Tag Archives: Bankruptcy

David Graeber’s “Debt”

Goodreads rating 4.19.

Graeber’s book contains many interesting historical observations but lacks a concise argument to convince a brainwashed neoclassical economist looking for coherent arguments on money and debt. After 60 pages, 340 more seemed too much.

Chapter one:

… the central question of this book: What, precisely, does it man to say that our sense of morality and justice is reduced to the language of a business deal? What does it mean when we reduce moral obligations to debts? … debt, unlike any other form of obligation, can be precisely quantified. … to become simple, cold, and impersonal … transferable.

… money’s capacity to turn morality into a matter of impersonal arithmetic—and by doing so, to justify things that would otherwise seem outrageous or obscene. … the violence and the quantification—are intimately linked. … the threat of violence, turns human relations into mathematics.

…The United States was one of the last countries in the world to adopt a law of bankruptcy: despite the fact that in 1787, the Constitution specifically charged the new government with creating one, all attempts were rejected, or quickly reversed, on “moral grounds” until 1898.

… historically, credit money comes first [before bullion, coins]

… ages of virtual credit money almost invariably involve the creation of institutions designed to prevent everything going haywire—to stop the lenders from teaming up with bureaucrats and politicians to squeeze everybody dry … by the creation of institutions designed to protect debtors. The new age of credit money we are in seems to have started precisely backwards. It began with the creation of global institutions like the IMF designed to protect not debtors, but creditors.

… the book begins by attempting to puncture a series of myths—not only the Myth of Barter … but also rival myths about primordial debts to the gods, or to the state … Historical reality reveals [that the state and the market] have always been intertwined. … all these misconceptions … tend to reduce all human relations to exchange … [but] the very principle of exchange emerged largely as an effect of violence … the real origins of money are to be found in crime and recompense, war and slavery, honor, debt, and redemption. … an actual history of the last five thousand years of debt and credit, with its great alternations between ages of virtual and physical money …

… many of Adam Smith’s most famous arguments appear to have been cribbed from the works of free market theorists from medieval Persia …

Chapter two (“The Myth of Barter”) contains questionable claims about economics as well as interesting historical facts (or claims?):

When economists speak of the origins of money … debt is always something of an afterthought. First comes barter, then money; credit only develops later. …

Barter … was carried out between people who might otherwise be enemies …

… “truck and barter”’ [in many languages] literally meant ”to trick, bamboozle, or rip off.”

What we now call virtual money came first. Coins came much later, … never completely replacing credit systems. Barter, in turn, … has mainly been what people who are used to cash transactions do when for one reason or another they have no access to currency.

Chapter three (“Primordial Debts”) argues the the myth of barter is central to the discourse of economics, which according to Graeber downplays the state as opposed to markets, exchange, and individual choice. He tries to confront this view with Alfred Mitchell-Innes’ credit theory of money, Georg Friedrich Knapp’s state theory of money, the Wizard of Oz (i.e. “ounce”), and John Maynard Keynes (original?) claim that banks create money.

In all Indo-European languages, words for “debt” are synonymous with those for “sin” or “guilt,” illustrating the links between religion, payment and the mediation of the sacred and profane realms by “money.” [money-Geld, sacrifice-Geild, tax-Gild, guilt]

Wikipedia article on the book:

A major argument of the book is that the imprecise, informal, community-building indebtedness of “human economies” is only replaced by mathematically precise, firmly enforced debts through the introduction of violence, usually state-sponsored violence in some form of military or police.

A second major argument of the book is that, contrary to standard accounts of the history of money, debt is probably the oldest means of trade, with cash and barter transactions being later developments.

Debt, the book argues, has typically retained its primacy, with cash and barter usually limited to situations of low trust involving strangers or those not considered credit-worthy. Graeber proposes that the second argument follows from the first; that, in his words, “markets are founded and usually maintained by systematic state violence”, though he goes on to show how “in the absence of such violence, they… can even come to be seen as the very basis of freedom and autonomy”.

Reception of the book was mixed, with praise for Graeber’s sweeping scope from earliest recorded history to the present; but others raised doubts about the accuracy of some statements in Debt, as outlined below in the section on “critical reception”.


Puerto Rico’s Debt Restructuring

On Econofact, Daniel Bergstresser provides background information on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. From his text:

  • Unlike U.S. municipalities, a U.S. territory cannot resort to Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy act.
  • The island’s economy benefited from corporate tax exemptions (until 2006) and from tax exemptions on interest paid by municipal bonds issued by Puerto Rico and its agencies (“triple tax exemption”).
  • Total bond indebtedness (face value) amounts to over $70 billion, about 70 percent of the island’s GDP. The island owes an additional $50 billion in unfunded pension obligations to its state employees and retirees. Different government-sponsored entities issued the debt, apparently representing different claims on the Commonwealth’s revenue streams.
  • Puerto Rican issuers were downgraded from investment grade status in 2014. In March 2015, governor Padilla announced that the island’s debt was unpayable.
  • Resolution has been delayed by disagreement about the borrowers’ capacity to repay.
  • Puerto Rico defaulted on its general obligation debt in June of 2016 and President Obama signed the “Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act” (PROMESA) law. This created an oversight board with the authority to oversee the island’s budget and facilitate restructuring talks. The law also created a bankruptcy-like “Title III” mechanism. The oversight board placed a moratorium on debt collection by the island’s creditors until May 1, 2017. On May 3 the island entered the debt restructuring process. Chief Justice John Roberts has assigned the case to U.S. District Judge Laura Taylor Swain, and the first hearing in that case is scheduled to occur on May 17.

Perspectives on the Financial Crisis

A Hoover Press book edited by Martin Baily and John Taylor collects articles about the financial crisis. The contributions in “Across the Great Divide: New Perspectives on the Financial Crisis” include (with links to PDF files):

Conference on “Law and Economics” with Focus Session on “Bank Resolution” at the Study Center Gerzensee

Joint with CEPR, the Study Center Gerzensee organised a conference on law and economics. The program can be viewed here and papers can be downloaded from CEPR’s website. The focus session on bank resolution featured contributions by

  • Patrick Bolton and Jeffrey Gordon (paper)
  • Martin Hellwig (paper, slides)
  • Mathias Dewatripont (slides)
  • Gerard Hertig
  • Wolf-Georg Ringe (paper)
  • Paul Tucker (paper)

In his talk, Jeff Gordon explained how Dodd-Frank extends the FDIC’s resolution technology from the 1930s to “non-banks” that engage in banking business. Dodd-Frank establishes an “Orderly Liquidation Authority” and in title II a “Single Point of Entry” by putting a holding company (topco) into receivership. The objective is to minimise disruption costs for large institutions, to preserve the going-concern value of the company and to avoid collateral damage. Single point of entry also helps resolve cross-border issues. No comparable institutional framework is available in the EU. In the crisis, US authorities implemented ad-hoc alternatives to bankruptcy: Mergers (which require the approval of shareholders and therefore make it hard to wipe out the target’s shareholders) worked for Bear Stearns (JPMorgan Chase, Maiden Lane, Fed) but not for Lehman Brothers (Barclays, Fed) because the UK authorities refused to waive Barclays shareholder approval, fearing fiscal implications. Recapitalisation with third party funds (Fed) in the case of AIG also required shareholder approval and protected creditors and counter-party claims.

Patrick Bolton cautioned that the rules for the topco are still not clear and discussed alternatives to Dodd-Frank in the bankruptcy code. He emphasised the role of qualified financial contracts and debtor-in-possession interventions.

Martin Hellwig argued that the government rescue of Hypo Real Estate reflected the political will to help influential creditors rather than systemic importance. He questioned the viability of single-point-of-entry arrangements in cross-border resolution, pointing to lack of trust among national regulators. He questioned whether internationally active banks can ever be resolved in an efficient manner and asked whether, in that light, they are socially valuable.

Mathias Dewatripont warned that excessive emphasis on bail-in arrangements can undermine financial stability, for example by having the expectation of a small haircut applied to senior debt tranches trigger a run on all senior debt. To avoid such an outcome, he favoured a clearly identified seniority structure with a significant balance-sheet share of “bail-inable” liabilities. He questioned the usefulness of higher capital requirements, arguing that “prompt corrective action” is politically infeasible unless the equity ratio has fallen below a very low value, 2 percent say.

Wolf-Georg Ringe favoured holding-company structures with sufficient “bail-inable” debt.

Paul Tucker discussed potential problems with the holding-company/single-point-of-entry strategy, related to centralised operations (IT). He raised the issue of accountability and the potential lack thereof if companies are resolved by regulators rather than judges, and he wondered whether national regulators can commit to collaborate across borders if need be. He favoured “bail-inable” debt over equity because the former gives incentives to monitor without the incentive to speculate on the upside.

Gerard Hertig warned that regulatory incentives lead to bank mergers rather than resolution, in particular because authorities tend to be more lenient in crisis times. He argued that because of deposit insurance, resolution worked well in Japan until recently.

Patrick Bolton argued that cocos are badly designed as their triggers are too low and they refer to accounting equity. Instead, he favoured reverse convertible bonds that can be converted by the issuer.

Oliver Hart argued that resolution has the advantage over cocos that the management gets replaced.

Many panelists voiced scepticism towards narrow banking proposals. They feared that control over the money supply might turn into control over credit, referring to the discussion in the US during the 1930s.