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Economics

As Germany loses battle for ECB, QE goes global

What is Super Mario up to?

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

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

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

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

This is Eurozone QE

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

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

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

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

Draghi turns away from the Germans

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

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

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

Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

Economics

Our obsession with monetary stimulus will end in disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economics

QE will come to the eurozone – and, like elsewhere, it will be a failure

The data was not really surprising and neither was the response from the commentariat. After a run of weak reports from Germany over recent months, last week’s release of GDP data for the eurozone confirmed that the economy had been flatlining in the second quarter. Predictably, this led to new calls for ECB action. “Europe now needs full-blown QE” diagnosed the leader writer of the Financial Times, and in its main report on page one the paper quoted Richard Barwell, European economist at Royal Bank of Scotland with “It’s time the ECB took control and we got the real deal, instead of the weaker measure unveiled in June.”

I wonder if calls for more ‘stimulus’ are now simply knee-jerk reactions, mere Pavlovian reflexes imbued by five years of near relentless policy easing. Do these economists and leader writers still really think about their suggestions? If so, what do they think Europe’s ills are that easy money and cheap credit are going to cure them? Is pumping ever more freshly printed money into the banking system really the answer to every economic problem? And has QE been a success where it has been pursued?

The fact is that money has hardly been tight in years – at least not at the central bank level, at the core of the system. Granted, banks have not been falling over one another to extend new loans but that is surely not surprising given that they still lick their wounds from 2008. The ongoing “asset quality review” and tighter regulation are doing their bit, too, and if these are needed to make finance safer, as their proponents claim, then abandoning them for the sake of a quick – and ultimately short-lived – GDP rebound doesn’t seem advisable. The simple fact is that lenders are reluctant to lend and borrowers reluctant to borrow, and both may have good reasons for their reluctance.

Do we really think that Italian, French, and German companies have drawers full of exciting investment projects that would instantly be put to work if only rates were lower? I think it is a fairly safe bet that whatever investment project Siemens, BMW, Total and Fiat can be cajoled into via the lure of easy money will by now have been realized. The easy-money drug has a rapidly diminishing marginal return.

Global perspective

In most major economies, rates have been close to zero for more than five years and various additional stimulus measures have been taken, including some by the ECB, even if they fell short of outright QE. Yet, the global economy is hardly buzzing. The advocates of central bank activism will point to the US and the UK. Growth there has recently been stronger and many expect a rise in interest rates in the not too distant future. Yet, even if we take the US’ latest quarterly GDP data of an annualized 4 percent at face value (it was a powerful snap-back from a contraction in Q1), the present recovery, having started in 2009, still is the slowest in the post-World-War-II period, and by some margin. The Fed is not done with its bond-buying program yet, fading it out ever so slowly and carefully, fearful that the economy, or at any rate overstretched financial markets, could buckle under a more ‘normal’ policy environment, if anybody still knows what that may look like. We will see how much spring is left in the economy’s step once stimulus has been removed fully and interest rates begin to rise — if that will ever happen.

Then there is Japan, under Abe and Kuroda firmly committed to QE-square and thus the new poster-boy of the growth-through-money-printing movement. Here the economy contracted in Q2 by a staggering 6.8% annualized, mimicking its performance from when it was hit by a tsunami in 2011. This time economic contraction appears to have been mainly driven by an increase in the country’s sale tax (I guess the government has to rein in its deficit at some stage, even in Japan), which had initially caused a strong Q1, as consumers front-loaded purchases in anticipation of the tax hike. Now it was pay-back time. Still, looking through the two quarters, the Wall Street Journal speaks of “Japan’s slow recovery despite heavy stimulus”.

Elsewhere the debate has moved on

In the Anglo-Saxon countries the debate about the negative side-effects of ultra-easy money seems to be intensifying. Last week Martin Feldstein and Robert Rubin, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, warned of risks to financial stability from the Fed’s long-standing policy stimulus, pointing towards high asset values and tight risk premiums, stressing that monetary policy was asked to do too much. Paul Singer, founder of the Elliott Management hedge fund and the nemesis of Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was reported as saying that ultra-easy monetary policy had failed and that structural reforms and a more business-friendly regulatory environment were needed instead. All of this even before you consider my case (the Austrian School case) that every form of monetary stimulus is ultimately disruptive because it can at best buy some growth near term at the price of distorting capital markets and sowing the seeds of a correction in the future. No monetary stimulus can ever lead to lasting growth.

None of this seems to faze the enthusiasts for more monetary intervention in Europe. When data is soft, the inevitable response is to ask the ECB to print more money.

The ECB’s critics are correct when they claim that the ECB has recently been less accommodative than some of its cousins, namely the Fed and the Bank of Japan. So the eurozone economy stands in front of us naked and without much monetary make-up. If we do not like what we see then the blame should go to Europe’s ineffectual political elite, to France’s socialist president Hollande, whose eat-the-rich tax policies and out-of-control state bureaucracy cripple the country; to Ms Merkel, who not only has failed to enact a single pro-growth reform program since becoming Germany’s chancellor (how long can the country rest on the Schroeder reforms of 2002?) but now embraces a national minimum wage and a lower retirement age of 63, positions she previously objected to; to Italy’s sunny-boy Renzi who talks the talk but has so far failed to walk the walk. But then it has been argued that under democracy the people get the rulers they deserve. Europe’s structural impediments to growth often appear to enjoy great public support.

Calls for yet easier monetary conditions and more cheap credit are a sign of intellectual bankruptcy and political incompetence. They will probably be heeded.

Economics

These fake rallies will end in tears

[Editor’s note: This article also appears on Detlev Schlichter’s blog here. It is reproduced with kind permission and should NOT be taken to be investment advice.]

Investors and speculators face some profound challenges today: How to deal with politicized markets, continuously “guided” by central bankers and regulators? To what extent do prices reflect support from policy, in particular super-easy monetary policy, and to what extent other, ‘fundamental’ factors? And how is all this market manipulation going to play out in the long run?

New York Stock Exchange 1963 (Photo: Wikimedia; US News and World Report; Library of Congress)

New York Stock Exchange 1963 (Photo: Wikimedia; US News and World Report; Library of Congress)

It is obvious that most markets would not be trading where they are trading today were it not for the longstanding combination of ultra-low policy rates and various programs of ‘quantitative easing’ around the world, some presently diminishing (US), others potentially increasing (Japan, eurozone). As major US equity indices closed last week at another record high and overall market volatility remains low, some observers may say that the central banks have won. Their interventions have now established a nirvana in which asset markets seem to rise almost continuously but calmly, with carefully contained volatility and with their downside apparently fully insured by central bankers who are ready to ease again at any moment. Those who believe in Schumpeter’s model of “bureaucratic socialism”, a system that he expected ultimately to replace capitalism altogether, may rejoice: Increasingly the capitalist “jungle” gets replaced with a well-ordered, centrally managed system guided by the enlightened bureaucracy. Reading the minds of Yellen, Kuroda, Draghi and Carney is now the number one game in town. Investors, traders and economists seem to care about little else.

“The problem is that we’re not there [in a low volatility environment] because markets have decided this, but because central banks have told us…” Sir Michael Hintze, founder of hedge fund CQS, observed in conversation with the Financial Times (FT, June 14/15 2014). “The beauty of capital markets is that they are voting systems, people vote every day with their wallets. Now voting is finished. We’re being told what to do by central bankers – and you lose money if you don’t follow their lead.”

That has certainly been the winning strategy in recent years. Just go with whatever the manipulators ordain and enjoy rising asset values and growing investment profits. Draghi wants lower yields on Spanish and Italian bonds? – He surely gets them. The US Fed wants higher equity prices and lower yields on corporate debt? – Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen, if you say so, I am sure we can arrange it. Who would ever dare to bet against the folks who are entrusted with the legal monopoly of unlimited money creation? “Never fight the Fed” has, of course, been an old adage in the investment community. But it gets a whole new meaning when central banks busy themselves with managing all sorts of financial variables directly, from the shape of the yield curve, the spreads on mortgages, to the proceedings in the reverse repo market.

Is this the “new normal”/”new neutral”? The End of History and the arrival of the Last Man, all over again?

The same FT article quoted Salman Ahmed, global bond strategist at Lombard Odier Investment Managers as follows: “Low volatility is the most important topic in markets right now. On the one side you have those who think this is the ‘new normal’, on the other are people like me who think it cannot last. This is a very divisive subject.”

PIMCO’s Bill Gross seems to be in the “new normal” camp. At the Barron’s mid-year roundtable 2014 (Barron’s, June 16, 2014) he said: “We don’t expect the party to end with a bang – the popping of a bubble. […] We have been talking about what we call the New Neutral – sluggish but stable global growth and continued low rates.”

In this debate I come down on the side of Mr. Ahmed (and I assume Sir Michael). This cannot last, in my view. It will end and end badly. Policy has greatly distorted markets, and financial risk seems to be mis-priced in many places. Market interventions by central banks, governments and various regulators will not lead to a stable economy but to renewed crises. Prepare for volatility!

Bill Gross’ expectation of a new neutral seems to be partly based on the notion that persistently high indebtedness contains both growth and inflation and makes a return to historic levels of policy rates near impossible. Gross: “…a highly levered economy can’t withstand historic rates of interest. […] We see rates rising to 2% in 2017, but the market expects 3% or 4%. […] If it is close to 2%, the markets will be supported, which means today’s prices and price/earnings are OK.”

Of course I can see the logic in this argument but I also believe that high debt levels and slow growth are tantamount to high degrees of risk and should be accompanied with considerable risk premiums. Additionally, slow growth and substantial leverage mean political pressure for ongoing central bank activism. This is incompatible with low volatility and tight risk premiums. Accidents are not only bound to happen, they are inevitable in a system of monetary central planning and artificial asset pricing.

Low inflation, low rates, and contained market volatility are what we should expect in a system of hard and apolitical money, such as a gold standard. But they are not to be expected – at least not systematically and consistently but only intermittently – in elastic money systems. I explain this in detail in my book Paper Money Collapse – The Folly of Elastic Money. Elastic money systems like our present global fiat money system with central banks that strive for constant (if purportedly moderate) inflation must lead to persistent distortions in market prices (in particular interest rates) and therefore capital misallocations. This leads to chronic instability and recurring crises. The notion that we might now have backed into a gold-standard-like system of monetary tranquility by chance and without really trying seems unrealistic to me, and the idea is even more of a stretch for the assumption that it should be excessive debt – one of elastic money’s most damaging consequences – that could, inadvertently and perversely, help ensure such stability. I suspect that this view is laden with wishful thinking. In the same Barron’s interview, Mr. Gross makes the statement that “stocks and bonds are artificially priced,” (of course they are, hardly anyone could deny it) but also that “today’s prices and price/earnings are OK.” This seems a contradiction to me. Here is why I believe the expectation of the new neutral is probably wrong, and why so many “mainstream” observers still sympathize with it.

  1. Imbalances have accumulated over time. Not all were eradicated in the recent crisis. We are not starting from a clean base. Central banks are now all powerful and their massive interventions are tolerated and even welcome by many because they get “credited” with having averted an even worse crisis. But to the extent that that this is indeed the case and that their rate cuts, liquidity injections and ‘quantitative easing’ did indeed come just in time to arrest the market’s liquidation process, chances are these interventions have sustained many imbalances that should also have been unwound. These imbalances are probably as unsustainable in the long run as the ones that did get unwound, and even those were often unwound only partially. We simply do not know what these dislocations are or how big they might be. However, I suspect that a dangerous pattern has been established: Since the 1980s, money and credit expansion have mainly fed asset rallies, and central banks have increasingly adopted the role of an essential backstop for financial markets. Recently observers have called this phenomenon cynically the “Greenspan put” or the “Bernanke put” after whoever happens to lead the US central bank at the time but the pattern has a long tradition by now: the 1987 stock market crash, the 1994 peso crisis, the 1998 LTCM-crisis, the 2002 Worldcom and Enron crisis, and the 2007/2008 subprime and subsequent banking crisis. I think it is not unfair to suggest that almost each of these crises was bigger and seemed more dangerous than the preceding one, and each required more forceful and extended policy intervention. One of the reasons for this is that while some dislocations get liquidated in each crisis (otherwise we would not speak of a crisis), policy interventions – not least those of the monetary kind – always saved some of the then accumulated imbalances from a similar fate. Thus, imbalances accumulate over time, the system gets more leveraged, more debt is accumulated, and bad habits are being further entrenched. I have no reason to believe that this has changed after 2008.
  1. Six years of super-low rates and ‘quantitative easing’ have planted new imbalances and the seeds of another crisis. Where are these imbalances? How big are they? – I don’t know. But I do know one thing: You do not manipulate capital markets for years on end with impunity. It is simply a fact that capital allocation has been distorted for political reasons for years. Many assets look mispriced to me, from European peripheral bond markets to US corporate and “high yield” debt, to many stocks. There is tremendous scope for a painful shake-out, and my prime candidate would again be credit markets, although it may still be too early.
  2. “Macro-prudential” policies create an illusion of safety but will destabilize the system further. – Macro-prudential policies are the new craze, and the fact that nobody laughs out loud at the suggestion of such nonsense is a further indication of the rise in statist convictions. These policies are meant to work like this: One arm of the state (the central bank) pumps lots of new money into the system to “stimulate” the economy, and another arm of the state (although often the same arm, namely the central bank in its role as regulator and overseer) makes sure that the public does not do anything stupid with it. The money will thus be “directed” to where it can do no harm. Simple. Example: The Swiss National Bank floods the market with money but stops the banks from giving too many mortgage loans, and this avoids a real estate bubble. “Macro-prudential” is of course a euphemism for state-controlled capital markets, and you have to be a thorough statist with an iron belief in central planning and the boundless wisdom of officers of the state to think that this will make for a safer economy. (But then again, a general belief in all-round state-planning is certainly on the rise.) The whole concept is, of course, quite ridiculous. We just had a crisis courtesy of state-directed capital flows. For decades almost every arm of the US state was involved in directing capital into the US housing market, whether via preferential tax treatment, government-sponsored mortgage insurers, or endless easy money from the Fed. We know how that turned out. And now we are to believe that the state will direct capital more sensibly? — New macro-“prudential” policies will not mean the end of bubbles but only different bubbles. For example, eurozone banks shy away from giving loans to businesses, partly because those are costly under new bank capital requirements. But under those same regulations sovereign bonds are deemed risk-free and thus impose no cost on capital. Zero-cost liquidity from the ECB and Draghi’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to keep the eurozone together, do the rest. The resulting rally in Spanish and Italian bonds to new record low yields may be seen by some as an indication of a healing Europe and a decline in systemic risk but it may equally be another bubble, another policy-induced distortion and another ticking time bomb on the balance sheets of Europe’s banks.
  3. Inflation is not dead. Many market participants seem to believe that inflation will never come back. Regardless of how easy monetary policy gets and regardless for how long, the only inflation we will ever see is asset price inflation. Land prices may rise to the moon but the goods that are produced on the land never get more expensive. – I do not believe that is possible. We will see spill-over effects, and to the extent that monetary policy gets traction, i.e. leads to the expansion of broader monetary aggregates, we will see prices rise more broadly. Also, please remember that central bankers now want inflation. I find it somewhat strange to see markets obediently play to the tune of the central bankers when it comes to risk premiums and equity prices but at the same time see economists and strategists cynically disregard central bankers’ wish for higher inflation. Does that mean the power of money printing applies to asset markets but will stop at consumer goods markets? I don’t think so. – Once prices rise more broadly, this will change the dynamic in markets. Many investors will discount points 1 to 3 above with the assertion that any trouble in the new investment paradise will simply be stomped out quickly by renewed policy easing. However, higher and rising inflation (and potentially rising inflation expectations) makes that a less straightforward bet. Inflation that is tolerated by the central banks must also lead to a re-pricing of bonds and once that gets under way, many other assets will be affected. I believe that markets now grossly underestimate the risk of inflation.

Some potential dislocations

Money and credit expansion are usually an excellent source of trouble. Just give it some time and imbalances will have formed. Since March 2011, the year-over-year growth in commercial and industrial loans in the US has been not only positive but on average clocked in at an impressive 9.2 percent. Monetary aggregate M1 has been growing at double digit or close to double-digit rates for some time. It presently stands at slightly above 10 percent year over year. M2 is growing at around 6 percent.

U.S. Commercial & Industrial Loans (St. Louis Fed - Research)

U.S. Commercial & Industrial Loans (St. Louis Fed – Research)

None of this must mean trouble right away but none of these numbers indicate economic correction or even deflation but point instead to re-leveraging in parts of the US economy. Yields on below-investment grade securities are at record lows and so are default rates. The latter is maybe no surprise. With rates super-low and liquidity ample, nobody goes bust. But not everybody considers this to be the ‘new normal’: “We are surprised at how ebullient credit markets have been in 2014,” said William Conway, co-founder and co-chief executive of Carlyle Group LP, the US alternative asset manager (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal Europe, May 2-4 2014, page 20). “The world continues to be awash in liquidity, and investors are chasing yield seemingly regardless of credit quality and risk.”

“We continually ask ourselves if the fundamentals of the global credit business are healthy and sustainable. Frankly, we don’t think so.”

1 trillion is a nice round number

Since 2009 investors appear to have allocated an additional $1trn to bond funds. In 2013, the Fed created a bit more than $1trn in new base money, and issuance in the investment grade corporate bond market was also around $1trn in 2013, give and take a few billion. A considerable chunk of new corporate borrowing seems to find its way into share buybacks and thus pumps up the equity market. Andrew Smithers in the Financial Times of June 13 2014 estimates that buybacks in the US continue at about $400bn per year. He also observes that non-financial corporate debt (i.e. debt of companies outside the finance sector) “expanded by 9.2 per cent over the past 12 months. US non-financial companies’ leverage is now at a record high relative to output.”

Takeaways

Most investors try to buy cheap assets but the better strategy is often to sell expensive ones. Such a moment in time may be soon approaching. Timing is everything, and it may still be too early. “The trend is my friend” is another longstanding adage on Wall Street. The present bull market may be artificial and already getting long in the tooth but maybe the central planners will have their way a bit longer, and this new “long-only” investment nirvana will continue. I have often been surprised at how far and for how long policy makers can push markets out of kilter. But there will be opportunities for patient, clever and nimble speculators at some stage, when markets inevitably snap back. This is not a ‘new normal’ in my view. It is just a prelude to another crisis. In fact, all this talk of a “new normal” of low volatility and stable markets as far as the eye can see is probably already a bearish indicator and a precursor of pending doom. (Anyone remember the “death of business cycles” in the 1990s, or the “Great Moderation” of the 2000s?)

Investors are susceptible to the shenanigans of the manipulators. They constantly strive for income, and as the central banks suppress the returns on many mainstream asset classes ever further, they feel compelled to go out into riskier markets and buy ever more risk at lower yields. From government bonds they move to corporate debt, from corporate debt to “high yield bonds”, from “high yield” to emerging markets – until another credit disaster awaits them. Investors thus happily do the bidding for the interventionists for as long as the party lasts. That includes many professional asset managers who naturally charge their clients ongoing management fees and thus feel obliged to join the hunt for steady income, often apparently regardless of what the ultimate odds are. In this environment of systematically manipulated markets, the paramount risk is to get sucked into expensive and illiquid assets at precisely the wrong time.

In this environment it may ultimately pay to be a speculator rather than an investor. Speculators wait for opportunities to make money on price moves. They do not look for “income” or “yield” but for changes in prices, and some of the more interesting price swings may soon potentially come on the downside, I believe. As they are not beholden to the need for steady income, speculators should also find it easier to be patient. They should know that their capital cannot be employed profitably at all times. They are happy (or should be happy) to sit on cash for a long while, and maybe let even some of the suckers’ rally pass them by. But when the right opportunities come along they hope to be nimble and astute enough to capture them. This is what macro hedge funds, prop traders and commodity trading advisers traditionally try to do. Their moment may come again.

As Sir Michael at CQS said: “Maybe they [the central bankers] can keep control, but if people stop believing in them, all hell will break loose.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Economics

Keynesian madness: central banks waging war on price stability, savers

[Editor’s note: This article also appears on Detlev Schlichter’s blog here. It is reproduced with kind permission and should NOT be taken to be investment advice.]

There is apparently a new economic danger out there. It is called “very low inflation” and the eurozone is evidently at great risk of succumbing to this menace. “A long period of low inflation – or outright deflation, when prices fall persistently – alarms central bankers”, explains The Wall Street Journal, “because it [low inflation, DS] can cripple growth and make it harder for governments, businesses and consumers to service their debts.” Official inflation readings at the ECB are at 0.7 percent, still positive so no deflation, but certainly very low.

How low inflation cripples growth is not clear to me. “Very low inflation” was, of course, once known as “price stability” and used to invoke more positive connotations. It was not previously considered a health hazard. Why this has suddenly changed is not obvious. Certainly there is no empirical support – usually so highly regarded by market commentators – for the assertion that low inflation, or even deflation, is linked to recessions or depressions, although that link is assumed to exist implicitly or explicitly in the financial press almost daily. In the twentieth century the United States had many years of very low inflation and even outright deflation that were not marked by recessions. In the nineteenth century, throughout the rapidly industrializing world, “very low inflation” or even persistent deflation were the norm, and such deflation was frequently accompanied by growth rates that would today be the envy of any G8 country. To come to think of it, the capitalist economy with its constant tendency to increase productivity should create persistent deflation naturally. Stuff becomes more affordable. Things get cheaper.

“Breaking news: Consumers shocked out of consuming by low inflation!”

So what is the point at which reasonably low inflation suddenly turns into “very low inflation”, and thus becomes dangerous according to this new strand of thinking? Judging by the reception of the Bank of England’s UK inflation report delivered by Mark Carney last week, on the one hand, and the ridicule the financial industry piles onto the ECB on the other – “stupid” is what Appaloosa Management’s David Tepper calls the Frankfurt-based institution according to the FT (May 16) -, the demarcation must lie somewhere between the 1.6 percent reported by Mr. Carney, and the 0.7 that so embarrasses Mr. Draghi.

The argument is frequently advanced that low inflation or deflation cause people to postpone purchases, to defer consumption. By this logic, the Eurozonians expect a €1,000 item to cost €1,007 in a year’s time, and that is not sufficient a threat to their purchasing power to rush out and buy NOW! Hence, the depressed economy. The Brits, on the other hand, can reasonably expect a £1,000 item to fetch £1,016 in a year’s time, and this is a much more compelling reason, one assumes, to consume in the present. The Brits are in fact so keen to beat the coming 2 percent price hikes that they are even loading up on debt again and incur considerable interest rate expenses to buy in the here and now. “Britons are re-leveraging,” tells us Anne Pettifor in The Guardian, “Net consumer credit lending rose by £1.1bn in March alone. Total credit card debt in March 2014 was £56.9bn. The average interest rate on credit card lending, [stands at] at 16.86%.” Britain is, as Ms. Pettifor reminds us, the world’s most indebted nation.

I leave the question to one side for a minute whether these developments should be more reason to “alarm central bankers” than “very low inflation”. They certainly did not alarm Mr. Carney and his colleagues last week, who cheerfully left rates at rock bottom, and nobody called the Bank of England “stupid” either, to my knowledge. They certainly seem not to alarm Ms. Pettifor. She wants the Bank of England to keep rates low to help all those Britons in debt – and probably yet more Britons to get into debt.

Ms. Pettifor has a highly politicized view of money and monetary policy. To her this is all some giant class struggle between the class of savers/creditors and the class of spenders/debtors, and her allegiance is to the latter. Calls for rate hikes from other market commentator thus represent “certain interests,” meaning stingy savers and greedy creditors. That the policy could set up the economy for another crisis does not seem to trouble her.

Echoing Ms. Pettifor, Martin Wolf flatly stated in the FT recently that the “low-risk-seeking saver” no longer served a useful purpose in the global economy, and he approvingly quoted John Maynard Keynes with his call for the “euthanasia of the rentier”. “Interest today rewards no genuine sacrifice,” Keynes wrote back then, obviously in error: Just ask Britons today if not spending their money now but saving it for a rainy day does not involve a genuine sacrifice. Today’s rentiers do not even get interest for their sacrifices, thanks to all the “stimulus” policy. And now the call is for an end to price stability, for combining higher inflation with zero rates. It is not much fun being a saver these days – and I doubt that these policies will make anyone happy in the long run.

Euthanasia of the Japanese rentier

What the “euthanasia of the rentier” may look like we may have chance to see in Japan, an ideal test case for the policy given that the country is home to a rapidly aging population of life-long savers who will rely on their savings in old age. The new policy of Abenomics is supposed to reinvigorate the economy through, among other things, monetary debasement. “In as much as Abenomics was intended to generate strong nominal growth, I have been a big believer,” Trevor Greetham, asset allocation director at Fidelity Worldwide Investment, wrote in the FT last week (FT, May 15, 2014, page 28). “Japan has been in debt deflation for more than 20 years.”

Really? – In March 2013, when Mr. Abe installed Haruhiko Kuroda as his choice of Bank of Japan governor, and Abenomics started in earnest, Japan’s consumer price index stood at 99.4. 20 years earlier, in March 1994, it stood at 99.9 and 10 years ago, in March 2004, at 100.5. Over 20 years Japan’s consumer prices had dropped by 0.5 percent. Of course, there were periods of falling prices and periods of rising prices in between but you need a microscope to detect any broad price changes in the Japanese consumption basket over the long haul. By any realistic measure, the Japanese consumer has not suffered deflation but has enjoyed roughly price stability for 20 years.

“The main problem in the Japanese economy is not deflation, it’s demographics,” Masaaki Shirakawa declared in a speech at Dartmouth College two weeks ago (as reported by the Wall Street Journal Europe on May 15). Mr. Shirakawa is the former Bank of Japan governor who was unceremoniously ousted by Mr. Abe in 2013, so you may say he is biased. Never mind, his arguments make sense to me. “Mr. Shirakawa,” the Journal reports, “calls it ‘a very mild deflation’ [and I call it price stability, DS] that had the benefit of helping Japan maintain low unemployment.” The official unemployment rate in Japan stands at an eye-watering 3.60%. Maybe the Japanese have not fared so poorly with price stability.

Be that as it may, after a year of Abenomics it turns out that higher inflation is not really all it’s cracked up to be. Here is Fidelity’s Mr. Greetham again: “Things are not as straightforward as they were….The sales tax rise pushed Tokyo headline inflation to a 22-year high of 2.9 percent in April, cutting real purchasing power and worsening living standards for the many older consumers on fixed incomes.”

Mr. Greetham’s “older consumers” are probably Mr. Wolf’s “rentiers”, but in any case, these folks are not having a splendid time. The advocates of “easy money” tell us that a weaker currency is a boost to exports but in Japan’s case a weaker yen lifts energy prices as the country is heavily dependent on energy imports.

The Japanese were previously thought to not consume enough because prices weren’t rising fast enough, now they may not consume enough because prices are rising. The problem with going after “nominal growth” is that “real purchasing power” may get a hit.

If all of this is confusing, Fidelity’s Mr. Greetham offers hope. We may just need a bigger boat. More stimulus. “The stock market may need to get lower over the next few months before the government and Bank of Japan are shocked out of their complacency…When domestic policy eases further, as it inevitably will, the case for owning the Japanese market will be compelling once again.”

You see, that is the problem with Keynesian stimulus, you need to do ever more of it, and make it ever bigger, in an effort to outrun the unintended consequences.

Whether Mr. Greetham is right or not on the stock market, I do not know. But one thing seems pretty obvious to me. If you could lastingly improve your economy through easy money and currency debasement, Argentina would be one of the richest countries in the world today, as it indeed was at the beginning of the twentieth century, before the currency debasements of its many incompetent governments began.

No country has ever become more prosperous by debasing its currency and ripping off its savers.

This will end badly – although probably not soon.

Takeaways

What does it all mean? – I don’t know (and I could, of course, be wrong) but I guess the following:

The ECB will cut rates in June but this is the most advertised and anticipated policy easing in a long while. Euro bears will ultimately be disappointed. The ECB does not go ‘all in’, and there is no reason to do so. My hunch is that a pronounced weakening of the euro remains unlikely.

In my humble opinion, and contrary to market consensus, the ECB has run the least worst policy of all major central banks. No QE thus far; the balance sheet has even shrunk; large-scale inactivity. What is not to like?

Ms Pettifor and her fellow saver-haters will get their way in that any meaningful policy tightening is far off, including in the UK and the US. Central banks see their main role now in supporting asset markets, the economy, the banks, and the government. They are positively petrified of potentially derailing anything through tighter policy. They will structurally “under-tighten”. Higher inflation will be the endgame but when that will come is anyone’s guess. Growth will, by itself, not lead to a meaningful response from central bankers.

Abenomics will be tried but it will ultimately fail. The question is if it will first be implemented on such a scale as to cause disaster, or if it will receive its own quiet “euthanasia”, as Mr. Shirakawa seems to suggest. At Dartmouth he claimed “to have the quiet support of some Japanese business leaders who joined the Abe campaign pressuring the Shirakawa BoJ. ‘One of the surprising facts is what CEOs say privately is quite different from what they say publicly,’ he said….’in private they say, No, no, we are fed up with massive liquidity – money does not constrain our investment.’”

Economics

ECB embraces QE faulty logic

Editor’s note: this article, under the title “No end to central bank meddling as ECB embraces ‘quantitative easing’, faulty logic” appears on Detlev Schlichter’s site. It is reprinted with kind permission.

The 2nd edition of his excellent Paper Money Collapse is available for pre-order.

“Who can print money, will print money” is how my friend Patrick Barron put it succinctly the other day. This adage is worth remembering particularly for those periods when central bankers occasionally take the foot off the gas, either because they genuinely believe they solved the problem, or because they want to make a show of appearing careful and measured.

The US Federal Reserve is a case in point. Last year the Fed announced that it was beginning to ‘taper’, that is, carefully reduce its debt monetization program (‘quantitative easing’, QE), and this policy, now enacted, is widely considered the beginning of policy normalization and part of an ‘exit strategy’. But as Jim Rickards pointed out, the Fed already fully tapered twice – after QE1 and after QE2 – only to feel obliged to ‘qe’ again some time later. Whether Ms Yellen is going to see the present ‘taper’ through to its conclusion and whether the whole project will in future be remembered as an ‘exit strategy’ remains to be seen.

So far none of the big central banks has achieved the ‘exit’ despite occasional noises to the contrary. Since the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the global trend has been in one direction and one direction only: From easy money we moved to easier money. QE has been followed by more QE. As I mentioned before, the Fed’s most generous year in its 100-year history was 2013, any talk of ‘tapering’ notwithstanding.

ECB mistrusted by Keynesian consensus

Whenever the European Central Bank reduces its money printing and scales back its market rigging, it invariably unleashes the fury of the Keynesian and inflationist commentariat. In the eyes of its numerous critics, the ECB lacks the proper money-printing credentials of the more pro-active and allegedly more ‘modern’ central banks. It still has a whiff of the old Bundesbank about it, although a few years back, when the ECB flooded the European banking system with cheap liquidity, its balance sheet was larger as a share of GDP than those of its comrades, the Fed and the Bank of England.

The ECB went through two periods of restraint since the crisis: In early 2011 it began to hike interest rates, and in 2013, after the eurozone debt crisis died down, the ECB allowed its balance sheet to shrink by more than €700 billion as banks repaid cheap loans from the central bank. This stood in stark contrast to the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of about $1,000 billion over the same period. The first episode of restraint came to an end in 2012 when the ECB reversed its rate hikes and then cut rates further, ultimately to a new low of just 0.25 percent. Presently, we are still in the second period of restraint, although it too appears to be about to end soon as the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi hinted in his press conference last week at a newfound willingness to embrace unconventional policies to combat ‘deflation’ or even ‘long periods of low inflation’. (The ECB’s harmonized index of consumer prices stood probably at just 0.5% last month.) This means the ECB is likely to cut rates to zero or below soon, or to start asset purchases (‘QE’), or probably both.

Poor logic

This move is hardly surprising in the big scheme of things as outlined above, and the ECB will explain it officially with its mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, from which it does not want to deviate in either direction. This target itself is silly as it assumes that inflation of 1.8 percent is inherently better than inflation of zero (true price stability, if it ever was attainable), or inflation of minus 1.8 percent (deflation). This is, of course, precisely the argument that has been relentlessly and noisily trumpeted by the easy-money advocates in the media, the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, and the reliably shrill Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, among others. A certain measure of inflation is deemed good, very low inflation is bad, and anything below zero, even mild deflation, potentially a disaster. But why should this be the case?

Moderate deflation, that is, slowly declining money prices, may or may not be a symptom of problems elsewhere in the economy, but that slowly declining money prices as such constitute an economic problem lacks any foundation in economics and can easily and quickly be refuted by even a cursory look at economic history. In the 19th century we find extended periods of ongoing, moderate deflation in many economies that simultaneously experienced solid growth in output and substantial rises in living standards, a “coincidence”, wrote Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their influential A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 – 1960, that “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”

Many commentators advance the argument that falling prices depress consumption as purchases get constantly deferred. Even the usually more sober FT-writer John Authers seems to have succumbed to this argument as he explained to his readers last Saturday that prices “fall, thanks to sluggish economic activity. Consumers do not buy now, as goods will be cheaper in future. This lack of consumption slows growth further, and pushes prices down even further.” (John Authers, “Draghi has to back his QE words with action” Financial Times, Saturday April 5/ Sunday April 6 2014, page 24)

This argument, constantly regurgitated by the cheerleaders of money-printing, is weak. First of all, it is certainly no argument in the present environment of close to zero but still positive inflation. If the ECB plans to fight even very low inflation, as Draghi stated at the ECB press conference, than this argument does nothing to support that policy. Certainly, no one defers any purchases when prices are just stable. However, and more importantly, even in a mildly deflationary environment of let’s say 1 to 2 percent per annum, the argument does appear to be a stretch.

Argument ignores time preference

Consumers only contemplate buying something that they consider an economic good, that is, that they consider useful, that they want because it expends some (subjective) use-value to them. In deferring a purchase they can, in a deflationary environment, save money but at the cost of not enjoying the possession of what they want for some time. By not buying a toaster now you may be able to buy it 1 or 2 percent cheaper in a year’s time, or 2 to 4 percent cheaper in two years’ time (always assuming, of course, that the mild deflation persists that long, which nobody can guarantee), but even these small monetary gains come at the expense of not enjoying ownership of the toaster for two years. The small monetary gain obtained by delaying purchases is not for free, as the argument seems to assume, but comes at the cost of waiting. I suggest that only a very small number of items, and only those for which there is very marginal demand indeed, would be affected.

Time preference is not a concept of psychology, it is a constituting element of human action. It is a priori to human action, which means it exists independent of experience or of personal circumstances as it is already entailed in the very concept of what constitutes an ‘economic good’.

If you experienced no time preference in relation to a specific good you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed the possession of that good today or tomorrow. And tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed it that day or the next, and so forth. Logically, you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed possession of it at all, and this means that the good in question is not an economic good for you. You do not care for it.

As George Reisman put is succinctly: To want something means, all else being equal, to want it sooner rather than later.

Be honest, how many purchases over the past 12 months would you not have made had you had a reasonable chance of obtaining the item in question at a 1 or 2 percent discount if you waited a year?

Exactly.

That the prospect of falling prices does not usually deter consumption can be readily seen today in the market for consumer electronics (mobile phones, computers), which has been in deflation – and considerable deflation – for quite some time.

Argument ignores opportunity costs of holding money

The argument also seems to ignore that holding one’s wealth in the form of money involves opportunity costs. Rather than sitting on cash you could enjoy the things you could buy with it. In a deflationary environment, your cash hoard’s purchasing power slowly rises and you can afford ever more nice things with your money, which means the opportunity cost of not spending it constantly goes up. (In a way, while you are waiting four years to buy your toaster at an 8 percent discount to today’s price, buying the toaster is also becoming marginally more attractive to others who are presently holding cash and who may initially not even had an interest in a toaster.)

I think that all that would follow from secular (that is ongoing, systematic but moderate) deflation is that cash would be a more meaningful competitor for other depositories of deferred consumption. Saving by simply holding money makes sense in a deflationary environment, so other vehicles to save with (bonds and shares) would have to offer a return reasonably above the expected deflation rate to attract savings. I think this is not an unreasonably high hurdle.

Furthermore, if what Authers and others describe were true for even marginal deflation, that is, if marginal deflation indeed led to more deflation and a progressively weakening economy, the reverse must logically be true for marginal inflation. Consumers would accelerate their purchases to avoid the 1 or 2 percent loss in purchasing power per annum, and this would quickly drive inflation higher. If two percent deflation led to cash hoarding and a collapse in consumption, would the 2 percent inflation advocated today as ‘price stability’ not lead to a spike in money velocity and an inflationary boom? Either scenario seems highly unrealistic.

Monetary causes versus non-monetary causes

If we use the economic terminology correctly, then inflation and deflation are always monetary phenomena, that is, they always have monetary causes. (As an aside, I here use the now standard definition of inflation as an ongoing, trending rise in the general price level, and deflation as the opposite, rather than the traditional meaning of inflation as an expansion of the money supply and deflation as a contraction.) However, the starting point of the present discussion is simply some low readings on the official inflation statistics in the eurozone. And that those could have non-monetary causes, that they could be the consequence of a crisis-driven drop in real demand in certain industries and certain countries is a realistic assumption and is in fact implied by the arguments of the QE-advocates. Outright deflation is presently being recorded in Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. And John Authers’ short statement on deflation in the FT also starts from the assumption that “prices fall thanks to sluggish economic activity.”

But to the extent that recorded deflation is not due to a general rise in money’s purchasing power (due to a general rise in money demand or an unchanged or falling money supply, to which I come soon) but the result of some producers slashing certain prices in certain industries and regions, and of those price drops not being fully compensated by rising prices somewhere else in eurozone, then this has various implications:

Consumers cannot simply assume that this is a lasting trend. The liquidation of capital misallocations and the discounting of merchandise to get it moving are crisis phenomena and cannot simply be extrapolated into the future the way consumers may have extrapolated the secular deflation of gold standard economies in the 19th century. But the straight extrapolation of very recent price changes into the future is at the core of the argument that even small deflation would be disastrous.

Furthermore, it would seem bizarre to advice merchants to not slash prices when demand drops as that would, according to the logic advanced by Authers et al, only lead to further postponement of consumption and a further drop in demand as consumers would simply expect price declines to continue. Would hiking prices be a better strategy to counter falling demand? Should we reconsider the concept of the “sale” and of “discounting” inventory to encourage buying?

To a considerable degree, the reduction in certain prices for ‘real’ economic reasons could be part of the economic healing process. It is a way for many producers, sectors of the economy, and economic regions, to regain competitiveness. It is true that falling wages in certain industries or regions make it more difficult for workers to repay mortgages and consumer loans but often the lower wage may be the only way to avoid unemployment, which would make repaying debt harder still. Behind the often-quoted headline inflation rate of presently 0.5% per annum lie numerous relative price changes by which the economy re-balances. All discussions about the ‘price index’ ignore these all-important changes in relative prices. It so happens that what goes on with the multitude of individual prices in the economy adds up, according to the techniques of the ECB statisticians, to a 0.5% harmonized inflation rate at the moment, and it may all add up to -0.5% next month or next year, or maybe even – 1 percent. To simply conclude from this one aggregate price number that the economy is getting progressively sicker would be wrong.

There is no escaping the fact that recent economic difficulties are the result of imbalances that accumulated during the credit boom that preceded the 2007/2008 financial crisis, of which the eurozone debt crisis was an after quake. Artificially cheap money created the credit boom and these imbalances. A period of liquidation, contraction, changing relative prices and occasionally falling prices is now necessary, and short-circuiting this process via renewed central bank intervention seems counterproductive and ultimately dangerous.

There is, of course, the possibility that proper monetary causes are behind the eurozone’s low inflation and soon deflation, and that those might persist. Banks still feel constrained in their ability to extend new loans and thus create new money. The growth in bank lending and thus in wider monetary aggregates may fall short of the growth in money demand. But it is an essential feature of money that any demand for it can be fully satisfied with a rise in its price. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power, and by allowing the market to lift the purchasing power of money, that is, through deflation, that demand can be met. The secular, moderate and largely harmless deflation of 19th century gold standard economies had essentially the same origin. Money production did not keep pace with money demand, so money demand was satisfied via slowly falling prices.

And here the same conclusion applies: a more restrained approach to lending, credit risk, and financial leverage, now adopted by banks and the public at large as a consequence of the crisis, may be a good thing, and for the central bank to mess with this process and to use ‘unconventional’ means to force more bank lending and money creation onto the system, out of some misguided commitment to the arbitrarily chosen statistical goal of ‘2-percent inflation’ seems foolish. If successful in raising the headline inflation rate it may succeed in creating the same imbalances (excessive leverage, misallocations of capital and distorted asset prices) that have created the recent crisis.

One commentator recently said the eurozone could ill afford deflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector. But the question is if it can afford the level of lending to attain 2 percent inflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector.

The fallacy of macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy

Let me be clear: I do not recommend a zero-inflation target or a target of moderate deflation. Moderate deflation in and of itself is a little a solution as moderate inflation in and of itself is a problem. I recommend no target as I reject the entire concept of ‘monetary policy’, of the notion that a state agency could conceivably enhance, through clever manipulation of interest rates and bank reserve policy, the coordinating powers of the market that help people realize their personal economic objectives through free trade.

We should remember that no one participates in the economy and in trade and commerce because his or her goal is that the general price level goes up by 2 percent, or that nominal GDP increases by 5 percent. People have their own personal objectives. The market is simply a powerful tool for voluntary and decentralized plan-coordination among independent individuals and groups of individuals that pursue their own goals. It is best left undisturbed. This entire project of ‘monetary policy’ is absurd in the extreme, regardless of what the target is.

It is the fallacy of macroeconomics that certain statistical aggregates, such as CPI, GDP or nominal GDP, are deemed reliable representatives of what goes on in a complex market economy, and it is dangerous hubris to believe that the state should define ‘targets’ for these statistical aggregates and then use policy intervention to achieve them. This might be an approach intellectually suitable for the ruler of a communist or fascist society. It is fundamentally at odds with free trade and a free market, and it must and will fail. That should have been a clear lesson from the financial crisis.

Instead, the mainstream consensus, deeply influenced by Keynesianism and macroeconomics, continues to embrace policy activism and intervention. I fully expect central banks to continue on their path towards more aggressive meddling and generous fiat money production. It won’t take long for the ECB to take the next step.

Economics

Do equities (and real estate) give you inflation protection?

Hyperinflation in Hungary, 1946. (Photo by Mizerak Istvan)

Hyperinflation in Hungary, 1946. (Photo by Mizerak Istvan)

Confronted with the possibility that the endgame of the present experiment in extreme monetary accommodation may be higher inflation and even currency disaster, many private investors and portfolio managers respond that they should be okay, since their wealth is protected through allocations to equities and real estate. In contrast to cash and fixed income securities, which are certain to get obliterated in an inflationary environment, equities and real estate are considered some form of ‘hard’ or ‘real’ asset, not just nominal paper promises. “Why should I own gold? A well-diversified portfolio of top international companies should give me good protection against any major disaster,” a senior portfolio manager told me. “I don’t know about gold. What’s so special about it? But I own real estate. If we enter a high inflation scenario, real estate will maintain its value”, a private investor said. But how probable is it that those strategies are going to work?

The wages of fear

Let us consider the overall backdrop first. Most experiments with unconstrained paper money in history ended in hyperinflation and currency collapse. Those that didn’t were terminated by a political decision to return to commodity-linked, inelastic money voluntarily, a move that required a combination of economic literacy and political backbone that I will leave to the reader to assess if it can be found in sufficient measure among today’s political and bureaucratic elite. Our present fiat money experiment is close to 43 years old and showing signs of serious strain: For a number of years now central banks have been manoeuvring themselves into a corner where they must keep rates at zero and keep propping up certain asset prices through targeted money printing operations to maintain the mirage of the system’s solvency, and there are little signs that any of them is going to find a way out anytime soon.

I know, I know, there are two alternative memes making the rounds presently. One maintains that a deflationary correction is more likely than inflation. The other that a recovery is on track and that this will allow central banks to pull back. The former is not entirely silly. One of the side-effects of relentless bubble blowing is indeed that Mr. Market will occasionally insist on deflating the bubbles. But then the global monetary politburo that holds the keys to the printing presses knows better what the world needs and won’t let Mr. Market do his work. Thus, money-printing will continue. Remember Mr. Bernanke and his apodictic declaration that a ‘determined’ government can always create higher inflation. The second meme is popular but silly, and not the topic of this essay.

The first thing to say is that the idea of equities being a good protector against monetary disaster sounds too good to be true. Here is an asset class that benefits immensely from the current policy of “quantitative easing” and interest rate repression, as even the most hardened believers in equity-markets as disinterested and trustworthy barometers of economic health will find it hard to argue that present valuations purely reflect solid company fundamentals, yet equities should also do well when the recovery finally enters self-sustainable speed and the central bankers exit, and even offer protection for when central bankers don’t exit and we finally go into inflationary meltdown. – Wow! Stop the presses! Here is an asset class that you cannot lose with. (Well, maybe with the exception of the deflationary collapse.)

We should maybe get a tad suspicious if an asset class claims to be the winner in all seasons. Maybe the explanation is psychological. People like to own assets that are sufficiently mainstream, which means they have done well in the past, and assets that offer an income stream (dividends or interest payments), because even if they attach (as I do) a meaningful probability to high inflation and even to currency disaster, the timing of it all is difficult and waiting is so much easier when you are sitting on an income stream. I suspect that there could be an element of wishful thinking at work when investors argue that equities offer disaster protection as well. Like most other people I, too, want to have it all but I believe the universe was not quite so kind to us and arranged things differently. Usually, life requires harsher trade-offs. So at present, the returns from rising equity markets and the paltry returns from fixed income are the ‘wages of fear’ that investors get paid for driving nitroglycerin-filled trucks through the financial jungle, just as in Henri-George Clouzot’s eponymous 1953-classic.  Remember: the way to hell is paved with positive carry!

Equities versus gold

I am not denying that equities do have, in principle, the potential to offer some degree of protection against inflation and other financial calamities imposed by government. A reader from Germany recently wrote to me how his father had managed to protect large chunks of his personal wealth through World War II and subsequent currency reform by holding shares in some of Germany’s top companies (and diligently avoided bonds – in particular government bonds!). There can be little doubt that owning claims to the capital of well-established productive concerns is superior to owning securitised promises of politicians. But what about equities versus gold? In my view, gold is still the essential self-defense asset against fiat money disaster, certainly in case of hyperinflation but probably even in a deflationary calamity.

If you own gold you own a universal monetary asset, a global, inelastic and apolitical form of money. Its value is not derived from any specific enterprise, any industry or nation, or any issuing authority. It is nation-less, boundary-less, completely global in its appeal – an international and for all I can say ‘eternal’ form of money. (I like Bitcoin but I don’t think it is quite up there yet.) If you own equities instead you hold claims on the future income stream of specific and hopefully continuingly productive enterprises. Shares are not just claims on any “hard” assets that a company may own, such as land or factory buildings but constitute claims on the future profitability of particular business models. But inflations are macro-economic fiascos. They are disasters, and disasters of a peculiar kind. Some firms may indeed benefit, at least initially, from rising and even high inflation but for many companies inflation will create severe problems. Many companies will indeed go under.

One of the many problems with inflation is that it greatly complicates economic calculation (to the point of making it almost impossible), and that it encourages entrepreneurial error. It can, of course, be said that encouraging entrepreneurial error is the very modus operandi of any policy of easy money: artificially low interest rates ‘work’ by creating an illusion of high savings availability, of a low time preference of the public that should enhance the feasibility of long term investment projects. Via low interest rates entrepreneurs are lured into investment projects that are bound to lack, in the long run, the necessary support from the public’s true voluntary savings. ‘Easy money’ encourages investment always and everywhere under false pretences. But the point here is that, once inflation really kicks in, the errors are likely to compound.

A common problem of calculation under inflation is that many companies will report ‘phantom’ or ‘apparent’ profits, which result from rising sales revenue being booked as income while the also rapidly rising replacement costs for machinery or semi-finished goods are often not fully reflected in depreciation charges, and often remain difficult to ascertain anyway as high inflation is also volatile inflation. Some of what is shown as profit will ultimately simply constitute ‘eating into capital’. Long term planning and economic calculation are greatly disrupted by inflation. In any case, inflation will create some winners but also many losers, even to the point of company failures. High inflation economies are sick economies and usually not a good place to invest.

Historical example: Germany 1918-1923

In 1931 the Italian economist and statistician Costantino Bresciani-Turroni published a study of Weimar Germany’s descent into hyperinflation under the title Le Vicende del Marco Tedesco, which was translated into English under the title The Economics of Inflation, and published in 1937. Among many other things, Bresciani-Turroni also looked at how equities fared: in rapidly depreciating paper money terms, in dollar terms (which means versus gold), and relative to the wholesale price index.

Such studies must always be taken with a generous helping of salt, for a number of reasons. First, history can tell us what happened (in specific and always unique instances) but not what must happen (as a general rule). The social sciences know no laboratory experiments. The next inflationary meltdown may look different from this one. There is no reason to believe that what was observed in Germany at the time must be prototypical for all currency collapses going forward. Second, any study that uses historical data, meaning statistics, is potentially subject to challenges on account of the methodologies used and the accuracy of the underlying data, and this is the case many times over when data series are of such staggering volatility and even somewhat dubious reliability as they are in the case of Germany’s quick descent into monetary chaos. Be that as it may, the study is still very interesting.

Sensibly, Bresciani-Turroni starts his account in the summer of 1914, when Germany left the international gold standard to allow for inflationary war financing. As almost always in the history of money, the state decreed to get rid of the gold anchor so that it could fund itself by printing money freely, and not, as the fairy tales that modern macroeconomists tell themselves will have it, because the gold standard was oh so inflexible and deflationary, which it was, of course, but that was a good thing.

Bresciani-Turroni takes the average of an official German stock index for the year 1913, the last gold standard year, as the base and sets it at 100. He then charts the index in paper mark prices through to 1923, and also calculates the index adjusted for the mark’s steep depreciation versus the dollar, and adjusted according to the index of wholesale prices.

I give you the conclusion right away: If you had held paper marks throughout you would have lost everything. Paper marks became worthless by the end of 1923. Equities did much better but over the whole period underperformed the dollar (and thus gold) and the wholesale price index. By the end of 1923, the stock index that was on average 100 in 1913 stood at 26.80 if adjusted for the dollar exchange rate, according to Bresciani-Turroni’s calculation. In gold-terms you had thus lost more than 70 percent of your purchasing power by staying invested in German equities. Adjusted for wholesale price inflation, the index stood at 21.27. Yes, you avoided total annihilation of your wealth but you were still almost 80 percent poorer measured in the real prices of goods and services and also about 70 percent poorer in gold terms.

What is also fascinating is the sheer volatility of the stock market throughout that period. In 1918, the year of the armistice, the index dropped 30 percent in nominal terms, more than 50 percent in dollar terms, and more than 40 percent when adjusted for inflation. In nominal terms, the index reached a low of 88 in late 1918 (remember: the average of 1913 = 100) and never looked back. It rose to 127 by the end of 1919, 274 by the end of 1920, 731 by the end of 1921, 8,981 by the end of 1922, and it finally reached 26,890,000,000,000 (that is 26.89 trillion) by the end of 1923. Yet, it still underperformed gold and wholesale prices.

In 1919 the nominal index rose 30 percent, yet in gold/dollar terms German equities lost more than 70 percent that year. The years 1920 and 1921 are of particular interest. Inflation had set off a speculative frenzy in Germany. “Playing” the stock market had suddenly become a national obsession. Over those two years the nominal stock index did indeed keep pace with the ongoing destruction of the German Mark. By the end of 1921, you would have even come out slightly ahead of gold and overall prices when compared to early 1920 as a starting point. However, this changed again dramatically in 1922 when the German public shifted its focus to foreign exchange and gold as protectors of their real wealth. Although the nominal stock index grew more than tenfold in 1922, German equities lost 70 percent of their value in gold terms and in wholesale items. The public turned their back on stocks as they sensed that Germany was heading for economic ruin. In October 1922 stock prices were in fact so depressed that some truly bizarre situations occurred:

“…all the share capital of a great company, the Daimler, was , according to the Bourse quotations, scarcely worth 980 million paper marks. Now, since a motor-car made by that company cost at that time on an average three million marks, it follows that ‘the Bourse attributed a value of 327 cars to the Daimler capital, with the three great works, the extensive area of land, its reserves and its liquid capital and its commercial organization developed in Germany and abroad.’”

In 1923, stocks did again remarkably well. In what looks like a classic “crack-up boom”, in which everybody desperately tries to get out of paper currency and rushes to buy just anything, the equity index did outperform gold, dollar, and wholesale prices. Despite this impressive sprint, equities were still, over the entire period, a suboptimal tool for wealth protection.

Some observations on real estate

Interestingly, owning real estate proved disastrous for many people in Weimar Germany. There is no detailed analysis in Bresciani-Turroni’s study but the anecdotal references are hardly encouraging. Rents were regulated by law and in the rapid inflation of 1922 and 1923 could apparently not be adjusted quickly enough. Real estate became a zero-yielding asset while maintenance costs exploded:

“In 1922 and 1923, because of the rapid depreciation of the mark, the old house-rents became ridiculous. Consequently the value of houses fell considerably. Many landlords, for whom houses were now valueless because the rents did not cover maintenance expenses, were forced to sell them.”

Germany’s hyperinflation was an economic, social and political disaster. It impoverished large sections of the German middle class, in particular those who were conservative with their finances, who saved and who entrusted their savings to the state-sponsored financial infrastructure: banks, insurance companies, government bonds, mortgage bonds. Real estate investments offered poor protection and even equities were suboptimal. Having gold bars stored in a Swiss safe deposit (or even a German one) would have done the trick.

Again, history does not – usually – repeat itself. Next time things may unfold differently. Yet, gold certainly remains my favorite asset.

This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.

Economics

Bitcoin has theory and history on its side

The Bitcoin phenomenon has now reached the mainstream media where it met with a reception that ranged from sceptical to outright hostile. The recent volatility in the price of bitcoins and the issues surrounding Bitcoin-exchange Mt. Gox have led to additional negative publicity. In my view, Bitcoin as a monetary concept is potentially a work of genius, and even if Bitcoin were to fail in its present incarnation – a scenario that I cannot exclude but that I consider exceedingly unlikely – the concept itself is too powerful to be ignored or even suppressed in the long run. While scepticism towards anything so fundamentally new is maybe understandable, most of the tirades against Bitcoin as a form of money are ill-conceived, terribly confused, and frequently factually wrong. Central bankers of the world, be afraid, be very afraid!

Finding perspective

Any proper analysis has to distinguish clearly between the following layers of the Bitcoin phenomenon: 1) the concept itself, that is, the idea of a hard crypto-currency (digital currency) with no issuing authority behind it, 2) the core technology behind Bitcoin, in particular its specific algorithm and the ‘mining process’ by which bitcoins get created and by which the system is maintained, and 3) the support-infrastructure that makes up the wider Bitcoin economy. This includes the various service providers, such as organised exchanges of bitcoins and fiat currency (Mt. Gox, Bitstamp, Coinbase, and many others), bitcoin ‘wallet’ providers, payment services, etc, etc.

Before we look at recent events and recent newspaper attacks on Bitcoin, we should be clear about a few things upfront: If 1) does not hold, that is, if the underlying theoretical concept of an inelastic, nation-less, apolitical, and international medium of exchange is baseless, or, as some propose, structurally inferior to established state-fiat money, then the whole thing has no future. It would then not matter how clever the algorithm is or how smart the use of cryptographic technology. If you do not believe in 1) – and evidently many economists don’t (wrongly, in my view) – then you can forget about Bitcoin and ignore it.

If 2) does not hold, that is, if there is a terminal flaw in the specific Bitcoin algorithm, this would not by itself repudiate 1). It is then to be expected that a superior crypto-currency will sooner or later take Bitcoin’s place. That is all. The basic idea would survive.

If there are issues with 3), that is, if there are glitches and failures in the new and rapidly growing infra-structure around Bitcoin, then this neither repudiates 1), the crypto-currency concept itself, nor 2), the core Bitcoin technology, but may simply be down to specific failures by some of the service providers, and may reflect to-be-expected growing pains of a new industry. As much as I feel for those losing money/bitcoin in the Mt Gox debacle (and I could have been one of them), it is probably to be expected that a new technology will be subject to setbacks. There will probably be more losses and bankruptcies along the way. This is capitalism at work, folks. But reading the commentary in the papers it appears that, all those Sunday speeches in praise of innovation and creativity notwithstanding, people can really deal only with ‘markets’ that have already been neatly regulated into stagnation or are carefully ‘managed’ by the central bank.

Those who are lamenting the new – and yet tiny – currency’s volatility and occasional hic-ups are either naïve or malicious. Do they expect a new currency to spring up fully formed, liquid, stable, with a fully developed infrastructure overnight?

Recent events surrounding Mt Gox and stories of raids by hackers would, in my opinion, only pose a meaningful long-term challenge for Bitcoin if it could be shown that they were linked to irreparable flaws in the core Bitcoin technology itself. There were indeed some allegations that this was the case but so far they do not sound very convincing. At present it still seems reasonable to me to assume that most of Bitcoin’s recent problems are problems in layer 3) – supporting infrastructure – and that none of this has so far undermined confidence in layer 2), the core Bitcoin technology. If that is indeed the case, it is also reasonable to assume that these issues can be overcome. In fact, the stronger the concept, layer 1), the more compelling the long-term advantages and benefits of a fully decentralized, no-authority, nationless global and inelastic digital currency are, the more likely it is that any weaknesses in the present infrastructure will quickly get ironed out. One does not have to be a cryptographer to believe this. One simply has to understand how human ingenuity, rational self-interest, and competition combine to make superior decentralized systems work. Everybody who understands the power of markets, human creativity, and voluntary cooperation should have confidence in the future of digital money.

None of what happened recently – the struggle at Mt. Gox, raids by hackers, market volatility – has undermined in the slightest layer 1), the core concept. However, it is precisely the concept itself that gets many fiat money advocates all exited and agitated. In their attempts to discredit the Bitcoin concept, some writers do not shy away from even the most ludicrous and factually absurd statements. One particular example is Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at Boston University’s School of Management who has recently attacked Bitcoin in the Financial Times and in this article on Business Insider.

Money and the state: Fact and fiction

Apart from all the scare-mongering in William’s article – such as his likening Bitcoin to an alien or zombie attack on our established financial system, stressing its volatility and instability – the author makes the truly bizarre claim that history shows the importance of a close link between currency and sovereignty. Good money, according to Williams, is state-controlled money. Here are some of his statements.

“Every sovereignty uses currency.”

“Trust and faith that a sovereign is firmly standing behind its currency is critical.”

“Sovereigns understand that without consistent economic growth and stability, the standard of living for its citizens will fall, and discontentment will grow. Nation-state treasuries print currency but the vital role of currency management– needed to spur economic growth — is reserved for central bankers.”

Williams reveals a striking lack of historical perspective here. Money-printing, central banking and any form of what Williams calls “currency management” are very recent phenomena, certainly on the scale that they are practiced today. Professor Williams seems to not have heard of Zimbabwe, or of any of the other, 30-odd hyperinflations that occurred over the past 100 years, all of which, of course, in state-managed fiat money systems.

Williams stresses what a long standing concept central banking is, citing the Swedish central bank that was founded in 1668, and the Bank of England, 1694. Yet, human society has made use of indirect exchange – of trading with the help of money – for more than 2,500 years. And through most of history – up to very recently – money was gold and silver, and the supply of money thus practically outside the control of the sovereign.

The early central banks were also very different animals from what their modern namesakes have become in recent years. Their degrees of freedom were strictly limited by a gold or silver standard. In fact, the idea that they would “manage” the currency to “spur” economic growth would have sounded positively ridiculous to most central bankers in history.

Additionally, by starting their own central banks, the sovereigns did not put “trust and faith” behind their currencies – after all, their currencies were nothing but units of gold and silver, and those enjoyed the public’s trust and faith on their own merit, thank you very much – the sovereigns rather had their own self-interest at heart, a possibility that does not even seem to cross William’s mind: The Bank of England was founded specifically to lend money to the Crown against the issuance of IOUs, meaning the Bank of England was founded to monetize state-debt. The Bank of England, from its earliest days, was repeatedly given the legal privilege – given, of course, by its sovereign – to ignore (default on) its promise to repay in gold and still remain a going concern, and this occurred precisely whenever the state needed extra money, usually to finance a war.

Bitcoin is cryptographic gold

“Gold is money and nothing else.” This is what John Pierpont Morgan said back in 1913. At the time, not only was he a powerful and influential banker, his home country, the United States of America, had become one of the richest and most dynamic countries in the world, yet it had no central bank. The history of the 19th century US – even if told by historians such as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwarz who were no gold-bugs but sympathetic to central banking – illustrates that monetary systems based on a hard monetary commodity (in this case gold), the supply of which is outside government control, is no hindrance to vibrant economic growth and rising prosperity. Furthermore, economic theory can show that hard and inelastic money is not only no hindrance to growth but that it is indeed the superior foundation of a market economy. This is precisely what I try to show with Paper Money Collapse. I do not think that this was even a very contentious notion through most of the history of economics. Good money is inelastic, outside of political control, international (“nationless”, as Williams puts it), and thus the perfect basis for international cooperation across borders.

Money was gold and that meant money was not a tool of politics but an essential constraint on the power of the state.

As Democritus said “Gold is the sovereign of all sovereigns”.

It is clear that on a conceptual level, Bitcoin has much more in common with a gold and silver as monetary assets than with state fiat money. The supply of gold, silver and Bitcoin, is not under the control of any issuing authority. It is money of no authority – and this is precisely why such assets were chosen as money for thousands of years. Gold, silver and Bitcoin do not require trust and faith in a powerful and privileged institution, such as a central bank bureaucracy  (here is the awestruck Williams not seeing a problem: “These financial stewards have immense power and responsibility.”) Under a gold standard you have to trust Mother Nature and the spontaneous market order that employs gold as money. Under Bitcoin you have to trust the algorithm and the spontaneous market order that employs bitcoins as money (if the public so chooses). Under the fiat money system you have to trust Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and their hordes of economics PhDs and statisticians.

Hey, give me the algorithm any day!

Money of no authority

But Professor Williams does seem unable to even grasp the possibility of money without an issuing and controlling central authority: “Under the Bitcoin model, those who create the software protocol and mine virtual currencies would become the new central bankers, controlling a monetary base.” This is simply nonsense. It is factually incorrect. Bitcoin – just like a proper gold standard – does not allow for discretionary manipulation of the monetary base. There was no ‘monetary policy’ under a gold standard, and there is no ‘monetary policy’ in the Bitcoin economy. That is precisely the strength of these concepts, and this is why they will ultimately succeed, and replace fiat money.

Williams would, of course, be correct if he stated that sovereigns had always tried to control money and manipulate it for their own ends. And that history is a legacy of failure.

The first paper money systems date back to 11th century China. All of those ended in inflation and currency disaster. Only the Ming Dynasty survived an experiment with paper money – by voluntarily ending it and returning to hard commodity money.

The first experiments with full paper money systems in the West date back to the 17th century, and all of those failed, too. The outcome – through all of history – has always been the same: either the paper money system collapsed in hyperinflation, or, before that happened, the system was returned to hard commodity money. We presently live with the most ambitious experiment with unconstrained fiat money ever, as the entire world is now on a paper standard – or, as James Grant put it, a PhD-standard – and money production has been made entirely flexible everywhere. This, however does not reflect a “longstanding bond between sovereign and its currency”, as Williams believes, but is a very recent phenomenon, dating precisely to the 15th of August 1971, when President Nixon closed the gold window, ended Bretton Woods, and defaulted on the obligation to exchange dollars for gold at a fixed price.

The new system – or non-system – has brought us persistent inflation and budget deficits, ever more bizarre asset bubbles, bloated and unstable banking systems, rising mountains of debt that will never be repaid, stagnating real incomes and rising income disparities. This system is now in its endgame.

But maybe Williams is right with one thing: “If not controlled and tightly regulated, Bitcoin — a decentralized, untraceable, highly volatile and nationless currency — has the potential to undermine this longstanding bond between sovereign and its currency.”

Three cheers to that.

This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.

Economics

Detlev’s final blog

This is the final blog entry in the ‘Schlichter Files’. Pretty soon, DetlevSchlichter.com will be taken offline. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers for following my commentaries, essays and occasional rants over the past two-and-a-half years. Thank you.

I would like to express a special gratitude to all who provided comments. I have found so many of the comments from readers to be perceptive and thoughtful, and enjoyed them even when I didn’t respond (as has usually been my policy). Somewhat to my surprise, the feedback to the blog entries has predominantly been positive, and there have only been a few negative or hostile responses. However, I am not deluded and think that a majority out there agrees with me. I think that those who dislike my general outlook have simply not bothered to comment.

Why the sudden and abrupt end? – Well, truth be told, it was not an abrupt or sudden decision at all. The primary purpose of my website has always been to promote my book (for most of its life the website was called papermoneycollapse.com), and to try and find a larger audience for my economic views. The website gave me a platform to comment on current events, market discussions and policy initiatives, and in doing so, apply the ideas I had developed in Paper Money Collapse. I hoped that this would generate more interest in the book and, by extension, the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics in general and those of Ludwig von Mises in particular. I never expected to make ‘blogging’ my new profession. I always expected that this would be a project with a limited life-span.

Having said this, I very much enjoyed writing for the website. I love writing and I love economics, and the experience of writing a semi-academic book on money and a running blog on economic developments was great fun. If some readers out there have enjoyed reading the blogs only half as much as I enjoyed writing them, the whole effort was not in vain. The most important contribution that I have made over the past four years of being an author and commentator, however, remains, in my assessment, Paper Money Collapse. This was the book that was ‘in me’ back in 2009 when I decided to resign from my position as a senior investment professional in the City of London and to pursue my intellectual interests. The book has now found its audience. Only time will tell if it made a lasting impression. It was certainly fun to write and promote it, I stand by everything I say in it, but it is now time to move on.

There are a couple of projects that I am excited about and that I now want to pursue in earnest. I do not want to have a stale, non-updated website on the net with my name on it, so within a week or two DetlevSchlichter.com will disappear. If anybody is still interested in my old blogs, you should be able to find them on the website of the Cobden Centre, which has published my essays almost from the start in early 2011, or on Jim Puplava’s FinancialSense site. A couple of other websites have also republished my work, sometimes translated into other languages, so whatever I wrote remains in the public domain.

Thanks again for all your interest and support, and please remember….

…the debasement of paper money still continues.

With best wishes,

DS.

Economics

Markets reject ‘forward guidance’ – for good reason

The British media is obsessed with Mark Carney, the new boss at the Bank of England, who, this week, made his first public appearance as governor with a speech in Nottingham. There were adoring comments about his looks (the vague resemblance with George Clooney, supported with plenty of photographs) and his voice (deep, confident, reassuring), and as most journalists are more in awe of money and wealth than they are willing to admit, references to his generous pay package were also not missing. But there was also consternation that the words of the ‘most talented central banker of his generation’ seemed to carry so little weight with the markets.

The Wall Street Journal had previously described Carney as ‘a pioneer of forward guidance’. Forward guidance is the allegedly new central bank technique of telling the market where policy will be heading (or rather, assuring the market where it will not be heading), supposedly in order to make policy more effective. Despite Mr. Carney’s repeated assurances that rates will only be moved higher when unemployment drops to a certain level (7% is Mr. Carney’s magic number) and that this will not occur until 2016, the market has recently been happily selling fixed income securities, and in the process, has allowed the forward curve to start pricing in earlier rate hikes. To Mr. Carney’s pledge to keep rates low, the market has practically been saying, in the words of the inimitable Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, ”Yeah, well, that’s just like…your opinion, man.”

Whether the market will be proven right and whether rates really will move higher earlier than Carney contemplates today, is a question we cannot answer. The future will tell. (Personally, I remain of the opinion that the talk of ‘tapering’ in the US is overdone, that central banks will not manage a smooth ‘exit’ from their position of extreme accommodation, and certainly not anytime soon.) But the market is undoubtedly correct to not allow itself to be guided in its assessment of the economy’s future performance, and therefore future policy, by the BoE’s new super-bureaucrat.

The whole idea of forward guidance is, of course, preposterous. The market knows full well that policy will change if circumstances change. Should the economy recover more quickly, should the Fed’s actions put pressures on other central banks to also remove accommodation, should inflation rise faster, or should the pound come under pressure, the policy elite at the BoE will most certainly have to respond. Conversely, if the economy nosedives again or if another financial accident occurs, central bankers will cut rates again (maybe to negative levels?), and throw more money at the problem.

The market is, of course, frequently wrong in assessing the future. Also, the market’s assessment is constantly changing. But the market is still the most awesome machinery for data-collection and data-processing, and it remains unmatched by any institution, individual or group of individuals, even overpaid George Clooney lookalikes.

Most bizarre about this whole episode is the reverence with which the commentariat still treats the central bankers. Based on their exaggerated view of their own powers to do good, and their importance for ongoing growth, and based on their erroneous and self-serving belief that money-printing is costless as long as certain conveniently self-selected measures of consumer prices remain under control, central bankers have, for years, happily fed the housing bubbles and allowed bank balance sheets to balloon beyond all proportion. They then sleepwalked into the crisis of their own making, and once the house of cards had collapsed, they feverishly tried to recreate semblances of stability and solvency, usually by printing more money faster and by manipulating various asset markets through targeted purchases. Recent financial history is a legacy of central bank failure, yet the media remains uninterested in economics and obsessed with personalities. Politicians, bureaucrats and central bankers – no matter the disasters they produce, the hope persists that the next guy will do better and save the world.

Markets, however, are rather less sentimental and much less prone to political romanticism.

In this respect, the ongoing debate about who will be the next Fed chairman, Janet Yellen or Larry Summers, is equally unenlightened and undignified. Summers strikes me as the more interesting and unpredictable thinker and he would probably make a more entertaining chairman. Nevertheless, the impact of the selection on future policy is marginal, in my view.

And one final thought: if the market is correct and economies are presently recovering with more momentum, then this is most likely the result of reflationary monetary policy finally gaining traction and of accelerating credit growth. In that case, prices won’t stay still. (As an aside, farmland in the US keeps appreciating at double-digit clips.) Inflation and inflation expectations could quickly be on the rise. If that is indeed the case, and if central bankers then keep sitting on their hands because of their forward-guiding commitments, the bond market could continue to be in trouble.

The potential for central bankers to do harm remains bigger than that to do good.

This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.