From Economic Gains to Social Losses

How Stories Shape Expectations in the Case of German Municipal Finance

Von wirtschaftlichen Gewinnen zu sozialen Verlusten

Wie Geschichten die Erwartungen bei der deutschen Kommunalfinanzierung prägen

Abstract

This paper analyzes how stories shaped treasurers’ expectations in municipal swap activities and contributes to the sociological debate on the mechanisms of expectation formation. Employing a deductive variant of process tracing, it synthesizes the literature on expectations in economic decision making with the literature on the diffusion of “ideas,” “myths,” and “fashions” in organization theory and management studies. The swap story has spread since the mid-1990s among German municipalities. At the heart of this story is the replacement of traditional borrowing with active portfolio optimization; financial instruments known as swaps play a leading role. This paper examines how stories shape expectations. Specifically, it delves into how the swap story, as a solution to the financial woes of local governments, shaped these governments’ expectations despite the uncertainty resulting from the instruments’ complexity. We argue that the effect of stories on expectations depends on timing. Expectations at an early stage are shaped by economic analyses to reduce uncertainty, while expectations at a later stage are primarily shaped by societal pressures and an established trend. These two distinct mechanisms produce expectations related to economic and social consequences, respectively. Selecting four typical cases, our analysis confirms that stories affected the formation of treasurers’ expectations regarding the use of swaps through these different mechanisms.

Zusammenfassung

Dieses Papier analysiert, wie Stories die Erwartungen von Stadtkämmerern bei dem Abschluss von Swapgeschäften geprägt haben, und trägt somit zur soziologischen Debatte über die kausalen Mechanismen der Erwartungsbildung bei. Unter Verwendung einer deduktiven Variante der Prozessanalyse wird die Literatur zu Erwartungen bei ökonomischer Entscheidungsfindung mit den Konzepten der Diffusion von „Ideen“, „Mythen“ und „Fashions“ aus der Organisationstheorie und Betriebswirtschaft zusammengeführt. Die Swap-Story verbreitete sich seit Mitte der 1990er Jahre unter deutschen Kommunen. Im Zentrum steht dabei das Ersetzen eines traditionellen passiven Umgangs mit Schulden durch ein aktives Portfoliomanagement, bei dem die als Swaps bekannten Finanzinstrumente eine entscheidende Rolle einnehmen. Diese Studie geht der Frage nach, wie die Erwartungen der Kommunen durch die Swap-Story als Lösung ihrer fiskalischen Probleme beeinflusst wurden, obwohl die Instrumente mit extremer Ungewissheit behaftet sind. Wir argumentieren, dass der Effekt von Stories auf Erwartungen von der zeitlichen Dimension abhängt. Während Erwartungen in einer frühen Phase der Einführung von ökonomischen Analysen geprägt sind, um Unsicherheit zu reduzieren, so sind sie in einer späteren Phase primär von gesellschaftlichem Druck und einem bereits etablierten Trend beeinflusst. Diese zwei verschiedenen Mechanismen erzeugen Erwartungen, die jeweils ökonomischen sowie sozialen Konsequenzen zugehörig sind. Unsere Analyse verifiziert anhand vier ausgewählter typischer Fälle, dass Stories die Erwartungsbildung von Kämmerern hinsichtlich der Nutzung von Swaps durch diese verschiedenen Mechanismen beeinflussen.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The exact dates of the four interviews cited in the paper appear in the Appendix.

  2. 2.

    Although Beckert agrees that calculation affects the formation of expectations, he depicts calculation as leading to fictionality as well: “calculative assessments of outcomes should—under conditions of uncertainty—be considered fictions themselves” (Beckert 2013, p. 234).

  3. 3.

    Our understanding of rationality follows that of Jon Elster: “The action is the best way for the agent to satisfy his desire, given his belief; the belief is the best he could form, given the evidence; the amount of evidence collected is itself optimal, given his desire. … Both the belief and the desire must be free of internal contradictions. … The action must not only be rationalized by the desire and the belief; it must also be caused by them and, moreover, caused ‘in the right way.’ Two similar conditions are imposed on the relation between belief and evidence” (Elster 1986, p. 16).

  4. 4.

    Granovetter (1978) also distinguishes between two phases of adoption but explains the time dependence differently. According to Granovetter, the decisions of others feed into individual cost–benefit calculations and, hence, preferences. We thank one of the reviewers for drawing our attention to this.

  5. 5.

    Signaling is also prominent in “information-based theories of imitation” in economics that entail the theory of herd behavior and the idea of informational cascades (Banerjee 1992; Bikhchandani et al. 1998; Scharfstein and Stein 1990; Shiller 1995; see Lieberman and Asaba 2006 and Ordanini et al. 2008 for reviews). In basic terms, actors follow the majority because their actions convey signals about the value of a possible course of action. Here, however, actors do calculate and weigh incoming information. Hence, herd behavior is fragile and small shocks such as a public information release can dislodge an informational cascade—turning a fashion into a fad (Bikhchandani et al. 1992).

  6. 6.

    According to Hall (2003, pp. 373–74), ontology contains “the fundamental assumptions scholars make about the nature of the social and political world and especially about the nature of causal relationships within that world. … Ontology is ultimately crucial to methodology because the appropriateness of a particular set of methods for a given problem turns on assumptions about the nature of the causal relations they are meant to discover”.

  7. 7.

    In the deterministic view, “each part of a mechanism is conceptualized as an individually necessary element of the whole” (Beach and Pedersen 2013, p. 31). Hence, mechanism analysis concentrates on what “is constant in mechanism” (Mayntz 2004, p. 245). This leads to mechanism analysis being conducted in a mechanistic way by studying the “interactive influence of causes on outcomes and in particular how causal forces are transmitted through the series of interlocking parts of causal mechanism to contribute to producing an outcome” (Beach and Pedersen 2013, p. 25). In their review on the methodological literature on process tracing, Trampusch and Palier (2016, p. 442) argue that in the current debate authors can be grouped according to these two ontologies of determinism vs. probabilism. They argue that “this difference between viewing mechanisms as univocal links between X and Y or as ‘generative mechanisms’, as Renate Mayntz (2004, p. 245) puts it, has … important implications on how process tracing is conducted” (Trampusch and Palier 2016, p. 442).

  8. 8.

    We focus on NRW alone due to data availability and societal relevance. In order to select typical early and late adopter cities, we needed a whole population of cases. As this could not be done for the whole of Germany, we have focused on one federal state. We selected NRW due to data availability (a comprehensive survey on municipal swap use carried out by The Association of Taxpayers in NRW (BdSt 2009) exists only for NRW) and because NRW is—with approximately 18 million people—the most populous federal state, meaning that the outcome of swap deals has a large societal effect.

  9. 9.

    This is a simplification of Rogers’ categorization which distinguishes between “innovators” (first 2.5%), “early adopters” (the next 13.5%), the “early majority” (the next 34%), the “late majority” (the next 34%), and “laggards” (the last 16%) among adopters (Rogers 1983, pp. 245 ff.).

  10. 10.

    See Fastenrath et al. (2017) for the shift in the sense-making frameworks in debt policy at the central government level.

  11. 11.

    The bank also organized large events such as the “Zukunftstag 2000—Gemeinden und Regionen,” attended by 650 municipal representatives, where the bank provided information about the opportunities in debt management, amongst other areas (Handelsblatt 2000).

  12. 12.

    City 1 had to present HSKs from the early 1990s and City 2 since 2003.

  13. 13.

    From here to the end of the paper, the following refers to sources explained in the appendix: “regional press,” “City X interview,” “City Y court decision,” and “City Z official document”.

  14. 14.

    They also entered into these deals with Commerzbank until the first scandals became public (City 2 interview, September 2016).

  15. 15.

    The city also contracted several derivatives with the bank in the following years: “They have offered several useful instruments” (City 2 interview, April 2016).

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Michael Kemmerling, Hagen Kruse, and Rebecca Wangemann for assistance in collecting the data; Jan-Christoph Janssen, the participants of the SPP 1859 conference “Experience and Expectation” (Mannheim, February 2–4, 2017), Josh Pacewicz, Lisa Suckert, and two other anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions; and our interviewees for providing valuable information.

Funding

The research is funded by the German Research Foundation’s (DFG—Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) priority program “Experience and Expectation: Historical Foundations of Economic Behaviour” (SPP 1859; DFG project number 275362433).

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Correspondence to Christine Trampusch.

Appendix

Appendix

Interviews

The semi-structured interviews were conducted with city officials between February and November, 2016. Each interview lasted between 60 and 90 min and was held in German. All statements are reported anonymously, so citations cannot be linked to the interviewee or the city they worked for. Translations of German quotations are our own. Anonymous transcripts or notes containing longer passages of the quoted text are available on request.

Table 2 Interviews

Other Sources

We analyzed court decisions resulting from litigation between cities and banks as well as official documents, all of which we have anonymized. We also systematically consulted the regional press of each city we investigated.

Table 3 Sources

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Fastenrath, F., Orban, A. & Trampusch, C. From Economic Gains to Social Losses. Köln Z Soziol 70, 89–116 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11577-018-0540-z

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Keywords

  • Stories
  • Expectations
  • Financial innovations
  • Economic sociology
  • Financialization
  • Causal mechanisms

Schlüsselwörter

  • Stories
  • Erwartungen
  • Finanzinnovationen
  • Wirtschaftssoziologie
  • Finanzialisierung
  • Kausale Mechanismen