In his article “The curse of weak global demand”, Financial Times November 18, 2014, the economics columnist Martin Wolf wrote that today’s most important economic illness is chronic demand deficiency syndrome. Martin Wolf argues that despite massive monetary pumping by the central banks of US and EMU and the lowering policy interest rates to around zero both the US and the EMU economies have continued to struggle.
After reaching 1.0526 in Q1 2006 the US real GDP to its trend ratio fell to 0.966 by Q3 2011. By Q3 2014 the ratio stood at 0.98. The ratio of EMU real GDP to its trend after closing at 1.061 in Q1 2008 fell to 0.954 by Q3 2014.
Martin Wolf is of the view that what is needed is to raise the overall demand for goods and services in order to revive economies. He also holds that there is a need to revive consumer confidence that was weakened by the severe weakening of the financial system.
He is also of the view that there is a need for the banks to lift their lending in order to revivedemand, which in turn, he suggests, will revive the economies in question. He also blamesmassive debt for the economic difficulties that the US and the EMU economies are currently experiencing.
Martin Wolf views the current economic illness as some mysterious and complex phenomena, which requires complex and non-conventional remedies.
We suggest that the essence of Wolf’s argument is erroneous. Here is why.
There is no such thing as deficiency of demand that causes economic difficulties. The heart of economic growth is the process of real wealth generation.
The stronger this process is the more real wealth can be generated and the stronger so-called economic growth becomes. What drives this process is infrastructure, or tools and machinery. With better infrastructure more and a better quality of goods and services i.e. real wealth, can be generated.
Take for instance a baker who has produced ten loaves of bread. Out of this he consumes one loaf and the other nine he saves.
He can exchange the saved bread for the services of a technician who will enhance the oven. With an improved oven the baker can now produce twenty loaves of bread. Now he can save more and use the larger savings pool to further invest in his infrastructure such as buying other tools that will lift the production and the quality of the bread.
Observe that the key for wealth generation is the ability to generate real wealth. This in turn is dependent on the allocation of the part of wealth towards the buildup and the enhancement of the infrastructure.
Also, note that if the baker were to decide to consume his entire production i.e. keeping his demand strong, then he would not be able to expand the production of bread (real wealth).
As time goes by his infrastructure would have likely deteriorated and his production would have actually declined.
The belief that an increase in the demand for bread without a corresponding increase in the infrastructure will do the trick is wishful thinking.
We suggest that there is no such thing as a scarce demand. Most individuals have unlimited desires for goods and services.
For instance, most individuals would prefer to live in nice houses rather than in small apartments.
Most people would like to have luxuries cars and be able to dine in good quality restaurants. What prevents them in achieving these various desires is the scarcity of means.
In fact as things stand most individuals have plenty of desires i.e. goals, but not enough means.
Unfortunately means cannot be generated by boosting demand. This will only increase goals but not means.
Contrary to the popular way of thinking we can conclude that demand doesn’t create supply but the other way around.
As we have seen by producing something useful i.e. bread, the baker can exchange it for the services of a technician and boost his infrastructure.
By means of the enhanced infrastructure the baker can generate more bread i.e. more means that will enable him to attain various other goals that previously were not reachable by him.
The current economic difficulties are the outcome of past and present reckless monetary and fiscal policies of central banks and governments.
It must be realized that neither central banks nor governments are wealth generating entities. All that they can set in motion is a process of real wealth redistribution by diverting real wealth from wealth generators towards non-wealth generating activities.
As long as the pool of real wealth is expanding the central bank and the government can get away with the myth that their policies can grow the economy.
Once however, the pool of wealth becomes stagnant or starts shrinking the illusion of the central bank and government policies are shattered.
It is not possible to expand real wealth whilst the pool of real wealth is shrinking. Again a shrinking pool of wealth over time can only support a shrinking infrastructure and hence a reduced production of goods and services that people require to maintain their life and well being – real wealth.
The way out of the current economic mess is to close all the loopholes of wealth destruction. This means to severely cut government involvement with the economy. It also, requires closing all the loopholes for the creation of money out of “thin air”.
By curtailing the central bank’s ability to boost money out of “thin air” the exchange of nothing for something will be arrested. This will leave more real wealth in the hands of wealth generators and will enable them to enhance and to expand the wealth generating infrastructure.
Contrary to Martin Wolf the expanding of bank loans as such is not going to revive the economy. As we have seen the key for the economic revival is the buildup of infrastructure that could support an expanding pool of real wealth.
Banks are just the facilitators in the channeling of real wealth. However, they do not generate real wealth as such.
The lending expansion that Martin Wolf suggests is associated with fractional reserve lending i.e. lending out of “thin air” and in this respect it is bad news for the economy – it sets in motion the diversion of real wealth from wealth generators to non wealth generating activities.
We can conclude that the sooner governments and central banks will start doing nothing the sooner economic revival will emerge. We agree with Martin Wolf that the economic situation currently seems to be difficult; however, it cannot be improved by artificially boosting the demand for goods and services.
Summary and conclusion
Some experts are of the view that today’s most important economic illness is chronic demand deficiency syndrome. It is because of this deficiency that world economies are still struggling despite massive monetary pumping by central banks, or so it is held. We suggest that this way of thinking is erroneous. The key problem today is a severe weakening in the wealth generation process. The main reason for this is reckless monetary and government policies. We hold that the sooner central banks and governments start doing nothing the sooner economic revival will occur.
“Finally, as expectations of rapid inflation evaporate, I want to contribute to the debate about the November 15, 2010 letter signed by 23 US academics, economists and money managers warning on the Fed’s QE strategy. Bloomberg News did what I would call a hatchet job on the signatories essentially saying how wrong they have been and seeking their current views. It certainly made for an entertaining read. Needless to say, shortly afterwards Paul Krugman waded in with his typically understated style to twist the knife in still deeper. Cliff Asness, one of the signatories of the original letter, despite observing that “responding toKrugman is as productive as smacking a skunk with a tennis racket. But, sometimes, like manyunpleasant tasks, it’s necessary”, penned a rather wittyresponse. Do read these articles at your leisure. But having been one of the few to accurately predict the deflation quagmire into which we have now sunk, I believe I am more entitled than many to have a view on this subject. Had I been asked I would certainly have signed the letter and would still sign it now. The unfolding deflationary quagmire into which we are sinking will get worse and there will be more Fed QE. But do I think QE will solve our problems? I certainly do not. I think ultimately it will make things far, far worse.”
– SocGen’s Albert Edwards, ‘Is the next (and last) phase of the Ice Age now upon us ?’ (20 November 2014)
On Monday 15th November 2010, the following open letter to Ben Bernanke was published:
“We believe the Federal Reserve’s large-scale asset purchase plan (so-called “quantitative easing”) should be reconsidered and discontinued. We do not believe such a plan is necessary or advisable under current circumstances. The planned asset purchases risk currency debasement and inflation, and we do not think they will achieve the Fed’s objective of promoting employment.
“We subscribe to your statement in the Washington Post on November 4 that “the Federal Reserve cannot solve all the economy’s problems on its own.” In this case, we think improvements in tax, spending and regulatory policies must take precedence in a national growth program, not further monetary stimulus.
“We disagree with the view that inflation needs to be pushed higher, and worry that another round of asset purchases, with interest rates still near zero over a year into the recovery, will distort financial markets and greatly complicate future Fed efforts to normalize monetary policy.
“The Fed’s purchase program has also met broad opposition from other central banks and we share their concerns that quantitative easing by the Fed is neither warranted nor helpful in addressing either U.S. or global economic problems.”
Among the 23 signatories to the letter were Cliff Asness of AQR Capital, Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates, Niall Ferguson of Harvard University, James Grant of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, and Seth Klarman of Baupost Group.
Words matter. Their meanings matter. Since we have a high degree of respect for the so-called Austrian economic school, we will use Mises’ own definition of inflation:
“..an increase in the quantity of money.. that is not offset by a corresponding increase in the need for money.”
In other words, inflation has already occurred, inasmuch as the Federal Reserve has increased the US monetary base from roughly $800 billion, pre-Lehman Crisis, to roughly $3.9 trillion today.
What the signatories likely meant when they referred to inflation in their original open letter to Bernanke was the popular interpretation of the word – that second-order rise in the prices of goods and services that typically follows aggressive base money inflation. Note, as many of them observed when prodded by Bloomberg’s yellow journalists, that their original warning carried no specific date on which their inflation might arise. To put it in terms which Ben Bernanke himself might struggle to understand, just because something has not happened during the course of four years does not mean it will never happen. We say this advisedly, given that the former central bank governor himself made the following observation in response to a question about the US housing market in July 2005:
“INTERVIEWER: Tell me, what is the worst-case scenario? Sir, we have so many economists coming on our air and saying, “Oh, this is a bubble, and it’s going to burst, and this is going to be a real issue for the economy.” Some say it could even cause a recession at some point. What is the worst-case scenario, if in fact we were to see prices come down substantially across the country?
“BERNANKE: Well, I guess I don’t buy your premise. It’s a pretty unlikely possibility. We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis. So what I think is more likely is that house prices will slow, maybe stabilize: might slow consumption spending a bit. I don’t think it’s going to drive the economy too far from its full employment path, though.” [Emphasis ours.]
To paraphrase Ben Bernanke, “We’ve never had a decline in house prices on a nationwide basis – therefore we never will.”
One more quote from Mises is relevant here, when he warns about the essential characteristic of inflation being its creation by the State:
“The most important thing to remember is that inflation is not an act of God, that inflation is not a catastrophe of the elements or a disease that comes like the plague.Inflation is a policy.”
Many observers of today’s financial situation are scouring the markets for evidence of second-order inflation (specifically, CPI inflation) whilst either losing sight of, or not even being aware of, the primary inflation, per the Austrian school definition.
James Grant, responding to Bloomberg, commented:
“People say, you guys are all wrong because you predicted inflation and it hasn’t happened. I think there’s plenty of inflation – not at the checkout counter, necessarily, but on Wall Street.”
“The S&P 500 might be covering its fixed charges better, it might be earning more Ebitda, but that’s at the expense of other things, including the people who saved all their lives and are now earning nothing on their savings.”
“That to me is the principal distortion, is the distortion of the credit markets. The central bankers have in deeds, if not exactly in words – although I think there have been some words as well – have prodded people into riskier assets than they would have had to purchase in the absence of these great gusts of credit creation from the central banks. It’s the question of suitability.”
And from the vantage point of November 2014, only an academic could deny that the signatories were wholly correct to warn of the financial market distortion that ensues from aggressive money printing.
Ever since Lehman Brothers failed and the Second Great Depression began, like every other investor on the planet we have wrestled with the arguments over inflation (as commonly understood) versus deflation. Now some of the fog has lifted from the battlefield. Despite the creation of trillions of dollars (and pounds and yen) in base money, the forces of deflation – a.k.a. the financial markets – are in the ascendancy, testimony to the scale of private sector deleveraging that has occurred even as government money and debt issuance have gone into overdrive. And Albert Edwards is surely right that as the forces of deflation worsen, they will be met with ever more aggressive QE from the Fed and from representatives of other heavily indebted governments. This is not a recipe for stability. This is the precursor to absolute financial chaos.
Because the price of every tradeable financial asset is now subject to the whim and caprice of government, rational macro-economic analysis (i.e. top-down investing and asset allocation) has become impossible. Only bottom-up analysis now offers any real potential for adding value at the portfolio level. We discount the relevance of debt instruments almost entirely, but we continue to see merit in listed businesses run by principled and shareholder-friendly management, where the shares of those businesses trade at a significant discount to any fair assessment of their underlying intrinsic value. A word of caution is warranted – these sort of value opportunities are vanishingly scarce in the US markets, precisely because of the distorting market effects of which the signatories to the November 2010 letter warned; today, value investors must venture much further afield. The safe havens may be all gone, but we still believe that pockets of inherent value are out there for those with the tenacity, conviction and patience to seek them out.
G20 gatherings of world leaders on the surface are all the same: they conclude with a meaningless anodyne statement that everyone can agree with. But these meetings do serve a purpose: they allow the world leaders to meet informally and exchange views.
Since the last G20 in St Petersburg in 2013 when there was a high degree of conviction that economic growth would return, the global economic outlook has instead deteriorated significantly. Instead of last time’s mutual bonhomie over the prospect of their collective success, the world’s leaders this time are almost certainly worried. They would have learned about the failure of monetary policy everywhere. They would have had this first-hand from Japan’s delegation, which is on its way to financial and currency destruction. The despair in the European delegations would have been obvious as well.
The problem is that post-war monetary theories have failed to deliver. Lower interest rates and increased quantities of money in order to promote economic growth no longer work. The abandonment of the laws of the markets in favour of stimulating consumer demand by monetary means has turned out to be a blind alley. Time will tell, but if the global economy is heading for a slump, the banking system will become overburdened with defaulting borrowers, and government deficits will rise uncontrollably, especially in the welfare nations. This cannot be permitted to happen under any circumstances. It is therefore quite likely that the alternative to monetary-driven policy, accelerated government deficit spending as a pre-emptive measure, will be tried instead. And in this respect the relative success of the British and American economies will be attributed to their large budget deficits, while the misery of austerity is identified with the problems in France and the southern Eurozone.
These are bad and confused arguments, but they will be emotionally attractive to the political class, while the central bankers probably feel it is time the politicians took responsibility for economic management. Furthermore, it is surely becoming obvious that monetary solutions only enrich the bankers. And the most effective way of countering deflation, economists will argue, will be for demand-led price rises for consumer products, which have a better chance of coming about through increased government spending. And do not be surprised if economists argue that governments need to take over the debt-creation process to kick-start the business cycle.
We might look back on Brisbane as a milestone in global economic policy, when governments and central banks changed the emphasis of economic management from monetary stimulation through the financial system towards a greater emphasis on direct government intervention. In the process two things are likely to happen: currencies will begin to lose their purchasing power with respect to everyday goods, and government bond yields are likely to rise, undermining financial asset valuations.
This will certainly puff up GDP, because government spending is a significant part of it. But the idea that controlled price inflation can be engineered flies in the face of all experience. If the emphasis does shift from monetary solutions towards more aggressive government spending the risk will also shift towards an uncontrollable decline in purchasing power for currencies. It will be very good for inflation hedges like gold.
According to the ECB’s Bank Lending Survey for October banks eased their credit standards in the last quarter, while their risk perceptions increased.
This apparent contradiction suggests that the 137 banks surveyed were at the margin competing for lower-quality business, hardly the sign of a healthy lending market. Furthermore, the detail showed enterprises were cutting borrowing for fixed investment sharply and required more working capital instead to finance inventories and perhaps to cover trading losses.
This survey follows bank lending statistics since the banking crisis to mid-2014, which are shown in the chart below (Source: ECB).
It is likely that some of the contraction in bank lending has been replaced with bond finance by the larger credit-worthy corporations, and Eurozone banks have also preferred buying sovereign bonds. Meanwhile, the Eurozone economy obviously faces a deepening crisis.
There are some global systemically important banks (G-SIBs) based in the Eurozone, and this week the Financial Stability Board (FSB) published a consultation document on G-SIBs’ capital ratios in connection with the bail-in procedures to be considered at the G20 meeting this weekend. The timing is not helpful for the ECB, because the FSB’s principle recommendation is that G-SIBs’ Tier 1 and 2 capital should as a minimum be double the Basel III level. This gives operational leverage of between 5 and 6.25 times risk-weighted assets, compared with up to 12.5 times under Basel III.
The FSB expects the required capital increase to be satisfied mostly by the issue of qualifying debt instruments, so the G-SIBs will not have to tap equity markets. However, since Eurozone G-SIBs are faced with issuing bonds at higher interest rates than the returns on sovereign debt, they will be tempted to scale back their balance sheets instead. Meanwhile bank depositors should note they are no longer at the head of the creditors’ queue when their bank goes bust, which could affect the non-G-SIB banks with higher capital ratios.
If G-SIBs can be de-geared without triggering a bank lending crisis the world of finance should eventually be a safer place: that’s the intention. Unfortunately, a bail-in of a large bank is unlikely to work in practice, because if an important bank does go to the wall, without the limitless government backing of a bail-out, money-markets will almost certainly fail to function in its wake and the crisis could rapidly become systemic.
Meanwhile, it might appear that the ECB is a powerless bystander watching a train-wreck in the making. Businesses in the Eurozone appear to only want to borrow to survive, as we can see from the October Bank Lending Survey. Key banks are now being told to halve their balance sheet gearing, encouraging a further reduction in bank credit. Normally a central bank would respond by increasing the quantity of narrow money, which the ECB is trying to do despite the legal hurdles in its founding constitution.
However, it is becoming apparent that the ECB’s intention to increase its balance sheet by up to €1 trillion may not be nearly enough, given that the FSB’s proposals look like giving an added spin to contraction of bank credit in the Eurozone.
Together with colleagues spanning four parties – Michael Meacher (Lab), Caroline Lucas (Green), Douglas Carswell (UKIP) and David Davis (Con) – I have secured a debate on Money Creation and Society for Thursday 20 November. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the debate.
First, we have a system of paper or “fiat” money: it exists due to legal mandate as opposed to being a physical commodity like gold. Reserves, notes and coins are created by the state but claims on money are created by the banks when they lend. Most of the money we have was created by banks lending.
I published a short paper on what is wrong with the current system and what to do about it, first inBanking 2020 and then Jesús Huerta de Soto kindly republished it in his journal Procesos De Mercado Vol.X nº2 2013. A further monetary economist privately reviewed the paper but errors and omissions remain my own. You can download it here:
Recent emergency monetary policy has been dominated by Quantitative Easing: the Bank of England has provided a report on The distributional effects of asset purchases (PDF). However, the financial system has been chronically inflationary throughout my lifetime, ever since the Bretton Woods currency system ended.
If QE has distributional effects, why not all money creation?
Why are we in this debt crisis? I have just checked the M4 money supply figures—I am sorry to return to aggregates, but needs must. When Labour came to power the money supply was about £700 billion and it is now about £2.1 trillion, so it has tripled over the past 14 years. Unfortunately, most economists talk about money flowing into the economy as if it were water poured into a tank that found its own level immediately, but what if it is like treacle or honey? What if it builds up in piles when poured into the economy and takes a while to spread out? What if that money was loaned into existence in response to individual choices led by the excessively low interest rates pushed by the central bank? What if it was loaned into existence in particular sectors, such as the housing sector, where prices have more than doubled over the same period, and what if it was the financial sector that received the benefit of that new money first? Would that not explain why financiers and bankers are so much wealthier than everyone else, and why economic activity and wealth has been reorientated towards the south-east?
This debate will explore the effects on society of long-term money creation by private banks’ lending in the context of the present financial system.
“Sir, Your headline “Fed’s grand experiment draws to a close” (FT.com, October 29) combines ignorance of what quantitative easing is with insouciance as to its potential effects – both of these mistakes being perennial features of FT coverage of QE. The “experiment”, as you call it, is not at an end; it is, with the purchases now ending, at its height. Only when the Fed starts selling the securities it has purchased back into the market will the US’s QE begin its withdrawal from that height; only when the last purchased security has been sold back into the market, or allowed to expire with consequent permanent expansion of the money supply, will the “grand experiment” (I would prefer that you called it “reckless gamble”) be at its end.
“Only at that point will we even start to see the results – on interest rates, on securities prices, on the economy. The outcome, as has so often been the case with such Keynesian experiments, is unlikely to be pretty.”
Letter to the FT from Jon Moynihan, London SW3.
The other potential cause of a sell-off in markets is through a central bank mistake. Some think the liquidity created by QE will eventually leak into higher inflation, but there is no sign of this as yet. More likely is a decline into deflation which would lead to financial distress as debts become more difficult to repay.
“If that does show signs of happening, then we may indeed get to see QE4 rolled out. Daddy might have let go of the market’s hand for the moment but he’s still close by.”
Strange things are happening in the bond market. Few of them are stranger than the reports that a French fund management colleague of Bill Gross (formerly of Pimco) took such exception to public excoriation from his stamp-collecting associate that he quit the business to sell croques monsieur from a food truck. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gross told Jeremie Banet in front of Pimco’s entire investment committee that, “I never understand what you’re saying. Ever.” With those credentials, M. Banet is clearly supremely qualified to become the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. As it is, he elected to return to his job managing an inflation-linked bond portfolio.
He has his work cut out. Consider the sort of volatility that the 10 year US Treasury bond – the closest thing the financial world has to a “risk-free rate” – experienced on 15th October (below).
Intra-day yield, 10 year US Treasury bond, 15th October 2014
Source: Bloomberg LLP
Having begun the day sporting a 2.2% yield, the 10 year note during the trading session experienced an extraordinary surge in price that took its yield down briefly towards 1.85%. Later in the same session the buying abated, and the bond closed with a yield of roughly 2.14%. During the same trading session, equity markets sold off aggressively (the UK’s FTSE 100 index, for example, closed down almost 3% on the day). What accounts for such melodrama ?
Analyst Russell Napier takes up the story:
“There it was — a real market come and gone in half an hour, like a pregnant panda at Edinburgh zoo. What did it mean and what should you do? You should pay attention to what happens to the direction of prices when volumes surge and markets work. When the veil is lifted, pay attention to what you see beneath. Last Wednesday, in the space of half an hour of active trading, the Treasury market had one of its most rapid rises ever recorded and equities fell sharply.
“There is a very simple lesson that when the markets finally break through the manipulation they move to price in deflation and not inflation. This is key because it means financial repression has failed. Such repression requires the artificial depression of interest rates but, crucially, it must be paired with boosting inflation above such rates. On October 15th 2014, if only for a few short minutes, market forces broke out and the failure of central bankers was briefly evident.”
These days, you don’t tend to hear the words ‘failure’ and ‘central bankers’ in the same sentence (unless the topic happens to be Zimbabwe). But perhaps the omniscience and omnipotence of central bankers is somewhat overstated. On October 29th, the US Federal Reserve followed a long-rehearsed script and announced that it had “decided to conclude its asset purchase program [also known as QE] this month.”
So now stock and bond markets will have to look after themselves, so to speak. The Economist’s Buttonwood columnist described it as “Letting go of Daddy’s hand”. That coinage nicely speaks to the juvenilisation to which markets have been reduced during six long years of financial repression, unprecedented central bank asset purchases, and the official manipulation of interest rates. Only the asset purchases have abated (for now): the financial repression, one way or another, will go on.
Whether the asset purchases have really disappeared, or merely been suspended, will be a function of how risk markets behave over the coming months and years. We would not be in the least surprised to see petulant markets rewarded with yet more infusions of sweets.
Yet some still associate QE with success. The Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, or his sub-editor, reckon that central bankers deserve a medal for saving society. He dismisses any scepticism as “hard money bluster”. Economist David Howden, on the other hand, can see somewhat further than the end of his own nose:
“One of the true marks of a great economist is an ability to see past the obvious outcomes and into the veiled results of policies. Friedrich Bastiat’s great essay on “that which is seen, and that which is not seen” provides a cautionary parable that disastrous analyses result when people don’t bother looking further than the immediate results of an action.
“Nowhere is this lesson more instructive than with the Fed’s QE policies of the past 6 years.
“Consider the Austrian business cycle theory. The nub of the theory is that changes in the money market have broader results on the greater economy. In its most succinct form, when a central bank pushes interest rates lower than they should be (by buying assets, for example), the greater economy gets distorted. Some of these distortions are immediately apparent, as consumers buy more goods and everyone takes on more debt as a result of lower interest rates. Some of the distortions are not immediately apparent. The investment decision of firms gets skewed as interest rates no longer reflect savings preferences, and the whole economy becomes fragile over time as erroneous investments add up (what Mises coined “malinvestments”).
“When a financial crisis or economic recession hits, it’s almost never because of some event that apparently happened at the same time. The crisis of 2008 did not occur because of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. It happened because the whole financial system and greater economy were fragile following years of cheap credit at the hands of the Greenspan Fed. If anything, Lehman was a result of this and a great (if unfortunate) example of the type of bad business decisions firms are lured into by loose money. It wasn’t the cause of the troubles but a result of them. And if Lehman didn’t go under to spark the credit crunch, some other fragile financial institution would have.
“The Great Depression is a similar case in point. It wasn’t the stock market crash in 1929 that “created” the Great Depression. It was a decade of loose money policies by the Fed that created a shaky economy. Again, if anything the stock market crash was the result of stock prices being too buoyant and in need of a repricing to reflect economic fundamentals. Just like today, stocks rose to such storied heights as a result of cheap credit, not because of the seemingly “great” investments funded by it.
“The Fed has lowered interest rates since July 2006. We have just come off the period with the most rapid and extreme increase in the money supply ever recorded in American history. The seeds of the next Austrian business cycle have been sown. In fact, they are probably especially fertile seeds when one considers that the monetary policy has been so loose by historical standards. Just as cheap credit of the 1920s beget the Great Depression, that of the 1990s beget the dot-com bust and that of the mid-2000s beget the crisis of 2008, this most recent period will also give birth to a financial crisis.”
Although our crystal ball is no more polished than anyone else’s, our fundamental views are clear. Bonds are already grotesquely expensive, yet may get more so (we’re not investing in “the usual suspects” so we don’t much care). Most stock markets are pricey – but in a world beset by QE (and prospects for more, in Europe and Asia) which prices can we really trust ? By a process of logic, elimination and deduction, out of the major asset classes, only quality listed businesses trading at or ideally well below a fair assessment of their intrinsic worth offer any semblance of value or attractiveness. Pretty much everything else amounts to nothing more than paper, prone to arbitrary gusts from some very powerful, and very windy, bureaucrats. We note also that former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan, no doubt looking to polish his legacy, managed to front-run the Fed’s QE announcement by pointing to the merits of gold within a government-controlled, fiat currency system. Strange days indeed.
China first delegated the management of gold policy to the People’s Bank by regulations in 1983.
This development was central to China’s emergence as a free-market economy following the post-Mao reforms in 1979/82. At that time the west was doing its best to suppress gold to enhance confidence in paper currencies, releasing large quantities of bullion for others to buy. This is why the timing is important: it was an opportunity for China, a one-billion population country in the throes of rapid economic modernisation, to diversify growing trade surpluses from the dollar.
To my knowledge this subject has not been properly addressed by any private-sector analysts, which might explain why it is commonly thought that China’s gold policy is a more recent development, and why even industry specialists show so little understanding of the true position. But in the thirty-one years since China’s gold regulations were enacted, global mine production has increased above-ground stocks from an estimated 92,000 tonnes to 163,000 tonnes today, or 71,000 tonnes* ; and while the west was also reducing its stocks in a prolonged bear market all that gold was hoarded somewhere.
The period I shall focus on is between 1983 and 2002, when gold ownership in China was finally liberated and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was formed. The fact that the Chinese authorities permitted private ownership of gold suggests that they had by then acquired sufficient gold for monetary and strategic purposes, and were content to add to them from domestic mine production and Chinese scrap thereafter rather than through market purchases. This raises the question as to how much gold China might have secretly accumulated by the end of 2002 for this to be the case.
China’s 1983 gold regulations coincided with the start of a western bear market in gold, when Swiss private bankers managing the largest western depositories reduced their clients’ holdings over the following fifteen years ultimately to very low levels. In the mid-eighties the London bullion market developed to enable future mine and scrap supplies to be secured and sold for immediate delivery. The bullion delivered was leased or swapped from central banks to be replaced at later dates. A respected American analyst, Frank Veneroso, in a 2002 speech in Lima estimated total central bank leases and swaps to be between 10,000 and 16,000 tonnes at that time. This amount has to be subtracted from official reserves and added to the enormous increase in mine supply, along with western portfolio liquidation. No one actually knows how much gold was supplied through the markets, but this must not stop us making reasonable estimates.
Between 1983 and 2002, mine production, scrap supplies, portfolio sales and central bank leasing absorbed by new Asian and Middle Eastern buyers probably exceeded 75,000 tonnes. It is easy to be blasé about such large amounts, but at today’s prices this is the equivalent of $3 trillion. The Arabs had surplus dollars and Asia was rapidly industrialising. Both camps were not much influenced by western central bank propaganda aimed at side-lining gold in the new era of floating exchange rates, though Arab enthusiasm will have been diminished somewhat by the severe bear market as the 1980s progressed. The table below summarises the likely distribution of this gold.
Today, many believe that India is the largest private sector market, but in the 12 years following the repeal of the Gold Control Act in 1990, an estimated 5,426 tonnes only were imported (Source: Indian Gold Book 2002), and between 1983 and 1990 perhaps a further 1,500 tonnes were smuggled into India, giving total Indian purchases of about 7,000 tonnes between 1983 and 2002. That leaves the rest of Asia including the Middle East, China, Turkey and South-East Asia. Of the latter two, Turkey probably took in about 4,000 tonnes, and we can pencil in 5,000 tonnes for South-East Asia, bearing in mind the tiger economies’ boom-and-bust in the 1990s. This leaves approximately 55,000 tonnes split between the Middle East and China, assuming 4,850 tonnes satisfied other unclassified demand.
The Middle East began to accumulate gold in the mid-1970s, storing much of it in the vaults of the Swiss private banks. Income from oil continued to rise, so despite the severe bear market in gold from 1980 onwards, Middle-Eastern investors continued to buy. In the 1990s, a new generation of Swiss portfolio managers less committed to gold was advising clients, including those in the Middle East, to sell. At the same time, discouraged by gold’s bear market, a western-educated generation of Arabs started to diversify into equities, infrastructure spending and other investment media. Gold stocks owned by Arab investors remain a well-kept secret to this day, but probably still represents the largest quantity of vaulted gold, given the scale of petro-dollar surpluses in the 1980s. However, because of the change in the Arabs’ financial culture, from the 1990s onwards the pace of their acquisition waned.
By elimination this leaves China as the only other significant buyer during that era. Given that Arab enthusiasm for gold diminished for over half the 1983-2002 period, the Chinese government being price-insensitive to a western-generated bear market could have easily accumulated in excess of 20,000 tonnes by the end of 2002.
China’s reasons for accumulating gold
We now know that China had the resources from its trade surpluses as well as the opportunity to buy bullion. Heap-leaching techniques boosted mine output and western investors sold down their bullion, so there was ample supply available; but what was China’s motive?
Initially China probably sought to diversify from US dollars, which was the only trade currency it received in the days before the euro. Furthermore, it would have seemed nonsensical to export goods in return for someone else’s paper specifically inflated to pay them, which is how it must have appeared to China at the time. It became obvious from European and American attitudes to China’s emergence as an economic power that these export markets could not be wholly relied upon in the long term. So following Russia’s recovery from its 1998 financial crisis, China set about developing an Asian trading bloc in partnership with Russia as an eventual replacement for western export markets, and in 2001 the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation was born. In the following year, her gold policy also changed radically, when Chinese citizens were allowed for the first time to buy gold and the Shanghai Gold Exchange was set up to satisfy anticipated demand.
The fact that China permitted its citizens to buy physical gold suggests that it had already acquired a satisfactory holding. Since 2002, it will have continued to add to gold through mine and scrap supplies, which is confirmed by the apparent absence of Chinese-refined 1 kilo bars in the global vaulting system. Furthermore China takes in gold doré from Asian and African mines, which it also refines and probably adds to government stockpiles.
Since 2002, the Chinese state has almost certainly acquired by these means a further 5,000 tonnes or more. Allowing the public to buy gold, as well as satisfying the public’s desire for owning it, also reduces the need for currency intervention to stop the renminbi rising. Therefore the Chinese state has probably accumulated between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes since 1983, and has no need to acquire any more through market purchases given her own refineries are supplying over 500 tonnes per annum.
All other members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation** are gold-friendly or have increased their gold reserves. So the west having ditched gold for its own paper will now find that gold has a new role as Asia’s ultimate money for over 3 billion people, or over 4 billion if you include the South-East Asian and Pacific Rim countries for which the SCO will be the dominant trading partner.
As inflation rates continue to fall across the Eurozone one might expect Austrian economists to rejoice. After all, inflation reduces our purchasing power and acts as a hidden form of taxation. Failure to control inflation caused some of the greatest social and political disturbances of the twentieth century, and attempts to centrally plan the monetary system are destined to failure. George Selgin’s “Less than Zero” is the seminal account of how deflation can be beneficial, and why central banks should be willing to tolerate it. However it also provides a useful, and highly relevant distinction between “good” and “bad” deflation. The underlying point that needs to be expressed is that not all deflation is ghastly. Indeed the readily available examples of falling prices – such as the Great Depression – are not representative. Allowing a fear of deflation to prevent deflation in any circumstance will commit monetary policy to steady and suboptimally high inflation. The Great Moderation is perhaps the best example of the harm that can be done when we fail to allow increases in productivity to manifest themselves in falling prices. But the relevant point is whether this is the situation we find ourselves in right now.
Austrians tended to be ahead of the expectations revolution therefore to some extent it isn’t inflation or deflation per se that matters, but how it ties into expectations. If the inflation rate is falling, and especially if it’s falling more than expected, we have problems. If inflation is 2% a year, but this is anticipated, then the costs of inflation are reasonably low. If it’s -2% a year, and anticipated, ditto. The problems occur if we transition from one to the other.
Inflation in the Eurozone is currently 0.3%, and the rate has been steadily falling since early 2012. There’s two main reasons why we may expect falling pressure on prices. One is that the underlying capacity of the economy has increased. Positive productivity shocks will increase the potential growth rate, make it easier to produce output for a given amount of inputs, and make things cheaper. In terms of Dynamic AD-AS analysis, it constitutes an increase in the Solow curve. This is good deflation. But it also implies that real GDP will be rising.
Alternatively, prices might be falling because of a reduction in what Keynesians call “aggregate demand”, Monetarists call “nominal income”, or what Austrians call “the total income stream”. These are all various ways to refer to total spending. This could fall as a result of a monetary contraction, or an increase in the demand for money. It’s important to realise that whilst central banks are the prime culprits of the former, they are also a key instigator of the latter. Keynesians might blame it on “animal spirits”, but we can also think of this as “regime uncertainty”. These are two ways to treat confidence as a meaningful concept, and something that can be negatively affected by central bank policy.
Many commentators attribute low inflation to low oil prices. On the surface this seems like a positive supply shock and hence the reason for low prices is a good one. However the reason oil prices are low is because of increases in supply and decreases in demand. The former is a result of IS getting the keys to the pumps. The latter is due to a slowdown in China. Neither of these bode well for the global economy. Both of them have reduced confidence.
We can see this negative AD shock in the data. With GDP growth of just 0.7% this means that total spending is just 1%. This is significantly lower than where we would like it to be in a world with a greater rate of achievable growth and a 2% inflation target.
So what needs to be done? Austrians are loathe to advocate monetary activism and for good reason. But the goal of monetary policy is not inactivism, but neutrality. The issue comes down to the costs of adjustment. If aggregate demand remains at 1% then people will adjust their expectations, prices will adjust, and output will return to normal. During the Great Depression Hayek advocated this path, even though he recognised that prices take time to adjust, and whilst they do so unemployment would rise. His reasoning was that increasing the load on price adjustments will increase their flexibility. In a time of chronic wage and price inflexibility it was a moment to bust the unions. However he later came round to the idea that those costs were too high. The collateral damage of using a downturn to put more emphasis on nominal wage adjustments was unfair. For the mass unemployed, nominal wage rigidities isn’t their fault. So instead of placing the burden on wage adjustments, central banks have the option of maintaining a certain level of total income. This avoids the necessity of a nominal wage adjustment, in part because inflation allows real wages to adjust.
The fact that we are starting to see inflation expectations fall implies that this is only the beginning of an economic adjustment. If the total income stream continues to grow at a less than expected (and possibly even a negative) rate then we will have plenty new problems to worry about. This isn’t just the economy responding to the pre 2007 boom. This is the economy responding to fresh problems being introduced by central bank incompetence.
The difficulty for the ECB – and possibly the explanation for why things are so much worse in the Eurozone than in the US or UK – is that they don’t have the same tools available. But let’s leave a debate over tools for another time. The bottom line is that the ECB should be striving to give clear guidance and generate credibility for pursuing a steady increase in a target nominal variable. Monetary policy cannot generate wealth – all it can do is buy time for governments to sort out their competitiveness and improve their public finances. The fact that they aren’t making use of the breathing room provided by central banks is their fault. But monetary policy can destroy wealth, and a failure to maintain a steady total income stream is contributing to those competitiveness and public finance problems. I would love to believe that this impending deflation is the good sort, or that Eurozone labour markets were flexible enough to allow prices to do all the heavy lifting. But I fear that we’re seeing an impending catastrophe, and the ECB needs to take bolder action to prevent making things even worse.
In its latest edition, in a piece entitled ‘Monetary policy: Tight, loose, irrelevant’, the ineffably dire Ekonomista considers the work of three members of the Sloan School of Management who conducted a study of the factors which – according to their rendering of the testimony of the 60-odd years of data which they analysed in their paper, “The behaviour of aggregate corporate investment” – have historically exerted the most influence on the propensity for American businesses to ‘invest’.
The article itself starts by deploying that unfailingly patronising, ‘it’s economics 101′ cliché by which we should really have long ago learned to expect some weary truism will soon be rehashed as fresh journalistic wisdom.
It may be only partly an exaggeration to say that the weekly then adopts a breathless, teen-hysterical approach to a set of results which, with all due respect to the worthies who compiled them, should have been instantly apparent to anyone devoting a moment’s thought to the issue (and if that’s too big a task for the average Ekonomista writer, perhaps they could pause to ask one of those grubby-sleeved artisans who actually RUNS a business what it is exactly that they get up to, down there at the coalface of international capitalism). Far from being a Statement of the Bleedin’ Obvious, our fearless expositors of the Fourth Estate instead seem to regard what appears to be a tediously positivist exercise in data mining as some combination of the elucidation of the nature of the genetic code and the first exposition of the uncertainty principle. This in itself is a telling indictment of the mindset at work.
For can you even imagine what it was that our trio of geniuses ‘discovered’? Only that firms tend to invest more eagerly if they are profitable and if those profits (or their prospect) are being suitably rewarded with a rising share price – i.e. if their actions are contributing to capital formation, realised or expected, and hence to the credible promise of a maintained, increased, lengthened or accelerated schedule of income flows – that latter condition being one which also means the firms concerned can issue equity on advantageous terms, where necessary, in the furtherance of their aims.
[As an aside, do you remember when we used to ISSUE equity for purposes other than as a panic measure to keep the business afloat after some megalomaniac CEO disaster of over-leverage or as part of a soak-the-patsies cash-out for the latest batch of serial shell-gamers and their start-up sponsors?]
Shock, horror! Our pioneering profs then go on to share the revelation that firms have even been known to invest WHEN INTEREST RATES ARE RISING; i.e., when the specific real rate facing each firm (rather than the fairly meaningless, economy-wide aggregate rate observable in the capital market with which it is here being conflated) is therefore NOT estimated to constitute any impediment to the future attainment (or preservation) of profit. Whatever happened to the central bank mantra of the ‘wealth effect’ and its dogma about ‘channels’ of monetary transmission? How could those boorish mechanicals in industry not know they are only to invest when their pecuniary paramounts signal they should, by lowering official interest rates or hoovering up oodles of government securities?
At this point we might stop to insist that the supercilious, wielders of the ‘Eco 101’ trope at the Ekonomista note that these firms’ own heightened appetite for a presumably finite pool of loanable funds should firmly be expected to nudge interest rates higher precisely in order to bring forth the necessary extra supply thereof, just as a similar shift in demand would do in any other well-functioning market (DOH!), so please could they take the time in future to ponder the workings of cause and effect before they dare to condescend to us.
They might also reflect upon the fact that when the banking system functions to supplement such hard-won funds with its own, purely ethereal emissions of unsaved credit – thereby keeping them too cheap for too long and so removing the intrinsically self-regulating and helpfully selective effect which their increasing scarcity would otherwise have had on proposedschemes of investment – they pervert, if not utterly vitiate, a most fundamental market process. Having a pronounced tendency to bring about a profound disco-ordination in the system to the point of precluding a holistic ordering of ends and means as well as of disrupting the timetable on which the one may be transformed into the other, we Austrians recognize this as theprimary cause of that needless and wasteful phenomenon which is the business cycle. It is therefore decidedly not a cause for perplexity that investment, quote: ‘…expands and contracts far more dramatically than the economy as a whole’ as the Ekonomista wonderingly remarks
Nigh on unbelievable as it may appear to the policy-obsessed, mainstream journos who reviewed the academics’ work, all of this further implies that the past two centuries-odd of absolutely unprecedented and near-universal material progress did NOT take place simply because the central banks and their precursors courageously and unswervingly spent the whole interval doing ‘whatever it took’ to progressively lower interest rates to (and in some cases, through) zero! Somewhere along the line, one supposes that the marvels of entrepreneurship must have intruded, as well as what Deidre McCloskey famously refers to as an upsurge in ‘bourgeois dignity’ – i.e., the ever greater social estimation which came to be accorded to such agents of wholesale advance. This truly must shake the pillars of the temple of the cult of top-down, macro-economic command of which the Ekonomista is the house journal.
Remarkably, the Ekonomista’s piece is also daringly heterodox in inferring that, given this highly singular insensitivity to market interest rates, we might therefore return more assuredly to the long-forsaken path of growth if Mario Draghi and his ilk were to treat themselves to a long, contemplative sojourn, taking the waters at one of Europe’s idyllic (German) spa townsinstead of constantly hogging the limelight by dreaming up (and occasionally implementing) ever more involved, Cunning Plans directed towards driving people to act in ways in which they would otherwise not choose to do, but in which Mario and Co. conceitedly deem that they should.
Rather, the hacks have the temerity to assert – and here, Keynes be spared! – it might do much more for the investment climate if the Big Government to which they so routinely and so obsequiously defer were to pause awhile in its unrelenting programme to destroy all private capital, to suppress all economic initiative, and to restrict the disposition of income to thecentralized mandates of its minions and not to trust them to the delocalized vagaries of the market – all crimes which it more readily may perpetrate under the camouflage provided by the central banks’ mindless and increasingly counter-productive, asset-bubble inflationism.
Having reached this pass, might we dare to push the deduction one step closer to its logical conclusion and suggest that the only reason we continue today to suffer a malaise which the self-exculpatory elite (of whom none is more representative than the staff of the Ekonomista itself) loves to refer to as ‘secular stagnation’ is because its own toxic brew of patent nostrums is making the unfortunate patient upon whom it inflicts them even more sick? That, pace Obama the Great, The One True Indispensable Chief of the NWO, the three principal threats we currently face are not Ebola, but QE-bola – a largely ineradicable pandemic of destruction far more virulent than even that dreadful fever; not the locally disruptive Islamic State but the globally detrimental Interventionist State – the perpetrator of a similarly backward and repressive ideology which the IMF imamate seeks to impose on us all; and definitely not the Kremlin’s alleged (though highly disputable) revanchism being played out on Europe’s ‘fringe’ but the Kafkaesque reality of stifling and undeniable regulationism at work throughout its length and breadth?
We might end by reminding the would-be wearer of the One Ring, as He lurks warily, watching the opinion polls from His lair in the White House, that in being so active in propagating each one of these genuinely existential threats to our common well-being, He (capitalization ironically intended) will not so much ‘help light the world’ – as He nauseatingly claimed in His purple-drenched, sophomore’s set-piece at the UN recently – as help extinguish what little light there still remains to us poor, downtrodden masses.
Interest rates do not seem to affect investment as economists assume
IT IS Economics 101. If central bankers want to spur economic activity, they cut interest rates. If they want to dampen it, they raise them. The assumption is that, as it becomes cheaper or more expensive for businesses and households to borrow, they will adjust their spending accordingly. But for businesses in America, at least, a new study* suggests that the accepted wisdom on monetary policy is broadly (but not entirely) wrong.
Using data stretching back to 1952, the paper concludes that market interest rates, which central banks aim to influence when they set their policy rates, play some role in how much firms invest, but not much. Other factors—most notably how profitable a firm is and how well its shares do—are far more important (see chart). A government that wants to pep up the economy, says S.P. Kothari of the Sloan School of Management, one of the authors, would have more luck with other measures, such as lower taxes or less onerous regulation.
Establishing what drives business investment is difficult, not. These shifts were particularly manic in the late 1950s (both up and down), mid-1960s (up), and 2000s (down, up, then down again). Overall, investment has been in slight decline since the early 1980s.
Having sifted through decades of data, however, the authors conclude that neither volatility in the financial markets nor credit-default swaps, a measure of corporate credit risk that tends to influence the rates firms pay, has much impact. In fact, investment often rises when interest rates go up and volatility increases.
Investment grows most quickly, though, in response to a surge in profits and drops with bad news. These ups and downs suggest shifts in investment go too far and are often ill-timed. At any rate, they do little good: big cuts can substantially boost profits, but only briefly; big increases in investment slightly decrease profits.
Companies, Mr Kothari says, tend to dwell too much on recent experience when deciding how much to invest and too little on how changing circumstances may affect future returns. This is particularly true in difficult times. Appealing opportunities may exist, and they may be all the more attractive because of low interest rates. That should matter—but the data suggest it does not.
* “The behaviour of aggregate corporate investment”, S.P. Kothari, Jonathan Lewellen, Jerold Warner
Economists at the Federal Reserve have devised a new indicator, which they hold will enable US central bank policy makers to get better information regarding the state of the labour market. The metric is labelled as the Labour Market Conditions Index (LMCI).
Note that one of the key data Fed policy makers are paying attention to is the labour market. The state of this market dictates the type of monetary policy that is going to be implemented.
Fed policy makers are of the view that it is the task of the central bank to navigate the economy toward a path of stable self-sustaining economic growth.
One of the indicators that is believed could inform policy makers about how far the economy is from this path is the state of the labour market.
A strengthening of the labour market is seen as indicative that the economy may not be far from the desired growth path.
A weakening in the labour market is interpreted as indicating that the distance is widening and the economy’s ability to stand on its own feet is diminishing.
Once the labour market shows strengthening this also raises the likelihood that the Fed will reduce its support to the economy. After all, to provide support whilst the economy is on a path of stable self-sustained growth could push the economy away from this path towards a path of accelerating price inflation, so it is held.
Conversely, a weakening labour market conditions raises the likelihood that the Fed will either maintain or strengthen its loose monetary stance. Failing to do so, it is held, could push the economy onto a path of price deflation and economic crisis.
The uniqueness of the LMCI, it is held, is that it covers a broader range of labour market pieces of information thereby raising the likelihood of depicting a more correct state of labour market conditions than an individual piece of information could provide.
The LMCI is derived from 19 indicators such as the number of people employed full time and part time, the labour participation rate, the hiring rate, hiring plans etc.
When the index is rising above the zero line it is interpreted that labour market conditions are strengthening. A fall in the index below the zero line is taken as a deterioration in the labour market.
In September the index rose by 2.5 points after gaining 2 points in August. Note however that in April this year the index increased by 7.1 points. Following the logic of Fed policy makers and assuming that they will pay some attention to the LMCI, if the index were to continue strengthening then the Fed may start considering tightening its monetary stance.
We suggest that the Fed’s responses to the LMCI are not going to bring the economy onto a path of stability and self-sustaining economic growth, but on the contrary will lead to more instability and economic impoverishment.
The state of a particular indicator such as the LMCI cannot tell us the state of the pool of real wealth i.e. whether it is expanding or shrinking.
It is not important to have people employed as such but to have them employed in wealth generating activities. Employment such as digging ditches and building non-wealth generating projects are only depriving wealth generators from the expansion of the pool of real wealth. This undermines the ability to grow the economy and leads to economic misery.
The belief that the Fed can navigate and grow the economy is wishful thinking. All that Fed officials can do is to pump money and tamper with the interest rate structure. None of this however can lead to economic growth.
The key to economic growth is the expansion in capital goods per individual. This expansion however must be done in accordance with the dictates of the free market and not on account of an artificial lowering of interest rates and monetary pumping.
Loose monetary policy will only result in the expansion of capital goods for non-wealth generating projects i.e. capital consumption.
Only by means of the allocation of resources in accordance with the dictates of the market can a wealth generating infrastructure be established. Such infrastructure is going to lead to economic prosperity.
To conclude then, the Fed’s new indicator adds more means for US central bank officials to tamper with the economy, which will lead to greater economic instability and economic impoverishment.
Summary and conclusions
The Fed has introduced a new economic indicator labelled the Labour Market Conditions Index (LMCI). The LMCI is derived from 19 labour market related indicators; hence it is held it is likely to provide a more realistic state of the labour market.
This in turn will enable Fed policy makers to navigate more accurately the economy toward a path of stable non-inflationary economic growth.
We suggest that what is required is not information about the strength of the labour market as such but information on how changes in labour market conditions are related to the wealth generation process.
This however, the LMCI doesn’t provide. Since Fed officials are likely to react to movements in the LMCI we hold this will only lead to a deepening in the misallocation of resources and to a further weakening of the wealth generation process.