Playing with fire

Once again, the European press is trumpeting the triumph of the prodigals after a week in which both the Spanish and the French were accorded more time to get their budgetary house in order – a move which, given the downward economic trajectory of the pair, has something of a whiff of force majeure about it – and the German Finance Minister Schaeuble acknowledged that, yes, the fiscal pact around which he and his boss have built so much of their electoral credibility did in fact encompass a ‘certain flexibility’.

In the wake of a mass demonstration on the streets of Paris at which the Left Front’s heavily-defeated presidential candidate Melenchon fulminated that “We do not want the world of finance in power!” – an expostulation delivered to the strains of ‘Ca ira!’, one supposes – Schaeuble’s Gallic counterpart Moscovici was hardly in a position to soft-pedal the German concession, instead vaunting grandiosely in his turn that, “We are witnessing the end of the dogma of austerity…  we are at a decisive turning point in the history of the European Project”.

Brave words, indeed, but Frau Merkel, for one, begged to disagree – or, at least, to dissemble for the benefit of her domestic audience. “If one regularly spends more than one earns, something must be awry,” she opined, while one of her party’s spokesmen, Steffen Seibert declared that, “Our contention is that the… crisis has its roots in the overindebtedness of many member states… in to low a degree of competitiveness.” No prizes for guessing to whom he was referring.

Last week’s supposed poster boy for the new laxity, Commissar – sorry, Commissioner – Barroso, was also out on the circuit, denying that he had endorsed any such slippage by telling Welt am Sonntag that he had been “deliberately misinterpreted”, that – au contraire, mes amis“growth which depends upon debt is unsustainable” and that the blame for the ‘Project’s’ woes should not be pinned on German policy but rather on “excessive outlays, lack of competitiveness” – that word again – “and irresponsible finance.” “Each nation,” he went on, “should look to clean up the mess on its own doorstep.”

Amid all this posturing, it does strike your author as a touch ironic that while the commentariat treats Europe’s persistence with its failed experiment in ‘fauxterity’ as a clear and undeniable symptom of the mental inadequacy of its ruling elite, the members of that same consensus themselves retain what is, if anything, an even more delusional faith in the combined evils of inflation and Big Government as the magical means with which to conjure away all our present woes.

In case you hadn’t noticed, fellas, we have been reinforcing monetary-fiscal failure for the past five years, by continuing to ply the patient with ever stronger doses of what it was that made him ill in the first place. Just multiply the DAX by the youth unemployment rate if you want a snapshot of where your approach has gone horribly wrong – of where you have let the GINI out of the bottle, as it were – and you might realise that if there is anyone who needs to reconsider their attachment to a discredited dogma, it is you!

Whisper it, but even your hero seems to be getting the drift. For witness that, in his latest speech in Rome, Mario Draghi was happy to say that “Fiscal policies must follow a sustainable path, separate and distinct from cyclical fluctuations. Without this prerequisite, lasting growth is not possible… Particularly for countries with structurally high levels of public debt…”, before going on to assert far more boldly that – as we have said since Day One of the crisis – “…to mitigate the inevitable recessionary effects of fiscal consolidation, the composition of such measures must favour the reduction of current public spending and of taxes, particularly in a context such as in Europe where taxation is already high by international standards….” [our emphasis].

Though we must be careful not to read too much into the man’s words, it is hard not to hope that this might reflect the first fragile flowering of a genuinely new approach – of the inauguration of a policy of REAL austerity, this time of the invigorating kind which incorporates a partial lifting of the deadening hand of the state, rather than the enervating, bastardized version of slower spending growth and rapidly rising taxes with which we have been so far afflicted and which has only served to compound the financial shock delivered by the collapse of the last bubble.

All this remains to be seen but, in the here-and-now, the temptation to use this effusion of political hot-air as an excuse to buy yet more stocks, more ailing sovereign debt, and more junk credit has become well-nigh irresistible, especially since Super-Mario not only overrode what he hinted was some internal opposition to an official rate cut at the latest ECB meeting, but also managed to leave dangling before a slavering crowd of stimulus junkies a tantalising hint that he might soon push the level below zero. In case we were too obtuse to get the point, he underlined his intentions with another of his famously portentous, almost Delphic pronouncements: that even though the ECB council was still scrambling to divine whether anything could possibly go wrong with such step into the unknown, he, Draghi, stood ‘ready to act’.

It was not the first time in recent days, of course, that the marbled halls of Mount Olympus had echoed to the sonorous baritone of the Gods as they sought to reassure us poor mortals that they had matters well in hand: that they had taken time off from their weighty contemplation of the sublime, the eternal, and the infinite to tend instead to our petty concerns. Had not the Bernanke Fed subtly quashed all thoughts that it might soon ‘taper’ its own open-handed distribution of milk and honey with that one, equally Pythian phrase: “the Committee is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation”?

How can a man NOT want to buy the market in the face of the solicitous stance being taken by the venerated possessors of such unchallenged omniscience?

For all this, the imposition of the near-mythical, negative deposit rate might seem to entail more problems than advantages, not least because it would effectively act as a tax, a drain upon the earnings, of the very same banks that the last five year’s ruinous policies have been attempting to bolster. Bear in mind that, even after the recent redemptions, European banks have a hefty €628 billion parked with the ECB and so a 50bp levy on this could amount annually to perhaps 15% of industry-wide profits.

Nor can banks simply avoid this by withdrawing their funds: outside money – the kind created by the central bank – is, after all – outside. This means that its supply can only be altered with the complicity of the bank of issue itself which must therefore allow its myrmidons to pay back more of their LTROs, covered bond repos, and so forth – a reduction of liquidity which one might think would run counter to the original intention. Thus, one supposes, the idea will be that the banks will enact the Gesellian wet dream of passing on the cost to their own depositors, of taxing their money instead.

Here we must consider the fact that while the individual can easily seek to disembarrass himself of what he now considers an excess proportion of money among his holdings, collectively the public can only have their aggregate stock of inside (bank-created) monies diminished in one of three ways: they must repay their loans (deleverage further); the banks themselves must call in said loans (intensify the crunch); or people who hold a demand account must swap it for a term deposit (which does not constitute money-proper), or invest in a long-term security issued by the bank itself (we specify this last because a moment’s thought will reveal that the purchase of non-bank paper simply passes the parcel to the seller or issuer of said obligations who must then rid himself of them in his turn).

While that latter condition might seem an ideal juncture at which the banks could seek to boost their levels of capital (albeit at an average price:book of significantly less than one), the truth is that what the authorities seem most keen to provoke is a what is technically called a ‘monetary disequilibrium’ – that is, the situation where the public’s demand to hold money is thrown out of kilter. Under such conditions – and given the nominal inflexibility discussed above – the money stock can only be effectively reduced if its real value falls; if prices rise and so reduce its worth; i.e., if there is an inflation.

In that regard, the impulse to buy stocks on what is no more than a vague expression of intent might not seem so wholly irrational, after all. To see this in what is admittedly a toy example, suppose that half the population holds only cash and no equities (call these sticks-in-the-mud Group A), while the remainder has a reverse proportion of all equities, no cash to an equal overall nominal value held in their portfolios (call the ‘Nothing but Blue Skies’ crowd, Group B). The aggregate cash ratio from which we start is therefore 50% (albeit thanks to a not-to-be-exceeded and somewhat unrealistic divergence of preferences between our two cohorts).

Now suppose the members of Group A change their outlook on life and seek to acquire equities from Group B, paying successively higher prices for ever smaller increments in order to tempt their counterparts into the trade. Under some fairly crude assumptions, after four rounds of such bidding, with one third of the stock of equities having exchanged against two-thirds the stock of money, equity prices will have tripled, the cash ratio of both groups will have converged on 25%, and aggregate net worth will have doubled (to the relative advantage of the initial equity holders, but to the outright, if decidedly notional, benefit of all). 

Note, however, that none of this says that the equities are worth three times as much for even if the monetary disturbance has somehow meant that earnings have also tripled (and this is far from being guaranteed even should revenues rise in proportion), this may represent no material gain whatsoever, but only register the inflation of a wider range of prices which here has not been consequent upon an increase in the stock of money per se but solely upon a diminution in its societal valuation.

Herein lies the great gaping hole at the centre of official policy. Yes, the central banks can increase the stock of outside money almost without limit. Yes, they can make it as unattractive as possible for anyone to hold this (though when we come to think about the impact of negative rates, let us not forget that people are generally happy to pay to have their other valuables safely stored, or that bank charges used to be a routine imposition upon the short-term depositor). And yes, to some extent they can assume that their actions will enhance the relative appeal of things other than money or its partial substitutes. 

But what they cannot ever gauge is how much influence they can exert, nor how quickly their will may be done, nor even upon what specific mix of goods, services, or claims their policy will have most impact. As the great Richard Cantillon pointed out three centuries since, the whole question is highly path dependent and the path actually followed will be the result of an incredible cascade of interactions between individual, subjective choices, each one altering the quantum field in which the next has to be taken. As we Austrians have been saying for the past one hundred years, this affects relative prices much more profoundly than it does average ones. Crucially, it is in that matrix of relative prices that you find the motivations for all economic actions and the justification or otherwise for both the composition of the capital stock and the distribution and employment of labour. If entrepreneurial uncertainty and personal bewilderment have been major contributors to our ongoing malaise, as many of us have been arguing, it should be clear that we seek to introduce further sources of instability and potential disruption only at our peril.

Nor can our Sorcerer’s Apprentices be entirely sure that, as the demons they have summoned out of the vasty deep continue to chip away at the foundations of trust in the very currency which they, the necromancers, are charged with upholding, they do not unleash a catastrophic collapse of the whole superstructure of values and contractual chains which towers above them, reducing the whole economic system to chaos in the process.

If you can convince me that any mortal can hold such a complex tangle of possible outcomes within their comprehension, I will allow that our monetary heretics may be right to do away with the combined practical experience and theoretical understanding of all those who have gone before them over the ages. Until you do, I shall be forced to withhold my endorsement and to mutter darkly about the unexpiable sin of hubris instead.

1 Comment

  • Paul Marks says:

    The French and Spanish governments (like so many governments) have, over decades, made IMPOSSIBLE promises to their people (in Spain these promises are actually written in the “Christmas Tree of Rights” Constitution of 1978).

    Real “austerity” (acutally cutting government spending) would have run against these “basic rights” – i.e. government goodies.

    Establishment scholars (such as Brian Tierney- see his “The Idea of Natural Rights”) have even tried to rewrite the past – claiming that “positive rights” (government goodies) and “compulsory charity” (dry rain, square circle) were part of the rights tradition from the start (a start they put back as far as the Middle Ages).

    Be that as it may. 1+1 does not equal 78 – even if people have been saying it does since the time of King John (or whatever). These “positive rights” (to income support, health care, education…….) do not have a fixed cost – once accepted they automatically have EXPANDING (expanding without limit) cost, as civil society (self help and mutual aid) is undermined and replaced by the state.

    So the “historic deal” between Revisionist (moderate) Marxists (such as the various Social Democrat parties) and the left of the various Christian Democratic parties (who turned the Christian virtue of charity into a STATE RIGHT) has proved to be unsustainable.

    There was talk of “austerity” (i.e. cutting government spending in order to avoid de facto bankruptcy and economic and social breakdown), but now even this talk has been rejected.

    There is going to be no fundemental limitation of the Western Welfare States – “Losing Ground” (the undermining of Civil Society and the rise of the Underclass) will continue.

    The system is like a train – driving over a cliff.

    Now the driver (or drivers) are not even pretending to try and operate the break.

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