A sceptical look at ESG

Anyone with more than a casual interest in business will be familiar with the increased focus on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. There are sound arguments being made on both sides of the debate but I will admit upfront that I approach the topic with a somewhat ESG positive bias. Given my bias, it is all the more important to pay attention to what the sceptics are calling out rather than looking for affirmation amongst the true believers.

A post by Aswath Damodaran titled “Sounding good or Doing good? A Skeptical Look at ESG” is one of the better contributions to the ESG debate that I have encountered. I discussed one of his earlier contributions to the debate here and it is clear that he is not a fan of ESG. I am still working through his arguments but I like the analytical framework he employs and the way in which he supports his arguments with evidence.

I intend to do a couple of posts digging down into the ESG debate using Damodaran’s post and few other sources but want to start by laying out his arguments with some very limited comments.

Damodaran starts by framing ESG as part of a tradition of business ideas that have tended to prove to be more noise than substance, describing the ESG “sales pitch” as follows

“Companies that improve their social goodness standing will not only become more profitable and valuable over time, we are told, but they will also advance society’s best interests, thus resolving one of the fundamental conflicts of private enterprise, while also enriching investors”

There is no doubt that ESG, like many other business ideas, is prone to being over-hyped. There is room to take issue with the question of whether this is a fair description of the ESG movement as a whole. My gut feel is that presenting the “sales pitch” version is not representative of ESG advocates who genuinely believe that ESG can address problems in the ways the market currently operate, but it will be more productive to focus on the specific weaknesses that Damodaran discusses.

Damodaran starts with the problem of measurement

“Any attempts to measure environment and social goodness face two challenges. 

– The first is that much of social impact is qualitative, and developing a numerical value for that impact is difficult to do. 

– The second is even trickier, which is that there is little consensus on what social impacts to measure, and the weights to assign to them.”  

Assuming the measurement issues can be resolved, the second problem is identifying exactly how incorporating ESG factors into the business model or strategy contributes to improving the value of a company. Damodaran uses the following generic model of value drivers to explore this question

Figure 1: The Drivers of Value

Using this framework, Damodaran identifies two ways in which a company can derive benefits from incorporating ESG principles into its business strategy

  1. Goodness is rewarded – i.e. companies behave in a socially responsible way because it creates positive outcomes for their business
  2. Badness is punished – i.e. companies behave in a socially responsible way because bad behaviour is punished

Damodaran also identifies a third scenario in which “The bad guys win”

“In this scenario, bad companies mouth platitudes about social responsibility and environmental consciousness without taking any real action, but customers buy their products and services, either because they are cheaper or because of convenience, employees continue to work for them because they can earn more at these companies or have no options, and investors buy their shares because they deliver higher profits. As a result, bad companies may score low on corporate responsibility scales, but they will score high on profitability and stock price performance.”

Damodaran argues that the evidence supports the following conclusions:

  1. A weak link to profitability

“There are meta studies (summaries of all other studies) that  summarize hundreds of ESG research papers, and find a small positive link between ESG and profitability, but one that is very sensitive to how profits are measured and over what period, leading one of these studies to conclude that “citizens looking for solutions from any quarter to cure society’s pressing ills ought not appeal to financial returns alone to mobilize corporate involvement”. Breaking down ESG into its component parts, some studies find that environment (E) offered the strongest positive link to performance and social (S) the weakest, with governance (G) falling in the middle.”

2) A stronger link to funding costs

Studies of “sin” stocks, i.e., companies involved in businesses such as producing alcohol, tobacco, and gaming, find that these stocks are less commonly held by institutions, and that they face higher costs for funding, from equity and debt). The evidence for this is strongest in sectors like tobacco (starting in the 1990s) and fossil fuels (especially in the last decade), but these findings come with a troubling catch. While these companies face higher costs, and have lower value, investors in these companies will generate higher returns from holding these stocks.”

3) Some evidence that ESG focussed companies do reduce their risk of failure or exposure to disaster risk

“An alternate reason why companies would want to be “good” is that “bad” companies are exposed to disaster risks, where a combination of missteps by the company, luck, and a failure to build in enough protective controls (because they cost too much) can cause a disaster, either in human or financial terms. That disaster can not only cause substantial losses for the company, but the collateral reputation damage created can have long term consequences. One study created a value-weighted portfolio of controversial firms that had a history of violating ESG rules, and reported negative excess returns of 3.5% on this portfolio, even after controlling for risk, industry, and company characteristics. The conclusion in this study was that these lower excess returns are evidence that being socially irresponsible is costly for firms, and that markets do not fully incorporate the consequences of bad corporate behavior. The push back from skeptics is that not all firms that behave badly get embroiled in controversy, and it is possible that looking at just firms that are controversial creates a selection bias that explains the negative returns.”

Damodaran sums up his argument

“There is a weak link between ESG and operating performance (growth and profitability), and while some firms benefit from being good, many do not. Telling firms that being socially responsible will deliver higher growth, profits and value is false advertising. The evidence is stronger that bad firms get punished, either with higher funding costs or with a greater incidence of disasters and shocks. ESG advocates are on much stronger ground telling companies not to be bad, than telling companies to be good. In short, expensive gestures by publicly traded companies to make themselves look “good” are futile, both in terms of improving performance and delivering returns.”

There is a lot more to say on this topic. The evidence that certain types of companies do get punished for failing to be socially responsible is especially interesting. I see a fair degree of cynicism applied to the ESG stance adopted by the Australia banks but I suspect they are a good example of the type of company that will in fact benefit from making real investments in socially responsible business strategies.

Tony – From the Outside

Digital money – FT Alphaville

FT Alphaville is one of my go to sources for information and insight. The Alphaville post flagged below discusses the discussion paper recently released by the Bank of England on the pros and cons of a Central Bank Digital Currency. It is obviously a technical issue but worth at least scanning if you have any interest in banking and ways in which the concept of “money” may be evolving.

Read on ftalphaville.ft.com/2020/03/12/1584053069000/Digital-stimulus/

Banks may be asked to absorb more than their contractual share of the economic fallout of the Coronavirus

We have already seen signs that the Australian banks recognise that they need to absorb some of the fallout from the economic impact of the Coronavirus. This commentator writing out of the UK makes an interesting argument on how much extra cost banks and landlords should volunteer to absorb.

Richard Murphy on tax, accounting and political economy
— Read on www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2020/03/04/banks-and-landlords-have-to-pick-up-the-costs-of-the-epidemic-to-come-if-the-the-economy-is-to-have-a-chance-of-surviving/

I am not saying banks should not do this but two themes to reflect on:

1) This can be seen as part of the price of rebuilding trust with the community

2) it reinforces the cyclicality of the risk that bank shareholders are required to absorb which then speaks to what is a fair “Through the Cycle” ROE for that risk

I have long struggled with the “banks are a simple utility ” argument and this reinforces my belief that you need a higher ROE to compensate for this risk

Tony

Company purpose

There has been a lot written on this topic recently, particularly in response to the recent announcement by the Business Roundtable of it decision that corporations should seek to serve all stakeholders rather than focusing on shareholders. I don’t propose to add anything new to the discussion in this post but simply to call out a couple of references I have found useful in trying to make sense of the issues.

This post by Aswath Damodaran offers a useful review of the issues associated with choosing what purpose a company should serve, and what might go wrong as the current debate plays out. Damodaran identifies 5 variations on how companies pursue their purpose

  1. Cut throat corporatism
  2. Crony corporatism
  3. Managerial corporatism
  4. Constrained corporatism
  5. Confused corporatism

“Confused corporatism” is the label Damodaran applies to the “stakeholder” approach. No surprises that he is not a fan. This extract from his post captures his core arguments.

“I know that this is a trying time to be a corporate CEO, with people demanding that you cure society’s ills and the economy’s problems, with the threat of punitive actions, if you don’t change. That said, I don’t believe that you can win this battle or even recoup some of your lost standing by giving up on the focus on shareholder wealth and replacing it with an ill-thought through and potentially destructive objective of advancing stakeholder interests. In my view, a much healthier discussion would be centered on creating more transparency about how corporations treat different stakeholder groups and linking that information with how they get valued in the market. I think that we are making strides on the first, with better information disclosure from companies and CSR measures, and I hope to help on the second front by connecting these disclosures to intrinsic value. As I noted earlier, if we want companies to behave better in their interactions with society, customers and employees, we have to make it in their financial best interests to do so, buying products and services from companies that treat other stakeholders better and paying higher prices for their shares.”

“From Shareholder wealth to Stakeholder interests: CEO Capitulation or Empty Doublespeak?”; Musings on Markets, 28 August 2019

The Economist also offers a perspective on what might go wrong with the “stakeholder” version of corporate purpose. The Economist uses the term “Collective Capitalism” to label this alternative formulation.

I am not convinced the answer proposed by The Economist is going to solve the problem but I still found it worth reading. Firstly, it reminds us that companies have been granted unique rights – in particular “limited liability”. We probably take this for granted but recognising that it is a privilege begs the question what does society get in return.

“Ever since businesses were granted limited liability in Britain and France in the 19th century, there have been arguments about what society can expect in return”

Like Damodaran, The Economist questions the ways in which companies might make the social choices not being addressed now.

“Consider accountability first. It is not clear how CEOs should know what “society” wants from their companies. The chances are that politicians, campaigning groups and the CEOs themselves will decide—and that ordinary people will not have a voice. Over the past 20 years industry and finance have become dominated by large firms, so a small number of unrepresentative business leaders will end up with immense power to set goals for society that range far beyond the immediate interests of their company.”

The Economist also reminds us that it is not clear how this kinder form of capitalism retains the creative destruction that has been part and parcel of the process of economic growth

The second problem is dynamism. Collective capitalism leans away from change. In a dynamic system firms have to forsake at least some stakeholders: a number need to shrink in order to reallocate capital and workers from obsolete industries to new ones. If, say, climate change is to be tackled, oil firms will face huge job cuts. Fans of the corporate giants of the managerial era in the 1960s often forget that AT&T ripped off consumers and that General Motors made out-of-date, unsafe cars. Both firms embodied social values that, even at the time, were uptight. They were sheltered partly because they performed broader social goals, whether jobs-for-life, world-class science or supporting the fabric of Detroit.

Lastly, this opinion piece by Barry Ritholz is also worth reading for a fairly blunt reminder of the parts of the system status quo that fall far short of the free market fairy tale. I have only scratched the surface of this topic but hopefully you will find the articles and blog posts referenced above useful.

Tony

Building applied critical thinking into the structure of an organisation

This article in Bloomberg caught my attention. It is a background piece on a team known as the “Applied Critical Thinking” unit that has been operating inside the New York Federal Reserve since 2016.

The general idea of contrarian thinking and recognising the limitations of what is and is not knowable are not huge innovations in themselves. What was interesting for me is the extent to which this unit can be thought of as a way of building that thought process into the structure of organisations that might otherwise tend towards consensus and groupthink built on simple certainties.

I have touched on this general topic in some previous posts. A review of Paul Wilmott and David Orrell’s book (The Money Formula), for example, discussed their use of the idea of a “Zone of Validity” to define the boundaries of what quantitative modelling could reveal about the financial system. Pixar (the digital animation company) also has some interesting examples of how a culture of candour and speaking truth to power can be built into the structure of an organisation rather than relying on slogans that people be brave or have courage.

I don’t have all the answers but this initiative by the NY Fed is I think worth watching. Something like this seem to me to have the potential to help address some of the culture problems that have undermined trust in large companies (it is not just the banks) and the financial system as a whole.

Tony

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

“The Great Divide” by Andrew Haldane

This speech by Andrew Haldane (Chief Economist at the Bank of England) was given in 2016 but is sill worth reading for anyone interested in the question of what role banks play in society and why their reputation is not what it once was. Some of my long term correspondents will be familiar with the paper and may have seen an earlier draft of this post.

“The Great Divide” refers to a gap between how banks perceive themselves and how they are perceived by the community. Haldane references a survey the BOE conducted in which the most common word used by banks to describe themselves was “regulated” while “corrupt” was the community choice closely followed by “manipulated”, “self-serving”, “destructive” and “greedy”. There is an interesting “word cloud” chart in the paper representing this gap in perception.

While the focus is on banks, Haldane makes the point that the gap in perceptions reflects a broader tension between the “elites” and the common people. He does not make this explicit connection but it seemed to me that the “great divide” he was referencing could also be argued to be manifesting itself in the increasing support for populist political figures purporting to represent the interests of the common people against career politicians. This broader “great divide” idea seemed to me to offer a useful framework for thinking about the challenges the banking industry is facing in rebuilding trust.

Haldane uses this “great divide” as a reference for discussing

  • The crucial role finance plays in society
  • The progress made so far in restoring trust in finance
  • What more needs to be done

The crucial role finance plays in society

Haldane argues that closing the trust deficit between banks and society matters for two reasons

  • because a well functioning financial system is an essential foundation for a growing and well functioning economy – to quote Haldane “that is not an ideological assertion from the financial elite; it is an empirical fact”
  • but also because the downside of a poorly functioning financial system is so large

Haldane uses the GFC to illustrate the downside in terms of the destruction of the value of financial capital and physical capital but he introduces a third form of capital, “social capital” that he argues may matter every bit as much to the wealth and well being of society. He defines social capital as the “relationships, trust and co-operation forged between different groups of people over time. It is the sociological glue that binds diverse societies into a cohesive whole”. The concept of “trust” is at the heart of Haldane’s definition of social capital.

Haldane cites evidence that trust plays an important role at both the micro and macro level in value creation and growth and concludes that “… a lack of trust jeopardises one of finance’s key societal functions – higher growth”.

In discussing these trends, Haldane distinguishes “personalised trust” and “generalised trust“. The former refers to mutual co-operation built up through repeated personal interactions (Haldane cites example like visits to the doctor or hairdresser) while the latter is attached to an identifiable but anonymous group (Haldane cites trust in the rule of law, or government or Father Christmas).

He uses this distinction to explore why banks have lost the trust of the community;

He notes that banking was for most of its history a relationship based business. The business model was not perfect but it did deliver repeated interactions with customers that imbued banking with personalised trust. At the same time its “mystique” (Haldane’s term) meant that banking maintained a high degree of generalised trust as well.

He cites the reduction in local branches, a common strategy pre GFC, as one of the changes that delivered lower costs but reduced personal connections thereby contributing to reducing personalised trust. For a while, the banking system could reap the efficiency gains while still relying on generalised trust but the GFC subsequently undermined the generalised trust in the banking system. This generalised trust has been further eroded by the continued run of banking scandals that convey the sense that banks do not care about their customers.

What can be done to restore trust in finance

He notes the role that higher capital and liquidity have played but that this is not enough in his view. He proposes three paths

  1. Enhanced public education
  2. Creating “Purpose” in banking
  3. Communicating “Purpose” in banking

Regarding public education, there is a telling personal anecdote he offers on his experience with pensions. He describes himself as “moderately financially literate” but follows with “Yet I confess to not being able to make the remotest sense of pensions. Conversations with countless experts and independent financial advisors have confirmed for me only one thing – that they have no clue either”. This may be dismissed as hyperbole but it does highlight that most people will be less financially literate than Haldane and are probably poorly equipped to deal with the financial choices they are required to make in modern society. I am not sure that education is the whole solution.

Regarding “purpose” Haldane’s main point seems to be that there is too much emphasis on shareholder value maximisation and not enough balance. This seems to be an issue that is amplified by the UK Companies Act that requires that directors place shareholder interests as their primary objective. To the best of my knowledge, the Australian law does not have an equivalent explicit requirement to put shareholders first but we do grapple with the same underlying problem. Two of my recent posts (“The World’s Dumbest Idea” and “The Moral Economy” touch on this issue.

Regarding communicating purpose, Haldane cites some interesting evidence that the volume of information provided by companies is working at cross purposes with actual communication with stakeholders. Haldane does not make the explicit link but Pillar 3 clearly increases the volume of information provided by banks. The points raised by Haldane imply (to me at least) that Pillar 3 might actually be getting in the way of communicating clearly with stakeholders.

This is a longish post but I think there is quite a lot of useful content in the speech so I would recommend it.

Recently read – “The Moral Economy: Why Good Incentives Are No Substitute For Good Citizens” by Samuel Bowles

The potential for incentives to create bad behaviour has been much discussed in the wake of the GFC while the Financial Services Royal Commission in Australia has provided a fresh set of examples of bankers behaving badly. It is tempting of course to conclude that bankers are just morally corrupt but, for anyone who wants to dig deeper, this book offers an interesting perspective on the role of incentives in the economy.

What I found especially interesting is Bowles account of the history of how the idea that good institutions and a free market based economy could “harness self interest to the public good” has come to dominate so much of current economic and public policy. Building on this foundation, the book examines the ways in which incentives designed around the premise that people are solely motivated by self interest can often be counter-productive; either by crowding out desirable behaviour or by prompting people to behave in ways that are the direct opposite of what was intended.

Many parts of this story are familiar but it was interesting to see how Bowles charted the development of the idea over many centuries and individual contributors. People will no doubt be familiar with Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”  but Bowles also introduces other thinkers who contributed to this conceptual framework, Machiavelli and David Hume in particular. The idea is neatly captured in this quote from Hume’s Essays: Moral, Political and Literary (1742) in which he recommended the following maxim

“In contriving any system of government … every man ought to be supposed to be a knave and to have no other end … than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, cooperate to public good” .

Bowles makes clear that this did not mean that people are in fact solely motivated by self-interest (i.e “knaves”), simply that civic virtue (i.e. creating good people) by itself was not a robust platform for achieving good outcomes. The pursuit of self interest, in contrast, came to be seen as a benign activity that could be harnessed for a higher purpose.

The idea of embracing self-interest is of course anathema to many people but its intellectual appeal is I think obvious.  Australian readers at this point might be reminded of Jack Lang’s maxim “In the race of life, always back self-interest; at least you know it’s trying“. Gordon Gekko’s embrace of the principle that “Greed is good” is the modern expression of this intellectual tradition.

Harnessing self-interest for the common good

Political philosophers had for centuries focused on the question of how to promote civic virtue but their attention turned to finding laws and other public policies that would allow people to pursue their personal objectives, while also inducing them to take account of the effects of their actions on others. The conceptual foundations laid down by David Hume and Adam Smith were progressively built on with competition and well defined property rights coming to be seen as important parts of the solution.

“Good institutions displaced good citizens as the sine qua non of good government. In the economy, prices would do the work of morals”

“Markets thus achieved a kind of moral extraterritoriality … and so avarice, repackaged as self-interest, was tamed, transformed from a moral failing to just another kind of motive”

Free market determined prices were at the heart of the system that allowed the Invisible Hand to work its magic but economists recognised that competition alone was not sufficient for market prices to capture everything that mattered. For the market to arrive at the right (or most complete) price, it was also necessary that economic interactions be governed by “complete contracts” (i.e. contracts that specify the rights and duties of the buyer and seller in all future states of the world).

This is obviously an unrealistic assumption. Apart from the difficulty of imagining all future states of the world, not everything of value can be priced. But all was not lost. Bowles introduces Alfred Marshall and Arthur Pigou who identified, in principle, how a system of taxes and subsidies could be devised that compensated economic actors for benefits their actions conferred on others and made them liable for costs they imposed on others.

These taxes and subsidies are of course not always successful and Bowles offers a taxonomy of reasons why this is so. Incentives can work but not, according to Bowles, if they simplistically assume that the target of the incentive cares only about his or her material gain. To be effective, incentives must account for the fact that people are much more complex, social and moral than is strictly rational from an economic perspective. Bowles devotes a lot of the book to the problem with incentives (both positive and negative, including taxes, fines, subsidies, bonuses etc) which he categorises under three headings:

  1. “Bad News“; incentives send a signal and the tendency is for people to read things into incentives which may not have been intended but prompt them to respond negatively (e.g. does this incentive signal that the other party believes I am not trustworthy or lazy)
  2. Moral Disengagement”; the incentive may create a context in which the subject can distance themselves from the moral consequences of how they respond
  3. “Control Aversion”; an incentive that compromises a subject’s sense of autonomy or pride in the task may reduce their intrinsic motivation to perform the task well

Having noted the ways that incentives can have adverse impacts on behaviour, Bowles notes that civic minded values continue to be an important feature of market based economies and examines why this might be.

“If incentives sometimes crowd out ethical reasoning, the desire to help others, and intrinsic motivations, and if leading thinkers celebrate markets as a morality-free zone, it seems just a short step to Karl Marx’s broadside condemnation of capitalist culture”

One answer is that trading in markets encourages people to trust strangers and that the benefits of trading over time teach people that trust is a valuable commodity (the so called “doux commerce” theory).

While admitting his answer is speculative, Bowles rejects “doux commerce” as the whole answer. He argues that the institutions (property rights, rule of law, etc) developed by liberal societies to protect citizens from worst-case outcomes such as personal injury, loss of property, and other calamities make the consequences of mistakenly trusting a defector much less dire. As a result, the rule of law lowers the bar for how much you would have to know about your partner before trusting him or her, thereby promoting the spread of trusting expectations and hence of trusting behavior in a population.

The “institutional structure” theory is interesting but there is still much in the book worth considering even if you don’t buy his explanation. I have some more detailed notes on the book here.

“The End of Alchemy” by Mervyn King

Anyone interested in the conceptual foundations of money and banking will I think find this book interesting. King argues that the significant enhancements to capital and liquidity requirements implemented since the GFC are not sufficient because of what he deems to be fundamental design flaws in the modern system of money and banking.

King is concerned with the process by which bank lending creates money in the form of bank deposits and with the process of maturity transformation in banking under which long term, illiquid assets are funded to varying degrees by short term liabilities including deposits. King applies the term “alchemy” to these processes to convey the sense that the value created is not real on a risk adjusted basis.

He concedes that there will be a price to pay in foregoing the “efficiency benefits of financial intermediation” but argues that these benefits come at the cost of a system that:

  • is inherently prone to banking crises because, even post Basel III, it is supported by too little equity and too little liquidity, and
  • can only be sustained in the long run by the willingness of the official sector to provide Lender of Last Resort liquidity support.

King’s radical solution is that all deposits must be 100% backed by liquid reserves which would be limited to safe assets such as government securities or reserves held with the central bank. King argues that this removes the risk/incentive for bank runs and for those with an interest in Economic History he acknowledges that this idea originated with “many of the most distinguished economists of the first half the twentieth century” who proposed an end to fractional reserve banking under a proposal that was known as the “Chicago Plan”. Since deposits are backed by safe assets, it follows that all other assets (i.e. loans to the private sector) must be financed by equity or long term debt

The intended result is to separate

  • safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and carrying out payment services
  • from risky, illiquid “wide” banks performing all other activities.

At this point, King notes that the government could in theory simply stand back and allow the risk of unexpected events to impact the value of the equity and liabilities of the banks but he does not advocate this. This is partly because volatility of this nature can undermine consumer confidence but also because banks may be forced to reduce their lending in ways that have a negative impact on economic activity. So some form of central bank liquidity support remains necessary.

King’s proposed approach to central bank liquidity support is what he colloquially refers to as a “pawnbroker for all seasons” under which the  central bank agrees up front how much it will lend each bank against the collateral the bank can offer;

King argues that

“almost all existing prudential capital and liquidity regulation, other than a limit on leverage, could be replaced by this one simple rule”.

which “… would act as a form of mandatory insurance so that in the event of a crisis a central bank would be free to lend on terms already agreed and without the necessity of a penalty rate on its loans. The penalty, or price of the insurance, would be encapsulated by the haircuts required by the central bank on different forms of collateral”

leaving banks “… free to decide on the composition of their assets and liabilities… all subject to the constraint that alchemy in the private sector is eliminated”

Underpinning King’s thesis are four concepts that appear repeatedly

  • Disequilibrium; King explores ways in which economic disequilibrium repeatedly builds up followed by disruptive change as the economy rebalances
  • Radical uncertainty; this is the term he applies to Knight’s concept of uncertainty as distinct from risk. He uses this to argue that any risk based approach to capital adequacy is not built on sound foundations because it will not capture the uncertain dimension of unexpected loss that we should be really concerned with
  • The “prisoner’s dilemma” to illustrate the difficulty of achieving the best outcome when there are obstacles to cooperation
  • Trust; he sees trust as the key ingredient that makes a market economy work but also highlights how fragile that trust can be.

My thoughts on King’s observations and arguments

Given that King headed the Bank of England during the GFC, and was directly involved in the revised capital and liquidity rules (Basel III) that were created in response, his opinions should be taken seriously. It is particularly interesting that, notwithstanding his role in the creation of Basel III, he argues that a much more radical solution is required.

I think King is right in pointing out that the banking system ultimately relies on trust and that this reliance in part explains why the system is fragile. Trust can and does disappear, sometimes for valid reasons but sometimes because fear simply takes over even when there is no real foundation for doubting the solvency of the banking system. I think he is also correct in pointing out that a banking system based on maturity transformation is inherently illiquid and the only way to achieve 100% certainty of liquidity is to have one class of safe, liquid “narrow” banks issuing deposits and another class of risky, illiquid institution he labels “wide” banks providing funding on a maturity match funded basis. This second class of funding institution would arguably not be a bank if we reserve that term for institutions which have the right to issue “bank deposits”.

King’s explanation of the way bank lending under the fractional reserve banking system creates money covers a very important aspect of how the modern banking and finance system operates. This is a bit technical but I think it is worth understanding because of the way it underpins and shapes so much of the operation of the economy. In particular, it challenges the conventional thinking that banks simply mobilise deposits. King explains how banks do more than just mobilise a fixed pool of deposits, the process of lending in fact creates new deposits which add to the money supply. For those interested in understanding this in more depth, the Bank of England published a short article in its Quarterly Bulletin (Q1 2014) that you can find at the following link

He is also correct, I think, in highlighting the limits of what risk based capital can achieve in the face of “radical uncertainty” but I don’t buy his proposal that the leverage ratio is the solution. He claims that his “pawnbroker for all seasons” approach is different from the standardised approach to capital adequacy but I must confess I can’t see that the approaches are that different. So even if you accept his argument that internal models are not a sound basis for regulatory capital, I would still argue that a revised and well calibrated standardised approach will always be better than a leverage ratio.

King’s treatment of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma” in money and banking is particularly interesting because it sets out a conceptual rationale for why markets will not always produce optimal outcomes when there are obstacles to cooperation. This brings to mind Chuck Prince’s infamous statement about being forced to “keep dancing while the music is playing” and offers a rationale for the role of regulation in helping institutions avoid situations in which competition impedes the ability of institutions to avoid taking excessive risk. This challenges the view that market discipline would be sufficient to keep risk taking in check. It also offers a different perspective on the role of competition in banking which is sometimes seen by economists as a panacea for all ills.

I have also attached a link to a review of King’s book by Paul Krugman