This post is part of a symposium on the Methods of Political Economy.
It has long been tempting for economists to imagine “the economy” as a giant machine for producing and distributing “value.” Finance, on this view, is just the part of the device that takes the output that is not consumed by end-users (the “savings”) and redirects it back to the productive parts of the machine (as “investment”). Our financial system is an ornate series of mechanisms to collect the value we’ve saved up and invest it into producing yet more value. Financial products of all sorts—including money itself—are just the form that value takes when it is in the transition from savings to investment. What matters is the “real” economy—where the money is the veil, and the things of value are produced and distributed.
What if this were exactly backwards? What if money and finance were understood not as the residuum of past economic activity—as a thing among other things—but rather as the way humans manage ongoing relationships between each other in a world of fundamental uncertainty? These are the sorts of questions asked by the economist Perry Mehrling (and Hyman Minsky before him). These inquiries provided a framework that has allowed him to answer many of the issues that mystify neoclassical economics.
On Mehrling’s “Money View,” every (natural or artificial) person engaged in economic activity is understood in terms of her financial position, that is, in terms of the obligations she owes others (her “liabilities”) and the obligations owed to her (her “assets”). In modern economies, obligations primarily take the form of money and credit instruments. Every actor must manage the inflow and outflow of obligations (called “cash flow management”) such that she can settle up with others when her obligations to them come due. If she can, she is a “going concern” that continues to operate normally. If she cannot, she must scramble to avoid some form of financial failure—bankruptcy being the most common. After all, as Mehrling argues, “liquidity kills you quick.” This “survival constraint” binds not only today but also at every moment in the future. Thus, generally, the problem of satisfying the survival constraint is a problem of matching up the time pattern of assets (obligations owed to an actor) with the time pattern of liabilities (obligations an actor owed to others). The central question is whether, at any moment in time, there is enough cash inflow to pay for the cash flows.
For the Money View, these cash flows are at the heart of the financial market. In other words, the financial system is essentially a payment system that enables the transfer of value to happen even when a debtor does not own the means of payment today. Payment takes place in two stages. When one actor promises something for another, the initial payment takes place—the thing promised is the former’s liability and the latter’s asset. When the promise is kept, the transaction is settled (or funded), and the original asset and liability are canceled.
The Hierarchy of Debt-Money
What makes finance somewhat confusing is that all the promises in question are promises to pay, which means that both the payment and the settlement process involve the transfer of financial assets. To learn when an asset is functioning as a means of payment and when it is operating as a form of settlement requires understanding that, as Mehrling has argued, “always and everywhere, monetary systems are hierarchical.” If a financial instrument is higher up the hierarchy than another, the former can be used to settle a transaction in the latter. At the top of the hierarchy is the final means of settlement—an asset that everybody within a given financial system will accept. The conventional term for this type of asset is “money.” In the modern world, money takes the form of central bank reserves—i.e., obligations issued by a state. The international monetary system dictates the same hierarchy for different state currencies, with the dollar as the top of this pyramid. What controls this hierarchy in financial instruments and differentiates money (means of final settlement) from credit (a promise to pay, a means of delaying final settlement), is their degree of “liquidness” and their closeness to the most stable money: the U.S. central bank reserves.
Instruments such as bank deposits are more money-like compared to the others since they are promises to pay currency on demand. Securities, on the other hand, are promises to pay currency over some time horizon in the future, so they are even more attenuated promises to pay. Mehrling argues that the payments system hides this hierarchy by enabling the firms to use credit today to postpone the final settlement into the future.
The Money View vs. Quantity and Portfolio Theories
Viewing the world from this perspective allows us to see details about financial markets and beyond, that the lens of neoclassical economics does not. For instance, the lack of attention to payment systems in standard monetary theories is a byproduct of overlooking the essential hierarchy of finance. Models such as Quantity Theory of Money that explore the equilibrium amount of money in the system systematically disregards the level of reserves that are required for the payment system to continuously “convert” bank deposits (which are at the lower layer of the hierarchy) into currency on demand.
Further, unlike the Money View, the Portfolio Choice Theory (such as that developed by James Tobin), which is at the heart of asset pricing models, entirely abstracts from the role of dealers in supplying market liquidity. These models assume an invisible hand that provides market liquidity for free in the capital market. From the lens of supply and demand, this is a logical conclusion. Since a supplier can always find a buyer who is willing to buy that security at a market price, there is no job for an intermediary dealer to arrange this transaction. The Money View, on the other hand, identifies the dealers’ function as the suppliers of market liquidity—the clearinghouse through which debts and credits flow—which makes them the primary determinant of asset prices.
The Search for Stable Money
The Money View’s picture of conventional monetary policy operations is very distinct from an image that a trained monetary economist has in mind. From the Money View’s perspective, throughout the credit cycle, one constant is the central bank’s job to balance elasticity and discipline in the monetary system as a way of controlling the flow of credit. What shapes the dynamic of elasticity and discipline in the financial system is the daily imbalances in payment flows and the need of every agent in the system to meet a “survival” or “reserve constraint.”
In normal times, if a central bank, such as the Fed, wants to tighten, it raises the federal fund target. Raising the cost of the most liquid form of money in the system will then resonate down the monetary hierarchy. It immediately lowers the profitability of money market dealers (unless the term interest rate rises by the full amount). Because money market dealers set the funding cost for dealers in capital markets (i.e. because they are a level up in the hierarchy of money), capital market dealers will face pressure to raise asset prices and long-term interest rates. These security dealers are willing to hold existing security inventories only at a lower price, hence higher expected profit. Thus the centrally determined price of money changes the value of stocks.
Central Bankers as Shadow Bankers
The Money View’s can also help us see how the essence of credit has shifted from credit that runs through regulated banks to “market-based credit” through a shadow banking system that provides money market funding for capital market investing. Shadow banking system faces the same problems of liquidity and solvency risk that the traditional banking system faces, but without the government backstops at the top of the hierarchy (via Fed lender of last resort payouts and FDIC deposit insurance). Instead, the shadow banking system relies mainly on dealers in derivatives and in wholesale lending. Having taken on responsibility for financing the shadow banks, which financed the subprime mortgage market, these dealers began to run into problems during the financial crisis. Mehrling argues that the reality of the financial system dictates Fed to reimagine its role from a lender last resort to banks to the dealer of last resort to the shadow banking system.
We have been living in the Money View world, a world where almost everything that matters happens in the present. Ours is a world in which cash inflows must be adequate to meet cash outflows (the survival or liquidity constraint) for a single day. This is a period that is too short for creating any elasticity or discipline in production or consumption, the usual subject matter of economics, so we have abstracted from them. Doing so has blinded us to many important aspects of the system we live in. In our world, “the present determines the present.”