2014 ended with two ominous developments: the strength of the US dollar and a collapse in key commodity prices.
It is tempting to view both events as one, but the continuing fall in oil prices through December reveals they are sequential: first there was a greater preference for dollars compared with other currencies and this still persists, followed by a developing preference for all but the weakest currencies at the expense of raw materials and energy. These are two steps on a path that should logically lead to a global slump.
Dollar strength was the first warning that things were amiss, leading to higher interest rates in many of the emerging economies as their central banks sought to control investment outflows. Since this followed a prolonged period of credit expansion these countries appear to be entering the bust phase of the credit-driven boom-and-bust cycle; so for them, 2015 at a minimum will see a slump in economic activity as the accumulated malinvestments from the past are unwound. According to the IMF database, emerging market and developing economies at current prices account for total GDP of over $30 trillion, compared with advanced economies’ GDP totalling $47 trillion. It is clear that a slump in the former will have serious repercussions for the latter.
As the reserve currency the dollar is central to the exchange value of all other currencies. This is despite attempts by China and Russia to trade without it. Furthermore and because of this dependency, the global economy has become more geared to the dollar over the years because it has expanded relative to the US. In 2000, the US was one-third of global GDP; today it is about one-fifth.
The second development, falling energy and commodity prices, while initially driven by the same factors as dollar strength, confirms the growing likelihood of a global slump. If falling prices were entirely due to increased supply of the commodities involved, we could rejoice. However, while there has been some increase in energy and commodity supply the message is clear, and that is demand at current prices has unexpectedly declined, and prices are now trying to find a new equilibrium. And because we are considering world demand, this development is being missed or misread by economists who lack a global perspective.
The price of oil has approximately halved in the last six months. The fall has been attributed variously to the west trying to bankrupt Russia, or to Saudi Arabia driving American shale production out of business. This misses the bigger picture: according to BP’s Statistical Review 2014, at the beginning of last year world oil consumption comfortably exceeded supply, 91.3million barrels per day compared with 86.8. This indicates that something fundamental changed in 2014 to collapse the price, and that something can only be a sudden fall in demand in the second half.
Iron ore prices have also halved over the last six months, but other key commodities, such as copper which fell by only 11% over the period, appear to have not yet adjusted to the emerging markets slump. This complies with business cycle theory, because in the early stages of a slump businesses remain committed to their capital investment plans in the vain hope that conditions will improve. This being the case, the collapse in demand for energy can be expected to deepen and spread to other industrial raw materials as manufacturers throw in the towel and their investment plans are finally abandoned.
Therefore the economic background to the financial outlook for the global economy is not encouraging. Nor was it at the beginning of 2014, when it was obviously going to be a difficult year. The difference a year on is that the concerns about the future are more crystallised. This time last year I wrote that we were heading towards a second (to Lehman) and unexpected financial and currency crisis that could happen at any time. I only modify that to say the crisis has indeed begun and it has much further to go this year. This is the background against which we must briefly consider some of the other major currencies, and precious metals.
Japan and the yen
The complacency about Japan in the economic and investment communities is astonishing. Japan is committed to a scale of monetary inflation that if continued can only end up destroying the yen. The Bank of Japan is now financing the equivalent of twice the government deficit (¥41 trillion) by issuing new currency, some of which is being used to buy Japanese equity ETFs and property REITs. By these means pricing in bond, equity and commercial property markets has become irrelevant. “Abenomics” is about financing the government and managing the markets under the Keynesian cover of stimulating both the economy and animal spirits. In fact, with over ¥1.2 quadrillion of public sector debt the government is caught in a debt trap from which it sees no escape other than bluff. And since Abenomics was first embarked upon two years ago, the yen has fallen from 75 to the US dollar to 120, or 37%.
Instead of learning the lessons of previous hyperinflations, mainstream economists fall for the official line and ignore the facts. The facts are simple: Japan is a welfare state with an increasing and unsustainable ratio of retirees to tax-paying workers. She is the leading advanced nation on a debt path the other welfare nations are closely following. Consensus forecasts that the Japanese economy will be stimulated into recovery in 2015 are wide of the mark: instead she is destroying her currency and private sector wealth with it.
Eurozone and the euro
In the short-term the Eurozone is being revisited by its Greek problem. Whether or not the next Greek government backs off from confronting the other Eurozone members and the ECB remains to be seen. The problems for the Eurozone lie considerably deeper than Greece, made worse by politicians who have been reluctant to use the time bought by the ECB to address the structural difficulties of the 19 Eurozone members. The result is the stronger northern bloc (Germany, Netherlands, Finland and Luxembourg) is being crippled by the burden of the Mediterranean states plus Portugal plus France. And Germany and Finland have suffered the further blow of losing valuable export business from Russia.
In the coming months the Eurozone will likely face gas shortages from Russia through the trans-Ukrainian pipeline, and price deflation driven by energy and other commodity prices. Price deflation spurs two further points to consider, one false and the other true: lower prices are deemed to be recessionary (false), and falling prices increase the burden of real debt (true). The consequence is that the ECB will seek ways to expand money supply aggressively to stop the Eurozone from drifting into an economic crisis. In short, the Eurozone will likely develop its own version of Abenomics, the principal difference being the Eurozone’s timeline is behind Japan’s.
US and UK
Japan and the Eurozone account for total GDP of $18.3 trillion, slightly more than the US and added to the emerging and developing economies, gives a total of $48 trillion, or 62% of global GDP for nations leading the world into a slump. So when we consider the prospects for the US and the UK, together producing $20.4 trillion or 26% of the world’s GDP, their prospects are not good either. The UK as a trading nation exposed to the Eurozone has immediate risk, while the US which is not so dependent on international trade, less so.
The foregoing analysis is of the primary economic drivers for 2015 upon which all else will ultimately depend. The risk of a global slump can be called a first order event, while the possibility of a banking crisis, derivatives default or other market dislocation brought on by a slump could be termed a second order event. There is no point in speculating about the possibility and timing of second order events occurring in 2015, because they ultimately depend on the performance of the global economy.
However, when it becomes clear to investors that the global economy is indeed entering a slump, financial and systemic risks are certain to escalate. Judging this escalation by monitoring markets will be difficult because central banks, exchange stability funds and sovereign wealth funds routinely intervene in markets, rendering them misleading as price signals.
Precious metals are the only assets beyond the long-term control of governments. They can distort precious metal markets in the short term by expanding the quantity of derivatives, and there is a body of evidence that these methods have been employed in recent years. But most price distortion today appears to have come from bullion and investment banks who are fully committed to partying in bonds, equities and derivatives, and for which gold is a spoiler. This complacency is bound to be undermined at some point, and a global economic slump is the likely catalyst.
The dangers of ever-inflating currencies are clearly illustrated by the Fiat Money Quantity, which has continued to expand at an alarming rate as shown in the chart below.
FMQ measures the amount of fiat currency issued as a replacement for gold as money, so is a measure of unbacked monetary expansion. At $13.52 trillion last November it is $5.68 trillion above the long-established pre-Lehman crisis growth path, stark evidence of a depreciating currency in monetary terms. Adjusting the price of gold for this depreciation gives a price today the equivalent of $490 in dollars at that time and quantity, so gold has roughly halved in real currency terms since the Lehman crisis.
There is compelling evidence that 2015 will see a global slump in economic activity. This being the case, financial and systemic risks will increase as evidence of the slump accumulates. It can be expected to undermine global equities, property and finally bond markets, which are currently all priced for economic stability. Even though these markets are increasingly controlled by central bank intervention, it is dangerous to assume this will continue to be the case as financial and systemic risks accumulate.
Precious metals are ultimately free from price management by the state. Furthermore, they are the only asset class notably under-priced today, given the enormous increase in the quantity of fiat money since the Lehman crisis.
In short, 2015 is shaping up to be very bad for fiat currencies and very good for gold and silver.
Recent dollar strength has been a surprise to many but a strong dollar was also a key component of the Asian currency crises of 1997-98. These contributed to sharply lower oil prices, which in turn helped to trigger the 1998 Russian debt default, European bond spread de-convergence and spectacular blowup of hedge-fund Long Term Capital Management (LTCM). It is worth recalling that, when LTCM failed, the dollar abruptly gave up a full year of gains. While history rhymes rather than repeats, I suspect something comparable is likely in 2015, although with US total economy debt much higher, the potential for a sharp decline in the dollar is that much greater.
Back when I managed macro strategy teams at investment banks, I had a simple set of guidelines that I required junior strategists to follow when making investment recommendations, that is, in addition to those required by the firm or the regulators. These included:
- Recommendations must be supported by a broad range of fact-checked evidence, rather than one or two ‘cherry-picked’ pieces;
- Recommendations must be ‘actionable’ in a practical way by the target clients and one or more of these must be specified;
- Recommendations must not only provide a specific price (or return) target, but also an estimate of risk (or volatility) and reference to a specific time horizon;
- Recommendations must include one or more conditions under which the particular investment would no longer be as attractive, if at all.
In practice, most analysts managed in their initial draft recommendations to follow the first two but struggled when it came to the third and fourth. The reason for this is most probably the inclination that many if not all quantitative-analytical types have for expecting that financial assets be priced ‘correctly’, according to whatever analytical framework is applied. If something is out of line, so the thinking goes, it should start correcting as soon as the analysis in question is complete and should completely correct over the short-to-medium term time horizon of primary importance to the bulk of those active in the investment management industry.
While that might seem reasonable, the problem is that, notwithstanding claims to the contrary, investors are not rational. Indeed, I would hold that no economic actors are rational in any meaningful, measurable way. This is due in part to my view of human nature and modern psychology seems to uncover new ways in which our minds are biased and irrational with each passing day. But if all investment opinions are biased and irrational to some degree, the sum of all such opinions—the financial markets—is most probably also biased and irrational.
So-called ‘behavioural investing’ tries to address these biases in a systematic way in order generate excess investment returns over time with acceptably low risk. However, the problem with any such ‘fight the irrational herd’ approach is, to paraphrase Keynes, “The herd can remain irrational longer than the rational investor can remain solvent.” On top of this there is the added complexity of the so-called ‘beauty contest’, also mentioned by Keynes, in which investors constantly try to out-guess each others’ intentions, irrational, behavioural or otherwise, so what in fact is ultimately decisive in price determination at any point in time arguably has little if anything to do with any underlying, fundamental, rational investment process.
Having been an active investor for many years, I have experienced a number of profit and loss events across a broad range of assets and strategies. In the end, while idea generation, however rudimentary, is necessary to active trading or investing, it is ultimately some aspect of risk management, of knowing when NOT to trade or invest, that often tips the balance between success and failure. Sure, anyone can be ‘smart’ or ‘lucky’ for a time but the irrational herd is far more dangerous to the unusually smart than to the lucky, even though many in the latter category no doubt consider themselves also (or perhaps exclusively) in the former camp.
The fight against irrationality, if one wishes to call it that, is thus one that is overwhelming more likely to be won in the longer-term, over which most investors have only little or no interest. In the economic jargon, investors have high ‘time preference’ to front-load investment returns, by implication taking irrationally large longer-term risks. For institutional investors managing other peoples’ money, it is often a losing business proposition to fight the herd so aggressively as to risk losing clients, even if the investment views implemented ultimately work out longer-term. Holding on to client money month after month, quarter after quarter, year after year, when an apparently irrational market chooses to become ever more irrational is a potentially career-limiting move in the extreme. Thus herd-following, rather than fighting, becomes the industry norm, and those who rise to the top of large asset management organisations do so not because they are great investors but because they are skilled at retaining client assets regardless of the direction in which the irrational herd is travelling.
This natural (if irrational) herding tendency is further exaggerated when economic or monetary officials intervene in order to ‘stabilise’ asset markets, which at least since 1987 has meant to prevent them from correcting violently to the downside. 1. When the herd believes that officials have their backs, they tend to ignore the risks closing in on their backsides for far longer than they ought to. And so the inevitable bubbles that form can continue to grow and grow, yet concern about them fades and fades, as normalcy bias and policy goals converge in a world of ever-rising or at least not falling asset prices.
In this world, biased by policy towards steadily rising asset prices, returns beget leverage, and leveraged returns beget greater leverage. Regulators pretend as if they can manage this and its probable future effects on the financial system and economy, but 2008 and many other manias, panics and crashes that have come and gone before inform us otherwise. Sure, a new regulatory effort is rolled out now and again, to much fanfare: Note the central bankers’ ‘macroprudential’ PR campaign over the past two years. The ivory-tower academic folk who originally propose such measures—or so they claim—applaud on the sidelines while taking implied, self-serving credit. (These academics are equally quick to blame the ‘private sector’ whenever anything goes wrong, as their ideas can’t possibly be at fault.)
I’ve been around long enough to see this dynamic play out on multiple occasions. I also witnessed first-hand the spectacular events of 1997-98, a period with strong parallels to today. Back then, the dollar rose on the false view that the US could decouple from crises abroad. When events abruptly proved otherwise, the dollar gave up a full year’s gains in just two weeks. The same could happen in 2015.
POOR-QUALITY GROWTH, RISING IMBALANCES
Following six years of zero interest rates and QE, the US economy has still failed to resume healthy, sustainable growth. Yes, the economy is growing at present and there have been some pockets of deleveraging. But this amounts to ‘cherry picking’ the range of available evidence and thus fails to adhere to even the first of my guidelines for investment recommendations. Looking behind the numbers in more detail, as I prefer to do, one sees an unbalanced economy that is re-leveraging amid the growth of yet another asset bubble.
Now my mainstream economic critics will scoff at this, pointing to the recently-released Q3 GDP report, for example, as demonstrating that healthy US growth has resumed. But when you look behind the numbers at the composition, the quality of the growth, it remains poor. One way to do this is to strip out the volatile inventory cycle and see what remains of ‘core’ GDP growth, referred to as ‘real final sales’. US real final sales growth has been positive over the past few years but, notwithstanding massive policy stimulus, has barely managed to rise above 2% year-over-year. Past recoveries have seen rates two to three times higher.
‘CORE’ GDP GROWTH STUCK AROUND 2% Y/Y
If you go one step further and strip out population growth, what remains is a per-capita core growth rate of little more than zero. And what has it taken to achieve this near zero rate of per-capita growth? Why, huge government deficits which have not been spent on long-term infrastructure investment but rather programmes designed to promote current consumption. Moreover, households have been re-leveraging following a period of sharp retrenchment in 2008-9. The savings rate, averaging about 4.5% over the past few years, is only marginally higher than it was in the bubble years of 2004-7.
HOUSEHOLD LEVERAGE HAS SOARED AGAIN…
…AS THE SAVINGS RATE HAS DECLINED ANEW
There was some material deleveraging of corporate balance sheets in 2009-12 but that has now given way to re-leveraging. Much of this is occurring via share buy-backs, which were all the rage in 2014, perhaps because without them, earnings per share would not have risen by much, if at all, given now-negative US corporate profit growth.
Now this may be the first you have heard about ‘negative’ US corporate profit growth. But if you look at profits not in the ‘pro-forma’ way that corporations present them to shareholders but in how they actually report them for official pourposes according to the methodology used in the national accounts, this is precisely what you see.
CORPORATE PROFIT GROWTH NOW NEGATIVE
This is not to say that the huge monetary and fiscal stimulus in the wake of the GFC had no effect. No, it had a huge effect. But that effect was primarily to bring future consumption artificially forward and thereby to reduce the savings available to provide for investment and future consumption. Eminent Austrian Economist Ludwig von Mises famously claimed that this was akin to “burning the furniture to heat the home.” (The pernicious effects of capital consumption are discussed in greater detail here.)
The fact is that the US is not saving enough to provide for current much less future consumption and thus must continue to borrow from the rest of the world. While the US trade deficit is not as large today as it was back in the bubble years of 2004-7—in large part due to increased domestic energy production—it remains sizeable in a historical comparison and, of course, adds to the enormous cumulative deficit that already exists.
US STILL DEPENDENT ON FOREIGN CAPITAL
So not only is US growth not on a sustainable path; to the extent there is growth, much of it is being financed with US-issued IOUs (ie dollars). The dollar may be strong at present due to flows out of various underperforming emerging markets. But this should not disguise the fact that the US economy cannot possibly decouple from the rest of the world when it is in fact highly dependent on the rest of the world as a source of financing.
DECLINING OIL PRICES ARE A KEY MECHANISM OF AN INEVITABLE RECOUPLING
Much us external financing is in the form of recycled ‘petrodollars’ from the larger oil-exporting countries such as Saudi Arabia, who take oil revenues and invest them in US assets such as Treasury bonds. This has two inter-related effects, supporting demand for the US dollar and helping to hold down US interest rates. As oil prices decline, however, so do oil revenues, in particular if global demand is declining, as it appears to be doing. This implies less recycling of petrodollars.
While in theory declining oil prices are supportive of growth, this is true only to the point that the financial system is not leveraged to oil revenues. Russia’s 1998 default on its external debt is a classic case in point. All of a sudden what appeared a benign development for the US economy was anything but, as through various financial linkages, the US financial system was in fact exposed to a sharp decline in global oil revenues.
Global liquidity, sloshing as it does from place to place, is much like the tides of the oceans. Local observers in different locations might not notice or care that a high tide in one place implies a low tide in another. But the global observer knows better: An extreme high tide in one part of the world will correspond to an extreme low tide elsewhere. But these need not occur simultaneously, as the flow from high to low between locations can take time.
Collapsing oil revenues were the proximate trigger for Russia’s 1998 decision to default on its external debt. European banks were among Russia’s primary creditors and thus they had to liquidate holdings of peripheral EU debt in order to raise capital. This pushed peripheral bond spreads sharply wider, reversing the trend in leveraged euro ‘convergence trades’ in the run-up to European monetary union. LTCM was one of the largest, most highly-leveraged followers of this strategy and found it suddenly faced huge losses potentially exceeding its capital. LTCMs creditors—primarily bulge-bracket Wall Street banks—demanded additional collateral be posted immediately. But there wasn’t enough high-quality collateral to go around and so the price of the highest-quality collateral—US Treasury bonds—soared to records in the scramble.
The Fed soon realised the scale of the potential danger: A default cascading through the heart of Wall Street. It thus placed pressure on all LTCM’s creditors to agree to a plan to ease off on collateral calls, allowing for an orderly unwind of positions. In return, the Fed would lower interest rates, to the benefit of all participants.
While these actions succeeded in containing the damage, they signalled to the world that the US financial system was in fact highly leveraged to the international financial markets and thus exposed indirectly to the serial crises elsewhere. Moreover, the Fed was willing to lower interest rates as required to bail out the US financial system. Hence the dollar was not the safe-haven it was previously thought to be and suddenly plunged in value, wiping out an entire year’s gains in a violent, two-week selloff.
A YEAR’S DOLLAR GAINS ERASED IN WEEKS
The US stock market also took notice, falling sharply as the re-coupling of the US to global reality set in. It was not until the Fed announced the LTCM bail out and rate cuts that the stock market began to recover.
Over the next two years, it did more than merely recover. With Fed policy actions having stimulated aggressive herd buying of equities, the NASDAQ crack-up boom took place, followed by the inevitable bust of 2001-03.
…AND A MAJOR STOCK MARKET CORRECTION
DE-CONVERGENCE HAS RUN A LONG WAY; RE-CONVERGENCE COULD OCCUR AT ANY TIME
The parallels with 1997-98 are increasingly clear. Currencies, asset markets and growth have slumped across Asia and Europe, yet US financial markets have been largely unaffected, happily continuing to climb. The dollar has strengthened steadily. Yet in the sharp decline in oil and other commodity prices we see a mechanism in motion that, in some way yet unseen, will eventually choke off the flow of liquidity into US financial markets. While I don’t anticipate that Russia will default this time round—Russia’s external government debt is tiny—there are a number of other countries out there highly dependent on commodity exports for external debt service.
Indonesia and Malaysia are two cases in point, the former being a relatively large emerging market economy. Sharp weakness in these countries’ currencies of late is an indication of growing stress eerily similar to 1997. Either or both of these countries could soon find they are unable to prevent large withdrawals of foreign capital. But devaluing a currency to deal with a balance-of-payments crisis doesn’t work as the problem is external debt denominated in a foreign currency, in this case dollars. The International Monetary Fund might try to come to the rescue, as it did in 1997-98, but the scale of the problem is far larger this time round.
Also worth mentioning here is something rather closer to home. The US shale industry is hugely dependent on leveraged financing from the US banking and shadow banking systems. (The latter uses structured financing vehicles of various kinds. By some estimates as much as a quarter of the entire US high yield debt market is related to the shale industry in some way.) With crude oil prices now plunging below $50/bbl, a huge portion of shale oil production has become unprofitable. Yet with debt to service, producers have no choice but to continue producing as much oil as they can. This will help to keep a lid on prices but will also bleed the most poorly financed producers to the point of insolvency and default, with potentially grave implications for the US financial system. (Some readers may recall the Texas oil, property and savings and loan collapse of the late 1980s, a key contributor to the eventual federal bail out of the entire US savings and loan industry.)
There are thus several ways in which today’s commodity price bust could turn into a more general financial crisis, as in 1997-98. It is impossible to know. But in my opinion, unless commodity prices soon recover, it is only a matter of time before a wave of balance-of-payment crises and/or corporate insolvences begin to dissolve the pillars of sand on which the strong dollar currently stands.
STRATEGIES FOR A DOLLAR REVERSAL
Those investors who agree that dollar strength is likely to reverse, perhaps abruptly, in 2015, should consider now those strategies that will perform well in that sort of environment.
There are various ways to speculate on a weaker dollar, the most straightforward of which is to short the dollar against other currencies in the foreign exchange markets. The difficultly with this, however, is that investors then need to take a view regarding which currencies are most likely to re-strengthen versus the dollar. Given that many countries would oppose currency strength at present, investors should take care. A diversified approach is probably best, and there are various vehicles that exist for this purpose, including the Merk currency funds. (Disclosure: Axel Merk is a personal friend I have known for many years. However I have no financial interest in his funds, nor do I receive commissions or compensation of any sort for recommending them.)
However, given that many countries might resist currency strength, the case can be made that gold has more upside potential in a dollar reversal. Moreover, if the environment turns decidedly risk-averse, as it did in 1998 for example, gold can benefit two-fold. Last year, Axel Merk launched the Merk Gold Trust (NYSE: OUNZ), a vehicle that allows for investors to take physical delivery of their gold, if desired, without this qualifying as a taxable event.
Gold’s poor sister silver is arguably better value at present, although in a risk-off environment it would be normal for gold to outperform silver. A simple diversification compromise would be to allocate 2/3 to gold and 1/3 to silver. This is because silver is normally about twice as volatile as gold. From a risk perspective, this implies an equal risk weighting in each of these two monetary metals. There are ETFs available that can be rebalanced periodically to keep holdings from drifting too far from the target 2/3 and 1/3 allocations.
Finally, a quick word on oil. While I have written above about the potentially negative financial market consequences of the recent, sharp decline in oil prices, there is of course much underlying demand for oil that is not particularly cyclical in nature but will occur even in a weak or zero-growth environment. Here I note that, even in the depths of the 2008 crisis, the oil price (WTI) found support around $40/bbl before recovering. At just under $50/bbl at time of writing, that is still a 20% decline from here, but the eventual upside recovery potential is probably far greater than 20%. For investors willing to take a risk amid what admittedly appears to be a ‘blood on the streets’ environment for oil at present, I’d recommend building a position here, either through an ETF or just by buying shares of upstream oil producers.
In relative terms, oil looks even better value, for example relative to industrial metals such as copper or aluminium. Yes, the latter have also seen prices come off but not to anywhere near the same extent. Platinum group metals may be precious but they are used overwhelmingly in industrial applications, in particular autocatalysts, and in the event that automobile demand should slow, there is much potential for these to decline relative to the price of oil. Palladium is considerably more exposed than platinum to this scenario and is thus the better short.
The really brave might even take a look at the debt of distressed shale producers, although I have no particular expertise in that area. A distressed industry is one that will likely be restructured in some way, such as by private equity firms swooping in, taking viable companies private, and restructuring them for the longer-term, out of the public spotlight.
1. There is in fact a far longer history of such interventions. In the US these include the devaluation of the US dollar by executive fiat in 1934 and abrogation of Bretton-Woods treaty obligations in 1971.
With the beginning of 2015, what might be a “New Year’s resolution” for a friend of freedom? I would suggest that one answer is for each of us to do our best to become “lights of liberty” that will attract others to the cause of freedom and the free society.
For five years, from 2003 to 2008, I had the opportunity and privilege to serve as the president of the Foundation for Economic Education. FEE, as it is also called, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read, with the precise goal of advancing an understanding of and the arguments for individual freedom, free markets, and constitutionally limited government.
One of the reasons that I accepted the position as president was that FEE had been influential in my own intellectual development in appreciating the meaning and importance of liberty from the time that I was a teenager, both through the pages of its monthly magazine, The Freeman and the books that it published and distributed at heavily discounted prices.
I wanted to assist in continuing the work that Leonard Read had begun at FEE, especially among the young whose ideas and actions would greatly influence the chances for liberty in the decades to come.
Self-Improvement as Lights of Liberty
In fact, it is now just over forty years ago, in June 1974 when I was in my mid-20s, that I first attended a weeklong FEE summer seminar at its, then, headquarters in a spacious and charming mansion building in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
There were many impressive speakers at the seminar that week, including the famous free-market journalist, Henry Hazlitt, and the riveting Austrian School economist, Hans Sennholz.
But I must confess that I only recall the content of one of the lectures that week, delivered by Leonard Read, himself. He pointed out that many of us wish we could change the world in ways that we consider to be for the better. But changing the world can only happen through changes in the attitudes, ideas, and actions of the individual members of any society.
He asked, out of all the people in the world, over whom do you have the most influence? The answer, he said, is, obviously, yourself. Therefore, changing the world begins with improving one’s own understanding and ability to explain and persuasively articulate the case for freedom and free markets.
At one point in his talk he asked that the lights be turned off in the classroom. In the darkness he slowly started to turn up the light of an electric candle that he held in his hand, asking us to notice how all eyes were drawn to it, however dim the illumination.
As the candle brightened he pointed out that more and more of the darkness was pushed away into the corners, enabling us to see more clearly both the objects and the people in the room.
If each of us learned more about liberty, we would become ever-brighter lights in the surrounding collectivist darkness of the society in which we lived. Our individually growing enlightenment through self-education and self-improvement would slowly but surely draw others to us who might also learn the importance of freedom.
Through this process more and more human lights of freedom would sparkle in the dark until finally there would be enough of us to guide the way for others so that liberty would once again triumph. And collectivism would be pushed far back into the corners of society.
Anything That’s Peaceful and First Principles
Central to Read’s philosophy of freedom was a commitment to first principles as the Archimedean point from which the logic of liberty flows. As Read explained in his book Anything That’s Peaceful(1964):
“I mean let anyone do anything that he pleases that’s peaceful and creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver the mail, or educate, or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful. Limit society’s agency of organized force – government – to juridical and policing functions . . . Let the government do this, and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!”
What are the “first principles” of liberty, and what do they imply?
Each Individual’s Right to His Own Life
Firstly, and most importantly, liberty means the right of the individual to live his own life for himself. The starting axiom of freedom is that right of the individual to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property.
Either the individual has “ownership” over himself, or it must be presumed that the collective, the tribe, the group has the authority to dispose of his life and the fruits of his mental and physical labors.
If he does not have a right to his own life, then he is at the mercy of the wishes, whims and coercive caprice of others who claim to speak and act in political authority in the name of “society.”
Only the individual knows what will bring happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning and purpose to his own life. If this is taken away from him, then he is a slave to the purposes and brute power of others.
Respect for the Equal Rights of All
Secondly, liberty means for each of us to respect the equal right of every other individual to his life, liberty, and honestly acquired property. We cannot expect others to respect our own right to these things, if we do not, as a matter of principle, forswear any claim to their life and property.
To not recognize and abide by the reciprocity of respect for and defense of such unmolested individual rights is to abrogate any principle of human association other than force and plunder – the enslavement and spoliation by the intellectually manipulative and physically stronger over others in society.
On what basis or by what principle can we appeal not to be murdered, physically violated or robbed by others, if we do not declare and insist upon the right of each individual to his life, liberty and property, ours and everyone else’s, as a starting moral premise in society?
Voluntary Consent and Peaceful Agreement
Thirdly, this means that all human associations and relationships should be based on peaceful and voluntary consent and agreement. No one may be coerced or intimidated through the threat of force to act in any way other than he freely chooses to do.
Each of us only enters into those associations and exchanges from which we expect to be made better off, as we define and desire an improvement in our lives.
This does not mean that we often do not wish that the terms under which another is willing to trade with us would be more favorable to ourselves. But the fact that we may choose to exchange at some agreed terms that is minimally acceptable to ourselves as well as to the other person means that, all things considered, we anticipate that our circumstances will be better than if we passed up this trading opportunity.
The only time that it is clear that a trade or an association with others is not considered by us as a source of personal betterment is when we are forced or coerced into the relationship. Why would compulsion have to be used or threatened against us, if we did not view what we are being compelled to do is an action or a commitment that we evaluate as making us worse rather than better off?
The Mutual Respect of Private Property
Fourthly, liberty means that each individual’s honestly acquired property is respected as rightfully his, and may not be plundered or taxed away by others, even when majorities may think that some minority has not paid some supposed “fair share.”
What makes something the rightful property of an individual? When he has either appropriated unclaimed and previously unowned land and resources through their transformation in some manner through his mental and physical labor, or when he has acquired it through peaceful and non-fraudulent trade with another in exchange for something he has to offer in the form of a desired good or his labor services at voluntarily agreed-upon terms of trade.
The use of force by either private individuals or those in political authority to seize such rightful property or compel its use or sale on terms other than those freely chosen and agreed to by its owner is, therefore, unjust and indefensible in a free society.
A Free Market of Goods and Ideas
Fifthly, liberty means respect for the free, competitive interactions of people in the marketplace of goods and ideas, out of which comes the creative and innovative energy of mind and effort that bring about rising standards of living for all in society.
The free market is the arena of human association in which each individual is at liberty to make his own choices and decisions as both producer and consumer.
Yet, as has been understood since the time of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, each individual, in his own self-interest, necessarily must apply his abilities in ways that take into consideration the circumstances and desires of others in society.
Since, in the society of liberty, no individual may acquire what he desires through murder, theft or fraud, he is left with only one avenue to obtain what others have that he wants. He must offer to those others something that he can produce or provide that those others value more highly than what they are asked to trade away to get it.
Thus, in the free market each receives in voluntary trade what they value more highly in exchange for what they value less highly. And each serves the interests of others as the means to his own end of the personal improvement of his self-defined circumstances.
Thus, the free market as a moral and starting principle eschews all forms of compelled self-sacrifice in the networks of human association.
Liberty and Limited Government
And, sixthly, a society of liberty means a limited government, a government whose purpose is to protect each individual in his freedom and peaceful market and social affairs, and is not to be an agency of political oppression or economic favoritism through special privileges and benefits that are given to some at the expense of others in society.
Compulsory redistribution of wealth and income, and regulatory coercions over the means and methods of production, and the peaceful buying and selling of goods and services are all inconsistent with the ideal of a society of free men and women, each secure in their individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property.
These are not easy rules and ideals to live by, but they are what America was founded upon and made it originally great as a land of liberty – a land of both wide individual freedom and rising prosperity.
Winning Others Over to Liberty, One Person at a Time
They are, also, ideas not always easy to get others around us to understand and appreciate the way we see them, ourselves. This gets us back to Leonard Read’s conception of self-improvement in our own understanding of what he called the “freedom philosophy.”
Our New Year’s resolution should be to do all that we individually can to better understand the principles of liberty, their logic, their moral rightness, and their convincing application to the political and economic issues of our day.
As we each become more enlightened and articulate spokespersons for freedom we widen the circle of people able to persuasively draw others into that illumination of liberty. And step-by-step, one person at a time, the supporters and advocates of collectivism will be reduced and the proponents and enthusiasts for freedom will be increased.
Make it your goal, therefore, to bring at least one person over to the cause of liberty in 2015, and if we all do this we will have, at a minimum, doubled the friends of freedom in this New Year. If we repeat this same process of reasoned persuasion in 2016, that larger number can and will be doubled again. And, then, again in 2017, and 2018, and . . .
Through this means of peaceful persuasion the friends of freedom can become the majority of Americans in our own lifetime. All it requires is enough of us willing to try.
“Sir, John Authers, in Loser’s Game (The Big Read, December 22), could have delved deeply into the flaws in the asset management business as it has evolved in recent decades, rather than accepting the industry’s own terms or focusing on tweaks to “active” management that might improve results..
“Mr Authers could also have challenged the bureaucratic thinking and methods asset management has adopted in the course of chasing its “bogeys”, starting with the Big Ideas.. Then there are the model portfolios, relative-weightings, “style drift”, investment committees, the requirement to be fully invested and so on — all bog down decision-making and most have nothing to do with genuine investing. In adopting these practices the fund management business has created a recipe for mediocrity.
“In investing, it is never a good idea to do what everyone else is doing. Piling into passive index funds during a year of decidedly poor relative results for active managers, and especially after a long period of rising security prices is likely to lead to future disappointment, just as it did in 1999. This leads us to another line of inquiry for Mr Authers: even assuming “beating” an index is worthwhile, why must we do it all of the time? It is a paradox of investment that in order to do well in the long run, you sometimes have to do “poorly” in the short run. You have to accept the fact that often you will not “beat” an index; sometimes you don’t even want to — think of the Nasdaq in 1999, for example..”
– Letter to the FT from Mr. Dennis Butler, December 30, 2014.
A happy new year to all readers.
For historians, there are primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are the original documents that point to the raw history, like the original Magna Carta, for example. Secondary sources are effectively historical derivatives – they incorporate interpretation and analysis. In financial markets, the equivalent of primary sources are prices – the only raw data that speak unequivocally of what occurred by way of financial exchange between buyer and seller. Everything else amounts to interpretation and analysis, and must by definition be regarded as subjective. So-called fundamentals, therefore, are subjective. There is the price – and everything else is essentially chatter.
It says much for the quality and depth of our mainstream media that one of the most insightful and thought-provoking pieces of social and cultural analysis of the last year came in the form of a 5 minute essay within a satirical news review of 2014. The piece in question was by the cult documentary maker Adam Curtis and you can watch it here. The following extracts are taken directly from the film:
“So much of the news this year has been hopeless, depressing, and above all, confusing. To which the only response is to say, “oh dear.”
“What this film is going to suggest is that that defeatist response has become a central part of a new system of political control. And to understand how this is happening, you have to look to Russia, to a man called Vladislav Surkov, who is a hero of our time.
“Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisers, and has helped him maintain his power for 15 years, but he has done it in a very new way.
“He came originally from the avant-garde art world, and those who have studied his career, say that what Surkov has done, is to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics.
“His aim is to undermine people’s perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening.
“Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin.
“But the key thing was, that Surkov then let it be known that this was what he was doing, which meant that no-one was sure what was real or fake. As one journalist put it: “It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused.”
“A ceaseless shape-shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable..
“But maybe, we have something similar emerging here in Britain. Everything we’re told by journalists and politicians is confusing and contradictory. Of course, there is no Mr. Surkov in charge, but it is an odd, non-linear world that plays into the hands of those in power.
“British troops have come home from Afghanistan, but nobody seems to know whether it was a victory or whether it was a defeat.
“Ageing disk jockeys are prosecuted for crimes they committed decades ago, while practically no one in the City of London is prosecuted for the endless financial crimes that have been revealed there..
“..the real epicentre of this non-linear world is the economy, and the closest we have to our own shape-shifting post-modern politician is [U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer] George Osborne.
“He tells us proudly that the economy is growing, but at the same time, wages are going down.
“He says he is reducing the deficit, but then it is revealed that the deficit is going up.
“But the dark heart of this shape-shifting world is Quantitative Easing. The government is insisting on taking billions of Pounds out of the economy through its austerity programme, yet at the very same time it is pumping billions of Pounds into the economy through Quantitative Easing, the equivalent of 24,000 Pounds for every family in Britain.
“But it gets even more confusing, because the Bank of England has admitted that those billions of Pounds are not going where they are supposed to. A vast majority of that money has actually found its way into the hands of the wealthiest five percent in Britain. It has been described as the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich in recent documented history.
“It could be a huge scandal, comparable to the greedy oligarchs in Russia. A ruthless elite, siphoning off billions in public money. But nobody seems to know.
“It sums up the strange mood of our time, where nothing really makes any coherent sense. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories that makes it impossible for any real opposition to emerge, because they can’t counter it with any coherent narrative of their own.
“And it means that we as individuals become ever more powerless, unable to challenge anything, because we live in a state of confusion and uncertainty. To which the response is: Oh dear. But that is what they want you to say.”
The start of the New Year is traditionally a time for issuing financial forecasts. But there seems little point in doing so given the impact of widespread financial repression on the price mechanism itself. Are prices real, or fake ? The cornerstone of the market structure is the price of money itself – the interest rate. But interest rates aren’t being set by a free market. Policy rates are being kept artificially low by central banks, while the term structure of interest rates has been hopelessly distorted by monetary policy conducted by those same central banks. Inasmuch as ‘real’ investors are participating in the bond market at all, those institutional investors have no personal skin in the game – they are economic agents with no real accountability for their actions. Other institutional players can be confidently assumed simply to be chasing price momentum – they likely have no ‘view’ on valuation, per se. The world’s bond markets have become a giant Potemkin village – nobody actually lives there.
So of the four asset classes to which we allocate, three of them offer at least some protection against the material depradations and endless price distortions of the State. ‘Value’ listed equities give us exposure to the source of all fundamental wealth – the actions of the honest entrepreneur. Systematic trend-following funds are the closest thing we can find to truly uncorrelated investments – and we note how 2014 saw a welcome return to form. The monetary metals, gold and silver, give us Stateless money that cannot be printed on demand by the debt-addicted. We are slowly coming to appreciate the counsel of a friend who suggested that the merit of gold lies not in its price so much as in its ownership. What matters is that you own it. (It also matters why.) Which leaves debt. Objectively high quality debt – a small market and getting smaller by the day.
The practice of sensible investment becomes difficult when our secondary information sources (“fundamentals”) are inherently subjective. It becomes almost impossible when our primary information sources (prices) can’t be trusted because they have politicians’ paw-prints all over them. “Nothing really makes any coherent sense.. We live with a constant vaudeville of contradictory stories.. We live in a state of confusion and uncertainty.” If the pursuit of certainty is absurd, the only rational conclusion is to acknowledge the doubt, and invest accordingly.
[Editor’s Note: this piece, by Brendan Brown, first appeared at mises.org last year]
The slide of the yen since late summer has brought it to a level some 40 percent lower against the euro and US dollar than just two years go. Yet still Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his central bank chief Haruhiko Kuroda warn that they have not won the battle against deflation. That caution is absurd — all the more so in view of the fact that there was no deflation in the first place.
Some cynics suggest that Abe’s and Haruhiko’s battle cry against this phoney phantom is simply a ruse to gain Washington’s acquiescence in a big devaluation. But whatever the truth about their real intent, Japan’s monetary chaos is deepening.
Japanese Prices Have Been Stable
The CPI in Japan at the peak of the last cycle in 2007 was virtually at the same level as at the trough of the post-bubble recession in 1992, and up a few percentage points from the 1989 cycle peak. Hence, Japan alone has enjoyed the sort of price stability as might be enjoyed in a gold-standard world. Prices have fallen during recessions or during periods of especially-rapid terms-of-tradeimprovement or productivity growth. They have risen during cyclical booms or at times of big increases in the price of oil.
If price-indices in Japan were adjusted fully to take account of quality improvements they would have been falling slightly throughout, but that would also have been the case under the gold standard and was fully consistent with economic prosperity.
Such swings in prices are wholly benign. For example, lower prices during recession coupled with expectation of higher prices in expansion induce businesses and households to spend more. A valid criticism of the Japanese price experience of the past two decades has been that these swings have lacked vigour due to various rigidities. Particularly valid is the claim that price falls should have been larger during the post-bubble recession of 1990-93 and subsequent potential for recovery would have been correspondingly larger.
Prices in Japan did fall steeply during the Great Recession (2008-10) but the perceived potential for recovery was squeezed by the Obama Monetary Experiment (the Fed’s QE) which meant an immediate slide of the US dollar. It was in response to the related spike of the yen that Prime Minister Abe prepared his counter-stroke. This involved importing the same deflation-phobic inflation-targeting policies that the Obama Federal Reserve was pursuing. Washington could hardly criticize Tokyo for imitating its own monetary experiment.
Deflation and “The Lost Decade”
The architects of the Obama Monetary Experiment have cited as justification Japan’s “lost decade” and the supposed source in deflation. In fact, though, the only period during which the Japanese economy underperformed other advanced economies (as measured by the growth of GDP per capita) was from 1992-97. The underperformance of that period had everything to do with insufficient price and wage flexibility downward, the Clinton currency war, and the vast malinvestment wrought by the prior asset price inflation, coupled with a risk-appetite in Japan shrunken by the recent experience of bust.
Moreover, as time went on, from the early 1990s, huge investment into the Tokyo equity market from abroad compensated for ailing domestic risk appetites. Yes, Japan’s economy could haveperformed better than the average of its OECD peers if progress had been made in de-regulation, and if Japan had had a better-designed framework of monetary stability to insulate itself from the Greenspan-Bernanke asset price inflation virus of the years 2002-07. (The Greenspan-Bernanke inflation caused speculative temperatures in the yen carry trade to reach crazy heights.) But deflation was never an actual or potential restraint on Japanese prosperity during those years.
True, there was a monetary malaise. Japan’s price stability was based on chance, habit, and economic sclerosis rather than the wisdom of its monetary policy. It had been the huge appreciation of the yen during the Clinton currency war that had snuffed out inflation. Then the surge of cheap imports from China had worked to convince the Japanese public that inflation had indeed come to an end. Lack of economic reform meant that the neutral rates of interest remained at a very low level and so the Bank of Japan’s intermittent zero rate policies did not stimulate monetary growth.
The monetary system in Japan had no secure pivot in the form of high and stable demand for non-interest bearing high-powered money. In Japan the reserve component of the monetary base is virtually indistinguishable from a whole range of close substitutes and banks had no reason to hold large amounts of this (given deposit insurance and the virtual assurance of too-big-to-fail help in need). Monetary policy-making in Japan meant highly discretionary manipulation of short-term interest rates in the pursuance of fine-tuning the business cycle rather than following a set of rules for monetary base expansion.
The Yen After Abenomics
When Prime Minister Abe effected his coup against the old guard at the Bank of Japan there was no monetary constitution to flout. Massive purchases of long-dated Japanese government bonds by the Bank of Japan are lowering the proportion of outstanding government debt held by the public in fixed-rate form. But this is all a slow-developing threat given a gross government debt to GDP ratio of around 230 percent and a current fiscal deficit of 6 percent of GDP. Bank of Japan bond-buying has strengthened irrational forces driving 10-year yields down to almost 0.5 percent despite underlying inflation having risen to 1 percent per annum.
It is doubtless the possibility of an eventual monetization of government debt has been one factor in the slump of the yen. More generally, as the neutral level of interest rates in Japan rises in line with demographic pressures (lower private savings, increased social expenditure) one might fear that BoJ manipulation of rates will eventually set off inflation. Part of the yen’s slump, though, is due to a tendency for that currency to fall when asset price inflation is virulent in the global economy. This stems from the huge carry trade in the yen.
The yen could indeed leap when the global asset price-inflation disease — with its origins in Fed QE — moves to its next phase of steep speculative temperature fall. The yen is now in real effective exchange rate terms at the record low point of the Japan banking crisis in 1997 or the global asset inflation peak of 2007. So, the challenge for investors is to decide when the Abe yen has become so cheap in real terms that its hedge properties make it a worthwhile portfolio component.
The history of freedom in antiquity
NEXT TO religion, has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race. It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilisation; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free. In every age its progress has been beset by its natural enemies, by ignorance and superstition, by lust of conquest and by love of ease, by the strong man’s craving for power, and the poor man’s craving for food. During long intervals it has been utterly arrested, when nations were being rescued from barbarism’ and from the grasp of strangers, and when the perpetual struggle for existence, depriving men of all interest and understanding in politics, has made them eager to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage, and ignorant of the treasure they resigned.
At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has been sometimes disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition, and by kindling dispute over the spoils in the hour of success. No obstacle has been so constant, or so difficult to overcome,as uncertainty and confusion touching the nature of true liberty. If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and its advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge, as much as in the improvement of laws. The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them, and the form may remain unaltered .when the substance has passed away.
A few familiar examples from modern politics will explain why it is that the burden of my argument will lie outside the domain of legislation. It is often said that our Constitution attained its formal perfection in 1679, when the Habeas Corpus Act was passed. Yet Charles II succeeded, only two years later, in making himself independent of Parliament. In 1789, while the States-General assembled at Versailles, the Spanish Cortes, older than Magna Carta and more venerable than our House of Commons, were summoned after an interval of generations, but they immediately prayed the King to abstain from consulting them, and to make his reforms of his own wisdom and authority. According to the common opinion, indirect elections are a safeguard of conservatism. But all the Assemblies of the French Revolution issued from indirect elections. A restricted suffrage is another reputed security for monarchy.
But the Parliament of Charles X, which was returned by 90,000 electors, resisted and overthrew the throne; while the Parliament. of Louis Philippe, chosen by a Constitution of 250,000, obsequiously promoted the reactionary policy of his Ministers, and in the fatal division which, by rejecting reform, laid the monarchy in the dust, Guizot’s majority was obtained by the votes of 129 public functionaries. An unpaid legislature is, for obvious reasons, more independent than most of the Continental legislatures which receive pay. But it would be unreasonable in America to send a member as far as from here to Constantinople to live for twelve months at his own expense in the dearest of capital cities. Legally and to outward seeming the American President is the successor of Washington, and still enjoys powers devised and limited by the Convention of Philadelphia. In reality the new President differs from the Magistrate imagined by the Fathers of the Republic as widely as Monarchy from Democracy, for he is expected to make 70,000 changes in the public service; fifty years ago. John Quincy Adams dismissed only two men.
The purchase of judicial appointments is manifestly indefensible; yet in the old French monarchy that monstrous practice created the only corporation able to resist the king. Official corruption, which would ruin a commonwealth, serves in Russia as a salutary relief from the pressure of absolutism. There are conditions in which it is scarcely a hyperbole to say that slavery itself is a stage on the road to freedom. Therefore we are not so much concerned this evening with the dead letter of edicts and of statutes as with the living thoughts of men. A century ago it was perfectly well known that whoever had one audience of a Master in Chancery was made to pay for three, but no man heeded the enormity until it suggested to a young lawyer that it might be well to question and examine with rigorous suspicion every part of a system in which such things were done. The day on which that gleam lighted up the clear, hard mind of Jeremy Bentham is memorable in the political calendar beyond the entire administration of many statesmen. It would be easy to point out a paragraph in St. Augustine, or a sentence of Grotius that outweighs in influence the Acts of fifty Parliaments, and our cause owes more to Cicero and Seneca, to Vinet and Tocqueville, than to the laws of Lycurgus or the Five Codes of France.
By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can’ only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation, – religion, education, and the distribution of wealth. In ancient times the State absorbed ‘authorities not its own, and intruded on the domain of personal freedom. In the Middle Ages it possessed too little authority, and suffered others to intrude. Modern States fall habitually into both excesses.
The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities. Liberty, by this definition, is the essential condition and guardian of religion; and it is in the history of the Chosen People, accordingly, that the first illustrations of my subject are obtained. The government of the Israelites was a federation, held together by no political authority, but by the unity of race and faith, and founded, not on physical force, but on a voluntary covenant. The principle of self-government was carried out not only in each tribe, but in every group of at least 120 families; and there was neither privilege of rank nor inequality before the law.
Monarchy was so alien to the primitive spirit of the community that it was resisted by Samuel in that momentous protestation and warning which all the kingdoms of Asia and many of the kingdoms of Europe have unceasingly confirmed. The throne was erected on a compact; and the king was deprived of the right of legislation among a people that recognized no lawgiver but God, whose highest aim in politics was to restore the original purity of the constitution, and to make its government conform to the ideal type that was hallowed by the sanctions of heaven~ The inspired men who rose in unfailing succession to prophesy against the usurper and the tyrant, constantly proclaimed that the laws, which were divine, were paramount over sinful rulers, and appealed from the established authorities, from the king, the priests, and the princes of the people, to the healing forces that slept in the uncorrupted consciences of the masses. Thus the example of the Hebrew nation laid down the parallel lines on which all freedom has been won – the doctrine of national tradition and the doctrine of the higher law; the principle that a constitution grows from a root, by process of development, and not of essential change; and the principle that all political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man. The operation of these principles,·in unison, or in antagonism, occupies the whole of the space we are going over together.
Pyongyang, evidence shows, effected a spectacular data breach of Sony Pictures to express its wrath over Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan’s The Interview, a movie about an attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Neither the United States Secret Service nor the North Korean authorities take portrayals of the assassination of our respective incumbent supreme leaders lightly. But there is something more going on here.
North Korea’s actions were characterized by RedState as “unequivocally an act of 21st-century state-sponsored cyberwarfare and, indeed, state-sponsored terrorism.” This is overstated. North Korea really upped the ante by vigilante (rather than vandalism) action.
The lashing out against The Interview presents as an “occult war” by the pre-modern culture (and government) of Pyongyang. The Interview Incident has strong echoes of an almost forgotten event, from the 1960s, when Indonesia’s President Sukarno also acted out. As recounted by the late (and very wise) British career civil servant Austin Coates, in his book China, India and the Ruins of Washington:
Konfrontasi consisted principally of creating continuous threatening uproar by radio, by hostile speeches and clamor in the Indonesian newspapers. Minor disturbances were created along the frontiers of Sarawak and Sabah … and acts of sabotage occurred…. … … The entire thing was in fact a modern version of the medieval practice whereby kings endeavored to overcome their rivals by occult means; and in that Sukarno succeeded by these occult means (radio, press, and speeches in the United Nations) in restoring Irian Barat, or West New Guinea, to Indonesia, the method revealed itself as being not entirely ineffective in the twentieth century.
In fact, Sukarno is the most interesting survival phenomenon in the contemporary Orient. His speeches at the time of Konfrontasi were so imbued with the simulated concept of centrality as to sound like an echo from another age.
It would be flying in the face of historical evidence to imagine that this will be the last attempt to imitate the center. … But all such endeavors will be pointless.
Without, in any way, exonerating international vigilantism — by the modern “occult” means of black hat hacking and “threatening uproar” — this implies, among other things, that Sony Pictures acted responsibly. It had not intended, and was not prepared to fight, an “occult war” with Pyongyang.
“Occult” — primarily, here, meaning symbolic, or psychological — warfare hardly is unknown in the West, ballots having replaced bullets. For instance, an “occult war” has been and continues to be waged by a “threatening uproar” in the media over the gold standard. Entirely coincidentally, around the time the donnybrook over The Interview began North Korea itself briefly enlisted, sotto voce, in the “occult war” against the gold standard.
The North Korea Times (the “Oldest online newspaper in North Korea”) engaged under the dramatic headline Spectre of gold standard banished on December 2, 2014. The Times republished this letter from Thailand’s The Nation:
Thanong Khanthong delivers an excellent insight on gold but offers the scary conclusion that “Europe is tilting towards a gold standard of some sort [and] the days of the fiat currency regime could be numbered”.
Fortunately, on Sunday, 77 per cent of Swiss voters overwhelmingly rejected the call for their currency to be anchored by gold reserves. Switzerland’s finance minister hailed the vote as a show of confidence in the central bank and a realisation that “gold is no longer as important as it once was as a tool to back up paper money”. In other words, gold is important only if people do not trust their central bank. In the modern world, trust is the basis of the fiat currency regime that superseded the long-gone gold standard. The return of that standard will come only when the end of the world is nigh.
Thanong Khanthong, managing editor of the Nation Multimedia Group in Thailand, had written a column entitled Gold rush in Europe as concern over money printing rises, subheadlined “Many European countries are now moving to repatriate their gold holdings from storage abroad. They are also looking to increase the proportion of gold in their international reserves to assure currency and financial stability.” The North Korean Times‘s echo of a riposte against a growing trend away from central, to decentralized, monetary policy assuredly was meant to help exorcise this phenomenon.
Kim Jong-un’s regime quietly adds its voice to that of other potent “occult” adversaries on the left of the gold standard. These adversaries include Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Nouriel Roubini, Charles Postel, Thomas Frank, Think Progress’s Marie Diamond, the Roosevelt Institute’s Mike Konczal, Brookings Institutions’ Barry Bosworth, The New York Times’s economics blogger Bruce Bartlett, the Washington Post’s Matt O’Brien, Slate’s Christopher Beam, andUS News & World Report’s Pat Garofalo, and … 40 out of 40 elite academic economists polled some time ago by the Booth School.
It is not unfair to call the left’s opposition to gold “occult.” Our elite intelligentsia, relying on dogma, unleashes hostile words in the media — rather than engaging in reasoned argument — to assassinate the reputation of the gold standard. Our own culture is not always so modern as usually supposed.
In a recent interview at the Lehrman Institute’s gold standard website, which I edit, the estimable economic historian Prof. Brian Domitrovic made these observations:
Academic economic history has hitched its wagon to a particular star, the trashing of the gold standard. The funny thing is that this stuff really didn’t intensify, in academic economic history, until the 1980s, when the conditions were actually beautiful for a return to the gold standard. Students of economic history were not so foolish as to endorse fiat currency in the 1940s, as Bretton Woods was gathering, even though Keynes was urging just that. Paul Samuleson and a few others were trashing gold in the 1950s and 60s, but that was not the norm. …
The publication of Barry Eichengreen’s Golden Fetters, his essays from the 1980s, was a decisive event in cementing the anti-gold standard position in the academy. And Ben Bernanke was such a lionizer of Eichengreen’s that it would prove very fateful if he were accorded high governmental office, which happened twice (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors and the Fed). So the anti-gold view became part of the dominant political culture.
The central command and control management of the dollar by the Fed, in place since President Nixon, has done and is doing vastly more damage to the American (and world) economy than the hacking and harassment of Hollywood by another command-and-control power. This does not exonerate Pyongyang, nor does it imply that Paul Krugman is receiving secret overnight telegrams from Kim Jong-un. It simply observes that our own intelligentsia consistently ignores the empirical data and behaves in pre-modern ways.
The left, whether based in Pyongyang or City College, too often relies very much on “occult means” — such as vituperation — to make its points. “But all such endeavors will be pointless.”
Meanwhile, back in the realm of the “occult,” skirmishing continues. The Hobbit’s dragon Smaug — from Peter Jackson’s movie — recently gave Steven Colbert his endorsement of the gold standard (and Rand Paul):
Stephen Colbert: Now Smaug, I think that we both have a lot in common. We both live in gated communities, and we’re both fiscal conservatives who sleep on giant piles of money.
Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch): Quite right! Time to return to the gold standard. Rand Paul 2016 Yea! Get some Rand!
While this was meant as public ridicule — am “occult” technique — by Colbert it bears an interesting subtext. As Kenneth Schortgen Jr wrote of this exchange in examiner.com:
Although scripted and made for television, the interview between a fictional dragon from ancient times and a comedic pundit in the 21st century was fascinating in many aspects, and in many ways showed that the real time events we experience in our modern world are no different than similar events that were played out by different characters and plot lines from hundreds or thousands of years ago. …
They say that history doesn’t just repeat itself, but it also rhymes, and watching this fictional made for television interview shows that indeed, there is nothing new under the sun. And while technologies may be different, and the stock of human existence may be better or worse today than in the past, what occurred during the lifetime of a storybook dragon and civilization proves the old axiom that truth is quite often stranger than fiction, or perhaps, it simply mirrors it in imagination and reality.
Back in the real world, The Nation‘s Mr. Khanthong has written about another “dragon,” China, quoting the president of the China Gold Association in a piece headlined The gold standard bandwagon is rolling — Thailand must climb aboard:
“The word is slowly, if almost unnoticeably, moving back to embrace the gold standard. Russia, China and India are leading the drive by accumulating gold reserves” and Song Xin, president of the China gold Association … wrote in Sina Finance in July this year: ‘Gold is money par excellence in all circumstances and will help support the renminbi [yuan] to become an international currency, as gold forms the very material basis for modern fiat currencies.’”
Dogma really is medieval. Reality — the very fine track record of the gold standard in establishing equitable prosperity — surely will, in time, prevail. “The world is slowly, if almost unnoticeably, moving back to embrace the gold standard.”
“Occult” means will not for long prevail.
Originating at Forbes.com http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/12/22/on-kim-jong-un-paul-krugman-and-smaug/
2015 is already looking like a good year for those who believe that liberty is the fountainhead of human progress…
[Editor’s note: this article first appeared at mises.org]
On my first day back in the classroom this fall, I was reminded that entrepreneurial alertness applies to ideas and insights as well as profits.
Since the opening chapter of the course’s economics principles text calls Adam Smith the father of economic science, I told my class that he actually had multiple precursors in the study of economics. I mentioned the Spanish scholastics as an example. And having his precursors in mind primed me to discover another one I had been completely unaware of.
After my class, I stopped by to visit a colleague I hadn’t seen all summer. Outside his office were copies of a pre-Euro 1,000 Finnish mark note and a pre-Euro 100 Austrian schilling note that I hadn’t noticed before. When I asked him about them, he said they were examples of countries that put important economist’s likenesses on their currency. I looked at the bills more closely. I recognized Eugen Böhm-Bawerk on the 100 Austrian schilling note. But on the 1,000 Finnish mark note was Anders Chydenius. I said, “Who is that? I never heard of him.”
My colleague told me just enough about Chydenius (1729–1803) to make me curious, particularly in mentioning that he wrote some very Smithian things before Smith. So I took a moment to check him out. What did I find? One article described him as “Scandinavia’s Adam Smith.” A review of his 1765The National Gain (originally written in Swedish) stated that “Chydenius published this system of economic thought about ten years previous to the publication of Adam Smith’s epoch-making work. It is peculiar to note how well the ideas of this simple Finnish country parson coincide with those of the great Scottish economist.” Another article I found said “One of the most remarkable aspects of Chydenius’ analysis is how relevant many of his conclusions are to today’s political and economic debates.” My curiosity aroused, I had to look further.
Chydenius was a country churchman in an outlying area of Finland (then part of Sweden). He did not read English or French (and the vast majority of his work was not translated into English until recently), and so he was unaware of the enlightenment discussions taking place in those tongues. He did not found a school, nor did he attract a group of followers. He was self-taught in economic matters and had no systematic methodological approach beyond common sense. He did not seek involvement in politics or look for power, but as Carl Uhr wrote, “when, on three separate occasions, he was a member of the Swedish-Finnish Parliament, it was the demands of his conscience which drove him to publish his opposition to a number of legislative proposals which seemed to him harmful and/or inequitable.” Briefly stated, it was his response to the inequities and waste of mercantilism that motivated his interest in economics.
In Bruno Suviranta’s review of Chydenius’s best-known work, The National Gain, he described what tied together Chydenius’s writings on political economy as “all founded on the same constant idea of freedom.” Charles Evans wrote that “he expressed a classical liberalism as radical as any penned by familiar [contemporary] liberals.” Chydenius “pointed out repeatedly that individuals engaged in voluntary exchange would be rewarded for doing only those things that their neighbors wanted them to do. If each individual is doing only what his or her neighbors want, then the commonweal is served.” In other words, “peasants left to their own devices could run the economic activity of the nation better than the nation’s best and brightest in positions of authority.”
So what did Chydenius write that Eli Heckscher could describe as reflecting a “simple exposition of the fundamental tenets of economic liberalism,” which “might readily have achieved international fame if at that time it had been published in one of the world languages”?
For example, we see in The National Gain (1765) some of Chydenius’s insight in his critique of government efforts to “improve” the national economy by favoring some industries over others. Of course, it is impossible for the government planners to know which industries provide the greatest good for society:
[I]t is quite unnecessary for the Government to draw workmen from one trade to another by means of laws. Nevertheless, how many Statesmen are there that have busied themselves with this … either by force or by granting them privileges. … No statesman is yet found capable of stating positively which trade will give us the greatest National Gain. … [Economic freedom] relieves the Government from thousands of uneasy worries, Statutes and supervisions, when private and National gain merge into one interest, and the harmful selfishness, which always tries to cloak itself beneath the Statutes, can then most surely be controlled by mutual competition.
In examining the issue of emigration from Sweden, in What Are The Reasons for Emigration from Sweden? (1765) Chydenius observed that economic freedom is at the heart of the matter:
[Workers] yearn for freedom. … They would rather settle among people whose speech they do not understand but among whom they may move and act freely … and in their decision one reads this motto: “a homeland without freedom and the chance for improvement is a great word with little meaning.”
In Rural Trade (1777), Chydenius examines the problems of government-favors bestowed on certain industries, and the resulting distortions:
Why, then, do rulers take unto themselves a power which is not theirs?… petty princes busy themselves with dabbling in matters they do not understand in order to satisfy their own or someone else’s prejudices, or in blindly following some minister’s advice.
They gather together a great many of their subjects in separate flocks and bestow favors on them at the cost of the others, and these favors they elevate into fixed privileges.
And on the matter of the relationship between labor and private property, Chydenius notes inThoughts about the Natural Rights of Masters and Servants (1778) that “[T]he property of the poor is hardly anything else than … freedom to labor and earn their daily bread. If this right be denied a person or be curtailed … by force … then it is clear that his freedom voluntarily to seek work and thus earn his living has been impaired, and then his constitutional guarantee of freedom loses its meaning and value …”
When it comes to the price of labor, Chydenius understands that wages should be left up to agreement between employer and employee “since the various regulations … do not adequately preserve that civil liberty that belongs to all … and since they do not serve the proper aim which is the strengthening and improvement of the nation … it should be left to each citizen’s discretion and liberty … to come to an agreement with one another as best they may … and at whatever price they may mutually agree on.”
If I hadn’t been thinking about Adam Smith and his precursors, I would probably never have followed up on Anders Chydenius from seeing his name on an old Finnish banknote. But I profited from the effort. And I think many others could, as well.
I especially resonated with Carl Uhr’s description of Chydenius as “imbued … by the vision that man, in seeking his own gain by specialization of labor and by exchange under an impersonal discipline of competition, would realize … the welfare and progress of society as a whole.” As a result, he was a “predecessor [of Adam Smith] who arrived independently at a conception of the essential nature and the virtues of an economic order based on freely functioning markets.” I only wish that, a quarter millennia later, more people shared Chydenius’s insight that, in Eli Heckscher’s words, “the only path to social harmony … was by free competition … all governmental intervention in the production and distribution of goods and services redounded sooner or later to the disadvantage of the great majority of the people.”
As a new year begins, it is easy to consider that the prospects for freedom in America and in many other parts of the world to seem dim. After all, government continues to grow bigger and more intrusive, along with tax burdens that siphon off vast amounts of private wealth.
Extrapolating these trends out for the foreseeable future, it would seem that the chances for winning liberty are highly unlikely. There is only one problem with this pessimistic forecast: the future is unpredictable and apparent trends do change.
Many years ago the famous philosopher of science Karl Popper pointed out, “If there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, then we cannot anticipate today what we shall only know tomorrow.” What does this mean?
When I was in high school in the 1960s, I came across an issue ofPopular Science magazine published in the early 1950s that was devoted to predicting what life would be like for the average American family in the 1970s. It had a picture of a wife and child standing on an apartment building roof waving good-bye to dad as he went off to work—in his one-seat mini-helicopter!
As best as I can recall, the authors talked about such things as color televisions, various new household appliances, robots that would do much of our household work, and the use of jet planes for commercial travel. What was not mentioned, however, was the personal computer or the revolution in communication, knowledge, and work that it has brought about. When that issue of Popular Science was published, one essential element of the computer revolution had not yet been invented: the microchip.
We Cannot Predict Tomorrow’s Knowledge Today
Those authors could not imagine a worldwide technological revolution before the component that made it all possible was created by man. Our inescapably imperfect knowledge means we can never predict our own future. If we could predict tomorrow’s knowledge and its potentials, then we would already know everything today—and we would know we knew it!
This applies to social, political, and economic trends as well. Most people in 1900 expected the twentieth century to be an epoch of growing international peace and harmony. In 1911, the British free trader and peace advocate, Norman Angell (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933), argued in The Great Illusion that war had become so costly in terms of financial expense and wasteful destruction that it would be irrational for the “Great Powers” of Europe or America to be drawn down that path any longer.
But, instead, in 1914, there began the First World War, that went on for four years, took the lives of at least 20 million soldiers, and cost (in 2014 dollars) over $3 trillion. And the relatively classical liberal and free market world that prevailed before the “Great War,” was shattered.
The twentieth century, as a whole, was the bloodiest and most destructive in modern history due to the rise of political and economic collectivism, in the forms of socialism, communism, fascism, Nazism and the interventionist-welfare state. The conflicts that collectivism brought in its wake have cost possibly 250 million lives over the last one hundred years. No one anticipated this turn of events in 1900.
The Unpredictability of Future Political-Economic Trends
When I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s the book assigned in my first economics class was the seventh edition of Paul Samuelson’s Economics (1967), the leading Keynesian-oriented textbook at the time.
There was a graph that tracked U.S. and Soviet Gross National Product (GNP) from 1945 to 1965. Samuelson then projected American and Soviet GNP through the rest of the century. He anticipated that possibly by the early 1980s, but certainly by 2000, Soviet GNP would be equal to or even greater than that of the United States. Notice his implicit prediction that there would be a Soviet Union in 2000, which in fact disappeared from the map of the world in December 1991.
Which of us really expected to see the end of the U.S.S.R. in our lifetimes, without either a nuclear cataclysm or a devastating and bloody civil war? In the mid-1980s the often perceptive French social critic Jean-François Revel published How Democracies Perish, in which he expressed his fear that the loss of moral and ideological commitment to freedom by intellectuals and many other people in the West meant that the global triumph of communism under Soviet leadership was a strong possibility. Instead it was Soviet communism that disappeared from the map of the globe.
Who in January 1990 anticipated that Saddam Hussein would invade Kuwait in August of that year, setting in motion a chain of events that resulted in two American invasions and a ten-year occupation of Iraq?
Who in 2000 would have anticipated that Bill Clinton’s eight years in office would seem, in retrospect, an era of restrained government compared to the explosion in government spending and intervention during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations?
Historical Chronology Does Not Mean Future Causality
And who today knows what the whole twenty-first century holds for us? Let me suggest that the answer is: nobody.
As the late Robert Nisbet, one of America’s great social thinkers, once pointed out, “How easy it is, as we look back over the past – that is, of course, the ‘past’ that has been selected for us by historians and social scientists – to see in it trends and tendencies that appear to possess the iron necessity and clear directionality of growth in a plant or organism . . . But the relation between the past, present, and future is chronological, not causal.”
The decades of relative global peace and market-based prosperity that preceded 1914 did not mean that war and destruction were impossible for the rest of the twentieth century. The ascendancy of Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and German Nazism in 1920s, 1930s and 1940s did not mean that freedom and democracy had reached their end, though the books and articles of some of the most insightful advocates of individual liberty and limited government in the years between the two World Wars carried the despair and fear that totalitarianism was the inescapable wave of the future.
The persistent and current growth in government intervention and the welfare state does not mean that a return to the classical-liberal ideas of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government is a pipe dream of the past.
Human Events are the Result of Human Action
Human events are the result of human action. Our actions are an outgrowth of our ideas and our will and willingness to try to implement them. The stranglehold of Big Government will persist only for as long as we allow it, for as long as we accept the arguments of our ideological opponents that the interventionist welfare state is “inevitable” and “irreversible.”
That is, the present trend will continue only for as long as we accept that the chronologically observed increase in government power over the last decades is somehow causally determined and inescapable in the stream of human affairs.
This could have been equally said about human slavery. Few institutions were so imbedded in the human circumstance throughout recorded history as the ownership of some men by others. Surely it was a pipe dream to suggest that all men should be free and equal before the law.
Yet in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a new political ideal was born – that declared that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable individual rights to life, liberty and honestly acquired property, which no other mortals could take away. So slavery, which Aristotle considered to be the natural condition of some men, was brought to an end before the close of the nineteenth century through the power of ideas and human purpose.
In the 1700s, mercantilism – the eighteenth-century version of central planning – was considered both necessary and desirable for national prosperity. Even Adam Smith, in the Wealth of Nations(1776), believed that its hold over men’s minds and actions was too powerful to ever permit the triumph of free trade. Yet in one lifetime following Adam Smith’s death in 1790, freedom of trade and enterprise was established in Great Britain and the United States, and then slowly but surely through much of the rest of the world.
This was all made possible because of the rise and partial triumph of a political philosophy of individual rights that argued for the banishment of violence and oppression in the relationships among men.
Liberty’s Winning Ideas are Out There
We cannot imagine, today, how freedom will successfully prevail over our current paternalistic governments, any more than many people could imagine in 1940 a world without German Nazism and Soviet communism, or FDR’s New Deal. But that does not mean it’s impossible.
Precisely because the future is unknown, we may be confident that trends can and will change, just as they have in the past. We cannot fully know today what arguments friends of freedom will imagine and successfully articulate tomorrow to end government control of our lives. But those arguments are out there, waiting to be better formulated and presented, just as earlier friends of freedom succeeded in making the cases against slavery and mercantilism.
In 1951, Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises pointed out, “Now trends of [social] evolution can change, and hitherto they almost always have changed. But they changed only because they met firm opposition. The prevailing trend toward what Hilaire Belloc called the servile state will certainly not be reversed if nobody has the courage to attack its underlying dogmas.”
There is one thing, therefore, that we can predict: patience, persistence, and belief in the power of ideas and a well articulated defense of individual rights and free markets will provide the best chance we have to achieve the free society many of us so much desire.
[This first appeared at http://www.epictimes.com/richardebeling/2014/12/forecasting-the-future-and-winning-liberty/3/]