Infinite stupidity

“The unlimited resources” of the European Central Bank (ECB) is quickly becoming the new magic mantra in political commentary and financial market analysis, now that the bigger euro-dominos are beginning to wobble and everybody realizes that nobody has the firepower to bailout Italy, or to ‘recapitalize’ (i.e. bailout again) all the banks that lent to the country. So the chorus that demands that the printing press finally be put to good use is getting louder by the day.

Robert Peston, the BBC economics expert, last week claimed that the solution now lies with the ECB, and he spoke confidently of the ECB’s ‘unlimited resources’. Yesterday Vince Cable demanded ‘unlimited powers’ for the central bank. He also shamelessly regurgitated the well-worn politician’s excuse for Europe’s problems, namely that these countries are under ‘speculative attack’. The advocates of large-scale ECB intervention now include many pundits and commentators plus a sizable group of financial market economists and strategists whom decency obliges me to leave nameless. “It is important to keep the ECB engaged,” as one economist put it, “as only the ECB has unlimited resources”.

Such proclamations immediately invoke Albert Einstein’s famous dictum: “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the universe”.

Everything is going according to script.

None of what is going on surprises me. It is perfectly in line with what I predicted in my book. However, I am ready to admit that I am a bit baffled by the quick willingness by so many people to embrace what is ultimately a sure road to complete economic destruction. In Paper Money Collapse – The Folly of Elastic Money and the Coming Monetary Breakdown I explain why systems of elastic money are always suboptimal, unstable and ultimately unsustainable. A monetary system like ours must, over time, accumulate dislocations and imbalances that will finally become so big that their liquidation through market forces is deemed politically unacceptable. Then, out of desperation, an unwinnable war against economic reality will be fought by means of the printing press. Ever more money will be created ever faster in a futile attempt to outrun the market’s urge to liquidate.

In chapter ten of my book, I describe the two final stages of a paper money system as Monetization of Debt and Inflationary Meltdown. We are now firmly in the Monetization of Debt phase. This process will accelerate in coming months and quarters. Not only in the Eurozone but also in the United States and in the UK. All of these central banks will continue to expand their balance sheets aggressively and use their ability to print money without limit to support banks, governments, and a wide range of asset classes.

Bernanke (Fed) and Draghi (ECB) pointed out in their respective press conferences recently that monetary policy is not a panacea for all economic ills. It doesn’t matter. Policy has no other tools left to postpone the inevitable or to make the status quo appear sustainable again. By the way, it is entirely immaterial what Bernanke or Draghi think and say. Their press conferences keep our dear Street and City economists busy. But these gentlemen are quickly becoming mere extras in a bigger political game, in which desperation rules, and in which they will simply perform their roles of fiat money producers.

When do we enter the final stage of inflationary meltdown? Difficult to say. It all depends on when the public loses faith in a form of paper money that is being printed in ever more bizarre quantities only to keep states and banks alive and to project some resemblance of normalcy to the masses.

I do not disagree with the mainstream economists on whether paper money central banks can create essentially unlimited amounts of money. Of course, they can. That is precisely why gold and silver as monetary assets were replaced with entirely flexible state money under central bank control in the first place. And I do not disagree that we will soon see more debt monetization by the ECB and other central banks around the world.

What is sheer lunacy, however, is to advocate such a policy as a solution, or part of a solution, to our problems. This is where I draw the line. It is simply beyond me how people who call themselves economic experts and who must have at least a basic understanding of monetary theory and some knowledge of economic history can seriously advocate debt monetization as a sensible policy tool.

Dr Strangelove – Or how I learned to love the printing press.

I suspect that many of them, at least the financial market economists, are talking their own book. Not in the sense that they personally invest in Greek or Italian sovereign debt. I know of no private individual who is this careless with his or her own hard-earned savings. Investing in these bond markets is now predominantly an institutional affair. Banks, insurance companies and pension funds own these securities (which means your own savings or retirement funds are probably at risk through the channels of professional money management). I don’t even want to imply that these institutions tell their economists to advocate debt monetization via the printing press so that they get bailed out – although I wouldn’t put it past them either. They don’t have to. I rather suspect that now that the fiat money model is approaching its endgame many economists, just like other people who built their careers in the financial markets of the past thirty years of cheap credit and ever-growing balance sheets, feel the ground move under their feet as established business models, career plans and the cherished benefits of sitting so close to the ceaseless fountain of easy money are all coming unglued. Our financial market economists now cling to anything that promises to buy them time and some stability, even if logic tells them that what they are advocating is exactly the opposite of what should be done. They are not unlike the gambler who knows he should quit but, out of sheer desperation, is rolling the dice one more time.

Of course, there are always those who are imbued in Keynesian economics and other sorts of interventionist myth to such a degree that they honestly think that there is no problem that cannot be fixed with government stimulus. If the medication hasn’t worked, just keep increasing the dose. Paul Krugman (Nobel laureate) and Christina Romer come to mind. But I don’t quite believe that all economists are in this camp.

But whatever their reasons and motivations, it is quite clear that all these economists are now mouthpieces for the establishment. They are all defenders of the status quo, or of what has passed for the status quo for the past thirty years. Government bonds should again be considered ‘risk-free’ assets, and banks should again be considered ‘too big to fail’ and ‘too important to fail’, so that risk premiums come back in and the symbiotic and clubby relationship between states and banks that a fiat money system fosters and that has been so mutually beneficial to the political class and the banks, can finally be restored. It is a sad spectacle to see people who call themselves economists and often even free-market economists come up with ever more extreme recommendations of how we can fund Big Government.

To the broader public and the economy as a whole, the collapse of this system would be painful first but ultimately hugely advantageous. It would allow a renaissance of real capitalism rather than the continuation of this system of monetary interventionism that has allowed the state to assume control over such vast resources and the financial sector to enjoy uninterrupted fiat-money-fuelled growth for decades.

What good do these economists expect to come out of ECB debt monetization? Do they really believe that once the ECB has committed itself to buying hundreds of billions worth of Italian government bonds in order to manipulate the yield on these bonds – against market forces – down to what the political class deems sustainable, let’s say 5 percent, that then Italian politicians will reform public finances in the country, that they will quickly bring down deficits and the debt load to sustainable levels, at which point Italy can borrow from the market again, the ECB can safely sell its bonds and reduce its balance sheet, and everybody lives happily ever after? Does anybody seriously suggest that this scenario is likely, probable or even possible?

Fact is that none of these governments can be trusted to bring their finances under control as long as they have access to cheap credit, i.e. to funds at ‘sustainable’ interest rates. Germany forced through the Stability and Growth Pact at the start of EMU (does anybody remember Theo Waigel?) that should have limited debt-to–GDP ratios to 60 percent, only to violate it herself. Germany’s ratio is now officially at 83 percent. The government is already on the hook for another €211 billion under its EFSF commitments, which are now all but guaranteed to come due as the bailout fund is supposed to cover first losses on bonds in order to maximize its ‘firepower’, meaning Germany is already set for more than 90 percent of debt to GDP. And that is supposed to be Europe’s “stability anchor.”

All rules and guidelines that were designed to guarantee the fiscal and monetary stability of EMU and were implemented at its start have by now been broken – without exception. Do you think that this will change once the politicians have obtained the unlimited support of the printing press?

“Quantitative easing” in Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom goes hand in hand with growing debt, not debt reduction. Providing a lender-of-last-resort and easy money and cheap credit to governments does not lead to deleveraging but to the opposite.

Only default and cutting off a government from additional borrowing will reform the government. That is why I say: Embrace default!

The Future

When the ECB has implemented its backstop for Italian government bonds, it will end up buying vast amounts of these securities at above market prices. Draining equal amounts of liquidity from somewhere else in the system in order to minimize the inflationary impact will be illusionary. Inflation will creep higher. Concerns about sovereign solvency are, of course, not restricted to Italy. These concerns plus rising inflation will put upward pressure on the yields of other bond markets, in particular Spanish and French bonds. The ECB will have to expand its support program in order to stabilize these bond markets as well. Why should unlimited ECB support be limited to Italy? What is good in the case of Italy must be equally good for Spain and France!

The notion that the ECB could ever change course now and tighten policy in order to fight rising inflation pressure will appear increasingly fantastical. Market participants and the wider public that uses the euro will simply not believe it. Inflation expectations will rise rapidly. Money will become a hot potato. When money demand falls, inflation will shoot up quickly, which would require the central bank to establish markedly positive real interest rates in order to restore confidence in paper money. But this would mean allowing several governments that are now reliant on cheap central bank funding to go bankrupt. This will not be allowed to happen which will undermine confidence in paper money further. We will have reached the Inflationary Meltdown phase.

All complete paper money systems in history were established to fund the state. Our system is no exception, as becomes increasingly clear. All paper money systems in history failed. Ours will be no exception either. Our system is the most ambitious. We had a global system of unrestricted fiat money production for forty years. The endgame is fast approaching.

I increasingly feel like an observer who predicts that a war is likely and even inevitable, and who is fearful of the consequences as both sides have a massive nuclear arsenal at their disposal. And everyday in the papers and in the research pamphlets of ‘experts’ what I encounter is not concern, calls for moderation and thoughtful inaction but the shouts of war-mongering chicken hawks: “Press the button! Press the button!”

Let’s quote Albert Einstein once more. “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. On that definition, the advocates of unlimited ECB support can safely be called insane.

In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.

This article was previously published at Paper Money Collapse.

4 Comments

  • Tim Lucas says:

    “It all depends on when the public loses faith in a form of paper money that is being printed in ever more bizarre quantities only to keep states and banks alive and to project some resemblance of normalcy to the masses.”

    I wonder if there are two things that might make this process take longer than during previous episodes of debasement – say – the 1920s.

    Firstly, years ago, gold and paper would circulate together. The continual addition of new redeemable paper money would result in a noticeable demonstration of Gresham’s law in that the gold would be increasingly hoarded and paper circulate. This would presumably give folks the willies and likely result in the earlier hoarding of goods as compared with today where all money is paper.

    Secondly, governments generally make up 50% of developed economies. As a result, it is extremely difficult to avoid transacting in government-mandated currency. Again, this was not the case years ago.

    I suggest, therefore, that the process outlined by Mr Schlichter may take longer than it otherwise would have done.

    Perhaps all this is spectacularly irrelevant since the theory is unproveable, and there are countless other factors which go into the decision-making process over whether individuals hold paper currencies over real goods. Nevertheless, I suggest that, a priori, these particular factors ought to make it more likely that people do.

  • Ian Smith says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the Author.
    I have noticed that the pace of the public responce to
    economic stimulae is many times faster than it used to
    be in the 80’s. No doubt due to the Internet and computer generated buy and sell signals.
    As a retired Commodity Broker I have learnt that the average
    Joe Citizen is not as green as he is cabbage looking.
    As soon as real inflation figures are revealed; then you can expect Joe to dump his fiat paper like a hot potato, just like we saw in Zimbabwe.

  • Ivo Cerckel says:

    It’s not infinite stupidity!

    It’s infinite illegality!

    The bailing out of banksters and guv’mints is illegal.

    The title of section 11-037 of
    Koen Lenaerts and Piet Van Nuffel (Robert Bray and Nathan Cambien, eds.) “Constitutional Law of the European Union”, London: Sweet & Maxwell, 2011, 3rd ed.,
    explicitly says “NO BAIL-OUT”

    Still, the euro which is the result of the regulation, say the authors, – nay, which would according to Cambien and according to the talking heads (and their writing counterparts) guiding public opinion be the result of precisely of the regulation which is being violated – did not suffer from this.

    How come?

    Monetary policy in the Member Status participating in EMU is fully determined by the European System of Central Bank (Eurosystem or ESCB), says section 11-039 of the book which is hereby being reviewed.

    Section 11-040 of Lenaerts and Van Nuffel starts by saying that the four “basic tasks” of the ESCB are
    to define and implement the monetary policy of the Union
    to conduct foreign-exchange operations,
    to hold and manage the official foreign reserves of the Member States without prejudice to the governments of Member States holding and managing working balances in foreign-exchange; and to promote the smooth operation of payment systems.

    Section 11-040 contains four more paragraphs.
    One explaining the (1) of the first paragraph.
    One explaining the (2) of the first paragraph.
    One saying that the ESCB is also responsible for contributing to the smooth conduct of policies pursued by the competent authorities relating to the prudential supervision of credit institutions and the stability of the financial system; and
    One saying that the ECB has the exclusive right to authorise the issue of banknotes within the Member States participating in the third stage of EMU.

    The (3) which says that “one of the basic tasks of the ESCB is to hold and manage the official foreign reserves of the Member States without prejudice to the governments of Member States holding and managing working balances in foreign-exchange” is thus not being explained.

    This is all the more surprising when one goes to the ECB website and then to ECB’s International reserves r External reserves
    and realises that the foreign currency reserves (in convertible foreign currencies had at the end of June 2011 an approximate market value of 146,272, whereas Gold (including gold deposits and gold swapped)’s value was more than double the foreign currency reserves and valued at 361,442
    http://www.ecb.int/stats/external/reserves/html/index.en.html

    Anyway, Cambien, Van Nuffel and Lenaerts make a serious attempt at discussing the euro.

    The 2011, 6th edition, of Wyatt and Dashwood’s, “European Union Law” (Oxford, Hart Publishing) does not even discuss the euro.

    It’s not infinite stupidity!

    It’s infinite illegality!

    The bailing out of banksters and guv’mints is illegal.

  • Gary says:

    Tim Lucas
    Gresham’s Law only applies when the inferior currency is legal tender.

    “When a government compulsorily overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation.”

    Note ,the government stepping in to overvalue one currency over another IS legal tender law.

    In a free market of competing currencies (ie.without legal tender laws), the opposite happens. Sound money drives out bad money. Nobody, if they had the choice, would accept a currency that will certainly lose its value, when they are free to choose one that will retain its value.

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