While the stance of monetary policy around the world has, on any conceivable measure, been extreme, by which I mean unprecedentedly accommodative, the question of whether such a policy is indeed sensible and rational has not been asked much of late. By rational I simply mean the following: is this policy likely to deliver what it is supposed to deliver? And if it does fall short of its official aim, then can we at least state with some certainty that whatever it delivers in benefits is not outweighed by its costs? I think that these are straightforward questions and that any policy that is advertised as being in ‘the interest of the general public’ should pass this test. As I will argue, the present stance of monetary policy only has a negligible chance, at best, of ever fulfilling its stated aim. Furthermore, its benefits are almost certainly outweighed by its costs if we list all negative effects of this policy and do not confine ourselves, as the present mainstream does, to just one obvious cost: official consumer price inflation, which thus far remains contained. Thus, in my view, there is no escaping the fact that this policy is not rational. It should be abandoned as soon as possible.
The policy and its aims
The key planks of this policy are super low interest rates and targeted purchases (or collateralized funding) of financial assets by central banks. While various regional differences exist in respect of the extent of these programmes and the assets chosen, all major central banks – the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan – have been engaged and continue to be committed to versions of this policy. Its purpose is to facilitate exceptionally cheap funding for banks and to affect the pricing of a wide range of financial assets, in particular and most directly government bonds but also mortgage bonds in the US and real-estate investment trusts and corporate securities in Japan. There is an ongoing debate in the UK and in the Euro Zone, too, about directly boosting prices of other, ‘private’ securities, that is, to have their prices manipulated upwards by direct purchases from the central banks.
To the wider public this policy is described as ‘stimulating’ growth, ‘unlocking’ the flow of credit and ‘jump-starting’ the economy. If that is indeed the aim, this policy has already failed.
We have now had almost five years of near-zero interest rates around the world. If such low interest rates were indeed the required kick-starter for the economy, we should have seen the results by now. ‘Stimulus’ is something that incites or arouses to action, a kind of ‘ignition’ that sets off processes, in this case, one assumes, a self-sustained economic recovery. But if the world economy was really fundamentally healthy and only in need of a dose of caffeine to stir it back into action, then dropping rates from around 4 to 5 percent to zero, as happened 4 or 5 years ago, should have done the trick by now.
Defenders of the policy will argue that we would all be in much more of a bind without it, but this is not the point here. This is something we can discuss when comparing costs and benefits. There is no escaping the conclusion that this policy has failed if its aim is to provide a required ignition – the stimulus – to ‘jump start’ the economy.
In support of my conclusion that this policy has failed as a ‘kick-starter’ of self-sustained growth I can quote as witnesses the very officials and experts who advocated this policy in the first place and who are still implementing it. Not a single one of the major central banks is even close to announcing the successful conclusion of these policies or is even beginning to contemplate an exit. 5 years into ‘quantitative easing’ and zero interest rates, the Fed last week began to openly consider increasing its monthly debt monetization programme. Although the week ended on a bright note, at least for the professional optimists out there, as the unemployment rate came in a tad lower than expected, manufacturing data during the week was disappointing and the US economy is evidently entering another growth dip.
Still, many argue that the roughly 2 percent growth that the US economy may achieve this year is nothing to be sniffed at. Yet, for a $15 trillion dollar economy that is just $300 billion in new goods and services. In the first quarter of 2013, the Fed expanded the monetary base by $300 billion alone, and the central bank is on course for $1 trillion in new money by Christmas, while the federal government will run a close to $1 trillion deficit despite the ‘sequester’. That is very little growth ‘bang’ for a lot of stimulus ‘buck’. Self-sustained looks different.
Last week in the Euro-Zone, the ECB cut its repo rate to 0.5%, a record low. If suppressing interest rates from 3.75% in 2007 to 0.75% by 2012, has not lead to a meaningful, let alone self-sustaining recovery, or at a minimum the type of underachieving recovery that would at least allow the ECB to sit tight and wait a bit, what will another drop to 0.5% achieve?
Shamelessly, some economists and financial commentators cite high youth unemployment in countries such as Spain as a good reason to cut rates further. The image that is projected here is evidently one of countless Spanish entrepreneurs standing at the ready with their investment projects, willing and eager to employ numerous Spanish young people if only rates were 0.25% lower. Then all their ambitious investment plans would become potentially profitable, and the long promised recovery could finally commence.
The number of young Spanish people who will find employment thanks to the ECB cutting rates close to zero cannot be known but I suggest a number equally close to zero is a reasonably good guess.
The ‘benefits’ – or are they costs?
This is not to say that this policy has no effects. It even had benefits, for some.
By suppressing market yields and boosting the prices of financial assets this policy has delivered substantial windfall profits for owners of stocks, bonds, and real estate. Those who did, for example, speculate heavily on rising property prices in the run-up to the recent crisis, then were put through the wringer by the financial meltdown, now find themselves happily resurrected and restored to their previous wealth, if not more wealth, courtesy of central bank charity.
The 0.25% rate cut from the ECB may not lift many young Spaniards into employment but it surely makes ‘owning’ financial assets on credit cheaper. For every €1 billion of assets the rate cut means a €2.5 million saving per year in cost of carry, as duly noted by the big banks, ‘investment’ banks and hedge funds. After the ECB rate cut, German Bunds reached new all-time highs as did, a few days later, Germany’s main stock index.
That we are witnessing strange and dangerous deformations of the capitalist system, if we can still even call it capitalist, and that new bubbles are being blown everywhere, is not only evident by the increasingly grotesque dichotomy between a woefully underperforming real economy perennially teetering on the brink of renewed recession and a financial system, in which almost every sector is trading at record levels, but also by the fact that the high correlation among asset classes on the way up to new records is beginning to strain the minds of the economists to come up with at least marginally plausible fundamental justifications for such uniform asset inflation. ‘Safe haven’ government bonds that would usually prosper at times of economic pain are equally ‘bid only’ as are risky equities and the grottiest of high yield bonds. The common denominator is, of course, cheap money. And if cheap money for the foreseeable future is not enough, then how about cheaper money – forever?
A conflicted conscience or outright embarrassment are now stirring some financial economists to suggest that the joys of bubble finance should be brought straight to the economic war zones in the European periphery, and that in order to have a bigger impact on the ‘real’ economy, the ECB should buy private loans and other local assets in these regions and thus more directly interfere in their pricing. The manipulations of the monetary central planners are too blunt, they need to be more fine-tuned. These suggestions are dangerously wrongheaded. Extending the addiction to the monetary crack cocaine of cheap credit beyond the financial dealing rooms of London, New York and Frankfurt and to the economy’s productive heartland is not going to solve anything, at least not in the long run, and that is a timescale that may still matter to some people, at least outside of the financial industry. There is nothing Spain needs less than a new artificially propped up real estate boom. The aforementioned Spanish youth would only swap today’s dependency on state hand-outs for dependency on never-ending cheap-credit policies from the ECB and ongoing asset-boosting price manipulations. This has nothing whatsoever to do with sustainable growth, lasting and productive employment and real wealth creation.
The fact that trained economists today seriously contemplate these policies and are willing to dress them up as ‘solutions’ only goes to show how far the new ’entitlement culture’ on Wall Street and in the City of London, where everybody now feels entitled to cheap credit and ongoing asset-boosting policy programs as the universal cure-all, has affected economic thinking. The speculating classes are beginning to feel generous: “Hey, this free cash is great. Let’s extend it to everybody.”
Would a deflationary correction be better?
Back to our cost-benefit analysis. The defenders of the present policy will argue that without it GDP in the major economies would have dropped more, that asset prices and lending would be more depressed, and that we might even be in the middle of some dreadful debt deflation. Maybe so. But to the extent that the present GDP readings are the result of central bank pump priming and not the result of renewed growth momentum, they are simply artificial and thus ultimately unsustainable. In fact, the mere suspicion that this might be so must undoubtedly depress optimism and thus the willingness to engage in the economy and put capital at risk. Nobody knows any longer what the real state of the economy is.
While the unemployed Spanish youth may not benefit – or only very marginally so – from record high German stock prices and their own government’s renewed ability to borrow yet more and yet more cheaply – they may in fact ultimately benefit from a deflationary clear-out that would cause prices on many everyday items to drop. Deflation is not such a bad thing if you have to live on your savings or a modest, nominally fixed payment stream. Additionally, reshuffling the economy’s deck of cards could also offer opportunities. Tearing down the old structures and allowing the market to price things honestly again, according to real risks and truly available savings, may at first cause some shock but ultimately bring new possibilities. The present monetary policy is inherently conservative. It bails out those who got it wrong in the recent crisis at the expense of those who didn’t even participate in the last boom. Some Schumpeterian creative destruction is urgently needed.
I am not advocating deflation or economic cleansing for the sake of deflation and contraction, or out of some sense of economic sadism, or even out of moral considerations of any kind. However, it strikes me that what ails the economy is not a lack of money or lack of a powerful ‘kick-starting’ stimulant, and it may not suffer from unduly high borrowing costs either. Wherever borrowing costs are still high in this environment of ‘all-in’ central bank accommodation they may be high for a reason, maybe even a good one. What ails the economy are the structural impediments that are well established and that had been long in the making, such as inflexible labor markets with their permanently enshrined high unit labor costs and excessive regulation that have always protected current job-holders at the expense of those out of work or entering the labor market. Overbearing welfare systems, high tax rates and outsized public sectors have long held back major economies. Easy money that, for some time, enabled high public sector borrowing and spending, and facilitated local property booms, helped cover up these structural rigidities. Now these issues simply come to the fore again. New rounds of easy money will not make these problems disappear but only create a new illusion of sustainability.
I haven’t even touched upon the growing risk that never-ending monetary accommodation will end in inflation and monetary chaos but it is apparent already that this policy has no convincing claim on rationality. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that it will be continued.
This will end badly.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
The crypto-currency Bitcoin is still merely a speck on the global monetary landscape. It is young, experimental, and for all we know, it may ultimately fail to break into the monetary mainstream. However, on a conceptual level I am willing to call it a work of genius and arguably the most exciting development in the field of money for more than 130 years. Let’s say since the start of the Classical Gold Standard in 1879. Does this sound like hyperbole? Well, let me explain.
The Decline and Fall of Capitalist Money
The 20th century was, broadly speaking, a period of almost constant monetary decay. At around 1900 most economists, politicians and bankers would have correctly stated that global capitalism – an international market economy facilitating the free exchange of goods and services across political borders and thus allowing extensive human cooperation through trade – required an international, apolitical, and hard form of money. Such money was gold. It was the basis of the capitalist economy and it imposed strict discipline on all market participants. Crucially, that included governments and banks. Governments had to operate pretty much like private businesses. They had to balance their books, i.e. live within the means provided by taxation, and if they borrowed money in the marketplace their lenders were at full risk of default as no government could print money (gold) to repay loans or even meet interest payments on loans. Banks, of course, issued banknotes or bank-deposits that were not backed by gold but still used by the public as if they were money proper – these were and still are ‘money-derivatives’ – but again they did so at full risk of default as nobody could ‘print’ bank-reserves (gold again) to bail out the banks in case the public tired of the ‘derivatives’ and wanted to hold gold instead.
Over the course of the 20th century – or to be precise, from 1914 to 1971 – the monetary system was completely changed as a consequence of a number of entirely political maneuvers, all of them undermining the quality of money. Today, hard, international and apolitical money has everywhere been replaced with entirely elastic, national and politicized money, with money that central banks issue under a territorial monopoly at no cost and with no meaningful constraints on issuance, and that the central bankers use to ‘manage’ the ‘national’ economy (itself increasingly an out-of-date-concept), and to fund the state and grow the domestic banks (which, under the protection of a lender-of-last-and-first-resort, now issue unprecedented amounts of money derivatives).
Today the global monetary map resembles a patchwork of local, “nationalistic” paper monies, each of which is a political tool, often openly manipulated in an attempt to benefit the local export industry at the expense of foreign competitors or to ‘stimulate’ the ethereal concept of ‘aggregate demand’. Not surprisingly, the global economy is drowning in debt (increasingly public sector debt), suffers from a bloated financial sector and international trade tensions, and stumbles from one crisis to another, each one worse than its predecessor.
Bizarrely – but not entirely surprisingly – politicians, bankers and modern ‘enlightened’ economists now tell us that this unhinged financial system is to our benefit, really, just trust us.
Truth be told, the present monetary system is a hindrance to free trade, properly functioning markets and human cooperation across borders, and it might already be on its last leg. Yet a powerful but entirely misguided, consensus seems to have taken hold of public opinion, namely that ‘elastic’ money could be beneficial if money’s supply was only managed astutely by some clever monetary central planners.
I wrote Paper Money Collapse – The Folly of Elastic Money and the Coming Monetary Breakdown to challenge that consensus, to show that ‘elasticity’ of supply is always a negative for money. Elastic money is not needed. It is entirely superfluous. Moreover, elastic money is always disruptive. A monetary system based on an inherently elastic and constantly expanding supply of money is unstable and ultimately unsustainable. The reason why gold made such good money for thousands of years is precisely its essentially inelastic supply.
The word ‘Bitcoin’ does not even appear in my book. The reason is simply that I had not heard of Bitcoin by the time I handed in my final manuscript in early 2011. But when I learnt about Bitcoin soon afterwards I was immediately fascinated. Like many others, I could conceive of ‘internet money’ or ‘virtual money’. As I had explained in the book, money does not have to exist in physical form and the fact that most money today is electronic money poses no problem for the monetary theoretician. The problem with this type of money is not that it is immaterial but that its supply is completely elastic, and I simply could not see how money that was not based on a nature-given and strictly limited commodity could have an entirely inelastic supply. It was Bitcoin’s inelasticity by design that I saw immediately as one of its greatest strengths and its true genius.
My work rehabilitates the gold standard. It shows that it was a mistake to abandon gold as the basis of our financial system and replace it with entirely elastic state fiat money. When (not if) the present fiat money system finally ends we could and should return to gold. The only alternative I now see, at least on a purely conceptual level, is Bitcoin, or something like Bitcoin: hard, apolitical, immaterial, virtual money.
Bitcoin is cryptographic gold
By now most readers will probably have heard of Bitcoin and have some notion of what it is. But in any case, let me give you a quick run-down. The economist Nikolay Gertchev, in a blog on the Mises Institute website (republished here), explains it quite well, although Gertchev, like many other members of the “Austro-Libertarian” movement, is somewhat reserved when it comes to embracing Bitcoin. I am surprised by the extent of scepticism in that community and believe that in general it is unfounded. But first the description:
“A bitcoin is a unit of a nonmaterial virtual currency, also called crypto-currency, by the same name. (Bitcoin is a medium of exchange that only exists in the virtual world. DS) They are stored in anonymous “electronic wallets,” described by a series of about 33 letters and numbers. Bitcoins can travel from a wallet to a wallet, by means of an online peer-to-peer network transaction. Any inter-wallet transfer is registered in the code of the bitcoin, so that the record of its entire transaction history clearly identifies its owner at any single moment, thereby preventing potential ownership conflicts. Bitcoins can be further divided into increments as small as one 100 millionth of a bitcoin. The current outstanding volume of bitcoins is above 10 million and is projected to reach 21 million in the year 2140.”
“This brings us to the truly fascinating production process of the bitcoins. They are “mined” based on a pre-defined mathematical algorithm, and come in a bundle, currently of 25 units, as a reward for carrying out a large number of computational operations that aim at discovering the solution to what could be described as a randomized mathematical puzzle. The role of the algorithm is to ensure a declining progression of the overall stock of bitcoins, by halving the reward every four years. Thus, somewhere in the beginning of 2017, the reward bundle will consist of 12.5 units only. Also, the more bitcoins are produced, the harder are the randomized mathematical puzzles to be solved.”
Bitcoin is immaterial money yet strictly limited in its supply. Once 21 million units are in existence, probably in 2140, that’s it. No more Bitcoin can be issued. In fact, the supply of Bitcoin is more inelastic than the supply of gold. Also, the available supply of Bitcoin at any moment in time is substantially more transparent than that of gold.
If Bitcoin ever became money in its own right (how it could do so, I will discuss below), then it would be international, hard and entirely inelastic money. Like gold it also does not decay, is homogenous and (almost) perfectly divisible. Bitcoin fulfils all the requirements of good money. In the long run, gold does not have to fear fiat money, which is always suboptimal as it always is national, politicized, manipulated, unstable and inflationary money. For one thousand years, state paper monies have come and gone. Gold (and silver) stayed. Gold just has to sit still and wait for this, the latest and most audacious and arrogant, experiment with global free-floating paper money to fail, and it will come back. But now it faces, potentially, its first meaningful challenger: inelastic crypto-currency, Bitcoin.
Money of no authority
There is no central authority that issues Bitcoin and can manipulate its supply for its own gain or for any alleged ‘greater good’ of society. Positively cringe-inducing, although sometimes unintentionally funny, are the embarrassing attempts by establishment spokespeople to discredit Bitcoin on account that, unlike all that astutely managed state fiat money, Bitcoin would not constantly be losing purchasing power. In fact, just as in the case of gold, Bitcoin’s purchasing power can reasonably be expected to constantly appreciate over time.
But, so we hear the assorted ‘enlightened’ economists of the Keynesian persuasion exclaim in horror, that would mean we would all suffer from dreadful deflation, from which only an elite of highly-qualified government-appointed central bank bureaucrats and a well-oiled printing press can save us. Apart from the fact that these self-appointed money masters have neither proper economic theory nor the experience of a thousand years of financial history on the side of their destructive agenda, they obviously do not even comprehend how far their system of manipulated funny money has already discredited itself.
Inelastic money can satisfy ANY demand
As I have explained in Paper Money Collapse no society (not even a healthily growing one) needs a constantly expanding supply of money. Money is a unique economic good. Because it is the medium of exchange, money is the only good that is demanded exclusively for its exchange value, not for any use-value its substance (if it has a substance at all) may also have.
Nobody who has demand for money has demand for a certain quantity of paper notes, or a certain weight of gold, or a certain number of digits on a computer hard-drive. Money-users have demand for the exchange value that these items contain in exchange for other goods and service, i.e. qua being accepted by others as money. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power.
Once a good is widely accepted as a medium of exchange (whether that good is gold, paper tickets, or sequences of digital ones and noughts), the public can, at any moment in time, hold precisely the amount of money – readily exercisable purchasing power – it wants to hold. If the demand for money goes up, the public will sell non-money goods for money or reduce money-outlays for non-money goods. As a result, the money-prices of non-money goods fall and the purchasing power of each monetary unit (whether gold, paper tickets, or digital code) will rise. This process satisfies – automatically, instantly and naturally – the higher demand for money. The public now holds more readily exercisable purchasing power in the form of money, not because a clever, über-prescient money producer has created new money units, but simply and much more straightforwardly, because the exchange-value of the existing money stock has increased.
Once a good is widely accepted as money, no further production of that good is required. In fact, as I also demonstrated in Paper Money Collapse, any attempt to flexibly inject money into the economy in order to ‘stabilize’ money’s purchasing power, or, as is declared policy today, to constantly debase it at an officially sanctioned rate, must not only fail in its primary objective (‘price level stability’) but must cause grave distortions in the wider economy. Furthermore, the steady secular deflation that is to be expected under inelastic money, such as gold or Bitcoin, is not only not economically disruptive, it is even beneficial. Just consider one aspect: as money will then have a moderate positive real return, people who have no knowledge of financial markets and investing, and who do not have the resources to hire professional advisors, can save by simply holding money. This is impossible in our fiat money economy of constant inflation and increasing monetary instability.
As Bitcoin has no issuing authority it has no country of residence or origin. It is truly global money. It can be used for payment anywhere in the world without going through banking systems or foreign-exchange markets. It is undeniable that the multitude of local paper monies poses a considerable hindrance to free trade and thus the rise of living standards in large parts of the world as this system necessarily introduces an element of partial barter into international trade relations. Today’s massive foreign-exchange markets are nothing but a make-shift, a crutch to deal with the suboptimal and politically motivated arrangement of various local currencies. This market ties up capital (both financial and human) without adding any real wealth to society.
If Bitcoin were to get widely accepted – and that is still a big if – it could become a great platform for connecting potentially any two counterparties in the world in direct financial transactions. It is the ultimate disintermediator: no banks needed.
At this point it might be objected that it only connects people who have access to the internet or smartphones but this is obviously a rapidly shrinking barrier. On my travels in Africa last year, I found that internet access was usually more ubiquitous than bank branches. And by the way, Kenya and Tanzania already have M-Pesa, the world’s most developed mobile payment system that uses the mobile phone network to facilitate money transfers. These countries could easily make the transition to smartphone-based payment systems without ever making the detour through clunky bank branch networks.
On the issue of tying down capital, Bitcoin wins hands-down against any other financial system, including a gold standard. Bitcoin does not require any physical storage, which naturally is always expensive. Bitcoin is monetary raw material and payment system in one. (Although, fascinatingly, the free market has already created physical Bitcoins.)
Money requires trust. We presently do not live under a gold standard but, as Jim Grant has observed so astutely, a PhD-standard, a system of flexible, state-sponsored money, managed by people like Ben Bernanke and his team at the Fed, who enjoy the privilege of implementing policies based on their own faulty monetary theories and hair-raising interpretations of economic history, while a cheap-money-addicted class of speculators plays them like a fiddle and laughs all the way to the bank. The appeal of gold has always been that it does not require the public to put trust in a ‘money elite’ but that it only has to trust gold’s creator: mother nature. With Bitcoin you only have to trust the algorithm, and as this is open software, there cannot even be a hidden agenda. Bitcoin, just like a proper gold standard, is hard, capitalist money with no politics, no Federal Open Market Committee meetings, no monetary policy, no central banking bureaucracy. It is free market money.
Common objections to Bitcoin
Given its free market and ultra-hard-currency credentials, the scepticism towards Bitcoin in parts of the Austro-Libertarian community is somewhat surprising. I think some of the objections are easily refuted. There is, first of all, the idea that Bitcoin could have many imitators, which would undermine its uniqueness and reduce its attractiveness. If Bitcoin itself cannot be inflated, what about the concept of crypto-currencies, could it be inflated by too many different currencies on offer?
This argument strikes me as weak. By all accounts Bitcoin’s design and cryptographic robustness are an exceptional accomplishment. It is not as if any hacker of medium talent could pull off something similar tomorrow. But even if he could, the argument completely underestimates first-mover advantage in the area of goods and services with substantial network effects. How many people have launched a second Facebook or a second Twitter since these inventions kicked-off the social media craze, although technologically, these inventions are much simpler than crypto-currency? – Nobody. The network effects of these goods are immense. Once they have a certain acceptance it is hard, if not impossible, for late-comers to break in. These goods and services have value for their users predominantly because others use them too, and the more people use them, the more valuable they get. There is no good for which this is truer than money – the general medium of exchange. Customized money is an oxymoron. Consequently, once a form of money is accepted, it is very difficult to take business away from it.
This feature of money is obviously a problem for Bitcoin in its fight against established state paper monies but is equally a big plus when it comes to keeping potential new entrants into the crypto-currency arena at bay. Bitcoin now dominates the market for crypto-currencies (it pretty much IS the market for crypto-currencies, in my view) and I believe that only the discovery of major flaws in Bitcoin – none seem to have surfaced in its four-year life up to now, and every day they are less likely to appear – or if some vastly superior crypto-currency came along but I am hard-pressed to see in which aspect it could outperform Bitcoin. But just launching another crypto-currency – a Bitcoin clone – is certainly not going to put a dent into Bitcoin.
Menger and Mises would love Bitcoin
Many ‘Austrians’ get thrown off by Menger’s theory of the origin of money and Mises’ so-called ‘regression theorem’, and somewhat rashly conclude that Bitcoin can never achieve money-status because it did not originate from a non-money commodity. Mises was correct when he stated that something could only become money if it had previously, that is, before it was used by somebody as a medium of exchange in its own right for the first time, established some value in trade. For if that had not been the case, how could the first person to employ the commodity as money have any point of reference by which to assess its value and determined its exchange value for the first monetary transaction? However, this theorem, which remains unrefuted in my view, does not apply to Bitcoin. Bitcoin can simply piggyback on established forms of money that already have exchange-value and derive its original value from them before it does, over time, establish its own value.
The same has, in fact, happened in the case of paper money. The paper notes that are used as money today did not start their ascent to widely used and generally accepted monetary assets from humble beginnings as commodities – that is, as mere paper – but started out as paper-claims on physical gold. Gold was money and the paper tickets simply a technology to transfer ownership of gold. When the first banknote was used it did not derive its exchange value from its paper content but from the fact that it could be exchanged for a fixed amount of gold. That was the necessary reference point – in accordance with Mises’ regression theorem. Paper money started as payment technology and as the public got used to paying with paper rather than with gold coins and gold bars, the underlying gold content could be reduced over time and ultimately the link to gold completely severed. What gives value to these paper tickets today? – The fact that the public still accepts these paper tickets in exchange for goods and services. That is all. And in fact, it is all that is needed. Any form of money – even gold, which still retains some functionality as industrial commodity or consumption good (jewellery), although that functionality is now irrelevant for its role as monetary asset – any form of money derives its money-value from the trading public and the public’s willingness to exchange the monetary asset for goods and services.
And herein lies in fact Bitcoin’s biggest challenge. However, this challenge is not of a conceptual nature. The concept of Bitcoin as money is, as I have tried to show above, extremely compelling. But Bitcoin has to offer something to the average money-user that state paper money cannot offer. Just as the banknote bestowed an instant and discernible benefit to each money-user relative to heavy gold coins, that allowed it to become a widely used medium of exchange in its own right and ultimately even operate without any link to gold, so Bitcoin has to set itself apart from fiat money and overcome fiat money’s powerful network advantage. The fact that fiat money is suboptimal in terms of its inflation characteristics and its disruptive effects on the broader economy is not something that bothers the average money user at the moment he desires to engage in monetary transactions, and do so as conveniently, securely and easily as possible. The state paper money system today offers easily useable ‘computer money’ and the broader public is still happy to use it. Why switch to Bitcoin?
Will Bitcoin get accepted by the wider public?
It is my impression that the community of Bitcoin users, although apparently growing strongly, is still largely composed of those who are fascinated by the technology as such and who want to be part of something new, and those who like it for ‘ideological’ reasons, i.e. those who detest state paper money or dislike the banking system. Thus, there is apparently still a big contingent of computer ‘nerds’, hackers, crypto-anarchists, anti-government libertarians and Occupy-Wall-Street-types among its user base (which is not to say that there are not many who do not fall into any of these categories). How could Bitcoin attract a broader base of money-consumers beyond these groups?
One powerful aspect is cost. Bitcoin transactions are free, so Bitcoin could become – or maybe it is already – the Skype of payment systems. Another attraction could simply be the usually reasonable, and with some effort potentially considerable, anonymity and untraceability that Bitcoin offers. This seems to be a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, Bitcoin is incredibly transparent. All transactions are literally in the open domain. However, each ‘user’ is only identified by his ‘address’ and the number of addresses is practically unlimited. One could use a new address for each transaction. This may not mean instant untraceability from ‘the authorities’ but then again, certain techniques and add-ons, some of which are still being developed, have the potential to increase anonymity and untraceability even further. Additionally, it is possible to acquire Bitcoin for cash – rather than via the established and already regulated exchanges – and thus anonymously.
This means Bitcoin could be used, as is a frequent charge against it already, for illegal transactions involving drugs and guns. But people do not have to be drug or arms dealers, or even ordinary tax cheats, to appreciate a certain degree of financial privacy. As bank secrecy laws disappear everywhere and as almost all governments are waging a ‘war on cash’, by which any transaction that involves more than just petty cash is to be moved to electronic systems within the state’s fiat money network, so that ‘the authorities’ achieve full ‘transparency’ as to what the citizenry is up to at any moment, there could well be a widespread demand for ‘outside’ electronic payment systems offering privacy. For example, a range of ‘activities’ exist engaging in which may not be, or not yet be, illegal but considered a major potential embarrassment to the parties involved if made public (gambling, pornography, escort services), so that many people would not want to have payment for them on their permanent records. This potential development is not lacking in irony: our modern information society with its trends towards the ‘transparent citizen’ and unlimited data storage holds many threats to a free society, privacy and individual liberty. It would be fitting if countermoves to these trends emanated from the same technology.
An additional boost to Bitcoin may come straight from the crumbling state paper money infrastructure itself. The cases of Iceland and in particular Cyprus have driven home the point that ‘money in the bank’ is far from safe, and even if your deposits have survived the bank collapse and the ‘bail-in’, you may not get them out of the country any time soon as capital controls are likely be imposed. As the overstretched paper money economy staggers towards its inevitable demise, more of these instances will occur providing an additional opening for Bitcoin. To the best of my knowledge, Bitcoins cannot be confiscated and Bitcoin accounts cannot be frozen Additionally, you store Bitcoin yourself rather than put them into a fractional-reserve bank that would conveniently use them as ‘reserves’ for its own ‘money derivative’ production.
What are Bitcoins worth?
I agree with Jon Matonis that nobody can give a reasonable answer but that the outcome is probably binary: Either Bitcoin ultimately fails and the individual Bitcoins end up worthless. Or Bitcoin takes off and Bitcoins are worth hundreds of thousands of paper dollars, paper yen, paper euros, or paper pounds. Maybe more. Those who buy Bitcoin as a speculative investment should consider it an option on the future success of the crypto-currency. At time of writing, Bitcoins are trading at $127 and £83 at Bitcoin-exchange Mt. Gox.
On a personal note, my biggest ‘liquid’ asset continues to be physical gold. As I explained on numerous occasions, I consider gold to be the essential self-defense asset in the ongoing paper money crisis. Gold is not being used presently by the wider public as a medium of exchange either but its two-thousand-plus year history as global money means that it retains monetary asset status and that its historic function as a liquid and lasting store of value – a function that fiat money cannot fulfil – remains unrivalled. By comparison, the brand-new crypto-currency Bitcoin has to first earn its stripes as a monetary asset by proving itself as a ‘common’ medium of exchange. That is why I view Bitcoin very differently from gold, although the attraction of both has its origin in the demise of entirely elastic, politicized state fiat money. I will certainly continue to follow the Bitcoin revolution with interest and sympathy.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
Last Friday I participated in a (very short) debate on BBC Radio Four’s Today Programme on the future direction of gold. Tom Kendall, global head of precious metals research at Credit Suisse argued that gold was in trouble, I argued that it wasn’t. So yours truly is on record on national radio on the morning of gold’s two worst trading days in 30 years arguing that it was still a good investment.
I still think that what I said on radio is correct and even after two days of brutal bloodletting in the gold market and two days of soul-searching for the explanations, I believe that this is the only question that ultimately matters for the direction of gold:
“Has the direction of global monetary policy changed fundamentally, or is it about to change fundamentally? Is the period of ‘quantitative easing’ and super-low interest rates about to come to an end?”
If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’ then gold will continue to be in trouble. If the answer is ‘no’, then it will come back.
Reasons to own gold
The reason why I own gold and why I recommended it as an essential self-defense asset is not the chart pattern of the gold price, the opinion of Goldman Sachs, or the Indian wedding season but the diagnosis that the global fiat money economy has check-mated itself. After 40-years of relentless paper money expansion and in particular after 25 years of Fed-led global bubble finance, the dislocations in the global financial system are so massive that nobody in power dares to turn off the monetary spigot and allow market forces to do their work, that is to price credit and to price risk according to the available pool of real savings and the potential for real income generation rather than according to the wishes of our master monetary central planners.
The reason why for almost half a decade now all the major central banks around the world keep rates at zero and print vast amounts of bank reserves is that the system is massively dislocated and nobody wants the market to have a go at correcting this.
There are two potential outcomes (as I explain in my book): 1) This policy is maintained and even intensified, which will ultimately lead to higher inflation and paper money collapse. 2) This policy is abandoned and the liquidation of imbalances through market forces is allowed to unfold.
Gold is mainly a hedge against scenario 1) but it won’t go to zero in scenario 2) either. So far, I see little indication that central bankers are about to switch from 1) to 2) but we always have to consider the fact that the market is smarter than us and has its ears closer to the ground. What is the evidence?
Cyprus and EMU
Taken on their own, events in Cyprus were not supportive of gold, not because the island nation could potentially sell a smidgeon of gold into the market but because the EU masters decided to go for liquidation and deflation rather than full-scale bailout and reflation. Cyprus’ major bank is being liquidated not rescued and ‘recapitalized’ as in the bad examples of RBS, Northern Rock, Commerzbank, or more indirectly – via shameless re-liquification – in the case of Goldman, Morgan Stanley, Citibank and numerous others. The ECB’s balance sheet has been shrinking over the past 3 months, not expanding. Depositors in EMU (and even EU-) banks are being told that in future they shouldn’t rely on unlimited money-printing or on unlimited transfers from taxpayers in other countries to see the nominal value of their deposits protected. This is a strike for monetary sanity and a negative for gold. It should reduce the risk premium on paper money on the margin.
If this sets an example of where the global monetary bureaucracy is moving than gold is indeed in trouble. However, I don’t see it. As I argued before, it seems more likely to me that Japan is the role model for where other central banks will be heading: aggressive fiat money debasement, a last gasp attempt at throwing the monetary kitchen sink at the economy. Additionally, the EU bureaucracy may not be as principled on the question of hard or soft money when the patient brought in on a stretcher is not a European midget like Cyprus or even Greece but one of the big boys, i.e. Spain, Italy or France, the latter having been the EMU’s big accident waiting to happen for some time. Mr Draghi’s phone will immediately ring off the hook. My sense is that even in Europe the days of ‘quantitative easing’ are not numbered by any stretch of the imagination.
Bernanke, the anti-Volcker
But the central bank that really matters is the Fed. Will we one day look back on the days of April 2013 as the moment an incredibly prescient gold market told us that Bernanke was getting isolated at the Fed, that people had begun to seriously tire of his academic stubbornness about the U.S government having a technology, a printing press, that allows it to print as many dollars as it wishes….blah, blah, blah…., and finally got the knives out and finished this undignifying spectacle of madcap dollar debasement? – Of course, I don’t know but I somehow doubt it.
Monday was the worst day in the gold market since February 1983. Back then gold was in a gigantic bear market, not because of what Goldman thought or said, but because Paul Volcker was Fed chairman and had just applied monetary root canal treatment to the US economy simply by stopping the printing presses, allowing short rates to go up and restoring faith in the paper dollar. Hey, 20 percent on T-bills, how is that for a signal that paper money won’t be printed into oblivion! The important thing was that Volcker (and some of his political masters) had the backbone to inflict this near-term pain to achieve longer-term (although, sadly, not lasting) stability and to live with the consequences of the tightening. Today, the consequences would be much more severe, and there is also much less central banker backbone on display. Over the past two decades, the central banker has instead become the leveraged trader’s best friend. Volcker was made of sterner stuff.
If the gold market knows that easy money is about to end, how come the other markets haven’t got the news yet? Do we really believe that stocks would be trading at or near all-time highs, the bonds of fiscally challenged nations and of small-fry corporations would be trading at record low yields, if the end of easy money was around the corner?
To justify the lofty valuations of these markets on fundamentals, one would have to assume that they no longer benefit from cheap money but instead have again become the efficient-market-hypothesis’ disinterested, objective, reliable, and forward-looking barometers of our economic future, and of a bright future indeed, in which apparently all our problems – cyclical, structural, fiscal, demographic- have now been solved, so that the central bankers can pack up the emergency tool kit and gold can be sent to the museum. – Well, good luck with that.
The sucker trade
In the debate last Friday, my ‘opponent’, Tom Kendall, made a very good point. Tom said that what causes problems for gold was the ‘direction of travel’ of the economy and other asset markets. It is maybe a bit of a strange phrase but the way I understood it it is quite fitting: equities are trading higher (in my view, mainly because of easy money and the correct expectation that easy money will stay with us) while bonds are stable and inflation (so far) is not a problem. In this environment, the gold allocation in a portfolio feels like a dead weight. For most investors it is difficult to stand on the sidelines of a rallying equity market. They need to be part of it.
I think that what is happening here is that Bernanke & Co, are enjoying, for the moment, a monetary policy sweet spot at which their monetary machinations boost equities sufficiently to suck in more and more players from the sidelines but do not yet affect the major inflation readings and do not upset the bond market. This policy is not bringing the financial system back into balance. It does not reduce imbalances or dissolve economic dislocations. To the contrary, this policy is marginally adding to long-term problems. But it feels good for now.
Bernanke is blowing new bubbles, and as we have seen in the past, it is in the early inflation phases of new bubbles that gold struggles. Equity investors are getting sucked in again, and the gold bugs may have to wait until they get spat out again and the Fed’s cavalry again rides to their rescue, that gold comes back.
In any case I remain certain of one thing …
This will end badly.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
It’s official: global economic policy is now firmly in the hands of money cranks.
The lesson from the events of 2007-2008 should have been clear: boosting GDP with loose money – as the Greenspan Fed did repeatedly between 1987 and 2005 and most damagingly between 2001 and 2005 when in order to shorten a minor recession it inflated a massive housing bubble – can only lead to short term booms followed by severe busts. A policy of artificially cheapened credit cannot but cause mispricing of risk, misallocation of capital and a deeply dislocated financial infrastructure, all of which will ultimately conspire to bring the fake boom to a screeching halt. The ‘good times’ of the cheap money expansion, largely characterized by windfall profits for the financial industry and the faux prosperity of propped-up financial assets and real estate (largely to be enjoyed by the ‘1 percent’), necessarily end in an almighty hangover.
The crisis that commenced in 2007 was therefore a massive opportunity: an opportunity to allow the market to liquidate the accumulated dislocations and to bring the economy back into balance; an opportunity to reflect on the inherent instability that central bank activism and manipulation of interest rates must generate; an opportunity to cut off a bloated financial industry from the subsidy of cheap money; and an opportunity to return to sound money and, well, to capitalism. Because for all the thoughtless talk of this being a ‘crisis of capitalism’, a nonsense concocted on the facile assumption that anything that is noisily supported by bankers must be representative of free market ideology, the modern system of ‘bubble finance’, cheap fiat money and excessive debt has precious little to do with true free-market capitalism.
That opportunity was not taken and is now lost – maybe until the next crisis comes along, which won’t be long. It has become clear in recent years – and even more so in recent months and weeks – that we are moving with increasing speed in the opposite direction: ever more money, cheaper credit, and manipulated markets (there is one notable exception to which I come later). Policy makers have learned nothing. The same mistakes are being repeated and the consequences are going to make 2007/8 look like a picnic.
From ‘saving the world’ to blowing new bubbles
Of course, I was never very optimistic that the route back to the free market and sound money would be taken. At the time I left my job in finance in 2009 and began to write Paper Money Collapse, the authorities had already decided that to deal with the consequences of easy-money-induced bubbles we needed more easy money. ‘Quantitative easing’, massive bank bailouts, deficit spending and ultra-low policy rates had become the policy of choice globally. But at least the pretence was upheld for a while that these were temporary measures – ugly and unprincipled but required under the dreadful conditions of 2008 to save ‘the system’. The first round of debt monetization after the Lehman collapse – the exchange of $1 trillion of mortgage-backed securities on bloated bank balance sheets for freshly minted bank reserves from Bernanke’s printing press under ‘quantitative easing 1.0’ (QE1) – was presented as an emergency measure to avoid bank collapses and a systemic crisis.
I never thought that this was a convincing rationale as it was clear to me that whatever the accumulated dislocations were, there was ultimately no alternative to allowing the market to identify and liquidate them. Aborting, delaying and sabotaging this essential process of economic cleansing and rebalancing would only cause new problems. Even on the assumption that these were measures to deal with extreme ‘tail events’, I could not then and cannot now support them. But it is becoming abundantly clear that these measures are neither temporary nor restricted to avoiding bank runs or systemic chaos but that now, after the public has become sufficiently accustomed to them and a cheap-money-addicted financial industry has begun to incorporate them into their business models, they constitute the ‘new normal’, that they are now the accepted ‘modern’ tool kit of central bankers. Zero interest rates, trillion-dollar open-market operations to manipulate asset prices and to ‘manage’ the yield curve are now just another day in the modern fiat money economy. Nobody talks of restraining central bank activism. Rather, the temptation is growing to use these tools to kick-start another artificial boom.
In his excellent new book The Great Deformation – The Corruption of Capitalism in America, David Stockman provides a fascinating account of how the principles of sound money, balanced budgets and small government have progressively been weakened, betrayed, undermined and ultimately completely abandoned in American politics (often by Republican politicians and even some of the alleged ‘free market heroes’ of Republican folklore), and how today’s cocktail of bubble finance and trillion-dollar deficits represents the delayed but inevitable blossoming of destructive seeds that were sown with Roosevelt’s New Deal and Nixon’s default on the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard. In a chapter on the recent crisis, Stockman argues convincingly that the shameful bailout of Wall Street in 2008, in particular of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and a few other highly leveraged entities via the bailout of ‘insurance’ giant AIG, were sold to Congress and the wider public with exaggerated claims that the nation’s real economy was at imminent risk of collapse. From my position as an economist and a market participant at the time of these events, Stockman’s analysis and interpretation strike me as entirely consistent and correct. But even if we were willing to give more credit to the claims of the ‘bailsters’ and interventionists that the fallout for Main Street would have been substantial, that would only further underline how far the Fed’s preceding easy money policies had destabilized the economy, and the question would still remain whether it could ever be a reasonable objective of policy to sustain these large-scale dislocations against market forces.
Be that as it may, the dislocations were largely sustained and plenty of new ones added. Talk of ‘exit strategies’ – that is, of a ‘normalization’ of interest rates and shrinking of central bank balance sheets – has now pretty much died down. Super-low interest rates are now a permanent tonic for the financial industry. In fact, the nature of the debate has shifted markedly over the past 15 months as the idea is progressively gaining adherents that the new hyper-interventionist tool-kit of the central bankers that was slipped in under the cloak of avoiding financial Armageddon in 2008 should now be used pro-actively to start a new easy-money-induced credit boom, that aggressive money printing and debt monetization should be employed to generate a new growth cycle. Many economists are de facto demanding a new bubble.
In America, QE2 was already targeted at boosting the prices of government debt and thereby lowering interest rates and encouraging more lending – which naturally means more borrowing and more debt, the opposite of deleveraging and rebalancing. And QE3 – which is an open-ended $85-billion-a-month price-fixing exercise for selected mortgage- and government- securities – is even targeted officially at lowering the unemployment rate, meaning Fed officials seriously claim that they can create (profitable and lasting?) jobs by cleverly manipulating asset prices.
The resurgence of the money cranks
Rising real wealth is always and everywhere the result of the accumulation of productive capital, which means real resources saved through the non-consumption of real income, and its employment by entrepreneurs in competitive markets under the guidance of uninhibited price formation. This process requires apolitical, hard and international money. Monetary debasement always hinders real wealth creation; it does not aid it. Easy money leads to boom and bust, never to lasting prosperity. Easy money is not a positive-sum game and not even a zero-sum game. It is always and everywhere a negative-sum game.
To claim, instead, that an economy’s performance and society’s wealth is lastingly enhanced by pumping more fiat money through its financial system requires a considerable degree of economic illiteracy and, in the wake of the recent crisis, selective amnesia. Not too long ago, such assertions as to the benefit of inflation and money printing would have clearly marked its proponent as a money crank. But the cranks are now manning the monetary policy ships everywhere, and the international commentariat is either willingly complicit in spreading economic nonsense or intellectually challenged when it comes to exposing the naivete and recklessness of these policies.
Nothing confirms the renewed dominance of money crankism more than the present sad spectacle of Japan, a country that became a post-WWII economic powerhouse in no small measure thanks to the old capitalist virtues of hard work, high savings rates, strong capital accumulation, and innovative and international-minded entrepreneurship, now taking a leaf out of the policy book of Argentina and embarking on a mission of aggressive money printing, currency debasement, asset price manipulation and inflationism. Japanese savers are already losing international purchasing power by the bucket load as the Yen keeps plummeting in international markets.
The idea that currency debasement will result in lasting, self-sustained growth and rising prosperity is positively laughable. I do not doubt that Japan’s new initiative of aggressive monetization has the potential to improve the headline numbers on a number of corporate earning reports and to even give a near-term boost to GDP. Like most drugs, easy money tempts its users with the promise of an immediate but short-lived high. What is, however, absolutely certain is that whatever ‘stimulus’ is generated in the short term is bought at the price of more imbalances (most certainly higher indebtedness) that will weigh down severely on the Japanese population in the future. What is even more worrying is that Japan’s gigantic pool of government debt – held to a large extent by an aging population as a ‘pension nest egg’ and by domestic banks on highly levered balance sheets – is a veritable powder keg, and the Bank of Japan’s new inflation strategy is tantamount to playing with fire.
The deflation myth
It has become commonplace to justify Japan’s monetary ‘experimentation’ with reference to the country’s long suffering under supposedly ‘crippling’ deflation. Even otherwise respectable financial newspapers and journals lazily repeat this standard refrain. It is complete and utter nonsense. Whatever Japan’s problems are, and I am sure they are numerous and sizable, deflation is not one of them.
Firstly, there is no economic rationale for assuming that the type of moderate and ongoing deflation (secular deflation) that analysts suspect in Japan and that is the result of stable money and marginal improvements in productivity could constitute a problem for the economy’s performance. Why such deflation is harmless (and even preferable to moderate inflation) I explain in detail in chapter 5 ofPaper Money Collapse. I make no claim to originality here, as this insight was widely accepted among most serious mainstream economists up to and including the first third of the twentieth century when it became sadly ‘forgotten’ rather than refuted. But if you don’t want to take my word for it or go through the argument in my book, or if you want to have ‘empirical evidence’, then you might want to listen to Milton Friedman, hardly an advocate of the gold standard, who (together with Anna Schwartz) analyzed the late 19th century economy of the United States which had both stronger growth and much more deflation (in particular after the fiat money episode of the Civil War had ended) than Japan had over the past 20-odd years, and who concluded that U.S. data “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now (1963) widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”
Secondly, there is not even any deflation in Japan that deserves the name. The data (which is here) does not support it. I am sure the economists at the Bank of Japan employ massive magnifying glasses to detect deflation in their data series. What Japan has is, by any rational standard, price stability.
In February 2013, the consumer price index (CPI) stood at 99.3. Ten years earlier, in February 2003, it stood at 100.3, and ten years before that, in February 1993, at 99.6. Apart from the fact that, as with any price-index data, the methodology, accuracy and relevance of these statistics is always highly debatable, it is clear that if we do take the data at face value we see an economy that has roughly enjoyed stable prices for two decades. In fact, prices rose marginally in the late 1990s, remained stable for a few years, and have recently declined marginally.
In February of this year, the inflation rate was -0.6 percent year over year. Would any of the commentators who lament Japan’s ‘crippling deflation’ claim that an inflation rate of +0.6 percent year over year would constitute worrying inflation, or even deserve the label ‘inflation’ at all? Would it not simply be called a rounding error? – By comparison, official UK inflation stood at +2.8 percent year over year in February 2013 and has fluctuated between +1.1 percent and +5 percent over the past 4 years alone. What monetary system is more conducive to rational economic calculation and planning – Japan’s or Britain’s? (It should be worth noting that over those 4 years the British economy has NOT outperformed Japan, despite its ‘wonderful’ inflation.)
Those commentators who tell us that this ‘crippling deflation’ is hurting the economy because people postpone spending decisions in anticipation of lower prices, want us to believe that Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe don’t buy a new popup toaster for ¥3,930 this year because – at a 0.6 percent p.a. deflation rate – they can reasonably assume that it will only cost ¥3,906 to buy the same toaster next year. And they won’t even buy it next year at ¥3,906 because the year after that it will only cost ¥3,883. The Watanabes would thus be able to save ¥47 over two years by not eating any toast (and it goes without saying that they may save considerably more by never eating toast!). This is a saving of – wait for it! – $0.47 or £0.31 (at present exchange rates) for postponing the purchase of a standard consumption item for two years – 730 mornings without toast! The notion that this ‘crippling’ deflation is holding back Japanese growth is simply beyond ridiculous, yet you can hardly open a newspaper these days without seeing such nonsense presented as economic analysis. (I would recommend that these experts on consumer psychology call the people at Apple, Samsung and other providers of tablets, smartphones and various consumer technology items and tell them that they are missing a trick: it is evidently rising prices that get people buying, not falling prices!)
Funding the state
The deflation argument is so flimsy that one can only assume it is a convenient scapegoat for a different agenda: securing printing-press funding for the state. Under Japan’s new monetary debasement plan, the Bank of Japan will practically buy the entire annual issuance of new government debt and thus fund excessive public sector spending directly via the printing press. Japan is famously the world’s most highly indebted state at 230% of GDP and runs an annual budget deficit of around 10% of GDP. Even the most troubled members of EMU enjoy better funding stats.
The often-heard argument that such profligacy has evidently not been punished by markets for years and decades, so why should the day of reckoning be any nearer now, is unconvincing. For years, the Japanese public has in fact saved and has faithfully handed its private savings over to the state, which immediately wasted them on Keynesian ‘stimulus’ projects that will never bring a meaningful return (bridges and roads to nowhere, public pools, agricultural subsidies). For a long time it was to a considerable degree private frugality that funded public excess. But now the savings rate has collapsed to 2 percent and given the shrinking workforce and aging population is unlikely to ever recover. Private savings are thus no longer sufficient to fund the state’s recklessness, so now it is up to the Bank of Japan to keep the state in business and maintain a mirage of solvency. The inflationary implications of funding massive government waste through money-printing rather than voluntary savings are, of course, considerable.
The risk here is not that the policy of monetary debasement will again amount to ‘pushing on a string’ and fail to raise inflation and inflation expectations. The much riskier and likelier outcome is that this policy will ultimately ‘succeed’. The aging Japanese population sits on a massive pile of government debt that is not backed by productive capital but that the population still considers its ‘pension assets’. Debasing the purchasing power of fixed income streams that Japanese pensioners draw from this pool will ultimately dampen domestic consumption – the very component of GDP that the inflationists claim to boost with their monetary debasement. If inflation only rises from -0.6 percent to +1 percent, the entire Japanese yield curve is ‘under water’. Only very long maturity bonds will still provide a positive real yield. This will also hurt the banks which are massive (leveraged) owners of government debt. And of course, a meaningful sell-off in the bond market would quickly wipe out bank capital.
Such a sell-off may still not occur anytime soon. At the present UK inflation-rate of +2.8 percent, most of the UK’s government bonds are also trading at negative real yields. In fact, in recent months many bond investors around the world have exhibited a remarkable willingness to hold bonds at negative real returns. It appears as if many of these securities have become, in the eyes of their holders, ‘cash equivalents’, i.e. instruments that are held for reasons of safety and liquidity, not for reasons of income generation. How far the central banks can exploit this phenomenon is uncertain. Central banks cannot turn water into wine but almost any asset into (fiat) money by ‘monetizing’ them. The only limit to this operation is the willingness of the public to hold these new ‘monetized’ assets, and frankly I doubt that there is money demand in Japan to the tune of 230 percent of GDP. – We shall find out.
Money crankism will spread
‘Abenomics’ will not solve Japan’s problems; it will make the Japanese worse off and it has the potential to trigger a mighty financial crisis. Yet, what is surely inevitable might not be imminent. During the early honeymoon between ‘Abenomics’ and financial reality, the idea of printing yourself to prosperity is likely to have imitators, with the UK being a prime candidate. In terms of total indebtedness, the UK is the one industrialized country that can compete with Japan, meaning it is in the same supersized debt-pickle. Even the timid attempts by Chancellor Osborne to lower the speed at which Her Majesty’s government goes further into debt are being attacked as savage ‘austerity’ by the opposition and large parts of the media. In his latest budget he put the remaining taxpayer-chips on another housing bubble and gave the Bank of England more room to ignore inflation. Over at Thredneedle Street, the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Paul Tucker, openly fantasized about negative interest rates recently, outgoing Governor Mervyn King voted for more QE (overruled), and Governor-elect Mark Carney promises to be, well, – flexible. Bottom line: desperation is spreading. Watch this place! Chances are the Old Lady is the next to throw any remaining caution and remaining vestiges of monetary sanity to the wind and – go ‘all in’.
This will end badly.
P.S.: As to ‘the exception’, the only place where money crankism is not the order of the day yet is – the Euro Zone!– Yes, I am serious. – I know, I know. This is an amalgamation of semi-socialist, semi-bankrupt welfare states that share the same politicized paper currency issued by a central bank that has already bailed out too many banks, has manipulated various government bond markets and whose balance sheet as a percent of GDP is larger than the Fed’s. However: in a global sea of monetary madness there are at least a few remaining signs of sanity and orthodox monetary discipline on display in the much derided EMU. Greece was allowed or encouraged to default on part of its debt, which meant that bond-holders had to eat losses. Cyprus’ biggest bank is being wound down, which means depositors are going to eat losses, too. There is a persistent push towards ‘austerity’. On the fiscal front, the Euro Zone easily outperforms the US, the UK and, of course, Japan. While the Fed has increased its balance sheet girth by almost $300 billion in the first three months of 2013 alone, the ECB has reduced its own by almost €400 billion over the same time. My rule is this: the more Professor Krugman is foaming at the mouth and the more apoplectic the commentary from the strategists, analysts and economists in the bailout-addicted financial industry get, the more it seems that Mrs Merkel & Co are getting a few things right.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
Once the public furor and shrill media coverage have died down it will become clear that events in Cyprus did not mark the death of democracy or the end of the euro but potentially the beginning of the end of deposit ‘insurance’. If so, then three cheers to that. It may herald a return to honesty, transparency and responsibility in banking.
Let us start by looking at some of the facts of deposit banking: When you deposit money in a bank you forfeit ownership of money and gain ownership of a claim against the bank – a claim for instant repayment of money but a claim nonetheless. In 1848 the House of Lords stated it thus:
Money, when paid into a bank, ceases altogether to be the money of the principal; it is then the money of the banker, who is bound to an equivalent by paying a similar sum to that deposited with him when he is asked for it…The money placed in the custody of a banker is, to all intents and purposes, the money of the banker, to do with it as he pleases; he is guilty of no breach of trust in employing it; he is not answerable to the principal if he puts it into jeopardy, if he engages in hazardous speculation; he is not bound to keep it or deal with it as the property of his principal; but he is, of course, answerable for the amount, because he has contracted.
This is not legal pedantry or just a matter of opinion but logical necessity that follows inescapably from how deposit banking has developed, how it was practiced in 1848 and how it is still practiced today. If ownership of the money had not passed from depositor to banker than the banker could not lend the money to a third party against interest and he could not pay interest to the depositor. If the depositor had retained full ownership of the deposited money, the banker would only be allowed to store it safely and to probably charge the depositor for the safe-keeping of his property. Money stored in a bank’s vault earns as little interest as money kept under a mattress. It is evidently not what bank depositors contract for. If interest is being paid – or ‘free’ banking services are being provided – the depositor must have agreed – at least implicitly – that the banker can ‘invest’ the money, i.e. put it at risk.
For more than 300 years banks have been in the business of funding loans that are risky and illiquid with deposits that are supposed to be safe and instantly redeemable. When banks fail, depositors lose money, although in former times, sturdier and more honest, no rational person claimed that the depositors were unfairly ‘bailed in’ or were the victims of ‘theft’.
Although the mechanics of fractional-reserve banking have not changed in 300 years the public’s expectations have evidently changed greatly. Today banks are expected to lend ever more generously while depositors are supposed to not incur any risk of loss at all. This means squaring the circle but it has not stopped politicians from promising just such a feat: Enter deposit insurance. State deposit “insurance” is not insurance at all. Insurance companies calculate and calibrate risks, charge the insured party and set aside capital for when the insured event occurs. A state deposit ‘guarantee’, by contrast, is simply another unfunded government promise, extended in the hope that things won’t get that bad. When they finally do the state does what it always does: it will take from Peter to pay Paul. Cyprus is a case in point: Private insurance companies would have pulled the plug on a ballooning banking sector long ago while the Cypriot state, still the local monopolist of bank licensing and bank regulation, evidently looked on as the banks amassed deposits of four times GDP. In the end Cyprus’ government ran out of ‘Pauls’ to stick the bill to – and ‘Hans’ in Germany refused to get ‘bailed in’ completely (although he is still providing the lion’s share of the bailout).
Cyprus is just an extreme example of what the institutionalized obfuscation of risk and accountability that comes with state-protected banking can lead to. Deposit ‘insurance’ masks the risks and socializes the costs of fractional-reserve banking. Unlimited state paper money and central banks that assume the role of “lenders of last resort” have the same effect. If the original idea behind these innovations was to make banking safer, it has not worked, as banks have become bigger and riskier than ever before, although I suspect that the real purpose of these ‘safety nets’ has always been to provide cover for more generous bank credit expansion.
Under present arrangements there is little incentive for banks to position themselves in the marketplace as particularly conservative. Depositors have been largely desensitized to the risks inherent in banking. They no longer reward prudent banks with inflows and punish overtly risky banks with the withdrawal of funds, and even if they do, the banks can now obtain almost unlimited funds from the central bank, at least as long as they have any asset that the central bank is willing to ‘monetize’. This is a low hurdle indeed as banks have become conduits for the never-ending policy of ‘stimulus’ and are thus being fattened further for the sake of more growth. Once a bank has ‘ticked the boxes’ and meets the minimum criteria of regulatory supervision, any additional probity would only subtract from potential shareholder returns. Our modern financial infrastructure has created an illusion of safety coupled with an illusion of prosperity thanks to artificially cheapened credit. The risk of the occasional run on an individual bank has now been replaced with the acute and rising risk of a run on the entire system.
This would change radically if we reintroduced free market principles into banking. Bankers would again be answerable to all their lenders, including small depositors, who would no longer be lulled into a false sense of security but, in their correctly-understood role as creditors to the banks, would become ‘deposit vigilantes’ and would help keep the banks in check. The banks would again have to communicate balance sheet strategy and risk management to the wider public in order to gain and maintain the public’s trust, and not just to a handful of highly specialized bureaucrats at the central bank or the state’s bank regulator. Banking would become less complex, more transparent and less leveraged. Conservative banking would again be a viable business model. And the wider public would begin to appreciate how dangerous the populist policies of cheap credit and naïve demands for ‘getting banks lending again’ ultimately are. The depositors are underwriting these policies and carry a lot of their risks.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
I, too, was shocked Monday morning. Not so much by the news that depositors at Cypriot banks would face a haircut, or a ‘levy’ or a ‘tax’, on their deposits as a contribution to yet another Eurozone bailout package funded by taxpayers in other counties but by the reaction in the press.
Here was, according to the majority of the international commentariat, yet another example of the ineptitude or outright meanspiritedness of the Eurozone policy elite, another example of imposing needless and counterproductive hardship and brutal ‘austerity’ on innocent citizens in small and troubled countries. The Daily Telegraph on its front page spoke in usual hyperbole of a ‘EU raid on savings’ and, naturally, of another ‘threat to the recovery’. What agitated most commentators was that the ‘sanctity’ of deposit insurance had been carelessly violated as even deposits of less than €100,000 were, at first at least, supposed to be subjected to a reduced haircut as well. Those types of deposits are supposed to enjoy a ‘guarantee’ that magically shields them from the harsh reality of bankrupt banks and bankrupt states. Undermining this ‘guarantee’ could have wide-reaching consequences beyond tiny Cyprus as it has the potential to undermine the trust in banking systems in Greece, Spain and Portugal.
I agree that this move is risky. The international banking system is highly levered and in large parts has been teetering on the brink of disaster for many years. Anything that affects depositors can have grave consequences. But given the state of affairs, any meaningful attempt to deal with the banking systems’ problems must inevitably entail risks. The questions are the following: are the right type of risks being taken? And what would the alternative be?
Banking is a risky business because banks are highly leveraged enterprises. (Sorry to break that news to you.) In a fractional-reserve banking system ‘deposits’ are not deposits (i.e. contracts for safe-keeping) but loans to banks and thus loans to highly leveraged businesses.
Most people in developed countries have become used to not worrying about the health of individual banks. They have, over the course of decades, been conditioned to believe that all banks are regulated by the state and ultimately protected by the state. – Yes, but only so that the banks can take even more risks and become even more leveraged. State ‘protection’ has now created a banking monster that is swallowing up the resources of the state itself. And this can hardly come as a surprise in early 2013!
The naïve belief that bank deposits are always ‘money good’ because they are backed by the state and the state, after all, is an endless cornucopia, was maybe understandable, or at least excusable, until about 2008, when then Prime Minister of Ireland, Brian Cowen, in the middle of the Irish banking crisis, had the genius idea to simply declare a state guarantee for all deposits at Irish banks. Hey, problem solved! Obviously, Cowen didn’t do the math and didn’t realize how big that guarantee was going to be. Well, he was found out by the markets – and Ireland, the country, went bankrupt.
After Lehman, after Ireland and Iceland, and after Greece, I think you must have lived in a cave for the past 5 years to really think that banks are safe because they are guaranteed by their governments. Come on! Please get real.
Excuse me but my sympathies for Cypriot depositors is somewhat limited. If you are a depositor in a Cypriot bank, whether of deposits of more or less than €100,000, who did you think was guaranteeing your deposit? The Blue Fairy? Did you really think that in such a small place with such a bizarrely bloated banking system – one that for years and, by now, very publicly had been investing in Greek government bonds! – your government had the resources to protect all depositors? The bailout of Cyprus’ two largest banks will cost the equivalent of 60% of GDP! And after what happened in Greece, did you really think that the Germans were willing to cover the whole bill?
I am a free market guy. I am in favor of laissez faire so I always like to see placards that read “Hands off”. One could see such placards at demonstrations in Cyprus on Monday: “Hands off Cyprus”. That is great. But be careful what you wish for. A proper hands-off policy means letting the chips fall where they may. That would certainly mean no bailout and thus total collapse of the Cypriot banking system and the Cypriot economy. Don’t forget that Cyprus and its banks and its depositors are still being bailed out with other people’s money here.
That is also what some of my libertarian friends don’t seem to get when they speak, as some of them did yesterday, of another incident of the ‘the state stealing from its citizens’ or of confiscating their property. As much sympathy as I usually have with these views, in this instance they are simply mistaken. If this were expropriation it would mean that the act of abstaining from this expropriation – of the expropriator simply doing nothing – would mean that the ‘victim’ keeps his property. But if the EU did nothing in this situation – “hands off”, laissez faire – it would mean that most depositors, including those under €100,000, got wiped out completely. The choice is not between keeping everything and paying a ‘levy’, but between paying a ‘levy’ and losing almost everything.
Some commentators will object here and say that, for the sake of a more cheerful public sentiment and for the sake of the nascent recovery, the bailout should be more generous and protect more Cypriots to a larger degree. But that would mean either more expropriation (and now the word is indeed appropriate) of taxpayers in Nordic countries, or more money-printing by the ECB. And this is where many commentators are either short-sighted or indeed hypocritical.
Using the printing press to cover any excess committed by banks and governments, no matter how outrageous, must mean inflation and this certainly hurts all savers, including those with savings of less than €100,000. I found it particularly galling that many of the commentators who are now posing as defenders of the small saver are usually among the loudest proponents of exiting the euro, issuing new and weaker currencies and using debasement to gain short-lived competitiveness – all measures that defraud the domestic saver. All those who persistently argue against ‘austerity’ and for more stimulus, more debt, weaker currencies, higher inflation, do not care at all for savers. As Keynes famously suggested, they want to kill the rentier class, whether the rentiers are big or small. And now they claim to be the advocates of savers?
Of course, there are notable exceptions. In the Telegraph, Jeremy Warner did a good job explaining how costly the bailout of British banks has been – and still is – to British savers, not least via higher inflation, zero interest rates and endless quantitative easing. I also thought that Simon Nixon’s piece in the Wall Street Journal was informative and balanced. But they are the exception.
I am no friend of the EU and I feel uncomfortable finding myself in a position in which I have to defend their policies but I feel that those elements for which the EU gets most viciously attacked in the media – ‘austerity’, letting Greece default, at least partially, bailing in depositors – are most sensible to me as these policies are, in principle at least, based on an acknowledgement of the underlying problems and as they do not seek near-term comfort in the deceptive and damaging policies of endless fiscal transfers and money-printing.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
The purpose of this essay is to put the latest crisis in the context of longer-term debt trends in the US and to attempt some predictions in respect to the US economy and financial markets.
Statistics are records of past events. Analyzing statistics means interpreting history, and this can only be done on the basis of theory. We must first have some theoretical notions to be able to render past events intelligible. Of course, historic data cannot be in conflict with the theory used, as that would put the validity of the latter in doubt. But we can neither use statistics to prove the correctness of a theory nor directly discover new theories (although history may give us ideas about potential theories). Before we look at the data I should give a brief outline of my theory, which readers of my book Paper Money Collapse will be familiar with.
The theory – short version
Paper Money Collapse challenges the prevailing consensus on money. This consensus holds that it is good to have something called ‘monetary policy’. Most mainstream economists today, while accepting the superiority of markets when it comes to allocating scarce resources to their most urgent uses, also maintain that in the field of money state involvement is desirable, and that a smoothly functioning economy requires a constantly expanding supply of state paper money and the guidance (manipulation) of certain market prices (interest rates) by a central bureaucracy, i.e. the central bank. More precisely, this bureaucracy should keep expanding the supply of money in such a way that money’s purchasing power declines continuously (moderate, controlled inflation) and that, whenever the economy is weak, it should use its powers to ‘stimulate’ the economy towards faster growth, usually through accelerated base money production and administratively lowered interest rates.
Paper Money Collapse argues that all these notions are erroneous and dangerous. Constant monetary expansion is not needed (not even in a growing economy) and is always highly disruptive. The continuous expansion of fiat money, naturally via financial markets, systematically distorts interest rates, which must lead to capital misallocations and other economic imbalances that will make recessionary corrections at a later stage inevitable. The recessions that ‘easy’ monetary policy is then supposed to shorten or ease are thus nothing but the result of previous monetary expansion.
Recessions can only be avoided by avoiding artificial booms through credit expansion. Once monetary expansion has led to sizable economic distortions the recession becomes unavoidable – and even necessary to cleanse the economy of dislocations. But to make matters worse, in our present system of unconstrained fiat money creation, recessions are – whenever they occur – countered by accelerated money creation (usually via new bank reserves from the central bank) and further cuts in interest rates. Imbalances are thus not being purged from the economy. Instead they accumulate over time making the financial system and the economy overall progressively more unstable. The system is moving towards a point of catharsis: either a complete purge is finally allowed to unfold (painful) or ever more fiat money is created until the public loses confidence in fiat money itself and a hyperinflationary currency collapse occurs (more painful).
I maintain that this theory is logically consistent and not in conflict with past events.
Clearly identifying, let alone quantifying, imbalances is exceedingly difficult if not impossible. It is usually during crises that imbalances become visible as such. Consequently, analyzing data requires a considerable degree of judgement. In the following I look at ‘excessive indebtedness’ as a major dislocation caused by fiat money expansion.
The present monetary system naturally encourages the excessive accumulation of debt, and discourages deleveraging and disinflation, although at certain points in time these may be difficult to avoid altogether. During the financial crisis deflationary and recessionary forces briefly gained the upper hand. To what extent have they purged the system of money-induced imbalances? Has a meaningful ‘cleansing’ of imbalances taken place? If so, has the economy ‘healed’?
I had a look at the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds data and the following picture emerges.
Over the 31 years from 1981 to the end of 2012, total debt outstanding in the US economy grew from $5,255 billion to $56,280 billion. The debt load has increased continuously from year to year – with only one single exception: 2009, when total debt declined by just 0.2%. Debt has grown faster than nominal GDP in 27 out of 31 years. The average growth rate in total debt was 8% per annum, compared to 5.4% for nominal GDP. In 1981, total debt outstanding was 168% of GDP, today it is 359% of GDP.
In 1981, total debt broke down as follows: household debt was about 48% of GDP; business debt was about 53% of GDP; the public sector owed about 38% of GDP and the financial sector 29% of GDP. Note that of the four major sectors, the public sector and the financial sector were the two smaller ones. Debt of the financial sector was only slightly more than half of corporate debt.
Things looked very different by the end of 2012: Household debt had ballooned to 82% of GDP and corporate debt to 81%. Public sector debt now stood at 93% of GDP and financial sector debt at 103% of GDP. The public and financial sector had become the largest debtors.
While corporate debt was about 7.5 times larger in absolute terms at the end of 2012 than at the end of 1981, financial sector debt was 17 times larger. Over the 26 years from 1981 to the eve of the current financial crisis in 2007, financial sector debt grew at an average clip of more than 12% per annum compared to about 6% for nominal GDP over the same period. When we entered the present financial crisis in 2007, financial sector debt stood at an all-time high for any sector in US financial history, at 131% of GDP.
I maintain that such a dramatic growth in overall indebtedness, as well as the specific breakdown of that growth by sector, is symptomatic of our unconstrained fiat money system with its constant money growth and lender-of-last-resort central banks that encourage debt accumulation and promote high-leverage strategies in the financial sector. That this has led to substantial economic instability is now self-evident.
Has the US economy deleveraged since 2007?
The two sectors that were most exposed in 2007 were households (via the residential mortgage market) and the financial sector. Both sectors have shed debt since 2007. Both have deleveraged. Households reduced their debt from a record $13,712 billion in 2007 to $12,831 billion at the end of 2012. These $881 billion mean a reduction of 6.4%. The financial sector was forced to cut debt even more: From 2007 to 2012, total outstanding debt of the financial sector was reduced by more than $2,100 billion, a reduction of 12%.
Such reductions in debt were unprecedented in the 31-year history we are looking at here. At no point before had household debt and financial sector debt declined on a year-over-year basis. In this respect, the events of the recent crisis were indeed unique. ‘Cleansing’ has occurred. But how meaningful are these reductions? In absolute terms – total amounts of debt outstanding – both sectors are roughly back to where they were …..in Q3 of 2006, barely a year before the crisis started! Not much has happened in absolute terms. However, in recent years, the economy has continued to grow moderately, so as a percentage of GDP, household debt is today roughly where it was in 2002/3, and financial sector debt is about where it was in 2001/2. In relative terms, a decade of excess has thus been unwound.
Nevertheless, as mentioned above, the total debt load has continued to grow and stands at an all-time record today. The reason for this is mainly the explosion in public sector debt. While households and financial firms have cut debt by $3 trillion since 2007, the state has taken on an additional $6.6 trillion in new debt over the same period– almost all of it at the federal level! In fact, outstanding debt of the federal government has more than doubled since 2007!
The trend of ever-rising overall debt has thus continued. The deleveraging in the household and financial sector has, however, resulted in a reduced pace of debt accumulation overall, despite heavy borrowing from the federal government. In 2010, for the first time since 1992, the economy has grown faster than total debt, and this has continued in 2011 and in 2012, if at a slowing pace. Consequently, total debt stands at 359% of GDP today, slightly down from its peak of 381% in 2009. At 359% debt-to-GDP is back to where it was at in early 2007. Again, not much deleveraging has occurred in total.
Conclusion and outlook
I cannot see that the recent crisis has already brought about some kind of fundamental healing of the US economy, some much needed purge of monetary excesses. Yes, households and the financial industry have trimmed back and are now probably in better shape than a few years ago. Household debt numbers now seem to be stabilizing, meaning deleveraging could be coming to an end, while there is no sign yet that financial deleveraging has concluded. Of course, given the prevailing belief system, those who control the levers of the fiat money system are doing what they can to discourage further deleveraging. Zero interest rates and open-ended QE are hardly conducive to debt reduction.
Here are my present forecasts, and they are necessarily highly speculative:
- Super-easy monetary policy will continue as far as I can see. The Fed has declared that it wants to use monetary policy to boost employment (the hubris of the bureaucrat!). But deleveraging in the financial sector, if it persists, would be a problem for the Fed’s strategy. The financial sector is crucial in transmitting easy policy. The Fed can thus reasonably be expected to continue leaning against deleveraging with all its might. And if and when deleveraging turns into re-leveraging, the Fed will probably nurture it for some time.
- Public sector profligacy is not a crisis phenomenon but has been in full bloom since 2002 and is now in large part structural. A political solution looks unlikely any time soon. The state will thus continue to be the main driver behind the overall growth in debt. Funding this debt accumulation is not a problem with the Fed now the biggest marginal buyer of Treasury securities and the Fed unlikely to abandon super-easy policy anytime soon.
- The corporate sector has not been a major driver in this story so far. Recently, corporate debt has begun to expand again. It is not unreasonable to assume that this will continue.
- In aggregate, the picture could be the following: outstanding debt of the public sector will continue to grow rapidly, corporate debt mildly to maybe strongly; household indebtedness might stagnate. The wild card remains the financial sector. My guess is that what little overall deleveraging we experienced – measured as a modest decline in total debt in relation to the economy’s capacity for income-generation, i.e. GDP – is in the process of being reversed. The interventionists (i.e. the mainstream) will hail this as a success of policy. ‘Debt-deflation’ has been avoided – for now. A more realistic assessment is that the economy is as much on financial steroids as a few years ago, and – in aggregate – as fragile. Expanding debt levels further from here will require interest rates that are continuously depressed through policy and an even more activist and interventionist central bank. The Fed is fully on board with this.
- Deflation is very unlikely from here. The debasement of paper money continues. Inflation rates should begin to move higher.
Debt-GDP-ratios of 359% (now) or 381% (2009) are unusual historically. The ratio was below 200% at the start of the Great Depression and it peaked at a touch above 300% in 1933, when nominal GDP collapsed. The current debt load is unprecedented. But then, countries such as Japan and the UK have total debt in excess of 500 percent of GDP. Disaster still looks inevitable but maybe not imminent.
…a final word on the bond market.
It so happens that the start year of the above analysis – 1981 – also marked the peak in bond yields in the US. 10-year Treasury notes reached 15% back in 1981 and went on a downward path from there that lasts to this day. We have had an almost uninterrupted, 31-year bull market in bonds. Not only Treasuries but also corporate and mortgage debt are presently trading at or near historic lows in yield. Although the US economy never had to carry more debt – certainly never more in absolute terms and almost never more relative to GDP – the compensation that investors get for holding all this debt has never been lower!
Sure, inflation was still high in the early 1980s but the structural drop in inflation was over by 1992. CPI inflation has broadly moved sideways in a stable range since the early 1990s without any additional disinflationary momentum.
It seems that over the past three decades the debtors were encouraged to take out ever more debt because the lenders – the bond buyers – were happy to hold ever more debt at ever lower yields. A market in which demand for assets keeps rising at persistently rising prices (persistently falling yields) has all the ingredients of a bubble. I think the US bond market – and by extension, international bond markets – could be the greatest bubble in history.
The big question is when will this bubble pop?
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
The publication, earlier this week, of the Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee minutes of January 29-30 seemed to have a similar effect on equity markets as a call from room service to a Las Vegas hotel suite, informing the partying high-rollers that the hotel might be running out of Cristal Champagne. Around the world, stocks sold off, and so did gold.
Here is the sentence that caused such consternation:
However, many participants also expressed some concerns about potential costs and risks arising from further asset purchases [the Fed’s open-ended, $85 billion-a-month debt monetization program called ‘quantitative easing’, DS]. Several participants discussed the possible complications that additional purchases could cause for the eventual withdrawal of policy accommodation, a few mentioned the prospect of inflationary risks, and some noted that further asset purchases could foster market behaviour that could undermine financial stability.
Here is how one may freely translate it:
Guys, let’s face it: All this money printing is not without costs and risks. Three problems present themselves:
- The bigger our balance sheet gets (currently, $3trillion and counting), the more difficult it will be to ever offload some of these assets in the future. When we start liquidating, markets will panic. We might end up having absolutely no maneuvering space whatsoever.
- All this money printing will one day feed into higher headline inflation that no statistical gimmickry will manage to hide. Then some folks may expect us to tighten policy, which we won’t be able to do because of 1).
- We are persistently manipulating quite a few major asset markets here. Against this backdrop, market participants are not able to price risk properly. We are encouraging financial risk taking and the type of behaviour that has led to the financial crisis in the first place.
All these points are, of course, valid and excellent reasons for stopping ‘quantitative easing’ right away. Readers of this site will not be surprised that I would advocate the immediate end to ‘quantitative easing’ and any other central bank measures to artificially ‘stimulate’ the economy. In fact, the whole idea that a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington scans lots of data plus some anecdotal ‘evidence’ every month (with the help of 200 or so economists) and then ‘sets’ interest rates, astutely manipulates bank refunding rates and cleverly guides various market prices so that the overall economy comes out creating more new jobs while the debasement of money unfolds at the officially sanctioned because allegedly harmless pace of 2 percent, must appear entirely preposterous to any student of capitalism. There should be no monetary policy in a free market just as there should be no policy of setting food prices, or wage rates, or of centrally adjusting the number of hours in a day.
But the question here is not what I would like to happen but what is most likely to happen. There is no doubt that we should see an end to ‘quantitative easing’ but will we see it anytime soon? Has the Fed finally – after creating $1.9 trillion in new ‘reserves’ since Lehman went bust – seen the light? Do they finally get some sense?
Maybe, but I still doubt it. Of course, we cannot know but my present guess is that they won’t stop quantitative easing any time soon; they may pause or slow things down for a while but a meaningful change in monetary policy looks unlikely to me.
The boxed-in central banker
I think that in financial markets and in the press the degrees of freedom that central bank officials enjoy are vastly overestimated. I consider central bankers to be captives of three overwhelming forces:
1) Their own belief system which still holds that they are the last line of defence between dark and inexplicable economic forces and the helpless public, and that therefore, whenever the data or the markets go down, it is their duty to ride to the rescue. Thus, when the withdrawal of the Cristal, whether actual or only prospective, dampens the party mood, the Fed will soon feel obliged, by its own inner logic and without any motivation from outside influences, to open another bottle. Just wait until the present debate about an end to QE leads to weaker markets and until, in the absence of the diversion from rallying equity markets, the almost consistently uninspiring ‘fundamental data’ becomes the focus of attention again, and we will witness another shift in Fed language, again back to ‘stimulus’. We had these little twists and turns a couple of times without any major change in trend. Anybody remember the talk of ‘exit strategies’ in the spring of 2011?
Of course, like most state officials, central bank bureaucrats are largely preoccupied with the problems of their own making. It is precisely the Fed’s frequent rescue operations that have created the dislocations (excessive leverage, asset bubbles) which cause instability and repeated crises in the first place. However, there are no signs anywhere that, intellectually, the Fed is willing and able to break out of this policy loop.
2) The size of the dislocations, which are – as I just explained – largely central-bank-made and now, after years and years of Greenspan puts and Bernanke bailouts and zero-interest rates, still sizable in my view, maybe as large as ever. The Wall Street Journal reported that total borrowing by financial institutions is down by about $3 trillion from its all-time high in 2008. That’s the widely heralded ‘deleveraging’. But does that mean that the current level of about $13.8 trillion is a new equilibrium? The Fed’s balance sheet expanded by almost $2 trillion over the same period, and super-easy monetary policy has provided a powerful disincentive for banks to shrink meaningfully. What is truly sustainable or not, will only be discernible once the Fed stops its manipulations altogether and lets the market price things freely. My guess is that we would still have to go through a period of deleveraging and probably of headline deflation. This would be a necessary correction for a still unbalanced economy addicted to cheap credit but nobody is willing to take this medicine.
3) Politics. Falling stocks, shrinking 401K-plans, and shaky banks don’t make for a happy electorate. Additionally, the state is increasingly dependent on low borrowing costs and central bank purchases of its debt. The chances of the US government repairing its own balance sheet look slim to non-existent so dependence on ultra-low funding rates and the Fed as lender of last resort (and every resort) will likely continue.
Look at Japan
When it comes to any of the major trends in global central banking of the past 25 years, Japan has consistently been leading the pack. It had 1 percent policy rates for years in the mid 1990s when such rates were still deemed exceedingly low in countries like the US, and when the global community still looked upon them in disbelief – and growing annoyance at the small pay-off in terms of real growth. Japan was the first to have zero policy rates and the first to conduct ‘quantitative easing’, albeit on an altogether smaller scale – thus far at least – than some of the Western central banks managed since 2008. Now the country seems to point the way towards the next phase in the evolution of modern central banking: the open and unapologetic politicization of the central bank and the demotion of the head central banker to PR man.
Any pretence of the ‘independence’ of central bankers has been unceremoniously dumped in Japan. Ministers take part in central bank meetings and give joint statements with central bank governors afterwards. New Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it very clear what he wants the central bank to do (print more money faster, devalue the Yen, create inflation) and to that end he is looking for a new central bank governor. Of course, only accredited ‘doves’ need apply. A few days ago, Mr. Abe also spelled out what skill-set he is really looking for: good marketing skills. Salesmanship.
Since we all have our national interests, sometimes, there will be criticism about the monetary policy we are pursuing. The person needs to be able to counter such criticism using logic.
The course of monetary policy is pretty much fixed. Now it is all about marketing.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
The idea that the charging of interest is unethical and should be banned has a long tradition in the history of human civilisation. It seems to have played a role at some point in all the major religions, certainly in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and it is today promoted most strongly by advocates of Islamic banking.
As an economist I cannot (and should not) comment on matters of religion. Religion and economics deal with completely different aspects of human existence. Religion is about ‘ultimate ends’ and ‘personal values’. Economics does not deal with ends but with means. Economics does not tell anybody what his or her values should be. Contrary to what is frequently claimed – usually by those who do not understand economics – economics does not tell you that you should strive for more material goods and more services at your disposal.
But it so happens that we live in a world in which most people have personal aims or goals that involve having at least a certain material wealth, and in which most people prefer the possession of more material goods to less material goods; and the science of economics – for economics is a science, and in fact an objective, wertfreie (value-free) science – can then explain why people have a better chance of achieving these (material) aims if they use such social institutions as the division of labor, private property, trade, money, and many others. Additionally, the science of economics can show how these social institutions work, demonstrate the laws and regularities inherent in them, and can develop rules for their most appropriate use. Economics is purely about the means of social cooperation for the attainment of material goals. It never concerns itself with ultimate ends.
If most of the population became Buddhist monks tomorrow and would lose any interest in accumulating material wealth, would happily withdraw into monasteries and dedicate themselves to mediation, none of the principles and laws of economics would have suddenly become less true or invalid. The law of comparative advantage as articulated by David Ricardo would be as true on that day as on any other. The laws of economics would still apply just as the laws of gravity would. Of course, the interest in economic studies would probably diminish rapidly but that is all. Or, not quite all: society would also be rapidly impoverished in material terms – even to the point of mass starvation –, and this the economist can ascertain with certainty, although nothing can be said about any compensating gains in spiritual wealth, of course.
If you believe that your God demands that if you lend money you should not charge interest, than there is nothing that I, as an economist, can say to you – other than, maybe, give me a call whenever you have some extra cash. The point at which I can – and should – comment is when you were to claim in addition that the observance of this rule would lead to a more stable and better functioning economy, that the non-charging of interest would not diminish society’s wealth but even increase it, or that the resulting economic structure would at least conform better to some generally accepted notion of fairness. Here we have reached a point where debate has become possible, not because I, as an economist, have intruded onto the religious ground of values and ultimate ends but because the advocate of religion has intruded onto the economists’ ground of the study of the laws for wealth creation.
I am not saying that all advocates of the non-charging of interest for religious reasons also claim that this would fix the economy. I assume that in the case of most religious rules the goal is spiritual not material, meaning the objective is to make the follower a better person, not better off. But in the wake of the financial crisis interest in fundamental aspects of our economy has increased, and within the ensuing debate it has certainly been argued by some that non-interest models of finance and banking could address fundamental problems of our present system, or even provide a functioning alternative to present arrangements. I have also encountered skepticism to the charging of interest, or, as it is often put, ‘interest on money’, by apparently non-religious commentators to my website.
Usury and the mainstream
To many readers this debate may at first appear as a bit of a sideshow. It does not appear to be one of the main areas of debate between economists, policy makers and financial market participants right now, at least outside Islamic finance. However, I fear that the representatives of today’s economic and political mainstream have much more in common with those who want to reintroduce usury laws than might at first appear. The vast majority may not ask for the banning of interest per se. However, it is today certainly the view of the vast majority that interest can and should be depressed to low levels in order to squeeze more growth out of the economy. It is today generally believed that, as long as inflation is not a major problem, policy makers may manipulate interest rates to lower levels with impunity. In fact, almost our entire financial infrastructure is designed for the utmost flexibility in the production of money under the guidance of the central bank, and this is done almost for the sole purpose of being able to ‘guide’ interest rates to the benefit of economic growth, which almost always means guiding them downwards. That is why the inelastic monetary base that once formed the foundation of finance and banking and that consisted of gold or silver, was replaced with the fully elastic base of limitless fiat money as the new bank reserves; and why in every economic downturn it is now the unquestioned obligation of monetary authorities to lower interest rates and to keep them low.
The advocates of the banning of interest (a minority in the present debate) argue that no interest makes for a better economy; the advocates of the periodic but frequently long-lasting artificial depressing of interest rates (an overwhelming majority in the present debate) argue that low interest makes for a better economy.
Both are wrong.
The answer from the economist should be this: interest rates are market prices and they express, like all market prices do, the subjective valuations and preferences of market participants. In order for economic processes to be guided ultimately by the valuations and preferences of the public, prices need to remain completely uninhibited in their formation and in whatever impact they may exert on the employment of resources, including labour.
The financial crisis is not the result of the habit of charging interest but the inevitable consequence of the systematic distortion of interest rates– usually to the downside – through our fiat money arrangements and our monetary policy of making credit artificially ‘cheap’ in the mistaken belief that this aids economic performance.
Interest is not confined to a monetary economy and not exclusive to the lending of money. Even in a society that does not know and use money, we could observe the phenomenon of interest. At its most basic level, interest is the difference between the present price of a good that is available today and the present price of a good of the same kind that is only available later. An apple today is worth more than an apple next week or next month. The ratio between these two prices is interest and it is an expression of time preference.
Time preference is not a psychological phenomenon in the sense that some people may have it and others do not. If you want something – and ‘wanting something’ is in fact the precondition for considering this something to be a ‘good’ – then you will value you it higher at a nearer date than at a date further in the future. As George Reisman put it so well: “All else being equal, to want something means to want it sooner rather than later.”
Let us assume you claimed to have no time preference in respect to a specific good. That would mean that you were indifferent as to whether you could obtain that good today or tomorrow; and tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you could have it that day or the next. Logically, this means you would be indifferent as to whether you obtained it at all, which means you wouldn’t really want it and it was therefore not a ‘good’ to you. (Quod erat demonstrandum.)
This would also mean you would never feel the urge to act to obtain it. Economics deals with action and action requires ‘wanting’ and ‘wanting’ logically entails time preference and time preference is the core element of interest.
There is nothing mysterious, suspicious, sinister or wicked about the phenomenon of interest.
If you lend a consumption good or a small amount of money to a close friend or a close relative, you may not ask to be compensated for not having this good at your disposal for some time, or for departing with some of your purchasing power for a while, but in the more extended network of human cooperation among otherwise unconnected individuals that makes for the modern society you would probably expect most people to ask for some compensation when lending to others, and for their counterparts to grant them some compensation, and none of this would appear irrational, unjust or forced.
The height of time preference is subjective and will be different from person to person, and different for the same person at different moments in time. Time preference and therefore interest is always an expression of personal, subjective valuation.
Market interest rates
The interest rates we observe daily in markets contain, of course, certain other elements in addition to time preference, although time preference remains the core ingredient. These other elements are usually a risk premium for the risk that the borrower cannot repay (credit risk) and a premium that money will have lost some of its purchasing power by the time the loan gets repaid (inflation risk). Thus, when lending to entities with non-negligible risk of default (most private entities) and in a currency that has a tendency to inflate (most paper monies), market interest rates will be higher than would be justified by time preference alone.
Under certain circumstances, these ‘premiums’ may actually turn into ‘discounts’. If the period for which the loan is agreed is expected to be a period of general deflation, than the nominal loan rate could actually be lower than justified by time preference, as the expected rise in the purchasing power of money during the life of the loan already constitutes a form of compensation. Under a strict gold standard the monetary unit could reasonably be expected to gradually gain in purchasing power over time (secular deflation, which means money has an inherent real rate of return), and loans to borrowers with relatively low default risk would be extended at very low nominal rates of interest.
Negative interest rates
Certain interest rates are presently very low, zero or even negative. To the extent that they are policy rates we have no trouble explaining them. They are not market rates and not even ‘prices’ in the strict economic definition. They are administrative decrees, determined by central bank bureaucrats, and not the outcome of the voluntary interaction of market participants. For what it is worth, I expect some of these rates to be lowered again, probably from near-zero into negative territory. But this is entirely a political phenomenon.
However, certain government securities, usually in the so-called safe-haven markets and usually those with shorter maturities, have also been trading at zero interest rates or even at negative interest rates (yields) lately. Very low administrative rates (policy rates) may have helped here but on their own they cannot cause this phenomenon. How can we explain it?
Deflation could be one explanation but I do not think it is the main driver, as other indicators of inflation expectations often still point to ongoing declines in money’s purchasing power. I think that in these instances the ‘credit risk premium’ has actually been turned into a ‘credit risk discount’.
Government bonds, in particular those with shorter maturities, are often held not for their return but their liquidity and safety. In these instances, they do not compete directly with equities or corporate bonds or real estate but with money. In the present environment there is, I believe, a strong demand for money holdings. Holding cash or cash equivalents allows investors to remain on the sidelines, to keep their firepower dry and wait how things pan out. But for many institutional investors holding large sums of money inevitably means holding sizable bank deposits and thus incurring considerable counterparty risk in respect to the fragile banking sector. Government bonds are expected to be (almost) as liquid as money proper or deposits, and to have lower counterparty risk than bank deposits. The demand for them is so considerable that investors even accept a negative yield, which means they are willing to pay a fee rather than collect a return for the privilege of ‘parking’ funds with the state.
A personal comment here: I think that these investors are sitting on a powder keg as I expect inflation to rise and concerns over sovereign solvency to intensify. But I have no problem understanding why certain market rates can become negative under certain conditions. It has to be stressed, however, that none of this means that the public’s time preference has disappeared or has even become negative. Time preference is always positive.
‘Interest on money’
Money – or at any rate, money proper – does not earn interest or any other income. Money is a medium of exchange. It has no direct use-value, only exchange value. Gold used to be money and gold does not pay interest (other than its inherent real rate of return in the case of deflation). Today, otherwise worthless pieces of paper are used as money and these paper tickets do not pay interest, either.
Already, the Romans knew that pecunia pecuniam parere non potest, money doesn’t beget money. You have to invest money to make a return, that is, you have to spend it.
If you pay money into a bank, ownership of that money passes on to the banker. You no longer own money proper but you now own a claim against the banker for the payment of money proper. You own a monetary derivative. For obvious reasons, the public today considers these derivatives as good as money proper (at least most of the time) but they are certainly not the same thing. If you hold money proper (cash) you hold a form of money that is not somebody else’s liability. Also, your bank deposit does not constitute a contract for safekeeping, as in that case you would have to pay the banker a fee rather than the banker paying you interest.
There is no such thing as interest income from holding money.
The manipulation of interest rates
There can be no doubt that a lot of the blame for the deterioration in the quality of economic debate can safely be put at the feet of Keynesianism’s half century of intellectual domination. Today, many people still seem to perceive the main economic problem to be one of a lack of overall activity, so the government should boost that aggregate by adding its own activity (through deficit spending) or by providing an extra dose of caffeine for the private sector in the form of low interest rates. Any activity seems to be better than too little activity, although nobody can explain how activity came to be so insufficient all of a sudden.
The key challenge for any economy, however, is not the aggregate level of activity but the coordination of the activities of diverse and usually unconnected individuals with different ideas, values, plans and objectives. Nobody participates in the economy for the sake of a higher GDP but only for the fulfilment of personal plans. A well-functioning economy is not one that delivers a certain aggregate of activity but one that allows its individual participants to achieve their own individual objectives in the best possible way. (Remember the Buddhist monks.) For that we need uninhibited markets with unobstructed price-formation.
One of the important challenges of coordination for any economy is this one: to what extent should society’s available pool of resources be employed for the satisfaction of immediate consumption needs, and to what extent can resources be used to meet consumption needs in the more distant future, that is, to what extent can they become capital goods in the meantime? Evidently, this should be determined by the public’s time preference, and this is communicated to all actors in the economy via interest rates.
If the public has a high time preference it means it values present goods particular highly relative to future goods; it has a strong urge for present consumption; it has a low tendency to save; and market interest rates will tend to be relatively high. Every one of these sentences is simply a different way of describing the same phenomenon: the public has a high time preference.
Low savings availability on capital markets and high interest rates mean that entrepreneurs can only realize investment projects with the highest prospective returns. This changes naturally if the public lowers its time preference, increases savings, which lowers interest rates and encourages extra investment. Real resources are being shifted from present consumption to investment and allow for future consumption.
Saving and investing are the key inter-temporal decisions in an economy, and they are being coordinated by interest rates. Low interest rates are not necessarily good or bad. What matters is that they correctly reflect the preferences of the public.
The temptation to artificially lower interest rates is understandable. Investment increases the capital stock, and raising the amount of capital per worker is one of only two means we know of, of how to increase overall prosperity (the other being the division of labour). But a proper capital stock requires real resources, and those can only be made available through acts of real saving from real income. Printing more money and lowering interest rates on loan markets artificially creates the illusion of savings and it must lead to the dis-coordination between real saving and real investment, and thus to economic imbalances. Those are the true cause of financial crises and economic recessions.
Interest is an essential component of human action and the charging of interest rates an integral component of human cooperation on markets. Abolishing interest rates or depressing them through policy intervention will never make markets work better, will never make financial markets more stable, and will never make society more prosperous.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.