William L. Silber: Invest Like Buffett…Buy Silver When It’s Cheap, but Don’t Repeat his Mistake

The global economy in 2019 may seem unsettled because of trade wars and friction in the European Union, but it is nothing compared with the Great Recession. Few worry today about the collapse of the world financial system, a serious concern ten years ago, and the decline of precious metal prices since then confirms that most investors do not expect a return of that sentiment. Which makes it the perfect time for Americans to learn a lesson from the recent history of the country’s most famous investor: Warren Buffett. He bought silver after it had collapsed in value but left more than four billion dollars on the table by selling too soon. 

Buffett is a contrarian, making investments that are unpopular and waiting for them to return to favor. He says: “You pay a very high price…for a cheery consensus…pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels.” This approach suggests that now is a good time to buy precious metals and to keep them for the long haul. Gold and silver are not popular today, but they should be viewed as insurance policies for everyday Americans. Both metals work when nothing else does, like during the Great Recession, when silver quadrupled in value between 2008 and 2011, and gold rose by 250 percent. Those increases mirrored the performance of precious metals 30 years earlier, in 1979, at the peak of the Great Inflation, when fear of runaway consumer prices had taken hold.

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, bought silver in 1997 because it was cheap. The white metal had dropped more than 90 percent from its record price of $50 an ounce in January 1980. It was almost twenty years after Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, had cured the inflationary spiral that had griped the U.S. economy and Buffett pounced. He bought at the right time but sold much too soon and said, “I bought it very early and sold it very early.” Buffett’s experience provides guidelines for how to see precious metals today.

Buffett’s purchase of more than 100 million ounces of silver, about 25 percent of the world’s annual production of the white metal in 1997, was deeply out of character. The white metal did not belong among his investments. He had prided himself on picking companies that are “understandable, possess excellent economics, and are run by outstanding people.” Buffett traditionally dismissed owning assets like precious metals that “will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else…will pay more for them in the future.” His least favorite investment is gold which he said would “remain lifeless forever.”

The CEO of Berkshire Hathaway gave silver a reprieve because the white metal is a cross between precious and industrial, a store of wealth for millions and productive in electronics and medicine. He explained his reasons for the investment, which totaled about two percent of Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio: “I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand.” Buffett liked silver because annual consumption by industry outpaced mine production.

And Buffett was ideally positioned to benefit from silver’s low prices. The Berkshire Hathaway CEO had long understood the power of patience, having told his stockholders when he first bought Coca Cola stock in 1988, “Our favorite holding period is forever.” Patience is key to maximizing value from precious metals.

As it turned out, however, Buffett failed to stick to his principles, with serious consequences. An expanding U.S. economy spurred prices to about $7.50 in 2005 and Buffett began to worry about excess speculation. A year later he told his investors at their annual meeting that Berkshire Hathaway had sold all its silver. Buffett said “We made a few dollars,” but he was not pleased. Berkshire had earned about $275 million on an investment of $560 million in 1997, about a five percent annual return over the eight years, less than they would have earned investing in U.S. Treasury bonds. Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger deadpanned, “I think we’ve demonstrated our expertise in commodities, if you look at our activities in silver.” Buffett added “We’re not good at figuring out when a speculative game will end.”

He did not realize the party was about to begin.

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. It was the largest Chapter 11 filing in American history, and turned a mild recession into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The failure destroyed trust in financial assets, triggered panicked withdrawals from money market mutual funds, until then considered the equivalent of cash, and forced the U.S Treasury to guarantee their safety.

The exploding financial chaos eventually sparked gold prices to an all-time record of $1,900 an ounce on September 5, 2011, an increase of 250 percent in the three years since Lehman’s collapse. Silver hit $42.92 that same day, for a 400 percent increase, almost twice the move in gold. Buffett’s uncharacteristic impatience, therefore, cost him dearly. Had Berkshire Hathaway sold at $42.92 on September 5, 2011, well below the $48 crisis peak, he would have made $4.2 billion on his investment of $560 million. His 14-year silver speculation would have earned a respectable 16.5 percent annual return.

No one expects to sell at the top so precious metals should remain in an investor’s portfolio forever, just like Warren Buffett’s Coca Cola. His allocation of two percent to silver makes sense — not too much to cause insomnia, but enough to provide for food, clothing and a driverless car during the next crisis. Today, we have recovered from the Great Recession, and precious metals are out of favor, a prime time for a contrarian purchase. Silver has declined to about $15 an ounce, one-third its 2011 peak, so it is relatively cheap to insure against the next financial upheaval. Once you’ve bought it, don’t touch it. Selling would be like cancelling insurance after an accident.

William L. Silber is the Marcus Nadler Professor of Finance and Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His many books include When Washington Shut Down Wall Street (Princeton) and Volcker (Bloomsbury). He lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Walter Mattli on Darkness by Design: The Hidden Power in Global Capital Markets

MattliCapital markets have undergone a dramatic transformation in the past two decades. Algorithmic high-speed supercomputing has replaced traditional floor trading and human market makers, while centralized exchanges that once ensured fairness and transparency have fragmented into a dizzying array of competing exchanges and trading platforms. Darkness by Design exposes the unseen perils of market fragmentation and “dark” markets, some of which are deliberately designed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful. Essential reading for anyone with money in the stock market, Darkness by Design challenges the conventional view of markets and reveals the troubling implications of unchecked market power for the health of the global economy and society as a whole.

How did you come to write this book?

Right after the 2007-2008 financial crisis I became interested in questions regarding the regulation of big banks in order to prevent abuse, market distortions, and further scandals and crises. I wanted to look at the ways in which the very same contributors to the financial crisis benefited from it, but I discovered that a number of financial experts were already examining the topic and producing very insightful research. I thus decided to shift my attention to an important related area that many knew little about: the structure and governance of capital markets. After talking to several dozen market actors and doing some preliminary research, what struck me as particularly interesting was the puzzling transformation of equity market structure: the move from centralized to fragmented markets in the early 2000s. I wasn’t convinced by the conventional view of this transformation; I therefore began to investigate the question of market structure and governance more carefully. In the process, I made interesting discoveries that I felt should be explored more fully and presented to a broad audience.

Can you explain the title? What exactly is being hidden?

A retired regulator with a distinguished 15-year record at the helm of two major financial regulatory organizations confessed to me that he no longer understands how these complex capital markets really work. The average investor is even more in the dark about these markets. When an investor sends an order to buy or sell a stock by the click of a mouse, the order may take a lightning journey through a maze of dark pools and exchanges before being filled. How does the investor know that on the journey to execution the order was treated fairly and was filled at the best available price?

The title, Darkness By Design, refers to almost invisible exploitative trading schemes or arrangements in today’s capital markets that are deliberately designed and governed to enable the transfer of wealth from the weak to the powerful.  

To understand the mechanism of such exploitation, it is important to go beyond conventional accounts of how markets work and acknowledge the extent to which markets are political organizations. What the many conventional accounts of the function of markets overlook is the extent to which markets are deeply political organizations or governance systems where what is being hidden is the extent to which power politics shapes markets. Contending groups intensely battle to shape market rules and structure according to their own narrow preferences. Power is central to explaining markets both in the sense of general power politics arguments about who wins or loses, and in the sense that markets themselves are political institutions governed by power relations.

What are the origins of the market fragmentation that we’re seeing today? 

It’s worth recalling that for over two centuries, securities markets in all major countries tended toward greater concentration. Concentration of trading in one large organized public market or trading “pool” seemed natural and inevitable, because the greater the number of users of an exchange the more attractive that exchange is to new or potential users, since new buyers and sellers are more likely to find a counter-party in a large market than in a small one. That is to say, a central market naturally has the highest concentration of orders: it has the greatest trading depth (volume of bids and offers) as well as breadth (range of tradeable securities). In other words, it has the highest liquidity, and liquidity begets liquidity: the bigger the flow of trades, the stronger the pull.

My book questions the conventional view of the move from centralization to fragmentation that says that centralized markets were monopolistic and inefficient and that this led to the fragmentation of the market. In this narrative, investors are the principal beneficiaries owing to narrower trading spreads and lower commissions, but this deeply entrenched conventional view is flawed. A key finding of my book is that power politics caused the market fragmentation—it was a plot by a coterie of powerful insiders who had grown weary of the traditional way of organizing trading, viewed the old model increasingly as contrary to their economic interests, and quietly pushed for a different market structure more aligned with those interests.

How is market fragmentation hurting us now?

In today’s fragmented markets characterized by many “shallow” pools of liquidity—a proliferation of public exchanges, broker-dealer dark pools, and other private off-exchange trading places—costly new technology is often used by powerful market operators in quiet and nearly invisible ways to maximize their profits at the expense of ordinary investors. Specifically, information asymmetries and secrecy—often deliberate governance-design strategies—have enabled a small but powerful group of unscrupulous market operators to milk conflicts of interest, often in undisclosed or hidden ways, at the expense of the unsuspecting investing public.

Latent in the minds of many victims of these strategies is a belief that “modern” markets are technologically determined and that technological progress must be good. But new technology is neither bad nor good; its social value is solely determined by the incentives or motives of the users of this technology. The rise of fragmentation, or market transformation more generally, matters because it shapes the incentives of market actors to invest in either good or bad governance.

Good governance is about managing conflicts of interest for the long-term benefit of all in society whereas bad governance milks the conflicts of interest for the benefit of the few on the backs of the many. Over the past decade and a half, fragmentation has given rise to bad governance. Market makers have fewer obligations, market surveillance is neglected or impossible, and enforcement is rendered ineffective.

It is important to note that market fragmentation is by no means limited to the US equity market. Elsewhere, too, market centralization has been replaced by varying levels of fragmentation.

Is this story all doom and gloom? Are there any positives? What would have to happen to address the issues related to market fragmentation?

Darkness by design is not inevitable—the mantle of darkness can be lifted through a combination of steps based on several fundamental principles, including market transparency based on stringent disclosure rules and robust market intelligence, a level playing field for market participants, proper accountability for market disruption and bad governance, and, crucially, market consolidation or centralization. The reason is that dominant exchanges in such market systems have particularly strong reputational concerns and the requisite financial resources to invest in good governance. Dominance means high public visibility, which brings with it great reputational vulnerabilities.

In highly fragmented market systems, the many market organizations have an incentive to cut corners. Why focus on delivering high quality public goods, such as price discovery, if competitors can simply free ride, and, in addition, good money can be made by milking conflicts of interest? Once such behavior becomes permissive and the unspoken norm, no significant reputational costs result from engaging in, abetting, or condoning bad market behavior.

Regulatory intervention in capital markets by governments plays a role in lifting the mantle of darkness. However, it is rarely the only answer and not necessarily the most effective one. It is bound to face considerable practical and especially political challenges, not least from powerful defenders of the status quo who will fight change tooth and nail. There is another answer: market solutions to market failures, sometimes nudged or facilitated by regulators. Specifically, greater consolidation and market centralization are possible—not through regulatory intervention but perhaps through market processes.

Consolidation of markets at the national or transnational level, with one or more dominant exchanges, is likely to generate a fairer, simpler, more transparent, and more efficient marketplace than the one created by a fragmented system and characterized by shallow liquidity scattered across a wide range of exchanges, dark pools, and internalizers. 

What do you hope readers will take away from reading this book?

A key contribution of this book is the empirical analysis into historical patterns of market structure and governance. The book shows the market transformation that took place over time. Central to the analysis is the role of power politics in shaping market structure and governance: changes in the distribution of power in capital markets alter market actors’ relative influence in pushing for or opposing change. Specifically, over the last decade and a half, transformations have taken place which have resulted in fragmentation and badly governed markets, thereby adversely affecting aspects of quality and fairness in these markets. I hope the book will encourage readers to become more cautious and will equip them to ask tough questions of their brokers in order to better protect their interests when investing in capital markets.

Walter Mattli is professor of international political economy and a fellow of St. John’s College, University of Oxford. His books include The New Global Rulers: The Privatization of Regulation in the World Economy and The Politics of Global Regulation. He lives in Oxford, England.

An Interview with the Authors of Dark Matter Credit

Imagine a world without banks. Because there are no credit cards, you have to pay cash for everything, and there’s no way to borrow either. How do you buy car or a house, or start a new business? You hide cash under your mattress. Such a world would be desperately poor, or so research in economics teaches us. Yet someone Europe managed to become rich long before banks spread across the continent. How was that possible?

Dark Matter Credit by Philip T. Hoffman, Gilles Postel-Vinay, and Jean-Laurent Rosenthal solves the mystery. Using data on 250,000 loans from France, the authors found that credit abounded in Europe well before banks opened their doors, thanks to a huge shadow credit system whose importance no one has ever measured before. The system let nearly a third of French families borrow way back in 1740, and by 1840 it funded as much mortgage debt as the 1950s US banking system. And when banks finally appeared, it out-competed them, helping people to borrow, save, and even make payments. It thrived right up to World War I, not just in France but Britain, Germany, and the United States, only to be killed off by government intervention after 1918.

According to the authors, their discovery overturns standard arguments about banks and economic growth and reveals a shadow system made up of thousands of loans between individuals, as in modern peer to peer lending.  Dark Matter Credit sheds light on the problems peer to peer lending will face as it spreads and suggests how those problems can be solved.

What led you to uncover a huge and unknown shadow banking system?

We knew that people were borrowing and lending long before banks existed, because thousands of loan contracts survived in the French archives. We wanted to know how that was possible without banks. How did the lenders know that the borrowers would repay? After all, there was no such thing as a credit score or even an easy way to tell if property had been mortgaged, and potential lenders had for centuries been worried about the risk of default. Could lenders only make loans to family members or close friends? Was that how credit markets worked? If so, lending would have been severely limited.  Early investigations suggested, though, that lending was not so small, and not as local as previous scholars had thought. We suspected that informal intermediaries were matching borrowers and lenders and increasing the level of confidence in the market. To get at what had actually happened, we set out to measure all this lending across France and to analyze what made it possible.

How much lending was there?

Well in 1840, outstanding mortgage debt came to 27 percent of GDP. That was almost as much as in the United States during the housing boom in the 1950s, when there were numerous banks, savings and loans, and government backed mortgages, but all the lending in France was done without any bank involvement, and without any of the government support that stimulated housing construction in the United States. Even way back in 1740, the credit system in France allowed a third of all families to borrow and lend. And the system was incredibly persistent: it was only killed off by government intervention after 1918, but even as late as 1931, it was still providing 90 percent of all borrowers with their loans

How did it work?

The loans, it turns out, were arranged by notaries, who had been drawing up legal documents and preserving official copies of records since the Middle Ages. Over time, they began serving as real estate brokers and providing legal and financial advice, and since they knew who had money to lend and who was creditworthy, they were soon matching lenders up with borrowers who had good collateral and were likely repay. And if they couldn’t find a match among their own clients, they referred borrowers and lenders to one another. One notary might send a good borrower off to another notary, or he might receive a lender from yet another notary. That allowed loans to be made when the borrowers and lenders didn’t know one another. The loans didn’t pass through banks at all—they were all loans between individuals, as in modern, web based peer to peer lending, but all without the web obviously.

Did it do anything else?

The notaries also helped people make payments and manage their savings. And their loan business continued to thrive after banks opened their doors. There were in fact more banks in France than anyone imagined (we know—we counted them), but it took them nearly a century to make any serious inroads into mortgage lending. We also discovered that notaries and bankers actually cooperated with one another to devise a new way for peasants to pay their bills at a time when doing so was difficult outside of cities. This sort of innovation is surprising because it runs counter to an influential argument that financial markets should have been stifled by the legal system prevailing in France and many other parts of the world—so called civil law, which was supposedly less favorable to financial development than British and American common law. That argument is also contradicted by the fact that the notaries themselves were thriving loan brokers, because the notaries kept the written records that were at the heart of the civil law.

How did you measure all the lending?

We visited a lot of archives! We had to because we started in a period before there were any government statistics about lending. So we assembled loan information from original contracts and fiscal sources. Of course, reading a quarter of a million loan contracts would have been impossible, but we also knew that summaries of the loans survived in French tax archives from the early eighteenth century up through the 1900s. The tax records plus some ingenious sampling allowed us to gather the data on our quarter of a million loans and to estimate what was happening in the credit market for France as whole across two centuries. With the sample, we could analyze the impact of urbanization, economic growth, financial crises, and enormous institutional changes during the French Revolution and the nineteenth century.   We also investigated the spread of banking in France and the interaction between bankers and notaries, and we compared French banking with banking in Britain. The comparison suggested that Britain probably lacked as strong a peer to peer lending system as in France, although it did have one. Evidence from other countries implies that similar systems operated in Germany, and the United States in 1900. They too had big peer to peer lending systems that have yet to be explored. And one has recently cropped up in China, but it has caused massive losses and triggered protests, because of problems that the French system avoided.

Philip T. Hoffman is the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and History at the California Institute of Technology. Co-author Gilles Postel-Vinay is professor emeritus at the Paris School of Economics, and co-author Jean-Laurent Rosenthal is the Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and the Ronald and Maxine Linde Leadership Chair in the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology.

Hassan Malik on Bankers and Bolsheviks

In a year that has seen emerging markets, including Argentina and Turkey, experience major market crashes, Hassan Malik’s Bankers and Bolsheviks is a timely reminder of the long history of emerging market booms and busts. Bankers and Bolsheviks charts the story of the foreign investment surge that made Russia the largest net international borrower in the global bond market, and the collapse which culminated in the largest default in history in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. Based on research in government and banking archives in four countries and three languages, the story is truly global. It focuses on the leading gatekeepers of international finance in Europe and the United States, showing their thinking about the most significant emerging market of the age through some of the most important events in world history.

Many scholars, writers and filmmakers have engaged with the period you chose to write about. What in particular attracted you to it?

I was always struck by how frequently financial history surveys focus on a few set stories and episodes – the Dutch Tulipmania of the seventeenth century, the hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, or the 1929 stock market crash – but how rarely they mention Russia, especially given the scale of the Russian borrowing binge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As a banker living and working in Moscow during mid 2000s, I was constantly walking by pre-revolutionary buildings that had once housed banks. These vestiges of a previous Russian boom piqued my interest in the role of finance during the revolutionary period and inspired me to approach the subject through the archives and writings of key individual players in this drama. The Russian case was particularly interesting given that all the major players in global finance were able to participate in Russian markets. Unlike other emerging markets that were dominated by a single country or bank, the Russian story featured a diverse group of actors, and so provided an ideal vantage point from which to write about global finance during the first modern age of globalization.

What are the parallels with today’s standoff between Ukraine and Russia over sovereign debt?

Central to the book is the notion of “odious debt” – the idea that a population cannot be held liable for the debts contracted on its behalf but without its consent by an illegitimate regime. The Bolshevik default of 1918 was remarkable for reasons other than sheer magnitude. Unlike Argentina in 2001 or Greece in 2012, the Bolsheviks not only defaulted but repudiated the debts contracted by pre-revolutionary governments. It is notable that the Bolsheviks were not outliers in this respect – moderate liberals in Russia also objected to debts the Tsarist government in particular raised in international bond markets.

Fully 100 years on, the Ukrainian government is fighting Russian claims on a similar basis with respect to a bilateral loan structured as a $3bn Eurobond contracted by the government of Viktor Yanukovych in December 2013, shortly before it was overthrown in the 2014 uprising. The Ukrainian government ultimately defaulted on the loan in 2015. Like the Bolsheviks in 1918, the current Ukrainian government claims that Yanukovych was a dictator ruling without the consent of his people, and that therefore, they should not be held accountable for debts contracted by his government. Like the Bolsheviks and liberal opponents to the Tsarist regime in the early twentieth century, the present Ukrainian government is also claiming that the creditor in question actively sought to undermine and control the debtor country.

What lessons does the book hold for investors in emerging market bonds today?

Another of the book’s central messages is that investment in emerging markets does not happen in a vacuum. Politics matter, on several levels. Most obviously, managing and hedging against geopolitical risk remains very important. Global politics also influenced thinking about Russia, even amongst ostensibly clear-eyed investors. Fears of an ascendant Germany during the time period discussed in the book are mirrored in present-day apprehension about the rise of China and relative decline of “the West.” More specifically, such fears can generate biases and influence investment decisions. The strategic decisions of the first National City Bank of New York – one of the largest in the world at the time, and a forerunner to Citigroup – were heavily influenced, for example, by the wartime context, and led to a remarkable expansion of the bank’s operations in Russia on the eve of the Bolshevik revolution.

Politics also operate on a subtler level. The case of Russia, for example, demonstrates how the act of investing itself became a political act–when investors enter an emerging market, they often are aligning themselves with a particular set of political forces. Bankers in Russia at the time failed to appreciate the degree to which they were becoming entwined in domestic politics – and with the Tsarist regime in particular. Today, a similar theme is evident along the New Silk Road that China is developing across Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean as part of President Xi Jingping’s Belt and Road Initiative.

What are the implications for China’s Belt and Road Initiative?

The investment wave Russia witnessed during the first modern age of globalization was inextricably intertwined with contemporary geopolitics. While notionally private French, British, and American banks were key gatekeepers channeling capital into Russia, they did so in a particular geopolitical context. The French and Russian authorities in particular cooperated to a significant degree in channeling French savings to Russian markets. The French, however, frequently failed to persuade Russia to direct industrial orders to French firms, which often lost out to their German rivals.

In this respect, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is markedly different from the Franco-Russian financial ties of the Belle Époque. Under the BRI, China extends loans largely to developing countries for infrastructure projects built primarily by Chinese workers employed by Chinese engineering firms, using mainly Chinese equipment and materials. At a time when Chinese economic growth is slowing and there are signs of excess capacity in areas such as the construction industry, the BRI holds significant promise for China, not least since it diversifies the country’s trade routes away from contested territory such as the South China Sea. The benefit to countries receiving BRI funds is less clear. While there is little doubt that infrastructure is being built, the utility of some projects is arguable; and crucially, there is little transparency with regard to the commercial terms of the deals, to say nothing of contracting processes.

Several cases of questionable China-related deals are already evident. Before the formal launch of the BRI in 2013, Sri Lanka infamously signed a deal for a Chinese port of dubious feasibility and under terms that saw Sri Lanka’s debt balloon. When a new government faced difficulties in making payments, the Chinese ultimately took control of the strategic asset via a 99-year lease. More recently, erstwhile Malaysian premier Najib Razak signed major Chinese investment deals under the BRI. His successor has attacked the deals as shady and wasteful, and has already announced their cancellation in the amount of at least $22bn.

As the Malaysian case shows, the Chinese government – like foreign investors in Tsarist Russia – is willing to sign deals with leaders of contested legitimacy. The latter, in turn, are incentivized to seek BRI funding given the relatively higher degree of scrutiny and conditionality imposed by more traditional lenders such as the World Bank or individual developed countries. As both the Malaysian and Russian cases show, however, such an approach carries the risk that new regimes – whether they arrive through revolution or the ballot box – can question, push to renegotiate, or outright repudiate debts contracted by their predecessors.

Have emerging markets evolved, or have they repeated cycles of boom and bust that are fundamentally the same, with only superficial changes in context? Are the mistakes of the past vis-à-vis emerging markets destined to be repeated?

It would be simplistic to say that history repeats itself in emerging markets, but at the same time, financial history can be useful in thinking about historical analogs to current market conditions and potential future scenarios. Of course, government and businesses in emerging markets have evolved both over the centuries, as well as in the last several decades that witnessed the growth of “emerging markets” as a specific institutional asset class. For instance, macroeconomic management has shifted dramatically over the last 20 years in markets from Argentina to Russia, not least through the abandonment of fixed exchange rate regimes that contributed to past crises. At the same time, macroeconomic prescriptions directed at emerging markets from institutions such as the IMF, academia, and the investment community have themselves changed as investors and economists learn and re-learn lessons from the major EM crises of recent years.

Emerging markets have changed in other respects, too. Tsarist Russia attracted investors in part due to its relatively large population and resource base. Today, Russia’s demographics are seen as a handicap by investors, as is the economy’s dependence on commodity exports. Of course, even high-growth Asian economies have become victims of their success, with improvements in living standards and life expectancies contributing to ageing populations in major emerging markets such as China and India.

Nevertheless, there are strong continuities. The political dimension in particular remains very real in emerging markets, as seen in the major market moves surrounding regime changes in places such as Argentina, Brazil, India, and Malaysia in recent years. In this respect, there are strong parallels between emerging markets today and in the past.

Hassan Malik is an investment strategist and financial historian. He earned a PhD at Harvard University and was a postdoctoral fellow at the European University Institute in Florence and the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. He lives and works in London.

 

 

Ten years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers: A Reading List

Gennaioli & ShleiferA Crisis of Beliefs by Nicola Gennaioli and Andrei Shleifer makes us rethink the financial crisis and the nature of economic risk. In this authoritative and comprehensive book, two of today’s most insightful economists reveal how our beliefs shape financial markets, lead to expansions of credit and leverage, and expose the economy to major risks. They present a new theory of belief formation that explains why the financial crisis came as such a shock to so many people—and how financial and economic instability persist.

To mark the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008, these books shed light on the causes and effects of the financial crisis, and make suggestions for where we should go from here. 

 

 

Sandbu

Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt – New Edition
Martin Sandbu

brunnermeier

The Euro and the Battle of Ideas
Markus K. Brunnermeier, Harold James & Jean-Pierre Landau

Acharya

Guaranteed to Fail: Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Debacle of Mortgage Finance
Viral V. Acharya, Matthew Richardson, Stijn Van Nieuwerburgh & Lawrence J. White

Admati

The Bankers’ New Clothes: What’s Wrong with Banking and What to Do about It – Updated Edition
Anat Admati & Martin Hellwig

Akerlof

Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism
George A. Akerlof & Robert J. Shiller

Bernanke

The Federal Reserve and the Financial Crisis
Ben S. Bernanke

Cochrane

The Squam Lake Report: Fixing the Financial System
Kenneth R. French, Martin N. Baily, John Y. Campbell, John H. Cochrane, Douglas W. Diamond, Darrell Duffie, Anil K Kashyap, Frederic S. Mishkin, Raghuram G. Rajan, David S. Scharfstein, Robert J. Shiller, Hyun Song Shin, Matthew J. Slaughter, Jeremy C. Stein, and René M. Stulz

Rajan

Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy
Raghuram G. Rajan

Reinhart

This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff

Shiller

Irrational Exuberance: Revised and Expanded Third Edition
Robert J. Shiller

Shiller

The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened, and What to Do about It
Robert J. Shiller

Turner

Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance
Adair Turner

Sebastian Edwards on American Default: The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court, and the Battle over Gold

EdwardsThe American economy is strong in large part because nobody believes that America would ever default on its debt. Yet in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt did just that, when in a bid to pull the country out of depression, he depreciated the U.S. dollar in relation to gold, effectively annulling all debt contracts. American Default is the story of this forgotten chapter in America’s history. At a time when several major economies never approached the brink of default or devaluing or recalling currencies, American Default is a timely account of a little-known yet drastic experiment with these policies, the inevitable backlash, and the ultimate result.

Americans believe that the Federal government has never defaulted on its debt. Yet in your book, you tell the story of a massive debt restructuring that happened only eight decades ago, in 1933. A debt restructuring that changed contracts unilaterally and retroactively, and imposed losses of 61% on investors. Why do you think that this episode is so little known?

This is a case of “collective amnesia.” Americans think of themselves as law-abiding citizens. We think of the United States as a country where institutions work and where contracts are sacred; a country where the rule of law prevails at all times. Reneging on contracts is not something this nation does. And, certainly, we don’t change contracts retroactively. It is something that “banana republics” do. And when they do it, we scold them and denounce them. We also demand compensation for damages.

When the Supreme Court heard the gold clause cases in 1935, most analysts thought that these were among the most important cases ever considered by the Court. Today, however, they are not even taught in most law schools. We have forgotten the episode because it is convenient, because it helps us maintain the view we have about our nation: a nation that always pays its debts. But, as I show in this book, this is not the case.

Your book is about the annulment of the gold clauses in 1933, and the Supreme Court decisions that ruled that it was legal to change debt contracts retroactively. What were the gold clauses, exactly? And what was their role?

Historically, most long-term debt contracts in the United States were written in terms of gold. That is, the borrower committed himself to paying back an amount of gold (or gold equivalent) equal to the amount borrowed, plus interest. This practice started during the Civil War to protect lenders from possible inflation.

In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the U.S. off the gold standard, all public debt included the gold clause. In addition, most railway and public utility bonds had gold clauses, as did most mortgages. Overall, debt equivalent to approximately 120% of GDP was subject to these escalation riders. That is a huge number. To put things in perspective, it is about twice as large as the debt that Argentina restructured unilaterally in 2002.

You write that the abrogation of the gold clauses was closely related to the abandonment of the gold standard in 1933.

In 1933, President Roosevelt thought that the U.S. could benefit from devaluing the dollar with respect to gold. This had been done by the United Kingdom in September 1931, and it appeared to be helping the UK get out of the depression. However, FDR was told by his advisers that the gold clauses stood in the way of a devaluation. With the gold clauses in place, a devaluation of the USD would immediately trigger an increase in debts by the same amount as the devaluation. This would bankrupt almost every railway company, and many other businesses. It would also be extremely costly for the government. It was at this point that FDR decided to abrogate the gold clauses. The actual annulment took place on June 5, 1933.

When emerging countries, such as Argentina, devalue their currency and restructure their debts, we often brand them as “populists.” Was there a populist element in FDR’s decision to abandon the gold standard and abrogate the gold clauses?

One of the main issues in 1933 was how to raise agricultural prices, which had declined by almost 70% since 1919. After the 1932 election there was a large bloc of populists, pro-agrarian members in Congress. The better known one was Senator Huey Long, but there were others. Two very influential ones were Senator Elmer Thomas from Oklahoma, and Senator Burton Wheeler from Montana. They were “inflationists,” and believed that getting off gold would help increase commodity prices. To a large extent the devaluation of the dollar—from $20.67 to $35 per ounce of gold—was to placate this group of “populist” lawmakers. Wheeler was also an isolationist. In Philip Roth novel The Plot against America, Wheeler is a fictional vice president, and aviator Charles Lindbergh is the president.

There are still some people who believe that getting off gold was a mistake. Was it necessary? Did it work? Should the U.S. go back to gold?

Most economic historians—including Milton Friedman and Ben Bernanke—agree that one of the main consequences of devaluing the dollar in 1934 was that the country received a huge inflow of gold. This additional gold was monetized by the Federal Reserve. As a consequence, there was a large increase in credit. This triggered a recovery, and helped reduce unemployment. A key question, which I address in the book, is whether it was possible, at the time, to put in place an expansionary monetary policy and still maintain some form of a gold-based standard. This is a controversial issue; British economist John Maynard Keynes believed that it was possible; many modern economists believe that it was not.

You argue in the book that at the time most economists were perplexed and didn’t know how to face the Great Depression. Apparently they didn’t understand the effects of fluctuating exchange rates.

In the 1930s the economic analysis of currency values and currency adjustments was in its infancy. Some well-known economists, such as Yale’s Irving Fisher, were very critical of the gold standard, and suggested pegging the value of the dollar to a basket of commodities. Other, including Princeton’s Edwin Kemmerer and Chicago’s Jacob Viner, were convinced that, in spite of some shortcomings, the gold standard was the best available monetary system. In the book I tell the story of how these two groups for FDR’s ear. I discuss who said what and how the President reacted to their advice.

You write that in 1933 George F. Warren was the most influential economist in the world. However, today almost no one knows his name. Who was he, and why was he so important?

George F. Warren was a professor of agricultural economics at Cornell, and a friend of Henry Morgenthau Jr.

Morgenthau was a neighbor and friend of President Roosevelt, who eventually became Secretary of the Treasury. In 1931, Warren published a book titled Prices, where he argued that agricultural prices were related in a one-to-one fashion to the price of gold. If the price of the metal increased through a devaluation of the USD, the price of wheat, corn, cotton, eggs and so on would increase immediately and by the same amount. Starting in July 1933, Warren became Roosevelt’s main economic adviser. In October the president put in place a “gold buying program” based on Warren’s theories. Every morning FDR would determine an arbitrary price at which the government bought small amounts of gold. The president’s expectation was that agricultural prices would follow in short order. But that didn’t happen; the program did not work as expected. John Maynard Keynes criticized it strongly, and in January 1934 the program was abandoned. In the book I discuss, in great detail, Warren’s theories and I compare them to those of other prominent economists, including Irving Fisher’s.

You devote quite some time to the cases argued in front of the Supreme Court. What can you tell us about them?

At the time, the Court was deeply divided. There was a conservative bloc led by Justice James Clark McReynolds, and a liberal bloc that included Justices Brandeis and Cardozo. Charles Evans Hughes, the Chief Justice, was often the swing vote. The cases were fascinating for several reasons; first, the Administration used a “necessity” argument to support the Joint Resolution that abrogated the gold clauses. This argument is very similar—in fact, almost identical—to the argument used recently by countries such as Argentina when restructured their debts unilaterally. Second, the government made very sophisticated economic arguments; in order to support them, it included a number of charts and diagrams in its briefs. Third, the rulings were very convoluted and controversial. In the case involving public debt (a Liberty Bond, to be more precise), the Court ruled that Congress had exceeded its power, and that the abrogation was thus unconstitutional. However, the Court said, there were no damages involved. That is, the government had violated the Constitution, but didn’t have to compensate bond holder for losses.

In modern times, countries that default and/or restructure their debts unilaterally pay a cost. Generally speaking, they have great difficulties accessing the capital markets. However, this was not the case for the U.S. What do you think are the reasons for this?

I discuss this issue in great detail in the book. Milton Friedman argued that by expropriating property rights the abrogation had severe negative effects on the U.S. economy. It negatively affected investment. I combed the data and didn’t find significant dislocations or signs of distress in the weeks and months following the Supreme Court rulings. In the final chapters of the book I give a possible explanation for this. I point out why the U.S. case is so different from recent default episodes, including Argentina and Greece.

Sebastian Edwards is the Henry Ford II Professor of International Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books include Toxic Aid: Economic Collapse and Recovery in Tanzania and Left Behind: Latin America and the False Promise of Populism. He lives in Los Angeles.

John Tutino: Mexico, Mexicans, and the Challenge of Global Capitalism

This piece has been published in collaboration with the History News Network. 

TutinoMexico and Mexicans are in the news these days. The Trump administration demands a wall to keep Mexicans out of “America,” insisting that undocumented immigrants cause unemployment, low wages, and worse north of the border. It presses a renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, claiming to defend U.S. workers from the pernicious impacts of a deal said to favor Mexico and its people. Meanwhile U.S. businesses (from autos to agriculture) work to keep the gains they have made in decades of profitable cross-border production and marketing. Their lobbying highlights the profits they make employing Mexicans who earn little (at home and in the U.S.), and by their efforts subsidize U.S. businesses and consumers.

The integration of Mexico and the U.S., their workers and markets, is pivotal to U.S. power, yet problematic to many U.S. voters who feel prejudiced in a world of globalizing capitalism and buy into stereotypes that proclaim invasive Mexicans the cause of so many problems. Analysts of diverse views, including many scholars, often imagine that this all began in the 1990s with NAFTA. A historical survey, however, shows that the integration of North America’s economies began with the U.S. taking rich lands from Texas to California by war in the 1840s, driving the border south to its current location. U.S. capitalists led a westward expansion and turned south to rule railroads, mining, petroleum, and more in Mexico before 1910—while Mexican migrants went north to build railroads, harvest crops, and supply cities in lands once Mexican. The revolution that followed in part reacted to U.S. economic power; its disruptions sent more Mexicans north to work. While Mexico struggled toward national development in the 1920s, displaced families still moved north. When depression stalled the U.S. economy in the 1930s, Mexicans (including many born U.S. citizens) were expelled south. When World War II stimulated both North American economies, the nations contracted to draw Mexican men north to work as braceros. Mexico’s “miracle” growth after 1950 relied on U.S. models, capital, and labor-saving technology—and never created enough work to curtail migrant flows. The Mexican oil boom of the 1970s tapped U.S. funds, aiming to bring down OPEC oil prices to favor U.S. hegemony in a Cold-War world. By the 1980s the U.S. gained cheaper oil, helping re-start its economy. In the same decade, falling oil prices set off a debt fueled depression in Mexico that drove more people north. NAFTA, another Mexican collapse, and soaring migration followed in the 1990s. The history of life and work across the U.S.-Mexican border is long and complex. Through twists and turns it shaped modern Mexico while drawing profits, produce, and Mexicans to the U.S.

The Mexican Heartland takes a long view to explore how communities around Mexico City sustained, shaped, and at times challenged capitalism from its sixteenth century origins to our globalizing times. From the 1550s they fed an economy that sent silver, then the world’s primary money, to fuel trades that linked China, South Asia, Europe, and Africa—before British America began. By the eighteenth century, Mexico City was the richest place in the Americas, financing mines and global trade, sustained by people living in landed communities and laboring at commercial estates. It’s merchant-financiers and landed oligarchs were the richest men in the Americas while the coastal colonies of British America drew small profits sending tobacco to Europe and food to Caribbean plantations (the other American engines of early capitalism).

Then, imperial wars mixed with revolutionary risings to bring a world of change: North American merchants and slave holders escaped British rule after 1776, founding the United States; slaves in Saint Domingue took arms, claimed freedom, destroyed sugar plantations, and ended French rule, making Haiti by 1804; insurgents north of Mexico City took down silver capitalism and Spain’s empire after 1810, founding Mexico in 1821. Amid those conflicts, Britain forged a new industrial world while the U.S. began a rise to continental hegemony, taking lands from native peoples and Mexico to expand cotton and slavery, gain gold and silver, and settle European migrants. Meanwhile, Mexicans struggled to make a nation in a reduced territory while searching for a new economy.

The Mexican Heartland explores how families built lives within capitalism before and after the U.S. rose to power. They sought the best they could get from economies made and remade to profit the few. Grounded in landed communities sanctioned by Spain’s empire, they provided produce and labor to carry silver capitalism. When nineteenth-century liberals denied community land rights, villagers pushed back in long struggles. When land became scarce as new machines curtailed work and income, they joined Zapata in revolution after 1910. They gained land, rebuilt communities, and carried a national development project. Then after 1950, medical capitalism delivered antibiotics that fueled a population explosion while “green revolution” agriculture profited by expanding harvests while making work and income scarce. People without land or work thronged to burgeoning cities and across the border into the U.S., searching for new ways to survive, sustain families, and re-create communities.

Now, Mexicans’ continuing search for sustainable lives and sustaining communities is proclaimed an assault on U.S. power and prosperity. Such claims distract us from the myriad ways that Mexicans feed the profits of global corporations, the prosperity of the U.S. economy, and the comforts of many consumers. Mexicans’ efforts to sustain families and communities have long benefitted capitalism, even as they periodically challenged capitalists and their political allies to keep promises of shared prosperity. Yet many in the U.S. blame Mexico and Mexicans for the insecurities, inequities, and scarce opportunities that mark too many lives under urbanizing global capitalism.

Can a wall can solve problems of dependence and insecurity pervasive on both sides of the border? Or would it lock in inequities and turn neighboring nations proclaiming shared democratic values into ever more coercive police states? Can we dream that those who proclaim the liberating good of democratic capitalism may allow people across North America to pursue secure sustenance, build sustaining communities, and moderate soaring inequities? Such questions define our times and will shape our future. The historic struggles of Mexican communities illuminate the challenges we face—and reveal the power of people who persevere.

John Tutino is professor of history and international affairs and director of the Americas Initiative at Georgetown University. His books include The Mexican Heartland: How Communities Shaped Capitalism, a Nation, and World History, 1500-2000 and From Insurrection to Revolution in Mexico: Social Bases of Agrarian Violence, 1750–1940.

Scheidel, Lo, and Tirole longlisted for FT & McKinsey Business Books of the Year

Scheidel Great Leveler jacketThe longlist for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Books of the Year Award was announced on August 14th, and we’re thrilled that once again the list of finalists includes several Princeton University Press books:

The Great Leveler by Walter Scheidel, the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Economics for the Common Good by French winner of the Nobel prize in economics, Jean Tirole, a passionate manifesto for a world in which economics, far from being a “dismal science,” is a positive force for the common good.

Adaptive Markets by Andrew Lo, a new, evolutionary explanation of markets and investor behavior.

Economics for the Common Good by Jean TiroleThe shortlist for this highly distinguished prize will be announced on September 19th. The winner of the Business Book of the Year Award will be awarded £30,000, and £10,000 will be awarded to each of the remaining shortlisted books.

Take a look at all the finalists for this honor during the past decade here.

LoA heartfelt congratulations to our authors.

 

 

 

 

Gary Saul Morson & Morton Schapiro: How the study of economics can benefit from the humanities

CentsEconomists often act as if their methods explain all human behavior. But in Cents and Sensibility, an eminent literary critic and a leading economist make the case that the humanities, especially the study of literature, offer economists ways to make their models more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just. Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro argue that economists need a richer appreciation of behavior, ethics, culture, and narrative—all of which the great writers teach better than anyone. Original, provocative, and inspiring, Cents and Sensibility brings economics back to its place in the human conversation. Read on to learn more about how the study of economics is lacking, the misreading of Adam Smith, and how the humanities can help.

You clearly think that economics as traditionally practiced is lacking in fundamental ways. Why?
We believe that economic models could be more realistic, their predictions more accurate, and their policies more effective and just, if economics opened itself up to learning from other fields.

But don’t economists already work on subjects within the typical domain of such disciplines as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history, among others?
It is true that economists apply their models very widely, but they often expropriate topics rather than sincerely engage with other fields. Too often economists act as if other disciplines have the questions, and economics has the answers. It is one thing to tread on the territory of another discipline; it is quite another to be willing to learn from it. Economists have often been imperialistic, presuming that the subject matter of other disciplines could be put on a “sound basis” if handled by economic models. They rarely ask whether the methods and assumptions of other disciplines might help economics. We need a dialogue, and a dialogue goes both ways.

You say that economics can be improved by interaction with the humanities, and especially the study of literature. In what ways does economics fall short so that an understanding of literature might help?
Economists have an especially hard time in three sorts of situations: when culture plays an important role, since one cannot mathematize culture; when contingency prevails and narrative explanation is required; and when ethical problems irreducible to economic models are important. For instance, whether to have a market in kidneys—one topic we address—is not a question that can be adequately addressed solely in economic terms. Economic thinking has something useful to say in many such cases, but not everything.  Great works of literature have offered the richest portraits of human beings we have. If social scientists understood as much about human beings as the great novelists, they could have produced pictures of human beings as believable as those of Jane Austen, George Eliot, or Leo Tolstoy, but none has even come close. The great novelists, who were often keen thinkers who discussed the complexities of human feeling and behavior, must have known something! They also produced the subtlest descriptions of ethical problems we have.

Isn’t economic imperialism the legacy of Adam Smith, the founder of the discipline?
Not at all. Economists, who seldom read The Wealth of Nations and rarely ask students to do so either, present a version of Adam Smith that is largely fictional. A thinker with an immensely complex sense of human nature, and who insisted that human beings care for others in ways that cannot be reduced to self-interest, is presented as a founder of rational choice theory, which presumes the opposite. What has happened is that a few Smithian ideas have been represented as the whole, and then a model based on them alone has been constructed and been attributed to him. While Adam Smith is often invoked to justify a simplistic view of human behavior guided by rational self-interest, and of economic policies that reject any interference with the free functioning of markets, his work was much more nuanced and sophisticated than that. To truly understand The Wealth of Nations, one must also read his complementary volume, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Together, they provide the kind of far-reaching, inclusive economics celebrated in this book—an economics that takes other subjects seriously and embraces narrative explanations.

Don’t those two books contradict each other?
The idea that they do, and the question how the same author could have written them both, is often called “the Adam Smith problem.” In fact, the problem arises only when one misreads Smith. We offer a solution to the Adam Smith problem, which also shows how his thought looks forward to the great novelists to come.

You believe that narratives could teach economics a great deal. Is that why you argue that the humanities could be so useful in making economics more relevant?  How exactly does narrative help?
Stories are important, especially those told by the great realist novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Austen. They help in at least two ways. First, in a world where genuine contingency exists, it is necessary to explain events narratively, and there are no better models for narratives about people in society than those in great novels. Second, novels foster empathy. Other disciplines may recommend empathy, but only novels provide constant practice in it. When you read a great novel, you identify with characters, inhabit their thought processes from within, and so learn experientially what it is to be someone else—a person of a different culture, class, gender, or personality. In a great novel you inhabit many points of view, and experience how each appears to the others. In this way, great novels are a source of wisdom. They appreciate people as being inherently cultural while embracing ethics in all its irreducible complexity.

That doesn’t sound like the way English courses are currently taught or accord with the currently predominant premises of literary theory.
Quite so. We are stressing a particular version of the humanities, what we think of as “the best of the humanities.” In a variety of ways, the humanities have been false to their core mission, which may be why so many students are fleeing them. In addition to the dominant trends of literary theory, we have witnessed a series of “spoof” disciplines, which purport to be humanistic but are actually something else. Sociobiological criticism, digital humanities, and other such trends proceed as if literature were too old fashioned to matter, and one has to somehow restore its importance by linking it—how doesn’t matter much—to whatever is fashionable. They all too often dehumanize the humanities, reducing their value not just to economics but to other fields as well. We celebrate, and recommend economists consider, the humanities at their best.

Are there any particular subjects within economics where engagement with the “best” of the humanities would be especially worthwhile?
There is a wide range of areas covered in the book—from economic development, to the economics of higher education, to the economics of the family—for which we believe a genuine dialogue between the humanities and economics is useful. We offer case studies in each of these areas, with some unanticipated results. We don’t pretend to conclude that dialogue in our book; we instead seek to get it started in a serious way.

Where do you see the dialogue of the two cultures leading?
The point of a real dialogue is that it is open-ended, that you don’t know where it will lead. It is surprising, and that is what makes it both stimulating and creative.

Gary Saul Morson is the Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities and professor of Slavic languages and literatures at Northwestern University. His many books include Narrative and Freedom, “Anna Karenina” in Our Time, and The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture. Morton Schapiro is the president of Northwestern University and a professor of economics. His many books include The Student Aid Game. Morson and Schapiro are also the editors of The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040.

Rachel Schneider & Jonathan Morduch: Why do people make the financial decisions they make?

Deep within the American Dream lies the belief that hard work and steady saving will ensure a comfortable retirement and a Financialbetter life for one’s children. But in a nation experiencing unprecedented prosperity, even for many families who seem to be doing everything right, this ideal is still out of reach. In The Financial Diaries, Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider draw on the groundbreaking U.S. Financial Diaries, which follow the lives of 235 low- and middle-income families as they navigate through a year. Through the Diaries, Morduch and Schneider challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save—and they identify the true causes of distress and inequality for many working Americans. Combining hard facts with personal stories, The Financial Diaries presents an unparalleled inside look at the economic stresses of today’s families and offers powerful, fresh ideas for solving them. The authors talk about the book, what was surprising as they conducted their study, and how their findings affect the conversation on inequality in a new Q&A:

Why did you write this book?
We have both spent our careers thinking about households and consumer finance, and our field has reams and reams of descriptive data about what people do—savings rates, the number of overdrafts, the size of their tax refunds. We have lots of financial information but very little of the existing data helped us understand why—why people make the financial decisions they make, and why they get tripped up. So we decided to spend time with a group of families, get to know them very well, and track every dollar they earned, spent, borrowed, and shared over the course of one year. By collecting new and different kinds of information, we were able to understand a lot of the why, and gained a new view of what’s going on in America.

What did you learn about the financial lives of low- and moderate-income families in your year-long study?
We saw that the financial lives of a surprising number of families looks very different from the standard story that most people expect. The first and most prominent thing we saw is how unsteady, how volatile households’ income and expenses were for many. The average family in our study had more than five months a year when income was 25% above or below their average.

That volatility made it hard to budget and save—and it meant that plans were often derailed. How people were doing had less to do with the income they expected to earn in total during the year and more to do with when that income hit paychecks and how predictable that was. Spending emergencies added a layer of complexity. In other words, week-to-week and month-to-month cash flow problems dominated many families’ financial lives. Their main challenges weren’t resisting temptation to overspend in the present, or planning appropriately for the long term but how to make sure they would have enough cash for the needs they knew were coming soon.

The resulting anxiety, frustration, and a sense of financial insecurity affected families that were technically classified as middle class.

How does this tie into the economic anxiety that fueled Trump’s election?
The families we talked to revealed deep anxieties that are part of a broader backdrop for understanding America today. That anxiety is part of what fueled Trump, but it also fueled Bernie Sanders and, to an extent, Hillary Clinton. A broad set of the population feels rightly that the system just isn’t working for them.

For example, we met Becky and Jeremy, a couple with two kids who live in small town Ohio where Trump did well. Jeremy is a mechanic who fixes trucks on commission. Even though he works full-time, the size of his paychecks vary wildly depending on how many trucks come in each day. This volatility in their household income means that while they’re part of the middle class when you look at their annual income, they dipped below the poverty line six months out of the year.

One day we met with Becky, who was deciding whether or not to make their monthly mortgage payment a couple of weeks early. She had enough money on hand, but she was wavering between paying it now so she could rest easy knowing it was taken care of, or holding onto the money because she didn’t know what was going to happen in the next couple weeks, and was afraid she might need the money for something else even more urgent. She was making decisions like this almost every day, which created not only anxiety but a sense of frustration about always feeling on the edge.

Ultimately, Jeremy decided to switch to a lower-paying job with a bigger commute doing the exact same work – but now he’s paid on salary. They opted for stability over mobility. Becky and Jeremy helped us see how the economic anxiety people feel is not only about having enough money, but about the structure of their economic lives and the risk, volatility, and insecurity that have become commonplace in our economy.

One of the most interesting insights from your book is that while these families are struggling, they’re also working really hard and coming up with creative ways to cope. Can you share an example?
Janice, a casino worker in Mississippi, told us about a system she created with multiple bank accounts. She has one bank account close to her she uses for bill paying. But she also has a credit union account where she has part of her paycheck automatically deposited. This bank is an hour away, has inconvenient hours, and when they sent her an ATM card, she cut it in half. She designed a level of inconvenience for that account on purpose, in order to make it harder to spend that money. She told us she will drive the hour to that faraway bank when she has a “really, really need”—an emergency or cost that is big enough that she’ll overcome the barriers she put up on purpose. One month, she went down there because her grandson needed school supplies, which was a “really, really need” for her. The rest of the time, it’s too far away to touch. And that’s exactly how she designed it.

We found so many other examples like this one, where people are trying to create the right mix of structure and flexibility in their financial lives. There’s a tension between the structure that helps you resist temptation and save, and the flexibility you need when life conspires against you. But we don’t have financial products, services, and ideas that are designed around this need and the actual challenges that families are facing. This is why Janice has all these different banks she uses for different purposes—to get that mix of structure and flexibility that traditional financial services do not provide.

How does this tie into the conversation we’ve been having about inequality over the last decade or so?
Income and wealth inequality are real. But those two inequalities of income and assets are hiding this other really important inequality, which is about stability. What we learned in talking to families is that they’re not thinking about income and wealth inequality on a day-to-day basis—they’re worrying about whether they have enough money today, tomorrow, and next week. The problem is akin to what happens in businesses. They might be profitable on their income statement, but they ran out of cash and couldn’t make payroll next week.

This same scenario is happening with the families we met. We saw situations where someone has enough income or is saving over time, but nonetheless, they can’t make ends meet right now. That instability is the hidden inequality that’s missing from our conversation about wealth and income inequality.

How much of this comes down to personal responsibility? Experts like Suze Orman and Dave Ramsey argue you can live on a shoestring if you’re just disciplined. Doesn’t that apply to these families?
The cornerstone of traditional personal finance advice from people like Orman and Ramsey is budgeting and discipline. But you can’t really do that without predictability and control.

We met one woman who is extremely disciplined about her budget, but the volatility of her income kept tripping her up. She is a tax preparer, which means she earns half her income in the first three months of the year. She has a spreadsheet where she runs all her expenses, down to every taxi she thinks she might need to take. She budgets really explicitly and when she spends a little more on food one week, she goes back and looks at her budget, and changes it for the next few weeks to compensate. Her system requires extreme focus and discipline, but it’s still not enough to make her feel financially secure. Traditional personal finance advice just isn’t workable for most families because it doesn’t start with the actual problems that families face.

What can the financial services industry do to better serve low- and moderate-income families?
The financial services industry has a big job in figuring out how to deal with cash flow volatility at the household level, because most of the products they have generated are based on an underlying belief that households have a regular and predictable income. So their challenge is to develop new products and services—and improve existing ones—that are designed to help people manage their ongoing cash flow needs and get the right money at the right time.

There are a few examples of innovative products that are trying to help households meet the challenges of volatility and instability. Even is a new company that helps people smooth out their income by helping them automatically save spikes, or get a short-term “boost” to cover dips. Digit analyzes earning and spending patterns to find times when someone has a little extra on hand and put it aside, again automatically. Propel is looking to make it much easier and faster for people to get access to food stamps when they need them. There are a number of organizations trying to bring savings groups or lending circles, a way of saving and borrowing with friends and family common everywhere in the developing world, to more people in the United States.

There is lots of scope for innovation to meet the needs of households—the biggest challenge is seeing what those needs are, and how different they are from the standard way of thinking about financial lives and problems.

Jonathan Morduch is professor of public policy and economics at the New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. He is the coauthor of Portfolios of the Poor (Princeton) and other books. Rachel Schneider is senior vice president at the Center for Financial Services Innovation, an organization dedicated to improving the financial health of Americans.

The Financial Diaries

FinancialThe Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider details the results of a groundbreaking study they conducted of 235 low- and middle-income families over the course of one year. What they found is that the conventional life-cycle method of approaching finances, wherein a family saves steadily to prepare for eventual retirement, is unrealistic for many. This book combines hard facts with the personal stories of people struggling to make ends meet, even in a time when America is experiencing unprecedented prosperity. You’ll meet a street vendor, a tax preparer, and many more as Schneider and Morduch challenge popular assumptions about how Americans earn, spend, borrow, and save. Read on to learn more about the everyday challenges of a casino dealer from central Mississippi.

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Janice Evans has worked at the Pearl River Resort— a family-friendly destination on the Choctaw reservation in central Mississippi with water slides, a spa, two golf courses, a steakhouse, and a casino—for close to twenty years, since she was in her mid-thirties. She works the night shift, starting at 8am and finishing up at 4am. As a single, African American mother with a high school degree, she makes $8.35 per hour, but in a good week she can double that in tips. Customers can put chips in her “toke box,” and at the end of each shift they are collected and counted; the equivalent amount in dollars is then added to Janice’s next paycheck. She does well during the summer months, but fall is much slower. Her income also rises and falls based on where the local college football team is playing that year—when they play near Pearl River people often come to the casino after a game, and when they don’t the casino does not get that business. Over the course of the year Janice makes just over $26,000, or an average of about $2,200 a month. However, due to the fluctuating income from tips, her actual take home pay each month can vary from around $1,800 to approximately $2,400. That represents a 30% deviation between paychecks. Just before the study began, Janice’s son Marcus was laid off from his maintenance job when his employer lost a contract; as a result, he and his three-year-old daughter moved in with Janice. Since he no longer had an income, he qualified for food stamps, an average of $125/month, but this income was unsteady as well: at one point the local social services agency mistook Janice’s income for Marcus’s and canceled his food stamps. It took two months to get them back. And while he also qualified for unemployment benefits, several months passed before the first check arrived. Altogether, the benefits boosted the household’s net income to $33,000, but with the increased funds came increased inconsistency. Whereas before Janice’s income swung 30%, it now swung 70% from high to low months. Given the nature of Janice’s work in a seasonal, low-skill, tipped job and the unreliability of Marcus’s benefits, you might assume that her family’s income would be among the most erratic of the 235 households studied in the U.S. Financial Diaries. In fact, it’s not—the degree of inconsistency in Janice’s household was on par with most families that the authors got to know throughout the course of their study. Morduch and Schneider’s study of families who struggle with income volatility revealed new insights into how Americans make money, borrow, spend, and save.

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To learn more, pick up a copy of The Financial Diaries by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider.

Kenneth Rogoff: The Compactness of Big Bills

Today in our blog series by Kenneth Rogoff, author of The Curse of Cash:

From Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, comes a video story marvelously explaining why criminals, tax evaders, and corrupt official so love large denomination notes. Here, an apparently corrupt Nigerian official (who pleads innocence) finds $100s very convenient for stashing cash. The story comes at the top of the show.

I am grateful to Larry Kintisch of Blauvelt NY for drawing my attention to this story. Yes, there is a world of difference between a “less-cash society” as my book argues, and a cash-less society that the cash lobby likes to point to as a scare tactic for maintaining the absurd status quo.

The paperback edition of The Curse of Cash: How Large Denomination Bills Aid Tax Evasion and Crime and Constrain Monetary Policy will be coming out early this summer; now with an analysis of Indian demonetization and other issues that have arisen in the past year.

Read other posts in the series here.