Regular readers will know I am in the inflation, possibly hyperinflation camp; but there are those that think the future is more likely to be deflationary. In the main this is the view of neoclassical economists, Keynesians and monetarists, who generally foresee a 1930s-style slump unless the economy is stimulated out of it.
Rather than repeatedly go into the errors of their ways, we must accept that they are in charge. They have decided that prices must not fall, and they see moderate price inflation as a necessary stimulant to business: this is the reasoning behind Helicopter Ben Bernanke’s defining statement, when he made it clear that central banks could spray the economy with endless fiat money if need be.
Given this determination to stop prices falling, worries that the outlook is deflationary are unlikely to be realised. But there is a second group of commentators which believes that in a slump there will be an unstoppable credit contraction as banks are forced to foreclose on failing businesses. This, they say, will lead to a mad dash for cash to pay off debt, leading to fire-sales of assets as credit contraction spreads to otherwise sound businesses. The imperative to pay down debt will overwhelm central banks’ attempts to replace it with cash.
The error here is to misunderstand where we are in this sorry tale. The belief common to all deflationists, that the developed world has so far avoided a severe economic contraction, is wrong. The fact that this is not often recognised must be blamed on the irrelevance of nearly all government statistics. Not only are they self-serving, but they do not allow for the increasing meaninglessness of government money. The only hard statistics are unemployment, which despite official attempts to water them down, cannot conceal the fact that there has been a slump since the banking crisis.
The banking crisis marked a sudden increase in consumer preferences in favour of money, assuredly egged on by banks who switched almost overnight from risk-tolerant to risk-averse. This is why GDP numbers in most major countries took such a heavy knock, reflecting money being withdrawn from economic activity. That was the event deflationists are worrying about today.
So deflationists are forecasting an event that happened five years ago and their fears have already been disproved by massive monetary intervention. That is not to say the slump is over: far from it. Current indications are that things are about to get worse everywhere. But the nightmare cycle of falling asset prices becoming self-feeding and a dash for cash has already been prevented.
So successful was the Fed leading other central banks to save the world in 2009 that the precedent is established: if things take a turn for the worse or a systemically important financial institution looks like failing, Superman Ben and his cohort of central bankers will save us all again.
Call it kryptonite, or failing animal spirits if you like. It is closer to the truth to understand we are witnessing the early stages of erosion of confidence in government and ultimately its paper money. Ordinary people are finally beginning to suspect this, signalled by the world-wide rush into precious metals last month.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
Continued from part 1 …
Away from the brouhaha over fiscal policy, the intertwined issue of its monetary equivalent comes into focus. Perhaps in belated recognition of what we have been calling ‘biflation’ – i.e., the sharp divergence in monetary growth between Germanic and Latin Europe – Frau Merkel was moved to remark at a savings bank conference in Dresden that if the ECB were to be setting rates solely with an eye to conditions in the Heimat, it would probably have to raise, not lower, rates at the moment.
For their part, the two most senior Bundesbankers concurred – albeit in their typically divergent fashion. The ever urbane Asmussen, in a speech entitled, ‘Saving the euro’, alluded in no equivocal fashion to the lack of a one-size-fits-all approach, declaring that:-
…a more recent feature of our financial structure is financial fragmentation. This implies that lower interest rates have asymmetric effects, and not in the direction that we want them. Due to impaired monetary policy transmission, the pass-through of rate cuts to the periphery would be limited, and this is where they are most needed. At the same time, rate cuts would further relax already unprecedentedly easy financing conditions in the core. This is not per se a problem – but interest rates that are too low for too long can eventually lead to distortions…
Ah, yes! The ‘distortions’ to be expected from monetary incontinence. Nothing we Austrians ever allude to, of course!
In contrast, the imprimatur of Asmussen’s far more forthright colleague, Jens Weidmann, was all over the leaked copy of the Bundesbank’s submission to the Constitutional Court regarding the legality of the ESM. In what amounted to a veritable Philippic, as Handelsblatt reported it, the Bank strongly denied it was any part of its mission to prevent any given member state from exiting the single currency. In asserting that ‘higher finance costs for the private sector’ in certain countries ‘are related to greater national fiscal risks’, this report effectively launched a thinly disguised attack on the casuistry of Draghi’s argument that his monetary interventions are all about levelling the European playing field – and so are ostensibly undertaken with the aim of ensuring greater ‘transmissibility’ of monetary settings – and nothing whatsoever to do with financing otherwise bankrupt states.
Though all this would seem to close the door to an imminent easing of interest rates (a development which, for all the market’s Pavlovian enthusiasm, is in any case likely to be little more than symbolic in its import), there are ominous signs of a looming deceleration in German growth. Domestic monetary velocity has declined sharply of late – with or without the noise created by the build-up of Target balances – largely as a consequence of a decline in business revenues of 3% YOY in the domestic market and of around 4.5% v-a-v its Eurozone export markets.
Nor was the final quarter of 2012 much more cheery for the category ‘property and entrepreneurial income’ in the national accounts. This registered its worst result since the panic-stricken first quarter of 2009, and was at a level first attained eight years previously. No doubt this combination of stagnant sales and dwindling profits goes some way to explaining why it is that, after 8 years of fairly consistent co-movement, the GEX index of owner-controlled, smaller, ‘entrepreneurial’ companies has revisited GFC lows and so has diverged sharply from the record-setting MDAX, to the point that latter speculative vehicle has run up 174% in relative terms in the past two years.
The test, as ever, will come when it is deemed to be to Germany’s benefit to seek a relaxation in policy and, by extension, when it is in Merkel’s narrow political self-interest to signal her acquiescence to the other members of the ECB council and so to free herself from the opposition of her own troublesome, monetary priests. That day may well not be long delayed, but we would hazard it has not yet arrived.
Incredibly, there was a palpable sense of expectation going into the BOJ meeting this week, as the insatiable stimulus junkies conjured up fantasies of some new initiative being announced, barely weeks after ‘Corroder’-san’s QExtreme measures were launched. Embarrassingly, the meeting coincided with the release of a set of national CPI numbers which were falling at their fastest (if still decidedly moderate) pace in three years. More troubling for those who never cease to exult in the boost which Abenomics will supposedly give to asset markets everywhere, it is not at all evident that Mrs. Watanabe is familiar with her part in the playbook, either.
We say this because, far from unleashing the expected torrent of outward investment, the weakening yen has so far triggered what look to be the highest sustained liquidation of foreign portfolios in at least the last 15 years – a cumulative repatriation these last twelve weeks of around $85 billion USD. Meanwhile, foreign inflows have been sufficiently vigorous to push the invested sums to within a few percentage points of their 2007 highs, albeit that this has coincided with a rise in margin positions on the TSE which suggests that much of the money is being borrowed for the purpose.
That the vaunted ‘carry trade’ seems to be benefiting only the Nikkei so far, may have two separate, but not inconsistent explanations. The first is that, in contradistinction to the previous episode of yen-fuelled, global asset inflation which was instituted during the reign of Eisuke Sakakibara – that is, in the period between the 1994-5 Tequila Crisis (to which it was a response) and the 1997-8 LTCM collapse-Asian Contagion (in which it was a proximate cause) – the Japanese are not actively driving the yen lower (not least by not encouraging, as they did then, the big macro hedge funds and prop desks to participate in a one-way bet) and so residual forex risks remain unabated.
Secondly, it should be noted that, 15-20 years ago, Japanese interest rates were around 600bps below those prevailing in the UK, 500bps below those in the US, and 300bps below those in Germany: today those spreads are 40bps, 4bps, and -5bps, respectively. In other words, back then it clearly did not pay those using yen to buy foreign assets to hedge exposures, even if they had chosen to ignore the explicit policy of their own government to weaken it. Today, by contrast, there is no meaningful penalty attached to so doing and no strong disincentive to desist since a lower parity is not officially an objective. Thus, easy money in Japan may well induce leveraged asset purchases, but it is hard to see why this should drive a self-aggravating spiral of devaluation and further, induced carry trades, especially when sources of speculative finance are not exactly lacking in any other currency you could name.
Note here in passing that with gold at an all time high versus the yen, and with the Topix coming off a 90%, 21st century decline to a three-decade low in gold ounce-equivalent value, a similar urge to book profits and/or reduce exposure to overseas assets offering much less prospective gain could have been at work in pushing the yellow stuff to the edge of last week’s precipice.
In what was a banner week for the many serial inflationists and fans of Big Government out there, equity markets largely reversed the declines of the previous period on the hope for – what else? – yet more pump priming. Adding their vote of approval, fixed income players have also pushed junk and EM yields to new lows and touched new, post-Mario depths in BTP/Bono-Bund spreads.
On the fiscal front, much heart has been taken at EU Commission President Barroso’s assertion that the time has come to move beyond an exclusive reliance on ‘austerity’ and to begin to focus on encouraging growth. Indeed, such was the frenzy of press speculation whipped up on this account – not least by the bien pensant Guardian newspaper as part of its campaign to effect a change in British policy – that the EU’s official website quickly published a full transcript of Barroso’s remarks under the revealing title of “What President Barroso actually said” [our emphasis].
Needless to say, this was far less radical than anything whipped up by the journalists – the crux being that it was mainly matter of paying lip service to the ongoing need to trim debts and deficits, while calling for a range of largely unspecified microeconomic reforms and, as such, representing more of an exercise in expectations management than the signal of a clear break with the line being toed across the Rhine.
In the circumstances, however, the wilful desire to over-interpret (if not actively misinterpret) the message was far too powerful to resist, especially in the wake of the academic catfight going on over the state of Reinhardt and Rogoff’s Excel skills.
For those who have real lives to lead, the briefest of synopses of this spat will suffice and, indeed, it is only introduced here to illustrate the heedless Flucht nach Vorne mentality of the Krugmanites, ever eager as they are to peddle the line that the only reason stimulus has ‘failed’ is because there has been nowhere near enough of it, that the violation of both the principles of accounting and the tenets of good housekeeping on the part of the Provider State has somehow been too timid.
Loosely, R&R wrote a paper which suggested that high government debt is detrimental to growth but managed to overweight one particular input from little old New Zealand at the dawn of their sample. A caricature of the paper’s results had meanwhile been employed to argue that growth would evaporate the minute a 90% debt/GDP ratio was reached, but not an iota before. Since this, naturally, was being put about with as much conviction as would be accorded a cross between Holy Writ and Newton’s Third Law of Motion, the Left instantly seized upon the revelation of R&R’s faux pas to claim that the collapse of this particular straw man somehow ‘proved’ that all attempts at public economy were therefore misplaced and that Leviathan should return with renewed vigour to the fulfilment of its sacred duty to collectivise as much of the market as possible.
What larks, Pip, are to be had when positivists and macromancers fall out over their flawed pursuit of what Mises called ‘scientism’ – viz., the pretence affected by most of the mainstream that economics can be made into a simulacrum of physics or fluid mechanics!
But, as a focus of this war of the scholastics, the whole debt issue surely misses the crucial point that debt only swells in a polity where not only is government over large to begin with, but where it is serially profligate – i.e., where the political class persists in spending more than it dares ask its electors to contribute to the fulfilment of its whims.
Given that this diverts resources away from hard-budget, dispersed-knowledge, voluntarily-contracted endeavours (hence ones which must, over time, at the very least pay their way) and into the crony-ridden, cost-plus, soft budget quagmire of top-down, fatal conceit compulsion – every one of its endless stream of programmes a would-be Great Leap Forward – can it really be a matter of dispute that existence of a high debt level should be taken as convincing evidence of a country where the petty tyrants in office and the host of public drones which they employ have enjoyed far too much sway for far too long and so have clogged up the machinery of wealth creation with a plethora of regulations, a nest of subsidies, a tangle of vested interests, and a legacy of malinvested capital every bit poisonous as that left behind by a private sector credit bubble (itself a plague which can only be transmitted by means of a pervasive state interference in the free market)?
As Thomas Gordon wrote long ago in Discourse X of his 1753 publication, “The Works of Tacitus with Political Discourses” :-
Wars beget great Armies; Armies beget great Taxes; heavy Taxes waste and impoverish the Country
Just substitute ‘Welfare’ for ‘Wars’ and ‘Public employees’ for ‘Armies’ and the argument remains in full 260 years later.
And, since you ask, evidence of real ‘austerity’ remains elusive. Government revenues, it is true, fell – for obvious reasons – in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland in the five years after 2007, but they were still up an average of 7.2% across the Eurozone as a whole. Expenditures, meanwhile, have continued to expand, rising an average of 15%. Only Ireland has here managed to record a decrease and that of a paltry 1%. Debt has, needless to say, climbed ever upward to reach a Eurozone-wide level of 118% of non-government GDP (we prefer to measure the obligation shouldered by the Ants alone, not by them and the Grasshoppers who prey upon them). Debt/pGDP itself has climbed by an astonishing median 30% in that same quinquennium.
Now it may well be that the rise in debt during this sorry period is a consequence, rather than a cause, of the growth slowdown, but the reason for the crisis which entrained this slump nonetheless lies in the too great accumulation of debt during the boom years. That much of the offending mountain of unpayable claims was initially a private sector folly is hardly to the point: what we have always maintained is that the blank refusal to renegotiate or liquidate that debt at the earliest possible stage, instead of engaging upon an obstinate course of macroeconomic Micawberism, is why the crisis has generated a grinding depression which shows few signs of being alleviated almost five dreary years after the event.
If nothing else, today’s debt stands as a testimony to economic incomprehension and political stupidity on a tremendous scale. But then again, since we are supposed to be drawing all of our lessons from what the Americans did in the 1930s, it is no surprise that we, too, have managed to perpetuate our misery, as did the monetary cranks and bureaucratic meddlers of FDR’s crackpot Brain Trust, way back then.
There is a new campaign to end austerity. First, the IMF lets it be known it has second thoughts about it; then we are told the threshold of 90% government debt to GDP which must not be crossed, set by Professors Reinhart & Rogoff, is based on an excel spread-sheet error. Lastly, Bill Gross of PIMCO, the largest bond fund in the world, tells us austerity is not working.
The new mood is spreading, to the relief of beleaguered countries like Spain and Italy. Austerity is painful, and politicians don’t like it because it makes them unpopular. Nor do Keynesian and monetarist economists, who see its failure as justification for more intervention.
Austerity, as practised by Western governments, involves maintaining public spending at the cost of the private sector. It is therefore hardly surprising that it leads to the destruction of the wealth-creation necessary to support government finances. Its only, if questionable virtue, is statistical: the maintenance of government spending ensures that its share of GDP does not fall, thereby not undermining “growth”. But government spending is simply a constraint on the productive private sector, because any economic resource diverted from it to pay for government is effectively squandered.
If an economy is to progress at all, there has to be as much austerity as possible, aimed squarely and solely at the government sector. Give individuals and businesses a lighter tax burden, the result of smaller government, and economic prospects will rapidly improve. Instead, the new anti-austerity mood will translate into a new licence for governments to relax their spending restraints.
Anyway, central banks including the ECB have shown they are ready to underwrite government spending if the markets are not prepared to, at almost zero interest cost. This explains why the yield on Italian debt, for example, has fallen despite the political drift of its non-government away from spending restraint.
One reason this is tolerated by bond investors such as PIMCO is the simple assumption that inflation is only a problem if there is a pick-up in demand. With all major economies either slowing or moving into recession that fear is increasingly remote. But history tells us this is a mistake, and that prices are capable of rising even in a recession, and a proper understanding of price theory also demonstrates the falsity of the assumption.
For the moment, ordinary people and their banks are showing a preference for money over goods, and have been since the banking crisis five years ago, which is why demand remains subdued. However, increasing risks to bank deposits from bank failures are likely to trigger a flight into physical cash and goods. And with economies all over the world stalling under the burden of the cost of government, this risk to banks and bank deposits is both increasing and becoming more immediate.
Complacency over inflation and interest rates also has to face the new impetus given to the expansion of the money supply implied by the abandonment of austerity. And this is merely another reason for monetary expansion, added to all the others. What we are seeing played out in front of us is no more than the compelling political reasons behind nearly every hyperinflation in modern history, which will almost certainly end in the collapse of today’s paper currencies.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
This excerpt from Omnipotent Government by Ludwig von Mises was recently featured at Mises.org.
The gold standard was an international standard. It safeguarded the stability of foreign exchange rates. It was a corollary of free trade and of the international division of labor. Therefore those who favored etatism and radical protectionism disparaged it and advocated its abolition. Their campaign was successful.
Even at the height of liberalism governments did not give up trying to put easy money schemes into effect. Public opinion is not prepared to realize that interest is a market phenomenon which cannot be abolished by government interference. Everybody values a loaf of bread available for today’s consumption higher than a loaf which will be available only ten or a hundred years hence. As long as this is true, every economic activity must take it into account. Even a socialist management would be forced to pay full regard to it.
In a market economy the rate of interest has a tendency to correspond to the amount of this difference in the valuation of future goods and present goods. True, governments can reduce the rate of interest in the short run. They can issue additional paper money. They can open the way to credit expansion by the banks. They can thus create an artificial boom and the appearance of prosperity. But such a boom is bound to collapse sooner or later and to bring about a depression.
The gold standard put a check on governmental plans for easy money. It was impossible to indulge in credit expansion and yet cling to the gold parity permanently fixed by law. Governments had to choose between the gold standard and their—in the long run disastrous—policy of credit expansion. The gold standard did not collapse. The governments destroyed it. It was as incompatible with etatism as was free trade. The various governments went off the gold standard because they were eager to make domestic prices and wages rise above the world market level, and because they wanted to stimulate exports and to hinder imports. Stability of foreign exchange rates was in their eyes a mischief, not a blessing.
No international agreements or international planning is needed if a government wants to return to the gold standard. Every nation, whether rich or poor, powerful or feeble, can at any hour once again adopt the gold standard. The only condition required is the abandonment of an easy money policy and of the endeavors to combat imports by devaluation.
The question involved here is not whether a nation should return to the particular gold parity that it had once established and has long since abandoned. Such a policy would of course now mean deflation. But every government is free to stabilize the existing exchange ratio between its national currency unit and gold, and to keep this ratio stable. If there is no further credit expansion and no further inflation, the mechanism of the gold standard or of the gold exchange standard will work again.
All governments, however, are firmly resolved not to relinquish inflation and credit expansion. They have all sold their souls to the devil of easy money. It is a great comfort to every administration to be able to make its citizens happy by spending. For public opinion will then attribute the resulting boom to its current rulers. The inevitable slump will occur later and burden their successors. It is the typical policy of après nous le déluge. Lord Keynes, the champion of this policy, says: “In the long run we are all dead.” But unfortunately nearly all of us outlive the short run. We are destined to spend decades paying for the easy money orgy of a few years.
Inflation is essentially antidemocratic. Democratic control is budgetary control. The government has but one source of revenue—taxes. No taxation is legal without parliamentary consent. But if the government has other sources of income it can free itself from this control.
If war becomes unavoidable, a genuinely democratic government is forced to tell the country the truth. It must say: “We are compelled to fight for our independence. You citizens must carry the burden. You must pay higher taxes and therefore restrict your consumption.” But if the ruling party does not want to imperil its popularity by heavy taxation, it takes recourse to inflation.
The days are gone in which most persons in authority considered stability of foreign exchange rates to be an advantage. Devaluation of a country’s currency has now become a regular means of restricting imports and expropriating foreign capital. It is one of the methods of economic nationalism. Few people now wish stable foreign exchange rates for their own countries. Their own country, as they see it, is fighting the trade barriers of other nations and the progressive devaluation of other nations’ currency systems. Why should they venture to demolish their own trade walls?
Some of the advocates of a new international currency believe that gold is not fit for this service precisely because it does put a check on credit expansion. Their idea is a universal paper money issued by an international world authority or an international bank of issue. The individual nations would be obliged to keep their local currencies at par with the world currency. The world authority alone would have the right to issue additional paper money or to authorize the expansion of credit by the world bank. Thus there would be stability of exchange rates between the various local currency systems, while the alleged blessings of inflation and credit expansion would be preserved.
These plans fail, however, to take account of the crucial point. In every instance of inflation or credit expansion there are two groups, that of the gainers and that of the losers. The creditors are the losers; it is their loss that is the profit of the debtors. But this is not all. The more fateful results of inflation derive from the fact that the rise in prices and wages which it causes occurs at different times and in different measure for various kinds of commodities and labor. Some classes of prices and wages rise more quickly and to a higher level than others. While inflation is under way, some people enjoy the benefit of higher prices on the goods and services they sell, while the prices of goods and services they buy have not yet risen at all or not to the same extent. These people profiteer by virtue of their fortunate position. For them inflation is good business. Their gains are derived from the losses of other sections of the population. The losers are those in the unhappy situation of selling services and commodities whose prices have not yet risen at all or not in the same degree as the prices of things they buy for their own consumption. Two of the world’s greatest philosophers, David Hume and John Stuart Mill, took pains to construct a scheme of inflationary changes in which the rise of prices and wages occurs at the same time and to the same extent for all commodities and services. They both failed in the endeavor. Modern monetary theory has provided us with the irrefutable demonstration that this disproportion and nonsimultaneousness are inevitable features of every change in the quantity of money and credit.
Under a system of world inflation or world credit expansion every nation will be eager to belong to the class of gainers and not to that of the losers. It will ask for as much as possible of the additional quantity of paper money or credit for its own country. As no method could eliminate the inequalities mentioned above, and as no just principle for the distribution could be found, antagonisms would originate for which there would be no satisfactory solution. The populous poor nations of Asia would, for instance, advocate a per capita allotment, a procedure which would result in raising the prices of the raw materials they produce more quickly than those of the manufactured goods they buy. The richer nations would ask for a distribution according to national incomes or according to the total amount of business turnover or other similar standards. There is no hope that an agreement could be reached.
David Stockman’s The Great Deformation is a tour de force of historical revisionism that demolishes the conventional economic and political wisdom prevailing both prior to and in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. Approaching his subject from many different angles, he demonstrates in thorough and specific detail, including much direct personal experience, that the roots of the crisis stretch back many decades. Few if any stones are left unturned; few if any major US political actors escape criticism; and all are subject to healthy scrutiny regardless of their orientation on the left-right spectrum. Indeed, Stockman makes clear that the facile left-right distinction of US politics obscures a deeper crisis of capitalism that spans the breadth of the American economic and political landscape. While he admits he has little hope that America can now change course, in closing he does offer a few specific policy recommendations that might, just might, lay the foundation for a Great American Reformation, were they to be implemented in future.
A most credible source
There is no more credible source for a book detailing the myriad policy failures collectively contributing to America’s decent into crony capitalism than David Stockman. Elected to Congress in the 1970s while still in his 20s, he was selected by President Reagan to be his first budget director at age 31 and was thus the youngest Cabinet-level US official to serve in the entire 20th century.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in comparison to the seasoned older guard dominating the Reagan White House, Stockman became rapidly disillusioned by the striking contrast between Reagan’s lofty rhetoric on the one hand and the reality of White House policies on the other. He left politics in 1985 for the private sector and entered the world of private equity as a partner at the Blackstone Group.
As Stockman himself admits, however, he is not entirely above the criticism he levels repeatedly at others throughout the book. Three prominent examples include his admission of avoiding the Vietnam draft by enrolling in Harvard Divinity School; being repeatedly outmanoeuvred by highly experienced political operatives while serving in the Reagan White House; and bearing at least some responsibility for a handful of poor investment decisions while working at Blackstone.
This honest introspection only serves to make the book more credible. Stockman is an American taking a long look in the mirror and asking the tough questions that few in power will ask, associated as they all are, in some way, with the great tragedy he describes in thorough detail.
The first polemical punch
Stockman wastes no time in landing his first polemical punch: on the first page, he observes that the US ‘Fiscal Cliff’, around which there was such high political drama late last year, is both “permanent and insoluble,” and that the chronic US deficit and debt problem is “the result of capture of the state, especially its central bank, the Federal Reserve, by crony capitalist forces deeply inimical to free markets and democracy.”
What follows is page after page of shocking detail regarding the metastatising crony-capitalist cancer consuming the US economy’s once great potential. While primarily concerned with recent developments, a great strength of the book is that it seeks always to trace the roots of The Great Deformation back to their beginnings, for example, in early 20th century Progressivism; in President Roosevelt’s New Deal; or in the Republican Party’s fateful decision in the 1960s to sever its small-government roots.
Debunking the conventional wisdom
Throughout the book, Stockman relentlessly attacks the economic conventional wisdom. In one instance he reaches back into the Great Depression to demonstrate that numerous policy errors both in the United States and abroad contributed to the 1929 stock market crash and subsequent banking crises of the early 1930s. Moreover, he demonstrates convincingly that it was not the military Keynesianism of the 1940s that ended the Depression but rather a severe and prolonged household and corporate deleveraging facilitated by a combination of women entering the workforce en masse, a general shortage or outright absence of many consumption goods and the associated, unusually high national savings rate.
This goes directly against the mainstream interpretation that increased rates of savings only serve to make financial crises even worse. But Stockman does not stop there. He shows how the rapid public sector deficit reduction in the immediate postwar period and the general fiscal prudence of the Truman and Eisenhower years enabled the rapid, healthy, sustainable growth of the 1950s and 1960s to proceed absent any material increase in the public debt and absent inflationary pressures on prices.
This began to change during the Kennedy administration but it was under Johnson and Nixon that traditional American fiscal convervatism was shown the door for good. From this point forward, the tone of the book changes dramatically as Stockman initiates a devastating assault on the conventional wisdom: The entire left-right narrative of US politics is demonstrated to be a great charade. Even the early Reagan years in which Stockman was a direct policy participant are shown to be an exercise in the relentless growth of government, associated deficits and debt. As he explains it, “Rather than a permanent era of robust free market growth, the Reagan Revolution ushered in two spells of massive statist policy stimulation.” Indeed, Stockman characterises the Reagan and Bush years as a ‘Keynesian Boom’.
As Stockman explains, for all the talk to this day of Reagan’s fiscal conservatism, the only meaningful conservative policy victory of the time was achieved by the Fed, not the government. Paul Volcker did what was required to stabilise the dollar and bring down inflation following the disastrous stagflationary 1970s, the inevitable consequence of Johnson’s and Nixon’s fiscal largesse, the hugely expensive Vietnam war, soaring government deficits, de-pegging the dollar’s link to gold and the Fed’s accommodation of, among other associated phenomena, higher crude oil prices via OPEC.
As is the consistently the case throughout the book, however, Stockman highlights the links between failed economic policies and their unfortunate social consequences: The relentless growth of moral hazard and crony capitalism. Once Volker had left the stage, replaced by Alan ‘Bubbles’ Greenspan (sic), he explains how the Fed began de facto to target asset prices, in particular the stock and housing markets, and that “Under the Fed’s new prosperity management regime … the buildup of wealth did not require sacrifice or deferred consumption. Instead, it would be obtained from a perpetual windfall of capital gains arising from the financial casinos.” Wow.
That’s right, for decades the stock market has been a financial casino, rigged as desired by the Fed to (mis)manage the economy, and now all that is left is a “bull market culture” that has “totally deformed the free market.”
Stockman also points out how the decades leading up to 2008 were replete with ‘foreshocks’ of the eventual financial earthquake. For example, there was the S&L crisis of the late-1980s and early 1990s. There was the Long-Term-Capital debacle. And each and every time that the Fed’s economic management led, either directly or not, to near-calamity, the bailout beneficiaries were enriched anew.
With most of Stockman’s criticism is directed at Washington, Wall Street and the Fed, he nevertheless reserves some for the non-financial corporate sector. As he explains:
Alongside the Fed’s cheap credit regime, there arose a noxious distortion of the tax code best summarized as ‘leveraged inside buildup’. The linchpin was successive legislative reductions of the tax rate on capital gains that resulted in a wide gap between high rates on ordinary income and negligible taxes on capital gains. This huge tax wedge became a powerful incentive to rearrange capital structures so that ordinary income could be converted into capital gains.
In Stockman’s view there is thus plenty of blame to go around. On a few occasions he even criticises the defence establishment, holding up Eisenhower as the last example of Pentagon budgetary discipline. While he hardly comes across as a dove in foreign policy, he is certainly not as hawkish as recent administrations and he points out a handful of examples of failed defence policies and budgetary largesse past and present.
Beyond left and right
Readers who attempt to understand this book according to any variation of the current economic policy mainstream or through the obsolete left-right narrative of US politics will struggle to understand Stockman’s independent perspective. The Great Deformation is written by an old-school, small-government ‘Eisenhower Republican’ and champion of the free-market who perceives more clearly than most just how far the insidious crony-capitalist rot has spread, whether it be facilitated by purportedly left-leaning ‘regulation’ or encouraged by right-leaning tax-reform. As Stockman repeatedly demonstrates, the concept of ‘capture’ applies equally to both.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given the horrifying state of affairs he so cogently describes, Stockman is not sanguine about America’s future. The US is travelling down Hayek’s fabled ‘Road to Serfdom’ as the government and central bank respond to the damaging effects of failed interventionism with escalating interventionism. Indeed, since at least 2008, the evidence is overwhelming that America has been accelerating down that tragic road.
In closing, Stockman offers some ideas that might help the US to reverse course, although he strongly doubts that they will be adopted. If anything, the political winds from both left and right continue to blow in the other direction. No doubt his polemic will be rebuffed by those in power on both sides of the aisle in Congress and his recommendations for reform will go unheeded. That Stockman knows this, but wrote this book regardless, demonstrates his love for America. Anyone sharing that love should read it.
In this article I will argue that the recent slide in the gold price has generated substantial demand for bullion that will likely bring forward a financial and systemic disaster for both central and bullion banks that has been brewing for a long time. To understand why, we must examine their role and motivations in precious metals markets and assess current ownership of physical gold, while putting investor emotion into its proper context.
In the West (by which in this article I broadly mean North America and Europe) the financial community treats gold as an investment. However, of the global pool of gold, which GoldMoney estimates to be about 160,000 tonnes, the amount actually held by western investors in portfolios is a very small fraction of this amount. Furthermore investor behaviour, which in itself accounts for just part of the West’s bullion demand, is sharply at odds with the hoarders’ objectives, which is behind underlying tensions in bullion markets. To compound the problem, analysts, whose focus incorporates portfolio investment theories and assumptions, have very little understanding of the economic case for precious metals, being schooled in modern neo-classical economic theories.
These economic theories, coupled with modern investment analysis when applied to bullion pricing, have failed to understand the growing human desire for protection from monetary instability. The result has for a considerable time been the suppression of bullion prices in capital markets below their natural level of balance set by supply and demand. Furthermore, the value put on precious metals by hoarders in the West has been less than the value to hoarders in other countries, particularly the growing numbers of savers in Asia.
These tensions, if they persist, are bound to contribute to the eventual destruction of paper currencies.
The ownership of gold
The amount of gold bullion that backs investor-driven markets is not statistically recorded, but we can illustrate its significance relative to total stocks by referring back to the time of the oil crisis of the mid-1970s. In 1974 the global stock of gold was estimated to be half that of today, at about 80,000 tonnes. Monetary gold was about 37,000 tonnes, leaving 43,000 tonnes in the form of non-monetary bullion, coins and jewellery. Let us arbitrarily assume, on the basis of global wealth distribution, that two thirds of this was held by the minority population in the West, amounting to about 30,000 tonnes.
This figure probably grew somewhat before the early 1980s, spurred by the bull market and growing fear of inflation, which saw investors buy mainly coins and mining shares. Demand for gold bars was driven by the rapid accumulation of dollars in the oil-exporting nations, as well as some hoarding by wealthy investors from all over the world through Switzerland and London.
The sharp rise in global interest rates in the Volcker era, the subsequent decline of the inflation threat and the resulting bear market for gold inevitably led to a reduction of bullion holdings by wealthy investors in the West. Swiss and other private banks, employing a new generation of fund managers and investment advisors trained in modern portfolio theories, started selling their customers’ bullion positions in the 1980s, leaving very little by 2000. In the latter stages of the bear market, jewellery sales in the West became a replacement source of bullion supply, but this was insufficient to compensate for massive portfolio liquidation.
So by the year 2000, Western ownership of non-monetary gold suffered the severe attrition of a twenty-year bear market and the reduction of inflation expectations. Portfolios, which routinely had 10-15% exposure to gold 40 years ago even today have virtually no exposure at all. Given that jewellery consumption in Europe and North America was only 400-750 tonnes per annum over the period, by the year 2000 overall gold ownership in the West must have declined significantly from the 1974 guesstimate of 30,000 tonnes. While the total gold stock in 2000 stood at 128,000 tonnes, the virtual elimination of portfolio holdings will have left Western holders with little more than perhaps an accumulation of jewellery, coins and not much else: bar ownership would have been at a very low ebb.
Since 2000, demand from countries such as India and more recently China is known to have increased sharply, supporting the thesis that gold has continued to accumulate at an accelerating pace in non-Western hands.
Western bullion markets have therefore been on the edge of a physical stock crisis for some time. Much of the West’s physical gold ownership since 2000 has been satisfied by recycling scrap originating in the West, suggesting that total gold ownership in the West today barely rose before the banking crisis despite a tripling of prices. Meanwhile the disparity between demand for gold in the West compared with the rest of the world has continued, while the West’s investment management community has been actively discouraging investment.
The result has been that nearly all new mine production and Western central bank supply has been absorbed by non-Western hoarders and their central banks. While post-banking crisis there has presumably been a pick-up in Western hoarding, as evidenced by ETF and coin sales and some institutional involvement, it is dwarfed by demand from other countries. So it is reasonable to conclude that of the total stock of non-monetary gold, very little of it is left in Western hands. And so long as the pressure for migration out of the West’s ownership continues, there will come a point where there is so little gold left that futures and forwards markets cease to operate effectively. That point might have actually arrived, signalled by attempts to smash the price this month.
This admittedly broad-brush assessment has important implications for the price stability essential to bullion banks operating in paper markets as well as for central banks attempting to maintain confidence in their paper currencies.
Precious metals in capital markets
In the West itself, the attitudes of the investment community are fundamentally different from even those of the majority of Western hoarders, who are looking for protection from systemic and currency risks as opposed to investment returns. Western investors are generally oblivious to the implications, the most fundamental of which is that falling prices actually stimulate physical demand. Before the recent dramatic slide in prices the investment community undervalued precious metals compared with Western hoarders, let alone those in Asia, encouraging physical bullion to migrate from financial markets both to firmer hands in the West as well as the bulk of it to non-West ownership. There is now irrefutable evidence that these flows have accelerated significantly on lower prices in recent weeks, as rational price theory would lead one to expect.
Pricing bullion is therefore not as simple as the investment community generally believes. It is being put about, mostly on grounds of technical analysis, that the bull markets in gold and silver have ended, and precious metals have entered a new downtrend. The evidence cited is that medium and longer-term moving averages have been violated and are now falling; furthermore important support levels have been breached.
These developments, which arise out of the futures and forward markets, have rattled Western investors who thought they were in for an easy ride. However, a close examination of futures trading shows the bearish case even on investment grounds is flawed, as the following two charts of official statistics provided by weekly Commitment of Traders data clearly show.
The Money Managers category is the clearest reflection in the official data of investor portfolio positions, representing sizeable mutual and hedge funds. In both cases, the number of long contracts is at historically low levels, and shorts, arguably the better reflection of money-manager sentiment, remain close to high extremes. On this basis, investor sentiment is clearly very bearish already, with the investment management community already committed to falling prices. Put very simplistically there are now more buyers than sellers.
Money Managers are in stark opposition to the Commercials, who seek to transfer entrepreneurial risk to Money Managers and other investor and speculator categories. The official statistics break Commercials down into two categories: Producer/Merchant/Processor/User, and Swap Dealers. Both categories include the activities of bullion banks, which in practice supply liquidity to the market. Because investors and speculators tend to run bull positions, bullion banks acting as market-makers will in aggregate always be short. A successful bullion bank trader will seek to make trading profits large enough to compensate for any losses on his net short position that arise from rising prices.
A bullion bank trader must avoid carrying large short positions if in his judgement prices are likely to rise. He will be more relaxed about maintaining a bear position in falling markets. Crucially, he must keep these opinions private, and the release of market statistics are designed to accommodate these dealers’ need for secrecy.
Bullion banks’ position details are disclosed at the beginning of every month in the Bank Participation Reports, again official statistics. They are broken down into two categories, based on the individual bank’s self-description on the CFTC’s Form 40, into US and Non-US Banks. Their positions are shown in the next two charts (note the time scale is monthly).
In both gold and silver, the bullion banks have managed to reduce their exposure from extreme net short over the last four months. The reduction of their market exposure suggests that they have been deliberately transferring this risk to other parties, and is consistent with an anticipation that bullion prices will rise. It is the other side of the high level of bearishness reflected in the Money Manager category shown in the first two charts. The bullion banks control the market; the Money Managers are merely tools of their trade.
There has been little reduction in open interest in gold and it has remained strong in silver, because risk has been transferred rather than extinguished. Daily official statistics on open interest are provided by the exchange and summarised in the next two charts (note that data is daily).
From these charts it can be seen that recent declines in the gold price are failing to reduce open interest further, and in silver open interest remains stubbornly high. Therefore, attempts by bullion banks to reduce their net short exposure by marking prices down are showing signs of failure.
We can therefore conclude that investor sentiment is at bearish extremes and the bullion banks have reduced their net short exposure to levels where it risks rising again. Therefore the downside for precious metals prices appears to be severely limited, contrary to sentiments expressed by technical analysts and in the media.
This market position is against a background of a growing shortage of physical bullion, which is our next topic.
Casual observers of precious metal prices are generally unaware that the headline writers focus on activity in the futures markets and generally ignore developments in physical bullion. This is consistent with the fact that market data is available in the former, while dealing in the latter is secretive. However, as with icebergs, it is not what you see above the water that matters so much as that which is out of sight below.
It is not often understood in investment circles that gold and silver are commodities for which the laws of supply and demand are not overridden by investor psychology. Therefore, if the price falls, demand increases. Indeed, the increase in demand has far outweighed selling by nervous investors; even before the price-drop, demand for both silver and gold significantly exceeded supply. Evidence ranges from readily available statistics on record demand for newly-minted gold and silver coins and the net accumulation of gold by non-Western central banks, to trade-based information such as imports and exports of non-monetary gold as well as reports from trade associations reporting demand in diverse countries such as India, China, the UK, US, Japan and even Australia.
All this evidence points in the same direction: that physical demand is increasing on every price drop. There is therefore a growing pricing conflict between futures and forward markets, which do not generally involve settlement but the rolling-over of speculative positions, and of the underlying physical metal. Furthermore, analysts make the mistake of looking at gold purely in terms of mining and scrap supply, when nearly all gold ever mined is theoretically available to the market, in the right conditions and at the right price. The other side of this larger coin is that if the price of gold is suppressed by activity in paper markets to below what it would otherwise be, the stimulus for physical demand, being based on a 160,000 tonne market, is likely to be considerably greater on a given price drop than analysts who are myopic beyond 2,750 tonnes of annual mine production might expect. The numbers that are available confirm this to have been the case, particularly over the last few weeks, with reports from all over the world of an unprecedented surge in demand.
This is at the root of a developing crisis of which few commentators are as yet aware. Demand for physical has accelerated the transfer of bullion from capital markets to hoarders everywhere and from the West’s capital markets to other countries, which has been the trend since the oil crisis in the mid-Seventies. This is what’s behind an acute shortage of physical gold in capital markets, explaining perhaps why bullion banks feel the need to reduce their short positions.
While we can detail their exposure in futures markets, meaningful statistics are not available in over-the-counter forward markets, particularly for London, which dominates this form of trading. Forwards are considerably more flexible than futures as a trading medium, generating trading profits, commissions, fees and collateralised banking business. The ability to run unallocated client accounts, whereby a client’s gold is taken onto a bank’s balance sheet, is in stable market conditions an extremely profitable activity, made more profitable by high operational gearing. The result is that paper forward positions are many multiples of the physical bullion available. The extent of this relationship between physical bullion and paper is not recorded, but judging by the daily turnover in London there is an enormous synthetic short physical position. For this reason a sharply rising price would be catastrophic and any drain on bullion supplies rapidly escalates the risk.
Overseeing this market is the Bank of England co-operating with other Western central banks and the Bank for International Settlements, whose combined interest obviously favours price stability. They have been quick to supply the market if needed, confirmed by freely-admitted leasing operations in the past, and by secretive supply into the market, which has been detected by independent supply and demand analysis over the last 15 years. Furthermore, as currency-issuing banks, central banks are unlikely to take kindly to market signals that suggest gold is a better store of value than their own paper money.
We can only speculate about day-to-day interventions by Western central banks in gold markets. In this regard it seems that the slide in prices on the 12th and 15th April was triggered by a very large seller of paper gold; if this market story and the amount mentioned are correct, it can only be central bank intervention, acting to deliberately drive prices lower. Given the market position, with Money Managers in the futures markets already short and highly vulnerable to a bear squeeze, the story seems credible. The objective would be to persuade holders of physical ETFs and allocated gold accounts to sell and supply the market, on the assumption that they would behave as investors convinced the bull market is over.
For the last 40 years gold bullion ownership has been migrating from West to elsewhere, mostly the Middle East and Asia, where it is more valued. The buyers are not investors, but hoarders less complacent about the future for paper currencies than the West’s banking and investment community. There was a shortage of physical metal in the major centres before the recent price fall, which has only become more acute, fully absorbing ETF and other liquidation, which is small in comparison to the demand created by lower prices. If the fall was engineered with the collusion of central banks it has backfired spectacularly.
The time when central banks will be unable to continue to manage bullion markets by intervention has probably been brought closer. They will face having to rescue the bullion banks from the crisis of rising gold and silver prices by other means, if only to maintain confidence in paper currencies. Any gold held by struggling eurozone nations, theoretically available to supply markets as a stop-gap, will not last long and may have been already sold.
This will likely develop into another financial crisis at the worst possible moment, when central banks are already being forced to flood markets with paper currency to keep interest rates down, banks solvent, and to finance governments’ day-to-day spending. Its importance is that it threatens more than any other of the various crises to destabilise confidence in government-backed currencies, bringing an early end to all attempts to manage the others systemic problems.
History might judge April 2013 as the month when through precipitate action in bullion markets Western central banks and the banking community finally began to lose control over all financial markets.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
Once upon a time the pound sterling ruled the world of finance. Today it has been relegated to a less regal status, displaced by the U.S. dollar over the course of the twentieth century. Not only is very little international trade performed in sterling these days, but there are new doubts that it will remain the exclusive currency on the British mainland.
With the looming vote on Scottish independence comes the threat that an independent Scotland will introduce its own currency.
Once upon a time, English as a language was a little known form of communication, largely isolated to the British Isles. Starting at about the same time as the spread of sterling as the universal money throughout the world, English set off on the route to global dominance. Today there are about 350 million native English speakers, but this number is dwarfed by the masses that use it as a lingua franca - their second or even third language.
Considering their common pedigree, one may ask why the currency is now a second-rate citizen in the world of international finance while the language is going stronger than ever.
Historians commonly attribute the rise of the English language to the rise of Pax Britannica throughout the 19th century. This period did see the English economy rise to great stature and expand its scope to the point where the sun never set on the British Empire. However, other great European economies also flourished and encompassed many foreign lands. The Spanish Empire at its pinnacle included more square miles than the British (though never as many people). Both France and Germany had sizable colonies. Even the Russians, it can be argued, held huge “colonies” in the form of the Soviet Bloc.
Alternatively one could say that the rise of the United States (complete with its dominant media industry) assured the rise of the English language. Yet this too seems to put the cart before the horse. Much of America was settled by non-English speakers (Spaniards in the south-west, French in the South-east and Northern European Germans, Scandinavians and Dutch in the upper mid-west). English was emerging as the linguistic force to be reckoned with before the ascendance of the U.S. as a world super power, which really only happened after World War I.
Instead, the rise of the English language can be largely explained by its decentralized nature. It is true that English grammar is quite simple relative to other languages, especially its Romance and Germanic brethren. Yet if anything this would normally incentivize Romance and German speakers to streamline their own grammatical rules to make adoption easier. In most languages this is not possible due to their extreme form of centralization. French and Spanish, as examples, require linguistic changes to be approved by the centralized governing body (L’Académie Française in France, and the Real Academia Española in Spain). Changes are almost impossible as they must go through the usual bureaucratic approval process as other changes to legislature.
It is no surprise that French and Spanish as languages are slow to adopt to changes, in much the same way as their legal systems are outdated and move only at a snail’s pace. Lacking any centralised authority, anyone was able to use English, but more importantly, they could change it as they saw fit. Changes and new words occurred spontaneously as a response to market demands, not to the pen of a bureaucrat. This form of crowd sourcing allowed the English language to be modified as it spread around the globe and incorporate the intricacies of daily life and the existing languages of its newfound locals.
By contrast, the British pound sterling has suffered from centuries of centralised mismanagement. Since the creation of the Bank of England in 1694, the venerable old lady has done what she can to diminish the pound sterling on an ongoing basis. While the First World War was devastating in many respects for Britain, one of the longest lasting effects was the decoupling of the pound from gold. This shift left the once proud currency open to continual and unabated inflation at the hands of the Bank of England, with the result that it is now worth a fraction of what it was just a century prior.
In international finance people use the language that makes trade easiest, as well as the money that best facilitates its dealings. A decentralized language system has proven an overwhelming success as it is now the standard around the globe. The centralized monetary system has been mismanaged to the point where few outside of the country elect for sterling in their affairs. With the Scottish independence vote approaching it is questionable how many people within the United Kingdom want to continue using it.
If George Osborne stays up at night wondering what the future will be for the pounds his Treasury manages perhaps he would do best to take a lesson from British history. The English language became a world standard without the oversight of Parliament – perhaps it is time to recognise the same can be true for the pound sterling as well.
The crypto-currency Bitcoin is still merely a speck on the global monetary landscape. It is young, experimental, and for all we know, it may ultimately fail to break into the monetary mainstream. However, on a conceptual level I am willing to call it a work of genius and arguably the most exciting development in the field of money for more than 130 years. Let’s say since the start of the Classical Gold Standard in 1879. Does this sound like hyperbole? Well, let me explain.
The Decline and Fall of Capitalist Money
The 20th century was, broadly speaking, a period of almost constant monetary decay. At around 1900 most economists, politicians and bankers would have correctly stated that global capitalism – an international market economy facilitating the free exchange of goods and services across political borders and thus allowing extensive human cooperation through trade – required an international, apolitical, and hard form of money. Such money was gold. It was the basis of the capitalist economy and it imposed strict discipline on all market participants. Crucially, that included governments and banks. Governments had to operate pretty much like private businesses. They had to balance their books, i.e. live within the means provided by taxation, and if they borrowed money in the marketplace their lenders were at full risk of default as no government could print money (gold) to repay loans or even meet interest payments on loans. Banks, of course, issued banknotes or bank-deposits that were not backed by gold but still used by the public as if they were money proper – these were and still are ‘money-derivatives’ – but again they did so at full risk of default as nobody could ‘print’ bank-reserves (gold again) to bail out the banks in case the public tired of the ‘derivatives’ and wanted to hold gold instead.
Over the course of the 20th century – or to be precise, from 1914 to 1971 – the monetary system was completely changed as a consequence of a number of entirely political maneuvers, all of them undermining the quality of money. Today, hard, international and apolitical money has everywhere been replaced with entirely elastic, national and politicized money, with money that central banks issue under a territorial monopoly at no cost and with no meaningful constraints on issuance, and that the central bankers use to ‘manage’ the ‘national’ economy (itself increasingly an out-of-date-concept), and to fund the state and grow the domestic banks (which, under the protection of a lender-of-last-and-first-resort, now issue unprecedented amounts of money derivatives).
Today the global monetary map resembles a patchwork of local, “nationalistic” paper monies, each of which is a political tool, often openly manipulated in an attempt to benefit the local export industry at the expense of foreign competitors or to ‘stimulate’ the ethereal concept of ‘aggregate demand’. Not surprisingly, the global economy is drowning in debt (increasingly public sector debt), suffers from a bloated financial sector and international trade tensions, and stumbles from one crisis to another, each one worse than its predecessor.
Bizarrely – but not entirely surprisingly – politicians, bankers and modern ‘enlightened’ economists now tell us that this unhinged financial system is to our benefit, really, just trust us.
Truth be told, the present monetary system is a hindrance to free trade, properly functioning markets and human cooperation across borders, and it might already be on its last leg. Yet a powerful but entirely misguided, consensus seems to have taken hold of public opinion, namely that ‘elastic’ money could be beneficial if money’s supply was only managed astutely by some clever monetary central planners.
I wrote Paper Money Collapse – The Folly of Elastic Money and the Coming Monetary Breakdown to challenge that consensus, to show that ‘elasticity’ of supply is always a negative for money. Elastic money is not needed. It is entirely superfluous. Moreover, elastic money is always disruptive. A monetary system based on an inherently elastic and constantly expanding supply of money is unstable and ultimately unsustainable. The reason why gold made such good money for thousands of years is precisely its essentially inelastic supply.
The word ‘Bitcoin’ does not even appear in my book. The reason is simply that I had not heard of Bitcoin by the time I handed in my final manuscript in early 2011. But when I learnt about Bitcoin soon afterwards I was immediately fascinated. Like many others, I could conceive of ‘internet money’ or ‘virtual money’. As I had explained in the book, money does not have to exist in physical form and the fact that most money today is electronic money poses no problem for the monetary theoretician. The problem with this type of money is not that it is immaterial but that its supply is completely elastic, and I simply could not see how money that was not based on a nature-given and strictly limited commodity could have an entirely inelastic supply. It was Bitcoin’s inelasticity by design that I saw immediately as one of its greatest strengths and its true genius.
My work rehabilitates the gold standard. It shows that it was a mistake to abandon gold as the basis of our financial system and replace it with entirely elastic state fiat money. When (not if) the present fiat money system finally ends we could and should return to gold. The only alternative I now see, at least on a purely conceptual level, is Bitcoin, or something like Bitcoin: hard, apolitical, immaterial, virtual money.
Bitcoin is cryptographic gold
By now most readers will probably have heard of Bitcoin and have some notion of what it is. But in any case, let me give you a quick run-down. The economist Nikolay Gertchev, in a blog on the Mises Institute website (republished here), explains it quite well, although Gertchev, like many other members of the “Austro-Libertarian” movement, is somewhat reserved when it comes to embracing Bitcoin. I am surprised by the extent of scepticism in that community and believe that in general it is unfounded. But first the description:
“A bitcoin is a unit of a nonmaterial virtual currency, also called crypto-currency, by the same name. (Bitcoin is a medium of exchange that only exists in the virtual world. DS) They are stored in anonymous “electronic wallets,” described by a series of about 33 letters and numbers. Bitcoins can travel from a wallet to a wallet, by means of an online peer-to-peer network transaction. Any inter-wallet transfer is registered in the code of the bitcoin, so that the record of its entire transaction history clearly identifies its owner at any single moment, thereby preventing potential ownership conflicts. Bitcoins can be further divided into increments as small as one 100 millionth of a bitcoin. The current outstanding volume of bitcoins is above 10 million and is projected to reach 21 million in the year 2140.”
“This brings us to the truly fascinating production process of the bitcoins. They are “mined” based on a pre-defined mathematical algorithm, and come in a bundle, currently of 25 units, as a reward for carrying out a large number of computational operations that aim at discovering the solution to what could be described as a randomized mathematical puzzle. The role of the algorithm is to ensure a declining progression of the overall stock of bitcoins, by halving the reward every four years. Thus, somewhere in the beginning of 2017, the reward bundle will consist of 12.5 units only. Also, the more bitcoins are produced, the harder are the randomized mathematical puzzles to be solved.”
Bitcoin is immaterial money yet strictly limited in its supply. Once 21 million units are in existence, probably in 2140, that’s it. No more Bitcoin can be issued. In fact, the supply of Bitcoin is more inelastic than the supply of gold. Also, the available supply of Bitcoin at any moment in time is substantially more transparent than that of gold.
If Bitcoin ever became money in its own right (how it could do so, I will discuss below), then it would be international, hard and entirely inelastic money. Like gold it also does not decay, is homogenous and (almost) perfectly divisible. Bitcoin fulfils all the requirements of good money. In the long run, gold does not have to fear fiat money, which is always suboptimal as it always is national, politicized, manipulated, unstable and inflationary money. For one thousand years, state paper monies have come and gone. Gold (and silver) stayed. Gold just has to sit still and wait for this, the latest and most audacious and arrogant, experiment with global free-floating paper money to fail, and it will come back. But now it faces, potentially, its first meaningful challenger: inelastic crypto-currency, Bitcoin.
Money of no authority
There is no central authority that issues Bitcoin and can manipulate its supply for its own gain or for any alleged ‘greater good’ of society. Positively cringe-inducing, although sometimes unintentionally funny, are the embarrassing attempts by establishment spokespeople to discredit Bitcoin on account that, unlike all that astutely managed state fiat money, Bitcoin would not constantly be losing purchasing power. In fact, just as in the case of gold, Bitcoin’s purchasing power can reasonably be expected to constantly appreciate over time.
But, so we hear the assorted ‘enlightened’ economists of the Keynesian persuasion exclaim in horror, that would mean we would all suffer from dreadful deflation, from which only an elite of highly-qualified government-appointed central bank bureaucrats and a well-oiled printing press can save us. Apart from the fact that these self-appointed money masters have neither proper economic theory nor the experience of a thousand years of financial history on the side of their destructive agenda, they obviously do not even comprehend how far their system of manipulated funny money has already discredited itself.
Inelastic money can satisfy ANY demand
As I have explained in Paper Money Collapse no society (not even a healthily growing one) needs a constantly expanding supply of money. Money is a unique economic good. Because it is the medium of exchange, money is the only good that is demanded exclusively for its exchange value, not for any use-value its substance (if it has a substance at all) may also have.
Nobody who has demand for money has demand for a certain quantity of paper notes, or a certain weight of gold, or a certain number of digits on a computer hard-drive. Money-users have demand for the exchange value that these items contain in exchange for other goods and service, i.e. qua being accepted by others as money. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power.
Once a good is widely accepted as a medium of exchange (whether that good is gold, paper tickets, or sequences of digital ones and noughts), the public can, at any moment in time, hold precisely the amount of money – readily exercisable purchasing power – it wants to hold. If the demand for money goes up, the public will sell non-money goods for money or reduce money-outlays for non-money goods. As a result, the money-prices of non-money goods fall and the purchasing power of each monetary unit (whether gold, paper tickets, or digital code) will rise. This process satisfies – automatically, instantly and naturally – the higher demand for money. The public now holds more readily exercisable purchasing power in the form of money, not because a clever, über-prescient money producer has created new money units, but simply and much more straightforwardly, because the exchange-value of the existing money stock has increased.
Once a good is widely accepted as money, no further production of that good is required. In fact, as I also demonstrated in Paper Money Collapse, any attempt to flexibly inject money into the economy in order to ‘stabilize’ money’s purchasing power, or, as is declared policy today, to constantly debase it at an officially sanctioned rate, must not only fail in its primary objective (‘price level stability’) but must cause grave distortions in the wider economy. Furthermore, the steady secular deflation that is to be expected under inelastic money, such as gold or Bitcoin, is not only not economically disruptive, it is even beneficial. Just consider one aspect: as money will then have a moderate positive real return, people who have no knowledge of financial markets and investing, and who do not have the resources to hire professional advisors, can save by simply holding money. This is impossible in our fiat money economy of constant inflation and increasing monetary instability.
As Bitcoin has no issuing authority it has no country of residence or origin. It is truly global money. It can be used for payment anywhere in the world without going through banking systems or foreign-exchange markets. It is undeniable that the multitude of local paper monies poses a considerable hindrance to free trade and thus the rise of living standards in large parts of the world as this system necessarily introduces an element of partial barter into international trade relations. Today’s massive foreign-exchange markets are nothing but a make-shift, a crutch to deal with the suboptimal and politically motivated arrangement of various local currencies. This market ties up capital (both financial and human) without adding any real wealth to society.
If Bitcoin were to get widely accepted – and that is still a big if – it could become a great platform for connecting potentially any two counterparties in the world in direct financial transactions. It is the ultimate disintermediator: no banks needed.
At this point it might be objected that it only connects people who have access to the internet or smartphones but this is obviously a rapidly shrinking barrier. On my travels in Africa last year, I found that internet access was usually more ubiquitous than bank branches. And by the way, Kenya and Tanzania already have M-Pesa, the world’s most developed mobile payment system that uses the mobile phone network to facilitate money transfers. These countries could easily make the transition to smartphone-based payment systems without ever making the detour through clunky bank branch networks.
On the issue of tying down capital, Bitcoin wins hands-down against any other financial system, including a gold standard. Bitcoin does not require any physical storage, which naturally is always expensive. Bitcoin is monetary raw material and payment system in one. (Although, fascinatingly, the free market has already created physical Bitcoins.)
Money requires trust. We presently do not live under a gold standard but, as Jim Grant has observed so astutely, a PhD-standard, a system of flexible, state-sponsored money, managed by people like Ben Bernanke and his team at the Fed, who enjoy the privilege of implementing policies based on their own faulty monetary theories and hair-raising interpretations of economic history, while a cheap-money-addicted class of speculators plays them like a fiddle and laughs all the way to the bank. The appeal of gold has always been that it does not require the public to put trust in a ‘money elite’ but that it only has to trust gold’s creator: mother nature. With Bitcoin you only have to trust the algorithm, and as this is open software, there cannot even be a hidden agenda. Bitcoin, just like a proper gold standard, is hard, capitalist money with no politics, no Federal Open Market Committee meetings, no monetary policy, no central banking bureaucracy. It is free market money.
Common objections to Bitcoin
Given its free market and ultra-hard-currency credentials, the scepticism towards Bitcoin in parts of the Austro-Libertarian community is somewhat surprising. I think some of the objections are easily refuted. There is, first of all, the idea that Bitcoin could have many imitators, which would undermine its uniqueness and reduce its attractiveness. If Bitcoin itself cannot be inflated, what about the concept of crypto-currencies, could it be inflated by too many different currencies on offer?
This argument strikes me as weak. By all accounts Bitcoin’s design and cryptographic robustness are an exceptional accomplishment. It is not as if any hacker of medium talent could pull off something similar tomorrow. But even if he could, the argument completely underestimates first-mover advantage in the area of goods and services with substantial network effects. How many people have launched a second Facebook or a second Twitter since these inventions kicked-off the social media craze, although technologically, these inventions are much simpler than crypto-currency? – Nobody. The network effects of these goods are immense. Once they have a certain acceptance it is hard, if not impossible, for late-comers to break in. These goods and services have value for their users predominantly because others use them too, and the more people use them, the more valuable they get. There is no good for which this is truer than money – the general medium of exchange. Customized money is an oxymoron. Consequently, once a form of money is accepted, it is very difficult to take business away from it.
This feature of money is obviously a problem for Bitcoin in its fight against established state paper monies but is equally a big plus when it comes to keeping potential new entrants into the crypto-currency arena at bay. Bitcoin now dominates the market for crypto-currencies (it pretty much IS the market for crypto-currencies, in my view) and I believe that only the discovery of major flaws in Bitcoin – none seem to have surfaced in its four-year life up to now, and every day they are less likely to appear – or if some vastly superior crypto-currency came along but I am hard-pressed to see in which aspect it could outperform Bitcoin. But just launching another crypto-currency – a Bitcoin clone – is certainly not going to put a dent into Bitcoin.
Menger and Mises would love Bitcoin
Many ‘Austrians’ get thrown off by Menger’s theory of the origin of money and Mises’ so-called ‘regression theorem’, and somewhat rashly conclude that Bitcoin can never achieve money-status because it did not originate from a non-money commodity. Mises was correct when he stated that something could only become money if it had previously, that is, before it was used by somebody as a medium of exchange in its own right for the first time, established some value in trade. For if that had not been the case, how could the first person to employ the commodity as money have any point of reference by which to assess its value and determined its exchange value for the first monetary transaction? However, this theorem, which remains unrefuted in my view, does not apply to Bitcoin. Bitcoin can simply piggyback on established forms of money that already have exchange-value and derive its original value from them before it does, over time, establish its own value.
The same has, in fact, happened in the case of paper money. The paper notes that are used as money today did not start their ascent to widely used and generally accepted monetary assets from humble beginnings as commodities – that is, as mere paper – but started out as paper-claims on physical gold. Gold was money and the paper tickets simply a technology to transfer ownership of gold. When the first banknote was used it did not derive its exchange value from its paper content but from the fact that it could be exchanged for a fixed amount of gold. That was the necessary reference point – in accordance with Mises’ regression theorem. Paper money started as payment technology and as the public got used to paying with paper rather than with gold coins and gold bars, the underlying gold content could be reduced over time and ultimately the link to gold completely severed. What gives value to these paper tickets today? – The fact that the public still accepts these paper tickets in exchange for goods and services. That is all. And in fact, it is all that is needed. Any form of money – even gold, which still retains some functionality as industrial commodity or consumption good (jewellery), although that functionality is now irrelevant for its role as monetary asset – any form of money derives its money-value from the trading public and the public’s willingness to exchange the monetary asset for goods and services.
And herein lies in fact Bitcoin’s biggest challenge. However, this challenge is not of a conceptual nature. The concept of Bitcoin as money is, as I have tried to show above, extremely compelling. But Bitcoin has to offer something to the average money-user that state paper money cannot offer. Just as the banknote bestowed an instant and discernible benefit to each money-user relative to heavy gold coins, that allowed it to become a widely used medium of exchange in its own right and ultimately even operate without any link to gold, so Bitcoin has to set itself apart from fiat money and overcome fiat money’s powerful network advantage. The fact that fiat money is suboptimal in terms of its inflation characteristics and its disruptive effects on the broader economy is not something that bothers the average money user at the moment he desires to engage in monetary transactions, and do so as conveniently, securely and easily as possible. The state paper money system today offers easily useable ‘computer money’ and the broader public is still happy to use it. Why switch to Bitcoin?
Will Bitcoin get accepted by the wider public?
It is my impression that the community of Bitcoin users, although apparently growing strongly, is still largely composed of those who are fascinated by the technology as such and who want to be part of something new, and those who like it for ‘ideological’ reasons, i.e. those who detest state paper money or dislike the banking system. Thus, there is apparently still a big contingent of computer ‘nerds’, hackers, crypto-anarchists, anti-government libertarians and Occupy-Wall-Street-types among its user base (which is not to say that there are not many who do not fall into any of these categories). How could Bitcoin attract a broader base of money-consumers beyond these groups?
One powerful aspect is cost. Bitcoin transactions are free, so Bitcoin could become – or maybe it is already – the Skype of payment systems. Another attraction could simply be the usually reasonable, and with some effort potentially considerable, anonymity and untraceability that Bitcoin offers. This seems to be a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, Bitcoin is incredibly transparent. All transactions are literally in the open domain. However, each ‘user’ is only identified by his ‘address’ and the number of addresses is practically unlimited. One could use a new address for each transaction. This may not mean instant untraceability from ‘the authorities’ but then again, certain techniques and add-ons, some of which are still being developed, have the potential to increase anonymity and untraceability even further. Additionally, it is possible to acquire Bitcoin for cash – rather than via the established and already regulated exchanges – and thus anonymously.
This means Bitcoin could be used, as is a frequent charge against it already, for illegal transactions involving drugs and guns. But people do not have to be drug or arms dealers, or even ordinary tax cheats, to appreciate a certain degree of financial privacy. As bank secrecy laws disappear everywhere and as almost all governments are waging a ‘war on cash’, by which any transaction that involves more than just petty cash is to be moved to electronic systems within the state’s fiat money network, so that ‘the authorities’ achieve full ‘transparency’ as to what the citizenry is up to at any moment, there could well be a widespread demand for ‘outside’ electronic payment systems offering privacy. For example, a range of ‘activities’ exist engaging in which may not be, or not yet be, illegal but considered a major potential embarrassment to the parties involved if made public (gambling, pornography, escort services), so that many people would not want to have payment for them on their permanent records. This potential development is not lacking in irony: our modern information society with its trends towards the ‘transparent citizen’ and unlimited data storage holds many threats to a free society, privacy and individual liberty. It would be fitting if countermoves to these trends emanated from the same technology.
An additional boost to Bitcoin may come straight from the crumbling state paper money infrastructure itself. The cases of Iceland and in particular Cyprus have driven home the point that ‘money in the bank’ is far from safe, and even if your deposits have survived the bank collapse and the ‘bail-in’, you may not get them out of the country any time soon as capital controls are likely be imposed. As the overstretched paper money economy staggers towards its inevitable demise, more of these instances will occur providing an additional opening for Bitcoin. To the best of my knowledge, Bitcoins cannot be confiscated and Bitcoin accounts cannot be frozen Additionally, you store Bitcoin yourself rather than put them into a fractional-reserve bank that would conveniently use them as ‘reserves’ for its own ‘money derivative’ production.
What are Bitcoins worth?
I agree with Jon Matonis that nobody can give a reasonable answer but that the outcome is probably binary: Either Bitcoin ultimately fails and the individual Bitcoins end up worthless. Or Bitcoin takes off and Bitcoins are worth hundreds of thousands of paper dollars, paper yen, paper euros, or paper pounds. Maybe more. Those who buy Bitcoin as a speculative investment should consider it an option on the future success of the crypto-currency. At time of writing, Bitcoins are trading at $127 and £83 at Bitcoin-exchange Mt. Gox.
On a personal note, my biggest ‘liquid’ asset continues to be physical gold. As I explained on numerous occasions, I consider gold to be the essential self-defense asset in the ongoing paper money crisis. Gold is not being used presently by the wider public as a medium of exchange either but its two-thousand-plus year history as global money means that it retains monetary asset status and that its historic function as a liquid and lasting store of value – a function that fiat money cannot fulfil – remains unrivalled. By comparison, the brand-new crypto-currency Bitcoin has to first earn its stripes as a monetary asset by proving itself as a ‘common’ medium of exchange. That is why I view Bitcoin very differently from gold, although the attraction of both has its origin in the demise of entirely elastic, politicized state fiat money. I will certainly continue to follow the Bitcoin revolution with interest and sympathy.
In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.