Money 4 – Why does it matter?

The elimination of money from economics theory and teaching leads to major practical problems.

  1. Why did we have the financial crisis and the prolonged recession?

The Queen famously asked why economists failed to see the crisis and ensuing recession coming. What is less talked about is how they subsequently also failed to understand a) what was happening as it was occurring and b) the nature of the recovery. Once you appreciate that money and credit are central to a modern economy, and academic macroeconomists were using models without money or credit, this failure is much easier to understand.

Some policy makers did a better job of learning and adapting to the crisis. Ben Bernanke, at the US Fed, with his study of the 1930s depression years, was well placed to support the economy once the crisis was underway. The Bank of England was not so well led. Mervyn King appeared to believe in a banking model in which the lender of last resort need not exist. When this model failed to have any correspondence to reality, he acted as though reality was at fault, not his personal model.

The financial crisis and its aftermath was predicted and understood by some people however.
But they were likely to be eclectic economists, on the fringes of the mainstream, who did not exclude the views of Keynes and Minsky for their lack of “microfoundations”.

  1. Why did the enormous monetary stimulus not lead to a stronger recovery?

The answer is that the monetary stimulus was not so enormous. The numbers were large, but the transmission mechanism was very weak, and therefore the recovery has been slower than most predicted.

Another misunderstanding follows, since the recovery has been slower than expected, new ideas have been sought to explain it away, such as secular stagnation. But once you accept the idea that QE is eye-catching, but not very powerful for the economy (it may be more powerful for asset prices but that is a different matter) then the slow recovery is not so surprising.

  1. Why do we ever have unemployment at all?

The academic models we have been looking at, theoretically make the existence of unemployment impossible. Given that this is evidently not the case, the models must be augmented with ad-hoc frictions, to make them have some connection to observed reality.

If money is allowed in the model at the start then you do not run into such issues, and surely this is evidence that the theories with don’t include it, don’t make much sense.

Why do economists believe these myths?

If an economist is typical pressed on this, responses vary from claiming that the representation is broadly accurate (it is not!) or more likely that it does not matter (it does!). If the assumption does not matter, why choose such a strange one?

A more recent defence has been that the latest batch of sophisticated new Keynesian models incorporate money and credit and a banking sector. But if that is the case why not change all the teaching? Why is money tacked onto the end of a model rather than incorporated as a critical building block?

I think that they attempt to tack money onto the end of their model building because it is not possible to incorporate it at the start. The assumptions which exclude money are critically important to the complex mathematical models that the current breed of academic economists revel in building. The worry for me is that armed with them, they go on to lead to key policy and market implications. It would also be fair to say that pretty much everything I do in studying the macroeconomy would not be classed as macroeconomics by a current mainstream academic.

Modern academic economists believe that conversations about macroeconomics should be based upon General Equilibrium (GE) and rational expectations and have “microfoundations”. The most recent iteration is the Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium (DSGE) model. GE is a truly majestic piece of mathematics which describes an economic system based upon essentially perfect barter.

The concept of money is added as purely commodity money. Any asset can be arbitrarily chosen as the denominator in which to price all others, it is just the numeraire. This helps with the solution as it reduces the number of independent variables by one when solving a set of simultaneous equations.

The advantage of building models in this way is that you can translate many concepts used in micro economics and apply them to macroeconomic questions. This is known as “microfoundations” and many Noble Prizes have been won, tying the neat General Equilibrium theory up with clever mathematics.

After the financial crisis, it is obvious that money and credit had to be included, and so the most recent batch of Neo-Keynesian models attempt to do so. But this is an ad hoc tacking on of a couple of new variables that do not connect to the central mechanism of the model. I see these models as sophisticated in the same vein as the geocentric models used to argue against Galileo.

If we use Kuhn’s model of paradigms, then this looks like economists trying to bury “anomalies” during a period of “model drift” when their models are increasingly unable to answer the questions people think matter. The next stage is “model crisis”. Or perhaps we are already there.

Relationship to Politics and Free-market thinking

This model creates the illusion of a perfect economy in which everything works, with the practicalities of reality being termed “imperfections” such as imperfect competition or sticky wages. This links strongly to the ideology of free markets being the answer to all questions i.e. the idea is to make reality behave more like the model.

Economists of a more interventionist or left-wing persuasion can exist within this paradigm. But ad hoc elements such as asymmetric information have to be added, combined with some pretty inventive and tortuous modelling, eventually producing models which suggest intervention is the correct policy response.

Conclusion

Recent mathematical models cannot be held responsible for the birth of the myths of money and banking. In Classical economics the concept of value is separate from money and logically prior to it and so JS Mill told us that “There cannot, in short, be intrinsically a more insignificant thing, in the economy of society, than money”.

We have recently seen stirrings from eminent economists that all is not well with the profession, https://piie.com/system/files/documents/pb16-11.pdf, but it is not yet filtering through to how the subject is being taught at grass roots.

Where we are left is a deeply divided set of disciplines. Practitioners, both in financial markets and many Central Bankers have a different approach to pure academics. But even academia is split between macroeconomists who study an economy without money and Finance professors who study a monetary system without an economy.

Both can be seen, to borrow a phrase from Keynes, as “an extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end in bedlam”.

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