquidity.”

The main purpose of stock markets is to share and allocate risk … Over time, stock markets have come to serve other objectives too, most notably governance objectives, but the pricing of shares is still firmly based on the cost of systemic risk (or a larger number of factors that cannot be diversified). Discovering the price of systemic risk requires markets to be transparent so that they can aggregate information efficiently.     

Purposeful opacity

“Because debt is information-insensitive … traders have muted incentives to invest in information about debt. This helps to explain why few questions were asked about highly rated debt: the likelihood of default was perceived to be low and the value of private information correspondingly small.”

 Panics: The ill consequences of debt and opacity

“Over-collateralised debt, short debt maturities, reference pricing, coarse ratings, opacity and “symmetric ignorance” all make sense in good times and contribute to the liquidity of money markets. But there is a downside. Everything that adds to liquidity in good times pushes risk into the tail. If the underlying collateral gets impaired and the prevailing trust is broken, the consequences may be cataclysmic”

“The occurrence of panics supports the informational thesis that is being put forward here. Panics always involve debt. Panics happen when information-insensitive debt (or banks) turns into information-sensitive debt … A regime shift occurs from a state where no one feels the need to ask detailed questions, to a state where there is enough uncertainty that some of the investors begin to ask questions about the underlying collateral and others get concerned about the possibility”

These events are cataclysmic precisely because the liquidity of debt rested on over-collateralisation and trust rather than a precise evaluation of values. Investors are suddenly in the position of equity holders looking for information, but without a market for price discovery. Private information becomes relevant, shattering the shared understanding and beliefs on which liquidity rested (see Morris and Shin (2012) for the general mechanism and Goldstein and Pauzner (2005) for an application to bank runs).

Would transparency have helped contain the contagion?

“A strong believer in the informational efficiency of markets would argue that, once trading in credit default swaps (CDS) and then the ABX index began, there was a liquid market in which bets could be made both ways. The market would find the price of systemic risk based on the best available evidence and that would serve as a warning of an imminent crisis. Pricing of specific default swaps might even impose market discipline on the issuers of the underlying debt instruments”

 Shadow banking

 “The rapid growth of shadow banking and the use of complex structured products have been seen as one of the main causes of the financial crisis. It is true that the problems started in the shadow banking system. But before we jump to the conclusion that shadow banking was based on unsound, even shady business practices, it is important to try to understand its remarkable expansion. Wall Street has a hard time surviving on products that provide little economic value. So what drove the demand for the new products?”

 “It is widely believed that the global savings glut played a key role. Money from less developed countries, especially Asia, flowed into the United States, because the US financial system was perceived to be safe … More importantly, the United States had a sophisticated securitisation technology that could activate and make better use of collateral … Unlike the traditional banking system, which kept mortgages on the banks’ books until maturity, funding them with deposits that grew slowly, the shadow banking system was highly scalable. It was designed to manufacture, aggregate and move large amounts of high-quality collateral long distances to reach distant, sizable pools of funds, including funds from abroad.”

“Looking at it in reverse, the shadow banking system had the means to create a lot of “parking space” for foreign money. Securitisation can manufacture large amounts of AAA-rated securities provided there is readily available raw material, that is, assets that one can pool and tranche”

“I am suggesting that it was an efficient transportation network for collateral that was instrumental in meeting the global demand for safe parking space.”

 “The distribution of debt tranches throughout the system, sliced and diced along the way, allowing contingent use of collateral”

“Collateral has been called the cash of shadow banking (European repo council (2014)). It is used to secure large deposits as well as a host of derivative transactions such as credit and interest rate swaps.”  

There is a relatively recent, but rapidly growing, body of theoretical research on financial markets where the role of collateral is explicitly modelled and where the distinction between local and global collateral is important

“Viewed through this theoretical lens, the rise of shadow banking makes perfectly good sense. It expanded in response to the global demand for safe assets. It improved on traditional banking by making collateral contingent on need and allowing it to circulate faster and attract more distant capital. In addition, securitisation created collateral of higher quality (until the crisis, that is) making it more widely acceptable. When the crisis hit, bailouts by the government, which many decry, were inevitable. But as just discussed, the theory supports the view that bailouts were efficient even as an ex ante policy (if one ignores potential moral hazard problems). Exchanging impaired collateral for high-quality government collateral, as has happened in the current crisis (as well as historically with clearing houses), can be rationalised on these grounds.”

 Some policy implications

 A crisis ends only when confidence returns. This requires getting back to the no-questions-asked state ….

Transparency would likely have made the situation worse

“By now, the methods out of a crisis appear relatively well understood. Government funds need to be committed in force (Geithner (2014)). Recapitalisation is the only sensible way out of a crisis. But it is much less clear how the banking system, and especially shadow banking, should be regulated to reduce the chance of crisis in the first place.  The evidence from the past panic suggests that greater transparency may not be that helpful.”

“The logic of over-capitalisation in money markets leads me to believe that higher capital requirements and regular stress tests is the best road for now.”

“Transparency can provide some market discipline and give early warning of trouble for individual banks. But it may also lead to strategic behaviour by management. The question of market discipline is thorny. In good times market discipline is likely to work well. The chance that a bank that is deemed risky would trigger a panic is non-existent and so the bank should pay the price for its imprudence. In bad times the situation is different. The failure of a bank could trigger a panic. In bad times it would seem prudent to be less transparent with the stress tests (for some evidence in support of this dichotomy, see Machiavelli (1532)).”

“On money, debt, trust and central banking”

Is the title of an interesting paper by Claudio Borio (Head of the Monetary and Economic Department at the BIS). This link will take you to the paper but my post offers a short summary of what I took away from it.

Overview of the paper

Borio’s examination of the properties of a well functioning monetary system:

  • stresses the importance of the role trust plays in this system and of the institutions needed to secure that trust.
  • explores in detail the ways in which these institutions help to ensure the price and financial stability that is critical to nurturing and maintaining that trust.
  • focuses not just on money but also the transfer mechanisms to execute payments (i.e. the “monetary system”)

“My focus will be the on the monetary system, defined technically as money plus the transfer mechanisms to execute payments. Logically, it makes little sense to talk about one without the other. But payments have too often been taken for granted in the academic literature, old and new. In the process, we have lost some valuable insights.”

Borio: Page 1

In the process, he addresses several related questions, such as

  • the relationship between money and debt,
  • the viability of cryptocurrencies as money,
  • money neutrality, and
  • the nexus between monetary and financial stability.

Borio highlights three key points he wants you to take away from his paper

First, is the fundamental way in which the monetary system relies on trust and equally importantly the role that institutions, the central bank in particular, play in ensuring there is trust in the system. At the technical level, people need to trust that the object functioning as money will be generally accepted and that payments will be executed but it also requires trust that the system will deliver price and financial stability in the long run.

Second, he draws attention to the “elasticity of credit” (i.e. the extent to which the system allows credit to expand) as a key concept for understanding how the monetary system works. Elasticity of credit, he argues, is essential for the day to day operations of the payment system but allowing too much credit expansion can cause serious economic damage in the long run.

Third, the need to understand the ways in price and financial stability are different but inexorably linked. As concepts, they are joined at the hip: both embody the trust that sustains the monetary system. But the underlying processes required to achieve these outcomes differ, so that there can be material tensions in the short run.

These are not necessarily new insights to anyone who has being paying attention to the questions Borio poses above, but the paper does offer a good, relatively short, overview of the issues. I particularly liked the way Borio

  • presented the role elasticity of credit plays in both the short and long term functioning of the economy and how the tension between the short and long term is managed,
  • covered the relationship between money, debt and trust (“we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt”), and
  • outlined how and why the monetary system should be seen, not as an “outer facade” but rather as a “cornerstone of an economy”

The rest of this post contains more detailed notes on some, but not all, of the issues covered in the paper.

Elements of a well functioning monetary system

The standard definition of money is based on its functions as
1) Unit of account
2) Means of payment
3) Store of value

Borio expands the focus to encompass the “monetary system”as a whole, introducing two additional elements. Firstly the need to consider the mechanisms the system uses to transfer the means of payment and settle transactions. Secondly, the ways in which the integrity of the chosen form of money as a store of value is protected.

” In addition, compared with the traditional focus on money as an object, the definition crucially extends the analysis to the payment mechanisms. In the literature, there has been a tendency to abstract from them and assume they operate smoothly in the background. I believe this is one reason why money is often said to be a convention …. But money is much more than a convention; it is a social institution (eg Giannini (2011)). It is far from self-sustaining. Society needs an institutional infrastructure to ensure that money is widely accepted, transactions take place, contracts are fulfilled and, above all, agents can count on that happening”

Borio: Page 3

The day to day operation of the monetary system

Borio highlights two aspects of the day to day operations of the monetary system.

  1. The need for an elastic supply of the means of payment
  2. The need for an elastic supply of bank money more generally

In highlighting the importance of the elasticity of credit, he also draws attention to “the risk of overestimating the distinction between credit (debt) and money”.

The central banks’ elastic supply of the means of payment is essential to ensure that (i) transactions are settled in the interbank market and (ii) the interest rate is controlled.

“To smooth out interbank settlement, the provision of central bank credit is key. The need for an elastic supply to settle transactions is most visible in the huge amounts of intraday credit central banks supply to support real-time gross settlement systems – a key way of managing risks in those systems (Borio (1995)).”

Borio: Page 5
“…we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt”

Put differently, we can think of money as an especially trustworthy type of debt. In the case of bank deposits, trust is supported by central bank liquidity, including as lender of last resort, by the regulatory and supervisory framework and varieties of deposit insurance; in that of central bank reserves and cash, by the sovereign’s power to tax; and in both cases, by legal arrangements, way beyond legal tender laws, and enshrined in market practice.

Borio: Page 9

Once you understand the extent to which our system of money depends on credit relationship you understand the extent to which trust is a core feature which should not be taken for granted. The users of the monetary system are relying on some implied promises that underpin their trust in it.

“Price and financial instability amount to broken promises.”

Borio: Page 11

While the elasticity of money creation oils the wheels of the payment system on a day to day basis, it can be problematic over long run scenarios where too much elasticity can lead to financial instability. Some degree of elasticity is important to keep the wheels of the economy turning but too much can be a problem because the marginal credit growth starts to be used for less productive or outright speculative investment.

The relationship between price and financial stability

While, as concepts, price and financial stability are joined at the hip, the processes behind the two differ. Let’s look at this issue more closely


The process underpinning financial instability hinges on how “elastic” the monetary system is over longer horizons, way beyond its day-to-day operation. Inside credit creation is critical. At the heart of the process is the nexus between credit creation, risk-taking and asset prices, which interact in a self-reinforcing fashion generating possibly disruptive financial cycles (eg Borio (2014)). The challenge is to ensure that the system is not excessively elastic drawing on two monetary system anchors. One operates on prices – the interest rate and the central bank’s reaction function … The other operates on quantities: bank regulatory requirements, such as those on capital or liquidity, and the supervisory apparatus that enforces them.

Borio: Page 12

Given that the processes underlying price and financial stability differ, it is not surprising that there may be material tensions between the two objectives, at least in the near term. Indeed, since the early 1980s changes in the monetary system have arguably exacerbated such tensions by increasing the monetary system’s elasticity (eg Borio (2014)). This is so despite the undoubted benefits of these changes for the world economy. On the one hand, absent a sufficiently strong regulatory and supervisory apparatus – one of the two anchors – financial liberalisation, notably for banks, has provided more scope for outsize financial cycles. On the other hand, the establishment of successful monetary policy frameworks focused on near-term inflation control has meant that there was little reason to raise interest rates – the second anchor – since financial booms took hold as long as inflation remained subdued. And in the background, with the globalisation of the real side of the economy putting persistent downward pressure on inflation while at the same time raising growth expectations, there was fertile ground for financial imbalances to take root in.

Borio: Page 16

Borio concludes that the monetary system we have is far from perfect but it is better than the alternatives

Borio concludes that the status quo, while far from perfect, is worth persisting with. He rejects the cryptocurrency path but does not explicitly discuss other radical options such as the one proposed by Mervyn King, in his book “The End of Alchemy”. The fact that he believes “… the distinction between money and debt is often overplayed” could be interpreted as an indirect rejection of the variations on the Chicago Plan that have recently reentered public debate. It would have been interesting to see him address these alternative monetary system models more directly.

In Borio’s own words ….

 The monetary system is the cornerstone of an economy. Not an outer facade, but its very foundation. The system hinges on trust. It cannot survive without it, just as we cannot survive without the oxygen we breathe. Building trust to ensure the system functions well is a daunting challenge. It requires sound and robust institutions. Lasting price and financial stability are the ultimate prize. The two concepts are inextricably linked, but because the underlying processes differ, in practice price and financial stability have often been more like uncomfortable bedfellows than perfect partners. The history of our monetary system is the history of the quest for that elusive prize. It is a journey with an uncertain destination. It takes time to gain trust, but a mere instant to lose it. The present system has central banks and a regulatory/supervisory apparatus at its core. It is by no means perfect. It can and must be improved.55  But cryptocurrencies, with their promise of fully decentralised trust, are not the answer. 

Paraphrasing Churchill’s famous line about democracy, “the current monetary system is the worst, except for all those others that have been tried from time to time”. 


Page 18

The topic is not for everyone, but I found the paper well worth reading.

Tony