Thursday, July 2, 2009

Where's the value?

I would like to discuss the idea of value in an economy. The nature of an economy is to abstract value; the most direct abstraction is:

I give you 10 units each for your 10 turnips, you then give the shoemaker 100 units to repair your shoes, she turns around and spends 20 units for a dozen eggs, where a unit might be a penny, for instance. This is the way a simple village economy used to work a couple of hundred years ago. The money in these transactions is just a placeholder for value, whether the value of some produce or some skilled labor. Without this placeholder we would need to come to some sort of barter agreement for every such exchange, which may not be that bad an idea either, but the use of money seems to make these exchanges easier.

You could complicate the picture by adding in a credit element: the bank loans a ship captain 10,000 units to sail to another land and bring back spices. The ship captain must repay the 10,000 plus an additional 1500 units upon return or else forfeit his ship. The captain expects to be able to sell his cargo for 15,000 units, which leaves him with 3500 units profit after paying back the loan.

This still makes good sense, after all the captain has to hire a crew and buy items to trade for the spices. He does not have money on hand for this but does have the expertise to accomplish the trip. The bank has the money, but does not have the expertise.

Where we start getting into trouble is when it turns out that the bank has made 20 loans like this for a total of 200,000 units, and it only has 50,000 units in its vaults. Since it did not have the currency to pay out these loans, it issued notes that were deemed to be good for the face amount, these notes were honored by the vendors and people of the community as if they were cash. This is what we call "fractional reserve banking"; it is how our banking system works today.

Now why did it make sense for the bank to loan more money than it had? Because the odds of the bank getting paid back were judged to be very good.

I'm starting to get a sidetracked here, back to our subject. In the whole scenario above, you can see value being added by each of the participants, including the bank.

I believe our problem today is that we have taken the abstraction of money to an extreme, so that we abstract the sort of situation described above by placing bets on the bank, or on the captain. Then we abstract this by placing bets on the companies placing the first bets, and so on.

Most of the jobs in the developed world involve working for one of the companies placing many-times-removed bets, or providing a service to these companies. Is there any value added by placing bets on other economic activity? If not, then there is no value added by providing services to those placing the bets.

As they say, I believe, but cannot prove, that at some point pretty early in the cycle of betting, value is no longer added and that we are many orders of magnitude beyond that point today.

This is why I was glad to hear Robert Reich say that he doesn't think we will have either a quick or slow economic recovery, because the real question is what sort of economy will we transition to, since the economy we have known for the past 30 years or so is unsustainable?

I thought it was very telling when "This American Life" discussed a lawsuit brought by shareholders against Citigroup and mentioned that the shareholders' biggest complaint was why didn't Citi unload their worthless collateral debt obligations on some other hapless fool. If they had, everything would have been okay, both for the shareholders and even the world economy. Of course this ignores the fact that the counterparty in this trade is also part of the world economy. So ultimately the only way this sort of system can continue is for a "Deus ex machina" to throw money into the system from somewhere outside. We should say "value" here instead of "money", since we are quite capable of printing our own worthless money.

This is where we currently stand with our banks. They have not sold off their bad mortgages but instead are hoping house prices will come back up and make those mortgages worth something again. If only people would start buying houses, then everything would be okay! As Dmitry Orlov slyly puts it, we will be rescued by extra-terrestrials!

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