This post is part of a symposium on the Methods of Political Economy.
It has long been tempting for economists to imagine “the economy” as a giant machine for producing and distributing “value.” Finance, on this view, is just the part of the device that takes the output that is not consumed by end-users (the “savings”) and redirects it back to the productive parts of the machine (as “investment”). Our financial system is an ornate series of mechanisms to collect the value we’ve saved up and invest it into producing yet more value. Financial products of all sorts—including money itself—are just the form that value takes when it is in the transition from savings to investment. What matters is the “real” economy—where the money is the veil, and the things of value are produced and distributed.
What if this were exactly backwards? What if money and finance were understood not as the residuum of past economic activity—as a thing among other things—but rather as the way humans manage ongoing relationships between each other in a world of fundamental uncertainty? These are the sorts of questions asked by the economist Perry Mehrling (and Hyman Minsky before him). These inquiries provided a framework that has allowed him to answer many of the issues that mystify neoclassical economics.
On Mehrling’s “Money View,” every (natural or artificial) person engaged in economic activity is understood in terms of her financial position, that is, in terms of the obligations she owes others (her “liabilities”) and the obligations owed to her (her “assets”). In modern economies, obligations primarily take the form of money and credit instruments. Every actor must manage the inflow and outflow of obligations (called “cash flow management”) such that she can settle up with others when her obligations to them come due. If she can, she is a “going concern” that continues to operate normally. If she cannot, she must scramble to avoid some form of financial failure—bankruptcy being the most common. After all, as Mehrling argues, “liquidity kills you quick.” This “survival constraint” binds not only today but also at every moment in the future. Thus, generally, the problem of satisfying the survival constraint is a problem of matching up the time pattern of assets (obligations owed to an actor) with the time pattern of liabilities (obligations an actor owed to others). The central question is whether, at any moment in time, there is enough cash inflow to pay for the cash flows.