There are strong indications that the remarkable run up of asset prices in the last few years is beginning to run out of steam and may be on the verge of collapse. We will leave aside the question of whether the asset inflation is symptomatic of a garden-variety inflationary boom or is a more virulent bubble phenomenon in which prices are rising today simply because buyers anticipate that they will rise tomorrow.
1. The dizzying climb of London real estate prices since the financial crisis, noted in a recent postby Dave Howden, may be fizzling out. Survey data from real-estate agents indicate London housing prices in September fell 0.1 percent from August, their first decline since November 2012. Meanwhile, an index of U.K. housing prices declined for the first time in 17 months. In explaining the “pronounced slowdown” in the London real estate market, the research director of Hometrack Ltd. commented, “Buyer uncertainty is growing in the face of a possible interest-rate rise, a general election on the horizon and recent warnings of a house-price bubble,” which is playing out “against a backdrop of tougher mortgage affordability checks and limits on high loan-to-income lending.”
2. Just released data from the Dow Jones S&P/Case Schiller Composite Home Price Indices through July 2014 shows a marked deceleration of U.S. housing prices. 17 of the 20 cities included in the 20-City Composite Index experienced lower price increases in July than in the previous month. Both the 10- and 20-City Index recorded a 6.7 percent year-over-year rate of increase, down sharply from the post-crisis peak of almost 14 percent less than a year ago.
3. More ominously, U.S. Total Household Net Worth (HNW), as recently reported by the Fed for the second quarter of 2014, reached a record high of $81.5 trillion, over $10 trillion higher than the level at the peak of the asset bubble in 2007. Furthermore, the 2014 figure was $20 trillion higher than the level of the post-crisis — and pre-QE — year of 2008, when asset prices and the real structure of production were just beginning to adjust to the massive capital consumption and malinvestment wreaked by the Great Asset Inflation of 1995-2005. The increase in household wealth has been driven mainly by the increase in prices of financial assets which was generated by the Fed’s zero interest rate policy and its force feeding of additional bank reserves into the financial system via its quantitative easing programs. (See chart below). These policies falsify profit and wealth calculations and give rise to unsustainable investments and overconsumption. Once interest rates begin to adjust to their natural levels, however, asset prices are revealed to be grossly inflated and collapse. The asset inflation may be reversed even without an increase of interest rates, if people lose confidence in the narratives fabricated and propagated by government policymakers, economists, and the financial commentators to promote the continuation of the inflation in asset markets. Furthermore it is risible to believe that real wealth in the US in terms of the factories and other capital goods to which financial assets are merely ownership claims, has increased by over one-third since 2008, especially in light of the additional malinvestment and overconsumption caused by monetary and fiscal policy “stimulus” since then.
4. If we look at HNW in historical perspective, we note that, in the chart below, the HNW/GDP (or wealth to income) ratio is now at an all-time high. From 1952 to the mid-1990s this ratio averaged a little more than 350 percent and never went above 400 percent until 1998 as the dot-com bubble was blowing up. It peaked at nearly 450 percent before the bubble collapsed causing the ratio to plummet to slightly below 400 percent, indicating the beginning of the purging of the illusory capital gains created during the asset inflation.
But just as the adjustment was beginning to take hold in 2002, the Greenspan Fed played the deflationphobia card, driving interest rates to postwar lows and pumping up the money supply (MZM) by $2 trillion from beginning of 2001 to the end of2005. During this second phase of the Great Asset Inflation, the HNW/GDP ratio again reached a new high before plunging below 400 percent during the financial crisis. And, tragically, the nascent readjustment of financial markets to the underlying reality of the economy’s shattered and shrunken production structure was yet again aborted by government intervention in the form of the heterodox monetary policies of Bernankeism combined with the outsized deficits of the Obama administration. These policies succeeded in driving the HNW/GDP ratio to yet another new high, but without having the expected stimulatory effect on consumption and investment spending.
In sum, I do not expect that the ratio will rise much above 500 percent — Americans have just not saved enough since 1995 to have increased their real wealth from 3.5 times to 5 times their annual income. Nor is there much reason to expect a plateau anywhere near the current level. Once interest rates begin to rise — and rise they must, whether as a result of Fed policy or not — the end of the asset price inflation will be at hand. The result will be another financial crisis and accompanying recession. The Fed and the Administration will no doubt attempt to bail and stimulate their way out but given the still dangerously enervated state of the financial system and the real economy, it will be like dosing a horse that has already been overdosed to death. Thus my forecast for the U.S. economy one year to two years out echoes that of Clubber Lang, the villain in the movie Rocky III. When questioned about his forecast for the forthcoming fight against Rocky, Lang replied, “Pain.”
The gold “price rule” denotes the monetary reform proposal put forth in various forms by a number of supply-siders, including Arthur Laffer, Robert Mundell, and Jude Wanniski. Laffer’s detailed formulation of the proposal also served as the basis of the Gold Reserve bill, introduced in the Senate by Jesse Helms in January 1981.
The scheme has reared its head once again in H.R. 1576, the “Dollar Bill Act of 2013,” introduced by Congressman Ted Poe, and strongly supported by Steve Forbes.
According to Laffer’s blueprint from the 1980s, at the end of a previously announced transition period of three months, the Federal Reserve would establish an official dollar price of gold “at that day’s average transaction price in the London gold market”. From that date onward, the Fed would stand ready to freely convert dollars into gold and gold into dollars at the official price. In addition, “when valued at the official price, the Federal Reserve will attempt over time to establish an average dollar value of gold reserves equal to 40 percent of the dollar value of its liabilities”. This level of gold reserves Laffer designates the “Target Reserve Quantity”.
Once Laffer’s plan was fully operational, the Fed would have full discretion in conducting monetary policy through discounting, open market operations, etc., provided that: the dollar remains fully convertible into gold at the official price; and the quantity of actual gold reserves does not deviate from the Target Reserve Quantity by more than 25 percent in either direction, i.e., actual gold reserves do not fall below 30 percent or rise above 50 percent of the Fed’s liabilities, which are also known as the “monetary base.” However, should gold reserves decline to a level between 20 percent and 30 percent of its liabilities, the Fed would lose all discretion in determining the monetary base which, as a result, would be completely frozen at the existing level. If, in spite of this, gold reserves continued to decline to between 10 percent and 20 percent of the Fed’s liabilities, the Fed would be legally constrained to reduce the monetary base at the rate of one percent per month.
Should these measures prove incapable of arresting the decline in the dollar value of gold reserves before it reaches less than 10 percent of Fed liabilities, then:
The dollar’s convertibility will be temporarily suspended and the dollar price of gold will be set free for a three month adjustment period.
During this temporary period of inconvertibility, the monetary authorities will be required to suspend all actions that would affect the monetary base. Again, the price of gold would be reset as before and convertibility would be reinstated.
Laffer’s plan also includes “a symmetric set of policy dicta” which are to be implemented in the case in which actual gold reserves exceed the Target Reserve Quantity.
It must first be pointed out that Laffer’s monetary reform proposal, whatever its merits or drawbacks, is not a blueprint for the gold standard. Rather, it is an outline of an elaborate scheme for legally constraining the monetary authority to adhere to a “price rule” in determining the supply of fiat money in the economy. In fact, as Laffer himself has made clear recently, gold has no necessary role in the implementation of such a price rule. According to Laffer and Miles:
… the Fed would institute its dollar “price rule” by stabilizing the value of the dollar in terms of an external standard. This standard would be a single commodity or a basket of commodities (a price index).…
Regardless of precisely which external standard is chosen, there are two basic rules of Fed behavior under the price rule. First, if the dollar price of the standard starts to rise (the dollar starts to fall in value), the Fed must reduce the quantity of dollars through open market sales of bonds, foreign exchange, gold, or other commodities. Second, if the dollar price starts to fall (the dollar rises in value), the Fed must increase the quantity of dollars through open market purchases of bonds, foreign exchange, gold or other commodities. The Fed is charged with keeping the value or price of the dollar stable in terms of the external standard.
Compare this to Forbes’s explanation of Poe’s 2013 plan:
Unlike in days of old we don’t need piles of the yellow metal for a new standard to operate. Under Poe’s plan—an approach I have long favored—the dollar would be fixed to gold at a specific price. For argument’s sake let’s say the peg is $1,300. If the price of gold were to go above that, the Federal Reserve would sell bonds from its portfolio, thereby removing dollars from the economy to maintain the $1,300 level. Conversely, if the gold price were to drop below $1,300, the Fed would “print” new money by buying bonds, thereby injecting cash into the banking system.
Even if gold is chosen as the “external standard” in the price-rule regime, it is not itself money, as in the case of a genuine gold standard, but merely “the intervention asset” or “the item for which dollars are exchanged.”
When we strip away its gold plating, Laffer’s and Poe’s price rule appears as a technique designed to control inflation under the current fiat money standard. It is thus differs only in technical detail from the quantity rule advocated by the monetarists. Laffer and Miles admit as much when they state, “in an unchanging world where all information is freely available, there of course would be a ‘quantity rule’ which would correspond to a given ‘price rule”. In fact, Miles and Laffer prefer a price rule to a quantity rule because they believe that, under the current monetary system, the former is technically superior to the latter in “restraining the supply of dollars”.
Under close examination, the Laffer/Poe/Forbes approach thus turns out to be, in essence, a kind of “price-rule monetarism,” the references to gold notwithstanding. The most serious defect in both variants of monetarism is that they fail to address the underlying cause of inflation, namely, the government monopoly of the supply of money. This is true of Laffer’s plan despite the elaborate set of legal sanctions which would be invoked against the monetary authorities for their violations of the price rule. For, in the end, such sanctions, even if rigorously applied, do not prevent inflation but merely respond to a fait accompli. This point is implicitly recognized by Laffer, who includes in his plan a provision for “temporary periods” of dollar inconvertibility. These would readjust the official gold price following sustained bouts of monetary inflation which cause gold reserves to fall below the legally permissible lower limit.
Furthermore, as in the case of the gold certificate reserve, we may appeal to history for evidence regarding the success of the gold price rule in stanching the flow of government fiat currency. We need look no further than the late, unlamented Bretton Woods System (1946–1971). Under this “fixed-exchange-rate” system, the U.S. monetary authority followed a gold price rule, buying and selling gold at an officially fixed price of $35 per ounce. Foreign monetary authorities, on the other hand, pursued a dollar price rule, maintaining their respective national currencies convertible into dollars at a fixed price. According to Laffer and Miles, “as long as the rules of the system were being followed, the supplies of all currencies were constricted to a strict price relationship among one another and to gold”.
Unfortunately, “the rules of the system” were subjected to numerous and repeated government violations and evasions, including frequent outright “readjustment” of the price rules, i.e., exchangerate devaluations, when they became inconvenient restraints on the inflationary policies pursued by particular governments. Needless to say, the Bretton Woods System did not prevent the development of a worldwide inflation which brought the system to its knees in 1968 and led to its final collapse in 1971.
After duly noting the political manipulations involved in the destruction of the Bretton Woods System, Laffer and Miles clearly delineate the reasons why governments prefer and benefit from the removal of any and all checks on their power to inflate the money supply:
Why should governments be biased toward increasing the money supply at a faster rate? There are essentially two incentives—a political incentive and a financial one. The political incentive is political survival. Many politicians, especially those up for reelection, are familiar with the theory that increases in the money supply promote expenditure, increase GNP, and reduce unemployment. These changes in turn are assumed to make the citizens of the country look more kindly upon the incumbent government. While there may be some validity in this theory, unfortunately it is often implemented under the notion that if a little money creation is good, a lot must be even better.
The financial motive for printing money is the fact that while money is practically costless to produce, it can be used for purchasing goods and services. The resulting seignorage represents revenue to the government. Revenue gathered in this way means less revenue must be gathered in another way, say, through direct taxation.
Given these incentives to print money, it can be seen why removal of the monetary constraints on governments tends to create inflation rather than deflation.
Given his recognition of the powerful inflationary bias built into the political process and of the historical failure of monetary price rules to hold such a bias in check, Laffer’s advocacy of a renewed gold price rule was always something of a mystery.
In light of the inherent flaws of all varieties of the gold price rule, Forbes and Poe should seriously rethink their advocacy of its resurrection.
This article was adapted from an excerpt of ‘Money Sound and Unsound’ by Joseph T. Salerno. It was previously published at Mises.org.
The “Cyprus deal” as it has been widely referred to in the media may mark the next to last act in the the slow motion collapse of fractional-reserve banking that began with the implosion of the savings-and-loan industry in the U.S. in the late 1980s.
This trend continued with the currency crises in Russia, Mexico, East Asia, and Argentina in the 1990s in which fractional-reserve banking played a decisive role. The unraveling of fractional-reserve banking became visible even to the average depositor during the financial meltdown of 2008 that ignited bank runs on some of the largest and most venerable financial institutions in the world. The final collapse was only averted by the multi-trillion dollar bailout of U.S. and foreign banks by the Federal Reserve.
Even more than the unprecedented financial crisis of 2008, however, recent events in Cyprus may have struck the mortal blow to fractional-reserve banking. For fractional-reserve banking can only exist for as long as the depositors have complete confidence that regardless of the financial woes that befall the bank entrusted with their “deposits,” they will always be able to withdraw them on demand at par in currency, the ultimate cash of any banking system.
Ever since World War Two governmental deposit insurance, backed up by the money-creating powers of the central bank, was seen as the unshakable guarantee that warranted such confidence. In effect, fractional-reserve banking was perceived as 100-percent banking by depositors, who acted as if their money was always “in the bank” thanks to the ability of central banks to conjure up money out of thin air (or in cyberspace).
Perversely the various crises involving fractional-reserve banking that struck time and again since the late 1980s only reinforced this belief among depositors, because troubled banks and thrift institutions were always bailed out with alacrity—especially the largest and least stable. Thus arose the “too-big-to-fail doctrine.” Under this doctrine, uninsured bank depositors and bondholders were generally made whole when large banks failed, because it was widely understood that the confidence in the entire banking system was a frail and evanescent thing that would break and completely dissipate as a result of the failure of even a single large institution.
Getting back to the Cyprus deal, admittedly it is hardly ideal from a free-market point of view. The solution in accord with free markets would not involve restricting deposit withdrawals, imposing fascistic capital controls on domestic residents and foreign investors, and dragooning taxpayers in the rest of the Eurozone into contributing to the bailout to the tune of 10 billion euros.
Nonetheless, the deal does convey a salutary message to bank depositors and creditors the world over. It does so by forcing previously untouchable senior bondholders and uninsured depositors in the Cypriot banks to bear part of the cost of the bailout. The bondholders of the two largest banks will be wiped out and it is reported that large depositors (i.e., those holding uninsured accounts exceeding 100,000 euros) at the Laiki Bank may also be completely wiped out, losing up to 4.2 billion euros, while large depositors at the Bank of Cyprus will lose between 30 and 60 percent of their deposits. Small depositors in both banks, who hold insured accounts of up to 100,000 euros, would retain the full value of their deposits.
The happy result will be that depositors, both insured and uninsured, in Europe and throughout the world will become much more cautious or even suspicious in dealing with fractional-reserve banks. They will be poised to grab their money and run at the slightest sign or rumor of instability. This will induce banks to radically alter the sources of the funds they raise to finance loans and investments, moving away from deposit and toward equity and bond financing. As was reported Tuesday, March 26, this is already expected by many analysts:
One potential spillover from the March 26 agreement is the knock-on effects for bank funding, analysts said. Banks typically fund themselves with some combination of deposits, equity, senior and subordinate notes and covered bonds, which are backed by a pool of high-quality assets that stay on the lender’s balance sheet.
The consequences of the Cyprus bailout could be that banks will be more likely to use contingent convertible bonds—known as CoCos—to raise money as their ability to encumber assets by issuing covered bonds reaches regulatory limits, said Chris Bowie at Ignis Asset Management Ltd. in London.
“We’d expect to see some deposit flight and a shift in funding towards a combination of covered bonds, real equity and quasi-equity,” said Bowie, who is head of credit portfolio management at Ignis, which oversees about $110 billion.
If this indeed occurs it will be a significant move toward a free-market financial system in which the radical mismatching of the maturities of assets and liabilities in the case of demand deposits is eliminated once and for all. A few more banking crises in the Eurozone—especially one in which insured depositors are made to participate in the so-called “bail-in”—will likely cause the faith in government deposit insurance to completely evaporate and with it confidence in the fractional-reserve banking system.
There may then naturally arise on the market a system in which equity, bonds, and genuine time deposits that cannot be redeemed before maturity become the exclusive sources of finance for bank loans and investments. Demand deposits, whether checkable or not, would be segregated in actual deposit banks which maintain 100-percent reserves and provide a range of payments systems from ATMs to debit cards.
While this conjecture may be overly optimistic, we are certainly a good deal closer to such an outcome today than we were before the “Cyprus deal” was struck. Of course we would be closer still if there were no bailout and the full brunt of the bank failures were borne solely by the creditors and depositors of the failed banks rather than partly by taxpayers. The latter solution would have completely and definitively exposed the true nature of fractional-reserve banking for all to see.
This article was previously published at Mises.org.
Under cover of its multiplicity of fabricated wars on drugs, terror, tax evasion, and organized crime, the US government has long been waging a hidden war on cash. One symptom of the war is that the largest denomination of US currency is the $100 note, whose ever-eroding purchasing power is far below the purchasing power of the €500 note. US currency used to be issued in denominations running up to $10,000 (including also $500; $1,000; $5,000 notes). There was even a $100,000 note issued for transactions among Federal Reserve banks. The United States stopped printing large denomination notes in 1945 and officially discontinued their issuance in 1969, when the Fed began removing them from circulation. Since then the largest currency note available to the general public has a face value of $100. But since 1969, the inflationary monetary policy of the Fed has caused the US dollar to depreciate by over 80 percent, so that a $100 note in 2010 possessed a purchasing power of only $16.83 in 1969 dollars. That is less purchasing power than a $20 bill in 1969!
Despite this enormous depreciation, the Federal Reserve has steadfastly refused to issue notes of larger denomination. This has made large cash transactions extremely inconvenient and has forced the American public to make much greater use than is optimal of electronic-payment methods. Of course, this is precisely the intent of the US government. The purpose of its ongoing breach of long-established laws regarding financial privacy is to make it easier to monitor the economic affairs and abrogate the financial privacy of its citizens, ostensibly to secure their safety from Colombian drug lords, Al Qaeda operatives, and tax cheats and other nefarious white-collar criminals
Now the war on cash has begun to spread to other countries. As reported a few months ago, Italy lowered the legal maximum on cash transactions from €2,500 to €1,000. The Italian government would have preferred to set a €500 or even €300 maximum limit but reasoned that it should permit Italians time to adjust to the new limit. The rationale for this limit on the size of cash transactions is the fact that the profligate Italian government is trying to reduce its €1.9 trillion debt and views its anticash measures as a means of cracking down on tax evasion, which “costs” the government an estimated €150 billion annually.
The profligacy of the Italian ruling class is in sharp contrast to ordinary Italians who are the least indebted consumers in the eurozone and among its biggest savers. They use their credit cards very infrequently compared to citizens of other eurozone nations. So deeply ingrained is cash in the Italian culture that over 7.5 million Italians do not even have checking accounts. Now most of these “bankless” Italians will be dragooned into the banking system so that the notoriously corrupt Italian government can more easily spy on them and invade their financial privacy. Of course Italian banks, which charge 2 percent on credit-card transactions and assess fees on current accounts, stand to earn an enormous windfall from this law. As controversial former prime minister Berlusconi noted, “There’s a real danger of crossing over into a fiscal police state.” Indeed, one only need look at the United States today to see what lies in store for Italian citizens.
Meanwhile the war on cash in Sweden is accelerating, although the involvement of the state is less overt. In Swedish cities, cash is no longer acceptable on public buses; tickets must be purchased in advance or via a cell-phone text message. Many small businesses refuse cash, and some bank facilities have completely stopped handling cash. Indeed in some Swedish towns it is no longer possible to use cash in a bank at all. Even churches have begun to facilitate electronic donations from their congregations by installing electronic card readers. Cash transactions represent only 3 percent of the Swedish economy, while they account for 9 percent of the eurozone and 7 percent of the US economies.
A leading proponent of the anticash movement is none other than Bjorn Ulvaeus, former member of the pop group ABBA. The dotty pop star, whose son has been robbed three times, believes that a cashless world means greater security for the public! Others, more perceptive than Ulvaeus, point to another alleged advantage of electronic transactions: they leave a digital trail that can be readily followed by the state. Thus, unlike countries with a strong “cash culture” like Greece and Italy, Sweden has a much lower incidence of graft. As one “expert” on underground economies instructs us, “If people use more cards, they are less involved in shadowy economy activities,” in other words, secreting their hard-earned income in places where it cannot be plundered by the state.
The deputy governor of the Swedish central bank, Lars Nyberg, gloated before his retirement last year that cash will survive “like the crocodile, even though it may be forced to see its habitat gradually cut back.” But not everyone in Sweden is celebrating the dethronement of cash. The chairman of Sweden’s National Pensioners’ Organization argues that elderly people in rural areas either do not have credit or debit cards or do not know how to use them to withdraw cash. Oscar Swartz, the founder of Sweden’s first Internet provider, a supporter of the phasing out of cash, argues that without the adoption of anonymous payment methods, people who send money and make donations to various organizations can be “traced every time.” But, of course, what the artless Mr. Swartz does not see is that this is the whole point of a cashless economy — to make even the most intimate economic affairs of private citizens transparent to the state and its fiscal and monetary apparatchiks, who themselves hate and fear transparency like vampires do sunlight. And then there are the benefits that accrue to the government-privileged banking system from the demise of cash. One Swedish small businessman shrewdly noted the connection. While he gets charged 5 kronor (80¢) for every credit-card transaction, he is prevented by law from passing this on to his customers. In his words, “For them (the banks), this is a very good way to earn a lot of money, that’s what it’s all about. They make huge profits.”
Fortunately, the free market provides the prospect of an escape from the fiscal police state that seeks to stamp out the use of cash through either depreciation of central-bank-issued currency combined with unchanged currency denominations or direct legal limitation on the size of cash transactions. As Carl Menger, the founder of the Austrian School of economics, explained over 140 years ago, money emerges not by government decree but through a market process driven by the actions of individuals who are continually seeking a means to accomplish their goals through exchange most efficiently. Every so often history offers up another example that illustrates Menger’s point. The use of sheep, bottled water, and cigarettes as media of exchange in Iraqi rural villages after the US invasion and collapse of the dinar is one recent example. Another example was Argentina after the collapse of the peso, when grain contracts (for wheat, soybeans, corn, and sorghum) priced in dollars were regularly exchanged for big-ticket items like automobiles, trucks, and farm equipment. In fact Argentine farmers began hoarding grain in silos to substitute for holding cash balances in the form of depreciating pesos.
As has been widely reported recently, an unlikely crime wave has rapidly spread throughout the United States and has taken local law-enforcement officials by surprise. The theft of Tide liquid laundry detergent is pandemic throughout cities in the United States. One individual alone stole $25,000 worth of Tide detergent during a 15-month crime spree, and large retailers are taking special security measures to protect their inventories of Tide. For example, CVS is locking down Tide alongside commonly stolen items like flu medications. Liquid Tide retails for $10–$20 per bottle and sells on the black market for $5–$10. Individual bottles of Tide bear no serial numbers, making them impossible to track. So some enterprising thieves operate as arbitrageurs buying at the black-market price and reselling to the stores, presumably at the wholesale price. Even more puzzling is the fact that no other brand of detergent has been targeted.
What gives here? This is just another confirmation of Menger’s insight that the market responds to the absence of sound money by monetizing highly salable commodities. It is clear that Tide has emerged as a subsidiary local currency for black-market, especially drug, transactions — but for legal transactions in low-income areas as well. Indeed police report that Tide is being exchanged for heroin and methamphetamine and that drug dealers possess inventories of the commodity that they are also willing to sell. But why is laundry detergent being employed as money, and why Tide in particular?
Menger identified the qualities that a commodity must possess in order to evolve into a medium of exchange. Tide possesses most of these qualities in ample measure. For a commodity to emerge as money out of barter, it must be widely used, readily recognizable, and durable. It must also have a relatively high value-to-weight ratio so that it can be easily transported. Tide is the most popular brand of laundry detergent and is widely used by all socioeconomic groups. Tide also is easily recognized because of its Day-Glo orange logo. Laundry detergent can also be stored for long periods without loss of potency or quality. It is true that Tide is somewhat bulky and inconvenient to transport by hand in large quantities. But enough can be carried by hand or shopping cart for smaller transactions while large quantities can easily be transported and transferred using automobiles.
Just like the highly publicized war on drugs that the US government has been waging — and losing — for decades, it is doomed to lose its surreptitious war on cash, because the free market can and will respond to the demand of ordinary citizens for a reliable and convenient money.
This article was previously published at Mises.org.