The Fetish for Liquidity (and Reform of the Financial System)

L. Randall Wray | January 27, 2012

In his General Theory, J.M. Keynes argued that substandard growth, financial instability, and unemployment are caused by the fetish for liquidity. The desire for a liquid position is anti-social because there is no such thing as liquidity in the aggregate. The stock market makes ownership liquid for the individual “investor” but since all the equities must be held by someone, my decision to sell-out depends on your willingness to buy-in.

I can recall about 15 years ago when the data on the financial sector’s indebtedness began to show growth much faster than GDP, reading about 125% of national income by 2006—on a scale similar to nonfinancial private sector indebtedness (households plus nonfinancial sector firms). I must admit I focused on the latter while dismissing the leveraging in the financial sector. After all, that all nets to zero: it is just one financial institution owing another. Who cares?

Well, with the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, we all should have cared. Big time. There were many causes of the Global Financial Collapse that began in late 2007: rising inequality and stagnant wages, a real estate and commodities bubble, household indebtedness, and what Hyman Minsky called the rise of “money manager capitalism”. All of these matter—and I think Minsky’s analysis is by far the most cogent. Indeed, the financial layering and leveraging that helped to increase the financial sector’s indebtedness, as well as its share of value added and of corporate profits, is one element of Minsky’s focus on money managers. I don’t want to go into all of that right now. What I want to do instead is to focus quite narrowly on liquidity in the financial sector.

So here’s the deal. What happened is that the financial sector taken as a whole moved into extremely short-term finance of positions in assets. This is a huge topic and is related to the transformation of investment banking partnerships that had a long-term interest in the well-being of their clients to publicly-held, pump-and-dump enterprises whose only interest was the well-being of top management.

It also is related to the rise of shadow banks that appeared to offer deposit-like liabilities but without the protection of FDIC. And it is related to the Greenspan “put” and the Bernanke “great moderation” that appeared to guarantee that all financial practices—no matter how crazily risky—would be backstopped by Uncle Sam.

And it is related to very low overnight interest rate targets by the Fed (through to 2004) that made short-term finance extremely cheap relative to longer-term finance.

All of this encouraged financial institutions to rely on insanely short short-term finance.  Read the rest here.

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