Thank Goodness the Banks Aren't Lending!

by: Steve Waldman

I have a little secret. Please don't tell anyone. I am glad that the banks, for all the hundreds of billions of dollars we are giving them, are not lending. That is not because I want banks to improve the quality of their balance sheets. On the contrary, I don't want banks at all, at least not banks anything like what we've had. I don't want to "use all of our resources to preserve the strength of our banking institutions". Since we have already bought and paid for our nation's banking institutions, we are within our rights to, um, transition them to a different business model. Let's do that.

But credit is the lifeblood of a capitalist economy, right? I keep hearing that line. It's a dumb line.

Credit, also known as debt, is one of several arrangements by which a party with the power to command resources but lacking aptitude or interest in managing a productive enterprise delegates wealth to another party who is capable of creating value but unable to command sufficient resources. You would be forgiven for not noticing, given how habitually we misuse credit, that supplying credit is really just a subspecies of the practice that used to be called "investing". There are a variety of other arrangements that serve the same economic function. Perhaps you have heard terms like "common stock" and "cumulative preferred equity"? In fact, credit is to investing what heroin is to painkillers: Unusually appealing, in a certain way. Hard to kick once you're on it. Almost certain to, um, cause problems, eventually. Our overall goal ought not be to kick-start the credit economy, but to kick the habit and move towards financing arrangements that are more equity-like than debt-like. That's going to be hard to do, because historically, we've subsidized the hell out of debt financing, especially bank credit, and alternatives are underdeveloped. But with the exception of war, no still-practiced human institution provokes catastrophe as regularly or as grandly as the misuse of debt. We ought to phase out banks as we've known them since before Bagehot's time, and move to a regime of what are lately referred to as "narrow banks" (banks that lend only to the government that issues the currency of their deposits). We should encourage the development of fine-grained equity markets and local-market investment funds to replace bank financing.

The rush to ramp up "consumer credit" is particularly dumb. Usually, financial investing involves funding wealth-generating projects in exchange for a share of the anticipated wealth. Consumer credit funds current consumption in exchange for a share of, um, what exactly?

In theory, there's a good answer: consumer credit funds current consumption in exchange for a share of anticipated future wealth that is believed to be endowed already. Economists talk about consumption smoothing, how it may be optimal for a consumer whose income is volatile to borrow during periods of low income and repay (or save) during periods of high income in order to maintain a constant standard of living. That's very well in models where consumers know the true distribution of their future income, where the spread between borrowing and lending interest rates is not very large, and where consumer preferences are time-consistent. In practice, none of these conditions holds even approximately. As we are learning, the future is a very uncertain place. Consumers, like Wall Street quants, may inadequately extrapolate the distribution of their future income from recent observations. They have no access to the true distribution. The interest rates consumers pay for unsecured credit (think credit card rates) are often several times what they receive on money they save. In the world as it is, consumers ought to borrow only to counter severe downward shocks to income, pay off borrowings quickly, and build buffers of precautionary savings, since the cost of dis-saving is much less than the cost of borrowing. (You lose 4% interest on your CD, rather than paying 12% interest on your credit card.)

Some consumers behave this way, but very many do not, suggesting that consumers are myopic, overvaluing consumption today in a manner that they themselves will come to regret in the future. If consumers are myopic, if self-today has different preferences than self-tomorrow, then whether taking on credit is a good idea is beyond the comfort zone of positive economics. Credit availability creates winners (self-today) and losers (self-tomorrow), while interest payments reduce the size of the overall pie available to the time series of selves. In the way that economists suggest "free trade" to be good — winners, losers, gains overall — myopic consumers imply that the absense of a credit constraint is bad. Thank goodness the banks aren't lending!

There are obvious wrinkles and objections: What about credit for cars, or home mortgages, or education? The analysis changes when the borrowing is exchanging one pre-existing long-term liability for another. (We are born short basic shelter, and, in much of America at least, short a cheap car as well.) Education can be viewed as an ordinary, wealth generating investment project that in theory could be equity rather than debt financed, but that might be too tricky in practice. It's not my intention to suggest that consumer credit is always bad, only to defend the commonplace notion that for many people and under many circumstances, even loans that will be never be defaulted can be positively harmful, and as a matter of policy we should not be exhorting banks to issue or consumers to accept credit.

But if we let consumer credit contract, and if investment demand is derived from consumption demand, doesn't that spell macroeconomic disaster? There is an alternative. It is called "transfers". What's good about credit from a simple Keynesian perspective isn't that loans get repaid tomorrow, but that they get spent today. If what consumers would do with funds would be better for the economy than what banks are doing with funds, we ought to stop the massive transfers of funds from buyers of government debt to banks, and transfer the funds directly to consumers. If you think that Americans consume too much, and that we need to grit our teeth and endure a "reduction in our standard of living", fine. I disagree, strongly, but at least you're consistent. Then the government shouldn't transfer to anyone, banks shouldn't be encouraged to lend, consumption, investment, and GDP should be allowed to fall until we find a new level. I think that's foolishly pessimistic, though. Americans may need to change the mix of our consumption, but overall I think our standard of living is not only supportable, but improvable, and that our goal should be to get the rest of the world to live as well as we do, rather than to reconcile ourselves with some pseudomoral poverty. The world is full of human want, which we should strive to meet by working to increase our capacity to produce. Problems arise when want and purchasing power are misaligned. We can improve that by redistributing some of the purchasing power from those with lesser to those with greater use for current consumption. If that sounds Commie to you, note that is precisely the function that consumer credit traditionally serves, just without all the residual claims, a large fraction of which will prove to be illusory (at least in real terms). That is, transfers are just a more honest way of doing precisely what a credit expansion does, except without the trauma that comes from learning that much of the money lent to fund current consumption will never be repaid.

I'm trying to come up with a reasonable opposing view, a case for pushing consumer credit but opposing transfers. Perhaps you can help, because I just can't do it. One might argue on philosophical grounds against coercive transfers, but coercive transfers are a precondition of restarting bank lending, and we've already made transfers to banks on such a scale that banning them now would be like robbing a jewelry store, then piously arguing future looters should be shot. One might argue that bank lending is "smarter" than public transfers would be, that the patterns of consumption and investment that result from private sector credit allocation will lead to superior productive capacity and more sustainable patterns of consumption than direct transfers. Given the awful quality of aggregate investment this decade and the volatility now faced by consumers who were recently credit flush but who under any reasonable lending standard must now be credit constrained, it is hard to be enthusiastic about the special wisdom of bank-mediated credit allocation.

Of course, once we start redistributing purchasing power, there's the thorny question of who gets what. I have an answer to that, it is my new mantra. Transfer flat. Cut checks to every adult in the economy of interest, regardless of whether they pay taxes or have a job. Flat transfers are easy to understand and they pass the smell test for "fair". As an income source unrelated to work, flat transfers increase workers' bargaining power with employers by reducing the cost of refusing a raw deal. (Supplementary income is a better means of enhancing labor bargaining power than unionization, which serves the same purpose but may limit the flexibility and efficiency of production.) Finally, flat transfers align purchasing power in the economy with the problem that we want markets to solve: We want an economy that serves some people dramatically more than others, in order to preserve incentives to produce and excel. But we also want an economy that meets every person's basic needs, even those of people who are unable or unwilling to offer marketable goods or services. We won't let people starve, so why not fund a basic income, however miserly, rather than relying on an inefficient social services bureaucracy or taxing the virtuous by relying on charity?

Tax Pigou and progressive. Transfer flat. Encourage equity. Contain the banks.