Economics

Is an increase in capital goods orders always good for the economy?

Orders for US non-military capital goods excluding aircraft rose by 0.6% in August after a 0.2% decline in July to stand at $73.2 billion. Observe that after closing at $48 billion in May 2009 capital goods orders have been trending up.

Shostak Capital Goods Orders

Most commentators regard this strengthening as evidence that companies are investing both in the replacement of existing capital goods and in new capital goods in order to expand their growth.

There is no doubt that an increase in the quality and the quantity of tools and machinery i.e. capital goods, is the key for the expansion of goods and services. But is it always good for economic growth? Is it always good for the wealth generation process?

Consider the case when the central bank is engaging in loose monetary policy i.e. monetary pumping and an artificial lowering of the interest rate structure. Such type of policy sets the platform for various non-productive or bubble activities.

In order to survive these activities require real funding, which is diverted to them by means of loose monetary policy. (Once loose monetary policy is set in motion this allows the emergence of various bubble activities).

Note various individuals that are employed in these activities are the early recipients of money; they can now divert to themselves various goods and services from the pool of real wealth.

These individuals are now engaging in the exchange of nothing for something. (Individuals that are engage in bubble activities don’t produce any meaningful real wealth they however by means of the pumped money take a slice from the pool of real wealth. Again note that these individuals are contributing nothing to this pool).

Now bubble activities like any non-bubble activity also require tools and machinery i.e. capital goods. So various capital goods generated for these activities is in fact a waste of real wealth. Since the tools and machinery that are generated here are going to be employed in the production of goods and services that without the monetary pumping of the central bank would never emerge.  (Wrong infrastructure has emerged).

These activities do not add to the pool of real wealth, they are in fact draining it. (This amounts to economic impoverishment). The more aggressive the central bank’s loose monetary stance is the more drainage of real wealth takes place and the less real wealth left at the disposal of true wealth generators. If such policy persists for too long this could slow or even shrink the pool of real wealth and set in motion a severe economic crisis.

We suggest that the strong bounce in capital goods orders since May 2009 is on account of extremely loose monetary stance of the Fed. Note that the wild fluctuations in our monetary measure AMS after a time lag followed by sharp swings in capital goods orders.

An increase in the growth momentum of money followed by the increase in capital goods orders to support the increase in various bubble activities. Conversely, a decline in the growth momentum of money supply followed by a decline in capital goods orders.

Shostak Capital Goods vs AMS

We suggest that a down-trend in the growth momentum of money supply since October 2011 is currently on the verge of asserting its dominance. This means that various bubble activities are likely to come under pressure. Slower monetary growth is going to slow down the diversion of real wealth to them from wealth generating activities.

Consequently capital goods orders are going to come under pressure in the months ahead. (The build-up of a wrong infrastructure is going to slow down – a fewer pyramids will be built).

 

Economics

The velocity myth

If there is one concept that illustrates the difference between a top-down macro-economic approach and the reality of everyday life it is the velocity of circulation of money. Compare the following statements:

“The collapse in velocity is testament to the substantial misallocation of capital brought about by the easy money regimes of the past 20 years.” Broker’s research note issued September 2014; and

“The mathematical economists refuse to start from the various individuals’ demand for and supply of money. They introduce instead the spurious notion of velocity of circulation according to the pattern of mechanics.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action.

This article’s objective is not to disagree with the broker’s conclusion; rather it is to examine the basis upon which it is made.

The idea of velocity of circulation referred to arose from the quantity theory of money, which links changes in the quantity of money to changes in the general level of prices. This is set out in the equation of exchange. The basic elements are money, velocity and total spending, or GDP. The following is the simplest of a number of ways it has been expressed:

Amount of Money x Velocity of Circulation = Total Spending (or GDP)

Assuming we can quantify both money and total spending, we end up with velocity. But this does not tell us why velocity might vary: all we know is that it must vary in order to balance the equation. You could equally state that two completely unrelated quantities can be put into a mathematical equation, so long as a variable is included whose only function is to always make the equation balance. In other words the equation of exchange actually tells us nothing per se.

This gives analysts a problem, not resolved by the modern reliance on statistics and computer models. The dubious gift to us from statisticians is their so-called progress made in quantifying the economy, so much so that at the London School of Economics a machine called MONIAC (monetary national income analogue computer) used fluid mechanics to model the UK’s economy. This and other more recent computer models give unwarranted credence to the idea that the economy can be modelled, derivations such as velocity explained, and valid conclusions drawn.

Von Mises’s criticism is based on the philosopher’s logic that economics is a social and not a physical science. Therefore, mathematical relationships must be strictly confined to accounting and not be confused with economics, or as he put it human action. Unfortunately we now have the concept of velocity so ingrained in our thinking that this vital point usually escapes us. Indeed, the same is true of GDP, or the right hand side of the equation of exchange.

GDP is only an accounting identity: no more than that. It ranks gin with golf-balls by reducing them both to a monetary value. Statisticians select what’s included so it is biased in favour of consumer goods and against capital investment. Crucially it does not tell us about an ever-changing economy comprised of successes, failures, and hard-to-predict human needs and wants, which taken all together is economic progress. And because it is biased in its composition and says nothing about progress the value of this statistic is grossly exaggerated.

The only apparent certainty in the equation of exchange is the quantity of money, assuming it is all recorded. No one seems to allow for unrecorded money such as shadow banking, but we shall let that pass. If the money is sound, as it was when the quantity theory of money was devised, one could assume that an increase in its quantity would tend to raise prices. This was experienced following Spain’s importation of gold and silver from the new world in the sixteenth century, and following the gold mining booms in California and South Africa. But relating an increase in the quantity of gold to prices in general is at best a summary of a number of various factors that drive the price relationship between money and goods.

Today we no longer have sound money, whose purchasing power was regulated by human preferences across national boundaries. Instead we have fiat currencies whose purchasing power is formalised in foreign exchanges. When the Icelandic krona on 8th October 2008 halved in value, it had nothing to do with changes in the quantity of money or Iceland’s GDP. Yet if we try to interpret velocity in this case, we will find ourselves pleading a special case to explain its substantial increase as domestic prices absorbed the shock imparted through the foreign exchanges.

Iceland’s currency collapse is not an isolated event. The purchasing power of a fiat currency varies constantly, even to the point of losing it altogether. The truth of the matter is the utility of a fiat currency is entirely dependent on the subjective opinions of individuals expressed through markets, and has nothing to do with a mechanical quantity relationship. In this respect, merely the potential for unlimited currency issuance or a change in perceptions of the issuer’s financial stability, as Iceland discovered, can be enough to destabilise it.

According to the equation of exchange, this is not how things should work. The order of events is first you have an increase in the quantity of money and then prices rise, because monetarist logic states that prices rise as a result of the extra money being spent, not as a result of money yet to be spent. With a mechanical theory there can be no room for subjectivity.

It is therefore nonsense to conclude that velocity is a vital signal of some sort. Monetarism is at the very least still work-in-progress until monetarists finally discover velocity is no more than a factor to make their equation balance. The broker’s analyst quoted above would have been better to confine his statement to the easy money regimes of the past 20 years being responsible for the substantial misallocation of capital, and leaving out the bit about velocity entirely.

A small slip perhaps on the way to a sensible conclusion; but it is indicative of the false mechanisation of human behaviour by modern macro-economists. However it should also be noted that is impossible to square the concept of velocity of circulation with one simple fact of everyday life: we earn our salaries once and we dispose of it. That’s a constant velocity of roughly one.

Economics

Math Gone Mad: Regulatory Risk Modeling by the Federal Reserve

The U.S. financial system faces a major, growing, and much under-appreciated threat from the Federal Reserve’s risk modeling agenda—the “Fed stress tests.” These were intended to make the financial system safe but instead create the potential for a new systemic financial crisis.

The principal purpose of these models is to determine banks’ regulatory capital requirements—the capital “buffers” to be set aside so banks can withstand adverse events and remain solvent.

Risk models are subject to a number of major weaknesses. They are usually based on poor assumptions and inadequate data, are vulnerable to gaming and often blind to major risks. They have difficulty handling market instability and tend to generate risk forecasts that fall as true risks build up. Most of all, they are based on the naïve belief that markets are mathematizable. The Fed’s regulatory stress tests are subject to all these problems and more. They:

  • ignore well-established weaknesses in risk modeling and violate the core principles of good stress testing;
  • are overly prescriptive and suppress innovation and diversity in bank risk management; in so doing, they expose the whole financial system to the weaknesses in the Fed’s models and greatly increase systemic risk;
  • impose a huge and growing regulatory burden;
  • are undermined by political factors;
  • fail to address major risks identified by independent experts; and
  • fail to embody lessons to be learned from the failures of other regulatory stress tests.

The solution to these problems is legislation to prohibit risk modeling by financial regulators and establish a simple, conservative capital standard for banks based on reliable capital ratios instead of unreliable models. The idea that the Fed, with no credible track record at forecasting, can be entrusted with the task of telling banks how to forecast their own financial risks, displacing banks’ own risk systems in the process, is the ultimate in fatal conceits. Unless Congress intervenes, the United States is heading for a new systemic banking crisis.

[Editor's Note: the full document published by the Cato Institute can be found here]

Economics

A black mark for benchmarks

“Sir, So Ed Miliband “forgot” to mention the deficit. This from a man who was a key member of the team that ran up a massive structural debt pile when the UK should have been enjoying a cyclical surplus. He was part of a Labour administration that took the UK economy to the brink of effective bankruptcy. Yet less than five years on, as we still struggle to deal with the toxic mess that he and his colleagues left behind, he “forgot” to mention it. This surely ranks alongside “the dog ate my homework” for feeble and unbelievable excuses for non-performance of basic required tasks.”

  • Letter to the FT from Mr Max Irwin of Kew, Surrey, UK.

Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.”

  • Anonymous.

It should be striking that government bonds, in nominal terms, have never been this expensive in history, even as there have never been so many of them. The laws of supply and demand would seem to have been repealed. How could this state of affairs have come about ? We think the answer is three-fold:

  1. The bond market is clearly not perfectly efficient.

  2. Bond yields are being manipulated by central banks through a deliberate policy of financial repression (and QE, of course).

  3. Many bond fund managers may be unaware, or unconcerned, that the benchmarks against which they choose to be assessed are illogical and irrational.

What might substantiate our third claim ? It would be the festering intellectual plague that bedevils the fund management world known as indexation. Bond indices allocate their largest weights to the most indebted issuers. This is the precise opposite of what any rational bond investor would do – namely, to overweight their portfolio according to those issuers with the highest credit quality (or perhaps, all things being equal, with the highest yields). But bond indices do exactly the opposite. They force any manager witless enough to have fallen victim to them to load up on the most heavily indebted issuers, which currently also happen to offer amongst the puniest nominal yields. As evidence for the prosecution we cite the US Treasury bond market, the world’s largest. The US national debt currently stands at $17.7 trillion. With a ‘T’. Benchmark 10 year Treasuries currently offer a yield to maturity of 2.5%. US consumer price inflation currently stands at 1.7%. (We offer no opinion as to whether US CPI is a fair reflection of US inflation.) On the basis that US “inflation” doesn’t change meaningfully over the next 10 years, US bond investors are going to earn an annualised return just a smidgen above zero percent.

How do US Treasury yields stack up against the longer term trend in interest rates ? The following data are from @Macro_Tourist:

10 year US Treasury yields since 1791

10 Year US Treasury Yields Since 1971

The chart shows the direction of travel for US market rates since independence, given that the Continental Congress defaulted on its debts.

Now it may well be that US Treasury yields have further to fall. As SocGen’s Albert Edwards puts it,

“Our ‘Ice Age’ thesis has long called for sub-1% bond yields and I see this extending to the US and UK in due course.”

As things stand, the trend is with the polar bears. The German bond market has already broken down through the 1% level (10 year Bunds at the time of writing currently trade at 0.98%).

Deutsche Bank Research – specifically Jim Reid, Nick Burns and Seb Barker – recently published an extensive examination of global debt markets (“Bonds: the final bubble frontier ?” – hat tip to Arnaud Gandon of Heptagon Capital). Deutsche’s strategists ask whether bonds constitute the culminating financial bubble after almost two decades of them:

“After the Asian / Russian / LTCM crises of the late 1990s we entered a supercycle of very aggressive policy responses to major global problems. In turn this helped encourage the 2000 equity bubble, the 2007 housing / financial / debt bubble, the 2010-2012 Euro Sovereign crisis and arguably some recent signs of a China credit bubble (a theme we discussed in our 2014 Default Study). At no point have the imbalances been allowed a full free market conclusion. Aggressive intervention has merely pushed the bubble elsewhere. With no obvious areas left to inflate in the private sector, these bubbles have now arguably moved into government and central bank balance sheets with unparalleled intervention and low growth allowing it to coincide with ultra-low bond yields.” [Emphasis ours.]

The French statesman George Clemenceau once commented that war is too important to be left to generals. At this stage in the game one might be tempted to add that monetary policy is far too important to be left to politicians and central bankers. We get by with free markets in all other walks of economic and financial life – why let the price of money itself be dictated by a handful of State-appointed bureaucrats ? We were once told by a fund manager (a Japanese equity manager, to be precise – rare breed that that is now), around the turn of the millennium, that Japan would be the dress rehearsal, and that the rest of the world would be the main event. Again, the volume of the mood music is rising in SocGen’s favour.

We nurse no particular view in relation to how the government bond bubble (for it surely is) plays out – whether yields grind relentlessly lower for some time yet, or whether they burst spectacularly on the back of the overdue return of bond market vigilantes or some other mystical manifestation of long-delayed economic common sense. But Warren Buffett himself once said that,

“If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”

The central bank bond market poker game has been in train for a good deal longer than half an hour, and the stakes have never been higher. Sometimes, if you simply can’t fathom the new rules of the game, it’s surely better not to play. So we’re not in the business of chasing US Treasury yields, or Gilt yields, or Bund yields, ever lower – we’ll keep our bond exposure limited to only the highest quality credits yielding the highest possible return. Even then, if Fed tapering does finally dissipate in favour of Fed hiking – stranger things have happened, though we can’t think of any off the top of our head – it will make sense at the appropriate time to eliminate conventional debt instruments from client portfolios almost entirely.

But indexation madness is not limited to the world of bonds. Its malign, unthinking mental slavery has fixed itself upon the equity markets, too. Equity indices, as is widely acknowledged, allocate their largest weights to the largest and most expensive stocks. What’s extraordinary is that even as stock markets have powered ahead, index trackers have enjoyed their highest ever inflows. The latest IMA data show that more UK retail money was put into tracker funds in July than in any other month since records began. We accept the ‘low cost’ aspect of tracker funds and ETFs; we take serious issue with the idea of buying stock markets close to or at their all-time high and being in for any downside ride on a 1:1 basis.

But there is a middle way between the Scylla of bonds at all-time low yields and the Charybdis of stocks at all-time high prices. Value. Seth Klarman of the Baupost Group once wrote as follows:

“Stock market efficiency is an elegant hypothesis that bears quite limited resemblance to the real world. For over half a century, disciples of Benjamin Graham, the intellectual father of value investing, have prospered buying bargains that efficient market theory says should not exist. They take advantage of the short-term, relative performance orientation of other investors. They employ an absolute (not relative) valuation compass, patiently exploiting mispricings while avoiding overpaying for what is popular and trendy. Many are willing to concentrate their exposures, knowing that their few best ideas are better than their hundredth best, and confident in their ability to tell which is which.

“Value investors thrive not by incurring high risk (as financial theory would suggest), but by deliberately avoiding or hedging the risks they identify. While efficient market theorists tell you to calculate the beta of a stock to determine its riskiness, most value investors have never calculated a beta. Efficient market theory advocates moving a portfolio of holdings closer to the efficient frontier. Most value investors have no idea what this is or how they might accomplish such a move. This is because financial market theory may be elegant, but it is not particularly useful in formulating a successful investment strategy.

“If academics espousing the efficient market theory had no influence, their flawed views would make little difference. But, in fact, their thinking is mainstream and millions of investors make their decisions based on the supposition that owning stocks, regardless of valuation and analysis, is safe and reasonable. Academics train hundreds of thousands of students each year, many of whom go to Wall Street and corporate suites espousing these beliefs. Because so many have been taught that outperforming the market is impossible and that stocks are always fairly and efficiently priced, investors have increasingly adopted strategies that eventually will prove both riskier and far less rewarding than they are currently able to comprehend.”

That sounds about right to us. Conventional investing, both in stocks and bonds on an indexed or benchmarked basis, “will prove both riskier and far less rewarding” than many investors are currently able to comprehend.

Economics

Weak Labour Markets and Repo Market Disruptions

Central Banking

Low interest rates contribute to weak labour markets

In the latter part of August, the cream of the world’s central bankers convened at the annual Kansas City Fed gathering at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Every year the Conference has a theme. Last year’s was Quantitative Easing (QE): when and how it would end. This year’s topic was unemployment, under the rather grandiose title “Re-Evaluating Labour Market Dynamics”.

Ms Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, seemed at last to acknowledge one of this Newsletter’s recurring concerns; namely, that official unemployment data mislead because they ignore the number of citizens so disaffected with prospects that they no longer register as looking for work. She is warming towards a new Fed Board developed Labour Market Conditions Index (LMCI) which takes account of workforce participation rates and various other measures. She considers LMCI a better indicator of employment market strength or weakness than the raw unemployment percentage number. By this measure, unemployment is still substantially above the pre-crisis level. Accordingly, Ms Yellen remains concerned about the present strength of the US recovery:

the recent behavior of both nominal and real wages point to weaker labor market conditions than would be indicated by the current unemployment rate”;

Nonetheless, she indicated that interest rates would rise if future, stronger than expected, labour market data were reported.

Similar concerns are now paramount among UK central bankers. The Bank of England now overtly links its ‘forward guidance’ about the timing of interest rate increases to evidence of growth in wage levels.

The ECB’s President Mario Draghi had absorbed the summer’s deterioration in European data suggesting that another slowdown is underway. Only this time, it is impacting primarily the core, France and Italy, and even Germany. Finance Minister Schaeuble recently said that ‘the ECB have already done enough’ so Germany is firmly against more stimulus at this stage.

President Draghi’s speech put labour market worries at the forefront of Europe’s problems. In Europe there was a second surge in unemployment 3 years after the financial crisis. From early 2011, when it became apparent that a number of countries would, without bailouts, default or renege on sovereign debt, heavy job losses drove up the Eurozone average to levels that have only recently topped out. Draghi took the opportunity of the profile of this occasion once again to express doubts whether unleashing QE in the Eurozone would make any difference to labour market conditions, because national governments have failed to implement substantive structural reforms. Like a physical trainer addressing a group of failed slimmers after 3 years of group therapy, he berated that he has done all he could do in the group sessions, those dissatisfied with their progress should look to themselves.

Although these presentations reveal doubts among leading central bankers that near zero interest rate policies (ZIRP) may not result in economic stimulus, there is still a gulf between these doubts and the scepticism about ZIRP policies, doubt that have been strongly expressed by the Bank for International Settlements (see our July Newsletter).

An even stronger counter view is beginning to gather mainstream support; namely, that ZIRP is a primary cause of the continuing weak labour market conditions. The reasoning is as follows. By reducing the cost of borrowing money substantially below its ‘market’ level, capital goods for businesses have become disproportionately cheap compared with the cost of employing people. When weighing up the cost/ benefit of, say, installing a machine to sell tickets in train stations compared with employing staff to do the same job, low interest rates reduce the cost of the machine option. Businessmen make such decisions using discounted cash flow analysis, whereby future costs are assessed a present value using average market interest rates over the term. So ZIRP has a double whammy effect; not only is the borrowing cost of the machine lower, but by applying a discount rate of close to zero to the employee option, the present value cost of the stream of wages is increased. This may go some way towards explaining the trend of low to moderate-income jobs being replaced by machines in areas such as supermarket checkout services as well as transport ticketing.

This is a classic “misallocation” as per Austrian economics. It follows that, when rates rise, firms will find their overall operations burdened by excessive (now expensive) capital equipment. What they will then want are more productive employees. However, the lack of skilled workers–those out of the labour force for several years tend to be less productive–will make competition for skilled labour intense, wage pressures will rise, and the combination of excess capital capacity and rising wage pressures will intensify the stagflation we have already seen to date (see our July Newsletter).

Banking

Concerns about Repo Market Disruptions.

In August, concerns were reported that the US repo market, one of the largest engines of liquidity in global capital markets, was experiencing disruptions to its otherwise smooth functioning owing to a reduction in repo activity by banks. Banks explained this by citing increased capital costs under the recently introduced Leverage Ratio (see our February Newsletter).

Before considering this further, since repo transactions can be confusing, let us set out an example. A repo counterparty, say an investment fund, might hold a 5-year US Treasury bond. There has traditionally been a deep and liquid market enabling the fund to enter into a contract with, say, a bank to sell and buy back the bond, usually on a very short-term basis (overnight). However, medium term funding can be obtained by rolling the position every day. The sale and repurchase price are pre-agreed, the differential constitutes the return to the provider of cash. Banks have been encouraged to play the role of repo cash provider (otherwise known as Reverse repo Counterparty) as the market for derivatives, particularly interest rate swaps (IRS), has grown.

Thus it can be seen that not only have banks been lured to the repo market by the modest net interest income generated by being the repo cash provider against very low credit risk, but also because repos provide a steady source of government bonds that are useful for other hedging activities of the bank itself.

So why are they now pulling back? Even though the Basel Capital weighting applied to banks’ holdings of non-defaulted government bonds is zero, such holdings are indeed caught by the Leverage Ratio. Therefore, there will be a cost from the new rule’s effective date of 1 January 2015.

But is the pullback entirely attributable to new regulations, as claimed in the mainstream press? We are not so sure. There also appears to be a shortage of available collateral (Treasury bonds) in the maturities most popular with market participants. Perhaps this results from the Federal Reserve’s mopping up of so much of the US Treasury security market via its QE programme. The result is that banks providing cash into the transaction in which the underlying security is becoming scarce (e.g. 5 years), now expect to make a negative return on the loan of the cash. The loss would materialize if the price they will have to pay in the market to buy back the bond for delivery back to the counterparty has risen owing to scarcity. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that banks would prefer to deposit their cash with the Federal Reserve at a better rate of return and without the negative Leverage ratio consequences.

Under normal market conditions, repo provides a cheap and easy way to releverage an asset. If trend described in the previous paragraph persists, does it presage the start of wholesale reductions in systemic leverage? We doubt it. The thrust of ‘legal’ financial innovation, especially since the outbreak of the crisis, has been for banks to find new ways of leverage through collateral transformation, swapping collateral with each other in ways that either slip by, or are tacitly approved by regulators. One such example is asset rehypothecation, which we discussed in our January Newsletter.

Finally, is this repo market disruption an ‘unintended consequence’ of the new Leverage Ratio regulations? The prevailing view appears to be negative. A small number of senior US Reserve bank governors have long memories of the 2008 crisis, and fear a recurrence of the repo market seizure. Sceptics may take the view that those bank governors are overly focussed on the symptoms of that crisis rather than on its cause. As has been amply documented, at the peak of the crisis (before any talk of bailouts), repo and other markets froze up because a number of insolvent counterparties reneged on obligations to deliver cash or collateral, triggering a collapse in confidence upon which these interbank markets rely. Shrinking the repo market will not prevent a recurrence of system wide crisis when such insolvency worries resurface.

[Editor's note: Please find the IREF Newsletter here]

Economics

A difficult question

In a radio interview recently* I was asked a question to which I could not easily give a satisfactory reply: if the gold market is rigged, why does it matter?
I have no problem delivering a comprehensive answer based on a sound aprioristic analysis of how rigging markets distorts the basis of economic calculation and why a properly functioning gold market is central to all other financial prices. The difficulty is in answering the question in terms the listeners understand, bearing in mind I was told to assume they have very little comprehension of finance or economics.
I did not as they say, want to go there. But it behoves those of us who argue the economics of sound money to try to make the answer as intelligible as possible without sounding like a committed capitalist and a conspiracy theorist to boot, so here goes.

Manipulating the price of gold ultimately destabilises the financial system because it is the highest form of money. This is why nearly all central banks retain a holding. The fact we don’t use it as money in our daily business does not invalidate its status. Rather, gold is subject to Gresham’s Law, which famously states bad money drives out the good. We would rather pay for things in government-issue paper currency and hang on to gold for a rainy day.

As money, it is on the other side of all asset prices. In other words stocks, bonds and property prices can be expected to rise measured in gold when the gold price falls and vice-versa. This relationship is often muddled by other factors, the most obvious one being changing levels of confidence in paper currencies against which gold is normally priced. However, with bond yields today at record lows and equities at record highs this relationship is apparent today.

Another way to describe this relationship is in terms of risk. Banks which dominate asset markets become complacent about risk because they are greedy for profit. This leads to banks competing with one another until they end up ignoring risk entirely. It happened very obviously with the American banking crisis six years ago until house prices suddenly collapsed, threatening to take the whole financial system down. In common with all financial bubbles everyone ignored risk. History provides many other examples.

Therefore, gold is unlike other assets because a rising gold price reflects an increasing perception of general financial risk, ensuring downward pressure on other financial asset prices. So while the big banks are making easy money ignoring risks in equity and bond markets, they will not want their party spoiled by warning signs from a rising gold price.

This is a long way from proof that the gold market is manipulated. But the big banks, and we must include central banks which are obviously keen to maintain financial confidence, have the motive and the means. And if they have these they can be expected to take the opportunity.

So why does it matter if the gold price is rigged? A freely-determined gold price is central to ensuring that reality and not financial bubbles guides us in our financial and economic activities. Suppressing the gold price is rather like turning off a fire alarm because you can’t stand the noise.

*File on 4: BBC Radio4 due to be broadcast on 23 September at 8.00pm UK-time and repeated on 28 September at 5.00pm.

Economics

Austrians, Fractional Reserves, and the Money Multiplier

[Editor's note: this article, by Robert Batemarco, first appeared at Mises.org]

John Tamny recently wrote a piece at Forbes titled, “The Closing of the Austrian School’s Economic Mind” in which he critiqued certain claims made in Frank Hollenbeck’s Mises Daily article, “Confusing Capitalism with Fractional Reserve Banking.”

Tamny goes far beyond taking Hollenbeck to task, asserting that many modern Austrian economists have certain views of monetary policy that are at odds with much of the rest of the contribution of the Austrian School. Tamny’s biggest point of disagreement with Austrians is over the low regard with which many Austrians hold the practice of fractional reserve banking. In so doing, he makes several arguments which cannot stand up to critical scrutiny.

The crux of the Austrian position is that the practice of fractional reserve banking gives ownership claims to the same funds to more than one person. The person depositing the funds clearly has a property claim to those funds. Yet when a loan is made from those funds, the borrower now has a claim to the same funds. Two or more people owning the same funds is what makes bank runs possible. The existence of deposit insurance since the 1930s has minimized the number of these runs, in which multiple owners sought to claim their funds at the same time. The deposit insurance that prevents bank runs really amounts to a pre-emptive bailout of the banks. As this is a special privilege, rather than a natural development of the market, it follows that restrictions on fractional reserve banking would be a libertarian validation of the market rather than the statist interference that Tamny claims it to be.

His inability to see that fractional reserves lead to two or more people having claim to the same funds at the same time leads him to deny the logic of the money multiplier. To quote him:

The problem is that the very notion of a “money multiplier” is a logical impossibility; one that dies of its illogic rather quickly if analyzed in the lightest of ways. … To the Austrians, money can be multiplied. Bank A takes in $1,000, lends $900 to Bank B, then Bank B lends $810 to Bank C, only for Bank C to lend $729 to Bank D, etc. Pretty soon $1,000 has been “multiplied” many times over as the credit is passed around.

The notion of the money multiplier is by no means uniquely Austrian. I learned it forty years ago from the Paul Samuelson textbook and from the Fed publication Modern Money Mechanics. It is also the centerpiece of the monetary system chapter of virtually every textbook right up to Paul Krugman’s most recent edition. Indeed, the nature of the process is one of the most uncontroversial propositions in economics — a good definition of an uncontroversial economic proposition being one on which both Murray Rothbard and Paul Krugman are in substantive agreement. Indeed, if there were no money multiplier, one would be at a loss to explain why, until QE1 in 2008, M1 was a 1.6 times size of the monetary base, having historically been even higher. Nor would the required reserve ratio, a tool of monetary policy that became too powerful to be used after 1937, have any effect on the money supply in the absence of the money multiplier effect.

What is controversial about the money multiplier is not its existence, but whether or not it creates distortions in the economy. The distortions introduced into the economy by fractional reserve banking, and to an even greater extent by central banking, comprise the central element of Austrian business cycle theory. The basic idea is that the creation of money (which is also credit, since that new money is loaned into existence) increases the supply of loanable funds and lowers market interest rates without increasing the supply of voluntary saving. This misleads investors into believing that more resources have been made available by savers for investment projects than actually have been made available. Thus, projects are started on too big a scale since many investors try to exercise a claim on the same productive resources. In so doing, they will bid up the resource prices, slashing the profitability of many of these investment projects. This is the real goods sector counterpart of bank runs in the monetary sector. Since there is no real goods sector counterpart to deposit insurance, firms will run short of the resources necessary to profitably complete their investment projects, exposing them as malinvestments and turning boom to bust.

Tamny disputes the above claims, largely on the basis of what seems to me an idiosyncratic definition of credit. He states that, “credit can’t be multiplied. Period. For every individual who attains credit successfully, there must be a saver willing to give up near-term access to the economy’s resources.” This statement is informed by the valuable insight that lending money to those who wish to buy goods they could not otherwise afford does not create additional goods. Where the equivocation arises is in his use of the word credit to describe the goods that credit permits one to buy. I believe this eccentric use of that word is what leads to many of Tamny’s disagreements with the Austrians. Here is Exhibit A:

Perhaps another logical response to this line of thinking is the housing boom that took place in the 2000s. Wasn’t the latter most certainly a function of easy credit? Let’s be serious. To believe it was, that low rates set by the Fed were what made housing credit easy is to believe that rent control renders apartments abundant. But it doesn’t, nor were low rates decreed by the Fed the driver of the housing boom.

Austrians agree that making loans more available than the market would make them does not make more goods available. But there is the illusion of more resources in the short run because the credit-creation process does initially commandeer resources from those whose money decreases in value through the Cantillon Effect. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs seeking to expand their operations act on this illusion. Only when the new money reaches those whose money lost its value initially and they re-assert their demand, does the inability of new credit to create new goods become obvious.

The last critique Tamny makes that I will discuss here is his implication that Austrian support for 100 percent reserves on demand deposits would make it impossible for borrowers to borrow from savers in order to lend those savings out. This is wrong. Austrians have no problem with savers buying the bonds of a firm seeking additional financing, nor with their buying stock, either directly from the company or its investment bank through an IPO or on the secondary market where it helps keep the market liquid, nor with their buying a bank CD or time deposit knowing that they will not have a claim on the funds they have entrusted to the bank until maturity. In all of these cases, intermediaries are borrowing from savers in order to lend those savings out (this is not exactly a loan in the case of stocks). What Austrians object to is banks telling depositors they still have an instantaneous claim on the funds deposited when they have given someone else a claim on the same funds.

Under the elimination of fractional reserve banking, investment spending would be reduced, not to zero, but to a more sustainable level. This would not eliminate entrepreneurial errors, which are part and parcel of having to act in the face of uncertainty, but it would eliminate the cluster of errors generated by the inconsistent plans that would be made on the basis of falsified market signals of interest rates below their natural rate, thus moderating, or in the best-case scenario, eliminating the business cycle.

Economics

Rethinking Japan’s “Lost Decades”

[This article, by Peter St. Onge, first appeared at mises.org]

 

One of the great economic myths of our time is Japan’s “lost decades.” As Japan doubles-down on inflationary stimulus, it’s worth reviewing the facts.

The truth is that the Japanese and US economies have performed in lock-step since 2000, and their performances have matched each other going as far back as 1980.

Either Japan’s not in crisis, or the US has been in crisis for a good thirty-five years. You can’t have it both ways.

Here’s a chart of per capita real GDP for both Japan and the US from 2000 to 2011. Per capita real GDP is the GDP measure that best answers the question: “is the typical person getting richer?”

The two curves look like they came from the same country:

 

japan1

Next, we can go back to 1980, to see where the myth came from. Japan was just entering its “bubble” decade:
japan2

We can see what happened here: Japan had a boom in the 1980s, then Japan busted while the Americans had their turn at a boom. By 2000 the US caught up, and Japan and the US synched up and shadowed each other, reflecting boom followed by the inevitable bust.

The only way you can get to the “lost decades” story is if you start your chart exactly when Japan was busting and America booming. Unsurprisingly, this is standard practice of the “lost decades” storytellers.

Of course, this would be like timing two runners, and starting the clock when one of them is on break. It’s absurd, but it gives the answer they want.

Things get worse when you include the artificial effects of inflation and population. Higher inflation and population growth both make the economy appear bigger without making people richer. If America annexed Mexico tomorrow, the US economy would grow by 30 percent. But that’s not going to make the average American 30 percent richer.

Adjusting for inflation and population is Macro 101. It’s so basic, in fact, that we might wonder if the “lost decades” macroeconomists are being intentionally forgetful. Why on earth would they do that?

Who Benefits from the “Lost Decades” Myth?

Who promotes the “lost decades” myth? Are the storytellers trying to make Japan look bad, or the US look good?

I suspect it’s a little of both: politicians in Japan need the sense of crisis to push their vote-buying schemes. It’s a lot easier to sell harmful policies if you can just convince the voters that everything’s already fallen apart. They’ve got nothing to lose at that point. In a crisis we are all socialists.

This cynical PR campaign is bearing fruit already, as Japanese voters accept inflationary policies from their new prime minister. In the name of reviving an economy that’s supposedly on its death-bed. Hard-working Japanese are losing their savings through low rates and inflation, but honor demands sacrifice so long as the future of the children supposedly hangs in the balance.

In reality, the re-telling of Japan’s myth reminds one of a doctor who lies to a patient so he can sell a cure that harms the patient.

On the American side, the myth of Japan’s “lost decades” is similarly useful: it makes our economic overlords seem like they actually know what they’re doing. And it serves to warn the naysayers: the “lost decades” myth is a bogeyman waiting to pounce if we ever falter from our bail-outs and vote-buying stimulus.

The truth, hidden in plain view, is that Japan’s not bad enough to be a battering ram for Japan’s Keynesian vote-buyers, and the US economy isn’t good enough for our home-grown vote-buyers to keep their jobs.

 

Economics

As Germany loses battle for ECB, QE goes global

What is Super Mario up to?

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

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

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

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

This is Eurozone QE

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

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

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

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

Draghi turns away from the Germans

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

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

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

Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

Economics

Our obsession with monetary stimulus will end in disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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