[Editor's note: This article also appears on Detlev Schlichter's blog here. It is reproduced with kind permission and should NOT be taken to be investment advice.]
Investors and speculators face some profound challenges today: How to deal with politicized markets, continuously “guided” by central bankers and regulators? To what extent do prices reflect support from policy, in particular super-easy monetary policy, and to what extent other, ‘fundamental’ factors? And how is all this market manipulation going to play out in the long run?
New York Stock Exchange 1963 (Photo: Wikimedia; US News and World Report; Library of Congress)
It is obvious that most markets would not be trading where they are trading today were it not for the longstanding combination of ultra-low policy rates and various programs of ‘quantitative easing’ around the world, some presently diminishing (US), others potentially increasing (Japan, eurozone). As major US equity indices closed last week at another record high and overall market volatility remains low, some observers may say that the central banks have won. Their interventions have now established a nirvana in which asset markets seem to rise almost continuously but calmly, with carefully contained volatility and with their downside apparently fully insured by central bankers who are ready to ease again at any moment. Those who believe in Schumpeter’s model of “bureaucratic socialism”, a system that he expected ultimately to replace capitalism altogether, may rejoice: Increasingly the capitalist “jungle” gets replaced with a well-ordered, centrally managed system guided by the enlightened bureaucracy. Reading the minds of Yellen, Kuroda, Draghi and Carney is now the number one game in town. Investors, traders and economists seem to care about little else.
“The problem is that we’re not there [in a low volatility environment] because markets have decided this, but because central banks have told us…” Sir Michael Hintze, founder of hedge fund CQS, observed in conversation with the Financial Times (FT, June 14/15 2014). “The beauty of capital markets is that they are voting systems, people vote every day with their wallets. Now voting is finished. We’re being told what to do by central bankers – and you lose money if you don’t follow their lead.”
That has certainly been the winning strategy in recent years. Just go with whatever the manipulators ordain and enjoy rising asset values and growing investment profits. Draghi wants lower yields on Spanish and Italian bonds? – He surely gets them. The US Fed wants higher equity prices and lower yields on corporate debt? – Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen, if you say so, I am sure we can arrange it. Who would ever dare to bet against the folks who are entrusted with the legal monopoly of unlimited money creation? “Never fight the Fed” has, of course, been an old adage in the investment community. But it gets a whole new meaning when central banks busy themselves with managing all sorts of financial variables directly, from the shape of the yield curve, the spreads on mortgages, to the proceedings in the reverse repo market.
Is this the “new normal”/”new neutral”? The End of History and the arrival of the Last Man, all over again?
The same FT article quoted Salman Ahmed, global bond strategist at Lombard Odier Investment Managers as follows: “Low volatility is the most important topic in markets right now. On the one side you have those who think this is the ‘new normal’, on the other are people like me who think it cannot last. This is a very divisive subject.”
PIMCO’s Bill Gross seems to be in the “new normal” camp. At the Barron’s mid-year roundtable 2014 (Barron’s, June 16, 2014) he said: “We don’t expect the party to end with a bang – the popping of a bubble. […] We have been talking about what we call the New Neutral – sluggish but stable global growth and continued low rates.”
In this debate I come down on the side of Mr. Ahmed (and I assume Sir Michael). This cannot last, in my view. It will end and end badly. Policy has greatly distorted markets, and financial risk seems to be mis-priced in many places. Market interventions by central banks, governments and various regulators will not lead to a stable economy but to renewed crises. Prepare for volatility!
Bill Gross’ expectation of a new neutral seems to be partly based on the notion that persistently high indebtedness contains both growth and inflation and makes a return to historic levels of policy rates near impossible. Gross: “…a highly levered economy can’t withstand historic rates of interest. […] We see rates rising to 2% in 2017, but the market expects 3% or 4%. […] If it is close to 2%, the markets will be supported, which means today’s prices and price/earnings are OK.”
Of course I can see the logic in this argument but I also believe that high debt levels and slow growth are tantamount to high degrees of risk and should be accompanied with considerable risk premiums. Additionally, slow growth and substantial leverage mean political pressure for ongoing central bank activism. This is incompatible with low volatility and tight risk premiums. Accidents are not only bound to happen, they are inevitable in a system of monetary central planning and artificial asset pricing.
Low inflation, low rates, and contained market volatility are what we should expect in a system of hard and apolitical money, such as a gold standard. But they are not to be expected – at least not systematically and consistently but only intermittently – in elastic money systems. I explain this in detail in my book Paper Money Collapse – The Folly of Elastic Money. Elastic money systems like our present global fiat money system with central banks that strive for constant (if purportedly moderate) inflation must lead to persistent distortions in market prices (in particular interest rates) and therefore capital misallocations. This leads to chronic instability and recurring crises. The notion that we might now have backed into a gold-standard-like system of monetary tranquility by chance and without really trying seems unrealistic to me, and the idea is even more of a stretch for the assumption that it should be excessive debt – one of elastic money’s most damaging consequences – that could, inadvertently and perversely, help ensure such stability. I suspect that this view is laden with wishful thinking. In the same Barron’s interview, Mr. Gross makes the statement that “stocks and bonds are artificially priced,” (of course they are, hardly anyone could deny it) but also that “today’s prices and price/earnings are OK.” This seems a contradiction to me. Here is why I believe the expectation of the new neutral is probably wrong, and why so many “mainstream” observers still sympathize with it.
- Imbalances have accumulated over time. Not all were eradicated in the recent crisis. We are not starting from a clean base. Central banks are now all powerful and their massive interventions are tolerated and even welcome by many because they get “credited” with having averted an even worse crisis. But to the extent that that this is indeed the case and that their rate cuts, liquidity injections and ‘quantitative easing’ did indeed come just in time to arrest the market’s liquidation process, chances are these interventions have sustained many imbalances that should also have been unwound. These imbalances are probably as unsustainable in the long run as the ones that did get unwound, and even those were often unwound only partially. We simply do not know what these dislocations are or how big they might be. However, I suspect that a dangerous pattern has been established: Since the 1980s, money and credit expansion have mainly fed asset rallies, and central banks have increasingly adopted the role of an essential backstop for financial markets. Recently observers have called this phenomenon cynically the “Greenspan put” or the “Bernanke put” after whoever happens to lead the US central bank at the time but the pattern has a long tradition by now: the 1987 stock market crash, the 1994 peso crisis, the 1998 LTCM-crisis, the 2002 Worldcom and Enron crisis, and the 2007/2008 subprime and subsequent banking crisis. I think it is not unfair to suggest that almost each of these crises was bigger and seemed more dangerous than the preceding one, and each required more forceful and extended policy intervention. One of the reasons for this is that while some dislocations get liquidated in each crisis (otherwise we would not speak of a crisis), policy interventions – not least those of the monetary kind – always saved some of the then accumulated imbalances from a similar fate. Thus, imbalances accumulate over time, the system gets more leveraged, more debt is accumulated, and bad habits are being further entrenched. I have no reason to believe that this has changed after 2008.
- Six years of super-low rates and ‘quantitative easing’ have planted new imbalances and the seeds of another crisis. Where are these imbalances? How big are they? – I don’t know. But I do know one thing: You do not manipulate capital markets for years on end with impunity. It is simply a fact that capital allocation has been distorted for political reasons for years. Many assets look mispriced to me, from European peripheral bond markets to US corporate and “high yield” debt, to many stocks. There is tremendous scope for a painful shake-out, and my prime candidate would again be credit markets, although it may still be too early.
- “Macro-prudential” policies create an illusion of safety but will destabilize the system further. – Macro-prudential policies are the new craze, and the fact that nobody laughs out loud at the suggestion of such nonsense is a further indication of the rise in statist convictions. These policies are meant to work like this: One arm of the state (the central bank) pumps lots of new money into the system to “stimulate” the economy, and another arm of the state (although often the same arm, namely the central bank in its role as regulator and overseer) makes sure that the public does not do anything stupid with it. The money will thus be “directed” to where it can do no harm. Simple. Example: The Swiss National Bank floods the market with money but stops the banks from giving too many mortgage loans, and this avoids a real estate bubble. “Macro-prudential” is of course a euphemism for state-controlled capital markets, and you have to be a thorough statist with an iron belief in central planning and the boundless wisdom of officers of the state to think that this will make for a safer economy. (But then again, a general belief in all-round state-planning is certainly on the rise.) The whole concept is, of course, quite ridiculous. We just had a crisis courtesy of state-directed capital flows. For decades almost every arm of the US state was involved in directing capital into the US housing market, whether via preferential tax treatment, government-sponsored mortgage insurers, or endless easy money from the Fed. We know how that turned out. And now we are to believe that the state will direct capital more sensibly? — New macro-“prudential” policies will not mean the end of bubbles but only different bubbles. For example, eurozone banks shy away from giving loans to businesses, partly because those are costly under new bank capital requirements. But under those same regulations sovereign bonds are deemed risk-free and thus impose no cost on capital. Zero-cost liquidity from the ECB and Draghi’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to keep the eurozone together, do the rest. The resulting rally in Spanish and Italian bonds to new record low yields may be seen by some as an indication of a healing Europe and a decline in systemic risk but it may equally be another bubble, another policy-induced distortion and another ticking time bomb on the balance sheets of Europe’s banks.
- Inflation is not dead. Many market participants seem to believe that inflation will never come back. Regardless of how easy monetary policy gets and regardless for how long, the only inflation we will ever see is asset price inflation. Land prices may rise to the moon but the goods that are produced on the land never get more expensive. – I do not believe that is possible. We will see spill-over effects, and to the extent that monetary policy gets traction, i.e. leads to the expansion of broader monetary aggregates, we will see prices rise more broadly. Also, please remember that central bankers now want inflation. I find it somewhat strange to see markets obediently play to the tune of the central bankers when it comes to risk premiums and equity prices but at the same time see economists and strategists cynically disregard central bankers’ wish for higher inflation. Does that mean the power of money printing applies to asset markets but will stop at consumer goods markets? I don’t think so. – Once prices rise more broadly, this will change the dynamic in markets. Many investors will discount points 1 to 3 above with the assertion that any trouble in the new investment paradise will simply be stomped out quickly by renewed policy easing. However, higher and rising inflation (and potentially rising inflation expectations) makes that a less straightforward bet. Inflation that is tolerated by the central banks must also lead to a re-pricing of bonds and once that gets under way, many other assets will be affected. I believe that markets now grossly underestimate the risk of inflation.
Some potential dislocations
Money and credit expansion are usually an excellent source of trouble. Just give it some time and imbalances will have formed. Since March 2011, the year-over-year growth in commercial and industrial loans in the US has been not only positive but on average clocked in at an impressive 9.2 percent. Monetary aggregate M1 has been growing at double digit or close to double-digit rates for some time. It presently stands at slightly above 10 percent year over year. M2 is growing at around 6 percent.
U.S. Commercial & Industrial Loans (St. Louis Fed – Research)
None of this must mean trouble right away but none of these numbers indicate economic correction or even deflation but point instead to re-leveraging in parts of the US economy. Yields on below-investment grade securities are at record lows and so are default rates. The latter is maybe no surprise. With rates super-low and liquidity ample, nobody goes bust. But not everybody considers this to be the ‘new normal’: “We are surprised at how ebullient credit markets have been in 2014,” said William Conway, co-founder and co-chief executive of Carlyle Group LP, the US alternative asset manager (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal Europe, May 2-4 2014, page 20). “The world continues to be awash in liquidity, and investors are chasing yield seemingly regardless of credit quality and risk.”
“We continually ask ourselves if the fundamentals of the global credit business are healthy and sustainable. Frankly, we don’t think so.”
1 trillion is a nice round number
Since 2009 investors appear to have allocated an additional $1trn to bond funds. In 2013, the Fed created a bit more than $1trn in new base money, and issuance in the investment grade corporate bond market was also around $1trn in 2013, give and take a few billion. A considerable chunk of new corporate borrowing seems to find its way into share buybacks and thus pumps up the equity market. Andrew Smithers in the Financial Times of June 13 2014 estimates that buybacks in the US continue at about $400bn per year. He also observes that non-financial corporate debt (i.e. debt of companies outside the finance sector) “expanded by 9.2 per cent over the past 12 months. US non-financial companies’ leverage is now at a record high relative to output.”
Most investors try to buy cheap assets but the better strategy is often to sell expensive ones. Such a moment in time may be soon approaching. Timing is everything, and it may still be too early. “The trend is my friend” is another longstanding adage on Wall Street. The present bull market may be artificial and already getting long in the tooth but maybe the central planners will have their way a bit longer, and this new “long-only” investment nirvana will continue. I have often been surprised at how far and for how long policy makers can push markets out of kilter. But there will be opportunities for patient, clever and nimble speculators at some stage, when markets inevitably snap back. This is not a ‘new normal’ in my view. It is just a prelude to another crisis. In fact, all this talk of a “new normal” of low volatility and stable markets as far as the eye can see is probably already a bearish indicator and a precursor of pending doom. (Anyone remember the “death of business cycles” in the 1990s, or the “Great Moderation” of the 2000s?)
Investors are susceptible to the shenanigans of the manipulators. They constantly strive for income, and as the central banks suppress the returns on many mainstream asset classes ever further, they feel compelled to go out into riskier markets and buy ever more risk at lower yields. From government bonds they move to corporate debt, from corporate debt to “high yield bonds”, from “high yield” to emerging markets – until another credit disaster awaits them. Investors thus happily do the bidding for the interventionists for as long as the party lasts. That includes many professional asset managers who naturally charge their clients ongoing management fees and thus feel obliged to join the hunt for steady income, often apparently regardless of what the ultimate odds are. In this environment of systematically manipulated markets, the paramount risk is to get sucked into expensive and illiquid assets at precisely the wrong time.
In this environment it may ultimately pay to be a speculator rather than an investor. Speculators wait for opportunities to make money on price moves. They do not look for “income” or “yield” but for changes in prices, and some of the more interesting price swings may soon potentially come on the downside, I believe. As they are not beholden to the need for steady income, speculators should also find it easier to be patient. They should know that their capital cannot be employed profitably at all times. They are happy (or should be happy) to sit on cash for a long while, and maybe let even some of the suckers’ rally pass them by. But when the right opportunities come along they hope to be nimble and astute enough to capture them. This is what macro hedge funds, prop traders and commodity trading advisers traditionally try to do. Their moment may come again.
As Sir Michael at CQS said: “Maybe they [the central bankers] can keep control, but if people stop believing in them, all hell will break loose.”
I couldn’t agree more.
[Editor's note: This article also appears on Detlev Schlichter's blog here. It is reproduced with kind permission and should NOT be taken to be investment advice.]
There is apparently a new economic danger out there. It is called “very low inflation” and the eurozone is evidently at great risk of succumbing to this menace. “A long period of low inflation – or outright deflation, when prices fall persistently – alarms central bankers”, explains The Wall Street Journal, “because it [low inflation, DS] can cripple growth and make it harder for governments, businesses and consumers to service their debts.” Official inflation readings at the ECB are at 0.7 percent, still positive so no deflation, but certainly very low.
How low inflation cripples growth is not clear to me. “Very low inflation” was, of course, once known as “price stability” and used to invoke more positive connotations. It was not previously considered a health hazard. Why this has suddenly changed is not obvious. Certainly there is no empirical support – usually so highly regarded by market commentators – for the assertion that low inflation, or even deflation, is linked to recessions or depressions, although that link is assumed to exist implicitly or explicitly in the financial press almost daily. In the twentieth century the United States had many years of very low inflation and even outright deflation that were not marked by recessions. In the nineteenth century, throughout the rapidly industrializing world, “very low inflation” or even persistent deflation were the norm, and such deflation was frequently accompanied by growth rates that would today be the envy of any G8 country. To come to think of it, the capitalist economy with its constant tendency to increase productivity should create persistent deflation naturally. Stuff becomes more affordable. Things get cheaper.
“Breaking news: Consumers shocked out of consuming by low inflation!”
So what is the point at which reasonably low inflation suddenly turns into “very low inflation”, and thus becomes dangerous according to this new strand of thinking? Judging by the reception of the Bank of England’s UK inflation report delivered by Mark Carney last week, on the one hand, and the ridicule the financial industry piles onto the ECB on the other – “stupid” is what Appaloosa Management’s David Tepper calls the Frankfurt-based institution according to the FT (May 16) -, the demarcation must lie somewhere between the 1.6 percent reported by Mr. Carney, and the 0.7 that so embarrasses Mr. Draghi.
The argument is frequently advanced that low inflation or deflation cause people to postpone purchases, to defer consumption. By this logic, the Eurozonians expect a €1,000 item to cost €1,007 in a year’s time, and that is not sufficient a threat to their purchasing power to rush out and buy NOW! Hence, the depressed economy. The Brits, on the other hand, can reasonably expect a £1,000 item to fetch £1,016 in a year’s time, and this is a much more compelling reason, one assumes, to consume in the present. The Brits are in fact so keen to beat the coming 2 percent price hikes that they are even loading up on debt again and incur considerable interest rate expenses to buy in the here and now. “Britons are re-leveraging,” tells us Anne Pettifor in The Guardian, “Net consumer credit lending rose by £1.1bn in March alone. Total credit card debt in March 2014 was £56.9bn. The average interest rate on credit card lending, [stands at] at 16.86%.” Britain is, as Ms. Pettifor reminds us, the world’s most indebted nation.
I leave the question to one side for a minute whether these developments should be more reason to “alarm central bankers” than “very low inflation”. They certainly did not alarm Mr. Carney and his colleagues last week, who cheerfully left rates at rock bottom, and nobody called the Bank of England “stupid” either, to my knowledge. They certainly seem not to alarm Ms. Pettifor. She wants the Bank of England to keep rates low to help all those Britons in debt – and probably yet more Britons to get into debt.
Ms. Pettifor has a highly politicized view of money and monetary policy. To her this is all some giant class struggle between the class of savers/creditors and the class of spenders/debtors, and her allegiance is to the latter. Calls for rate hikes from other market commentator thus represent “certain interests,” meaning stingy savers and greedy creditors. That the policy could set up the economy for another crisis does not seem to trouble her.
Echoing Ms. Pettifor, Martin Wolf flatly stated in the FT recently that the “low-risk-seeking saver” no longer served a useful purpose in the global economy, and he approvingly quoted John Maynard Keynes with his call for the “euthanasia of the rentier”. “Interest today rewards no genuine sacrifice,” Keynes wrote back then, obviously in error: Just ask Britons today if not spending their money now but saving it for a rainy day does not involve a genuine sacrifice. Today’s rentiers do not even get interest for their sacrifices, thanks to all the “stimulus” policy. And now the call is for an end to price stability, for combining higher inflation with zero rates. It is not much fun being a saver these days – and I doubt that these policies will make anyone happy in the long run.
Euthanasia of the Japanese rentier
What the “euthanasia of the rentier” may look like we may have chance to see in Japan, an ideal test case for the policy given that the country is home to a rapidly aging population of life-long savers who will rely on their savings in old age. The new policy of Abenomics is supposed to reinvigorate the economy through, among other things, monetary debasement. “In as much as Abenomics was intended to generate strong nominal growth, I have been a big believer,” Trevor Greetham, asset allocation director at Fidelity Worldwide Investment, wrote in the FT last week (FT, May 15, 2014, page 28). “Japan has been in debt deflation for more than 20 years.”
Really? – In March 2013, when Mr. Abe installed Haruhiko Kuroda as his choice of Bank of Japan governor, and Abenomics started in earnest, Japan’s consumer price index stood at 99.4. 20 years earlier, in March 1994, it stood at 99.9 and 10 years ago, in March 2004, at 100.5. Over 20 years Japan’s consumer prices had dropped by 0.5 percent. Of course, there were periods of falling prices and periods of rising prices in between but you need a microscope to detect any broad price changes in the Japanese consumption basket over the long haul. By any realistic measure, the Japanese consumer has not suffered deflation but has enjoyed roughly price stability for 20 years.
“The main problem in the Japanese economy is not deflation, it’s demographics,” Masaaki Shirakawa declared in a speech at Dartmouth College two weeks ago (as reported by the Wall Street Journal Europe on May 15). Mr. Shirakawa is the former Bank of Japan governor who was unceremoniously ousted by Mr. Abe in 2013, so you may say he is biased. Never mind, his arguments make sense to me. “Mr. Shirakawa,” the Journal reports, “calls it ‘a very mild deflation’ [and I call it price stability, DS] that had the benefit of helping Japan maintain low unemployment.” The official unemployment rate in Japan stands at an eye-watering 3.60%. Maybe the Japanese have not fared so poorly with price stability.
Be that as it may, after a year of Abenomics it turns out that higher inflation is not really all it’s cracked up to be. Here is Fidelity’s Mr. Greetham again: “Things are not as straightforward as they were….The sales tax rise pushed Tokyo headline inflation to a 22-year high of 2.9 percent in April, cutting real purchasing power and worsening living standards for the many older consumers on fixed incomes.”
Mr. Greetham’s “older consumers” are probably Mr. Wolf’s “rentiers”, but in any case, these folks are not having a splendid time. The advocates of “easy money” tell us that a weaker currency is a boost to exports but in Japan’s case a weaker yen lifts energy prices as the country is heavily dependent on energy imports.
The Japanese were previously thought to not consume enough because prices weren’t rising fast enough, now they may not consume enough because prices are rising. The problem with going after “nominal growth” is that “real purchasing power” may get a hit.
If all of this is confusing, Fidelity’s Mr. Greetham offers hope. We may just need a bigger boat. More stimulus. “The stock market may need to get lower over the next few months before the government and Bank of Japan are shocked out of their complacency…When domestic policy eases further, as it inevitably will, the case for owning the Japanese market will be compelling once again.”
You see, that is the problem with Keynesian stimulus, you need to do ever more of it, and make it ever bigger, in an effort to outrun the unintended consequences.
Whether Mr. Greetham is right or not on the stock market, I do not know. But one thing seems pretty obvious to me. If you could lastingly improve your economy through easy money and currency debasement, Argentina would be one of the richest countries in the world today, as it indeed was at the beginning of the twentieth century, before the currency debasements of its many incompetent governments began.
No country has ever become more prosperous by debasing its currency and ripping off its savers.
This will end badly – although probably not soon.
What does it all mean? – I don’t know (and I could, of course, be wrong) but I guess the following:
The ECB will cut rates in June but this is the most advertised and anticipated policy easing in a long while. Euro bears will ultimately be disappointed. The ECB does not go ‘all in’, and there is no reason to do so. My hunch is that a pronounced weakening of the euro remains unlikely.
In my humble opinion, and contrary to market consensus, the ECB has run the least worst policy of all major central banks. No QE thus far; the balance sheet has even shrunk; large-scale inactivity. What is not to like?
Ms Pettifor and her fellow saver-haters will get their way in that any meaningful policy tightening is far off, including in the UK and the US. Central banks see their main role now in supporting asset markets, the economy, the banks, and the government. They are positively petrified of potentially derailing anything through tighter policy. They will structurally “under-tighten”. Higher inflation will be the endgame but when that will come is anyone’s guess. Growth will, by itself, not lead to a meaningful response from central bankers.
Abenomics will be tried but it will ultimately fail. The question is if it will first be implemented on such a scale as to cause disaster, or if it will receive its own quiet “euthanasia”, as Mr. Shirakawa seems to suggest. At Dartmouth he claimed “to have the quiet support of some Japanese business leaders who joined the Abe campaign pressuring the Shirakawa BoJ. ‘One of the surprising facts is what CEOs say privately is quite different from what they say publicly,’ he said….’in private they say, No, no, we are fed up with massive liquidity – money does not constrain our investment.’”
Editor’s note: this article, under the title “No end to central bank meddling as ECB embraces ‘quantitative easing’, faulty logic” appears on Detlev Schlichter’s site. It is reprinted with kind permission.
The 2nd edition of his excellent Paper Money Collapse is available for pre-order.
“Who can print money, will print money” is how my friend Patrick Barron put it succinctly the other day. This adage is worth remembering particularly for those periods when central bankers occasionally take the foot off the gas, either because they genuinely believe they solved the problem, or because they want to make a show of appearing careful and measured.
The US Federal Reserve is a case in point. Last year the Fed announced that it was beginning to ‘taper’, that is, carefully reduce its debt monetization program (‘quantitative easing’, QE), and this policy, now enacted, is widely considered the beginning of policy normalization and part of an ‘exit strategy’. But as Jim Rickards pointed out, the Fed already fully tapered twice – after QE1 and after QE2 – only to feel obliged to ‘qe’ again some time later. Whether Ms Yellen is going to see the present ‘taper’ through to its conclusion and whether the whole project will in future be remembered as an ‘exit strategy’ remains to be seen.
So far none of the big central banks has achieved the ‘exit’ despite occasional noises to the contrary. Since the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the global trend has been in one direction and one direction only: From easy money we moved to easier money. QE has been followed by more QE. As I mentioned before, the Fed’s most generous year in its 100-year history was 2013, any talk of ‘tapering’ notwithstanding.
ECB mistrusted by Keynesian consensus
Whenever the European Central Bank reduces its money printing and scales back its market rigging, it invariably unleashes the fury of the Keynesian and inflationist commentariat. In the eyes of its numerous critics, the ECB lacks the proper money-printing credentials of the more pro-active and allegedly more ‘modern’ central banks. It still has a whiff of the old Bundesbank about it, although a few years back, when the ECB flooded the European banking system with cheap liquidity, its balance sheet was larger as a share of GDP than those of its comrades, the Fed and the Bank of England.
The ECB went through two periods of restraint since the crisis: In early 2011 it began to hike interest rates, and in 2013, after the eurozone debt crisis died down, the ECB allowed its balance sheet to shrink by more than €700 billion as banks repaid cheap loans from the central bank. This stood in stark contrast to the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of about $1,000 billion over the same period. The first episode of restraint came to an end in 2012 when the ECB reversed its rate hikes and then cut rates further, ultimately to a new low of just 0.25 percent. Presently, we are still in the second period of restraint, although it too appears to be about to end soon as the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi hinted in his press conference last week at a newfound willingness to embrace unconventional policies to combat ‘deflation’ or even ‘long periods of low inflation’. (The ECB’s harmonized index of consumer prices stood probably at just 0.5% last month.) This means the ECB is likely to cut rates to zero or below soon, or to start asset purchases (‘QE’), or probably both.
This move is hardly surprising in the big scheme of things as outlined above, and the ECB will explain it officially with its mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, from which it does not want to deviate in either direction. This target itself is silly as it assumes that inflation of 1.8 percent is inherently better than inflation of zero (true price stability, if it ever was attainable), or inflation of minus 1.8 percent (deflation). This is, of course, precisely the argument that has been relentlessly and noisily trumpeted by the easy-money advocates in the media, the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, and the reliably shrill Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, among others. A certain measure of inflation is deemed good, very low inflation is bad, and anything below zero, even mild deflation, potentially a disaster. But why should this be the case?
Moderate deflation, that is, slowly declining money prices, may or may not be a symptom of problems elsewhere in the economy, but that slowly declining money prices as such constitute an economic problem lacks any foundation in economics and can easily and quickly be refuted by even a cursory look at economic history. In the 19th century we find extended periods of ongoing, moderate deflation in many economies that simultaneously experienced solid growth in output and substantial rises in living standards, a “coincidence”, wrote Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their influential A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 – 1960, that “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”
Many commentators advance the argument that falling prices depress consumption as purchases get constantly deferred. Even the usually more sober FT-writer John Authers seems to have succumbed to this argument as he explained to his readers last Saturday that prices “fall, thanks to sluggish economic activity. Consumers do not buy now, as goods will be cheaper in future. This lack of consumption slows growth further, and pushes prices down even further.” (John Authers, “Draghi has to back his QE words with action” Financial Times, Saturday April 5/ Sunday April 6 2014, page 24)
This argument, constantly regurgitated by the cheerleaders of money-printing, is weak. First of all, it is certainly no argument in the present environment of close to zero but still positive inflation. If the ECB plans to fight even very low inflation, as Draghi stated at the ECB press conference, than this argument does nothing to support that policy. Certainly, no one defers any purchases when prices are just stable. However, and more importantly, even in a mildly deflationary environment of let’s say 1 to 2 percent per annum, the argument does appear to be a stretch.
Argument ignores time preference
Consumers only contemplate buying something that they consider an economic good, that is, that they consider useful, that they want because it expends some (subjective) use-value to them. In deferring a purchase they can, in a deflationary environment, save money but at the cost of not enjoying the possession of what they want for some time. By not buying a toaster now you may be able to buy it 1 or 2 percent cheaper in a year’s time, or 2 to 4 percent cheaper in two years’ time (always assuming, of course, that the mild deflation persists that long, which nobody can guarantee), but even these small monetary gains come at the expense of not enjoying ownership of the toaster for two years. The small monetary gain obtained by delaying purchases is not for free, as the argument seems to assume, but comes at the cost of waiting. I suggest that only a very small number of items, and only those for which there is very marginal demand indeed, would be affected.
Time preference is not a concept of psychology, it is a constituting element of human action. It is a priori to human action, which means it exists independent of experience or of personal circumstances as it is already entailed in the very concept of what constitutes an ‘economic good’.
If you experienced no time preference in relation to a specific good you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed the possession of that good today or tomorrow. And tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed it that day or the next, and so forth. Logically, you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed possession of it at all, and this means that the good in question is not an economic good for you. You do not care for it.
As George Reisman put is succinctly: To want something means, all else being equal, to want it sooner rather than later.
Be honest, how many purchases over the past 12 months would you not have made had you had a reasonable chance of obtaining the item in question at a 1 or 2 percent discount if you waited a year?
That the prospect of falling prices does not usually deter consumption can be readily seen today in the market for consumer electronics (mobile phones, computers), which has been in deflation – and considerable deflation – for quite some time.
Argument ignores opportunity costs of holding money
The argument also seems to ignore that holding one’s wealth in the form of money involves opportunity costs. Rather than sitting on cash you could enjoy the things you could buy with it. In a deflationary environment, your cash hoard’s purchasing power slowly rises and you can afford ever more nice things with your money, which means the opportunity cost of not spending it constantly goes up. (In a way, while you are waiting four years to buy your toaster at an 8 percent discount to today’s price, buying the toaster is also becoming marginally more attractive to others who are presently holding cash and who may initially not even had an interest in a toaster.)
I think that all that would follow from secular (that is ongoing, systematic but moderate) deflation is that cash would be a more meaningful competitor for other depositories of deferred consumption. Saving by simply holding money makes sense in a deflationary environment, so other vehicles to save with (bonds and shares) would have to offer a return reasonably above the expected deflation rate to attract savings. I think this is not an unreasonably high hurdle.
Furthermore, if what Authers and others describe were true for even marginal deflation, that is, if marginal deflation indeed led to more deflation and a progressively weakening economy, the reverse must logically be true for marginal inflation. Consumers would accelerate their purchases to avoid the 1 or 2 percent loss in purchasing power per annum, and this would quickly drive inflation higher. If two percent deflation led to cash hoarding and a collapse in consumption, would the 2 percent inflation advocated today as ‘price stability’ not lead to a spike in money velocity and an inflationary boom? Either scenario seems highly unrealistic.
Monetary causes versus non-monetary causes
If we use the economic terminology correctly, then inflation and deflation are always monetary phenomena, that is, they always have monetary causes. (As an aside, I here use the now standard definition of inflation as an ongoing, trending rise in the general price level, and deflation as the opposite, rather than the traditional meaning of inflation as an expansion of the money supply and deflation as a contraction.) However, the starting point of the present discussion is simply some low readings on the official inflation statistics in the eurozone. And that those could have non-monetary causes, that they could be the consequence of a crisis-driven drop in real demand in certain industries and certain countries is a realistic assumption and is in fact implied by the arguments of the QE-advocates. Outright deflation is presently being recorded in Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. And John Authers’ short statement on deflation in the FT also starts from the assumption that “prices fall thanks to sluggish economic activity.”
But to the extent that recorded deflation is not due to a general rise in money’s purchasing power (due to a general rise in money demand or an unchanged or falling money supply, to which I come soon) but the result of some producers slashing certain prices in certain industries and regions, and of those price drops not being fully compensated by rising prices somewhere else in eurozone, then this has various implications:
Consumers cannot simply assume that this is a lasting trend. The liquidation of capital misallocations and the discounting of merchandise to get it moving are crisis phenomena and cannot simply be extrapolated into the future the way consumers may have extrapolated the secular deflation of gold standard economies in the 19th century. But the straight extrapolation of very recent price changes into the future is at the core of the argument that even small deflation would be disastrous.
Furthermore, it would seem bizarre to advice merchants to not slash prices when demand drops as that would, according to the logic advanced by Authers et al, only lead to further postponement of consumption and a further drop in demand as consumers would simply expect price declines to continue. Would hiking prices be a better strategy to counter falling demand? Should we reconsider the concept of the “sale” and of “discounting” inventory to encourage buying?
To a considerable degree, the reduction in certain prices for ‘real’ economic reasons could be part of the economic healing process. It is a way for many producers, sectors of the economy, and economic regions, to regain competitiveness. It is true that falling wages in certain industries or regions make it more difficult for workers to repay mortgages and consumer loans but often the lower wage may be the only way to avoid unemployment, which would make repaying debt harder still. Behind the often-quoted headline inflation rate of presently 0.5% per annum lie numerous relative price changes by which the economy re-balances. All discussions about the ‘price index’ ignore these all-important changes in relative prices. It so happens that what goes on with the multitude of individual prices in the economy adds up, according to the techniques of the ECB statisticians, to a 0.5% harmonized inflation rate at the moment, and it may all add up to -0.5% next month or next year, or maybe even – 1 percent. To simply conclude from this one aggregate price number that the economy is getting progressively sicker would be wrong.
There is no escaping the fact that recent economic difficulties are the result of imbalances that accumulated during the credit boom that preceded the 2007/2008 financial crisis, of which the eurozone debt crisis was an after quake. Artificially cheap money created the credit boom and these imbalances. A period of liquidation, contraction, changing relative prices and occasionally falling prices is now necessary, and short-circuiting this process via renewed central bank intervention seems counterproductive and ultimately dangerous.
There is, of course, the possibility that proper monetary causes are behind the eurozone’s low inflation and soon deflation, and that those might persist. Banks still feel constrained in their ability to extend new loans and thus create new money. The growth in bank lending and thus in wider monetary aggregates may fall short of the growth in money demand. But it is an essential feature of money that any demand for it can be fully satisfied with a rise in its price. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power, and by allowing the market to lift the purchasing power of money, that is, through deflation, that demand can be met. The secular, moderate and largely harmless deflation of 19th century gold standard economies had essentially the same origin. Money production did not keep pace with money demand, so money demand was satisfied via slowly falling prices.
And here the same conclusion applies: a more restrained approach to lending, credit risk, and financial leverage, now adopted by banks and the public at large as a consequence of the crisis, may be a good thing, and for the central bank to mess with this process and to use ‘unconventional’ means to force more bank lending and money creation onto the system, out of some misguided commitment to the arbitrarily chosen statistical goal of ‘2-percent inflation’ seems foolish. If successful in raising the headline inflation rate it may succeed in creating the same imbalances (excessive leverage, misallocations of capital and distorted asset prices) that have created the recent crisis.
One commentator recently said the eurozone could ill afford deflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector. But the question is if it can afford the level of lending to attain 2 percent inflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector.
The fallacy of macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy
Let me be clear: I do not recommend a zero-inflation target or a target of moderate deflation. Moderate deflation in and of itself is a little a solution as moderate inflation in and of itself is a problem. I recommend no target as I reject the entire concept of ‘monetary policy’, of the notion that a state agency could conceivably enhance, through clever manipulation of interest rates and bank reserve policy, the coordinating powers of the market that help people realize their personal economic objectives through free trade.
We should remember that no one participates in the economy and in trade and commerce because his or her goal is that the general price level goes up by 2 percent, or that nominal GDP increases by 5 percent. People have their own personal objectives. The market is simply a powerful tool for voluntary and decentralized plan-coordination among independent individuals and groups of individuals that pursue their own goals. It is best left undisturbed. This entire project of ‘monetary policy’ is absurd in the extreme, regardless of what the target is.
It is the fallacy of macroeconomics that certain statistical aggregates, such as CPI, GDP or nominal GDP, are deemed reliable representatives of what goes on in a complex market economy, and it is dangerous hubris to believe that the state should define ‘targets’ for these statistical aggregates and then use policy intervention to achieve them. This might be an approach intellectually suitable for the ruler of a communist or fascist society. It is fundamentally at odds with free trade and a free market, and it must and will fail. That should have been a clear lesson from the financial crisis.
Instead, the mainstream consensus, deeply influenced by Keynesianism and macroeconomics, continues to embrace policy activism and intervention. I fully expect central banks to continue on their path towards more aggressive meddling and generous fiat money production. It won’t take long for the ECB to take the next step.
Hyperinflation in Hungary, 1946. (Photo by Mizerak Istvan)
Confronted with the possibility that the endgame of the present experiment in extreme monetary accommodation may be higher inflation and even currency disaster, many private investors and portfolio managers respond that they should be okay, since their wealth is protected through allocations to equities and real estate. In contrast to cash and fixed income securities, which are certain to get obliterated in an inflationary environment, equities and real estate are considered some form of ‘hard’ or ‘real’ asset, not just nominal paper promises. “Why should I own gold? A well-diversified portfolio of top international companies should give me good protection against any major disaster,” a senior portfolio manager told me. “I don’t know about gold. What’s so special about it? But I own real estate. If we enter a high inflation scenario, real estate will maintain its value”, a private investor said. But how probable is it that those strategies are going to work?
The wages of fear
Let us consider the overall backdrop first. Most experiments with unconstrained paper money in history ended in hyperinflation and currency collapse. Those that didn’t were terminated by a political decision to return to commodity-linked, inelastic money voluntarily, a move that required a combination of economic literacy and political backbone that I will leave to the reader to assess if it can be found in sufficient measure among today’s political and bureaucratic elite. Our present fiat money experiment is close to 43 years old and showing signs of serious strain: For a number of years now central banks have been manoeuvring themselves into a corner where they must keep rates at zero and keep propping up certain asset prices through targeted money printing operations to maintain the mirage of the system’s solvency, and there are little signs that any of them is going to find a way out anytime soon.
I know, I know, there are two alternative memes making the rounds presently. One maintains that a deflationary correction is more likely than inflation. The other that a recovery is on track and that this will allow central banks to pull back. The former is not entirely silly. One of the side-effects of relentless bubble blowing is indeed that Mr. Market will occasionally insist on deflating the bubbles. But then the global monetary politburo that holds the keys to the printing presses knows better what the world needs and won’t let Mr. Market do his work. Thus, money-printing will continue. Remember Mr. Bernanke and his apodictic declaration that a ‘determined’ government can always create higher inflation. The second meme is popular but silly, and not the topic of this essay.
The first thing to say is that the idea of equities being a good protector against monetary disaster sounds too good to be true. Here is an asset class that benefits immensely from the current policy of “quantitative easing” and interest rate repression, as even the most hardened believers in equity-markets as disinterested and trustworthy barometers of economic health will find it hard to argue that present valuations purely reflect solid company fundamentals, yet equities should also do well when the recovery finally enters self-sustainable speed and the central bankers exit, and even offer protection for when central bankers don’t exit and we finally go into inflationary meltdown. – Wow! Stop the presses! Here is an asset class that you cannot lose with. (Well, maybe with the exception of the deflationary collapse.)
We should maybe get a tad suspicious if an asset class claims to be the winner in all seasons. Maybe the explanation is psychological. People like to own assets that are sufficiently mainstream, which means they have done well in the past, and assets that offer an income stream (dividends or interest payments), because even if they attach (as I do) a meaningful probability to high inflation and even to currency disaster, the timing of it all is difficult and waiting is so much easier when you are sitting on an income stream. I suspect that there could be an element of wishful thinking at work when investors argue that equities offer disaster protection as well. Like most other people I, too, want to have it all but I believe the universe was not quite so kind to us and arranged things differently. Usually, life requires harsher trade-offs. So at present, the returns from rising equity markets and the paltry returns from fixed income are the ‘wages of fear’ that investors get paid for driving nitroglycerin-filled trucks through the financial jungle, just as in Henri-George Clouzot’s eponymous 1953-classic. Remember: the way to hell is paved with positive carry!
Equities versus gold
I am not denying that equities do have, in principle, the potential to offer some degree of protection against inflation and other financial calamities imposed by government. A reader from Germany recently wrote to me how his father had managed to protect large chunks of his personal wealth through World War II and subsequent currency reform by holding shares in some of Germany’s top companies (and diligently avoided bonds – in particular government bonds!). There can be little doubt that owning claims to the capital of well-established productive concerns is superior to owning securitised promises of politicians. But what about equities versus gold? In my view, gold is still the essential self-defense asset against fiat money disaster, certainly in case of hyperinflation but probably even in a deflationary calamity.
If you own gold you own a universal monetary asset, a global, inelastic and apolitical form of money. Its value is not derived from any specific enterprise, any industry or nation, or any issuing authority. It is nation-less, boundary-less, completely global in its appeal – an international and for all I can say ‘eternal’ form of money. (I like Bitcoin but I don’t think it is quite up there yet.) If you own equities instead you hold claims on the future income stream of specific and hopefully continuingly productive enterprises. Shares are not just claims on any “hard” assets that a company may own, such as land or factory buildings but constitute claims on the future profitability of particular business models. But inflations are macro-economic fiascos. They are disasters, and disasters of a peculiar kind. Some firms may indeed benefit, at least initially, from rising and even high inflation but for many companies inflation will create severe problems. Many companies will indeed go under.
One of the many problems with inflation is that it greatly complicates economic calculation (to the point of making it almost impossible), and that it encourages entrepreneurial error. It can, of course, be said that encouraging entrepreneurial error is the very modus operandi of any policy of easy money: artificially low interest rates ‘work’ by creating an illusion of high savings availability, of a low time preference of the public that should enhance the feasibility of long term investment projects. Via low interest rates entrepreneurs are lured into investment projects that are bound to lack, in the long run, the necessary support from the public’s true voluntary savings. ‘Easy money’ encourages investment always and everywhere under false pretences. But the point here is that, once inflation really kicks in, the errors are likely to compound.
A common problem of calculation under inflation is that many companies will report ‘phantom’ or ‘apparent’ profits, which result from rising sales revenue being booked as income while the also rapidly rising replacement costs for machinery or semi-finished goods are often not fully reflected in depreciation charges, and often remain difficult to ascertain anyway as high inflation is also volatile inflation. Some of what is shown as profit will ultimately simply constitute ‘eating into capital’. Long term planning and economic calculation are greatly disrupted by inflation. In any case, inflation will create some winners but also many losers, even to the point of company failures. High inflation economies are sick economies and usually not a good place to invest.
Historical example: Germany 1918-1923
In 1931 the Italian economist and statistician Costantino Bresciani-Turroni published a study of Weimar Germany’s descent into hyperinflation under the title Le Vicende del Marco Tedesco, which was translated into English under the title The Economics of Inflation, and published in 1937. Among many other things, Bresciani-Turroni also looked at how equities fared: in rapidly depreciating paper money terms, in dollar terms (which means versus gold), and relative to the wholesale price index.
Such studies must always be taken with a generous helping of salt, for a number of reasons. First, history can tell us what happened (in specific and always unique instances) but not what must happen (as a general rule). The social sciences know no laboratory experiments. The next inflationary meltdown may look different from this one. There is no reason to believe that what was observed in Germany at the time must be prototypical for all currency collapses going forward. Second, any study that uses historical data, meaning statistics, is potentially subject to challenges on account of the methodologies used and the accuracy of the underlying data, and this is the case many times over when data series are of such staggering volatility and even somewhat dubious reliability as they are in the case of Germany’s quick descent into monetary chaos. Be that as it may, the study is still very interesting.
Sensibly, Bresciani-Turroni starts his account in the summer of 1914, when Germany left the international gold standard to allow for inflationary war financing. As almost always in the history of money, the state decreed to get rid of the gold anchor so that it could fund itself by printing money freely, and not, as the fairy tales that modern macroeconomists tell themselves will have it, because the gold standard was oh so inflexible and deflationary, which it was, of course, but that was a good thing.
Bresciani-Turroni takes the average of an official German stock index for the year 1913, the last gold standard year, as the base and sets it at 100. He then charts the index in paper mark prices through to 1923, and also calculates the index adjusted for the mark’s steep depreciation versus the dollar, and adjusted according to the index of wholesale prices.
I give you the conclusion right away: If you had held paper marks throughout you would have lost everything. Paper marks became worthless by the end of 1923. Equities did much better but over the whole period underperformed the dollar (and thus gold) and the wholesale price index. By the end of 1923, the stock index that was on average 100 in 1913 stood at 26.80 if adjusted for the dollar exchange rate, according to Bresciani-Turroni’s calculation. In gold-terms you had thus lost more than 70 percent of your purchasing power by staying invested in German equities. Adjusted for wholesale price inflation, the index stood at 21.27. Yes, you avoided total annihilation of your wealth but you were still almost 80 percent poorer measured in the real prices of goods and services and also about 70 percent poorer in gold terms.
What is also fascinating is the sheer volatility of the stock market throughout that period. In 1918, the year of the armistice, the index dropped 30 percent in nominal terms, more than 50 percent in dollar terms, and more than 40 percent when adjusted for inflation. In nominal terms, the index reached a low of 88 in late 1918 (remember: the average of 1913 = 100) and never looked back. It rose to 127 by the end of 1919, 274 by the end of 1920, 731 by the end of 1921, 8,981 by the end of 1922, and it finally reached 26,890,000,000,000 (that is 26.89 trillion) by the end of 1923. Yet, it still underperformed gold and wholesale prices.
In 1919 the nominal index rose 30 percent, yet in gold/dollar terms German equities lost more than 70 percent that year. The years 1920 and 1921 are of particular interest. Inflation had set off a speculative frenzy in Germany. “Playing” the stock market had suddenly become a national obsession. Over those two years the nominal stock index did indeed keep pace with the ongoing destruction of the German Mark. By the end of 1921, you would have even come out slightly ahead of gold and overall prices when compared to early 1920 as a starting point. However, this changed again dramatically in 1922 when the German public shifted its focus to foreign exchange and gold as protectors of their real wealth. Although the nominal stock index grew more than tenfold in 1922, German equities lost 70 percent of their value in gold terms and in wholesale items. The public turned their back on stocks as they sensed that Germany was heading for economic ruin. In October 1922 stock prices were in fact so depressed that some truly bizarre situations occurred:
“…all the share capital of a great company, the Daimler, was , according to the Bourse quotations, scarcely worth 980 million paper marks. Now, since a motor-car made by that company cost at that time on an average three million marks, it follows that ‘the Bourse attributed a value of 327 cars to the Daimler capital, with the three great works, the extensive area of land, its reserves and its liquid capital and its commercial organization developed in Germany and abroad.’”
In 1923, stocks did again remarkably well. In what looks like a classic “crack-up boom”, in which everybody desperately tries to get out of paper currency and rushes to buy just anything, the equity index did outperform gold, dollar, and wholesale prices. Despite this impressive sprint, equities were still, over the entire period, a suboptimal tool for wealth protection.
Some observations on real estate
Interestingly, owning real estate proved disastrous for many people in Weimar Germany. There is no detailed analysis in Bresciani-Turroni’s study but the anecdotal references are hardly encouraging. Rents were regulated by law and in the rapid inflation of 1922 and 1923 could apparently not be adjusted quickly enough. Real estate became a zero-yielding asset while maintenance costs exploded:
“In 1922 and 1923, because of the rapid depreciation of the mark, the old house-rents became ridiculous. Consequently the value of houses fell considerably. Many landlords, for whom houses were now valueless because the rents did not cover maintenance expenses, were forced to sell them.”
Germany’s hyperinflation was an economic, social and political disaster. It impoverished large sections of the German middle class, in particular those who were conservative with their finances, who saved and who entrusted their savings to the state-sponsored financial infrastructure: banks, insurance companies, government bonds, mortgage bonds. Real estate investments offered poor protection and even equities were suboptimal. Having gold bars stored in a Swiss safe deposit (or even a German one) would have done the trick.
Again, history does not – usually – repeat itself. Next time things may unfold differently. Yet, gold certainly remains my favorite asset.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
The Bitcoin phenomenon has now reached the mainstream media where it met with a reception that ranged from sceptical to outright hostile. The recent volatility in the price of bitcoins and the issues surrounding Bitcoin-exchange Mt. Gox have led to additional negative publicity. In my view, Bitcoin as a monetary concept is potentially a work of genius, and even if Bitcoin were to fail in its present incarnation – a scenario that I cannot exclude but that I consider exceedingly unlikely – the concept itself is too powerful to be ignored or even suppressed in the long run. While scepticism towards anything so fundamentally new is maybe understandable, most of the tirades against Bitcoin as a form of money are ill-conceived, terribly confused, and frequently factually wrong. Central bankers of the world, be afraid, be very afraid!
Any proper analysis has to distinguish clearly between the following layers of the Bitcoin phenomenon: 1) the concept itself, that is, the idea of a hard crypto-currency (digital currency) with no issuing authority behind it, 2) the core technology behind Bitcoin, in particular its specific algorithm and the ‘mining process’ by which bitcoins get created and by which the system is maintained, and 3) the support-infrastructure that makes up the wider Bitcoin economy. This includes the various service providers, such as organised exchanges of bitcoins and fiat currency (Mt. Gox, Bitstamp, Coinbase, and many others), bitcoin ‘wallet’ providers, payment services, etc, etc.
Before we look at recent events and recent newspaper attacks on Bitcoin, we should be clear about a few things upfront: If 1) does not hold, that is, if the underlying theoretical concept of an inelastic, nation-less, apolitical, and international medium of exchange is baseless, or, as some propose, structurally inferior to established state-fiat money, then the whole thing has no future. It would then not matter how clever the algorithm is or how smart the use of cryptographic technology. If you do not believe in 1) – and evidently many economists don’t (wrongly, in my view) – then you can forget about Bitcoin and ignore it.
If 2) does not hold, that is, if there is a terminal flaw in the specific Bitcoin algorithm, this would not by itself repudiate 1). It is then to be expected that a superior crypto-currency will sooner or later take Bitcoin’s place. That is all. The basic idea would survive.
If there are issues with 3), that is, if there are glitches and failures in the new and rapidly growing infra-structure around Bitcoin, then this neither repudiates 1), the crypto-currency concept itself, nor 2), the core Bitcoin technology, but may simply be down to specific failures by some of the service providers, and may reflect to-be-expected growing pains of a new industry. As much as I feel for those losing money/bitcoin in the Mt Gox debacle (and I could have been one of them), it is probably to be expected that a new technology will be subject to setbacks. There will probably be more losses and bankruptcies along the way. This is capitalism at work, folks. But reading the commentary in the papers it appears that, all those Sunday speeches in praise of innovation and creativity notwithstanding, people can really deal only with ‘markets’ that have already been neatly regulated into stagnation or are carefully ‘managed’ by the central bank.
Those who are lamenting the new – and yet tiny – currency’s volatility and occasional hic-ups are either naïve or malicious. Do they expect a new currency to spring up fully formed, liquid, stable, with a fully developed infrastructure overnight?
Recent events surrounding Mt Gox and stories of raids by hackers would, in my opinion, only pose a meaningful long-term challenge for Bitcoin if it could be shown that they were linked to irreparable flaws in the core Bitcoin technology itself. There were indeed some allegations that this was the case but so far they do not sound very convincing. At present it still seems reasonable to me to assume that most of Bitcoin’s recent problems are problems in layer 3) – supporting infrastructure – and that none of this has so far undermined confidence in layer 2), the core Bitcoin technology. If that is indeed the case, it is also reasonable to assume that these issues can be overcome. In fact, the stronger the concept, layer 1), the more compelling the long-term advantages and benefits of a fully decentralized, no-authority, nationless global and inelastic digital currency are, the more likely it is that any weaknesses in the present infrastructure will quickly get ironed out. One does not have to be a cryptographer to believe this. One simply has to understand how human ingenuity, rational self-interest, and competition combine to make superior decentralized systems work. Everybody who understands the power of markets, human creativity, and voluntary cooperation should have confidence in the future of digital money.
None of what happened recently – the struggle at Mt. Gox, raids by hackers, market volatility – has undermined in the slightest layer 1), the core concept. However, it is precisely the concept itself that gets many fiat money advocates all exited and agitated. In their attempts to discredit the Bitcoin concept, some writers do not shy away from even the most ludicrous and factually absurd statements. One particular example is Mark T. Williams, a finance professor at Boston University’s School of Management who has recently attacked Bitcoin in the Financial Times and in this article on Business Insider.
Money and the state: Fact and fiction
Apart from all the scare-mongering in William’s article – such as his likening Bitcoin to an alien or zombie attack on our established financial system, stressing its volatility and instability – the author makes the truly bizarre claim that history shows the importance of a close link between currency and sovereignty. Good money, according to Williams, is state-controlled money. Here are some of his statements.
“Every sovereignty uses currency.”
“Trust and faith that a sovereign is firmly standing behind its currency is critical.”
“Sovereigns understand that without consistent economic growth and stability, the standard of living for its citizens will fall, and discontentment will grow. Nation-state treasuries print currency but the vital role of currency management– needed to spur economic growth — is reserved for central bankers.”
Williams reveals a striking lack of historical perspective here. Money-printing, central banking and any form of what Williams calls “currency management” are very recent phenomena, certainly on the scale that they are practiced today. Professor Williams seems to not have heard of Zimbabwe, or of any of the other, 30-odd hyperinflations that occurred over the past 100 years, all of which, of course, in state-managed fiat money systems.
Williams stresses what a long standing concept central banking is, citing the Swedish central bank that was founded in 1668, and the Bank of England, 1694. Yet, human society has made use of indirect exchange – of trading with the help of money – for more than 2,500 years. And through most of history – up to very recently – money was gold and silver, and the supply of money thus practically outside the control of the sovereign.
The early central banks were also very different animals from what their modern namesakes have become in recent years. Their degrees of freedom were strictly limited by a gold or silver standard. In fact, the idea that they would “manage” the currency to “spur” economic growth would have sounded positively ridiculous to most central bankers in history.
Additionally, by starting their own central banks, the sovereigns did not put “trust and faith” behind their currencies – after all, their currencies were nothing but units of gold and silver, and those enjoyed the public’s trust and faith on their own merit, thank you very much – the sovereigns rather had their own self-interest at heart, a possibility that does not even seem to cross William’s mind: The Bank of England was founded specifically to lend money to the Crown against the issuance of IOUs, meaning the Bank of England was founded to monetize state-debt. The Bank of England, from its earliest days, was repeatedly given the legal privilege – given, of course, by its sovereign – to ignore (default on) its promise to repay in gold and still remain a going concern, and this occurred precisely whenever the state needed extra money, usually to finance a war.
Bitcoin is cryptographic gold
“Gold is money and nothing else.” This is what John Pierpont Morgan said back in 1913. At the time, not only was he a powerful and influential banker, his home country, the United States of America, had become one of the richest and most dynamic countries in the world, yet it had no central bank. The history of the 19th century US – even if told by historians such as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwarz who were no gold-bugs but sympathetic to central banking – illustrates that monetary systems based on a hard monetary commodity (in this case gold), the supply of which is outside government control, is no hindrance to vibrant economic growth and rising prosperity. Furthermore, economic theory can show that hard and inelastic money is not only no hindrance to growth but that it is indeed the superior foundation of a market economy. This is precisely what I try to show with Paper Money Collapse. I do not think that this was even a very contentious notion through most of the history of economics. Good money is inelastic, outside of political control, international (“nationless”, as Williams puts it), and thus the perfect basis for international cooperation across borders.
Money was gold and that meant money was not a tool of politics but an essential constraint on the power of the state.
As Democritus said “Gold is the sovereign of all sovereigns”.
It is clear that on a conceptual level, Bitcoin has much more in common with a gold and silver as monetary assets than with state fiat money. The supply of gold, silver and Bitcoin, is not under the control of any issuing authority. It is money of no authority – and this is precisely why such assets were chosen as money for thousands of years. Gold, silver and Bitcoin do not require trust and faith in a powerful and privileged institution, such as a central bank bureaucracy (here is the awestruck Williams not seeing a problem: “These financial stewards have immense power and responsibility.”) Under a gold standard you have to trust Mother Nature and the spontaneous market order that employs gold as money. Under Bitcoin you have to trust the algorithm and the spontaneous market order that employs bitcoins as money (if the public so chooses). Under the fiat money system you have to trust Ben Bernanke, Janet Yellen, and their hordes of economics PhDs and statisticians.
Hey, give me the algorithm any day!
Money of no authority
But Professor Williams does seem unable to even grasp the possibility of money without an issuing and controlling central authority: “Under the Bitcoin model, those who create the software protocol and mine virtual currencies would become the new central bankers, controlling a monetary base.” This is simply nonsense. It is factually incorrect. Bitcoin – just like a proper gold standard – does not allow for discretionary manipulation of the monetary base. There was no ‘monetary policy’ under a gold standard, and there is no ‘monetary policy’ in the Bitcoin economy. That is precisely the strength of these concepts, and this is why they will ultimately succeed, and replace fiat money.
Williams would, of course, be correct if he stated that sovereigns had always tried to control money and manipulate it for their own ends. And that history is a legacy of failure.
The first paper money systems date back to 11th century China. All of those ended in inflation and currency disaster. Only the Ming Dynasty survived an experiment with paper money – by voluntarily ending it and returning to hard commodity money.
The first experiments with full paper money systems in the West date back to the 17th century, and all of those failed, too. The outcome – through all of history – has always been the same: either the paper money system collapsed in hyperinflation, or, before that happened, the system was returned to hard commodity money. We presently live with the most ambitious experiment with unconstrained fiat money ever, as the entire world is now on a paper standard – or, as James Grant put it, a PhD-standard – and money production has been made entirely flexible everywhere. This, however does not reflect a “longstanding bond between sovereign and its currency”, as Williams believes, but is a very recent phenomenon, dating precisely to the 15th of August 1971, when President Nixon closed the gold window, ended Bretton Woods, and defaulted on the obligation to exchange dollars for gold at a fixed price.
The new system – or non-system – has brought us persistent inflation and budget deficits, ever more bizarre asset bubbles, bloated and unstable banking systems, rising mountains of debt that will never be repaid, stagnating real incomes and rising income disparities. This system is now in its endgame.
But maybe Williams is right with one thing: “If not controlled and tightly regulated, Bitcoin — a decentralized, untraceable, highly volatile and nationless currency — has the potential to undermine this longstanding bond between sovereign and its currency.”
Three cheers to that.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
This is the final blog entry in the ‘Schlichter Files’. Pretty soon, DetlevSchlichter.com will be taken offline. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my readers for following my commentaries, essays and occasional rants over the past two-and-a-half years. Thank you.
I would like to express a special gratitude to all who provided comments. I have found so many of the comments from readers to be perceptive and thoughtful, and enjoyed them even when I didn’t respond (as has usually been my policy). Somewhat to my surprise, the feedback to the blog entries has predominantly been positive, and there have only been a few negative or hostile responses. However, I am not deluded and think that a majority out there agrees with me. I think that those who dislike my general outlook have simply not bothered to comment.
Why the sudden and abrupt end? – Well, truth be told, it was not an abrupt or sudden decision at all. The primary purpose of my website has always been to promote my book (for most of its life the website was called papermoneycollapse.com), and to try and find a larger audience for my economic views. The website gave me a platform to comment on current events, market discussions and policy initiatives, and in doing so, apply the ideas I had developed in Paper Money Collapse. I hoped that this would generate more interest in the book and, by extension, the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics in general and those of Ludwig von Mises in particular. I never expected to make ‘blogging’ my new profession. I always expected that this would be a project with a limited life-span.
Having said this, I very much enjoyed writing for the website. I love writing and I love economics, and the experience of writing a semi-academic book on money and a running blog on economic developments was great fun. If some readers out there have enjoyed reading the blogs only half as much as I enjoyed writing them, the whole effort was not in vain. The most important contribution that I have made over the past four years of being an author and commentator, however, remains, in my assessment, Paper Money Collapse. This was the book that was ‘in me’ back in 2009 when I decided to resign from my position as a senior investment professional in the City of London and to pursue my intellectual interests. The book has now found its audience. Only time will tell if it made a lasting impression. It was certainly fun to write and promote it, I stand by everything I say in it, but it is now time to move on.
There are a couple of projects that I am excited about and that I now want to pursue in earnest. I do not want to have a stale, non-updated website on the net with my name on it, so within a week or two DetlevSchlichter.com will disappear. If anybody is still interested in my old blogs, you should be able to find them on the website of the Cobden Centre, which has published my essays almost from the start in early 2011, or on Jim Puplava’s FinancialSense site. A couple of other websites have also republished my work, sometimes translated into other languages, so whatever I wrote remains in the public domain.
Thanks again for all your interest and support, and please remember….
…the debasement of paper money still continues.
With best wishes,
The British media is obsessed with Mark Carney, the new boss at the Bank of England, who, this week, made his first public appearance as governor with a speech in Nottingham. There were adoring comments about his looks (the vague resemblance with George Clooney, supported with plenty of photographs) and his voice (deep, confident, reassuring), and as most journalists are more in awe of money and wealth than they are willing to admit, references to his generous pay package were also not missing. But there was also consternation that the words of the ‘most talented central banker of his generation’ seemed to carry so little weight with the markets.
The Wall Street Journal had previously described Carney as ‘a pioneer of forward guidance’. Forward guidance is the allegedly new central bank technique of telling the market where policy will be heading (or rather, assuring the market where it will not be heading), supposedly in order to make policy more effective. Despite Mr. Carney’s repeated assurances that rates will only be moved higher when unemployment drops to a certain level (7% is Mr. Carney’s magic number) and that this will not occur until 2016, the market has recently been happily selling fixed income securities, and in the process, has allowed the forward curve to start pricing in earlier rate hikes. To Mr. Carney’s pledge to keep rates low, the market has practically been saying, in the words of the inimitable Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, ”Yeah, well, that’s just like…your opinion, man.”
Whether the market will be proven right and whether rates really will move higher earlier than Carney contemplates today, is a question we cannot answer. The future will tell. (Personally, I remain of the opinion that the talk of ‘tapering’ in the US is overdone, that central banks will not manage a smooth ‘exit’ from their position of extreme accommodation, and certainly not anytime soon.) But the market is undoubtedly correct to not allow itself to be guided in its assessment of the economy’s future performance, and therefore future policy, by the BoE’s new super-bureaucrat.
The whole idea of forward guidance is, of course, preposterous. The market knows full well that policy will change if circumstances change. Should the economy recover more quickly, should the Fed’s actions put pressures on other central banks to also remove accommodation, should inflation rise faster, or should the pound come under pressure, the policy elite at the BoE will most certainly have to respond. Conversely, if the economy nosedives again or if another financial accident occurs, central bankers will cut rates again (maybe to negative levels?), and throw more money at the problem.
The market is, of course, frequently wrong in assessing the future. Also, the market’s assessment is constantly changing. But the market is still the most awesome machinery for data-collection and data-processing, and it remains unmatched by any institution, individual or group of individuals, even overpaid George Clooney lookalikes.
Most bizarre about this whole episode is the reverence with which the commentariat still treats the central bankers. Based on their exaggerated view of their own powers to do good, and their importance for ongoing growth, and based on their erroneous and self-serving belief that money-printing is costless as long as certain conveniently self-selected measures of consumer prices remain under control, central bankers have, for years, happily fed the housing bubbles and allowed bank balance sheets to balloon beyond all proportion. They then sleepwalked into the crisis of their own making, and once the house of cards had collapsed, they feverishly tried to recreate semblances of stability and solvency, usually by printing more money faster and by manipulating various asset markets through targeted purchases. Recent financial history is a legacy of central bank failure, yet the media remains uninterested in economics and obsessed with personalities. Politicians, bureaucrats and central bankers – no matter the disasters they produce, the hope persists that the next guy will do better and save the world.
Markets, however, are rather less sentimental and much less prone to political romanticism.
In this respect, the ongoing debate about who will be the next Fed chairman, Janet Yellen or Larry Summers, is equally unenlightened and undignified. Summers strikes me as the more interesting and unpredictable thinker and he would probably make a more entertaining chairman. Nevertheless, the impact of the selection on future policy is marginal, in my view.
And one final thought: if the market is correct and economies are presently recovering with more momentum, then this is most likely the result of reflationary monetary policy finally gaining traction and of accelerating credit growth. In that case, prices won’t stay still. (As an aside, farmland in the US keeps appreciating at double-digit clips.) Inflation and inflation expectations could quickly be on the rise. If that is indeed the case, and if central bankers then keep sitting on their hands because of their forward-guiding commitments, the bond market could continue to be in trouble.
The potential for central bankers to do harm remains bigger than that to do good.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
Within the Austrian School of Economics there has long been disagreement and therefore occasionally fierce debate about the nature and consequences of fractional-reserve banking, from here on called simply FRB. FRB denotes the practice by banks of issuing, as part of their lending activities, claims against themselves, either in the form of banknotes or demand deposits (fiduciary media), that are instantly redeemable in money proper (such as gold or state fiat money, depending on the prevailing monetary system) but that are not fully backed by money proper. To the extent that the public accepts these claims and uses them side by side with money proper, gold or state fiat money, as has been the case throughout most of banking history, the banks add to the supply of what the public uses as money in the wider sense.
Very broadly speaking, and at the risk of oversimplifying things, we can identify two camps. There is the 100-percent reserve group, which considers FRB either outright fraud or at least some kind of scam, and tends to advocate its ban. As an outright ban is difficult for an otherwise libertarian group of intellectuals to advocate – who would ban it if there were no state? – certain ideas have taken hold among members of this group. There is the notion that without state support – which, at present, is everywhere substantial – the public would not participate in it, and therefore it would not exist, or that it constitutes a fundamental violation of property rights, and that it would thus be in conflict with libertarian law in a free society. This position is most strongly associated with Murray Rothbard, and has, to various degrees and with different shadings, been advocated by Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Jesus Huerta de Soto, and Jörg Guido Hülsmann.
The opposing view within the Austrian tradition is mainly associated with George Selgin and Larry White, although there are other notable members of this group, such as Steve Horwitz. This camp has assumed the label “free bankers” and it defends FRB against accusations of fraud and misrepresentation, maintains that FRB is a normal feature of a free society, and that no property rights violations occur in the normal conduct of it. But this group takes the defence of banking practices further, as it also maintains that FRB is not a disruptive influence on the economy, a position that may put the free bankers in conflict with the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, although the free bankers deny this. This point is different from saying that FRB is not fraudulent or suspect. We should always consider the possibility that otherwise perfectly legitimate activities could still be the cause of economic imbalances, even in a free market. If we did find that to be the case, we might still not follow from this that state intervention or bans are justified.
But the free bankers go even further than this. Not only is FRB not problematic, either on grounds of property rights nor on economic stability, FRB is even beneficial as it tends to maintain what the free bankers call short term monetary equilibrium, that is, through FRB the banks tend to adjust the supply of money (by issuing or withdrawing deposit money on the margin) in response to discretionary changes in money demand in such a way that disruptions would not occur that otherwise seem unavoidable under inelastic forms of money when changes in money demand would have to be absorbed by changes in nominal prices. FRB is thus not just legitimate, it is highly beneficial.
Purpose of this essay
As I said before, this is an old debate. Why should we reheat it? – Before I answer this question, I should briefly state my position: I am not fully in agreement with either camp. I do believe that the free bankers’ defence of FRB is largely successful but that their claims as to it being entirely innocuous and certainly their claims as to its efficiency in flexibly meeting changes in money demand are overstated. In my view, their attempts to support these claims fail.
FRB is, in principle and usually, neither fraud nor a scam, and the question to what extent the depositing public fully grasps how FRB works is not even material in settling this issue. In their 1996-paper ‘In defense of fiduciary media’, Selgin and White argue that the type of money that FRB brings into circulation has to be distinguished from fiat money; they explain that FRB is not fraudulent and that it does not necessarily involve a violation of property rights; third party effects, that is any potentially adverse effects that FRB may have on those who do not participate in it, are not materially different from adverse effects that may emanate from other legitimate market activity, and thus provide no reason for banning FRB; furthermore, Selgin and White claim that FRB is popular and that it would occur in a free market. I agree with all these points. There is no basis for banning FRB, so it should not be banned. This position is, in my view, correct, and it also happens to be obviously libertarian. I may add that I believe it is also almost impossible to ban FRB, or something like FRB, completely. We could ban FRB as practiced by banks today but in a developed financial system it is still likely that other market participants may from time to time succeed in bringing highly liquid near-money instruments into circulation, and that may cause all the problems that the 100-percent-reserve crowd associates with traditional FRB. The question is now the following: do these problems with FRB exist? The free bankers say no. FRB, in a free market, is not only not a source of instability, it is a source of stability as it manages to satisfy changes in money demand smoothly. These positive claims as to the power of FRB are the topic of this essay. I do not believe that these claims hold up to scrutiny.
Why is this relevant?
At first it does not appear to be relevant. Selgin and White declare in their 1996 paper, and I assume their position on this has not changed, that they are opposed to state fiat money and central banking. This sounds similar to the conclusions that I develop in my book, Paper Money Collapse. I advocate the strict separation of money and state. No central bank and no state fiat money. I think it is extremely likely that an entirely uninhibited free market in money and banking would again chose some kind of inflexible commodity – a natural commodity with a long tradition as a medium of exchange, such as gold, or maybe a new, man-made but scarce commodity, such as the cryptographic commodity Bitcoin, or something similar – as the basis for the financial system, and even if the market were to continue with the established denominations of dollars, yen, and so forth, as the public is, for now at least, still comfortable using them, would somehow link the issuance of these monetary units again to something inelastic that was not under anybody’s discretionary control.
In any case, if we assume that some type of ‘market-gold-standard’ would again resurface, it is very clear that under such purely market-driven, voluntary arrangements and with essentially hard money at its core, any FRB activity would be strictly limited. FRB-practicing banks would not have lender-of-last resort central banks watching their backs. There would be no limitless well of new bank reserves to bail out overstretched banks and to restart new credit cycles whenever the old ones have run their course. There would be no state-administered and tax-payer-guaranteed deposit insurance, or any other arrangement by which the cost of failure in banking could be socialized. Lowering reserve ratios and issuing additional fiduciary media (substitute money, i.e. deposit money) would be legal (the state would abstain from any involvement in monetary affairs, including the banning of any such activities) but it would come with considerable business risk, as it should be.
Would there still be FRB? Certainly. And in my view, the remaining FRB activity, adding as it does to the elasticity of the money supply at the margin and thus potentially distorting interest rate signals, is going to lead to capital misallocations to some degree, and thus initiate the occasional business cycle. That, in my view, is the price we have to pay for having a developed monetary economy and entire freedom in money and banking with all the undeniable advantages such a system brings. Importantly, I believe that these costs are unavoidable. But they are minor due to the absence of FRB-boosting state policy. – No, an entirely free market would not fulfil any dreams of uninterrupted bliss or realise the macroeconomist’s fantasy of everlasting ‘equilibrium’, both notions that Ludwig von Mises frequently rejected and ridiculed, but it would for sure be considerably better, and much more stable, than anything our present elastic monetary system can produce.
In Paper Money Collapse, I argue that inelasticity of supply is a virtue in money. That is why gold is such an excellent monetary asset. Complete inelasticity is unattainable in the real world but something like a proper gold standard is close enough. But for the ‘free bankers’ the remaining elasticity under restricted FRB (restricted by a stable commodity base) would be a boon. It would further stabilize the economy and establish…equilibrium. In my view, these claims are unsupported. But, you may say, why should we argue about the specific features of the post-fiat-money world if we are in agreement that such a post-fiat money world is in any case preferable to the present one?
The reason is simply this: how do we evaluate current policies? On this question I thought that most Austrians, as advocates of gold or something similar, and as critics of fiat money, would still be in broad agreement. But to my initial shock and my lasting amazement I found that some Austrian free bankers frequently cannot bring themselves to reject ‘quantitative easing’ and other heavy-handed central bank intervention on principle, and that they are able to embrace monetarist policy proposals, such as nominal GDP targeting by central banks, as a kind of second-best-solution that will do for as long as our first choice of separation of money and state is not realised. I believe these positions to stand in fundamental conflict with key tenets of the Austrian School of Economics and, apart from that and more importantly, to be simply unjustifiable. I think they are misguided. But it seems to me that the occasional support for them among free bankers originates in certain expectations as to what the equilibrating forces of ‘free banking’ would bring about in a free market in terms of a stable nominal GDP, and the free bankers can thus advocate certain forms of central bank activism if these are bound to generate these same outcomes. Therefore, in order to refute the idea of nominal GDP targeting we have to show that the free bankers’ expectations as to ‘monetary equilibrium’ under free banking lack a convincing analytical foundation. In this essay I want to pose some challenges for the free bankers. In a later article I hope to address NGDP-targeting as such.
Money does not need a producer
Among all goods money has a special place. It is the most liquid good and the only one that is demanded only for its exchange value, that is, its price in other goods and services. Anybody who has demand for money has demand for real money balances, that is, for effective purchasing power in the form of money. Nobody has demand for a specific quantity of the monetary asset per se, like a certain number of paper notes or a particular quantity of gold, but always for the specific purchasing power that these monetary assets convey.
In contrast to all other goods and services, changes in money demand can in theory be met by either producing additional quantities or by withdrawing and eliminating existing quantities of the monetary asset (changing the physical quantity of money), or by allowing the price of money, money’s exchange value, to change in response to the buying and selling of money versus non-money goods by the public (changing money’s purchasing power). Furthermore, it can be argued, as I do in Paper Money Collapse, that the superior market process for bringing demand for and supply of money in balance is the latter, i.e. the market-driven adjustment of nominal prices in response to the public’s buying and selling of money for non-money goods according to money demand. Why? – Well, mainly because the process of adjusting the physical quantity of money does not work. 1) We lack a procedure by which we can detect changes in money demand before they have begun to affect prices, and if prices are already beginning to change then these price changes already constitute the very process that satisfies the new money demand. This makes changing the quantity of money superfluous. 2) We lack a procedure by which we can expand and contract the supply of money without affecting the supply of credit and without changing interest rates. This makes changing the quantity of money dangerous. Money demand and loan demand are different things. Our modern fiat money systems are, in any case, not really designed for occasionally reducing the supply of money but for a continuous expansion of the money supply. As the Austrian Business Cycle Theory explains, expanding the supply of money by expanding bank credit must distort interest rates (artificially depress them) and lead to mismatches between voluntary saving and investment and thus to capital misallocations.
To this analysis the free bankers appear to voice a few objections. Before we look at the differences, however, let’s first stress an important agreement: the free bankers agree that nominal prices can do the adjusting and bring demand for and supply of money in balance. But they introduce an important condition: in the long run. In the short run, they argue, the process is not quite as smooth as many hard-money Austrians portray it to be.
Selgin and White (‘Defence’, 1996):
In the long run, nominal prices will adjust to equate supply and demand for money balances, whatever the nominal quantity of money. It does not follow, however, that each and every change in the supply of or demand for money will lead at once to a new long-run equilibrium, because the required price adjustments take time. They take time because not all agents are instantly and perfectly aware of changes in the money stock or money demand, and because some prices are costly to adjust and therefore “sticky.” It follows that, in the short run (empirically, think “for a number of months”), less than fully anticipated changes to the supply of or demand for money can give rise to monetary disequilibrium.
Thus, the first objection of the free bankers is that the account of the hard-money Austrians about the smooth adjustment of prices in response to changes in money demand is a bit superficial and slick. In the real world, not all prices will respond so quickly. Not all goods and services are being priced and re-priced in a continuous auction process, and when the public reduces money-outlays at the margin in an attempt to increase money-holdings, not every producer of goods and services will quickly adjust the price tags of his wares.
I do think some of this criticism is valid, and I am not excluding myself from it. My own account of the process of adjustment of money’s purchasing power sometimes runs the risk of glossing over the real-life frictions involved. However, to my defence, I acknowledged some of these problems in Paper Money Collapse, although I do not treat them extensively. See page 144-145:
In the absence of a flexible money supply, sudden changes in money demand will have to be fully absorbed by changes’ in money’s purchasing power. One could argue that this, too, has the potential to disrupt the otherwise smooth operation of the economy. Indeed, as we have seen, this phenomenon will also affect the prices of different goods differently. [This refers to the fact that when, for example, people try to raise their money holdings, they will reduce money-outlays on non-money goods or sell non-money goods for money, but they won’t cut every single expenditure item by an equal amount, or liquidate a tiny portion of each of their assets but will always cut the expenditure or sell the asset that is lowest on their present value scale. Downward pressure on prices from rising money demand will thus not be the same for all prices.]…A change in the demand for money will change overall prices but also relative prices and therefore the relative position of economic actors and the allocation of resources in the economy. All of this is true but it must lead to a different question: Is any of this avoidable….?
Is ‘monetary disequilibrium’ a unique phenomenon?
The free bankers are correct to point to these problems but it is also true that every change in the preferences of economic agents leads to similar problems. If consumer tastes change and money-flows are being redirected from certain products to certain other products, this, too, means that nominal spending on some items is being reduced. Profitability will decline in some parts of the economy and increase in others. This, too, will ultimate redirect resources and change the economy but all of these processes “take time because not all agents are instantly and perfectly aware …” of what is going on, and also for other reasons, including the stickiness of some prices. I think agents are never “instantly and perfectly aware” of anything, and that the slickness of economic models is never matched by reality. Accordingly, the real world is constantly in disequilibrium, and as economists we can only explain the underlying processes that tend towards equilibrium without ever reaching it. I wonder, however, if the concerns of the free bankers, valid though they are, are not just examples of the frictions that always exist in the real world, in which tastes and preferences change constantly, and change in an instant, but prices, knowledge, and resource use always move more slowly.
Furthermore, the issue of stickiness of prices should not be overstated. These days many prices do appear rather flexible and tend to adjust rather quickly: not only those of financial assets but also industrial commodities, and even many consumer goods, from used cars to hotel stays to flight tickets to everything on eBay. Discounting in response to a drop in nominal spending is the first of line of defense for almost every entrepreneur, I would guess, and if what the entrepreneur faces is indeed a higher money demand among his clientele, rather than a genuine change in consumption preferences, then sales should stabilize quickly at the lower price.
But I think the main point is this: how can the banks do better? What do the free bankers say to my two points above that changing the quantity of money is not really a viable alternative to allowing changes in nominal prices? Let’s address the first point first:
Point 1) We lack a procedure by which we can detect changes in money demand before they have begun to affect prices, and if prices are already beginning to change then these price changes already constitute the very process that satisfies the new money demand. This makes changing the quantity of money superfluous.
How do banks detect a change in money demand – before it has affected prices?
Banks have no facility to create money and money alone (deposit money, fiduciary media). New money is always a byproduct of banks’ lending operations. Banks can only create money by expanding their balance sheets. Thus, they always create an asset (a new loan) at the same time they create a new liability (the demand deposit in which the bank pays out the loan to the borrower, and which is part of the money supply). Therefore, if you suddenly experience a rise in money demand, if you suddenly feel the urge to hold more of your wealth in the form of the most fungible object (money), the bank can’t help you. Of course, you could go to the bank and borrow the money and then keep it in cash. This is a possibility but I think we all agree – and the free bankers seem to agree as well – that this is very unusual, and that it must be rare. Banks meet loan demand, not money demand, and the two are not only different, they are the opposite of one another. Borrowers do not have a high marginal demand for money; quite to the contrary, they have a high marginal demand for goods and services, i.e. non-money items (that is why they are willing to incur interest expense). The loan is in the form of money but the borrowers usually spend the money right away on whatever they really desire.
Banks are not in the money-creation business (or only in it by default – no pun intended); they are really in the lending business. The idea that rising money demand would articulate itself as higher loan demand at banks is wrong, and the free bankers do not usually make that mistake. They know (and some of them even stress) that money demand articulates itself in the markets for non-money goods and services (including, but not restricted to, financial assets). People reduce or increase spending in order to establish the desired money holdings.
To the extent that, when people experience a higher money demand, they sell financial assets to banks, the banks do indeed directly experience the heightened money demand, and if the banks increase their FRB activities in response and expand their balance sheets accordingly (the financial assets they buy enter the asset side of the balance sheet – they are the new loans – and the new demand deposits the banks issue to pay for them sit on the liability side of the balance sheet), the quantity of money is indeed being expanded in response to money demand. But to the extent that the public does not sell to FRB-practicing banks or that the public reduces other outlays or sells non-financial assets, the banks are not directly involved as counterparties. How can they still detect a rising money demand?
[As an aside, the free bankers sometimes speak of ‘the public having a higher demand for demand deposits or ‘inside money’ ’, and that the banks should be allowed to ‘accommodate’ this. I think these statements are confusing. Depositing physical cash in a bank, or conversely liquidating demand deposits to increase holdings of physical cash, are transactions between various forms of money. In a functioning FRB system, both forms of money, physical cash and bank-produced deposit money, are almost perfect surrogates. Both are used side by side, and both satisfy the demand for money. That is the precondition for FRB to work. The factors that occasionally determine preferences for a specific form of money are fundamentally different from those that affect the demand for money overall. If the public, for example, reduces demand deposits and accumulates physical cash, i.e. switches from ‘inside money’ to ‘outside money’, this may be because it is concerned about the health of the banks, and this is unrelated to the public’s demand for money, which in this case may be unchanged. As an example, in the recent crisis, the demand for physical cash increased in many countries, relative to the demand for bank deposits. At the same time, overall money demand also probably increased. But importantly, both phenomena are fundamentally different.]
The answer is this: if the public, in an attempt to raise money holdings, reduces money spending, this will slow the velocity of money, and to the banks this will be clearly visible. Money doesn’t change hands as quickly as before, and that includes transaction-ready deposit money at banks. Importantly, the slower velocity of money means a reduced risk of money outflows for each bank, in particular the likelihood of transfers to other banks that are a drain on existing bank reserves. Thus, the banks now have more scope to conduct FRB, that is, to reduce their reserve ratios, lower loan rates and issue more loans, and obviously to produce more deposit money in the process.
In the essay mentioned above, ‘In defence of fiduciary media’, this explanation appears in footnote 29, the emphasis here is different and so is the wording but the essence is the same, in my view. Banks increase FRB in response to a drop in money velocity. A rising money demand articulates itself in a lower velocity and thus a tendency for more FRB:
But how can the banks manage to expand their demand deposits, if total bank reserves have not changed? The increased demand to hold demand deposits, relative to income [increased money demand, DS], means that fewer checks are written per year per dollar of account balances. The marginal deposit dollar poses less of a threat to a bank’s reserves. Thus a bank can safely increase its ratio of deposits to reserves, increasing the volume of its deposits to the point where the rising liquidity cost plus interest and other costs of the last dollar of deposits again equals the marginal revenue from a dollar of assets.
I think this explanation is exceedingly clever and accurate. I do not, because I cannot, object to the logic. But does it help us? I have two observations:
1) Is it really probable that this process is faster and more efficient than the adjustment of nominal prices? The objection of the free bankers was that the adjustment of nominal prices takes time. But so does this process. The bankers will not be “instantly and perfectly aware” of what is happening anymore than the producers of goods and services. When the public reduces spending in order to preserve money balances the effect will be felt as soon by the producers of whatever the public now spends less money on, as by the bankers who see fewer cheques being written. Why would we assume that the bankers respond faster? Sure, prices can be sticky, but does that mean that accelerated FRB will always beat nominal price changes in terms of speed? Will the bankers always expand their loan book faster than the affected producers discount their product? It is not clear to me why this would be the case.
2) More importantly, the banks will, by definition, give the new deposit money first not to those who have a higher demand for money but to their loan clients who, we just established, have no demand for money but for goods and services, and who will quickly spend the money. From there, the money will circulate and may, finally, reach those who do indeed have a higher demand for money. But there is no escaping the fact that this is a roundabout process. For the very reason that banks can only produce money as a byproduct of their lending business, those who do demand higher money balances can only ever be reached via a detour through other markets, never directly. Bank-produced money has to go through the loan market first, and has to change hands a few times, before it can reach those who originally experienced a high money demand. There is no process as part of which we could ever hear a banker say to any of his customers: you have a higher money demand? Here, have some. – The question is now, what type of frictions or unintended consequences of this procedure of satisfying money demand do we encounter? Are these frictions likely to be smaller or even greater than the frictions inherent in allowing nominal prices to do the adjusting to meet changes in money demand?
Before we address these frictions a few words on a related topic: the free bankers sometimes seem to imply that unwanted fiduciary media (demand deposits, inside money) would return to the banks. This is not correct, or rather, it would only be correct if people wanted to exchange the demand deposit for physical cash but this is a transaction that is, as we have seen, unrelated to money demand. Claims against any specific bank may be unwanted, or demand deposits may be wanted less than physical cash, but this is unrelated to overall money demand. If deposit money is seen as a viable money good, and this is the precondition for FRB to work, any excess holding of money, whether inside money or outside money, whether cash or demand deposit, will not be returned to a bank and exchanged but will be spent! If banks increase their FRB activities and bring new fiduciary media into circulation, this money will circulate until it reaches somebody with genuine money demand. Often – when money demand has not risen simultaneously – this process involves inflation as a lower purchasing power for each monetary unit is required to get the public to voluntarily hold the new monetary units.
Is money demand a form of desired saving?
According to the free bankers, banks respond to a drop in money velocity as a result of rising money demand by engaging in extra FRB. At lower velocity, the risks inherent in FRB are smaller and this encourages banks to reduce their reserve ratios marginally, create extra loans and produce extra money, i.e. new deposit money that is now satisfying at least some of the new money demand. But what about the extra bank credit that also comes into existence? Hasn’t Mises shown that bank credit expansion is a source of economic instability; that bank credit expansion sets off business cycles? If extra loans at lower interest rates are not the result of additional voluntary saving but simply of money printing, and these loans still encourage extra investment and capital spending, then these additional projects will ultimately lack the real resources, resources that only voluntary saving can free up and redirect towards investment, that are needed to see the projects through to conclusion and to sustain them. Extra bank credit is thus bound to upset the market’s process of coordination between saving and investment – coordination that is directed via market interest rates. Would the extra FRB not start a Misesian business cycle? Would the allegedly faster and smoother process of satisfying changed money demand via FRB, via the adjustment in the nominal quantity of money rather than nominal price changes, not create new instabilities as a result of the artificially lower interest rates and the extra bank credit that are the necessary mirror image of new deposit money?
In Austrian theory, desired savings are a function of time preference. A lower time preference means the public attaches a lower importance to consumption in the near future relative to consumption in the more distant future. The discount rate at which future goods are discounted is lowered and the propensity to save rises, i.e. the willingness to reallocate income from meeting present consumption needs to meeting future consumption needs rises. The extra savings are offered on the loan markets at marginally lower rates. This encourages a marginal increase in investment. The marginally lower rates on the loan market thus accurately reflect the marginally lower time preference of the public. But lower rates as a result of credit expansion and FRB can unhinge this process. That is the core message of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory. How can the free bankers get out of this dilemma?
The free bankers counter this point by claiming that an increased demand for money reflects a lower time preference. Holding more money is a form of saving.
Although in the already quoted “Defence of Fiduciary Media”, Selgin and White at some point state that
We agree that time preference and money demand are distinct, and that a change in one does not imply a change in the other.
They also write, and this is more crucial to the case they are making, I believe,
The argument for the equilibrating properties of free banking rests in part on recognizing that an increased demand to hold claims on intermediaries, including claims in the form of banknotes and demand deposits, at the expense of holding additional consumer goods, is equivalent to an increase in desired saving.
In any case, in the examples they provide later, time preference, desired saving, and money demand always move together.
While I agree that accumulating money balances can be a form of saving (I say that much in Paper Money Collapse), it does not have to be the case, and I think it is more helpful to disentangle saving, consumption and money demand. Holding money is non-consuming, as Selgin and White point out, but it is equally non-investing.
If I sell my laptop on e-Bay so I have more readily spendable money (demand deposits) in my bank account so that I can take advantage of any unforeseen spending opportunities during my holiday in Greece, would we say that my time preference has declined, and that this is an act of saving? This is a switch from a consumption good to money, and Selgin and White would label this an act of saving, at least as I understand them. But the laptop would have delivered its use-value to me over a long period of time. Now I hold instantly spendable demand deposits instead. Has my time preference really dropped?
Here is a different example, one where we encounter a switch from investment goods to money, an example that Selgin and White put forward in their paper and where they argue that in such an operation total desired saving remains unchanged. Time preference remains the same. In the example given, the public sells bonds and accumulates cash or demand deposits instead. Both, money and bonds are non-consumption goods and thus saving-instruments in the Selgin and White definition. According to their theory, the banks would now acquire the bonds and issue deposit money against them. By doing this (increased FRB activity), the banks satisfy the demand for more money and keep interest rates from rising – which is appropriate as overall desired savings have not changed and time preference is still the same. – However, has the public’s time preference really not changed? Rather than holding a less liquid, long-term debt instrument the public now holds the most fungible asset (money). Is it fair to say that when people liquidate their bond portfolios that their time preference remains unchanged? – Maybe the public does this precisely for the reason that time preference has increased. The public may spend the money soon on consumption goods, or the public considers market interest rates too low and as no longer representative of the public’s time preference, and a drop in bond prices (rise in yields) is thus warranted to reflect this, and should not be cancelled out by the banks’ accelerated FRB.
The short run versus the long run
Furthermore, I suspect that there is an inconsistency in claiming that, in the long run, nominal price changes do bring the demand for and supply of money in line and then to argue that in the short run, money demand is best – and automatically – met by quantitative changes in the supply of money via FRB. The long run is evidently only a string of short runs, and if changes in money demand have been satisfied in the short run via FRB, how can these changes then still exercise up- or downward pressure on nominal prices in the long run?
The free bankers are correct to point to real-life frictions in the process of satisfying a changed money demand via an adjustment of nominal prices. The process is neither smooth nor instant, but then almost no market process is in reality. Their explanation that a rise in money demand will lead to a drop in money velocity and that this will, on the margin and under normal conditions, encourage additional FRB and thus an expansion of bank-produced money also strikes me as correct. Yet, the free bankers fail, in my view, to show convincingly why this process would be faster and smoother than the adjustment of nominal prices, and in particular, why the extra bank credit that also comes into existence through FRB would not generate the problems that the Austrian School under Mises has explained extensively.
If only a subset of the population, rather than the entire public, experiences a higher money demand – and this must be the more likely scenario by far – and this subset than reduces nominal spending on those goods and services that are relevant to this group, and if this then leads to a marginal drop in the prices of these goods and services, the extra demand of this group for real money balances has been met with potentially fairly limited frictions and side-effects, I would argue. By comparison, FRB can never meet money demand of any group directly. Banks always have to inject the new money into the economy via the loan market, that is, at a point where money demand is low and demand for non-money goods is high. Money demand will always be met in a roundabout way. Furthermore, the lowering of interest rates through the additional FRB activity is only unproblematic if the additional demand for real money balances is identical with desired saving and reflects a reduce time preference. These are rather heroic assumptions indeed.
Ludwig von Mises – The real free banker
The 100-percent-reserve Austrians have stuck – correctly in my view – with one of the most important insights of Austrian monetary theory as developed by the school’s most distinguished 20th century representative, Ludwig von Mises, namely the destabilizing force of credit expansion. Unfortunately, the 100-percent-reserve Austrians have taken the critique of banking too far. Claims of misrepresentation, deception, and fraud as being constituting elements of FRB go too far and remain ultimately unsupported.
The self-styled ‘free bankers’ are correct to reject these claims but they are taking their defense of FRB too far as well. By claiming that FRB could smoothly and quickly satisfy any changes in money demand they assign equilibrating properties to FRB that are ultimately unsupportable. In the process, they risk ignoring some of the most relevant Misesian insights. In particular the free bankers, it seems to me, tend to ignore that in an established FRB system, bank-produced fiduciary media (such as demand deposits) will be seen as near-perfect surrogates for money proper (such as state fiat money or gold). In such an environment the banks can (within limits) expand FRB and thus create more fiduciary media regardless of present money demand. Unwanted money (deposit money) then leads to a rise in money velocity and an upward pressure on nominal prices – it does not lead to the public exchanging deposit money for physical cash, as that would be just a switch from one form of money to another. Therefore, the unwanted bank-produced money – that entered the economy via the bank loan market – does not return to the banks. In my view, the free bankers ignore some of the dangers in FRB and overstate its equilibrating powers.
Both camps refer to Mises as an authority, albeit the ‘free bankers’ generally less so. Selgin and White, in their 1996 paper, quote Mises as a champion of free banking. I do, however, believe that the quote, taken from Human Action, has to be read in the context of Mises’ life-long and unwavering commitment to a proper gold standard. Here is the quote:
Free banking is the only method for the prevention of the dangers inherent in credit expansion. It would, it is true, not hinder a slow credit expansion, kept within very narrow limits, on the part of cautious banks which provide the public with all the information required about their financial status. But under free banking it would have been impossible for credit expansion with all its inevitable consequences to have developed into a regular – one is tempted to say normal – feature of the economic system. Only free banking would have rendered the market economy secure against crises and depressions.
Crises and depressions, in Misesian theory, do not come about because of short-term mismatches between money demand and money supply, or frictions in the adjustment of nominal prices, but because of credit expansion. In order to appreciate Mises’s concerns over credit expansion, one does not have to consider bankers fraudsters (or ‘banksters’), and I can see no evidence in Mises’ writing that he saw bankers that way. But in order to agree with him that banks should be as free as all other enterprises – which, importantly, includes the freedom to fail – you do not have to assign them mystical equilibrating powers, either.
Mises’ conclusions were consistent and his recommendations practical: introduce inelastic, inflexible, apolitical money as the basis of the financial system, a hard monetary core, such as in a proper gold standard, and then allow banks the same freedom, under the same laws of corporation, that all other businesses enjoy – no special bans and no special privileges, such as ‘lenders of last resort’ or tax-payer-backed deposit insurance – and you can allow the market to operate. I believe that this should be the policy proposal under which all Austrians can and should unite.
Any deviation from the core Misesian message also occasionally gets ‘Austrians’ into some strange political company. With their damnation of FRB and allegations of fraud, the 100-percent-reserve Austrians seem at times to play into the hands of populist anti-bank fractions that have recently grown in influence since the financial crisis started, and to inadvertently be associated with the statist proposals of organizations such as the UK’s Positive Money or IMF economists Benes and Kumhof, all of whom consider money-creation by private banks – FRB- as the root of all evil and propose full control over the monetary sphere by the state – a proposal that could not be further from Mises’ ideals.
On the other side, the free bankers are in such awe of the assumed equilibrating powers of FRB in a free market that they confidently predict a stable (or at least reasonably stable) nominal GDP – and if we do not have free banking and a free market yet, why not have today’s central banks target nominal GDP to get a similar result under today’s statist monetary infrastructure? Bizarrely, and completely indefensibly, in my view, these Austrians end up joining forces with aggregate-demand-managing Keynesians or money-supply-managing monetarists. This is not only in fundamental conflict with many tenets of the Misesian framework – it is simply misguided, even under considerations of monetary realpolitik, i.e. of what is politically practicable presently but better than the present system.
Banks should be free but can only ever be so within a proper capitalist monetary system, and that is a system with a market-chosen monetary commodity at its core, and most certainly a hard and inelastic one. No new ‘target’ for central bank policy can ever achieve results that mirror the outcome of a properly functioning monetary system and a free banking market. We do not have a gold standard and free banking at present, and under these conditions I would suggest that a central bank that imitates a gold standard as closely as possible – i.e. one that ultimately keeps the monetary base fairly stable – would be, under the circumstances, the second best’, or least worst, solution. But a full treatment of the NGDP-targeting proposal will have to wait for another blog.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
After two decades of serial bubble-blowing, the world’s central bankers have maneuvered themselves into a corner. They created a monster in the form of an unbalanced global economy and a bloated financial system, laden with debt, addicted to cheap money, and in need of constantly rising asset prices. Now the monster is in charge and the central bankers dare not stop feeding it.
The US Fed did, of course, make some noises to the effect that the flow of cheap money may at some point slow and then even stop. How credible these projections really are is far from certain. Markets seem to take them quite seriously indeed, but the more they sell off in response – and in particular, the more yields and risk premiums rise – the more difficult it will be for the Fed to follow through. – And by the way, if the jobless rate does fall to 6.7 percent, or to whatever magic number Ben Bernanke, in his unlimited wisdom, has ascertained as being safe for a policy ‘exit’, and if he then indeed does withdraw the punchbowl– will the unemployment rate then rise again? – We may have to deal with that question some other time. The focus today is the ECB and the Bank of England.
Policy paralysis is the new strategy
Both central banks had their monthly policy meetings on Thursday and did – nothing. Though when you read the papers you get the impression they did quite a lot. They seem to have unveiled some powerful new policy tool: forward guidance.
Both stated that they were committed to leaving policy rates at ultra-low levels for a very long time indeed. The ECB added that it might even lower rates further. The Bank of England additionally chided the UK bond market for paying too much attention to what Bernanke says, and for evidently not supporting the national recovery effort enough. This was, of course, an attempt by both central banks to distance themselves from the Fed’s loose talk of potentially turning off the monetary spigot. There is nothing surprising about this. Both central banks are standing with their backs to the wall.
Let’s face the facts: years of relentless monetary doping have not solved anything – neither economy is anywhere near the self-sustaining recovery that Keynesian and Monetarist interventionists have promised us we would get in turn for all these monetary manipulations. For years, these central banks have been stubbornly sticking to the same game plan: inject unlimited new bank reserves into the banks and keep buying (or funding) bank asset so that the banks don’t fall over, and the credit house of cards doesn’t crumble, and the state and the banks can continue to fund themselves on the cheap. As the self-sustaining recovery remains elusive, they have no exit strategy. There is no way out.
Yesterday, the ECB and the Bank of England publicly admitted that they were boxed in and would remain so for the foreseeable future. They have no policy options, there is no (real) recovery, so they will keep rates super low, maybe even cut them again. Only in our bizarre modern world of relentless Orwellian Newspeak can this position of utter defeat be dressed up as the new policy program of ‘forward guidance’. To admit that you can’t move, to admit that your policy has not worked and is unlikely to work anytime soon – otherwise you would have to be ready for withdrawal of the stimulus, right? – is now presented as a skilful steering of market expectations and massaging of market psychology.
This was the first policy meeting under new Bank of England governor Mark Carney, the ‘most talented central banker of his generation’ to some, the most overpaid bureaucrat in the world to others. But credit where credit is due. Carney is a marketing genius. Not only when it comes to marketing himself, but also when it comes to selling policy paralysis as strategy. Never before has the phrase “What can we do? We can only stick to what we have done for years.”, so effectively been presented as at the BoE’s press conference yesterday. It is now called ‘guidance’, and it evidently requires a specific skill-set. The Wall Street Journal even described Mr. Carney as “one of the pioneers of guidance”, and I wonder if the chaps at the Journal kept a straight face.
Foreign Exchange markets and gold
The notion of policy divergence between the Fed and the other central banks has reawoken the foreign exchange markets. The dollar is rallying, and I think the speculator-community may try and run with this theme for a while. Divergence is naturally something that fx markets love but in this crisis it has never lived up to its expectations. Among the major nations, the similarities in terms of economic problems and in terms of policy responses are simply much greater than the differences. These countries are all pretty much in the same hole. This is a global crisis and I believe it is a global fiat money crisis. I cannot see that one of these paper monies is fundamentally better than the others. It is my view that any notion of divergence in economic performance and in policy will not last and market trends based on these notions will be short lived. I remain skeptical as to whether the Fed can really ‘exit’. (Again, the Fed SHOULD exit, in my view, as should the other central banks, but then again the Fed never shares my views.)
The idea of a Fed-exit is still a major problem for gold. I readily admit that I am baffled by what has happened here – and what is still happening. ‘Forward guidance’ from the Bank of England and the ECB has not helped gold, it has only strengthened the dollar versus pound and euro. The dollar is what matters. The dollar is the world’s leading fiat currency and gold its main opponent. It does not seem to matter much what the other paper money central banks do. As long as the notion of Fed-‘exit’ drives markets, and the threat of dollar-debasement seems to fade, gold continues to struggle. For obvious reasons, I do not believe this will last and I remain a gold bull. There could, however, be more pain in store first.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
A new meme is spreading in financial markets: the Fed is about to turn off the monetary spigot. US Printmaster General Ben Bernanke announced that he might start reducing the monthly debt monetization program, called ‘quantitative easing’ (QE), as early as the autumn of 2013, and maybe stop it entirely by the middle of next year. He reassured markets that the Fed would keep the key policy rate (the Fed Funds rate) at near zero all the way into 2015. Still, the end of QE is seen as the beginning of the end of super-easy policy and potentially the first towards normalization, as if anybody still had any idea of what ‘normal’ was.
Fearing that the flow of nourishing mother milk from the Fed could dry up, a resolutely unweaned Wall Street threw a hissy fit and the dummy out of the pram.
So far, so good. There is only one problem: it won’t happen.
Now I am the first to declare that the Fed SHOULD abolish QE, and not only in the autumn of this year or the summer of next, but right now. Pronto. Why? Because a policy of QE and zero interest rates is complete madness. It distorts markets, sabotages the liquidation of imbalances, prohibits the correct pricing of risk, and encourages renewed debt accumulation. It numbs the market’s healing powers – by enabling more ‘pretend and extend’ in the financial industry – and it adds new imbalances to the old ones that it also helps to maintain.
This policy may have prevented – for now – debt deflation, but maybe debt deflation is what is needed.
QE is nothing but heavy-handed market intervention. It is destructive. It doesn’t solve the underlying problems. It creates new ones.
Larry Summers’ getaway car
However, none of these objections even register at the Fed. The Fed has a completely different perspective: this policy was a roaring success and as it has worked so well it can now be faded out. Soon there will be no need for it. Larry Summers’ dreadful phrase captures that thinking best: the economy will soon have achieved ‘escape velocity’.
Most analogies are somewhat poor but this one is particularly inept. Ironically, though, the reference to mechanics captures beautifully the logic of Keynesians and other interventionists: the economy is like a physical object moving through space and is occasionally in need of a little push to get moving again at an appropriate speed. Policy provides the push.
Bernanke doesn’t use these terms but his thinking is similar. He explained QE to the American public in 2010 by announcing that his job was to occasionally manipulate interest rates and asset prices to encourage lending, borrowing, spending, shopping, and other healthy economic activities, and that once his machinations had stimulated enough of those activities, the economy would again enter a virtuous cycle (his words) of self-sustained growth. Escape velocity has been restored.
I think this is nonsense – however appealing it may sound to many laypersons. The economy is not an object that needs a push, or a machine that needs to be jump-started, or a lazy mule that needs a gentle slap on its behind to get going again (of course, you should never hurt an animal!). The economy is a complex process of coordination, an elaborate system that allows an extensive and diverse group of actors with different and frequently conflicting goals and interests to co-operate with one another peacefully toward the best possible realization of their own material aims. A crisis is a failure of that coordination process. It is a cluster of errors. The only explanation for the occurrence of such a cluster of errors is a systematic distortion of the market’s coordinating properties, such as occurs when monetary expansion distorts interest rates and other relative prices, and leads to imbalances that unhinge the economy.
The economy went into recession because of massive financial deformations. Easy money had led to excessive indebtedness, a housing bubble and dangerous levels of leverage. The problems were such distortions, not lack of momentum. The real question is not whether the GDP statistics exhibit the right velocity but if the underlying dislocations – which, to the chagrin of the econometricians, cannot be easily ascertained from the macro-data – have now dissolved.
The Fed believes it has healed an economy that was sick from easy money with more easy money. The patient is feeling better and can soon be released from intensive care. In my view, the patient is still sick and now suffers from a dangerous addiction to boot. The ‘feeling-better’ bit maybe, just maybe, a lingering drug high from Dr. Bernanke’s generous medication. Withdrawal symptoms may surface soon. If they do, Dr. Bernanke will simply open the medicine cupboard again. Don’t forget, only a few weeks ago the man appeared on TV and tried to talk up the Russell 3000 stock index.
I do not doubt that, if measured by overall GDP, the US economy is presently doing better. I would be foolish to take on the Fed on this point. The Fed has a staff of 200-plus economists, most of them, I assume, from America’s finest universities, which doesn’t mean they are good economists but at any rate they are probably good statisticians. If they say there are signs of life in the economy, that’s good enough for me.
Where I disagree is on the narrative. The deformations are largely still there. How can they not, given the enormous policy effort to suppress the very market forces that would – in a free market – have exposed and liquidated these deformations? They are still visible, among other indicators, in high degrees of indebtedness. And they matter. That is why I am mistrustful of the Fed’s projections. Their theories compel them to believe in virtuous cycles and ‘escape velocity’ and to disregard imbalances and distortions. Any sustained removal of super-easy money will allow these deformations to resurface and immediately cloud the near term cyclical outlook. According to my worldview, this should be allowed to happen as it is part of the essential healing process. But it runs counter to the Fed’s worldview and the Fed’s view of its own mission.
The one institution that lacks ‘escape velocity’ is the Fed. It will remain hostage to the financial monsters it created and the dangerous misconception of its own grandeur.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.