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Economics

These fake rallies will end in tears

[Editor's note: This article also appears on Detlev Schlichter's blog here. It is reproduced with kind permission and should NOT be taken to be investment advice.]

Investors and speculators face some profound challenges today: How to deal with politicized markets, continuously “guided” by central bankers and regulators? To what extent do prices reflect support from policy, in particular super-easy monetary policy, and to what extent other, ‘fundamental’ factors? And how is all this market manipulation going to play out in the long run?

New York Stock Exchange 1963 (Photo: Wikimedia; US News and World Report; Library of Congress)

New York Stock Exchange 1963 (Photo: Wikimedia; US News and World Report; Library of Congress)

It is obvious that most markets would not be trading where they are trading today were it not for the longstanding combination of ultra-low policy rates and various programs of ‘quantitative easing’ around the world, some presently diminishing (US), others potentially increasing (Japan, eurozone). As major US equity indices closed last week at another record high and overall market volatility remains low, some observers may say that the central banks have won. Their interventions have now established a nirvana in which asset markets seem to rise almost continuously but calmly, with carefully contained volatility and with their downside apparently fully insured by central bankers who are ready to ease again at any moment. Those who believe in Schumpeter’s model of “bureaucratic socialism”, a system that he expected ultimately to replace capitalism altogether, may rejoice: Increasingly the capitalist “jungle” gets replaced with a well-ordered, centrally managed system guided by the enlightened bureaucracy. Reading the minds of Yellen, Kuroda, Draghi and Carney is now the number one game in town. Investors, traders and economists seem to care about little else.

“The problem is that we’re not there [in a low volatility environment] because markets have decided this, but because central banks have told us…” Sir Michael Hintze, founder of hedge fund CQS, observed in conversation with the Financial Times (FT, June 14/15 2014). “The beauty of capital markets is that they are voting systems, people vote every day with their wallets. Now voting is finished. We’re being told what to do by central bankers – and you lose money if you don’t follow their lead.”

That has certainly been the winning strategy in recent years. Just go with whatever the manipulators ordain and enjoy rising asset values and growing investment profits. Draghi wants lower yields on Spanish and Italian bonds? – He surely gets them. The US Fed wants higher equity prices and lower yields on corporate debt? – Just a moment, ladies and gentlemen, if you say so, I am sure we can arrange it. Who would ever dare to bet against the folks who are entrusted with the legal monopoly of unlimited money creation? “Never fight the Fed” has, of course, been an old adage in the investment community. But it gets a whole new meaning when central banks busy themselves with managing all sorts of financial variables directly, from the shape of the yield curve, the spreads on mortgages, to the proceedings in the reverse repo market.

Is this the “new normal”/”new neutral”? The End of History and the arrival of the Last Man, all over again?

The same FT article quoted Salman Ahmed, global bond strategist at Lombard Odier Investment Managers as follows: “Low volatility is the most important topic in markets right now. On the one side you have those who think this is the ‘new normal’, on the other are people like me who think it cannot last. This is a very divisive subject.”

PIMCO’s Bill Gross seems to be in the “new normal” camp. At the Barron’s mid-year roundtable 2014 (Barron’s, June 16, 2014) he said: “We don’t expect the party to end with a bang – the popping of a bubble. […] We have been talking about what we call the New Neutral – sluggish but stable global growth and continued low rates.”

In this debate I come down on the side of Mr. Ahmed (and I assume Sir Michael). This cannot last, in my view. It will end and end badly. Policy has greatly distorted markets, and financial risk seems to be mis-priced in many places. Market interventions by central banks, governments and various regulators will not lead to a stable economy but to renewed crises. Prepare for volatility!

Bill Gross’ expectation of a new neutral seems to be partly based on the notion that persistently high indebtedness contains both growth and inflation and makes a return to historic levels of policy rates near impossible. Gross: “…a highly levered economy can’t withstand historic rates of interest. […] We see rates rising to 2% in 2017, but the market expects 3% or 4%. […] If it is close to 2%, the markets will be supported, which means today’s prices and price/earnings are OK.”

Of course I can see the logic in this argument but I also believe that high debt levels and slow growth are tantamount to high degrees of risk and should be accompanied with considerable risk premiums. Additionally, slow growth and substantial leverage mean political pressure for ongoing central bank activism. This is incompatible with low volatility and tight risk premiums. Accidents are not only bound to happen, they are inevitable in a system of monetary central planning and artificial asset pricing.

Low inflation, low rates, and contained market volatility are what we should expect in a system of hard and apolitical money, such as a gold standard. But they are not to be expected – at least not systematically and consistently but only intermittently – in elastic money systems. I explain this in detail in my book Paper Money Collapse – The Folly of Elastic Money. Elastic money systems like our present global fiat money system with central banks that strive for constant (if purportedly moderate) inflation must lead to persistent distortions in market prices (in particular interest rates) and therefore capital misallocations. This leads to chronic instability and recurring crises. The notion that we might now have backed into a gold-standard-like system of monetary tranquility by chance and without really trying seems unrealistic to me, and the idea is even more of a stretch for the assumption that it should be excessive debt – one of elastic money’s most damaging consequences – that could, inadvertently and perversely, help ensure such stability. I suspect that this view is laden with wishful thinking. In the same Barron’s interview, Mr. Gross makes the statement that “stocks and bonds are artificially priced,” (of course they are, hardly anyone could deny it) but also that “today’s prices and price/earnings are OK.” This seems a contradiction to me. Here is why I believe the expectation of the new neutral is probably wrong, and why so many “mainstream” observers still sympathize with it.

  1. Imbalances have accumulated over time. Not all were eradicated in the recent crisis. We are not starting from a clean base. Central banks are now all powerful and their massive interventions are tolerated and even welcome by many because they get “credited” with having averted an even worse crisis. But to the extent that that this is indeed the case and that their rate cuts, liquidity injections and ‘quantitative easing’ did indeed come just in time to arrest the market’s liquidation process, chances are these interventions have sustained many imbalances that should also have been unwound. These imbalances are probably as unsustainable in the long run as the ones that did get unwound, and even those were often unwound only partially. We simply do not know what these dislocations are or how big they might be. However, I suspect that a dangerous pattern has been established: Since the 1980s, money and credit expansion have mainly fed asset rallies, and central banks have increasingly adopted the role of an essential backstop for financial markets. Recently observers have called this phenomenon cynically the “Greenspan put” or the “Bernanke put” after whoever happens to lead the US central bank at the time but the pattern has a long tradition by now: the 1987 stock market crash, the 1994 peso crisis, the 1998 LTCM-crisis, the 2002 Worldcom and Enron crisis, and the 2007/2008 subprime and subsequent banking crisis. I think it is not unfair to suggest that almost each of these crises was bigger and seemed more dangerous than the preceding one, and each required more forceful and extended policy intervention. One of the reasons for this is that while some dislocations get liquidated in each crisis (otherwise we would not speak of a crisis), policy interventions – not least those of the monetary kind – always saved some of the then accumulated imbalances from a similar fate. Thus, imbalances accumulate over time, the system gets more leveraged, more debt is accumulated, and bad habits are being further entrenched. I have no reason to believe that this has changed after 2008.
  1. Six years of super-low rates and ‘quantitative easing’ have planted new imbalances and the seeds of another crisis. Where are these imbalances? How big are they? – I don’t know. But I do know one thing: You do not manipulate capital markets for years on end with impunity. It is simply a fact that capital allocation has been distorted for political reasons for years. Many assets look mispriced to me, from European peripheral bond markets to US corporate and “high yield” debt, to many stocks. There is tremendous scope for a painful shake-out, and my prime candidate would again be credit markets, although it may still be too early.
  2. “Macro-prudential” policies create an illusion of safety but will destabilize the system further. – Macro-prudential policies are the new craze, and the fact that nobody laughs out loud at the suggestion of such nonsense is a further indication of the rise in statist convictions. These policies are meant to work like this: One arm of the state (the central bank) pumps lots of new money into the system to “stimulate” the economy, and another arm of the state (although often the same arm, namely the central bank in its role as regulator and overseer) makes sure that the public does not do anything stupid with it. The money will thus be “directed” to where it can do no harm. Simple. Example: The Swiss National Bank floods the market with money but stops the banks from giving too many mortgage loans, and this avoids a real estate bubble. “Macro-prudential” is of course a euphemism for state-controlled capital markets, and you have to be a thorough statist with an iron belief in central planning and the boundless wisdom of officers of the state to think that this will make for a safer economy. (But then again, a general belief in all-round state-planning is certainly on the rise.) The whole concept is, of course, quite ridiculous. We just had a crisis courtesy of state-directed capital flows. For decades almost every arm of the US state was involved in directing capital into the US housing market, whether via preferential tax treatment, government-sponsored mortgage insurers, or endless easy money from the Fed. We know how that turned out. And now we are to believe that the state will direct capital more sensibly? — New macro-“prudential” policies will not mean the end of bubbles but only different bubbles. For example, eurozone banks shy away from giving loans to businesses, partly because those are costly under new bank capital requirements. But under those same regulations sovereign bonds are deemed risk-free and thus impose no cost on capital. Zero-cost liquidity from the ECB and Draghi’s promise to “do whatever it takes” to keep the eurozone together, do the rest. The resulting rally in Spanish and Italian bonds to new record low yields may be seen by some as an indication of a healing Europe and a decline in systemic risk but it may equally be another bubble, another policy-induced distortion and another ticking time bomb on the balance sheets of Europe’s banks.
  3. Inflation is not dead. Many market participants seem to believe that inflation will never come back. Regardless of how easy monetary policy gets and regardless for how long, the only inflation we will ever see is asset price inflation. Land prices may rise to the moon but the goods that are produced on the land never get more expensive. – I do not believe that is possible. We will see spill-over effects, and to the extent that monetary policy gets traction, i.e. leads to the expansion of broader monetary aggregates, we will see prices rise more broadly. Also, please remember that central bankers now want inflation. I find it somewhat strange to see markets obediently play to the tune of the central bankers when it comes to risk premiums and equity prices but at the same time see economists and strategists cynically disregard central bankers’ wish for higher inflation. Does that mean the power of money printing applies to asset markets but will stop at consumer goods markets? I don’t think so. – Once prices rise more broadly, this will change the dynamic in markets. Many investors will discount points 1 to 3 above with the assertion that any trouble in the new investment paradise will simply be stomped out quickly by renewed policy easing. However, higher and rising inflation (and potentially rising inflation expectations) makes that a less straightforward bet. Inflation that is tolerated by the central banks must also lead to a re-pricing of bonds and once that gets under way, many other assets will be affected. I believe that markets now grossly underestimate the risk of inflation.

Some potential dislocations

Money and credit expansion are usually an excellent source of trouble. Just give it some time and imbalances will have formed. Since March 2011, the year-over-year growth in commercial and industrial loans in the US has been not only positive but on average clocked in at an impressive 9.2 percent. Monetary aggregate M1 has been growing at double digit or close to double-digit rates for some time. It presently stands at slightly above 10 percent year over year. M2 is growing at around 6 percent.

U.S. Commercial & Industrial Loans (St. Louis Fed - Research)

U.S. Commercial & Industrial Loans (St. Louis Fed – Research)

None of this must mean trouble right away but none of these numbers indicate economic correction or even deflation but point instead to re-leveraging in parts of the US economy. Yields on below-investment grade securities are at record lows and so are default rates. The latter is maybe no surprise. With rates super-low and liquidity ample, nobody goes bust. But not everybody considers this to be the ‘new normal’: “We are surprised at how ebullient credit markets have been in 2014,” said William Conway, co-founder and co-chief executive of Carlyle Group LP, the US alternative asset manager (as quoted in the Wall Street Journal Europe, May 2-4 2014, page 20). “The world continues to be awash in liquidity, and investors are chasing yield seemingly regardless of credit quality and risk.”

“We continually ask ourselves if the fundamentals of the global credit business are healthy and sustainable. Frankly, we don’t think so.”

1 trillion is a nice round number

Since 2009 investors appear to have allocated an additional $1trn to bond funds. In 2013, the Fed created a bit more than $1trn in new base money, and issuance in the investment grade corporate bond market was also around $1trn in 2013, give and take a few billion. A considerable chunk of new corporate borrowing seems to find its way into share buybacks and thus pumps up the equity market. Andrew Smithers in the Financial Times of June 13 2014 estimates that buybacks in the US continue at about $400bn per year. He also observes that non-financial corporate debt (i.e. debt of companies outside the finance sector) “expanded by 9.2 per cent over the past 12 months. US non-financial companies’ leverage is now at a record high relative to output.”

Takeaways

Most investors try to buy cheap assets but the better strategy is often to sell expensive ones. Such a moment in time may be soon approaching. Timing is everything, and it may still be too early. “The trend is my friend” is another longstanding adage on Wall Street. The present bull market may be artificial and already getting long in the tooth but maybe the central planners will have their way a bit longer, and this new “long-only” investment nirvana will continue. I have often been surprised at how far and for how long policy makers can push markets out of kilter. But there will be opportunities for patient, clever and nimble speculators at some stage, when markets inevitably snap back. This is not a ‘new normal’ in my view. It is just a prelude to another crisis. In fact, all this talk of a “new normal” of low volatility and stable markets as far as the eye can see is probably already a bearish indicator and a precursor of pending doom. (Anyone remember the “death of business cycles” in the 1990s, or the “Great Moderation” of the 2000s?)

Investors are susceptible to the shenanigans of the manipulators. They constantly strive for income, and as the central banks suppress the returns on many mainstream asset classes ever further, they feel compelled to go out into riskier markets and buy ever more risk at lower yields. From government bonds they move to corporate debt, from corporate debt to “high yield bonds”, from “high yield” to emerging markets – until another credit disaster awaits them. Investors thus happily do the bidding for the interventionists for as long as the party lasts. That includes many professional asset managers who naturally charge their clients ongoing management fees and thus feel obliged to join the hunt for steady income, often apparently regardless of what the ultimate odds are. In this environment of systematically manipulated markets, the paramount risk is to get sucked into expensive and illiquid assets at precisely the wrong time.

In this environment it may ultimately pay to be a speculator rather than an investor. Speculators wait for opportunities to make money on price moves. They do not look for “income” or “yield” but for changes in prices, and some of the more interesting price swings may soon potentially come on the downside, I believe. As they are not beholden to the need for steady income, speculators should also find it easier to be patient. They should know that their capital cannot be employed profitably at all times. They are happy (or should be happy) to sit on cash for a long while, and maybe let even some of the suckers’ rally pass them by. But when the right opportunities come along they hope to be nimble and astute enough to capture them. This is what macro hedge funds, prop traders and commodity trading advisers traditionally try to do. Their moment may come again.

As Sir Michael at CQS said: “Maybe they [the central bankers] can keep control, but if people stop believing in them, all hell will break loose.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Economics

Paul Volcker’s Call For A ‘New Bretton Woods’ Is Important

Seth Lipsky, the editor of the storied New York Sun (a brand distinguished by the long residency of Henry Hazlitt), recently, in the Wall Street Journal, brought to wider attention certain remarkable recent comments by Paul Volcker.  Volcker spoke before the May 21st annual meeting of the Bretton Woods Committee at the World Bank Headquarters in Washington, DC.  Volcker’s remarks did not present a departure in substance from his long-standing pro-rule position. They nonetheless were striking, newly emphatic both by tone and context.
 Volcker, asked by the conference organizer for his preferred topic, declared that he had said:

“What About a New Bretton Woods???” – with three question marks. The two words, “Bretton Woods”, still seem to invoke a certain nostalgia – memories of a more orderly, rule-based world of financial stability, and close cooperation among nations. Following the two disasters of the Great Depression and World War II that at least was the hope for the new International Monetary Fund, and the related World Bank, the GATT and the OECD.

No one here was actually present at Bretton Woods, but that was the world that I entered as a junior official in the U.S. Treasury more than 50 years ago. Intellectually and operationally, the Bretton Woods ideals absolutely dominated Treasury thinking and policies. The recovery of trade, the opening of financial markets, and the lifting of controls on current accounts led in the 1950’s and 60’s to sustained growth and stability.

The importance, especially from a speaker of Volcker’s stature presenting among the current heads of the two leading Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF’s Christine Lagarde, and the World Bank Group’s Jim Yong Kim, among other luminaries, potentially has radical implications.  Volcker provided a quick and precise summary of the monetary and financial anarchy which succeeded his dutiful dismantling of Bretton Woods:

Efforts to reconstruct the Bretton Woods system, either partially at the Smithsonian or more completely in the subsequent negotiations of the Committee of 20, ultimately failed. The practical consequence, and to many the ideological victory, was a regime of floating exchange rates. Somehow, the intellectual and convenient political argument went, differences among national financial and economic policies, shifts in competitiveness and in inflation rates, all could be and would be smoothly accommodated by orderly movements in exchange rates.

How’s that working out for us?  Volcker played an instrumental role in dutifully midwifing, as Treasury undersecretary for monetary affairs under the direction of Treasury Secretary John Connally the “temporary” closing of the gold window announced to the world on August 15, 1971 by President Nixon.  Volcker now unequivocally indicts the monetary regime he played a key role in helping to foster.

By now I think we can agree that the absence of an official, rules-based cooperatively managed, monetary system has not been a great success. In fact, international financial crises seem at least as frequent and more destructive in impeding economic stability and growth.
The United States, in particular, had in the 1970’s an unhappy decade of inflation ending in stagflation. The major Latin American debt crisis followed in the 1980’s. There was a serious banking crisis late in that decade, followed by a new Mexican crisis, and then the really big and damaging Asian crisis. Less than a decade later, it was capped by the financial crisis of the 2007-2009 period and the great Recession. Not a pretty picture.

Volcker fully recognizes the difficulties in restoring a rule-based well functioning system both in his speech and in this private comment to Lipsky made thereafter.  Lipsky: “It’s easy to say what’s wrong,” Mr. Volcker told me over the weekend, “but sensible reforms are a pretty tough thing.”

The devil, of course, is in the details.  What rule should prevail?  There is an almost superstitious truculence on the part of world monetary elites to consider the restoration of the gold standard.  And yet, the Bank of England published a rigorous and influential study in December 2011, Financial Stability Paper No. 13, Reform of the International Monetary and Financial System.  This paper contrasts the empirical track record of the fiduciary dollar standard directed by Secretary Connally and brought into being (and then later administered by) Volcker.  It determines that the fiduciary dollar standard has significantly underperformed both the Bretton Woods gold exchange standard and the classical gold standard in every major category.

As summarized by Forbes.com contributor Charles Kadlec, the Bank of England found:
When compared to the Bretton Woods system, in which countries defined their currencies by a fixed rate of exchange to the dollar, and the U.S. in turn defined the dollar as 1/35 th of an ounce of gold:
  • Economic growth is a full percentage point slower, with an average annual increase in real per-capita GDP of only 1.8%
  • World inflation of 4.8% a year is 1.5 percentage point higher;
  • Downturns for the median countries have more than tripled to 13% of the total period;
  • The number of banking crises per year has soared to 2.6 per year, compared to only one every ten years under Bretton Woods;

That said, the Bank of England paper resolves by calling for a rules-based system, without specifying which rule.  Volcker himself presents as oddly reticent about considering the restoration of the “golden rule.” Yet, as recently referenced in this column, in his Foreword to Marjorie Deane and Robert Pringle’s The Central Banks (Hamish Hamilton, 1994) he wrote:

It is a sobering fact that the prominence of central banks in this century has coincided with a general tendency towards more inflation, not less. By and large, if the overriding objective is price stability, we did better with the nineteenth-century gold standard and passive central banks, with currency boards, or even with ‘free banking.’ The truly unique power of a central bank, after all, is the power to create money, and ultimately the power to create is the power to destroy.

There is an active dispute in Washington between Republicans, who predominantly favor a rule-based monetary policy, and Democrats, who predominantly favor a discretion-based monetary policy.  The Republicans have not specified the rule they wish to be implemented.  The specifics matter.
There is an abundance of purely empirical evidence for the gold standard’s effectiveness in creating a climate of equitable prosperity.  The monetary elites still flinch at discussion the gold option.  That said, the slow but sure rehabilitation of the legitimacy of the gold standard as a policy option was put into play by one of their own, no less than the then World Bank Group president Robert Zoellick, in an FT op-ed, The G20 must look beyond Bretton Woods.   There he observed, in part, that “Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.”
There are many eminent and respectable elite proponents of the gold standard.  Foremost among these Reagan Gold Commissioners Lewis E. Lehrman (with whose Institute this writer has a professional association) and Ron Paul, and Forbes Media CEO Steve Forbes, coauthor of a formidable new book, Money, among them.  There are many more, too many to list here.
In the penultimate paragraph of his remarks to the Bretton Woods Committee Volcker observes:

Walter Bagehot long ago set out succinctly a lesson from experience: “Money will not manage itself”. He then spoke from the platform of the Economist to the Bank of England. Today it is our mutual interdependence that requires a degree of cooperation and coordination that too often has been lacking on an international scale.

As the great Walter Layton, editor of the Economist, wrote in 1925, “the choice which presents itself is not one between a theoretical standard on the one hand and gold with all its imperfections on the other, but between the gold standard … and no control at all.” “No control at all” anticipates Volcker’s own critique.

If Chairman Volcker overcame his aversion to considering the gold standard as a respectable option for consideration he just might find that his his stated concern “We are long ways from (a new Bretton Woods conference)” may be exaggerated. A golden age of equitable prosperity and financial stability is closer than Mr. Volcker believes.

The corollary to Volcker’s dictum, “ultimately the power to create is the power to destroy” is that the power to destroy is the power to create.  It is time, and past time, Mr. Volcker, to give full and respectful consideration to the gold standard which served the world very well indeed and would serve well again.

This article was previously published at Forbes.com

Economics

Whatever happened to the rate of interest?

According to the French historian Fernand Braudel, to understand the present we should master the whole of world history. The same may be said for the rate of interest: to grasp its significance we should have a full understanding of the whole of economics. Interest is the most important price of economy, the most pervading, as pointed out by the American economist Irving Fisher. Interest plays a key role in affecting all economic activity: interest and the price level are strictly interconnected, subject to leads and lags, they move in the same direction. A falling interest rate induces falling prices and a rising interest induces rising prices. Capital values are derived from income value: if interest is 5%, a capital amount yielding $100 every year has a value of $2,000. The interest rate translates, as it were, the future into the present bridging capital to its income.

When interest drops from a high down to a low level it raises the capitalized value of equipments, bonds, annuities or any other assets providing a stream of future incomes. The rate of interest reveals the individual’s rate of time preference or their “impatience for money”: the inclination towards current consumption over future consumption and vice versa. For example if the individual is indifferent between €1.04  next year and €1.00  today, his rate of time per preference per annum is four percent.

Interest can therefore be considered the minimum future amount of money required to compensate the consumer for foregoing current consumption. It is as it were, the return on sacrificing consumption towards more future consumption. When time preference falls, savings rise and interest falls. And the lower the time preference the more the supply of income saved and transferred in the form of credit to satisfy investment demand. In the economy there cannot be any real net investment without an equal amount of real net saving. The price balancing the supply of income (from savings) and the demand for it (for spending and investment) was defined by the Scandinavian economist Kurt Wicksell, the “natural rate of interest”.

Its function is to ration out existing scarce savings into productive uses and to induce to sacrifice current consumption to add to the stock of capital. The 18th century French finance minister Anne-Robert-JacquesTurgot put it this way:

The current interest of money is the is the thermometer by which the abundance or scarcity of capitals may be judged; it is the scale on which the extent of a nation’s capacity for enterprises in agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, may be reckoned.. Interest may be looked upon as a kind of like a sea level …… under which all labor, culture, industry, commerce  cease to exist». In the contemporary economy interest is a monetary tool by which central banks pretend to regulate the abundance of capital. Unfortunately in doing so they make the economy sink under the sea level. To understand this effect the rate of interest has to be investigated through its relation with money and capital.

Interest and Money

In ordinary language interest is defined either as the cost or the price for borrowing money, but these notions are partly true. If interest is a cost for the borrower is also an income for the lender. On the other hand by defining interest as a “price” we are lead into thinking that it varies inversely to the money quantity. This is what the monetary theory of the interest holds. Despite some appearance of truth it is a fallacious doctrine because being also the interest a quantity of money paid or collected against a loan it varies in direct proportion to the quantity of money. For example, if a loan was $100 earning $5, and the money supply doubled, it will rise to $200 earning $10. Interest must double to make loans equivalent (in fact: 5/100=10/200) although in percentage remains unchanged. If anything, other things being equal, an increase of money supply causes interest to rise, not to fall, for the “price of money” is not interest but money purchasing power. Furthermore the definition of interest as the price for money obscures the fact that what is exchanged in a loan is not money but present money against future money, namely credit. Credit is the temporary transfer of wealth or purchasing power from one person to another upon payment of interest. Since purchasing power is wealth and wealth producing income is capital, the rate of interest is the income paid for the use of capital. But what is used is not “abstract capital” because there is not a generic demand for capital, otherwise there would be no difference between the interest rate and the discount rate, but between the money market and the capital market. When a person asks for a loan for consumption he is not asking for capital but for money as means of payment. Who discounts bills or notes does not need capital he already has in some form or another, he wants to transform it in a more liquid form. Ultimately he needs “liquidity” not to expand his capital or business but to anticipate its monetary form. Because most businesses due to seasonal fluctuations cannot be conducted on a cash basis they need credit or liquidity just to compensate these fluctuations. The price for the temporary use of liquidity is the rate of discount. It doesn’t represent interest on capital but a rent, as it were, measuring the value of the money services namely for specific services: making the flow of the production smooth, keeping solvency or allowing specific profits in money transactions. The whole all transactions involving transfers of liquidity used to increase the marketability of all the forms of wealth  as to render them more fluid, form the money market. Here money is invested without losing its form, without turning itself into capital which is the money income employed in production. However, liquidity emerging as cash surpluses to fund cash balances deficits, is always grounded on capital operations and being limited by the use of  capital depends on the rate of interest.

Interest and capital

While the rate of discount concerns money or short term credit to anticipate the monetary form of real capital, the rate of interest concern the money or long term credit to extend real capital. So it is a long rate not a discount rate because what is lent is not money but capital (which is wealth employed in view of more future production). Hence the purpose of capital or long credit market is to provide the nexus between savers and borrowers to finance productive investments and expand the economy. Thus interest is the price balancing the supply and demand for money capital. An increased supply competing for borrowers pushes down the interest. An increases demand competing for lenders pushes up interest. The interaction supply/demand establishes the rate of interest at the point where the lenders rate of time preference tends to equal the borrowers rate of profit. This is because the use of capital depends on its marginal utility: in the market it is convenient to borrow till the income earned from the use of capital will exceed the cost of its use coinciding with the rate of time preference. So interest is the price of money capital as determined by the interaction between the least productive use and the savers’ return on sacrificing consumption. In practice it oscillates between an upper limit and a lower limit. The former is the rate of profit, otherwise borrowing would not be convenient, and the latter the rate of time preference which represents for the economy as a whole the cost of capital accumulation. This lower limit cannot be zero otherwise lenders would use income directly giving up sacrificing current consumption.

However because the rate of interest reflects the productivity of capital and it’s convenient to borrow until capital yields a positive income, it is the rate of profit that commands the rate of interest. Hence interest may also be defined as the market price of money capital typified by the rate of profit.

To the extent people are provident and have a low time preference, the capital is abundant, the rate of interest is low and long term capital-intensive projects can be undertaken, the economy expands, technological progress advances and wages productivity rises. Conversely, if the time preference is high, capital is scarce, interest higher and more liquid projects prevail. However according to the monetary theory the market rate of interest is typified by the return or yield per year on riskless long term government bonds which are deemed to typify the benchmark for the rate of profit on capital assets. Yet because governments consume instead of producing the bond yield typifies the shifts of income supply towards consumption uses. In fact the lower the bond yield the higher the government consumption and the lesser the capital available for production. Therefore bond yields reflect propensity to consume, in contrast with interests on capital reflecting propensity to invest.

Because capital it is tied up for long time in production and regain its liquid form after the sale of products, the rate of interest has a different economic nature than the rate of discount: while the latter is subject to money fluctuations, the former is less sensitive to them for it gives up its monetary form for an extended period until the time of loan repayment. Moreover by borrowing liquidity one looks at prospects of immediate gain while by borrowing capital one looks at incomes over a longer period of time. In general, the interest rate is higher than the discount rate because being less liquid commands a premium for liquidity. However when production languishes, profits fall, capital withdraws from production, interest falls while discount rate rises as demand for short-term loans rises to preserve liquidity. Interest rises during periods of economic development when present income is sacrificed and invested in capital. Once capital starts to produce new income, interest falls setting the pace for the boom period when discount rises because the higher volume of spending increases demand for money. So in general they vary independently from one another. Although there is a constellation of rates of interest depending on the loan maturities, all tend to a same level. Money capital moves where it is most needed, runs from less profitable assets to more profitable ones and like water flows to find its level. So by continuous market oscillations any capital tends to provide the same income any difference due to the risk.

It’s worth noting that if the liquidity of capital invested is lost for many years it can be regained at any time in the stock exchange by selling shares. However because shares represent titles on already existing capital, their sale does not adds to capital stock and doesn’t affect the rate of interest, rather it adds to liquidity affecting the discount rate.

Other interest rate determinants

Interest as a market price arising from the interaction between the rate of profit and the time preferences governs the price of capital assets as well as their allocation other things being equal. In fact, because the rate of profit arises in the economic system as a difference between the prices of products and the prices of factors of production to manufacture them, it is affected by these price levels. Fluctuations in these prices cause fluctuations in the rate of profit and as consequence in the rate of interest which is typified by the rate of profit. And because capital assets are determined by discounting their expected returns by interest rates of the same maturities as the life of the capital assets,it follows that all capital allocation in the market is affected by the ratio of demand to supply of both products and factors of production.

However, the value of money is also determined by supply and demand of money. If interest, in essence, depends on real factors such as time preferences, rate of profit and supply and demand, being itself a money sum must logically be dependent on the value of money although indirectly. To explain the emergence of interest the Austrian economist Eugene Bohm Bawerk argued that because present goods due to the time preference worth more than future goods of like kind and quantity, they command a premium over the future goods. In other terms, interest is the discount of future goods as against present goods or the demand price of present goods in term of future goods. However, once goods are priced in term of money, the interest rate becomes a ratio of exchange between present and future money sums and its value may not coincide with the ratio between their physical quantities because of changes occurring in the prices level. If, for example the money supply rises, the value of the expected monetary sum lent falls. Then savers expecting a rise in prices will ask for a higher interest to compensate for the loss in the value of loan capital (this confirms the mistake of monetary theory in claiming that a rise in the money supply lowers interest). Because money affects the value of real capital it’s wrong to assert (as Knut Wicksell did) that a loan might be likened to a temporary transfer of goods repayable in goods rewarded by an interest paid also in goods and determined by the supply and demand of physical goods. Interest cannot be appraised by abstracting from money because as the money value changes so does the value of real factors determining interest, all acting through money. Only if the value of money were constant would the “real” and “monetary” interest coincide.

Interest planned

As Ludwig von Mises pointed out, interest is a category of human action, a primordial phenomenon unlikely to disappear even in the most ideal world. In fact the forces determining interest prevents it from falling permanently to zero or even below. If it were zero saved income could not be exchanged for more future income or to say it differently, the valuation between present and future goods would be at par which may happen only in world where all goods would be free and no capital would be necessary to produce them. If the interest were negative future goods would command a premium on present goods, a reversal of human nature whereby present goods would be valued less than future goods and lenders would have to pay an interest instead of receiving it. The capital would shrink and the economy would regress. Such extreme values which are a little like to the absolute zero in physics, may be only inflicted to interest by exceptional circumstances such as revolutions, seizures, thefts, invasions all situations of great danger when people would prefer to pay a “penal rate” rather than lose their entire capital. Still, in the contemporary economy, similar abnormal situations are artificially created. This is because interest is not commanded by the self generating forces regulating the rate of interest, but by the central banks planned monetary policy closely related to the governments’ fiscal policy.

Central banks set an official or discount rate, a minimum and arbitrary lending rate, the “price for liquidity”, which varies through monetary policy consisting of buying and selling in the open market governments issued bonds against such liquidity. Thus monetary policy acts as a pressure and suction pump alternately decreasing and increasing the quantity of money to push the interest up and down either to keep bonds in the desired relationship with the official rate or to provide a money supply favorable to economic stability and growth. In so doing central banks mimic the natural tendency of interest. For example by expanding money supply during recessions they lower the official rate as this were the after effect of new income streams arising out of foregoing savings required to restore economic growth. The long term rate then changes through expectations towards the official rate: if the latter falls the former is expected to rise and vice versa. However because interests are used to determine the present value of capital assets by discounting their expected income, monetary policy misprices capital assets and misallocate them. This is because the entire interest market structure (the relationship among interest rates influencing prices of income producing assets of different maturity) depends solely on liquidity fluctuations commanded by monetary policy which is completely divorced from the real factors that determine the interest and lay the foundation of liquidity. So not in any sense can the market rate of interest be compared with the one determined by central banks. By ignoring the distinction between money and capital, monetary policy denies the natural function of time preferences and rate of profit confining them to an adaptive role vis-à-vis of their monetary manipulation.

On the other hand because government bonds provide the basis for the money expansion that grows as interest drops, the official rate may be looked upon as a tool of fiscal policy reflecting capital dissipation.This is because central banks pay for these bonds not with income released by foregoing capital operations, but with means of payment they themselves “coin” and lend as they were saved income. This manoeuvre – also known as credit easing – is tantamount to discounting and putting into circulation expected wealth as if it were current wealth, to consume or to use as capital. In other words, central banks by advancing means of payment act as the future were so prosperous as to pledge an ever increasing wealth allowing for their repayment. But the fact is that the most of these means of payment passed off as an existent wealth besides using up, without replacing, the wealth already produced, will never be repaid for they will be misallocated into unproductive uses by a rate of interest not reflecting the existence of money capital but the mere expansion of means of payment that, as already pointed out, should cause interest to rise, not to fall. The paradox is that subsequent rounds of this expansion entail equivalent rounds of waste making capital scarcer and scarcer. Thus economic downturns are just the result of the attempt to create capital on the foundation of monetary policy rather than on the foundation of the real factors determining the rate of interest. Unfortunately, they tend to become permanent to the extent central banks in trying to alleviate them expand money by buying bonds on a huge scale so as to push interest down to zero. But at this level lenders, having no incentive to turn income into capital, will turn capital into income which means they will be living out of their capital until is depleted. As interest vanishes “under the sea level” so does capital till “labour, culture, industry, or commerce will cease to exist” as Turgot predicted long ago.

Book Reviews

Paper Money Collapse 2nd edition teaser

One of the interesting things that happened at the End of the World Club on Monday evening, was a teaser of what’s new about Detlev Schlichter‘s Paper Money Collapse (2nd edition). We are promised some discussion about Bitcoin (which really got going about the time PMC first appeared on bookshelves).

Also promised is an update of Detlev’s views and he hopes to include discussions that have taken place in various forums (such as on his blog).

Further updates as we get them.
9781118877326.pdf

 

 

Economics

Are economic sanctions behind a possible recession in Russia?

According to commentators, sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union are pushing Russia towards a recession. However, we hold that some key Russian economic data have been displaying weakening prior to the annexation of Crimea to Russia. This raises the likelihood that sanctions might not be the key factor for an emerging recession.

The yearly rate of growth of monthly real gross domestic product (GDP) eased to 0.3% in February from 0.7% in January and 1.8% in July last year. After closing at 12.2% in March last year the yearly rate of growth of retail sales fell to 7.7% in January before settling at 9.6% in February.

Russia real GDP

Russia retail sales

We suggest that the key factor behind any emerging slowdown and a possible recession is a sharp decline in the yearly` rate of growth of money supply (AMS) from 67.1% in May 2005 to minus 12.2% by September 2009. We hold that the driving force behind this sharp decline is a strong decline in the growth momentum of the central bank’s balance sheet during that period (see chart).

Graphs 3 4 Russia

There is a long time lag from changes in money supply and its effect on economic activity. We suspect that it is quite likely that the effect from a fall in the growth momentum of money during May 2005 to September 2009 is starting to dominate the present economic scene.

This means that various bubble activities that emerged on the back of the prior strong increase in money supply are at present coming under pressure. So from this perspective irrespective of sanctions, the Russian economy would have experienced a so-called economic slowdown, or even worse a recession.
Now, to counter a further weakening in the ruble against the US$ the Russian central bank has raised the seven day repo rate by 1.5% to 7%. The price of the US$ in ruble terms rose to 36.3 in March from 30.8 rubles in March last year – an increase of 18%.

Russia graphs 5 6

Whilst a tighter interest rate stance can have an effect on the present growth momentum of money supply this is likely to have a minor effect on the emerging economic slowdown, which we suggest is predominately driven by past money supply.

There is no doubt that if sanctions were to become effective they are going to hurt economic activity in general i.e. both bubble and non-bubble activities.

On this one needs to exercise some caution given the possibility that major world economies are heading toward a slower growth phase.

Hence from this perspective, regardless of sanctions the pace of the demand for the Russian exports is likely to ease.

We hold that it is quite likely that the Euro-zone, an important Russian trading partner, is unlikely to enforce sanctions in order to cushion the effect of the possible emerging economic slowdown in the Euro-zone. (Sanctions are likely to have a disruptive economic effect not only on Russia but also on the Euro-zone). Observe that Russia’s export to the Euro-zone as a percentage of its total exports stood at 54.1% in 2013 against 52.9% in 2012. In contrast Russia’s export to the US as a % of total stood at 2.1% in 2013. As a percentage of total imports Euro-zone imports from Russia stood at 8% in January whilst American imports from Russia as a percentage of total imports stood at 0.8%. Note that the Euro-zone relies on Russia for a third of its energy imports. Hence it will not surprise us if the Europeans are likely to be more reluctant than the US in enforcing sanctions.

Russia 7 8

Russia’s foreign reserves have weakened slightly in February from the month before. The level of reserves fell by 1.1% to $493 billion after declining by 2.1% in January. The growth momentum of reserves also remains under pressure. Year-on-year the rate of growth stood at minus 6.2% in February against a similar figure in January. A possible further weakening in China’s economic activity and ensuing pressure on the price of oil is likely to exert more pressure on foreign reserves.

Russia 9 10

Meanwhile, the growth momentum of the Russian consumer price index (CPI) displays a visible softening. The yearly rate of growth stood at 6.2% in February against 6.1% in January. Observe that in February last year the yearly rate of growth stood at 7.3%. Based on the lagged growth momentum of our Russian monetary measure AMS we can suggest that the yearly rate of growth of the Russian CPI is likely to weaken further in the months ahead.

Russia 11 12

Summary and conclusion

According to some experts sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union are likely to push Russia into a recession. We suggest that the key factor which is likely to push Russia into a recession is not sanctions as such but a sharp decline in the growth momentum of money supply between May 2005 and September 2009. Given the possibility that major world economies are heading towards a renewed economic slowdown, we suggest that regardless of sanctions the pace of the demand for Russia’s exports is likely to ease. Now, given that the Euro-zone relies on Russia for a third of its energy imports it will not surprise us if the Euro-zone proves likely to be more reluctant than the US in enforcing sanctions.

Economics

Do we have easy money?

This week marked the fifth anniversary of the 0.5% Bank of England base rate and the Bank of England’s Quantitative Easing program which has so far seen the Bank conjure up £375 billion of new base money and spend it on British government debt. It’s difficult to imagine money being any ‘easier’.

Or is it? At his Money Illusion blog this week, Scott Sumner asked

1.  Japan has had interest rates near zero for nearly 2 decades.  Is this easy money, despite an NGDP that is lower than in 1993?  Despite almost continual deflation?  Despite a stock market at less than one half of 1991 levels.  Despite almost continually falling house prices?  If it’s easy money, how much longer before the high inflation arrives?

2.  The US has had near zero interest rates for more than 5 years.  Is this easy money?  If so, how much longer until the high inflation arrives?  If rates stay near zero for 2 more years, and inflation stays low, will you still call it easy money?  How about 5 more years?  Ten more years?  Twenty? 

It is a key tenet of Market Monetarist thought that a low base rate or Fed funds rate is no indicator of whether money is ‘easy’ or not[1]. The correct indicator, they argue, is the growth rate of nominal GDP; if it’s slumping money is too tight, if it’s roaring on it’s too loose, and if it’s ticking along at some predetermined rate all is rosy in the monetary garden. As a result of this analysis Market Monetarists like Sumner believe the Bank of England’s low base rates and vast monetary base expansion do not indicate ‘easy money’. Are they right?

Well, first we have to define what we mean by ‘easy money’. It’s a rhetorical term rather than a textbook one so here’s my definition (which, if you don’t accept it, probably scuppers the following analysis so feel to substitute your own); money is ‘easier’ the more people who want credit can get it[2].

There are two points to make. First, the choice of ‘credit’ rather than ‘money’ is deliberate. When most of us ‘borrow money’ we are, in fact, accessing credit which is some derivative of, or claim on money. Secondly, a point I’ve made previously, economy wide aggregates often tell us little of interest or use. Often more useful and interesting is to disaggregate. Instead of looking at the availability of credit to the British economy look instead at the availability of credit to different bits of it.

Looked at like this we would have to say that for most businesses and individuals in the UK, despite the tripling of the monetary base since March 2009, credit is not easily available and money cannot be said to be ‘easy’. The most recent Bank of England lending report in January noted that “The rate of decline in the stock of lending to UK businesses eased slightly in the year to November compared to 2012. The annual rate of growth in the stock of secured lending to individuals rose slightly to 0.8% in the three months to November” –November’s fall in business lending being the biggest in six months.

But banks certainly do have ‘easy’ money. That tripling of the monetary base, as I wrote recently, has flowed onto their balance sheets and stayed there. The money multiplier has collapsed and growth of base money, M0, has not led to growth in broader monetary aggregates such as M4, which would influence nominal GDP. The open handed stance of the Bank of England isn’t showing up as ‘easy’ money as Market Monetarists see it because ‘easy’ money for banks isn’t translating into ‘easy’ money for the rest of the economy[3].

Do we have easy money? On my definition that depends on who ‘we’ is. Banks face little constraint on their ability to access credit from the Bank of England so for them the answer is yes. The rest of us who rely on those banks find it rather tighter.


[2] For fans of mathematical notation, if E is monetary ease and C is availability of credit then E=f(C)

[3] If we think of a river, with M0 pouring out of the spring at Threadneedle Street and the broad delta downriver being M4, banks’ demand for money has built a big dam stopping the river flowing. The Market Monetarist solution to this is to get the spring pouring out enough money that it flows over the top of this dam – in Quantity Theory notation to offset the decline in V stemming from banks’ increased money demand (which with downwardly sticky P would pull down y) with sufficient expansion of M.

Economics

The success of “credit easing” on its own terms

Click for Telegraph Story

Click for Telegraph Story

Today, the Telegraph reports, UK house price growth ‘approaching madness’:

The speed UK property prices are rising at is “approaching madness”, analysts have warned, after data showed house prices jumped 2.4pc in February, the biggest monthly increase in five years.

The rise, revealed in the latest Halifax House Price Index, outstripped analysts’ expectations of a 0.7pc rise, renewing fears of a house price bubble.

House prices advanced 7.9pc on an year-on-year basis, the figures showed, taking the average price across the UK to £179,872 and marking the strongest annual uplift since October 2007.

The Chancellor’s policies of “monetary activism” and “credit easing” including Funding for Lending and Help to Buy have, on their own terms, succeeded. According to Kaleidic Economics, the Austrian measure of the money supply is now expanding by over 12% year on year:

Click for Kaleidic's data

Click for Kaleidic’s data

Nothing has been learned since Hayek wrote Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle. His preface could have been written today:

It is a curious fact that the general disinclination to explain the past boom by monetary factors has been quickly replaced by an even greater readiness to hold the present working of our monetary organization exclusively responsible for our present plight. And the same stabilizers who believed that nothing was wrong with the boom and that it might last indefinitely because prices did not rise, now believe that everything could be set right again if only we would use the weapons of monetary policy to prevent prices from falling.The same superficial view,which sees no other harmful effect of a credit expansion but the rise of the price level, now believes that our only difficulty is a fall in the price level, caused by credit contraction.

… There is no reason to assume that the crisis was started by a deliberate deflationary action on the part of the monetary authorities, or that the deflation itself is anything but a secondary phenomenon, a process induced by the maladjustments of industry left over from the boom. If, however, the deflation is not a cause but an effect of the unprofitableness of industry, then it is surely vain to hope that by reversing the deflationary process, we can regain lasting prosperity. Far from following a deflationary policy, central banks, particularly in the United States, have been making earlier and more far-reaching efforts than have ever been undertaken before to combat the depression by a policy of credit expansion—with the result that the depression has lasted longer and has become more severe than any preceding one. What we need is a readjustment of those elements in the structure of production and of prices that existed before the deflation began and which then made it unprofitable for industry to borrow. But, instead of furthering the inevitable liquidation of the maladjustments brought about by the boom during the last three years, all conceivable means have been used to prevent that readjustment from taking place; and one of these means, which has been repeatedly tried though without success, from the earliest to the most recent stages of depression, has been this deliberate policy of credit expansion.

On its own terms, systematic intervention in the market for credit has succeeded: it has restarted the Domesday machine which delivered us into this mess. Those of us who have studied Mises, Hayek and the other Austrian-School masters will know that our present economic system remains built on sand.

Economics

Sound money for Europe

You can be sure that most of my colleagues in the European Parliament do not embrace the concept of the free market. Day after day, I hear them speaking up for the protection of established interests or attempting to regulate away risk. However, there is one area where there is a genuine coalition of interests and that is the need for banking reform.

Despite all the legislation, nearly six years after the run on Northern Rock and almost five years since Lehman Brothers collapsed, we’ve endured an onslaught of new financial regulations emanating from Brussels, but we haven’t solved the fundamental problem. If a bank went bust tomorrow it would still need taxpayers to bail it out. The Left hate bail outs because they believe taxpayers’ money should be spent elsewhere and not on subsidising what they see as “rich bankers.” While those of us who believe in free and open markets think that companies that fail ought to be allowed to go bust to allow better-run rivals and new entrants to fill the gap in the market. This coincidence of interests has formed the basis of the Left-Right coalition.

For the last few years, I have been pushing three items within the family of Cobden Centre proposals: no taxpayer bail out; director liability and sorting out IFRS accounting standards.

We have spent the past five years introducing legislation that does not tackle the fundamental problem of banks needing bailouts when they fail. I have been making this point for several years and it seems that finally other legislators share this view.

In a report on banking reform adopted by the European Parliament in early July, there was genuine agreement on the need for an overhaul of the banking sector. Most political groups agree that supervisors will need to spell out procedures to wind down failing banks without taxpayer funding and to create a scheme to allow customers of failed retail banks to continue to pay their bills or withdraw money from ATMs until ownership is resolved.

However, we have to be realistic and recognise that at some point, governments will be tempted to use taxpayers money. Therefore, we agreed to encourage banks to separate wholesale banking activities from retail activities in the event of failure so that the savings of retail savers are not used to subisidise the trading activities in the investment arms of banks. This so-called ringfence need not necessarily be structural but a clear distinction needs to be made.

In the same report, I tabled an amendment which received the support of a large part of the European Parliament that we should explore how to make directors more liable for failure including exploring the feasibility of a return to the partnership model of ownership. Although there are concerns about how this would work in practice, the principles of director liability and the need for a better alignment between performance and reward are now firmly on the agenda.

I have also worked with the Cobden Centre, PIRC and Steve Baker MP to point out the concerns that many investors have expressed over IFRS. This included hosting a packed event in the European Parliament organised by the ACCA where Gordon Kerr from the Cobden Centre spoke alongside representatives from the auditors, the banks and the standard-setters themselves. This discussion helped us to secure the support of all major political groups in the European Parliament for a major review of international accounting standards.

In making the case for a review, it has been important to highlight the apolitical nature of this issue. All political groups regardless of party, are supporting calls for simpler standards that drive better governance and question why banks are able to book unrealised profits without making sufficient provision for potential losses.

In addition, supporters of the work of the Cobden Centre believe it is vital that consumers understand how fractional reserve banking works. This means making consumers aware that when they open bank accounts, their money is not actually on deposit at the bank. I have consistently spoken in parliamentary debates on the need for banks to be much more transparent with consumers when they open accounts and to distinguish between deposit accounts, current accounts where so-called savers are really lending their money to a bank and investment accounts. In time, I hope to be able to introduce amendments pushing for such transparency.

It may be far away and many may question whether the UK should remain a member of the EU, but as long as Britain remains in the EU and I remain a Member of the European Parliament I will continue to seek to influence the debate and share the ideas of the Cobden Centre with MEPs across the political spectrum.

Economics

2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months: A proposal for sound money

In light of recent events, we’re bringing forward this proposal from June 2010.

There’s two ways to view the financial meltdown that occurred in 2008. The first is that it was a rare and unfortunate blip that can be remedied with calm and enlightened improvements in the regulatory framework. The second is that it exposed a serious flaw in the entire monetary system, and is likely to be repeated unless a radical transition takes place.

It’s no surprise that politicians, bankers and regulators – the architects of the banking industry – favour the first idea. This is why their response has skirted around the edges instead of dealing with the core. Even supposedly extreme measures such as nationalising banks are in fact attempts to preserve the status quo.

For those of us who favour the second idea, 2008 provided a golden opportunity to join the public debate and present a credible alternative. Perhaps we missed it. But if indeed another crisis is coming, this article attempts to outline a 14-point plan that could be implemented quickly and genuinely reform the institutions that create financial instability.

The key aspects of this proposal have been made previously, notably by economists Kevin Dowd and Richard Salsman. It could be implemented in three phases:

Over 2 days the aim is to ensure that all operating banks are solvent

  1. Deposit insurance is removed – banks will not be able to rely on government support to gain the public’s confidence
  2. The Bank of England closes its discount window
  3. Any company can freely enter the UK banking industry
  4. Banks will be able to merge and consolidate as desired
  5. Bankruptcy proceedings will be undertaken on all insolvent banks
    1. Suspend withdrawals to prevent a run
    2. Ensure deposits up to £50,000 are ring fenced
    3. Write down bank’s assets
    4. Perform a debt-for-equity swap on remaining deposits
    5. Reopen with an exemption on capital gains tax

Over 2 weeks the aim is to monitor the emergence of free banking

  1. Permanently freeze the current monetary base
  2. Allow private banks to issue their own notes (similar to commercial paper)
  3. Mandate that banks allow depositors to opt into 100% reserve accounts free of charge
  4. Mandate that banks offering fractional-reserve accounts make public key information (these include: (i) reserve rates; (ii) asset classes being used to back deposits; (iii) compensation offered in the event of a suspension of payment)
  5. Government sells all gold reserves and allows banks to issue notes backed by gold (or any other commodity)
  6. Government rescinds all taxes on the use of gold as a medium of exchange
  7. Repeal legal tender laws so people can choose which currencies to accept as payment

Over 2 months the aim is the end of central banking

  1. The Bank of England ceases its open-market operations and no longer finances government debt
  2. The Bank of England is privatised (it may well remain as a central clearing house)

You can download a copy of the plan in pamphlet form here.

Economics

Intervening in bankers’ pay

I attended a lecture recently given by Dr. John Thanassoulis from Oxford University.  His objective in this lecture was to explore the question of whether there is a case for financial regulation which intervenes in bankers’ pay.  To cut a long story short, Thanassoulis’s conclusion was that, yes, effectively the Government should intervene in bankers’ pay and cap it at an appropriate level to lower the overall risk of the banking industry.  Leaving aside who decides what “an appropriate level” to pay bankers is, in my view there are a host of problems with Thanassoulis’s analysis and conclusions.

Before getting into the problems I will describe Thanassoulis’s argument.  Fundamentally, he believes that the level of remuneration at banks is a legitimate source of concern because the higher the remuneration the greater the following:

a)      Restriction of bank lending

b)      Increased risk incentive for the banker

c)      Increased risk taking by banks in general.

Thanassoulis characterises these aspects as an externality (in other words a cost that others have to pay rather than the banks themselves) thus requiring intervention.  Interestingly, he views competition in the banking industry as a problem, because in order to compete for the best banking employees banks must pay higher remuneration thus increasing risk.  In his view, competition in a free market can sometimes be a problem. 

Thanassoulis’s analysis results in him drawing other bizarre conclusions.  Because he is concerned that that banking executives are overly concerned with the short-term (unlike say government regulators) and because bankers discount deferred pay, banks should be forced to defer pay to force bankers to focus on the long-term.  Secondly, remuneration should be capped to a proportion of assets under management or profits, nominally to lower risk but also to refocus banking towards lending.  Banks exist to lend money but apparently this is not sufficient motivation for them to actually lend money.  It is also not clear who is qualified to actually decide what the cap should be or who can define the long-term versus the short-term.  Is the long-term 20 years or three?  Is the short-term three months or one year?  How far into the future can one accurately divine?  That is a question for mystics perhaps or maybe left for analysis after the fact.

Oftentimes, when you find yourself making conclusions that on their face are absurd it is wise to go back and revisit your premises.  In this case, Thanassoulis’s basic premise is that for whatever reason bankers took excessive risks.  Fundamentally, he believes that bankers took excessive risks because they were incentivised to do so by their compensation package.  And furthermore, he seems to lump “bankers” into one homogeneous group when in fact, there are many types of bankers who perform various different functions.  Essentially, when many people think of bankers, they often seem to have in mind equity traders, a group I could imagine would fit the public image of an aggressive, all caution to the wind, testosterone charged bankers.  Indeed, Thanassoulis appears to refer interchangeably between traders and bankers without defining either.  The reality of course is far more complex.

Certainly commercial bankers (such as RBS, HBOS, Lloyds, who needed varying amounts of bail-outs) tend to be a much more genteel group than might be suggested by their public image.  The approach taken by such bankers to lending is consideration of the borrower’s ability to pay them back, whether this is over three years or twenty (long term?).  Simply put, banks will not lend if they do not believe there is a reasonable chance of regaining their principal.  It is true that during boom times a lot of loans were made that ex post have proven to be unwise, but the risks weren’t fully appreciated at the time. Bankers, like many individuals, conducted themselves as though the good times would continue to roll.  The issue here, therefore, is not excessive risk-taking but a misspecification of risk.  Commercial lenders base their specification of risk on actuarial models which unfortunately, can be biased based on recent events.  Furthermore, these models cannot account accurately for the business cycle, thus risk estimates are biased downwards.  As such, bankers are making loans based on a belief that the risk is lower than it really is. 

Furthermore, the very nature of banks allows them to have more funds available for these improperly specified loans than they otherwise would.  This is for two reasons.  First, modern commercial banks hold fractional reserves.  At the height of the boom period banks were holding perhaps 1% of deposits on reserve and lending the rest out.  Secondly, where necessary, the central bank would provide additional liquidity (i.e. print money to support banks’ lending).

And so not only was the risk estimate of lending understated, the amount of money available to lend was too high.  If banks have money to be lent it will be lent.  This is the modern function of banks.  The pressure on banks to lend will increase over time as profits that are made on earlier successful projects need to be reinvested.  This results in the banks increasing in size (due to increased asset values, new employees required to manage the multiplying projects etc.) necessitating further lending in a crowded loan market.  Furthermore the increasing esteem of banks provides further pressure to become involved in prestigious new projects.  These developments will also cause banking pay to rise and increase competition in the market to hire bankers.

Additionally, with a lowered perception of risk the interest rate charged to borrowers will be lower than it otherwise would be.  This in turn encourages companies and individuals to borrow money and invest in projects or spend on frivolities. Indeed, borrowers will also have a lowered perception of risk, essentially for the same reason as bankers.  And so while the cross-hairs of blame are centred on bankers, the same mistakes were made by all market participants.  HMV and Woolworths are two such casualties that borrowed money for investment in projects that ultimately proved to be wasteful. 

Fiddling around with bankers pay, capping it, deferring it, re-portioning it is a complete waste of time, trying to solve a problem that does not exist.  Bankers’ pay, its composition or amount, has nothing to do the causes of the recent economic bust, other than that it is merely another symptom of the business cycle.  Bankers are well paid because the economy is set up to reward them in this manner.  The majority of the financial resources in the economy are funnelled through the banking system and bankers take their cut.  This is because of the legal and economic structure in which banks operate.  That is, the central bank fractional reserve system.  Thus, in good times and bad, banks disproportionately benefit.

In any event, the compensation of banking employees is not a major source of risk in banking.  The major risk factors in banking include (but are not limited to) the risk of the project itself, market risk (i.e. movement in variables such as interest rates) and the gap between short-term borrowing and long-term lending.  If well paid banking executives steer the bank towards high yield projects it is because they have the appearance of being relatively low risk, not because they are anxious to take on high risk, high yield projects.  Unfortunately, they are unaware that the benefits from such projects are an illusion created by the very business cycle that banks perpetuate.

The obvious solution is to abolish every aspect of fractional reserve banking, including central banking and fiat currency.  This will not happen any time soon as it benefits the government to have this system in place.  The government has access to a hidden tax through inflation and a willing scapegoat when things go wrong.  The villagers will go armed with pitchforks and torches trying to kill the wrong monster.

Indeed, while complaining that banks are not lending, (after criticising them for lending too much!) the government assures that banks will not lend in any great amount by making it impossible to do so.  The low interest rate environment, created by that agency of the government, the Bank of England, has made it impossible for banks to exit many of their positions for many years.  But we should recognise here that the primary objective of the government is to ensure the survival of their colleagues at banks around the country (and by extension the world) and not either a quick end to the depression or lending to businesses that may or may not need the funds.

As such, John Thanassoulis’s conclusions are quite invalid and will not solve any particular economic problem.  Instead, he has fallen prey to the smoke screen promoted by the Government which has focused the causes of the depression on trivial issues like bankers’ pay.  Indeed, in this manner the Government takes advantage of feelings of envy amongst the population at large to focus their rage away from government policy and the fundamental causes of the depression.  This is slightly analogous to a similar method used with petrol prices.  When prices are too high, it’s not because of the approximately 150% tax on petrol but because of greedy oil companies and price-gouging petrol station owners.