On MacroEconomic Resilience ex-banker Ashwin Parameswaran draws upon Holling’s pathology of natural resource management and the work of Hyman Minsky (a connection I’ve mentioned previously and Ashwin has explored extensively – see here and here) to write about The Resilience Stability Tradeoff: Drawing Analogies between River Flood Management and Macroeconomic Management.
Ashwin Parameswaran insightfully writes:
In complex adaptive systems, stability does not equate to resilience. In fact, stability tends to breed loss of resilience and fragility or as Minsky put it, “stability is destabilising”. Although Minsky’s work has been somewhat neglected in economics, the principle of the resilience-stability tradeoff is common knowledge in ecology, especially since Buzz Holling’s pioneering work on the subject. If stability leads to fragility, then it follows that stabilisation too leads to increased system fragility. As Holling and Meffe put it in another landmark paper on the subject titled ‘Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management’, “when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.” Often, the goal of increased stability is synonymous with a goal of increased efficiency but “the goal of producing a maximum sustained yield may result in a more stable system of reduced resilience”.
The entire long arc of post-WW2 macroeconomic policy in the developed world can be described as a flawed exercise in macroeconomic stabilisation. But there is no better example of this principle than the Euro currency project as the below graph (from Pictet via FT Alphaville) illustrates.
Instead of a moderately volatile mix of different currencies and interest rates, we now have a mostly stable currency union prone to the occasional risk of systemic collapse. If this was all there is to it, then it is not clear that the Euro is such a bad idea. After all, simply shifting the volatility out to the tails is not by itself a bad outcome. But the resilience-stability tradeoff is more than just a simple transformation in distribution. Economic agents adapt to a prolonged period of stability in such a manner that the system cannot “withstand even modest adverse shocks”. “Normal” disturbances that were easily absorbed prior to the period of stabilisation are now sufficient to cause a catastrophic transition. Izabella Kaminska laments the fact that sovereign spreads for many Eurozone countries (vs 10Y Bunds) now exceed pre-Euro levels. But the real problem isn’t so much that spreads have blown out but that they have blown out after a prolonged period of stability.
The New Scientist recently had an article by Debora MacKenzie on resilience and the Euro. She writes:
… The diversity of a network’s components and the density and strength of its connections – called its connectivity – affect the system’s resilience, or resistance to change. More connections make a system more resilient: if one component fails others can fill in. But only up to a point. Go past a certain threshold and more connectivity makes the system less resilient because a single failure can cascade to every other component.
The trick is to get the balance right. “Cascades of failure may be controlled by changing the nature and strength of the links between various parts of the networks,” says Fisher. Much current research in complex systems focuses on assessing connectivity correctly to enable that. Other work aims to detect behaviour that indicates an imminent collapse.
So turning 17 separate currencies into one eurozone was a cascading failure waiting to happen?
Yes. That is why Greek debt is a crisis, even though Greece accounts for only 2.5 per cent of the eurozone’s GDP. News of its debts caused the trust that markets placed in Greek government bonds to plummet. Its creditors are mainly in the eurozone, so a Greek default is causing markets to lose confidence in other members, such as Italy – which is too big to bail out.
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Could the crisis have been avoided?
Complexity theory shows what went wrong. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says his still-unpublished studies show that investors profited by driving down the value of Greek government bonds, triggering the crisis. And, he suspects, they have now moved on to Italy. If instead of national bonds issued by sometimes weak economies, the eurozone had one common bond backed by powerhouses such as Germany, such an attack could not have happened.
Germany rejects eurobonds. But, says Bar-Yam, complex systems such as multicellular organisms show that “if you are going to accept common risk, you have to invest in defences that extend to the weakest member”. Either that or make sure an attack on a weak member cannot spread, a technique that ant colonies have perfected: the death of a single ant has little effect on the colony as a whole. “Biology has solved this problem several ways,” says Bar-Yam.
The current crisis of the Euro emphasizes some basic lessons from the study of resilience of dynamic systems. Attributes of complex systems that enhance resilience are diversity, redundancy and modularity. There is a cost of maintaining resilience. The decision to have one currency among different countries in Europe was based on a focus of efficiency. This could be reached as long as economies would grow steadily and the countries kept their budgets in check.
Unfortunately, some countries did not so. Also Germany and France have broken maximum governmental budget shortages, and no actions were taken. It sounds as if the basic principles of institutional design were not met. Meaning that there was no proper monitoring and were no proper enforcement mechanisms. Surprisingly there are not even regulations how countries may leave the EU or Euro.
By creating a tightly connected system without proper enforcement it is no surprise that the resilience of the European, and global, economy has been decreased. The budget crisis leads now to a spiral of distrust among participants in the action arena of the global financial system. It does not help either that the USA is not able to reach to any solution to their own budget problems.
If there was more modularity we could afford countries to fail. But in the tightly globalized financial system, a failure leads to a cascade of dominos falling. A short-sighted focus on efficiency has led to a costly endeavor and likely collapse of the euro. We can learn from long-lasting biological systems and the importance to develop system features that enhance resilience. Hopefully during the recovery after the pending transformation more emphasis will be given to design system properties to enhance resilience.