Richard Cobden

The Politics of “Free” Trade Agreements

[Editor's note: this article, by Carmen Elena Dorobat, first appeared at]

Amidst news of the prolonged worldwide recession, new air strikes, secession attempts, and climate change, international trade — which in 2008 went through its largest crisis in history — has been mostly out of the public eye. Yet we’ve been told not to fear: the World Trade Organization, the foremost global body for promoting multilateral trade, remains watchful, and is optimistic that efforts for liberalization will bear fruit in the near future.

Sadly, the WTO’s hopes aren’t justified: the Doha Round of trade negotiations began in 2001, and even after thirteen years, success is nowhere in sight.

Seeking to address the liberalization concerns of WTO’s less-developed members, the Doha Development Round was supposed to culminate in 2005 with a new trade agreement. The envisioned deal concerned the reduction of trade barriers in commodities and services, as well as a new international framework for intellectual property rights. But soon after negotiations began, governments from developing countries — India, Brazil, China, and South Africa — and NGOs (non-governmental organization) began to worry that international negotiations were an obstacle to the governmental protection of developing sectors and regulation of financial services. After the failure of the Cancún proceedings in 2004, trade scholars worried that Doha might not be completed by its original deadline, but kept the hope that negotiations would continue. However, trade talks came to a deadlock in 2006, 2009, and 2011, mainly due to differences in agricultural policies. The US and the EU even backed out of previous agreements to reduce export support and agricultural subsidies, arguing that they did not want to weaken their bargaining positions too early in the Round.

Attempts to reconcile disagreements among countries since then have been largely in vain. But in December 2013, new tailwinds seemed to push the Doha Round to more favorable shores. The Bali Ministerial Conference, which concluded with the signing of a package deal on trade customs collection and a post-Bali development agenda, was touted to have “achieved what many believed was impossible”: bringing together the 160 WTO members for the first time in twelve years. But even though the Bali package does not have much to do with free trade — it facilitates the collection, but not the reduction, of custom duties — the agreement still wasn’t signed by all members in July 2014. This time, India vetoed the ratification to gain more bargaining power for Prime Minister Modi’s program of domestic food subsidies. Reuters reported that “trade diplomats in Geneva have said they are ‘flabbergasted,’ ‘astonished,’ and ‘dismayed,’ and described India’s position as ‘hostage-taking’ and ‘suicidal’.”

Perhaps commentators would have been less surprised if they had identified the negotiation deadlock as only the symptom of a more pervasive underlying cause: the national — read: political — interest of all countries at the negotiations table. The bread and butter of WTO member states is the extent to which they can encroach upon private enterprise, and control both product and financial markets. Under these circumstances, committing to open one’s borders to international trade is simply idle talk. Free exchange and competition would undermine the leverage of domestic interest groups, and cut through the structure of government intervention.

As Ludwig von Mises wrote to Friedrich Hoenig, one of his correspondents, in 1951:

U.S. representatives occasionally indulge in talk of free trade. This is pure illusion. American agricultural policies — parity prices, subsidies, limitation of crop surfaces … would collapse overnight if foreign imports were freely allowed into the country. Can you imagine a present-day England or present-day France with a regime of free trade? The more a country proceeds toward comprehensive control of all business activities, the more it must close itself to foreign countries.

Anyone reading modern day trade agreements would not be surprised to discover that they focus less and less on reducing import duties, and more on developing national industries, promoting exports, and ensuring domestic policy space. Their true purpose, a position of middle-of-the-road protectionism, is concealed under vague terms such as ‘freer, fair trade’, ‘gradual liberalization,’ ‘reciprocal concessions,’ or ‘development packages.’ However, the benefits of international trade do not lie in moderation and degree of reciprocity. True free trade is a policy of no trade barriers, to be pursued unilaterally by each and every country. If markets were released from the heavy hand of governments, international free trade would follow at one stroke.

The inherent incompatibility between free trade and increasing domestic government control will thus continue to hinder the dreams of WTO supporters, and the more distant ideal of free trade. Sadly, the golden days of Richard Cobden — who together with Michel Chevalier managed to sway the British Parliament and the French Emperor away from spending money on armaments and toward a free trade agreement — are long lost. All that is needed for flourishing international trade is a sound monetary system and the freedom of private enterprise. However, in a world where states have open-ended budgets for military campaigns and total control over the money supply, the bureaucratic structure in Geneva will only serve political interests.


Ten problems, or just one?

“Sir, The next financial apocalypse is imminent. I know this to be true because the House & Home section in FT Weekend is now assuming the epic proportions last seen before the great crash. Twenty-four pages chock full of adverts for mansions and wicker tea-trays for $1,000. You’re all mad.


Sell everything and run for your lives.”


  • Letter to the FT from Matt Long, Seilh, France, 3rd October 2014.


“Investors unfortunately face enormous pressure—both real pressure from their anxious clients and their consultants and imagined pressure emanating from their own adrenaline, ego and fear—to deliver strong near-term results. Even though this pressure greatly distracts investors from a long-term orientation and may, in fact, be anathema to good long-term performance, there is no easy way to reduce it. Human nature involves the extremes of investor emotion—both greed and fear—in the moment; it is hard for most people to overcome and act in opposition to their emotions. Also, most investors tend to project near-term trends—both favourable and adverse—indefinitely into the future. Ironically, it is this very short-term pressure to produce—this gun to the head of everyone—that encourages excessive risk taking which manifests itself in several ways: a fully invested posture at all times; for many, the use of significant and even extreme leverage; and a market-centric orientation that makes it difficult to stand apart from the crowd and take a long-term perspective.”


  • Seth Klarman, Presentation to MIT, October 2007.



“At first, the pendulum was swinging towards infinite interest, threatening the dollar with hyperinflation. Right now the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme, to zero interest, spelling hyper-deflation. This is just as damaging to producers as the swing towards infinite interest was in the early 1980’s. It is impossible to predict whether one or the other extreme in the swinging of the wrecking ball will bring about the world economy’s collapse. Hyperinflation and hyper-deflation are just two different forms of the same phenomenon: credit collapse. Arguing which of the two forms will dominate is futile: it blurs the focus of inquiry and frustrates efforts to avoid disaster.”


  • Professor Antal Fekete, ‘Monetary Economics 101: The real bills doctrine of Adam Smith. Lecture 10: The Revolt of Quality’.


“Low interest rate policy has the following grave consequences:


  • Normally conservative investors are increasingly under duress and due to the outlook for interest rates remaining low for a long time, are taking on excessive risk. This leads to capital misallocation and the formation of bubbles.
  • The sweet poison of low interest rates and easy money therefore leads to massive asset price inflation (stocks, art, real estate).
  • Through carry trades, interest rates that are structurally too low in the industrialized nations lead to asset bubbles and contagion effects in emerging markets.
  • A structural weakening of financial markets, as reckless behaviour of market participants is fostered (moral hazard).
  • A change in human behaviour patterns, due to continually declining purchasing power. While thrift is slowly but surely transmogrified into a relic of the past, taking on debt becomes rational.
  • The acquisition of personal wealth becomes gradually more difficult.
  • The importance of money as a medium of exchange and a unit of account increases in importance relative to its role as a store of value.
  • Incentives for fiscal probity decline. Central banks have bought time for governments. Large deficits appear less problematic, there is no incentive to implement reform, resp. consolidate public finances in a sustainable manner.
  • The emergence of zombie-banks and zombie-companies. Very low interest rates prevent the healthy process of creative destruction. Zero interest rate policy makes it possible for companies with low profitability to survive, similar to Japan in the 1990s. Banks are enabled to nigh endlessly roll over potentially delinquent loans and consequently lower their write-offs.
  • Unjust redistribution (Cantillon effect): the effect describes the fact that newly created money is neither uniformly nor simultaneously distributed in the population. Monetary expansion is therefore never neutral. There is a permanent transfer of wealth from later to earlier receivers of new money.”
  • Ronald-Peter Stöferle, from ‘In Gold We Trust 2014 – Extended Version’, Incrementum AG.



The commentary will have its next outing on Monday 27th October.



“When sorrows come,” wrote Shakespeare, “they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Jeremy Warner for the Daily Telegraph identifies ten of them. His ‘ten biggest threats to the global economy’ comprise:

  • Geopolitical risk;
  • The threat of oil and gas price spikes;
  • A hard landing in China;
  • Normalisation of monetary policy in the Anglo-Saxon economies;
  • Euro zone deflation;
  • ‘Secular stagnation’;
  • The size of the debt overhang;
  • Complacent markets;
  • House price bubbles;
  • Ageing populations.

Other than making the fair observation that stock markets (for example) are not entirely correlated to economic performance – an observation for which euro zone equity investors must surely be hugely grateful – we offer the following response.

  • Geopolitical risk, like the poor, will always be with us.
  • Yes, the prices for oil and natural gas could spike, but as things stand WTI crude futures have fallen by over 15% from their June highs, in spite of the clear geopolitical problems. And the US fracking revolution, in combination with fast-improving fundamentals for solar power, may turn out to be a secular (and disinflationary) game-changer for energy prices.
  • China, however, is tougher to dismiss. If we had any meaningful exposure to Chinese equity or debt we would be more concerned. But we don’t, so we aren’t.
  • Five of Jeremy Warner’s ‘threats’ are inextricably linked. The pending normalisation of monetary policy in the UK and US clearly threatens the integrity of the credit markets. It’s worth asking whether either central bank could possibly afford to let interest rates rise. This begets a follow-on question: could the markets afford to let the central banks off the hook ? Could we, in other words, finally see the return of the long absent and much desired bond market vigilantes ? That monetary policy rates are so low is a function of the growing prospect of euro zone deflation (less of a threat to solvent consumers, but deadly for heavily indebted governments). Absent a capitulation by the Bundesbank to Draghi’s hopes or intentions for full-blown QE, it’s difficult to see how the policy log-jam gets resolved. But since all German government paper out to three years now offers a negative yield, it’s difficult to see why any euro zone debt is worth buying today for risk-conscious investors. Cash is probably preferable and gives optionality into the bargain. ‘Secular stagnation’ is now a fair definition of the euro zone’s economic prospects. But all things lead back to Warner’s point 7: the size of the debt overhang. Since this was never addressed in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, it’s hardly a surprise to see its poison continue to drip onto all things financial. And since the policy response has been to slash rates and keep them at multi-century lows, it’s hardly a surprise to see property prices in the ascendant.
  • Complacent markets ? Check. But stocks have lost a lot of their nerve over the last week. Not before time.
  • Ageing populations ? Yes, but this problem has been widely discussed in the investment community over the past two decades – it simply isn’t new news.

We saw one particularly eye-catching chart last week, via Grant Williams, comparing the leverage ratios of major US financial institutions over recent years (shown below).

Leverage Ratios


Source: Grant Williams, ‘Things that make you go Hmmm…’


The Fed’s leverage ratio (total assets to capital) now stands at just under 80x. That compares with Lehman Brothers’ leverage ratio, just before it went bankrupt, of just under 30x. Sometimes a picture really does paint a thousand words. And this, again, brings us back to the defining problem of our time, as we see it: too much debt in the system, and simply not enough ideas about how to bring it down – other than through inflationism, and even that doesn’t seem to be working quite yet.


In a recent interview with Jim Grant, Sprott Global questioned the famed interest rate observer about the likely outlook for bonds:


What would a bear market in bonds look like? Would it be accompanied by a bear market in the stocks?

“Well, we have a pretty good historical record of what a bear market in bonds would look like. We had one in modern history, from 1946 to 1981. We had 25 years’ worth of persistently – if not steadily – rising interest rates, and falling bond prices. It began with only around a quarter of a percent on long-dates US Treasuries, and ended with about 15% on long-dated US Treasuries. That’s one historical beacon. I think that the difference today might be that the movement up in yield, and down in price, might be more violent than it was during the first ten years of the bear market beginning in about 1946. Then, it took about ten years for yields to advance even 100 basis points, if I remember correctly. One difference today is the nature of the bond market. It is increasingly illiquid and it is a market in which investors – many investors – have the right to enter a sales ticket, and to expect their money within a day. So I’m not sure what a bear market would look like, but I think that it would be characterized at first by a lot of people rushing through a very narrow gate. I think problems with illiquidity would surface in the corporate debt markets. One of the unintended consequences of the financial reforms that followed the sorrows of 2007 to 2009 is that dealers who used to hold a lot of corporate debt in inventories no longer do so. If interest rates began to rise and people wanted out, I think that the corporate debt market would encounter a lot of ‘air pockets’ and a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside.”

We like that phrase “a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside”. Grant was also asked if it was possible for the Fed to lose control of the bond market:


“Absolutely, it could. The Fed does not control events for the most part. Events certainly will end up controlling the Fed. To answer your question – yeah. I think the Fed can and will lose control of the bond market.”


As we have written on innumerable prior occasions, we wholeheartedly agree. Geopolitics, energy prices, demographics – all interesting ‘what if’ parlour games. But what will drive pretty much all asset markets over the near, medium and longer term is almost entirely down to how credit markets behave. The fundamentals, clearly, are utterly shocking. The implications for investors are, in our view, clear. And as a wise investor once observed, if you’re going to panic, panic early.



A market reset due

Recent evidence points increasingly towards global economic contraction.

Parts of the Eurozone are in great difficulty, and only last weekend S&P the rating agency warned that Greece will default on its debts “at some point in the next fifteen months”. Japan is collapsing under the wealth-destruction of Abenomics. China is juggling with a debt bubble that threatens to implode. The US tells us through government statistics that their outlook is promising, but the reality is very different with one-third of employable adults not working; furthermore the GDP deflator is significantly greater than officially admitted. And the UK is financially over-geared and over-dependent on a failing Eurozone.

This is hardly surprising, because the monetary inflation of recent years has transferred wealth from the majority of the saving and working population to a financial minority. A stealth tax through monetary inflation has been imposed on the majority of people trying to earn an honest living on a fixed salary. It has been under-recorded in consumer price statistics but has occurred nonetheless. Six years of this wealth transfer may have enriched Wall Street, but it has also impoverished Main Street.

The developed world is now in deep financial trouble. This is a situation which may be coming to a debt-laden conclusion. Those in charge of our money know that monetary expansion has failed to stimulate recovery. They also know that their management of financial markets, always with the objective of fostering confidence, has left them with market distortions that now threaten to derail bonds, equities and derivatives.

Today, central banking’s greatest worry is falling prices. The early signs are now upon us, reflected in dollar strength, as well as falling commodity and energy prices. In an economic contraction exposure to foreign currencies is the primary risk faced by international businesses and investors. The world’s financial system is based on the dollar as reserve currency for all the others: it is the back-to-base option for international exposure. The trouble is that leverage between foreign currencies and the US dollar has grown to highly dangerous levels, as shown below.

Total World Money 2013

Plainly, there is great potential for currency instability, compounded by over-priced bond markets. Greece, facing another default, borrows ten-year money in euros at about 6.5%, while Spain and Italy at 2.1% and 2.3% respectively. Investors accepting these low returns should be asking themselves what will be the marginal cost of financing a large increase in government deficits brought on by an economic slump.

A slump will obviously escalate risk for owners of government bonds. The principal holders are banks whose asset-to-equity ratios can be as much as 40-50 times excluding goodwill, particularly when derivative exposure is taken into account. The stark reality is that banks risk failure not because of Irving Fisher’s debt-deflation theory, but because they are exposed to a government debt bubble that will inevitably burst: only a two per cent rise in Eurozone bond yields may be sufficient to trigger a global banking crisis. Fisher’s nightmare of bad debts from failing businesses and falling loan collateral values will merely be an additional burden.


Macro-economists refer to a slump as deflation, but we face something far more complex worth taking the trouble to understand.

The weakness of modern macro-economics is it is not based on a credible theory of prices. Instead of a mechanical relationship between changes in the quantity of money and prices, the purchasing power of a fiat currency is mainly dependent on the confidence its users have in it. This is expressed in preferences for money compared with goods, and these preferences can change for any number of reasons.

When an indebted individual is unable to access further credit, he may be forced to raise cash by selling marketable assets and by reducing consumption. In a normal economy, there are always some people doing this, but when they are outnumbered by others in a happier position, overall the economy progresses. A slump occurs when those that need or want to reduce their financial commitments outnumber those that don’t. There arises an overall shift in preferences in favour of cash, so all other things being equal prices fall.

Shifts in these preferences are almost always the result of past and anticipated state intervention, which replaces the randomness of a free market with a behavioural bias. But this is just one factor that sets price relationships: confidence in the purchasing power of government-issued currency must also be considered and will be uppermost in the minds of those not facing financial difficulties. This is reflected by markets reacting, among other things, to the changing outlook for the issuing government’s finances. If it appears to enough people that the issuing government’s finances are likely to deteriorate significantly, there will be a run against the currency, usually in favour of the dollar upon which all currencies are based. And those holding dollars and aware of the increasing risk to the dollar’s own future purchasing power can only turn to gold and subsequently those goods that represent the necessities of life. And when that happens we have a crack-up boom and the final destruction of the dollar as money.

So the idea that the outlook is for either deflation or inflation is incorrect, and betrays a superficial analysis founded on the misconceptions of macro-economics. Nor does one lead to the other: what really happens is the overall preference between money and goods shifts, influenced not only by current events but by anticipated ones as well.


Recently a rising dollar has led to a falling gold price. This raises the question as to whether further dollar strength against other currencies will continue to undermine the gold price.

Let us assume that the central banks will at some time in the future try to prevent a financial crisis triggered by an economic slump. Their natural response is to expand money and credit. However, this policy-route will be closed off for non-dollar currencies already weakened by a flight into the dollar, leaving us with the bulk of the world’s monetary reflation the responsibility of the Fed.

With this background to the gold price, Asians in their domestic markets are likely to continue to accumulate physical gold, perhaps accelerating their purchases to reflect a renewed bout of scepticism over the local currency. Wealthy investors in Europe will also buy gold, partly through bullion banks, but on the margin demand for delivered physical seems likely to increase. Investment managers and hedge funds in North America will likely close their paper-gold shorts and go long when their computers (which do most of the trading) detect a change in trend.

It seems likely that a change in trend for the gold price in western capital markets will be a component part of a wider reset for all financial markets, because it will signal a change in perceptions of risk for bonds and currencies. With a growing realisation that the great welfare economies are all sliding into a slump, the moment for this reset has moved an important step closer.


Market failure

There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”

  • Wilbur Wright, quoted by James Tobin in ‘To Conquer the Air’.

So, too, for the stock market. It is easy to study stock tables in solitude from the comfort of your office and declare the market efficient. Or you can be a full-time investor for a number of years and, if your eyes are open, learn that it is not. As with the Wrights, the burden of proof is somehow made to fall on the practitioner to demonstrate that he or she has accomplished something the so-called experts said could not be done (and even he may find himself explained away as aberrational). Almost none of the burden seems to fall on the armchair academics, who cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong.”

  • Seth Klarman, in ‘A Response to Lowenstein’s Searching for Rational Investors In a Perfect Storm’.

Days of miracle and wonder in the bond markets.. but not necessarily in any good way. Last week we highlighted the seeming anomaly that even as there has never been so much debt in the history of the world, it has also never been so expensive. Between 2000 and 2013, the value of outstanding tradeable debt rose from $33 trillion to $100 trillion, according to research from Incrementum AG. (Over the same period, total equity market capitalisation rose “merely” from $49 trillion to $66 trillion.) Although we would suggest there is now no semblance of traditional value in conventional government debt whatsoever, it could yet get more expensive still.

Albert Edwards of SocGen deserves some credit for maintaining his ‘Ice Age’ thesis over a sustained period of widespread scepticism from other market participants. He summarises it as follows:

“First, that the West would drift ever closer to outright deflation, following Japan’s template a decade earlier. And second, financial markets would adjust in the same way as in Japan. Government bonds would re-rate in absolute and relative terms compared to equities, which would also de-rate in absolute terms..

“Another associated element of the Ice Age we also saw in Japan is that with each cyclical upturn, equity investors have assumed with child-like innocence that central banks have somehow ‘fixed’ the problem and we were back in a self-sustaining recovery. These hopes would only be crushed as the next cyclical downturn took inflation, bond yields and equity valuations to new destructive lows. In the Ice Age, hope is the biggest enemy..

“Investors are beginning to see how impotent the Fed and ECB’s efforts are to prevent deflation. And as the scales lift from their eyes, equity, credit and other risk assets trading at extraordinarily high valuations will take their next Ice Age stride towards the final denouement.”

It is certainly staggering that even after expanding its balance sheet by $3.5 trillion, the Fed has been unable to trigger visible price inflation in anything other than financial assets. One dreads to contemplate the scale of the altogether less visible private sector deleveraging that has cancelled it out. One notes that while bonds are behaving precisely in line with the Ice Age thesis, stock markets – by and large – are not quite following the plot. But there were signs last week that they may finally have got a copy of the script.

The tragedy of our times, unfolding slowly but surely via ever-lower bond yields, is that there is a vacuum at the heart of the political process where bold action – not least to grasp the debt nettle – should reside. Since nature abhors the vacuum, central bankers have filled it. They say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a central banker facing the prospect of outright deflation, the answer to everything is the printing of ex nihilo money and the manipulation of financial asset prices. The by-product of these malign trends is that it makes rational investment and asset allocation, indeed more narrowly the pursuit of real capital preservation, impossible.

Since the integrity of the debt (and currency) markets is clearly at risk, we have long sought alternatives that offer much diminished credit and counterparty risk. The time-honoured alternative has been gold. As the chart below (via Nick Laird) shows, between 2000 and 2011, gold

US Debt Limit vs Gold

tracked the expansion in US debt pretty handily. In 2008 and then in 2011/2012 gold became overextended relative to US debt. Beginning in 2013 gold then decoupled in the opposite direction. As things stand today, if one expects that relationship to resume – and we do – then gold looks anomalously cheap relative to the gross level of US debt, which clearly is not going to contract any time soon.

A second rationale for holding gold takes into account the balance sheet expansion of the broader universe of central banks:

Central Bank Balance Sheet

If one accepts that gold is not merely an industrial commodity but an alternative form of money (and central banks clearly do, or they would not be holding it in the form of reserves), than it clearly makes sense to favour a money whose supply is growing at 1.5% per annum over monies whose supply is growing at between 8% and 20% per annum. It then merely comes down to biding one’s time and waiting for Albert Edwards’ “final denouement” (or simply the next phase of the global financial crisis that never really went away).

Two recent tweets from George Cooper on the topic of bond investing are also worthy of republication here:

“The combination of indexing / rating agencies and syndication means that collectively the investment industry does not provide effective discipline to borrowers.”

This is a clear example of market failure brought about by institutional fund managers and the consultants that “guide” their institutional investor clients. There is simply no punishment for ill-disciplined government borrowers (i.e., all of them). To put it another way, where have the bond vigilantes gone ? And,

“The best thing the ECB could do here is state clearly that it has reached the limit of monetary policy and the rest is up to politicians.”

It is not as if politicians asleep at the wheel have gone entirely unnoticed. Two high-profile reports have been published this year drawing attention to the debt problems gnawing away at the economic vitality of the West. Perhaps the most damning response to date has come from the euro zone’s pre-eminent political cynic, Jean-Claude Juncker:

“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

No discussion of the bond market could possibly be complete without a brief mention of the defenestration of the so-called ‘Bond King’, Bill Gross, from Pimco. For the benefit of anyone living under a rock these past weeks, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund jumped ship before he could be shoved overboard. Pimco’s owners, Allianz, must surely regret having allowed so much power to be centralised in the form of one single ‘star’ manager. In a messy transfer that nobody came out of well, Janus Capital announced that Bill Gross would be joining to run a start-up bond fund, before he had even announced his resignation from Pimco (but then Janus was a two-faced god). This was deliriously tacky behaviour from within a normally staid backwater of the financial markets. Some financial media reported this as a ‘David vs Goliath’ story; in reality it is anything but. The story can be more accurately summarised as ‘Bond fund manager leaves gigantic asset gatherer for other gigantic asset gatherer’ (Janus Capital’s $178 billion in client capital being hardly small potatoes). This is barely about asset management in the truest, aspirational sense of the phrase. This writer recalls the giddy marketing of a particularly new economy-oriented growth vehicle called the ‘Janus Twenty’ fund in the UK back in 2000. Between March 2000 and September 2001, that particular growth vehicle lost 63% of its value. Faddish opportunism is clearly still alive and well. This gross behaviour may mark a market top for bonds, but probably not. But it’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that navigating the bond markets profitably over the coming months will require almost supernatural powers in second-guessing both central banks and one’s peers – especially if doing so on an indexed basis. For what it’s worth this is a game we won’t even bother playing. Our pursuit of the rational alternative – compelling deep value in equity markets – continues.


Is an increase in capital goods orders always good for the economy?

Orders for US non-military capital goods excluding aircraft rose by 0.6% in August after a 0.2% decline in July to stand at $73.2 billion. Observe that after closing at $48 billion in May 2009 capital goods orders have been trending up.

Shostak Capital Goods Orders

Most commentators regard this strengthening as evidence that companies are investing both in the replacement of existing capital goods and in new capital goods in order to expand their growth.

There is no doubt that an increase in the quality and the quantity of tools and machinery i.e. capital goods, is the key for the expansion of goods and services. But is it always good for economic growth? Is it always good for the wealth generation process?

Consider the case when the central bank is engaging in loose monetary policy i.e. monetary pumping and an artificial lowering of the interest rate structure. Such type of policy sets the platform for various non-productive or bubble activities.

In order to survive these activities require real funding, which is diverted to them by means of loose monetary policy. (Once loose monetary policy is set in motion this allows the emergence of various bubble activities).

Note various individuals that are employed in these activities are the early recipients of money; they can now divert to themselves various goods and services from the pool of real wealth.

These individuals are now engaging in the exchange of nothing for something. (Individuals that are engage in bubble activities don’t produce any meaningful real wealth they however by means of the pumped money take a slice from the pool of real wealth. Again note that these individuals are contributing nothing to this pool).

Now bubble activities like any non-bubble activity also require tools and machinery i.e. capital goods. So various capital goods generated for these activities is in fact a waste of real wealth. Since the tools and machinery that are generated here are going to be employed in the production of goods and services that without the monetary pumping of the central bank would never emerge.  (Wrong infrastructure has emerged).

These activities do not add to the pool of real wealth, they are in fact draining it. (This amounts to economic impoverishment). The more aggressive the central bank’s loose monetary stance is the more drainage of real wealth takes place and the less real wealth left at the disposal of true wealth generators. If such policy persists for too long this could slow or even shrink the pool of real wealth and set in motion a severe economic crisis.

We suggest that the strong bounce in capital goods orders since May 2009 is on account of extremely loose monetary stance of the Fed. Note that the wild fluctuations in our monetary measure AMS after a time lag followed by sharp swings in capital goods orders.

An increase in the growth momentum of money followed by the increase in capital goods orders to support the increase in various bubble activities. Conversely, a decline in the growth momentum of money supply followed by a decline in capital goods orders.

Shostak Capital Goods vs AMS

We suggest that a down-trend in the growth momentum of money supply since October 2011 is currently on the verge of asserting its dominance. This means that various bubble activities are likely to come under pressure. Slower monetary growth is going to slow down the diversion of real wealth to them from wealth generating activities.

Consequently capital goods orders are going to come under pressure in the months ahead. (The build-up of a wrong infrastructure is going to slow down – a fewer pyramids will be built).



The Rise And Fall And Rise And Fall Of King Dollar, Part 2

As stated in the preceding column, here, eminent labor economist Jared Bernstein recently called, in the New York Times, for the dethroning of “King Dollar,” claiming that the reserve currency status of the dollar has cost the United States as many as “six million jobs in 2008, and these would tend to be the sort of high-wage manufacturing jobs.”

Six million is about as many jobs as presidents Bush and Obama together, over 13+ years, created. So this is a big claim.  Whether or not one accepts the magnitude of the jobs deficit proclaimed by Dr. Bernstein, reserve currency status comes with heavy costs.

As former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Bob McTeer wrote in a column entitled Reserve Currency Status — A Mixed Blessing:

The advantages of reserve currency status for the dollar are well known. The world’s willingness to accumulate dollar reserves in the post World War II period first removed and later reduced the requirement of maintaining balance of payments equilibrium, or, more specifically, current account balance. By removing or weakening this restraint, U.S. policymakers had more freedom than policymakers in other countries to pursue strictly domestic objectives. We ran current account deficits year after year, balanced, or paid for, by capital inflows from our trading partners. The good side of that was that we could import real goods and services for domestic consumption or absorption and pay for them with paper, or the electronic equivalent. In other words, our contemporary standard of living was enhanced by others’ willingness to hold our currency without “cashing it in” for goods and services, or, before 1971, gold.

The bad side of our reserve currency status, although seldom recognized, was that the very leeway that enhanced our current standard of living built up debt (and/or reduced foreign assets) to dangerous levels. I remember well when, in 1985, the United States ceased being a net creditor nation to the rest of the world and, instead, became a net debtor nation. Our net indebtedness has only grown over the years, and hangs over us like the legendary sword of Damocles.

Sword of Damocles? Lehrman, in his Money, Gold, and History states:

[W]hen one country’s currency — the dollar reserve currency of today — is used to settle international payments, the international settlement and adjustment mechanism is jammed — for that country — and for the world.  This is no abstract notion. …

The reality behind the “twin deficits” is simply this: the greater and more permanent the Federal Reserve and foreign reserve facilities for financing the U.S. budget and trade deficits, the greater will be the twin deficits and the growth of the Federal government.  All congressional, administrative and statutory attempts to end the U.S. deficit have proved futile, and will prove futile, until the crucial underlying flaw — namely the absence of an efficient international settlements and adjustment mechanism — is remedied by international monetary reform inaugurating a new international gold standard and the prohibition of official reserve currencies.

By pinning down the future price level by gold convertibility, the immediate effect of international monetary reform will be to end currency speculation in floating currencies, and terminate the immense costs of inflation hedging.  Gold convertibility eliminates the very costly exchange of currencies at the profit-seeking banks.  Thus, new savings will be channeled out of financial arbitrage and speculation, into long-term financial markets.

Increased long-term investment and improvements in world productivity will surely follow, as investment capital moves out of unproductive hedges and speculation — made necessary by floating exchange rates — seeking new and productive investments, leading to more quality jobs.

The sobering views expressed by McTeer and by Lehrman more than neutralize Heritage Foundation’s Bryan Riley and William Wilson’s valiant championship of the dollar’s reserve currency status, in opposition to Bernstein.  Heritage’s championship is gallant but … unpersuasive.

John Mueller, who served as gold standard advocate Jack Kemp’s chief economist and now as the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics and Director, Economics and Ethics Program, crisply observes in an interview for this column:

As Kenneth Austin lucidly reminded us, it is a necessity of double-entry bookkeeping that any increase in foreign official dollar reserves equals the increase in combined US  current and private capital account deficits. Denying the connection requires magical thinking. The entire decline in the international investment position since 1976 is due to Congress’s borrowing from foreign central banks–that is, the dollar’s official reserve currency role–while the books of private US residents with the rest of the world have remained close to balance.

There are differing schools of thought among the gold standard’s most prominent adherents as to the significance of merchandise deficit account.  Their theoretical differences about current accounts are likely to prove, operationally, immaterial.

Both the Forbes and Lehrman schools share mortal opposition to mercantilism.  Both passionately oppose the cheapening of the dollar.  Both see the gold standard as a critical mechanism to restoring the brisk growth of, as Lehrman termed it, “quality jobs” … and the restoration of median family income growth that began, profoundly, to stagnate with Nixon’s destruction of Bretton Woods.

In this columnist’s own earnest, if much less erudite, view the most significant element of the reserve currency curse derives from how it subtracts capital from the real, e.g. goods and services, economy.  Corporate earnings are taken, in return for local currency, into the coffers of the relevant international central bank. That central bank then promptly loans the proceeds directly to the federal government of the United States by purchase of treasury instruments.

The way the world of central banking works thus subverts a process extolled by Adam Smith (in the context of his analysis of the benefits of fractional reserve money) in Wealth of Nations.  Smith:

When, therefore, by the substitution of paper, the gold and silver necessary for circulation is reduced to, perhaps, a fifth part of the former quantity, if the value of only the greater part of the other four-fifths be added to the funds which are destined for the maintenance of industry, it must make a very considerable addition to the quantity of that industry, and, consequently, to the value of the annual produce of land and labour.

The mechanics of the reserve currency system preempt these funds’ ready availability for “the maintenance of industry.” The mechanics of the dollar as a reserve asset, therefore, finance bigger government while insidiously preempting productivity, jobs, and equitable prosperity.

This columnist agrees wholeheartedly with Bernstein on what seem his three most important points.  The reserve currency status of the dollar causes American workers, and the world, big problems. The exorbitant privilege deserves and demands far more attention than it receives.  Moving the dollar away from being the world’s reserve currency would be a great deal easier than many now assume.

Bernstein, in his blog,  identifies four mechanisms as “out there” (without explicitly endorsing, or critiquing, them): by legislation (which this columnist views as playing with tariff fire); taxation (thereby “raising the price of currency management,” which this columnist finds hardly an obvious source of job creation); reciprocity (demanding the right to buy foreign treasuries); and an international reserve currency.

Mueller says of Bernstein’s legislative and tax proposals, “you simply can’t solve a monetary problem with a fiscal solution.”

As for reciprocity, the United States Treasury, even under a Joe Biden or even a Bernie Sanders presidency, is never going to turn away ready lenders. This homely truth seems about as self-evident as it gets.  Beyond that, even if China were to undertake market-oriented reforms — and, according to the Wall Street Journal, the political winds seem to be blowing the other way just now — the RMB accounts for only 1.64% of global payments. It is not even close to being a power player. Beyond the beyond … it is well beyond dubious to expect international central banks enthusiastically to bulk up on the debt instruments of the People’s Republic of China for the indefinite future.

An “international reserve currency,” however, is a sound proposition if well designed.  Proposing SDRs for that role does not hold up. As then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, during a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations on March 9, 2011, stated, “There is no risk of the SDR playing that [a reserve currency] role.  The SDR is not a currency.  It’s a unit of account.  And it can’t provide the role that many people aspire to it.  There is no risk of that happening.”  Mueller, elucidating why this is so, states:

It’s not possible to solve the problems caused by tying other nations’ domestic currencies to one nation’s inconvertible domestic currency (the dollar), by tying them all to a basket of  inconvertible domestic fiat currencies–that is, to a subset of themselves. The result has no anchor. And the world economy always gravitates to a single “final asset,” because using several multiplies transactions costs.

There appear to be but two technically plausible ways of getting there.  One is Nobel economics laureate Robert Mundell’s proposal of a world currency.  The other, of course, represents a sort of “reversion to the mean.” Restore a 21st century international gold standard.

While the gold standard is very unfashionable it by no means is absurd. Then-World Bank Group president Robert Zoellick, in 2010, was dead on when he observed in an FT column that “Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.”  About a year later, the Bank of England issued a startling but meticulous white paper demonstrating that the “Federal Reserve Note standard” materially has underperformed, in every area considered, both the Bretton Woods gold-exchange standard and the classical gold standard itself.

As previously referenced in this column Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, in a 2012 speech, forthrightly stated:

Concrete objects have served as money for most of human history; we may therefore speak of commodity money. A great deal of trust was placed in particular in precious and rare metals – gold first and foremost – due to their assumed intrinsic value. In its function as a medium of exchange, medium of payment and store of value, gold is thus, in a sense, a timeless classic.

The gold standard, notwithstanding Churchill’s not-to-be-repeated 1925 blunder, is in no way a prescription for austerity.  The classical gold standard, properly constructed, is a recipe for workers, and median income families, to flourish economically.

We have not flourished, consistently, since its last remnants were destroyed by President Nixon on August 15, 1971.  So… what to do?

The first thing to do is to address the important issue, squarely. By shrewdly posing the right question Jared Bernstein has raised the odds, perhaps significantly, that we finally will find our way to the right answer. Getting out of the woods may be no more complicated than following JFK/LBJ economic advisor Walter Heller’s most famous dictum: “Put aside principle and do what’s right.”

Adroitly resolving the reserve currency issue as part of implementing an international reserve currency is far more likely to be fruitful in generating quality jobs, by the millions, than are earnest jeremiads, such as that by Dr. Bernstein himself, that “American political elites have completely failed to understand what the Fed should be doing right now.”  Relying on central bankers consistently to get discretionary management right represents a triumph of hope over experience.  Or as novelist Rita Mae Brown memorably observed, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Let us take Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, chapter VI, to heart:

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become ‘profiteers,’ who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. … Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.

As Steve Forbes pithily puts it, “You’ve got to get the money right.”  Time to lift the reserve currency curse.  Time to fix the dollar.

Originating at


Interview with St. Louis Fed Vice President on Bitcoin

Dr David Andolfatto, who is Vice President of the St. Louis Fed, has been one of the most forward-looking people at central banks around the world when it comes to crypto-currencies. Here he speaks with Max Rangeley, Editor at The Cobden Centre, and gives his views on what Bitcoin means for commerce, finance, and the dollar itself.

Max: How have you found the reactions to Bitcoin within the Fed?

David: Bitcoin is barely on the radar screen for most Fed researchers and policymakers. This is to be expected, given the large size of the Fed’s balance sheet and the debate over how to conduct monetary policy with the existence of large excess reserves. But I am aware of a small group of researchers scattered throughout the Fed system that seem interested in the Bitcoin phenomenon. Some, like Francois Velde of the Chicago Fed, have written nice primers on the phenomenon. I am also aware of a cryptocurrency workshop that meets monthly at the New York Fed. The reaction of most people (who study it) might be described as “academic agnosticism” in the sense that people are curious, but not enthusiastically in favor or against the idea.

Max: How do you see Bitcoin being used in the future? Do you foresee private currencies being commonly used on the high street alongside state-backed currencies, or remaining largely online phenomena?

David: Who can say how the future will evolve, especially in this space? My best guess is that Bitcoin will find a niche market. It’s cool to use bitcoin to pay for your Starbucks latte on university campuses (this is what my university is doing). It may very well find a place on the high street, at least among some shops catering to the “cool” crowd. But for advanced economies, at least, it is hard to see how consumers will benefit directly by using bitcoins instead of dollars or pounds. As Satoshi Nakamoto wrote in his seminal 2008 paper introducing Bitcoin, “…the [current] system works well enough for most transactions…”

Max: If the use of private currencies became more widespread, do you think that central banks would ever track monetary aggregates in circulation, even if just approximately, much as M2, M3 etc are tracked now?

David: Anything is possible, but I doubt it. One issue is that there many of these “wildcat” currencies, with more appearing every day (every online game has its own currency for example, as do most social media sites). In a sense, these currencies are “local” monies (much like the local currencies that have always existed, like the Ithaca hour, for example). I’m not sure how a statistical agency could keep track of all these little local currencies, or whether it would even be worthwhile to do so. But who knows?

Max: If private currencies were to become widely used around the world, do you think that this could have an effect on the business cycle, since central banks would not have as much control over monetary factors?

David: I do not think it would have much of an effect on the business cycle, which I think is rooted more in “real” and “financial” factors, rather than “monetary” factors, per se.

Max: You mentioned in your presentation on Bitcoin that although supply is fixed, demand can fluctuate significantly, which causes volatility, would you say this is a weakness inherent in private currencies, or is there the possibility that algorithms could evolve to incorporate a degree of elasticity?

David: Remember that Bitcoin is *more* than a private currency: it is a payment system and monetary policy with *no trusted intermediary* involved. Most private currencies entail the use of trusted third parties. EVE online, for example, an online game founded in 2003 has evidently managed its money supply in a manner that keeps its value relatively stable. It may be possible to code an “elastic money supply” rule in the Bitcoin protocol, but it is not immediately clear to me how this might work. Injecting new money into the system would be easy. The tricky part would be in how to destroy money (having the algorithm debit Bitcoin wallets that are secured by private keys).

Max: You mentioned that you welcome the competition for central banks; if private currencies became widely used, could it chip away at American supremacy, a degree of which is based on the dollar, the so-called “exorbitant privilege”?

David: In my view, America supremacy is not based on the dollar. The status of the dollar simply reflects American supremacy, which is based fundamentally on the structure of that economy (something “real” not “monetary”). The America dollar already faces stiff competition from a variety of alternative candidates, including the Yen, the Euro, and gold. If gold cannot displace the USD, why would we expect Bitcoin to?


The Rise And Fall And Rise And Fall Of King Dollar, Part 1

The Wall Street Journal, recently, in The Return of the Greenback, observed that “the resurgent dollar has logged its longest winning streak in 17 years, rising against a broad basket of currencies for nine straight weeks.”  This has led to, perhaps irrational, exuberance from supply side titans Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore.

Cheapening the dollar is a bad thing, unequivocally.  It does not necessarily follow that making the dollar dearer is a good thing.  And there is a frequently unnoticed factor at work: the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency.  Dr. Jared Bernstein, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and, previously, chief economist to Vice President Biden and executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, boldly claims that the dollar’s reserve currency status has cost America 6 million jobs.  This is a startling, and potentially important, claim.

We live in a world monetary system that makes the U.S. dollar its official reserve currency.  About 60%  of international central bank reserves are Yankee dollars. Some, both right and left, in America and abroad, consider the reserve currency status of the dollar a bug in the software of our world monetary system. Getting this fixed is, in the opinion of some consequential thinkers, of capital importance for the generation of quality jobs, and equitable prosperity, in America and the world.

The reserve currency status of the dollar, particularly as a potential factor in wage stagnation, has profound political implications.  Dispirited voters yearn for leadership that actually understands how to get the economic tide to lift all boats again.  Notwithstanding his promotion of some marked policy differences with this columnist, this columnist says three cheers for Dr. Bernstein for squarely pushing the reserve currency question into play.

Dr. Bernstein stirred up a healthy argument in an August New York Times op-ed entitled Dethrone ‘King Dollar.’  Bernstein:

[T]he new research reveals that what was once a privilege is now a burden, undermining job growth, pumping up budget and trade deficits and inflating financial bubbles. To get the American economy on track, the government needs to drop its commitment to maintaining the dollar’s reserve-currency status.

Bernstein draws on an interesting, and thoughtful, paper by economist Kenneth Austin in The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. Austin dramatically illustrates the explosion of international dollar reserves and explores the possible significance to our economy.  Bernstein performs a signal public service by placing this into the policy discourse. Bernstein:

Mr. Austin argues convincingly that the correct metric for estimating the cost in jobs is the dollar value of reserve sales to foreign buyers. By his estimation, that amounted to six million jobs in 2008, and these would tend to be the sort of high-wage manufacturing jobs that are most vulnerable to changes in exports.

Bernstein’s proposal drew a tart riposte at Café Hayek from Don Boudreaux and another from the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal by Bryan Riley and William Wilson. 

Shortly after Bernstein’s proposed dethroning of ‘King Dollar’ Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore, in their NRO column, joyfully celebrated The Return of King Dollar:

[W]hen the dollar crashed in the 1970s — especially relative to gold — the economy collapsed into a crippling stagflation. From 1999 to 2009, the dollar index dropped by almost 40 percent, with only a brief surge between 2004 and 2006. The economy and wages were sluggish at best.

The relationship between a strong currency and prosperity is lost on the many nations that adhere to the mercantilist model whereby a devalued currency supposedly gives a country a competitive edge by making exports cheaper. …

Kudlow and Moore deserve praise for their opposition to cheapening the dollar.  That said, cheering on a “strong” dollar intellectually is akin to calling for a longer inch or a heavier ounce as a recipe to — magically — make us richer.

No.  What is needed is a high integrity, meticulously defined, dollar.

A dollar at the mercy of a freelancing Fed, subject to being whipsawed in value, up or down, is a barrier to commerce.  Money, by definition, is a medium of exchange, a store of value and — not be overlooked — a unit of account.  There are many empirical data tending to show that only by meticulously maintaining the definition of the unit — for example, by defining the dollar by grains of gold and making it legally convertible thereunto — can good job creation, and equitable prosperity, consistently be achieved.

There is a deep, fascinating, historical context.  It extends even to the use of the regal metaphor.  Therein rests an irony wrapped in a controversy inside some history.

The history? Keynes employed a regal metaphor (applied to gold rather than currency) in his 1930 tract Auri Sacra Fames in which he writes

… gold, originally stationed in heaven with his consort silver, as Sun and Moon, having first doffed his sacred attributes and come to earth as an autocrat, may next descend to the sober status of a constitutional king with a cabinet of Banks….

The irony? Keynes explicitly mistrusted the Fed.  Keynes did not wish to endow the U.S. Federal Reserve with the power that, under then-prevailing circumstances which no longer need apply, a return to the gold standard would have entailed.  Keynes, in his 1923 essay, Alternative Aims In Monetary Policy:

It would be rash in present circumstances to surrender our freedom of action to the Federal Reserve Board of the United States. We do not yet possess sufficient experience of its capacity to act in times of stress with courage and independence. The Federal Reserve Board is striving to free itself from the pressure of sectional interests; but we are not yet certain that it will wholly succeed. It is still liable to be overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.

Keynes expressed wariness of the risk of currency depreciation (better known as inflation). Sure enough, eventually the Federal Reserve indeed became “overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.”  The Fed cheapened its product — Federal Reserve Notes — by 85% since 1971 (and by about 95% since the Fed’s inception).

A dollar today is worth a 1913 nickel and a 1971 nickel and dime.  This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “nickeled and dimed to death.”

Cheapening of money is very bad for business.  It is really, really, terrible for labor.  Ron Paul, call your office: Keynes proved quite right to be dubious about the Fed.

Why do so few of the economists who exalt Keynes share his tough-mindedness toward the Fed?  Why do so few grasp the irony of their mesmerized adulation of an institution with such a mediocre (and sometimes catastrophic) track record? Many acorns have fallen far from the tree.

One of the factors in play involves one of the standard tropes of mercantilism, to which Kudlow and Moore allude: the intentional depreciation of a national currency to gain unfair trade advantage.  This is what classically was called a “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy.  The neighbor, in this instance, is America. Forbes Media chairman, and Editor-in-Chief, Steve Forbes, and columnist Nathan Lewis, both gold standard advocates, are zealous critics of mercantilism (as is this columnist).

Steve Forbes (with Elizabeth Ames) in their recent book Money: How the Destruction of the Dollar Threatens the Global Economy and What We Can Do About It observes:

The neo-mercantilists of the twentieth century may have thought that floating exchange rates would allow countries to correct perceived imbalances with their rivals and bolster their domestic economies.  But the monetary system they created was more volatile than the one they had destroyed, with balance harder than ever to achieve.

The turmoil of the post-Bretton Woods era is what sent European nations scurrying for the shelter of a stable currency, setting the stage for the euro.  The explosion of currency trading it has wrought has become a huge source of fees for banks.  It has helped produce the market swings and giant windfalls so decried by Occupy Wall Street and others.  In this dangerous world, monetary policy is deployed as a frequent weapon, nearly always with destructive consequences.”

Nathan Lewis writes, in his column Keynes and Rothbard Agree: Today’s Economics is Mercantilism:

All of today’s premier economic policies, notably monetary manipulation and floating fiat currencies, attempts to “manage the economy” via government deficit spending, and the never-ending concern over “imbalances” in trade, are straight-up Mercantilism.

We really won’t make much progress in our economic understanding until this is recognized. The entirety of today’s Mercantilist agenda should be discarded; first, at an intellectual level, and then at the level of public policy. Britain did this, and went from an economic backwater overshadowed by tiny Holland, to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the center of the largest empire of the nineteenth century.

Forbes and Lewis are skeptical about the power of manipulating currency to achieve trading advantage.  The intramural dispute among gold standard advocates around the current account, however, is of mostly academic significance.  The respective camps respectfully agree as to most of the disorders caused by paper money.  They agree that the remedy to our “Little Dark Age” of wage stagnation lies in the definition of the dollar by gold.

Businessman/scholar Lewis E. Lehrman, founder and chairman of the Lehrman Institute (whose monetary policy website this columnist professionally edits) too is an outspoken critic of mercantilism.  Lehrman is the leader of a group of thinkers influenced by the works of his mentor Jacques Rueff, influential French monetary official, public intellectual (Mont Pelerin society member), and iconic classical gold standard advocate.

As for the unjustly obscure Rueff, keen monetary observer Robert Pringle, author of The Money Trap states in his influential blog of the same name:

[Rueff] would have predicted the Global Financial Crisis and economic catastrophe of the past seven years – and would certainly have attributed it to the absence of an international monetary system worth the name. He would have been equally critical of the flawed construction of the euro.

He saw that the globalizing trading regime was fundamentally at odds with mercantilist monetary and exchange rate policies: one aspired to universality and openness, the other pointed to particularization and separation.

More generally, monetary nationalism, unleashed by the absence of a global standard for money, is inconsistent with a liberal order.

Reserve currency status of the dollar, the more emphatically when the dollar is not defined by and redeemable in a fixed weight of gold, is a form of monetary nationalism inconsistent with a liberal order.  And according to Bernstein reserve currency status also is costing millions of jobs.

What are some of the costs of the “exorbitant privilege” as the dollar’s reserve currency status was called by then finance minister of France Valery Giscard d’Estaing?  Ought now America to give the exorbitant privilege a gold watch and send it into retirement?

To be continued.

Originating at


New Normal

Just over three weeks ago, in his keynote address to the Global Corporocracy at the so-called ‘Summer Davos’ meeting in Tianjin, Li Keqiang firmly stated that:  ‘…we [have] focused more on structural readjustment and other long-term problems, and refrained from being distracted by the slight short-term fluctuations of individual indicators.’


He went on to downplay the fetish for the 7.5% GDP number, saying that ‘…we believe the actual economic growth rate is within the proper range, even if it is slightly higher or lower than the… target.’


As if that were not clear enough, Finance Minister Lou Jiwei rather spoiled Madame Lagarde’s infrastructure orgy at the Sep 20th weekend G20 meeting in Australia when he pointed out that China had already tried the very approach which his Western peers are itching to undertake – and which they hope can be financed by a grab at their citizens’ private pension funds.


Lou pointed out that while the programme may well have provided a short term fillip to ‘growth’, it brought environmental damage, capital misallocation, and dangerously increased indebtedness in its train. As if that were not enough of an ‘ice bucket challenge’ for his audience of panting Keynesians, he reiterated Li’s diagnosis that his government’s macro-economic policy would ‘continue to focus on the general objectives, in particular to maintain employment growth and price stability’ and that [emphasis added], ‘policy adjustments will not change on a single economic indicator’.


However determinedly deaf certain Occidental wise monkeys were to this pronouncement, Lou’s local market traders certainly took the words to heart: rebar, rubber, and iron ore fell 4% to major new lows in the Monday session, while a whole range of metals, petrochemicals, and others dropped 2% or more. If the impending Golden Week holiday may have been enough to discourage any further initiative selling of the metals over the succeeding few days (steel, iron, rubber, and cotton were NOT similarly spared), nevertheless the verdict was clear: the pain would continue.


Li himself seemed to be resolutely sticking to his guns. In the two policy announcements he has made since his big speech, he has continued to tinker with microeconomic reforms (e.g., liberalizing delivery services) and to enact fiscal measures (notably the introduction of  a series of accelerated depreciation measures aimed both at alleviating the current tax burden and at encouraging SMEs to undertake a little more capex in future). Nowhere is there any hint that the regime’s nerve has failed or therefore that the spigots are about to be opened once more.


The latest kite to be flown on this account is the speculation raised by the WSJ that PboC chief Zhou Xiaochuan will be ‘retired’ at the upcoming autumn plenum. Though no confirmation of any sort has been forthcoming so far, we have already been subjected to no shortage of punditry as to the whys and wherefores of the supposed move.


Chief among these have been somewhat conflicting conspiracy theories that his expulsion would represent variously a reassertion of its influence by the factions so far largely being steam-rolled by Xi and, in almost exact opposition to this, a move by Xi to ride himself of a turbulent monetary priest who – wait for it – has proved too reluctant to swamp the ailing economy with the massive amounts of liquidity Xi has now decided is necessary in complete contradiction of the programme he and his team have been pursuing!


Though we have no special insight into this matter, it does strike us as unlikely that Zhou is suddenly now regarded as an enemy – this is, after all, the man whose gravitas and reputation for calm confidence was deemed so valuable to the incoming administration that it deliberately bent the rules concerning the mandatory retirement of top officials in order to keep him in his post. It seems far more probable, therefore, that if the personnel change is indeed to be affected – and the fulsome encomium to this ‘wise old sage’ which was carried in all the main outlets over the weekend rather diminishes the prospect – his baton would be passed on to someone of like mind. Several commentators have already noted that this may well be the case if the go-to man tipped to be his successor, Guo Shuqing, actually does get the nod.


Whether the incumbent stays or goes, however, the very fact that the mere rumour of his departure was enough to have the stimulus junkies drooling that their itch for the next fix would soon be assuaged is revealing of the parlous state to which we have all been reduced in our QEternity, Goldilocks world of an utter reliance on the foibles of central bank heads to determine where we should place our next bets, to the exclusion of all other factors.


Giving this crowd some brief hope, the PboC did in fact adjust the repo rate lower and also offered (in its usual, frustratingly opaque manner) a CNY500 billion injection of funds to the five biggest state-owned banks even though this may have been no more than a partial offset to the ongoing lack of foreign exchange accumulation – of especial significance now that the CBRC has clamped down on end-period deposit hunting – and/or a timely assist aimed at preventing the IPO flood from dampening a rekindled enthusiasm for stocks.


The realisation that the country’s current afflictions might not be susceptible of alleviation in the time-honoured Yellen-Draghi fashion seems to be spreading. With the capital market queue for bank refinancing now said to stretch to CNY600 billion and with the count of bad and doubtful loans rising rapidly (if still hugely understated), the lenders seem to have a somewhat different focus than that of showering credit on each and every would-be borrower.


Nor are borrowers beating down their doors, at least according to the results of the central bank’s latest quarterly survey. This has loan demand falling below the lows of 2012, so no wonder the monthly data dump shows the pace of increase in yuan loans on bank books dropping to the lowest levels of the past eight years. No wonder either when, as CASS academician Yu Yongding told an audience at Tsinghua University, a recent NBS survey found that lending rates for the average SME was no less than 25.1% annualized.


The combination of usurious rates and burgeoning liabilities (especially accounts receivable which are up more than 14% yoy) means that financing costs for SOEs are rising at a rate of 16.7% p.a. (as the MOF tells us), while those for joint-stock enterprises are growing 14.4%, and for the usually more profitable HK, Macau & Taiwanese owned-firms at no less than 27.2%, so says the NBS. The Chinese Enterprise Confederation also reported that the top 205 state-owned manufacturing companies’ income margin was a mere 1.8% this past year, while that for their 295 private counterparts was a less than stellar 2.8% (for comparison, over the past 4 ½ years, US manufacturers have returned an average of 10.6¢ pre- and 8.7¢ after-tax on each $1 of sales).


Would you be borrowing more in a decelerating economy if these were your business metrics?


Reflecting all this on the macro side, Want China Times reported that, with several Chinese provinces finding it ‘hard’ to reach their GDP numbers, voices are being raised in favour of a lowering of the goalposts (the message naturally being far more important than the medium in Leninist thinking).


Recall here that the official spin keeps emphasizing both the long-term nature of the shift to the ‘New Normal’ (which one unnamed cynic dared to translate as ‘recession’!) and continually pleads the medium-term difficulties associated with the ‘Three Overlay’ constellation – viz., the problems of changing the emphasis from the quantity to the quality of output; the ‘structural’ shift away from investment and toward consumption as the focus of future development; and the tribulations of eliminating (‘digesting’ in Newspeak) some of the excess capacity and crippling debt levels built up during the ‘stimulus’ the Party unleashed in the attempt to combat the effects of the financial crisis.


Significantly, at the grandly titled ‘2014 Co-prosperity Capital Wealth Summit’ held on Sunday, former NBS chief economist and State Department advisor Yao Jingyuan opined that this baleful cyclical conjunction would last for another three to five years. Simultaneously, Shengsong Cheng of the central bank pointed out – in what may be the first serious attempt at disassociating the regime from its previous expectational anchor – that if China were to grow at no more than 6.7% p.a. over the remainder of the decade, the desideratum of doubling the size of the economy over the whole of that ten year stretch would still have been achieved. It would also seriously embarrass many of the Sinomaniacs’ determinedly bullish projections.


As Want China Times also wrote, besides the growing shortfalls in Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanxi, Heilongjiang, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces, Shenzhen is labouring under the burden of a fall in two-way trade volumes of 28% over the first seven months of the year in addition to a 60% plunge in newly constructed real estate.


As 21st Century Herald has pointed out, the upshot has been that many local governments are trimming outlays, dipping into reserves, and even indulging in asset fire-sales in order to stem the fiscal haemorrhage. Even then, in order to meet revenue goals, resort has been made to a neat, fraudulent round-robin whereby local businesses borrow the money with which to pay fictional taxes and then recoup the outlay in the form of phony subsidies, rebates, and contracts. An official at one northern city admitted that up to 15% of his authority’s budget consisted of such shenanigans but that in certain county governments the padding amounted to 30% of the total. No wonder the expansion of bank balance sheets is having so little effect on genuine activity.


Further to the regional tale of woe, the local stats bureau made it known that even mighty Shanghai’s industries saw an actual drop in the value of output of 2.5% yoy in August, figures which represent a truly stunning reversal from June’s +7.1 gain and the first half’s overall increase of +4.4%.


Meanwhile, the CISA reported that implied steel consumption has failed to grow so far this year for the first time in the new millennium. No surprise then that rumours continue to swirl about the possible CNY10’s of billions involved in the potential bankruptcy of Sinosteel. Likewise, Reuters reported that ‘sources at the country’s major oil companies have predicted that China’s diesel consumption is set to post its first decline in more than a decade.’ How much of even that is real demand is another moot point given that SAFE has just announced the identification of $10 billion in fake cross-border transactions in a scandal which has progressively widened out from the initial Qindao port incident to encompass no less than 24 separate provinces and cities thus far.


Globally, the impact is being felt in the bellwether chemical industry.  As the American Chemistry Council noted, there was a ‘worrying’ slide in operating rates during what is typically the seasonally strong second quarter.  Things have not improved much since. Q2.   The ACC showed Germany dropping from 4.8% growth in February to a fall of 3.5% in August.  India crashed from +12.9% in January to +3.4% in August. Japan fell from +9.2% in March to just +0.8% in August. Mexico went from 1% growth in April to -2.8% and Russia slowed from +4.2% in January to -10.4% last month.


Only one major country managed to maintain a relatively strong growth level. You may not be surprised to learn that this stalwart was China, where output peaked at +11.1% in April, was still a strong +8.8% four months later. Why the anomaly? No real mystery: the country has swung from being a net importer of bulk chemicals to being a net exporter, much as it has in refined oil products and also in some metals. No-one dare utter the word, ‘dumping’!


All of this is a sharp contrast to the first stages of Chinese expansion when the country purchased large quantities of raw and semi-processed items – without much regard to their cost – either to employ them in building out its own industries and infrastructure (as Mr Lou pointed out) or to incorporate – along with a range of other bought-in, more sophisticated components – into finished-goods exports bound for Western consumers who were borrowing a goodly portion of the necessary invoice amounts.


Nowadays, many of those foreign customers are either unwilling or unable add any  more to their slate, while the prevailing quest for China’s factory owners is to find some way of more profitably utilising some of the vast overcapacity they have built up in the interim.


One consequence is that, even allowing for possible distortions in the data, it is clear that things are running no where near as hot as they once were. Taking the five years to the peak of the last cycle, Chinese industrial corporations enjoyed compound annual revenue growth of over 25% and profit growth of 37%. Fast forward and since the end of 2012, earnings growth and – perhaps even more tellingly – revenues are up by a much lesser 10% or so. Not a basis on which to be too gung-ho on further capital outlays, nor one in which double-digit rises in wage costs can continue to be blithely accommodated.


At the largest of scales, evidence of this change can also be found. During the whole of the two decades before Crash, world trade volumes rose at 7.2% a year, compounded: since the start of 2011, that pace has slowed to a tardy 2.0%, meaning that now, some six years on from the Snowball Earth episode, we are only at three quarters of the level we would have attained had the crisis not intervened. And, as we know, all this is closely related in a complex web of cause-and-effect to the rate global money growth. That latter is facing its own challenges given that the ongoing steep rise in the dollar reduces the effective global heft of the monies being emitted by just about everyone other than the Chinese themselves with their similarly-soaring currency.


In passing, economic turmoil may be one thing with which the leadership has to contend, but the upsurge of violence in Xinjiang – where up to 50 people were reported killed during a bomb attack on two Luntai police stations – and the rather more peaceful, if no less weighty, street protests in HK – with their uncomfortable echoes of East European ‘Colour’ revolutions – are another matter entirely.


All told, the Chinese CCP and its new leaders have some sizeable challenges to overcome in the months ahead.


The velocity myth

If there is one concept that illustrates the difference between a top-down macro-economic approach and the reality of everyday life it is the velocity of circulation of money. Compare the following statements:

“The collapse in velocity is testament to the substantial misallocation of capital brought about by the easy money regimes of the past 20 years.” Broker’s research note issued September 2014; and

“The mathematical economists refuse to start from the various individuals’ demand for and supply of money. They introduce instead the spurious notion of velocity of circulation according to the pattern of mechanics.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action.

This article’s objective is not to disagree with the broker’s conclusion; rather it is to examine the basis upon which it is made.

The idea of velocity of circulation referred to arose from the quantity theory of money, which links changes in the quantity of money to changes in the general level of prices. This is set out in the equation of exchange. The basic elements are money, velocity and total spending, or GDP. The following is the simplest of a number of ways it has been expressed:

Amount of Money x Velocity of Circulation = Total Spending (or GDP)

Assuming we can quantify both money and total spending, we end up with velocity. But this does not tell us why velocity might vary: all we know is that it must vary in order to balance the equation. You could equally state that two completely unrelated quantities can be put into a mathematical equation, so long as a variable is included whose only function is to always make the equation balance. In other words the equation of exchange actually tells us nothing per se.

This gives analysts a problem, not resolved by the modern reliance on statistics and computer models. The dubious gift to us from statisticians is their so-called progress made in quantifying the economy, so much so that at the London School of Economics a machine called MONIAC (monetary national income analogue computer) used fluid mechanics to model the UK’s economy. This and other more recent computer models give unwarranted credence to the idea that the economy can be modelled, derivations such as velocity explained, and valid conclusions drawn.

Von Mises’s criticism is based on the philosopher’s logic that economics is a social and not a physical science. Therefore, mathematical relationships must be strictly confined to accounting and not be confused with economics, or as he put it human action. Unfortunately we now have the concept of velocity so ingrained in our thinking that this vital point usually escapes us. Indeed, the same is true of GDP, or the right hand side of the equation of exchange.

GDP is only an accounting identity: no more than that. It ranks gin with golf-balls by reducing them both to a monetary value. Statisticians select what’s included so it is biased in favour of consumer goods and against capital investment. Crucially it does not tell us about an ever-changing economy comprised of successes, failures, and hard-to-predict human needs and wants, which taken all together is economic progress. And because it is biased in its composition and says nothing about progress the value of this statistic is grossly exaggerated.

The only apparent certainty in the equation of exchange is the quantity of money, assuming it is all recorded. No one seems to allow for unrecorded money such as shadow banking, but we shall let that pass. If the money is sound, as it was when the quantity theory of money was devised, one could assume that an increase in its quantity would tend to raise prices. This was experienced following Spain’s importation of gold and silver from the new world in the sixteenth century, and following the gold mining booms in California and South Africa. But relating an increase in the quantity of gold to prices in general is at best a summary of a number of various factors that drive the price relationship between money and goods.

Today we no longer have sound money, whose purchasing power was regulated by human preferences across national boundaries. Instead we have fiat currencies whose purchasing power is formalised in foreign exchanges. When the Icelandic krona on 8th October 2008 halved in value, it had nothing to do with changes in the quantity of money or Iceland’s GDP. Yet if we try to interpret velocity in this case, we will find ourselves pleading a special case to explain its substantial increase as domestic prices absorbed the shock imparted through the foreign exchanges.

Iceland’s currency collapse is not an isolated event. The purchasing power of a fiat currency varies constantly, even to the point of losing it altogether. The truth of the matter is the utility of a fiat currency is entirely dependent on the subjective opinions of individuals expressed through markets, and has nothing to do with a mechanical quantity relationship. In this respect, merely the potential for unlimited currency issuance or a change in perceptions of the issuer’s financial stability, as Iceland discovered, can be enough to destabilise it.

According to the equation of exchange, this is not how things should work. The order of events is first you have an increase in the quantity of money and then prices rise, because monetarist logic states that prices rise as a result of the extra money being spent, not as a result of money yet to be spent. With a mechanical theory there can be no room for subjectivity.

It is therefore nonsense to conclude that velocity is a vital signal of some sort. Monetarism is at the very least still work-in-progress until monetarists finally discover velocity is no more than a factor to make their equation balance. The broker’s analyst quoted above would have been better to confine his statement to the easy money regimes of the past 20 years being responsible for the substantial misallocation of capital, and leaving out the bit about velocity entirely.

A small slip perhaps on the way to a sensible conclusion; but it is indicative of the false mechanisation of human behaviour by modern macro-economists. However it should also be noted that is impossible to square the concept of velocity of circulation with one simple fact of everyday life: we earn our salaries once and we dispose of it. That’s a constant velocity of roughly one.