Money

Market expectations and long-term US interest rates

After closing at 3.03% in December 2013 the yield on the 10-year US T-Note has been trending down, closing at 2.34% by August this year. Many commentators are puzzled by this given the optimistic forecasts for economic activity by Fed policy makers.

Yields 10 Year T Note

According to mainstream thinking the Central Bank is the key factor in determining interest rates. By setting short-term interest rates the Central Bank, it is argued, through expectations about the future course of its interest rate policy influences the entire interest rate structure.
Following the expectations theory (ET), which is popular with most mainstream economists, the long-term rate is an average of the current and expected short-term interest rates. If today’s one-year rate is 4% and next year’s one-year rate is expected to be 5%, the two-year rate today should be (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5%.
Note that interest rates in this way of thinking is set by the Central Bank whilst individuals in all this have almost nothing to do and just form mechanically expectations about the future policy of the Central Bank. (Individuals here are passively responding to the possible policy of the Central Bank).
Based on the ET and following the optimistic view of Fed’s policy makers on the economy some commentators hold that the market is wrong and long-term rates should actually follow an up-trend and not a down-trend.
According to a study by researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco (FRBSF Economic Letter – Assessing Expectations of Monetary Policy, 8 of September 2014) market players are wrongly interpreting the intentions of Fed policy makers. Market players have been underestimating the likelihood of the Fed tightening its interest rate stance much sooner than is commonly accepted given Fed officials’ optimistic view on economic activity.
It is held that a disconnect between public expectations and the expectations of central bank policy makers presents a challenge for Fed monetary policy as far as the prevention of disruptive side effects on the economy is concerned on account of a future tightening in the interest rate stance of the Fed.
We suggest that what matters for the determination of interest rates are individuals’ time preferences, which are manifested through the interaction of the supply and the demand for money and not expectations regarding short-term interest rates. Here is why.
The essence of interest rate determination
Following the writings of Carl Menger and Ludwig von Mises we suggest that the driving force of interest rate determination is individual’s time preferences and not the Central Bank.
As a rule people assign a higher valuation to present goods versus future goods. This means that present goods are valued at a premium to future goods.

This stems from the fact that a lender or an investor gives up some benefits at present. Hence the essence of the phenomenon of interest is the cost that a lender or an investor endures. On this Mises wrote,

That which is abandoned is called the price paid for the attainment of the end sought. The value of the price paid is called cost. Costs are equal to the value attached to the satisfaction which one must forego in order to attain the end aimed at.

According to Carl Menger:

To the extent that the maintenance of our lives depends on the satisfaction of our needs, guaranteeing the satisfaction of earlier needs must necessarily precede attention to later ones. And even where not our lives but merely our continuing well-being (above all our health) is dependent on command of a quantity of goods, the attainment of well-being in a nearer period is, as a rule, a prerequisite of well being in a later period……..All experience teaches that a present enjoyment or one in the near future usually appears more important to men than one of equal intensity at a more remote time in the future

Likewise according to Mises,

Satisfaction of a want in the nearer future is, other things being equal, preferred to that in the farther distant future. Present goods are more valuable than future goods.

Hence according to Mises,

The postponement of an act of consumption means that the individual prefers the satisfaction which later consumption will provide to the satisfaction which immediate consumption could provide.

For instance, an individual who has just enough resources to keep him alive is unlikely to lend or invest his paltry means.
The cost of lending, or investing, to him is likely to be very high – it might even cost him his life if he were to consider lending part of his means. So under this condition he is unlikely to lend, or invest even if offered a very high interest rate.
Once his wealth starts to expand the cost of lending, or investing, starts to diminish. Allocating some of his wealth towards lending or investment is going to undermine to a lesser extent our individual’s life and well being at present.
From this we can infer, all other things being equal, that anything that leads to an expansion in the real wealth of individuals gives rise to a decline in the interest rate i.e. the lowering of the premium of present goods versus future goods.
Conversely factors that undermine real wealth expansion lead to a higher rate of interest rate.

 
Time preference and supply demand for money
In the money economy individuals’ time preferences are realized through the supply and the demand for money.
The lowering of time preferences, i.e. lowering the premium of present goods versus future goods, on account of real wealth expansion, will become manifest in a greater eagerness to lend and invest money and thus lowering of the demand for money.
This means that for a given stock of money there will be now a monetary surplus.
To get rid of this monetary surplus people start buying various assets and in the process raise asset prices and lower their yields, all other things being equal.
Hence, the increase in the pool of real wealth will be associated with a lowering in the interest rate structure.
The converse will take place with a fall in real wealth. People will be less eager to lend and invest thus raising their demand for money relative to the previous situation.
This for a given money supply reduces monetary liquidity – a decline in monetary surplus. Consequently, all other things being equal this lowers the demand for assets and thus lowers their prices and raises their yields.
What will happen to interest rates as a result of an increase in money supply? An increase in the supply of money, all other things being equal, means that those individuals whose money stock has increased are now much wealthier.
Hence this sets in motion a greater willingness to invest and lend money.
The increase in lending and investment means the lowering of the demand for money by the lender and by the investor.
Consequently, an increase in the supply of money coupled with a fall in the demand for money leads to a monetary surplus, which in turn bids the prices of assets higher and lowers their yields.
As time goes by the rise in price inflation on account of the increase in money supply starts to undermine the well being of individuals and this leads to a general rise in time preferences.
This lowers individuals’ tendency for investments and lending i.e. raises the demand for money and works to lower the monetary surplus – this puts an upward pressure on interest rates.
We can thus conclude that a general increase in price inflation on account of an increase in money supply and a consequent fall in real wealth is a factor that sets in motion a general rise in interest rates whilst a general fall in price inflation in response to a fall in money supply and a rise in real wealth sets in motion a general fall in interest rates.

 

 

Explaining the fall in long-term interest rates
We suggest that an uptrend in the yearly rate of growth of our monetary measure AMS since October 2013 was instrumental in the increase in the monetary surplus. The yearly rate of growth of AMS jumped from 5.9% in October 2013 to 10.6% by March and 10.3% by June this year before closing at 7.6% in July.
Furthermore, the average of the yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) since the end of 2013 to July this year has been following sideways trend and stood at 1.6%, which means a neutral effect on long-term yields from the price inflation perspective. Also the average of the yearly rate of growth of real GDP, which stood at 2.2% since 2013, has been following a sideways movement – a neutral effect on long term rates from this perspective.
Hence we can conclude that the rising trend in the growth momentum of money supply since October last year was instrumental in the decline in long-term rates.
AMS and GDP Charts

 
Summary and conclusions
Since December 2013 the yields on long-term US Treasuries have been trending down. Many commentators are puzzled by this given the optimistic forecasts for economic activity by Fed policy makers. Consequently, some experts have suggested that market players have been underestimating the likelihood of the Fed tightening its interest rate stance much sooner than is commonly accepted. We hold that regardless of expectations what ultimately matters for the long-term interest rate determination are individuals’ time preferences, which is manifested through the interaction of the supply and the demand for money. We suggest that an up-trend in the yearly rate of growth of our monetary measure AMS since October 2013 has been instrumental in the increase in the monetary surplus. This in turn was the key factor in setting the decline in trend in long-term interest rates.

 

Money

Don’t Believe Government About Price Inflation

[Editor's note, this piece, by Richard Ebeling, is from EpicTimes]
It is an old adage that there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics. Nowhere is this truer that in the government’s monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) that tracks the prices for a selected “basket” of goods to determine changes in people’s cost-of-living and, therefore, the degree of price inflation in the American economy.

On August 19th, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Consumer Price Index report for the month of July 2014. The BLS said that prices in general for all urban consumers only rose one-tenth of one percent for the month. And overall, for the last twelve months the CPI has only gone up by 2 percent.

A basket of goods that had cost, say, $100 to buy in June 2014 only cost you $100.10 in July of this year. And for the last twelve months as a whole, what cost you $100 to buy in August 2013, only increased in expense to $102 in July 2014.

By this measure, price inflation seems rather tame. Janet Yellen and most of the other monetary central planners at the Federal Reserve seem to have concluded, therefore, that they have plenty of breathing space to continue their aggressive monetary expansion when looking at the CPI and related price indices as part of the guide in deciding upon their money and interest rate manipulation policies.

Overall vs. “Core” Price Inflation

The government’s CPI statisticians distinguish between two numbers: the change in the overall CPI, which rose that 2 percent for the last year, and “core” inflation, which is the rate of change in the CPI minus food and energy prices. Leaving these out, “core” price inflation went up even less over the last twelve months, by only 1.9 percent.

The government statisticians make this distinction because they argue that food and energy prices are more “volatile” than many others. Fluctuating more frequently and to a greater degree than most other commonly purchased goods and services, they can create a distorted view, it is said, about the magnitude of price inflation during any period of time.

The problem is that food and energy costs may seem like irritating extraneous “noise” to the government number crunchers. But to most of the rest of us what we have to pay to heat our homes and put gas in our cars, as well as buying groceries to feed our families, is far from being a bothersome distraction from the statistical problem of calculating price inflation’s impact on our everyday lives.

Constructing the Consumer Price Index

How do the government statisticians construct the CPI? Month-by-month, the BLS tracks the purchases of 6,100 households across the country, which are taken to be “representative” of the approximately 320 million people living in the United States. The statisticians then construct a representative “basket” of goods reflecting the relative amounts of various consumer items these 6,100 households regularly purchase based on a survey of their buying patterns. They record changes in the prices of these goods in 24,000 retail outlets out of the estimated 3.6 million retail establishments across the whole country.

And this is, then, taken to be a fair and reasonable estimate – to the decimal point! – about the cost of living and the rate of price inflation for all the people of the United States.

Due to the costs of doing detailed consumer surveys and the desire to have an unchanging benchmark for comparison, this consumer basket of goods is only significantly revised about every ten years or so.

This means that over the intervening time it is assumed that consumers continue to buy the same goods and in the same relative amounts, even though in the real world new goods come on the market, other older goods are no longer sold, the quality of many goods are improved over the years, and changes in relative prices often result in people modifying their buying patterns.

The CPI vs. the Diversity of Real People’s Choices

The fact is there is no “average” American family. The individuals in each household (moms and dads, sons and daughters, and sometimes grandparents or aunts and uncles) all have their own unique tastes and preferences. This means that your household basket of goods is different in various ways from mine, and our respective baskets are different from everyone else’s.

Some of us are avid book readers, and others just relax in front of the television. There are those who spend money on regularly going to live sports events, others go out every weekend to the movies and dinner, while some save their money for an exotic vacation.

A sizable minority of Americans still smoke, while others are devoted to health foods and herbal remedies. Some of us are lucky to be “fit-as-a-fiddle,” while others unfortunately may have chronic illnesses. There are about 320 million people in the United States, and that’s how diverse are our tastes, circumstances and buying patterns.

Looking Inside the Consumer Price Index

This means that when there is price inflation those rising prices impact on each of us in different ways. Let’s look at a somewhat detailed breakdown of some of the different price categories hidden beneath the CPI aggregate of prices as a whole.

In the twelve-month period ending in July 2014, food prices in general rose 2.5 percent. A seemingly modest amount. However, meat, poultry, fish and egg prices increased, together, by 7.6 percent. But when we break this aggregate down, we find that beef and veal prices increased by 10.4 percent and frankfurters went up 6.9 percent, but lamb rose by only by 1.7 percent. Chicken prices increased more moderately at 2.7 percent, but fresh fish and seafood were 8.8 percent higher than a year earlier.

Milk was up 5.4 percent in price, but ice cream products decreased in price by minus 1.4 percent over the period. Fruits increased by 5.7 percent at the same time that fresh vegetable prices declined by minus 0.5 percent.

Under the general energy commodity heading, prices went up by 1.2 percent, but propane increased by 7.3 percent in price over the twelve-month period, while electricity prices, on the other hand, increased by 4 percent.

So why does the overall average of the Consumer Price Index seem so moderate at a measured 2 percent, given the higher prices of these individual categories of goods? Because furniture and bedding prices decreased by minus 3.1 percent, and major appliances declined in price over the period by minus 6.2. New televisions went down a significant minus15 percent

In addition, men’s apparel went down a minus 0.2 percent over the twelve months, but women’s outerwear rose a dramatic 12.3 percent in the same time frame. And boys and girls footwear went up, on average, by 8.2 percent.

Medical care services, in general, rose by 2.5 percent, but inpatient and outpatient hospital services increased, respectively, by 6.8 percent and 5.6 percent.

Smoke and Mirrors of “Core” Inflation    

These subcategories of individual price changes highlight the smoke and mirrors of the government statisticians’ distinction between overall and “core” inflation. We all occasionally enter the market and purchase a new stove or a new couch or a new bedroom set. And if the prices for these goods happen to be going down we may sense that our dollar is going further than in the past as we make these particular purchases.

But buying goods like these is an infrequent event for virtually all of us. On the other hand, every one of us, each and every day, week or month are in the marketplace buying food for our family, filling our car with gas, and paying the heating and electricity bill. The prices of these goods and other regularly purchased commodities and services, in the types and combinations that we as individuals and separate households choose to buy, are what we personally experience as a change in the cost-of-living and a rate of price inflation (or price deflation).

The Consumer Price Index is an artificial statistical creation from an arithmetic adding, summing and averaging of thousands of individual prices, a statistical composite that only exists in the statistician’s calculations.

Individual Prices Influence Choices, Not the CPI

It is the individual goods in the subcategories of goods that we the buying public actually confront and pay when we shop as individuals in the market place. It is these individual prices for the tens of thousands of actual goods and services we find and decide between when we enter the retail places of business in our daily lives. And these monetary expenses determines for each of us, as individuals and particular households, the discovered change in the cost-of-living and the degree of price inflation we each experience.

The vegetarian male who is single without children, and never buys any types of meat, has a very different type of consumer basket of goods than the married male-female couple who have meat on the table every night and shop regularly for clothes and shoes for themselves and their growing kids.

The individual or couple who have moved into a new home for which they have had to purchase a lot of new furniture and appliances will feel that their income has gone pretty far this past twelve months compared to the person who lives in a furnished apartment and has no need to buy a new chair or a dishwasher but eats beef or veal three times a week.

If the government were to impose a significant increase in the price of gasoline in the name of “saving the planet” from carbon emissions, it will impact people very differently depending up whether an individual is a traveling salesman or a truck driver who has to log hundreds or thousands of miles a year, compared to a New Yorker who takes the subway to work each day, or walks to his place of business.

It is the diversity of our individual consumer preferences, choices and decisions about which goods and services to buy now and over time under constantly changing market conditions that determines how each of us are influenced by changes in prices, and therefore how and by what degree price inflation or price deflation may affect each of us.

Monetary Expansion Distorts Prices in Different Ways

An additional misunderstanding created by the obsessive focus on the Consumer Price Index is the deceptive impression that increases in the money supply due to central bank monetary expansion tend to bring about a uniform and near simultaneous rise in prices throughout the economy, encapsulated in that single monthly CPI number.

In fact, prices do not all tend to rise at the same time and by the same degree during a period of monetary expansion. Governments and their central banks do not randomly drop newly created money from helicopters, more or less proportionally increasing the amount of spending power in every citizen’s pockets at the same time.

Newly created money is “injected” into the economy at some one or few particular points reflecting into whose hands that new money goes first. In the past, governments might simply print up more banknotes to cover their wartime expenditures, and use the money to buy armaments, purchase other military supplies, and pay the salaries of their soldiers.

The new money would pass into the hands of those selling those armaments or military supplies or offering their services as warriors. These people would spend the new money on the particular goods and services they found desirable or profitable to buy, raising the demands and prices for a second group of prices in the economy. The money would now pass to another group of hands, people who in turn would now spend it on the market goods they wanted to demand.

Step-by-step, first some demands and some prices, and then other demands and prices, and then still other demands and prices would be pushed up in a particular time-sequence reflecting who got the money next and spent in on specific goods, until finally more or less all prices of goods in the economy would be impacted and increased, but in a very uneven way over time.

But all of these real and influencing changes on the patterns of market demands and relative prices during the inflationary process are hidden from clear and obvious view when the government focuses the attention of the citizenry and its own policy-makers on the superficial and simplistic Consumer Price Index.

Money Creation and the Boom-Bust Cycle

Today, of course, virtually all governments and central banks inject new money into the economy through the banking system, making more loanable funds available to financial institutions to increase their lending ability to interested borrowers.

The new money first passes into the economy in the form of investment and other loans, with the affect of distorting the demands and prices for resources and labor used in capital projects that might not have been undertaken if not for the false investment signals the monetary expansion generates in the banking and financial sectors of the economy. This process sets in motion the process that eventually leads to the bust that follows the inflationary bubbles.

Thus, the real distortions and imbalances that are the truly destabilizing effects from central banking inflationary monetary policies are hidden from the public’s view and understanding by heralding every month the conceptually shallow and mostly superficial Consumer Price Index.

Economics

Weak Labour Markets and Repo Market Disruptions

Central Banking

Low interest rates contribute to weak labour markets

In the latter part of August, the cream of the world’s central bankers convened at the annual Kansas City Fed gathering at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Every year the Conference has a theme. Last year’s was Quantitative Easing (QE): when and how it would end. This year’s topic was unemployment, under the rather grandiose title “Re-Evaluating Labour Market Dynamics”.

Ms Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, seemed at last to acknowledge one of this Newsletter’s recurring concerns; namely, that official unemployment data mislead because they ignore the number of citizens so disaffected with prospects that they no longer register as looking for work. She is warming towards a new Fed Board developed Labour Market Conditions Index (LMCI) which takes account of workforce participation rates and various other measures. She considers LMCI a better indicator of employment market strength or weakness than the raw unemployment percentage number. By this measure, unemployment is still substantially above the pre-crisis level. Accordingly, Ms Yellen remains concerned about the present strength of the US recovery:

the recent behavior of both nominal and real wages point to weaker labor market conditions than would be indicated by the current unemployment rate”;

Nonetheless, she indicated that interest rates would rise if future, stronger than expected, labour market data were reported.

Similar concerns are now paramount among UK central bankers. The Bank of England now overtly links its ‘forward guidance’ about the timing of interest rate increases to evidence of growth in wage levels.

The ECB’s President Mario Draghi had absorbed the summer’s deterioration in European data suggesting that another slowdown is underway. Only this time, it is impacting primarily the core, France and Italy, and even Germany. Finance Minister Schaeuble recently said that ‘the ECB have already done enough’ so Germany is firmly against more stimulus at this stage.

President Draghi’s speech put labour market worries at the forefront of Europe’s problems. In Europe there was a second surge in unemployment 3 years after the financial crisis. From early 2011, when it became apparent that a number of countries would, without bailouts, default or renege on sovereign debt, heavy job losses drove up the Eurozone average to levels that have only recently topped out. Draghi took the opportunity of the profile of this occasion once again to express doubts whether unleashing QE in the Eurozone would make any difference to labour market conditions, because national governments have failed to implement substantive structural reforms. Like a physical trainer addressing a group of failed slimmers after 3 years of group therapy, he berated that he has done all he could do in the group sessions, those dissatisfied with their progress should look to themselves.

Although these presentations reveal doubts among leading central bankers that near zero interest rate policies (ZIRP) may not result in economic stimulus, there is still a gulf between these doubts and the scepticism about ZIRP policies, doubt that have been strongly expressed by the Bank for International Settlements (see our July Newsletter).

An even stronger counter view is beginning to gather mainstream support; namely, that ZIRP is a primary cause of the continuing weak labour market conditions. The reasoning is as follows. By reducing the cost of borrowing money substantially below its ‘market’ level, capital goods for businesses have become disproportionately cheap compared with the cost of employing people. When weighing up the cost/ benefit of, say, installing a machine to sell tickets in train stations compared with employing staff to do the same job, low interest rates reduce the cost of the machine option. Businessmen make such decisions using discounted cash flow analysis, whereby future costs are assessed a present value using average market interest rates over the term. So ZIRP has a double whammy effect; not only is the borrowing cost of the machine lower, but by applying a discount rate of close to zero to the employee option, the present value cost of the stream of wages is increased. This may go some way towards explaining the trend of low to moderate-income jobs being replaced by machines in areas such as supermarket checkout services as well as transport ticketing.

This is a classic “misallocation” as per Austrian economics. It follows that, when rates rise, firms will find their overall operations burdened by excessive (now expensive) capital equipment. What they will then want are more productive employees. However, the lack of skilled workers–those out of the labour force for several years tend to be less productive–will make competition for skilled labour intense, wage pressures will rise, and the combination of excess capital capacity and rising wage pressures will intensify the stagflation we have already seen to date (see our July Newsletter).

Banking

Concerns about Repo Market Disruptions.

In August, concerns were reported that the US repo market, one of the largest engines of liquidity in global capital markets, was experiencing disruptions to its otherwise smooth functioning owing to a reduction in repo activity by banks. Banks explained this by citing increased capital costs under the recently introduced Leverage Ratio (see our February Newsletter).

Before considering this further, since repo transactions can be confusing, let us set out an example. A repo counterparty, say an investment fund, might hold a 5-year US Treasury bond. There has traditionally been a deep and liquid market enabling the fund to enter into a contract with, say, a bank to sell and buy back the bond, usually on a very short-term basis (overnight). However, medium term funding can be obtained by rolling the position every day. The sale and repurchase price are pre-agreed, the differential constitutes the return to the provider of cash. Banks have been encouraged to play the role of repo cash provider (otherwise known as Reverse repo Counterparty) as the market for derivatives, particularly interest rate swaps (IRS), has grown.

Thus it can be seen that not only have banks been lured to the repo market by the modest net interest income generated by being the repo cash provider against very low credit risk, but also because repos provide a steady source of government bonds that are useful for other hedging activities of the bank itself.

So why are they now pulling back? Even though the Basel Capital weighting applied to banks’ holdings of non-defaulted government bonds is zero, such holdings are indeed caught by the Leverage Ratio. Therefore, there will be a cost from the new rule’s effective date of 1 January 2015.

But is the pullback entirely attributable to new regulations, as claimed in the mainstream press? We are not so sure. There also appears to be a shortage of available collateral (Treasury bonds) in the maturities most popular with market participants. Perhaps this results from the Federal Reserve’s mopping up of so much of the US Treasury security market via its QE programme. The result is that banks providing cash into the transaction in which the underlying security is becoming scarce (e.g. 5 years), now expect to make a negative return on the loan of the cash. The loss would materialize if the price they will have to pay in the market to buy back the bond for delivery back to the counterparty has risen owing to scarcity. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that banks would prefer to deposit their cash with the Federal Reserve at a better rate of return and without the negative Leverage ratio consequences.

Under normal market conditions, repo provides a cheap and easy way to releverage an asset. If trend described in the previous paragraph persists, does it presage the start of wholesale reductions in systemic leverage? We doubt it. The thrust of ‘legal’ financial innovation, especially since the outbreak of the crisis, has been for banks to find new ways of leverage through collateral transformation, swapping collateral with each other in ways that either slip by, or are tacitly approved by regulators. One such example is asset rehypothecation, which we discussed in our January Newsletter.

Finally, is this repo market disruption an ‘unintended consequence’ of the new Leverage Ratio regulations? The prevailing view appears to be negative. A small number of senior US Reserve bank governors have long memories of the 2008 crisis, and fear a recurrence of the repo market seizure. Sceptics may take the view that those bank governors are overly focussed on the symptoms of that crisis rather than on its cause. As has been amply documented, at the peak of the crisis (before any talk of bailouts), repo and other markets froze up because a number of insolvent counterparties reneged on obligations to deliver cash or collateral, triggering a collapse in confidence upon which these interbank markets rely. Shrinking the repo market will not prevent a recurrence of system wide crisis when such insolvency worries resurface.

[Editor's note: Please find the IREF Newsletter here]

Money

Böhm-Bawerk: Austrian Economist Who Said “No” to Big Government

[Editor's note: this piece, by Richard M. Ebeling, was originally published at EpicTimes]

We live at a time when politicians and bureaucrats only know one public policy: more and bigger government. Yet, there was a time when even those who served in government defended limited and smaller government. One of the greatest of these died one hundred years ago on August 27, 1914, the Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk.

Böhm-Bawerk is most famous as one of the leading critics of Marxism and socialism in the years before the First World War. He is equally famous as one of the developers of “marginal utility” theory as the basis of showing the logic and workings of the competitive market price system.

But he also served three times as the finance minister of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, during which he staunchly fought for lower government spending and taxing, balanced budgets, and a sound monetary system based on the gold standard.

Danger of Out-of-Control Government Spending

Even after Böhm-Bawerk had left public office he continued to warn of the dangers of uncontrolled government spending and borrowing as the road to ruin in his native Austria-Hungary, and in words that ring as true today as when he wrote them a century ago.

In January 1914, just a little more than a half a year before the start of the First World War, Böhm-Bawerk said in a series of articles in one of the most prominent Vienna newspapers that the Austrian government was following a policy of fiscal irresponsibility. During the preceding three years, government expenditures had increased by 60 percent, and for each of these years the government’s deficit had equaled approximately 15 percent of total spending.

The reason, Böhm-Bawerk said, was that the Austrian parliament and government were enveloped in a spider’s web of special-interest politics. Made up of a large number of different linguistic and national groups, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was being corrupted through abuse of the democratic process, with each interest group using the political system to gain privileges and favors at the expense of others.

Böhm-Bawerk explained:

We have seen innumerable variations of the vexing game of trying to generate political contentment through material concessions. If formerly the Parliaments were the guardians of thrift, they are today far more like its sworn enemies.

Nowadays the political and nationalist parties … are in the habit of cultivating a greed of all kinds of benefits for their co-nationals or constituencies that they regard as a veritable duty, and should the political situation be correspondingly favorable, that is to say correspondingly unfavorable for the Government, then political pressure will produce what is wanted. Often enough, though, because of the carefully calculated rivalry and jealousy between parties, what has been granted to one [group] has also to be conceded to others — from a single costly concession springs a whole bundle of costly concessions.

He accused the Austrian government of having “squandered amidst our good fortune [of economic prosperity] everything, but everything, down to the last penny, that could be grabbed by tightening the tax-screw and anticipating future sources of income to the upper limit” by borrowing in the present at the expense of the future.

For some time, he said, “a very large number of our public authorities have been living beyond their means.” Such a fiscal policy, Böhm-Bawerk feared, was threatening the long-run financial stability and soundness of the entire country.

Eight months later, in August 1914, Austria-Hungary and the rest of Europe stumbled into the cataclysm that became World War I. And far more than merely the finances of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were in ruins when that war ended four years later, since the Empire itself disappeared from the map of Europe.

A Man of Honesty and Integrity

Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk was born on February 12, 1851 in Brno, capital of the Austrian province of Moravia (now the eastern portion of the Czech Republic). He died on August 27, 1914, at the age of 63, just as the First World War was beginning.

Ten years after Böhm-Bawerk’s death, one of his students, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, wrote a memorial essay about his teacher. Mises said:

Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk will remain unforgettable to all who have known him. The students who were fortunate enough to be members of his seminar [at the University of Vienna] will never lose what they have gained from the contact with this great mind. To the politicians who have come into contact with the statesman, his extreme honesty, selflessness and dedication to duty will forever remain a shining example.

And no citizen of this country [Austria] should ever forget the last Austrian minister offinance who, in spite of all obstacles, was seriously trying to maintain order of the public finances and to prevent the approaching financial catastrophe. Even when all those who have been personally close to Böhm-Bawerk will have left this life, his scientific work will continue to live and bear fruit.

Another of Böhm-Bawerk’s students, Joseph A. Schumpeter, spoke in the same glowing terms of his teacher, saying, “he was not only one of the most brilliant figures in the scientific life of his time, but also an example of that rarest of statesmen, a great minister of finance. … As a public servant, he stood up to the most difficult and thankless task of politics, the task of defending sound financial principles.”

The scientific contributions to which both Mises and Schumpeter referred were Böhm-Bawerk’s writings on what has become known as the Austrian theory of capital and interest, and his equally insightful formulation of the Austrian theory of value and price.

The Austrian Theory of Subjective Value

The Austrian school of economics began 1871 with the publication of Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics. In this work, Menger challenged the fundamental premises of the classical economists, from Adam Smith through David Ricardo to John Stuart Mill. Menger argued that the labor theory of value was flawed in presuming that the value of goods was determined by the relative quantities of labor that had been expended in their manufacture.

Instead, Menger formulated a subjective theory of value, reasoning that value originates in the mind of an evaluator. The value of means reflects the value of the ends they might enable the evaluator to obtain. Labor, therefore, like raw materials and other resources, derives value from the value of the goods it can produce. From this starting point Menger outlined a theory of the value of goods and factors of production, and a theory of the limits of exchange and the formation of prices.

Böhm-Bawerk and his future brother-in-law and also later-to-be-famous contributor to the Austrian school, Friedrich von Wieser, came across Menger’s book shortly after its publication. Both immediately saw the significance of the new subjective approach for the development of economic theory.

In the mid-1870s, Böhm-Bawerk entered the Austrian civil service, soon rising in rank in the Ministry of Finance working on reforming the Austrian tax system. But in 1880, with Menger’s assistance, Böhm-Bawerk was appointed a professor at the University of Innsbruck, a position he held until 1889.

Böhm-Bawerk’s Writings on Value and Price

During this period he wrote the two books that were to establish his reputation as one of the leading economists of his time, Capital and Interest , Vol. I: History and Critique of Interest Theories (1884) and Vol. II: Positive Theory of Capital(1889). A third volume, Further Essays on Capital and Interest, appeared in 1914 shortly before his death.

In the first volume of Capital and Interest, Böhm-Bawerk presented a wide and detailed critical study of theories of the origin of and basis for interest from the ancient world to his own time. But it was in the second work, in which he offered a Positive Theory of Capital, that Böhm-Bawerk’s major contribution to the body of Austrian economics may be found. In the middle of the volume is a 135-page digression in which he presents a refined statement of the Austrian subjective theory of value and price. He develops in meticulous detail the theory of marginal utility, showing the logic of how individuals come to evaluate and weigh alternatives among which they may choose and the process that leads to decisions to select certain preferred combinations guided by the marginal principle. And he shows how the same concept of marginal utility explains the origin and significance of cost and the assigned valuations to the factors of production.

In the section on price formation, Böhm-Bawerk develops a theory of how the subjective valuations of buyers and sellers create incentives for the parties on both sides of the market to initiate pricing bids and offers. He explains how the logic of price creation by the market participants also determines the range in which any market-clearing, or equilibrium, price must finally settle, given the maximum demand prices and the minimum supply prices, respectively, of the competing buyers and sellers.

Capital and Time Investment as the Sources of Prosperity

It is impossible to do full justice to Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of capital and interest. But in the barest of outlines, he argued that for man to attain his various desired ends he must discover the causal processes through which labor and resources at his disposal may be used for his purposes. Central to this discovery process is the insight that often the most effective path to a desired goal is through “roundabout” methods of production. A man will be able to catch more fish in a shorter amount of time if he first devotes the time to constructing a fishing net out of vines, hollowing out a tree trunk as a canoe, and carving a tree branch into a paddle.

Greater productivity will often be forthcoming in the future if the individual is willing to undertake, therefore, a certain “period of production,” during which resources and labor are set to work to manufacture the capital — the fishing net, canoe, and paddle — that is then employed to paddle out into the lagoon where larger and more fish may be available.

But the time involved to undertake and implement these more roundabout methods of production involve a cost. The individual must be willing to forgo (often less productive) production activities in the more immediate future (wading into the lagoon using a tree branch as a spear) because that labor and those resources are tied up in a more time-consuming method of production, the more productive results from which will only be forthcoming later.

Interest on a Loan Reflects the Value of Time

This led Böhm-Bawerk to his theory of interest. Obviously, individuals evaluating the production possibilities just discussed must weigh ends available sooner versus other (perhaps more productive) ends that might be obtainable later. As a rule, Böhm-Bawerk argued, individuals prefer goods sooner rather than later.

Each individual places a premium on goods available in the present and discounts to some degree goods that can only be achieved further in the future. Since individuals have different premiums and discounts (time-preferences), there are potential mutual gains from trade. That is the source of the rate of interest: it is the price of trading consumption and production goods across time.

Böhm-Bawerk Refutes Marx’s Critique of Capitalism

One of Böhm-Bawerk’s most important applications of his theory was the refutation of the Marxian exploitation theory that employers make profits by depriving workers of the full value of what their labor produces. He presented his critique of Marx’s theory in the first volume of Capital and Interest and in a long essay originally published in 1896 on the “Unresolved Contradictions in the Marxian Economic System.” In essence, Böhm-Bawerk argued that Marx had confused interest with profit. In the long run no profits can continue to be earned in a competitive market because entrepreneurs will bid up the prices of factors of production and compete down the prices of consumer goods.

But all production takes time. If that period is of any significant length, the workers must be able to sustain themselves until the product is ready for sale. If they are unwilling or unable to sustain themselves, someone else must advance the money (wages) to enable them to consume in the meantime.

This, Böhm-Bawerk explained, is what the capitalist does. He saves, forgoing consumption or other uses of his wealth, and those savings are the source of the workers’ wages during the production process. What Marx called the capitalists’ “exploitative profits” Böhm-Bawerk showed to be the implicit interest payment for advancing money to workers during the time-consuming, roundabout processes of production.

Defending Fiscal Restraint in the Austrian Finance Ministry

In 1889, Böhm-Bawerk was called back from the academic world to the Austrian Ministry of Finance, where he worked on reforming the systems of direct and indirect taxation. He was promoted to head of the tax department in 1891. A year later he was vice president of the national commission that proposed putting Austria-Hungary on a gold standard as a means of establishing a sound monetary system free from direct government manipulation of the monetary printing press.

Three times he served as minister of finance, briefly in 1895, again in 1896–1897, and then from 1900 to 1904. During the last four-year term Böhm-Bawerk demonstrated his commitment to fiscal conservatism, with government spending and taxing kept strictly under control.

However, Ernest von Koerber, the Austrian prime minister in whose government Böhm-Bawerk served, devised a grandiose and vastly expensive public works scheme in the name of economic development. An extensive network of railway lines and canals were to be constructed to connect various parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — subsidizing in the process a wide variety of special-interest groups in what today would be described as a “stimulus” program for supposed “jobs-creation.”

Böhm-Bawerk tirelessly fought against what he considered fiscal extravagance that would require higher taxes and greater debt when there was no persuasive evidence that the industrial benefits would justify the expense. At Council of Ministers meetings Böhm-Bawerk even boldly argued against spending proposals presented by the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef, who presided over the sessions.

When finally he resigned from the Ministry of Finance in October 1904, Böhm-Bawerk had succeeded in preventing most of Prime Minister Koerber’s giant spending project. But he chose to step down because of what he considered to be corrupt financial “irregularities” in the defense budget of the Austrian military.

However, Böhm-Bawerk’s 1914 articles on government finance indicate that the wave of government spending he had battled so hard against broke through once he was no longer there to fight it.

Political Control or Economic Law

A few months after his passing, in December 1914, his last essay appeared in print, a lengthy piece on “Control or Economic Law?” He explained that various interest groups in society, most especially trade unions, suffer from a false conception that through their use or the threat of force, they are able to raise wages permanently above the market’s estimate of the value of various types of labor.

Arbitrarily setting wages and prices higher than what employers and buyers think labor and goods are worth — such as with a government-mandated minimum wage law — merely prices some labor and goods out of the market.

Furthermore, when unions impose high nonmarket wages on the employers in an industry, the unions succeed only in temporarily eating into the employers’ profit margins and creating the incentive for those employers to leave that sector of the economy and take with them those workers’ jobs.

What makes the real wages of workers rise in the long run, Böhm-Bawerk argued, was capital formation and investment in those more roundabout methods of production that increase the productivity of workers and therefore make their labor services more valuable in the long run, while also increasing the quantity of goods and services they can buy with their market wages.

To his last, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk defended reason and the logic of the market against the emotional appeals and faulty reasoning of those who wished to use power and the government to acquire from others what they could not obtain through free competition. His contributions to economic theory and economic policy show him as one of the greatest economists of all time, as well as his example as a principled man of uncompromising integrity who in the political arena unswervingly fought for the free market and limited government.

Money

Currency turbulence

You’d think that the US dollar has suddenly become strong, and the chart below of the other three major currencies confirms it.

USDvsGBPEURJPY_12092014

The US dollar is the risk-free currency for international accounting, because it is the currency on which all the others are based. And it is clear that three months ago dollar exchange rates against the three currencies shown began to strengthen notably.

However, each of the currencies in the chart has its own specific problems driving it weaker. The yen is the embodiment of financial kamikaze, with the Abe government destroying it through debasement as a cover-up for a budget deficit that is beyond its control. The pound is being poleaxed by a campaign to keep Scotland in the union which has backfired, plus a deferral of interest rate expectations. And the euro sports negative deposit rates in the belief they will cure the Eurozone’s gathering slump, which if it develops unchecked will threaten the stability of Europe’s banks.

So far this has been mainly a race to the bottom, with the dollar on the side-lines. The US economy, which is officially due to recover (as it has been expected to every year from 2008) looks like it’s still going nowhere. Indeed, if you apply a more realistic deflator than the one that is officially calculated, there is a strong argument that the US has never recovered since the Lehman crisis.

This is the context in which we must judge what currencies are doing. And there is an interpretation which is very worrying: we may be seeing the beginnings of a major flight out of other currencies into the dollar. This is a risk because the global currency complex is based on a floating dollar standard and has been since President Nixon ended the Bretton Woods agreement in 1971. It has led to a growing accumulation of currency and credit everywhere that ultimately could become unstable. The relationship between the dollar and other currencies is captured vividly in the illustration below.

The gearing of total world money and credit on today’s monetary base is forty times, but this is after a rapid expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet in recent years. Compared with the Fed’s monetary base before the Lehman crisis, world money is now nearly 180 times geared, which leaves very little room for continuing stability.

It may be too early to say this inverse pyramid is toppling over, because it is not yet fully confirmed by money flows between bond markets. However in the last few days Eurozone government bond yields have started rising. So far it can be argued that they have been over-valued and a correction is overdue. But if this new trend is fuelled by international banks liquidating non-US bond positions we will certainly have a problem.

We can be sure that central bankers are following the situation closely. Nearly all economic and monetary theorists since the 1930s have been preoccupied with preventing self-feeding monetary contractions, which in current times will be signalled by a flight into the dollar. The cure when this happens is obvious to them: just issue more dollars. This can be easily done by extending currency swaps between central banks and by coordinating currency intervention, rather than new rounds of plain old QE.

So far market traders appear to have been assuming the dollar is strong for less defined reasons, marking down key commodities and gold as a result. However, the relationship between the dollar, currencies and bond yields needs watching as they may be beginning to signal something more serious is afoot.

Economics

A difficult question

In a radio interview recently* I was asked a question to which I could not easily give a satisfactory reply: if the gold market is rigged, why does it matter?
I have no problem delivering a comprehensive answer based on a sound aprioristic analysis of how rigging markets distorts the basis of economic calculation and why a properly functioning gold market is central to all other financial prices. The difficulty is in answering the question in terms the listeners understand, bearing in mind I was told to assume they have very little comprehension of finance or economics.
I did not as they say, want to go there. But it behoves those of us who argue the economics of sound money to try to make the answer as intelligible as possible without sounding like a committed capitalist and a conspiracy theorist to boot, so here goes.

Manipulating the price of gold ultimately destabilises the financial system because it is the highest form of money. This is why nearly all central banks retain a holding. The fact we don’t use it as money in our daily business does not invalidate its status. Rather, gold is subject to Gresham’s Law, which famously states bad money drives out the good. We would rather pay for things in government-issue paper currency and hang on to gold for a rainy day.

As money, it is on the other side of all asset prices. In other words stocks, bonds and property prices can be expected to rise measured in gold when the gold price falls and vice-versa. This relationship is often muddled by other factors, the most obvious one being changing levels of confidence in paper currencies against which gold is normally priced. However, with bond yields today at record lows and equities at record highs this relationship is apparent today.

Another way to describe this relationship is in terms of risk. Banks which dominate asset markets become complacent about risk because they are greedy for profit. This leads to banks competing with one another until they end up ignoring risk entirely. It happened very obviously with the American banking crisis six years ago until house prices suddenly collapsed, threatening to take the whole financial system down. In common with all financial bubbles everyone ignored risk. History provides many other examples.

Therefore, gold is unlike other assets because a rising gold price reflects an increasing perception of general financial risk, ensuring downward pressure on other financial asset prices. So while the big banks are making easy money ignoring risks in equity and bond markets, they will not want their party spoiled by warning signs from a rising gold price.

This is a long way from proof that the gold market is manipulated. But the big banks, and we must include central banks which are obviously keen to maintain financial confidence, have the motive and the means. And if they have these they can be expected to take the opportunity.

So why does it matter if the gold price is rigged? A freely-determined gold price is central to ensuring that reality and not financial bubbles guides us in our financial and economic activities. Suppressing the gold price is rather like turning off a fire alarm because you can’t stand the noise.

*File on 4: BBC Radio4 due to be broadcast on 23 September at 8.00pm UK-time and repeated on 28 September at 5.00pm.

Economics

Austrians, Fractional Reserves, and the Money Multiplier

[Editor's note: this article, by Robert Batemarco, first appeared at Mises.org]

John Tamny recently wrote a piece at Forbes titled, “The Closing of the Austrian School’s Economic Mind” in which he critiqued certain claims made in Frank Hollenbeck’s Mises Daily article, “Confusing Capitalism with Fractional Reserve Banking.”

Tamny goes far beyond taking Hollenbeck to task, asserting that many modern Austrian economists have certain views of monetary policy that are at odds with much of the rest of the contribution of the Austrian School. Tamny’s biggest point of disagreement with Austrians is over the low regard with which many Austrians hold the practice of fractional reserve banking. In so doing, he makes several arguments which cannot stand up to critical scrutiny.

The crux of the Austrian position is that the practice of fractional reserve banking gives ownership claims to the same funds to more than one person. The person depositing the funds clearly has a property claim to those funds. Yet when a loan is made from those funds, the borrower now has a claim to the same funds. Two or more people owning the same funds is what makes bank runs possible. The existence of deposit insurance since the 1930s has minimized the number of these runs, in which multiple owners sought to claim their funds at the same time. The deposit insurance that prevents bank runs really amounts to a pre-emptive bailout of the banks. As this is a special privilege, rather than a natural development of the market, it follows that restrictions on fractional reserve banking would be a libertarian validation of the market rather than the statist interference that Tamny claims it to be.

His inability to see that fractional reserves lead to two or more people having claim to the same funds at the same time leads him to deny the logic of the money multiplier. To quote him:

The problem is that the very notion of a “money multiplier” is a logical impossibility; one that dies of its illogic rather quickly if analyzed in the lightest of ways. … To the Austrians, money can be multiplied. Bank A takes in $1,000, lends $900 to Bank B, then Bank B lends $810 to Bank C, only for Bank C to lend $729 to Bank D, etc. Pretty soon $1,000 has been “multiplied” many times over as the credit is passed around.

The notion of the money multiplier is by no means uniquely Austrian. I learned it forty years ago from the Paul Samuelson textbook and from the Fed publication Modern Money Mechanics. It is also the centerpiece of the monetary system chapter of virtually every textbook right up to Paul Krugman’s most recent edition. Indeed, the nature of the process is one of the most uncontroversial propositions in economics — a good definition of an uncontroversial economic proposition being one on which both Murray Rothbard and Paul Krugman are in substantive agreement. Indeed, if there were no money multiplier, one would be at a loss to explain why, until QE1 in 2008, M1 was a 1.6 times size of the monetary base, having historically been even higher. Nor would the required reserve ratio, a tool of monetary policy that became too powerful to be used after 1937, have any effect on the money supply in the absence of the money multiplier effect.

What is controversial about the money multiplier is not its existence, but whether or not it creates distortions in the economy. The distortions introduced into the economy by fractional reserve banking, and to an even greater extent by central banking, comprise the central element of Austrian business cycle theory. The basic idea is that the creation of money (which is also credit, since that new money is loaned into existence) increases the supply of loanable funds and lowers market interest rates without increasing the supply of voluntary saving. This misleads investors into believing that more resources have been made available by savers for investment projects than actually have been made available. Thus, projects are started on too big a scale since many investors try to exercise a claim on the same productive resources. In so doing, they will bid up the resource prices, slashing the profitability of many of these investment projects. This is the real goods sector counterpart of bank runs in the monetary sector. Since there is no real goods sector counterpart to deposit insurance, firms will run short of the resources necessary to profitably complete their investment projects, exposing them as malinvestments and turning boom to bust.

Tamny disputes the above claims, largely on the basis of what seems to me an idiosyncratic definition of credit. He states that, “credit can’t be multiplied. Period. For every individual who attains credit successfully, there must be a saver willing to give up near-term access to the economy’s resources.” This statement is informed by the valuable insight that lending money to those who wish to buy goods they could not otherwise afford does not create additional goods. Where the equivocation arises is in his use of the word credit to describe the goods that credit permits one to buy. I believe this eccentric use of that word is what leads to many of Tamny’s disagreements with the Austrians. Here is Exhibit A:

Perhaps another logical response to this line of thinking is the housing boom that took place in the 2000s. Wasn’t the latter most certainly a function of easy credit? Let’s be serious. To believe it was, that low rates set by the Fed were what made housing credit easy is to believe that rent control renders apartments abundant. But it doesn’t, nor were low rates decreed by the Fed the driver of the housing boom.

Austrians agree that making loans more available than the market would make them does not make more goods available. But there is the illusion of more resources in the short run because the credit-creation process does initially commandeer resources from those whose money decreases in value through the Cantillon Effect. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs seeking to expand their operations act on this illusion. Only when the new money reaches those whose money lost its value initially and they re-assert their demand, does the inability of new credit to create new goods become obvious.

The last critique Tamny makes that I will discuss here is his implication that Austrian support for 100 percent reserves on demand deposits would make it impossible for borrowers to borrow from savers in order to lend those savings out. This is wrong. Austrians have no problem with savers buying the bonds of a firm seeking additional financing, nor with their buying stock, either directly from the company or its investment bank through an IPO or on the secondary market where it helps keep the market liquid, nor with their buying a bank CD or time deposit knowing that they will not have a claim on the funds they have entrusted to the bank until maturity. In all of these cases, intermediaries are borrowing from savers in order to lend those savings out (this is not exactly a loan in the case of stocks). What Austrians object to is banks telling depositors they still have an instantaneous claim on the funds deposited when they have given someone else a claim on the same funds.

Under the elimination of fractional reserve banking, investment spending would be reduced, not to zero, but to a more sustainable level. This would not eliminate entrepreneurial errors, which are part and parcel of having to act in the face of uncertainty, but it would eliminate the cluster of errors generated by the inconsistent plans that would be made on the basis of falsified market signals of interest rates below their natural rate, thus moderating, or in the best-case scenario, eliminating the business cycle.

Economics

Rethinking Japan’s “Lost Decades”

[This article, by Peter St. Onge, first appeared at mises.org]

 

One of the great economic myths of our time is Japan’s “lost decades.” As Japan doubles-down on inflationary stimulus, it’s worth reviewing the facts.

The truth is that the Japanese and US economies have performed in lock-step since 2000, and their performances have matched each other going as far back as 1980.

Either Japan’s not in crisis, or the US has been in crisis for a good thirty-five years. You can’t have it both ways.

Here’s a chart of per capita real GDP for both Japan and the US from 2000 to 2011. Per capita real GDP is the GDP measure that best answers the question: “is the typical person getting richer?”

The two curves look like they came from the same country:

 

japan1

Next, we can go back to 1980, to see where the myth came from. Japan was just entering its “bubble” decade:
japan2

We can see what happened here: Japan had a boom in the 1980s, then Japan busted while the Americans had their turn at a boom. By 2000 the US caught up, and Japan and the US synched up and shadowed each other, reflecting boom followed by the inevitable bust.

The only way you can get to the “lost decades” story is if you start your chart exactly when Japan was busting and America booming. Unsurprisingly, this is standard practice of the “lost decades” storytellers.

Of course, this would be like timing two runners, and starting the clock when one of them is on break. It’s absurd, but it gives the answer they want.

Things get worse when you include the artificial effects of inflation and population. Higher inflation and population growth both make the economy appear bigger without making people richer. If America annexed Mexico tomorrow, the US economy would grow by 30 percent. But that’s not going to make the average American 30 percent richer.

Adjusting for inflation and population is Macro 101. It’s so basic, in fact, that we might wonder if the “lost decades” macroeconomists are being intentionally forgetful. Why on earth would they do that?

Who Benefits from the “Lost Decades” Myth?

Who promotes the “lost decades” myth? Are the storytellers trying to make Japan look bad, or the US look good?

I suspect it’s a little of both: politicians in Japan need the sense of crisis to push their vote-buying schemes. It’s a lot easier to sell harmful policies if you can just convince the voters that everything’s already fallen apart. They’ve got nothing to lose at that point. In a crisis we are all socialists.

This cynical PR campaign is bearing fruit already, as Japanese voters accept inflationary policies from their new prime minister. In the name of reviving an economy that’s supposedly on its death-bed. Hard-working Japanese are losing their savings through low rates and inflation, but honor demands sacrifice so long as the future of the children supposedly hangs in the balance.

In reality, the re-telling of Japan’s myth reminds one of a doctor who lies to a patient so he can sell a cure that harms the patient.

On the American side, the myth of Japan’s “lost decades” is similarly useful: it makes our economic overlords seem like they actually know what they’re doing. And it serves to warn the naysayers: the “lost decades” myth is a bogeyman waiting to pounce if we ever falter from our bail-outs and vote-buying stimulus.

The truth, hidden in plain view, is that Japan’s not bad enough to be a battering ram for Japan’s Keynesian vote-buyers, and the US economy isn’t good enough for our home-grown vote-buyers to keep their jobs.

 

Economics

As Germany loses battle for ECB, QE goes global

What is Super Mario up to?

First, he gave an unexpectedly dovish speech at the Jackson Hole conference, rather ungallantly upstaging the host, Ms Yellen, who was widely anticipated to be the most noteworthy speaker at the gathering (talking about the labor market, her favorite subject). Having thus single-handedly and without apparent provocation raised expectations for more “stimulus” at last week’s ECB meeting, he then even exceeded those expectations with another round of rate-cuts and confirmation of QE in form of central bank purchases of asset-backed securities.

These events are significant not because they are going to finally kick-start the Eurozone economy (they won’t) but because 1) they look rushed, and panicky, and 2) they must clearly alienate the Germans. The ideological rift that runs through the European Union is wide and deep, and increasingly rips the central bank apart. And the Germans are losing that battle.

As to 1), it was just three months ago that the ECB cut rates and made headlines by being the first major central bank to take a policy rate below zero. Whatever your view is on the unfolding new Eurozone recession and the apparent need for more action (more about this in a minute), the additional 0.1 percent rate reduction will hardly make a massive difference. Yet, implementing such minor rate cuts in fairly short succession looks nervous and anxious, or even headless. This hardly instils confidence.

And regarding the “unconventional” measures so vehemently requested by the economic commentariat, well, the “targeted liquidity injections” that are supposed to direct freshly printed ECB-money to cash-starved corporations, and that were announced in June as well, have not even been implemented yet. Apparently, and not entirely unreasonably, the ECB wanted to wait for the outcome of their “bank asset quality review”. So now, before these measures are even started, let alone their impact could even be assessed, additional measures are being announced. The asset purchases do not come as a complete surprise either. It was known that asset management giant BlackRock had already been hired to help the ECB prepare such a program. Maybe the process has now been accelerated.

This is Eurozone QE

This is, of course, quantitative easing (QE). Many commentators stated that the ECB shied away from full-fledged QE. This view implies that only buying sovereign debt can properly be called QE. This does not make sense. The Fed, as part of its first round of QE in 2008, also bought mortgage-backed securities only. There were no sovereign bonds in its first QE program, and everybody still called it QE. Mortgage-backed securities are, of course, a form of asset-backed security, and the ECB announced purchases of asset-backed securities at the meeting. This is QE, period. The simple fact is that the ECB expands its balance sheet by purchasing selected assets and creating additional bank reserves (for which banks will now pay the ECB a 0.2 percent p.a. “fee”).

As to 2), not only will the ECB decisions have upset the Germans (the Bundesbank’s Mr. Weidmann duly objected but was outvoted) but so will have Mr. Draghi’s new rhetoric. In Jackson Hole he used the F-word, as in “flexibility”, meaning fiscal flexibility, or more fiscal leeway for the big deficit countries. By doing so he adopted the language of the Italian and French governments, whenever they demand to be given more time for structural reform and fiscal consolidation. The German government does not like to hear this (apparently, Merkel and Schäuble both phoned Draghi after Jackson Hole and complained.)

The German strategy has been to keep the pressure on reform-resistant deficit-countries, and on France and Italy in particular, and to not allow them to shift the burden of adjustment to the ECB. Draghi has now undermined the German strategy.

The Germans fear, not quite unjustifiably, that some countries always want more time and will never implement reform. In contrast to those countries that had their backs to the wall in the crisis and had little choice but to change course in some respect, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, France and Italy have so far done zilch on the structural reform front. France’s competitiveness has declined ever since it adopted the 35-hour workweek in 2000 but the policy remains pretty much untouchable. In Italy, Renzi wants to loosen the country’s notoriously strict labour regulations but faces stiff opposition from the trade unions and the Left, not least in his own party. He now wants to give his government three years to implement reform, as he announced last week.

Draghi turns away from the Germans

German influence on the ECB is waning. It was this influence that kept alive the prospect of a somewhat different approach to economic challenges than the one adopted in the US, the UK and, interestingly, Japan. Of course, the differences should not be overstated. In the Eurozone, like elsewhere, we observed interest rate suppression, asset price manipulations, and massive liquidity-injections, and worse, even capital controls and arbitrary bans on short-selling. But we also saw a greater willingness to rely on restructuring, belt-tightening, liquidation, and, yes, even default, to rid the system of the deformations and imbalances that are the ultimate root causes of recessions and the impediments to healthy, sustainable growth. In the Eurozone it was not all about “stimulus” and “boosting aggregate demand”. But increasingly, the ECB looks like any other major central bank with a mandate to keep asset prices up, government borrowing costs down, and a generous stream of liquidity flowing to cover the cracks in the system, to sustain a mirage of solvency and sustainability, and to generate some artificial and short-lived headline growth. QE will not only come to the Eurozone, it will become a conventional tool, just like elsewhere.

I believe it is these two points, Draghi’s sudden hyperactivity (1) and his clear rift with the Germans and his departure from the German strategy (2) that may explain why the euro is finally weakening, and why the minor announcements of last Thursday had a more meaningful impact on markets than the similarly minor announcements in June. With German influence on the ECB waning, trashing your currency becomes official strategy more easily, and this is already official policy in Japan and in the US.

Is Draghi scared by the weak growth numbers and the prospect of deflation?

Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.

Europe has a structural growth problem as mentioned above. If the structural impediments to growth are not removed, Europe won’t grow, and no amount of central bank pump priming can fix it.

Nobody should be surprised if parts of Europe fall into technical recessions every now and then. If “no growth” is your default mode then experiencing “negative growth” occasionally, or even regularly, should not surprise anyone. Excited talk about Italy’s shocking “triple-dip” recession is hyperbole. It is simply what one should expect. Having said this, I do suspect that we are already in another broader cyclical downturn, not only in Europe but also in Asia (China, Japan) and the UK.

The deflation debate in the newspapers is bordering on the ridiculous. Here, the impression is conveyed that a drop in official inflation readings from 0.5 to 0.3 has substantial information content, and that if we drop below zero we would suddenly be caught in some dreadful deflation-death-trap, from which we may not escape for many years. This is complete hogwash. There is nothing in economic theory or in economic history that would support this. And, no, this is not what happened in Japan.

The margin of error around these numbers is substantial. For all we know, we may already have a -1 percent inflation rate in the Eurozone. Or still plus 1 percent. Either way, for any real-life economy this is broadly price-stability. To assume that modest reductions in any given price average suddenly mean economic disaster is simply a fairy tale. Many economies have experienced extended periods of deflation (moderately rising purchasing power of money on trend) in excess of what Japan has experienced over the past 20 years and have grown nicely, thank you very much.

As former Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa has explained recently, Japan’s deflation has been “very mild” indeed, and may have had many positive effects as well. In a rapidly aging society with many savers and with slow headline growth it helped maintain consumer purchasing power and thus living standards. Japan has an official unemployment rate of below 4 percent. Japan has many problems but deflation may not be one of them.

Furthermore, the absence of inflation in the Eurozone is no surprise either. There has been no money and credit growth in aggregate in recent years as banks are still repairing their balance sheets, as the “asset quality review” is pending, and as other regulations kick in. Banks are reluctant to lend, and the private sector is careful to borrow, and neither are acting unreasonably.

Expecting Eurozone inflation to clock in at the arbitrarily chosen 2 percent is simply unrealistic.

Conclusions

Draghi’s new activism moves the ECB more in the direction of the US Fed and the Bank of Japan. This alienates the Germans and marginally strengthens the position of the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. This monetary policy will not reinvigorate European growth. Only proper structural reform can do this but much of Europe appears unable to reform, at least without another major crisis. Fiscal deficits will grow.

Monetary policy is not about “stimulus” but about maintaining the status quo. Super-low interest rates are meant to sustain structures that would otherwise be revealed to be obsolete, and that would, in a proper free market, be replaced. The European establishment is interested in maintaining the status quo at all cost, and ultra-easy monetary policy and QE are essentially doing just that.

Under the new scheme of buying asset-backed securities, the ECB’s balance sheet will become a dumping ground for unwanted bank assets (the Eurozone’s new “bad” bank). Like almost everything about the Euro-project, this is about shifting responsibility, obscuring accountability, and socializing the costs of bad decisions. Monetary socialism is coming. The market gets corrupted further.

Economics

Our obsession with monetary stimulus will end in disaster

The following is a commentary I wrote for The Forum section of London business-paper City A.M. The link is here.

It is now six years since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and considering that the US economy has officially been in recovery for the past five years, that equity indexes have put in new all-time highs, and that credit markets are once again ebullient to the point of carelessness, it is worth contemplating that monetary policy remains stuck in pedal-to-the-floor stimulus mode. Granted, quantitative easing is (once again) scheduled to end, and the first rates hikes are now expected for next year, but the present policy stance certainly remains highly accommodative. A full ‘exit’ by the Fed is still merely a prospect.

Expectations appear to be for the US economy to finally emerge from its long stay in monetary intensive care healthier and fit for self-sustained, if modest, growth. I think this is unlikely. The lengthy period of monetary stimulus will have saddled the economy with new dislocations. And if central bank intervention did indeed manage to arrest the forces of liquidation that the crisis had unleashed, then some old imbalances will also still hang around.

“Easy money” is – contrary to how it is frequently portrayed – not some tonic that simply lifts the general mood and boosts all economic activity proportionally. Monetary stimulus is always a form of market intervention. It changes relative prices (as distinguished from the ‘price level’ that most economists obsess about); it alters the allocation of scarce resources and the direction of economic activity. Monetary policy always affects the structure of the economy – otherwise no impact on real activity could be generated. It is a drug with considerable side effects.

The latest crisis should provide a warning. As David Stockman pointed out, it did not arrive on a meteor from space, but had its origin in distortions in the housing market in the US – and the UK, Spain and Ireland – and in related credit markets, and therefore ultimately in the “easy money” policies of the early 2000s. Administratively suppressing short rates down to 1 percent for a prolonged period was then the “unconventional” policy du jour, and it was a success of sorts. A credit crunch and deleveraging were indeed avoided, which were then feared as a consequence of WorldCom and Enron defaulting and the dot.com-bubble bursting, but only at the price of blowing an even bigger bubble elsewhere.

This is the problem with our modern fiat money system. With the supply of money no longer constrained by a nature-given, scarce commodity (gold or silver), but now fully elastic, essentially unlimited, and under the control of a lender of last resort central bank, the parameters of risk-taking are forever altered.

Allegedly, we can now stop bank-runs and ignite short-term growth spurts, or keep the overall “price level” advancing on some arbitrarily chosen path of 2 percent. But we can achieve all of this only through monetary manipulations that must create imbalances in the economy. And as the overwhelming temptation is now to use “easy money” to avoid or shorten any period of liquidation, to go for all growth and no correction, distortions will accumulate over time.

As we move from cycle to cycle, the imbalances get bigger, asset valuations become more stretched, the debt load rises, and central banks take policy to new extremes to arrest the market’s growing desire for a much needed cleansing. That policy rates around the world have converged on zero is not a cyclical but a structural phenomenon.

Central bank stimulus is not leading to virtuous circles but to vicious ones. How can we get out? – Only by changing our attitudes to monetary interventions fundamentally. Only if we accept that interest rates are market prices, not policy levers. Only if we accept that the growth we generate through cheap credit and interest-rate suppression is always fleeting, and always comes at the price of new capital misallocations.

The prospect for such a change looks dim at present. Last year’s feverish excitement about Abenomics and this year’s urgent demands for Eurozone QE show that the belief in central bank activism is unbroken, and I remain sceptical as to whether the Fed and the Bank of England can achieve a proper and lasting “exit” from ultra-loose policy in this environment. The near-term outlook is for more heavy-handed interventions everywhere, and the endgame is probably inflation. This will end badly.