Economics

Would the real Peter and Paul please stand up?

In a previous life as a London-based ‘global strategist’ (I was never sure what that was) I was known as someone who was worried by QE and more generally, about the willingness of our central bankers to play games with something which I didn’t think they fully understand: money. This may be a strange, even presumptuous thing to say. Surely of all people, one thing central bankers understand is money?

They certainly should understand money. They print it, lend it, borrow it, conjure it. They control the price of it… But so what? What should be true is not necessarily what is true, and in the topsy-turvy world of finance and economics, it rarely is. So file the following under “strange but true”: our best and brightest economists have very little understanding of economics. Take the current malaise as prima facie evidence.

Let me illustrate. Of the many elemental flaws in macroeconomic practice is the true observation that the economic variables in which we might be most interested happen to be those which lend themselves least to measurement. Thus, the statistics which we take for granted and band around freely with each other measuring such ostensibly simple concepts as inflation, wealth, capital and debt, in fact involve all sorts of hidden assumptions, short-cuts and qualifications. So many, indeed, as to render reliance on them without respect for their limitations a very dangerous thing to do. As an example, consider the damage caused by banks to themselves and others by mistaking price volatility (measurable) with risk (unmeasurable). Yet faith in false precision seems to us to be one of the many imperfections our species is cursed with.

One such ‘unmeasurable’ increasingly occupying us here at Edelweiss is that upon which all economic activity is based: trust. Trust between individuals, between strangers, between organisations… trust in what people read, and even people’s trust in themselves. Let’s spend a few moments elaborating on this.

First, we must understand the profound importance of exchange. To do this, simply look around you. You might see a computer monitor, a coffee mug, a telephone, a radio, an iPad, a magazine, whatever it is. Now ask yourself how much of that stuff you’d be able to make for yourself. The answer is almost certainly none. So where did it all come from? Strangers, basically. You don’t know them and they don’t know you. In fact virtually none of us know each other. Nevertheless, strangers somehow pooled their skills, their experience and their expertise so as to conceive, design, manufacture and distribute whatever you are looking at right now so that it could be right there right now. And what makes it possible for you to have it? Exchange. To be able to consume the skills of these strangers, you must sell yours. Everyone enters into the same bargain on some level and in fact, the whole economy is nothing more than an anonymous labor exchange. Beholding the rich tapestry this exchange weaves and its bounty of accumulated capital, prosperity and civilization is a marvelous thing.

But we must also understand that exchange is only possible to the extent that people trust each other: when eating in a restaurant we trust the chef not to put things in our food; when hiring a builder we trust him to build a wall which won’t fall down; when we book a flight we entrust our lives and the lives of our families to complete strangers. Trust is social bonding and societies without it are stalked by social unrest, upheaval or even war. Distrust is a brake on prosperity, because distrust is a brake on exchange.

But now let’s get back to thinking about money, and let’s note also that distrust isn’t the only possible brake on exchange. Money is required for exchange too. Without money we’d be restricted to barter one way or another. So money and trust are intimately connected. Indeed, the English word credit derives from the Latin word credere, which means to trust. Since money facilitates exchange, it facilitates trust and cooperation. So when central banks play the games with money of which they are so fond, we wonder if they realize that they are also playing games with social bonding. Do they realize that by devaluing money they are devaluing society?

To see the how, first understand how monetary policy works. Think about what happens in the very simple example of a central bank’s expanding the monetary base by printing money to buy government bonds.

That by this transaction the government has raised revenue for the government is obvious. The government now has a greater command over the nation’s resources. But it is equally obvious that no one can raise revenue without someone else bearing the cost. To deny it would imply revenues could be raised for free, which would imply that wealth could be created by printing more money. True, some economists, it seems, would have the world believe there to be some validity to such thinking. But for those of us more concerned with correct logical practice, it begs a serious question. Who pays? We know that this monetary policy has redistributed money into the government’s coffers. But from whom has the redistribution been?

The simple answer is that we don’t and can’t know, at least not on an amount per person basis. This is unfortunate and unsatisfactory, but it also happens to be true. Had the extra money come from taxation, everyone would at least know where the burden had fallen and who had decreed it to fall there. True, the upper-rate tax payers might not like having a portion of their wealth redirected towards poorer members of society and they might not agree with it. Some might even feel robbed. But at least they know who the robber is.

When the government raises revenue by selling bonds to the central bank, which has financed its purchases with printed money, no one knows who ultimately pays. In the abstract, we know that current holders of money pay since their cash holdings have been diluted. But the effects are more subtle. To see just how subtle, consider Cantillon’s 18th century analysis of the effects of a sudden increase in gold production:

If the increase of actual money comes from mines of gold or silver… the owner of these mines, the adventurers, the smelters, refiners, and all the other workers will increase their expenditures in proportion to their gains. … All this increase of expenditures in meat, wine, wool, etc. diminishes of necessity the share of the other inhabitants of the state who do not participate at first in the wealth of the mines in question. The altercations of the market, or the demand for meat, wine, wool, etc. being more intense than usual, will not fail to raise their prices. … Those then who will suffer from this dearness… will be first of all the landowners, during the term of their leases, then their domestic servants and all the workmen or fixed wage-earners … All these must diminish their expenditure in proportion to the new consumption.

In Cantillon’s example, the gold mine owners, mine employees, manufacturers of the stuff miners buy and the merchants who trade in it all benefit handsomely. They are closest to the new money and they get to see their real purchasing powers rise.

But as they go out and spend, they bid up the prices of the stuff they purchase to a level which is higher than it would otherwise have been, making that stuff more expensive. For anyone not connected to the mining business (and especially those on fixed incomes: “the landowners, during the term of their leases”), real incomes haven’t risen to keep up with the higher prices. So the increase in the gold supply redistributes money towards those closest to the new money, and away from those furthest away.

Another way to think about this might be to think about Milton Friedman’s idea of dropping new money from a helicopter. He used this example to demonstrate how easy it would theoretically be for a government to create inflation. What he didn’t say was that such a drop would redistribute income in the same way more gold from Cantillon’s mines did, towards those standing underneath the helicopter and away from everyone else.

So now we know we have a slightly better understanding of who pays: whoever is furthest away from the newly created money. And we have a better understanding of how they pay: through a reduction in their own spending power. The problem is that while they will be acutely aware of the reduction in their own spending power, they will be less aware of why their spending power has declined. So if they find groceries becoming more expensive they blame the retailers for raising prices; if they find petrol unaffordable, they blame the oil companies; if they find rents too expensive they blame landlords, and so on. So now we see the mechanism by which debasing money debases trust. The unaware victims of this accidental redistribution don’t know who the enemy is, so they create an enemy.

Keynes was well aware of this insidious dynamic and articulated it beautifully in a 1919 essay:

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. … Those to whom the system brings windfalls… become “profiteers” who are the object of the hatred…. the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery.

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.

Deliberately impoverishing one group in society is a bad thing to do. But impoverishing a group in such an opaque, clandestine and underhanded way is worse. It is not only unjust but dangerous and potentially destructive. A clear and transparent fiscal policy which openly redistributes from the rich to the poor can at least be argued on some level to be consistent with ‘social justice.’ Governments can at least claim to be playing Robin Hood. There is no such defense for a monetary driven redistribution towards recipients of the new money and away from everyone else because if the well-off are closest to the money, well, it will have the perverse effect of benefitting them at the expense of the poor.

Take the past few decades. Prior to the 2008 crash, central banks set interest rates according to what their crystal ball told them the future would be like. They were supposed to raise them when they thought the economy was growing too fast and cut them when they thought it was growing too slow. They were supposed to be clever enough to banish the boom-bust cycle, and this was a nice idea. The problem was that it didn’t work. One reason was because central bankers weren’t as clever as they thought. Another was because they had a bias to lower rates during the bad times but not raise them adequately during the good times. On average therefore, credit tended to be too cheap and so the demand for debt was artificially high. Since that new debt was used to buy assets, the prices of assets rose in a series of asset bubbles around the world. And this unprecedented, secular and largely global credit inflation created an illusion of prosperity which was fun for most people while it lasted.

But beneath the surface, the redistributive mechanism upon which monetary policy relies was at work. Like Cantillon’s gold miners, those closest to the new credit (financial institutions and anyone working in finance industry) were the prime beneficiaries. In 2012 the top 50 names on the Forbes list of richest Americans included the fortunes of eleven investors, financiers or hedge fund managers. In 1982 the list had none.

Besides this redistribution of wealth towards the financial sector was a redistribution to those who were already asset-rich. Asset prices were inflated by cheap credit and the assets themselves could be used as collateral for it. The following chart suggests the size of this transfer from poor to rich might have been quite meaningful, with the top 1% of earners taking the biggest a share of the pie since the last great credit inflation, that of the 1920s.

Who paid? Those with no access to credit, those with no assets, or those who bought assets late in the asset inflations and which now nurse the problem balance sheets. They all paid. Worse still, future generations were victims too, since one way or another  they’re on the hook for it.

So with their crackpot monetary ideas, central banks have been robbing Peter to pay Paul without knowing which one was which. And a problem here is this thing behavioural psychologists call self-attribution bias. It describes how when good things happen to people they think it’s because of something they did, but when bad things happen to them they think it’s because of something someone else did. So although Peter doesn’t know why he’s suddenly poor, he knows it must be someone else’s fault. He also sees that Paul seems to be doing OK. So being human, he makes the obvious connection: it’s all Paul and people like Paul’s fault.

But Paul has a different way of looking at it. Also being human, he assumes he’s doing OK because he’s doing something right. He doesn’t know what the problem is other than Peter’s bad attitude. Needless to say, he resents Peter for his bad attitude. So now Peter and Paul don’t trust each other. And this what happens when you play games with society’s bonding.

When we look around we can’t help feeling something similar is happening. The 99% blame the 1%; the 1% blame the 47%. In the aftermath of the Eurozone’s own credit bubbles, the Germans blame the Greeks. The Greeks round on the foreigners. The Catalans blame the Castilians. And as 25% of the Italian electorate vote for a professional comedian whose party slogan “vaffa” means roughly “f**k off” (to everything it seems, including the common currency), the Germans are repatriating their gold from New York and Paris. Meanwhile in China, that centrally planned mother of all credit inflations, popular anger is being directed at Japan, and this is before its own credit bubble chapter has fully played out. (The rising risk of war is something we are increasingly worried about…). Of course, everyone blames the bankers (“those to whom the system brings windfalls… become ‘profiteers’ who are the object of the hatred”).

But what does it mean for the owner of capital? If our thinking is correct, the solution would be less monetary experimentation. Yet we are likely to see more. Bernanke has monetized about a half of the federally guaranteed debt issued since 2009 (see chart below). The incoming Bank of England governor thinks the UK’s problem hasn’t been too much monetary experimentation but too little, and likes the idea of actively targeting nominal GDP. The PM in Tokyo thinks his country’s every ill is a lack of inflation, and his new guy at the Bank of Japan is revving up its printing presses to buy government bonds, corporate bonds and ETFs. China’s shadow banking credit bubble meanwhile continues to inflate…

For all we know there might be another round of illusory prosperity before our worst fears are realised. With any luck, our worst fears never will be. But if the overdose of monetary medicine made us ill, we don’t understand how more of the same medicine will make us better.

We do know that the financial market analogue to trust is yield. The less trustful lenders are of borrowers, the higher the yield they demand to compensate. But interest rates, or what’s left of them, are at historic lows. In other words, there is a glaring disconnect between the distrust central banks are fostering in the real world and the unprecedented trust lenders are signaling to borrowers in the financial world.

Of course, there is no such thing as “risk-free” in the real world. Holders of UK cash have seen a cumulative real loss of around 10% since the crash of 2008. Holders of US cash haven’t done much better. If we were to hope to find safety by lending to what many consider to be an excellent credit, Microsoft, by buying its bonds, we’d have to lend to them until 2021 to earn a gross return roughly the same as the current rate of US inflation. But then we’d have to pay taxes on the coupons. And we’d have to worry about whether or not the rate of inflation was going to rise meaningfully from here, because the 2021 maturity date is eight years away and eight years is a long time. And then we’d have to worry about where our bonds were held, and whether or not they were being lent out by our custodian. And of course, this would all be before we’d worried about whether Microsoft’s business was likely to remain safe over an eight year horizon.

We are happy to watch others play that game. There are some outstanding businesses and individuals with whom we are happy to invest. In an ideal world we would have neither Peters nor Pauls. In the imperfect one in which we live, we have to settle for trying hard to avoid the Pauls, who we fear mistake entrepreneurial competence for proximity to the money well. But when we find the real thing, the timeless ingenuity of the honest entrepreneurs,  the modest craftsmen and craftswomen who humbly seek to improve the lot of their customers through their own enterprise, we find inspiration too, for as investors we try to model our own practice on theirs. It is no secret that our quest is to find scarcity. But the scarce substance we prize above all else is trustworthiness. Aware that we worry too much in a world growing more wary and distrustful, it is here we place an increasing premium, here that we seek refuge from financial folly and here that we expect the next bull market.

This article was previously published in Edelweiss Journal, Issue 12 (11 March 2013)

Economics

The loss of trust and the Great Disorder

At its most fundamental level, economic activity is no more than an exchange between strangers. It depends, therefore, on a degree of trust between strangers. Since money is the agent of exchange, it is the agent of trust. Debasing money therefore debases trust. History is replete with Great Disorders in which social cohesion has been undermined by currency debasements. The multi-decade credit inflation can now be seen to have had similarly corrosive effects. Yet central banks continue down the same route. The writing is on the wall. Further debasement of money will cause further debasement of society. I fear a Great Disorder.

I am more worried than I have ever been about the clouds gathering today. I hope they pass without breaking, but I fear the defining feature of coming decades will be a Great Disorder of the sort which has defined past epochs and scarred whole generations.

“Next to language, money is the most important medium through which modern societies communicate,” writes Bernd Widdig in his masterful analysis of Germany’s inflation crisis, Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany (2001). His may be an abstract observation, but it has the commendable merit of being true… all economic activity requires the cooperation of strangers and therefore, a degree of trust between cooperating strangers. Since money is the agent of such mutual trust, debasing money implies debasing the trust upon which social cohesion rests.

So I keep wondering to myself, do our money-printing central banks and their cheerleaders understand the full consequences of the monetary debasement they continue to engineer? Inflation of the CPI might be a consequence both seen and measurable. A broad inflation of asset prices might be a consequence seen, though not measurable. But what about the consequences that are unseen and unmeasurable—and are all the more destructive for it? I feel queasy about the enthusiasm with which our wise economists play games with something about which we have such a poor understanding.

If you take a look around you, any artefact you see will only be there thanks to the cooperative behaviour of lots of people you don’t know. You will probably never know them, nor they you. The screen you watch on your terminal, the content you read, the orders which make the prices flicker… the coffee you drink, the cup you hold, the bin you throw it in afterwards… all your clothes, all your accessories, all the buildings you’ve been in, all the cars… you get the idea. Without exception, everything you own, everything you want to own, everything you need, and everything you think you need embodies the different skills and talents of a mind-boggling number of complete strangers. In a very real sense we constantly trust in strangers to a degree, as strangers trust us. Such cooperative activity is to everyone’s great benefit and I find it is a marvellous thing to behold.

The value strangers put on each other’s contributions manifests itself in prices, and prices require money. So it is through money that we express the extent of our appreciation for the many different talents embedded in each thing we consume, and through money that our skills are in turn valued by others. Money, in other words, is the agent of this anonymous exchange, and therefore money is also the agent of the hidden trust on which it depends. Thus, as Bernd Widdig reflects in his book, money “is more than simply a tool for economic exchange; its different qualities shape the way modern people think, how they make sense of their reality, how they communicate, and ultimately how they find their place and identity in a modern environment.”

Debasing money might be expected to have effects beyond the merely financial domain. Of course, there are many ways to debase money. Coin can be clipped, paper money can be printed, credit can be created on the basis of demand deposits which aren’t there… The effects are ultimately the same, though: the implied trust that money communicates through society is eroded.

To see how, consider the example of money printing by authorities. We know that such an exercise raises revenues since the authorities now have a very real increase in purchasing power. But we also know that revenue cannot be raised by one party without another party paying. So who pays?

If the authorities raise taxes explicitly and openly, voters know exactly why they have less spending power. They also know how much less spending power they have. But if the authorities instead raise money by simply printing it, they raise the revenue by stealth. No one knows upon whom the burden falls. People notice only that they can’t afford the things they used to be able to afford, or they can’t afford the things which everyone else can afford. They know that something is wrong, but they just don’t know what, why, or who is to blame. So inevitably they look for someone to blame.

The dynamic is similar to that found in the wellworn plot line in which a group of strangers are initially brought together in happier circumstances, such as a cruise, a long train journey or a weekend away. In the beginning, spirits are high. The strangers exchange jokes and get to know one another as the journey begins. Then some crime is committed. They know it must be one of them, but they don’t know who. A great suspicion ensues. All trust between them is broken down and the infighting begins…

So it is with monetary debasement, as Keynes understood deeply (so deeply, in fact, that it’s ironic so many of today’s crude Keynesians support QE so enthusiastically). In his 1919 book The Economic Consequences of the Peace, he wrote:

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. … Those to whom the system brings windfalls … become “profiteers,” who are the object of the hatred…. the process of wealth-getting degenerates into a gamble and a lottery. … 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.

Lessons from history

History is replete with Great Disorders in which currency debasement has coincided with social infighting and scapegoating. I have written in the past about the Roman inflation of the Third Century AD. During what is known as the Third Century Crisis, turnover of emperors reached an alarming rate: The second half of the century witnessed the succession of 31 emperors, more than twice that of the previous 50 years. As trade declined, crops failed and the military suffered what must have seemed like constant defeat, it wasn’t difficult for a successful or even popular general to convince the rest of the empire that he’d make a better fist of governing.

But this political turnover was accompanied by what may be history’s first recorded instance of systematic currency debasement. With the empire no longer expanding and barbarians being forced westwards by the migrations of the Steppe peoples, Rome’s borders were under threat. But the money required to fund defense wasn’t there. Successive emperors therefore reached the same conclusions that kings, princes, tyrants and democratically elected governments would later reach down the ages when faced with a perceived “shortage of money”: they created more by debasing the existing stock. In the second half of the third century, the silver content of a denarius shrunk from over 40% to zero. Copper coins disappeared altogether.

So the Romans turned on their Christians with a great violence which lasted throughout the period of the currency debasement but peaked with Diocletian’s edict of 303 AD. The edict decreed, among other things, that Christian meeting places be destroyed, Christians holding office be stripped of that office, Christian freedmen be made slaves once more and all scriptures be destroyed. Diocletian’s earlier edict, of 301 AD, sought to regulate prices and set out punishments for “profiteers” whose prices deviated from those set out in the edict.

A similar dynamic seems evident during Europe’s medieval inflations, only now, the confused and vain effort to make sense of the enveloping turmoil saw the blame focus on suspected witches. Charting the UK price index over the period with the incidence of witchcraft trials reveals that the peak of trials coincided with the peak of the price revolution.

Were the same dynamics at work during the French Revolution of 1789? The narrative of Madame Guillotine and her bloody role is well known. However, the execution of royalty by the Paris Commune didn’t begin until 1792, and the Reign of Terror in which Robespierre’s Orwellian-sounding “Committee of Public Safety” slaughtered 17,000 nobles and counter–revolutionaries didn’t start until well into 1793. In the words of guillotined revolutionary Georges Danton, this is when the French revolution “ate itself.” But the coincidence of these events to the monetary debasement is striking.

The political violence was justified in part by blaming nobles and counter-revolutionaries for galloping inflation in food prices. It saw “speculators” banned from trading gold, and prices for firewood, coal and grain became subject to strict controls. According to Andrew Dickson White, author of Fiat Money Inflation in France (1896), “economic calculation gave way to feverish speculation across the country.”

However, the most tragic of all the inflations in my opinion, and certainly the starkest example of a society turning on itself was the German hyperinflation. Its causes are well known. Morally and financially bankrupt by the First World War, the reparation demands of the Allies (which Keynes argued vociferously against) followed by the French occupation of the Ruhr served to humiliate a once-mighty nation, already on its knees.

And it really was on its knees. Germany simply had no way to pay. The revolution following the flight of the Kaiser was incomplete. Concern was widespread that Germany would follow the path blazed by Moscow’s Bolsheviks only a year earlier. A de facto civil war was being fought on the streets of major cities between extremist mobs of the left and right. Six million veterans newly demobilized, demoralized, dazed and without work were unable to support their families. The great political need was to pay off the “internal debts” of pensions, life insurance and welfare support in any way possible. The risk of printing whatever was required was well understood. Bernhard Dernberg, vice chancellor in 1919, found himself overwhelmed with promises to pay for the war disabled, food subsidies, unemployment insurance, etc., but everyone knew where the money was coming from:

A decision of the National Assembly is made. On its basis, Reich Treasury bills are printed and on the basis of the Reich Treasury bills, notes are printed. That is our money. The result is that we have a pure assignat economy.

But print they did. Prices would rise by a factor of one trillion. At the end of the war, Germany owed 154 billion Reichmarks to its creditors. By November 1923, that sum measured in 1914 purchasing power was worth only 15 pfennigs.

It is difficult to comprehend the psychological trauma inflicted by this episode. Inflation inverted the efficacy of correct behaviour. It turned the ethics of thrift, frugality and notions such as working hard today to bring benefit tomorrow completely on their heads. Why work today when your rewards would mean nothing tomorrow? What use thrift and saving? Why not just borrow in depreciating currency? Those who had worked and saved all their lives, done everything correctly and invested what they had been told was safe, were mercilessly punished for their trust in established principles and their inability to see the danger coming. Those with no such faith who had seen the danger coming had benefited handsomely.

Everything, in other words, was dependent on one’s ability to speculate, recalling what Dickson White observed of the French Revolution and Keynes’s reflections more generally. Erich Remarque is best known for his anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) but perhaps his best work was the The Black Obelisk (1956) set in the early Weimar period, a penetrating meditation on the upside-down world of inflation. The protagonist Georg poignantly captures this speculative imperative when he sits down and lets out a long sigh: “Thank God that it’s Sunday tomorrow… there are no rates of exchange for the dollar. Inflation stops for one day of the week. That was surely not God’s intention when he created Sunday.”

Perhaps the most eloquent chronicler of the Weimar hyperinflation was Elias Canetti, whose mother moved him from the security of Zurich to Frankfurt in 1921 to take advantage of cheaper living. Canetti never forgave her, and his life’s work shows what a lasting impression the move from heaven to hell made: “A man who has been accustomed to rely on [the monetary value of the mark] cannot help feeling its degradation as his own. He has identified himself with it for too long, and his confidence in it has been like his confidence in himself… Whatever he is or was, like the million he always wanted, he becomes nothing.”

More tragic still was what German society became during the inflation. Like other Axis countries on the wrong side of the War and now in the grip of hyperinflation, Germany turned viciously on its Jews. It blamed them for the surrounding evil as Romans had blamed Christians, medieval Europeans had suspected witches, and French revolutionaries had blamed the nobility during previous inflations. In his classic Crowds and Power (1960), Canetti attributed the horror of National Socialism directly to a “morbid re-enaction impulse”:

No one ever forgets a sudden depreciation of himself, for it is too painful. … The natural tendency afterwards is to find something which is worth even less than oneself, which one can despise as one was despised oneself. It is not enough to take over an old contempt and to maintain it at the same level. What is wanted is a dynamic process of humiliation. Something must be treated in such a way that it becomes worth less and less, as the unit of money did during the inflation. And this process must be continued until its object is reduced to a state of utter worthlessness. … In its treatment of the Jews National Socialism repeated the process of inflation with great precision. First they were attacked as wicked and dangerous, as enemies; then, there not being enough in Germany itself, those in the conquered territories were gathered in; and finally they were treated literally as vermin, to be destroyed with impunity by the million.

All this is very disturbing stuff, but testament to a relationship between currency devaluation and social devaluation. Mine is not a complete or in any way rigorous analysis, I know. I emphasize that it’s not in any way meant as some sort of crude mapping on to today’s environment. My point is to show that money operates in many social domains beyond the financial, and that tying currency devaluation to social devaluation might have some merit.

Consider some recent and less extreme currency inflations. The 1970s bear market in equities saw relatively mild inflation which was also characterized by relatively mild but nevertheless real fractionalization of society. An ideological left-vs-right battle played out between labour and capital, unions and non-unions and perhaps most bizarrely, between rock and disco. As already stated, money implies a trust in the future. It implies that today’s money can be used in the future. So in the era of punk, did the Sex Pistols’ cry of “No future” provide the most concise commentary of the malaise?

Credit inflation in recent decades

Despite the CPI inflation of the 1970s receding, our central banks have continued to play games with money. We’ve since lived through what might be the largest credit inflation in financial history, a credit hyperinflation. Where has it left us? Median US household incomes have been stagnant for the best part of twenty years.

Yet inequality has surged. While a record number of Americans are on food stamps, the top 1% of income earners are taking a larger share of total income than since the peak of the 1920s credit inflation. Moreover, the growth in that share has coincided almost exactly with the more recent credit inflation.

These phenomena are inflation’s hallmarks. In the Keynes quote above, he alludes to the “artificial and iniquitous redistribution of wealth” inflation imposes on society without being specific. What actually happens is that artificially created money redistributes wealth towards those closest to it, to the detriment of those furthest away.

Richard Cantillon, writing decades before Adam Smith, was the first to observe this effect (hence the “Cantillon effect”). By thinking through the effects in Spain and Portugal of the influx of gold from the new world, he showed how those closest to the money source benefited unfairly at the expense of others:

If the increase of actual money comes from mines of gold or silver… the owner of these mines, the adventurers, the smelters, refiners, and all the other workers will increase their expenditures in proportion to their gains. … All this increase of expense in meat, wine, wool, etc. diminishes of necessity the share of the other inhabitants of the state who do not participate at first in the wealth of the mines in question. The altercations of the market, or the demand for meat, wine, wool, etc. being more intense than usual, will not fail to raise their prices. … Those then who will suffer from this dearness… will be first of all the landowners, during the term of their leases, then their domestic servants and all the workmen or fixed wage-earners … All these must diminish their expenditure in proportion to the new consumption.

In other words, the beneficiaries of newly created money spend that money and bid up the price of goods with their higher demand. Those who suffer are those who have to pay newly higher prices but did not benefit from the newly created money.

The credit inflation analog to the Cantillon effect has played out perfectly in recent decades. Central banks provided cheap money to banks, the cheap money artificially inflated asset prices, artificially inflated asset prices made anyone connected to those assets rich as we became a nation of speculators, those riches were achieved at everyone else’s expense, and “everyone else” has now realized what has happened and is understandable enraged. As Keynes explained, “Those to whom the system brings windfalls… are the object of the hatred.”

And now the social debasement is clear for all to see. The 99% blame the 1%, the 1% blame the 47%, the private sector blames the public sector, the public sector returns the sentiment… the young blame the old, everyone blames the rich… yet few question the ideas behind government or central banks.

I’d feel a whole lot better if central banks stopped playing games with money. But I can’t see that happening anytime soon. The ECB has thrown the towel in, following the Swiss National Bank last year in committing effectively to print unlimited amounts of money for the greater good. The Bank of England and the Fed have long since made a virtue of what was once considered a necessity, with what was once the unconventional conventional. As James Bullard told everyone a few weeks before the last Fed meeting, lest there be any doubt: “Markets have this idea that, there’s QE1 and QE2, so QE3 must be the same as those previous ones. It’s not that clear to me that this is the way this is going … it would just be to do balance sheet policy as the exact analogue of interest rate policy.” In other words, the central banks’ balance sheets are the new policy tool. As interest rates embarked on a multi-year decline from the 1980s on, central bank balance sheets are set to embark on a multi-year climb.

So as Nobel Prize winning experts in economics punch the air because inflation expectations have been rising since the policy was announced, “It’s the whole point of the exercise” (Duh!), the Bank of England admits that QE has mainly benefited the rich, but vows to continue anyway.

All I see is more of the same — more money debasement, more unintended consequences and more social disorder. Since I worry that it will be a Great Disorder, I remain very bullish on safe havens.

This essay was originally published on 2 October 2012. It was featured in the 17 October edition of the Edelweiss Journal (Issue 9), and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. Copyright The Societe Generale Group 2012.