Despite all the massive monetary pumping over the past six years and the lowering of interest rates to almost zero most commentators have expressed disappointment with the pace of economic growth. For instance, the yearly rate of growth of the EMU real GDP fell to 0.7% in Q2 from 0.9% in the previous quarter. In Q1 2007 the yearly rate of growth stood at 3.7%. In Japan the yearly rate of growth of real GDP fell to 0% in Q2 from 2.7% in Q1 and 5.8% in Q3 2010.
In the US the yearly rate of growth of real GDP stood at 2.4% in Q2 against 1.9% in the prior quarter. Note that since Q1 2010 the rate of growth followed a sideways path of around 2.2%. The exception is the UK where the growth momentum of GDP shows strengthening with the yearly rate of growth closing at 3.1% in Q2 from 3% in Q1. Observe however, that the yearly rate of growth in Q3 2007 stood at 4.3%.
In addition to still subdued economic activity most central bankers are concerned with the weakness of workers earnings.
Some of them are puzzled that despite injecting trillions of dollars into the financial system so little of it is showing up in workers earnings?
After all, it is held, the higher earnings are the more consumers can spend and consequently, the stronger the economic growth is going to be, so it is held.
The yearly rate of growth of US average hourly earnings stood at 2% in July against 3.9% in June 2007.
In the EMU the yearly rate of growth of weekly earnings plunged to 1.3% in Q1 from 5.4% in Q2 2009.
In the UK the yearly rate of growth of average weekly earnings fell to 0.7% in June this year from 5% in August 2007.
According to the Vice Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Stanley Fischer the US and global recoveries have been “disappointing” so far and may point to a permanent downshift in economic potential. Fisher has suggested that a slowing productivity could be an important factor behind all this.
That a fall in the productivity of workers could be an important factor is a good beginning in trying to establish what is really happening. It is however, just the identification of a symptom – it is not the cause of the problem.
Now, higher wages are possible if workers’ contribution to the generation of real wealth is expanding. The more a particular worker generates as far as real wealth is concerned the more he/she can demand in terms of wages.
An important factor that permits a worker to lift productivity is the magnitude and the quality of the infrastructure that is available to him. With better tools and machinery more output per hour can be generated and hence higher wages can be paid.
It is by allocating a larger slice out of a given pool of real wealth towards the buildup and the enhancement of the infrastructure that more capital goods per worker emerges (more tools and machinery per worker) and this sets the platform for higher worker productivity and hence to an expansion in real wealth and thus lifts prospects for higher wages. (With better infrastructure workers can now produce more goods and services).
The key factors that undermine the expansion in the capital goods per worker are an ever expanding government and loose monetary policies of the central bank. According to the popular view, what drives the economy is the demand for goods and services.
If, for whatever reasons, insufficient demand emerges it is the role of the government and the central bank to strengthen the demand to keep the economy going, so it is held. There is, however, no independent category such as demand that drives an economy. Every demand must be funded by a previous production of wealth. By producing something useful to other individuals an individual can exercise a demand for other useful goods.
Any policy, which artificially boosts demand, leads to consumption that is not backed up by a previous production of wealth. For instance, monetary pumping that is supposedly aimed at lifting the economy in fact generates activities that cannot support themselves. This means that their existence is only possible by diverting real wealth from wealth generators.
Printing presses set in motion an exchange of nothing for something. Note that a monetary pumping sets a platform for various non-productive or bubble activities – instead of wealth being used to fund the expansion of a wealth generating infrastructure, the monetary pumping channels wealth towards wealth squandering activities.
This means that monetary pumping leads to the squandering of real wealth. Similarly a policy of artificially lowering interest rates in order to boost demand in fact provides support for various non-productive activities that in a free market environment would never emerge.
We suggest that the longer central banks world wide persist with their loose monetary policies the greater the risk of severely damaging the wealth generating process is. This in turn raises the likelihood of a prolonged stagnation.
All this however, can be reversed by shrinking the size of the government and by the closure of all the loopholes of the monetary expansion. Obviously a tighter fiscal and monetary stance is going to hurt various non-productive activities.
The data was not really surprising and neither was the response from the commentariat. After a run of weak reports from Germany over recent months, last week’s release of GDP data for the eurozone confirmed that the economy had been flatlining in the second quarter. Predictably, this led to new calls for ECB action. “Europe now needs full-blown QE” diagnosed the leader writer of the Financial Times, and in its main report on page one the paper quoted Richard Barwell, European economist at Royal Bank of Scotland with “It’s time the ECB took control and we got the real deal, instead of the weaker measure unveiled in June.”
I wonder if calls for more ‘stimulus’ are now simply knee-jerk reactions, mere Pavlovian reflexes imbued by five years of near relentless policy easing. Do these economists and leader writers still really think about their suggestions? If so, what do they think Europe’s ills are that easy money and cheap credit are going to cure them? Is pumping ever more freshly printed money into the banking system really the answer to every economic problem? And has QE been a success where it has been pursued?
The fact is that money has hardly been tight in years – at least not at the central bank level, at the core of the system. Granted, banks have not been falling over one another to extend new loans but that is surely not surprising given that they still lick their wounds from 2008. The ongoing “asset quality review” and tighter regulation are doing their bit, too, and if these are needed to make finance safer, as their proponents claim, then abandoning them for the sake of a quick – and ultimately short-lived – GDP rebound doesn’t seem advisable. The simple fact is that lenders are reluctant to lend and borrowers reluctant to borrow, and both may have good reasons for their reluctance.
Do we really think that Italian, French, and German companies have drawers full of exciting investment projects that would instantly be put to work if only rates were lower? I think it is a fairly safe bet that whatever investment project Siemens, BMW, Total and Fiat can be cajoled into via the lure of easy money will by now have been realized. The easy-money drug has a rapidly diminishing marginal return.
In most major economies, rates have been close to zero for more than five years and various additional stimulus measures have been taken, including some by the ECB, even if they fell short of outright QE. Yet, the global economy is hardly buzzing. The advocates of central bank activism will point to the US and the UK. Growth there has recently been stronger and many expect a rise in interest rates in the not too distant future. Yet, even if we take the US’ latest quarterly GDP data of an annualized 4 percent at face value (it was a powerful snap-back from a contraction in Q1), the present recovery, having started in 2009, still is the slowest in the post-World-War-II period, and by some margin. The Fed is not done with its bond-buying program yet, fading it out ever so slowly and carefully, fearful that the economy, or at any rate overstretched financial markets, could buckle under a more ‘normal’ policy environment, if anybody still knows what that may look like. We will see how much spring is left in the economy’s step once stimulus has been removed fully and interest rates begin to rise — if that will ever happen.
Then there is Japan, under Abe and Kuroda firmly committed to QE-square and thus the new poster-boy of the growth-through-money-printing movement. Here the economy contracted in Q2 by a staggering 6.8% annualized, mimicking its performance from when it was hit by a tsunami in 2011. This time economic contraction appears to have been mainly driven by an increase in the country’s sale tax (I guess the government has to rein in its deficit at some stage, even in Japan), which had initially caused a strong Q1, as consumers front-loaded purchases in anticipation of the tax hike. Now it was pay-back time. Still, looking through the two quarters, the Wall Street Journal speaks of “Japan’s slow recovery despite heavy stimulus”.
Elsewhere the debate has moved on
In the Anglo-Saxon countries the debate about the negative side-effects of ultra-easy money seems to be intensifying. Last week Martin Feldstein and Robert Rubin, in an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, warned of risks to financial stability from the Fed’s long-standing policy stimulus, pointing towards high asset values and tight risk premiums, stressing that monetary policy was asked to do too much. Paul Singer, founder of the Elliott Management hedge fund and the nemesis of Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was reported as saying that ultra-easy monetary policy had failed and that structural reforms and a more business-friendly regulatory environment were needed instead. All of this even before you consider my case (the Austrian School case) that every form of monetary stimulus is ultimately disruptive because it can at best buy some growth near term at the price of distorting capital markets and sowing the seeds of a correction in the future. No monetary stimulus can ever lead to lasting growth.
None of this seems to faze the enthusiasts for more monetary intervention in Europe. When data is soft, the inevitable response is to ask the ECB to print more money.
The ECB’s critics are correct when they claim that the ECB has recently been less accommodative than some of its cousins, namely the Fed and the Bank of Japan. So the eurozone economy stands in front of us naked and without much monetary make-up. If we do not like what we see then the blame should go to Europe’s ineffectual political elite, to France’s socialist president Hollande, whose eat-the-rich tax policies and out-of-control state bureaucracy cripple the country; to Ms Merkel, who not only has failed to enact a single pro-growth reform program since becoming Germany’s chancellor (how long can the country rest on the Schroeder reforms of 2002?) but now embraces a national minimum wage and a lower retirement age of 63, positions she previously objected to; to Italy’s sunny-boy Renzi who talks the talk but has so far failed to walk the walk. But then it has been argued that under democracy the people get the rulers they deserve. Europe’s structural impediments to growth often appear to enjoy great public support.
Calls for yet easier monetary conditions and more cheap credit are a sign of intellectual bankruptcy and political incompetence. They will probably be heeded.
The Federal Reserve increasingly is attracting scrutiny across the board. Now add to that a roller coaster of a thriller, using a miracle of a rare device, shining a light into the operations of the Fed — that contemporary riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: Matthew Quirk’s latest novel, The Directive.
“If I’ve made myself too clear, you must have misunderstood me,” Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan once famously said. The era of a mystagogue Fed may be ending. Recently, the House Government Oversight Committee passed, and referred to the full House, theFederal Reserve Transparency Act of 2014. This legislation is part of the legacy of the great former Representative Ron Paul. It popularly is known as “Audit the Fed.” How ironic that a mystery novel proves a device to dispel some of the Fed’s obscurantist mystery.
Novelist/reporter Matthew Quirk’s The Directive does for he Fed what Alan Drury did for Senate intrigue with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent, what Aaron Sorkin did for the White House in The West Wing and, now, what Beau Willimon, is doing for the Congress with House of Cards. Quirk takes the genre of political thriller into virgin territory: the Fed. Make to mistake. Engaging the popular imagination has political potency. As Victor Hugo, nicely paraphrased, observed: Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.
Quirk, according to his website,“studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs.” His background shows. Quirk’s writings drips with the kind of eye for the telling detail that only a canny reporter, detective, or spy possesses. (Readers will learn, just in passing, the plausible identity of the mysterious “secure undisclosed location” where the vice president was secreted following 9/11.)
If you like Ludlum you are certain to like Quirk. And who isn’t intrigued by such a mysteriously powerful entity as the Fed? Booklist calls The Directive a “nonstop heart-pounding ride in which moral blacks and whites turn gray in the ‘efficient alignment of power and interests’ that is big time politics.” Amen.
The Directive describes an effort to rob the biggest bank in the world. The object of the heist is not the tons of gold secured in the basement of 33 Liberty Street. (As Ian Fleming pointed out, in Goldfinger it logistically is impossible to move the mass of so much gold quickly enough to effect a robbery.) Rather, Quirk uses as his literary device, with a touch of dramatic license, the interception of the Federal Open Market Committee’s directive to the trading desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to raise (or lower) interest rates in order to use that insider information to make a fast killing.
Lest anyone doubt the power of such insider information consider William Safire’s report, from his White House classic memoir Before the Fall, of the weekend at Camp David before Nixon “closed the gold window.”
After the Quadriad meeting, the President remained alone while the rest of the group dined at the Laurel Cabin. The no-phone-calls edict was still in force, raising some eyebrows of men who had shown themselves to be trustworthy repositories of events. but the 6’8″, dour Treasury Under Secretary Volcker explained a different dimension to the need for no leaks: “Fortunes could be made with this information.” Haldeman, mock-serious, leaned forward and whispered loudly, “Exactly how?” The tension broken, Volcker asked Schulz, “How much is your budget deficit?” George estimated, “Oh, twenty three billion or so — why?” Volcker looked dreamily at the ceiling. “Give me a billion dollars and a free hand on Monday, and I could make up that deficit in the money markets.”
Safire provides context making Volcker’s integrity indisputable lest anyone be tempted to misinterpret this as a trial balloon.
This columnist has been inside the headquarters of the Fed, including, many years ago, the boardroom. Quirk:
Every eight weeks or so, a committee gathers near the National Mall in a marble citadel known as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. Twenty-five men and women sit at a long wooden table with an inset of black stone shined to a high gloss. By noon they decide the fate of the American economy.
This columnist never has stepped foot inside the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, much less its trading floor(s). Few have entered that sanctum sanctorum. By taking his readers inside Quirk provides his readers a narrative grasp to how the Fed does what it does.
[T]he Fed is by design very friendly to large New York banks. When the committee in DC decides what interest rates should be, they can’t simply dictate them to the banks. They decide on a target interest, and then send the directive to the trading desk at the New York Fed to instruct them about how to achieve it. The traders upstairs go into the markets and wheel and deal with the big banks, buying and selling Treasury bills and other government debts, essentially IOUs from Uncle Sam. When the Fed buys up a lot of those IOUs, they flood the economy with money; when they sell them, they take money out of circulation.
They are effectively creating and destroying cash. By shrinking or expanding the supply of money in the global economy, making it more or less scarce, they also make it more or less expensive to borrow; the interest rate. In this way, trading back and forth with the largest banks in the world, they can drive interest rates toward their target.
The amount of actual physical currency in circulation is only a quarter of the total monetary supply. The rest is just numbers on a computer somewhere. When people say the government can print as much money as it wants, they’re really talking about the desk doing its daily work of resizing the monetary supply—tacking zeros onto a bunch of electronic accounts—that big banks are allowed to lend out to you and me.
Every morning, on the ninth floor of the New York Fed, the desk gets ready to go out and manipulate the markets according to the instructions laid out in the directive. Its traders are linked by computer with twenty-one of the largest banks in the world. When they’re ready to buy and sell, in what are called open market operation, one trader presses a button on his terminal and three chimes — the notes F-E-D — sound on the terminals of his counterparties. Then they’re off to the races.
There are usually eight to ten people on that desk, mostly guys in their late twenties and early thirties, and they manage a portfolio of government securities worth nearly $4 trillion that backs our currency. Without it, the bills in your wallet would be as worthless as Monopoly cash. The traders on that floor carry out nearly $5.5 billion in trades per day, set the value of every penny you earn or spend, and steer the global economy.
As Quirk recently told Matthew Yglesias, at Vox.com:
I was casting about for the biggest hoards of money in the world, and you get to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York fairly quickly. But that’s been done. Then I learned more and more about the trading desk, and my mind was blown.
You get to have this great line where you say, “There’s $300 billion worth of gold in the basement, but the real money is on the ninth floor.” …
I was a reporter in Washington for a while, and I thought, “Oh, the Fed sets interest rates,” because that’s always what people say. But as you dig into it, you realize that the Fed just has to induce interest rates to where they want to be. They have to trade back and forth with these 19 or 20 banks, and they have 8‑10 guys at this trading desk, trading about $5.5 billion a day. That’s actually how the government prints money and expands and contracts the monetary supply.
It’s this high wire act. You explain it to people and they say, “Oh, it’s a conspiracy thriller.” You say, “No, no. That’s the real part. I haven’t gotten to the conspiracy yet.” But it’s a miracle that it works.
Quirk’s own dual mandate? Combine fast-paced drama with a peek behind the scenes of the world’s biggest bank, providing vivid entertainment while teaching more about the way that one of the most powerful and mysterious institutions in the world works. In The Directive Matthew Quirk shakes, rather than stirs, his readers brilliantly.
Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/08/04/signs-of-the-feds-era-of-secrecy-coming-to-an-end/
At the end of July global equity bull markets had a moment of doubt, falling three or four per cent. In the seven trading days up to 1st August the S&P500 fell 3.8%, and we are not out of the woods yet. At the same time the Russell 2000, an index of small-cap US companies fell an exceptional 9%, and more worryingly it looks like it has lost bullish momentum as shown in the chart below. This indicates a possible double-top formation in the making.
Meanwhile yield-spreads on junk bonds widened significantly, sending a signal that markets were reconsidering appropriate yields on risky bonds.
This is conventional analysis and the common backbone of most brokers’ reports. Put simply, investment is now all about the trend and little else. You never have to value anything properly any more: just measure confidence. This approach to investing resonates with post-Keynesian economics and government planning. The expectations of the crowd, or its animal spirits, are now there to be managed. No longer is there the seemingly irrational behaviour of unfettered markets dominated by independent thinkers. Forward guidance is just the latest manifestation of this policy. It represents the triumph of economic management over the markets.
Central banks have for a long time subscribed to management of expectations. Initially it was setting interest rates to accelerate the growth of money and credit. Investors and market traders soon learned that interest rate policy is the most important factor in pricing everything. Out of credit cycles technical analysis evolved, which sought to identify trends and turning points for investment purposes.
Today this control goes much further because of two precedents: in 2001-02 the Fed under Alan Greenspan’s chairmanship cut interest rates specifically to rescue the stock market out of its slump, and secondly the Fed’s rescue of the banking system in the wake of the Lehman crisis extended direct intervention into all financial markets.
Both of these actions succeeded in their objectives. Ubiquitous intervention continues to this day, and is copied elsewhere. It is no accident that Spanish bond yields for example are priced as if Spain’s sovereign debt is amongst the safest on the planet; and as if France’s bond yields reflect a credible plan to repay its debt.
We have known for years that through intervention central banks have managed to control the prices of currencies, precious metals and government bonds; but there is increasing evidence of direct buying of other financial assets, including equities. The means for continual price management are there: there are central banks, exchange stabilisation funds, sovereign wealth funds and government-controlled pension funds, which between them have limitless buying-power.
Doubtless there is a growing band of central bankers who believe that with this control they have finally discovered Keynes’s Holy Grail: the euthanasia of the rentier and his replacement by the state as the primary source of business capital. This being the case, last month’s dip in the markets will turn out to be just that, because intervention will simply continue and if necessary be ramped up.
But in the process, all market risk is being transferred from bonds, equities and all other financial assets into currencies themselves; and it is the outcome of their purchasing power that will prove to be the final judgement in the debate of markets versus economic planning.
Although it might seem odd for a school of economics to largely ignore the role of money in the economy, this is indeed the case with traditional Keynesian economics. Declaring in 1963 that, “Inflation is, always and everywhere, a monetary phenomenon,” Milton Friedman sought to place money at the centre of economics where he and his fellow Monetarists believed it belonged. Keynesian policies continued to dominate into the 1970s, however, and were blamed by the Monetarists and others for the ‘stagflation’ of that decade—weak growth with rising inflation. Today, stagflation is re-appearing, the inevitable result of the aggressive, neo-Keynesian policy responses to the 2008 global financial crisis. In this report, I discuss the causes, symptoms and financial market consequences of the new stagflation, which could well be worse than the 1970s.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF KEYNESIANISM
During the ‘Roaring 20s’, US economists mostly belonged to various ‘laissez faire’ or ‘liquidationist’ schools of thought, holding that economic downturns were best left to sort themselves out, with a minimal role for official intervention. President Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (in)famously represented this view following the 1929 stock market crash when he admonished the government to stay out of private affairs and allow businesses and investors to “Liquidate! Liquidate! Liquidate!”
The severity of the Depression caught much of the laissez faire crowd off guard and thus by 1936, the year John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory, there was a certain open-mindedness around what he had to say, in particular that there was a critical role for the government to play in supporting demand during economic downturns through deficit spending. (There were a handful of prominent economists who did warn that the 1920s boom was likely to turn into a big bust, including Ludwig von Mises.)
While campaigning for president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously painted Herbert Hoover as a lasseiz faire president, when in fact Hoover disagreed with Mellon. As Murray Rothbard and others have demonstrated, Hoover was a highly interventionist president, setting several major precedents on which FDR would subsequently expand. But all is fair in politics and FDR won that election and subsequent elections in landslides.
With the onset of war and the command war economy it engendered, in the early 1940s the economics debate went silent. With the conclusion of war, it promptly restarted. Friedrich von Hayek fired an early, eloquent shot at the Keynesians in 1946 with The Road to Serfdom, his warning of the longer-term consequences of central economic planning.
The Keynesians, however, fired back, and with much new ammunition. Beginning in the early 20th century, several US government agencies, including the Federal Reserve, began to compile vast amounts of economic statistics and to create indices to aggregate macroeconomic data. This was a treasure-trove to Keynesians, who sought quantitative confirmation that their theories were correct. Sure enough, in 1947, a new, definitive Keynesian work appeared, Foundations of Economic Analysis, by Paul Samuelson, that presented statistical ‘proof’ that Keynes was right.
One of Samuelson’s core contentions was that economic officials could and should maintain full employment (ie low unemployment) through the prompt application of targeted stimulus in recessions. As recessions ended, the stimulus should be withdrawn, lest price inflation rise to a harmful level. Thus well-trained economists keeping an eye on the data and remaining promptly reactive in response to changes in key macroeconomic variables could minimise the business cycle and prevent Depression.
For government officials, Samuelson’s work was the Holy Grail. Not only was this a theoretical justification for an active government role in managing the economy, as Keynes had provided; now there was hard data to prove it and a handbook for just how to provide it. A rapid, historic expansion of public sector macroeconomics soon followed, swelling the ranks of Treasury, Commerce, Labor Department and Federal Reserve employees.
CHICAGO AND THE ‘FRESHWATER’ DISSENT
Notwithstanding the establishment of this new economic mainstream and a public sector that wholeheartedly embraced it, there was some dissent, in particular at the so-called ‘freshwater’ universities of the American Midwest: Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and St Louis, among others.
Disagreeing with key Keynesian assumptions and also with Samuelson’s interpretation of historical data, Monetarists mounted an aggressive counterattack in the 1960s, led by Milton Friedman of the Chicago School. Thomas Sargent, co-founder of Rational Expectations Theory, also took part.
The Chicago School disagreed that there was a stable relationship between inflation and employment that could be effectively managed through fiscal policy. Rather, Friedman and his colleagues argued that Keynesians had made a grave error in largely ignoring the role of money in the economy. Together with his colleague Anna Schwarz, Friedman set out to correct this in the monumental Monetary History of the United States, which re-interpreted the Great Depression, among other major events in US economic history, as primarily a monetary- rather than demand-driven phenomenon. Thus inflation, according to Friedman and Schwarz, was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” rather than a function of fiscal policy or other demand-side developments.
By the late 1960s the dissent played a central role in escalating policy disputes, due primarily to a prolonged expansion of US fiscal policy. Following Keynesian policy guidance, the government responded to the gentle recession of the early 1960s with fiscal stimulus. However, even after the recession was over, there was a reluctance to tighten policy, for reasons both foreign and domestic. At home, President Johnson promised a ‘Great Society’: a huge expansion of various programmes supposedly intended to help the poor and otherwise disadvantaged groups. Abroad, the Vietnam War had escalated into a major conflict and, combined with other Cold War military commitments, led to a huge expansion of the defence budget.
DE GAULLE AND INTERNATIONAL DISSENT
In the early 1960s a handful of prescient domestic observers had already begun to warn of the increasingly inflationary course of US fiscal and monetary policy (Henry Hazlitt wrote a book about it, What Inflation Is, in 1961.) In the mid-1960s this also became an important international topic. Under the Bretton-Woods system, the US was obliged to back dollars in circulation with gold reserves and to maintain an international gold price of $35/oz. In early 1965, as scepticism mounted that the US was serious about sustaining this arrangement, French President Charles De Gaulle announced to the world that he desired a restructuring of Bretton-Woods to place gold itself, rather than the dollar, at the centre of the international monetary system.
This prominent public dissent against Bretton-Woods unleashed a series of international monetary crises, roughly one each year, culminating in President Nixon’s decision to suspend ‘temporarily’ the dollar’s convertibility into gold in August 1971. (Temporarily? That was 43 years ago this month!)
The breakdown of Bretton-Woods would not be complete until 1973, when the world moved formally to a floating-rate regime unbacked by gold. However, while currencies subsequently ‘floated’ relative to one another, they collectively sank in purchasing power. The price of gold soared, as did the price of crude oil and many other commodities.
Rather than maintain stable prices by slowing the growth rate of the money supply and raising interest rates, the US Federal Reserve fatefully facilitated the dollar’s general devaluation
with negative real interest rates. While it took several years to build, in part because Nixon placed outright price controls on various goods, eventually the associated inflationary pressure leaked into consumer prices more generally, with the CPI rising steadily from the mid-1970s. Growth remained weak, however, as the economy struggled to restructure and rebalance. Thus before the decade was over, a new word had entered the economic lexicon: Stagflation.
STAGFLATION IS A KEYNESIAN PHENOMENON
Keynesians were initially mystified by this dramatic breakdown in the supposedly stable and manageable relationship between growth (or employment) and inflation. Their models said it couldn’t happen, so they looked for an explanation to deflect mounting criticism and soon found one: The economy had been hit by a ‘shock’, namely sharply higher oil prices! Never mind that the sharp rise in oil prices followed the breakdown of Bretton-Woods and devaluation of the dollar: This brazen reversal of cause and effect was too politically convenient to ignore. Politicians could blame OPEC for the stagflation, rather than their own policies. But an objective look at history tells a far different story, that the great stagflation was in fact the culmination of years of Keynesian economic policies. To generalise and to paraphrase Friedman, stagflation is, always and everywhere, a Keynesian phenomenon.
Why should this be so? Consider the relationship between real economic activity and the price level. If the supply of money is perfectly stable, then any negative ‘shock’ to the economy may reduce demand, but that will result in a decline rather than a rise in the general price level. The ‘shock’ might also increase certain prices in relative terms, but amidst stable money it simply cannot increase prices across the board, as is the case in stagflation.
They only way in which the toxic stagflationary mix of both reduced growth and rising prices can occur is if the money supply is flexible. Now this does not imply that a flexible money supply is in of itself a Keynesian policy, but deficit spending is far easier with a flexible money supply that can be increased as desired to finance the associated deficits. Yes, this then crowds out real private capital, with negative long-term consequences for economic health, but as we know, politicians are generally more concerned with the short-term and the next election.
CONTEMPORARY EVIDENCE OF STAGFLATION
Contemporary examples provide support for the reasoning above. It is instructive that two large economies, Japan and France, have been chronically underperforming in recent years, slipping in and out of recession. Both run chronic budget deficits in blatant Keynesian efforts to stimulate demand. In Japan, where the money supply is growing rapidly, inflation has been picking up despite weak growth: stagflation. In France, where the money supply has been quite stable, there is price stability: That is merely stagnation, not stagflation.
The UK, US and Germany have all been growing somewhat faster. Following the large devaluation of sterling in 2008, the UK experienced a multi-year surge in prices amidst weak growth, clearly a stagflationary mix. The US also now appears to be entering stagflation. Growth has been weak on average in recent quarters—outright negative in Q1 this year—yet inflation has now risen to 4% (3m annualised rate). Notwithstanding a surge in labour costs this year, the US Fed has, up to this point, dismissed this rise in CPI as ‘noise’. But then the Fed repeatedly made similar claims as CPI began to rise sharply in the mid-1970s.
In Japan, the UK and US, the stagflation is highly likely to continue as long as the current policy mix remains in place. (For all the fanfare surrounding the US Fed’s ‘tapering’, I don’t consider this terribly meaningful. Rates are still zero.) In France, absent aggressive structural reforms that may be politically impossible, the stagnation is likely to remain in place.
Germany is altogether a different story than the rest of these mature economies. While sharing the same, relatively stable euro money supply as France, the price level in Germany is also stable. However, Germany has been growing at a faster rate than most other developed economies, notwithstanding a smaller deficit. This is compelling evidence that Germany is simply a more competitive, productive economy than either the US or UK. But this is nothing new. The German economy has outperformed both the US and UK in nearly every decade since WWII. (Postwar rebuilding provided huge support in the 1950s and 1960s but those days are long past.)
The persistence of German economic outperformance through the decades clearly demonstrates the fundamental economic superiority of what is arguably the least Keynesian set of policies in the developed world. Indeed, Germans are both famed and blamed for their embrace of sound money and fiscal sustainability. ‘Famed’ because of their astonishing success; ‘blamed’ because of, well, because of their astonishing success relative to economic basket cases elsewhere in Europe and around the world. As I sometimes say in jest to those who ‘blame’ the Germans for the economic malaise elsewhere: “If only the Germans weren’t so dammed productive, we would all be better off!”
INVESTING FOR STAGFLATION
Stagflation is a hostile environment for investors. As discussed above, Keynesian policies require that the public sector siphon off resources from the private sector, thereby reducing the ability of private agents to generate economic profits. So-called ‘financial repression’, a more overt seizure of private resources by the public sector, is by design and intent hostile for investors. Regardless of how you choose to think about it, stagflation reveals previously unseen resource misallocations. As these become apparent, investors adjust financial asset prices accordingly. (Perhaps this is now getting under way. The Dow fell over 300 points yesterday.)
The most recent historical period of prolonged stagflation was the 1970s, although there have been briefer episodes since in various countries. Focusing here on the US, although there was a large stock market decline in 1973-4, the market subsequently recovered these losses and then roughly doubled in value. The bond market, by contrast, held up during the first half of the decade but, as stagnation gradually turned into stagflation, bonds sold off and were sharply outperformed by stocks.
That should be no surprise, as inflation erodes the nominally fixed value of bonds. Stock prices, however, can rise along with the general price level along as corporate revenues and profits also rise. It would seem safe to conclude, therefore, that in the event stagflationary conditions intensify from here, stocks will outperform bonds.
While that might be a safe conclusion, it is not a terribly helpful one. Sure, stocks might be able to outperform bonds in stagflation but, when adjusted for the inflation, in real terms they can still lose value. Indeed, in the 1970s, stock market valuations failed to keep pace with the accelerating inflation. Cash, in other words, was the better ‘investment’ option and, naturally, a far less volatile one.
Best of all, however, would have been to avoid financial assets and cash altogether and instead to accumulate real assets, such as gold and oil. (Legendary investors John Exter and John van Eck did precisely this.) The chart below shows the total returns of all of the above and the relative performance of stocks, bonds and cash appears irrelevant when compared to the soaring prices of gold and oil, both of which rose roughly tenfold.
REAL VS NOMINAL ASSETS IN STAGFLATION
(Jan 1971 = 100)
Source: Bloomberg; Amphora
Some readers might be sceptical that, from their current starting point, gold, oil or other commodity
prices could rise tenfold in price from here. Oil at $100/bbl sounds expensive to those (such as I) who remember the many years when oil fluctuated around $20. Gold at $1,300 also seems expensive compared to the sub-$300 price fetched by UK Chancellor Brown in the early 2000s. In both cases, prices have risen by a factor of 4-5x. Note that this is the rough order of magnitude that gold and oil rose into the mid-1970s. But it was not until the late 1970s that both really took off, leaving financial assets far behind.
If anything, a persuasive case can be made that the potential for gold, oil and other commodity prices to outperform stocks and bonds is higher today than it was in the mid-1970s. Monetary policies around the world are generally more expansionary. Government debt burdens and deficits are far larger. If Keynesian policies caused the 1970s stagflation, then the steroid injection of aggressive Keynesian policies post-2008 should eventually result in something even more spectacular.
While overweighting commodities can be an effective, defensive investment strategy for a stagflationary future, it is important to consider how best to implement this. Here at Amphora, we provide investors with an advisory service for constructing commodity portfolios. Most benchmark commodity indices and the ETFs tracking them are not well designed as investment vehicles for a variety of reasons. In particular, they do not provide for efficient diversification and their weightings are not well-specified to a stagflationary environment. With a few tweaks, however, these disadvantages can be remedied, enabling a commodity portfolio to produce the desired results.
CURRENT COMMODITY OPPORTUNITIES
For those inclined to trade commodities actively, and relative to each other, there are an unusual number of opportunities at present. First, grains are now unusually cheap, especially corn. This is understandable given current global weather patterns supportive of high yields, but beyond a certain point producers are fully hedged and/or are considering withholding some production to sell once prices recover. That point is likely now close.
Second, taking a look at tropical products, cotton has resumed the sharp slide that began earlier this year. As is the case with grains, we are likely nearing the point where producer hedging and/or holding out for higher prices will support the price. By contrast, cocoa prices continue their rise and I note that several major chocolate manufacturers have recently increased prices sharply to maintain margins. That is a classic indication that prices are near a peak.
Third, livestock remains expensive. Hog prices have finally begun to correct lower but cattle prices are at record highs. There are major herd supply issues that are not easily resolved in the near-term but consumers are highly price sensitive in the current environment and substitution into pork or poultry products is almost certainly now taking place around the margins. Left to run for awhile, this is likely to place a lid on cattle prices, although I do expect them to remain elevated for a sustained period until herds have had a chance to re-build.
Fourth, following a brief correction lower several weeks ago, palladium prices have risen back near to their previous highs of just under $900/oz. Palladium now appears expensive relative to near-substitute platinum; to precious and base metals generally; and relative to industrial commodities. The primary source of demand, autocatalysts, has remained strong due to auto production, but recent reports of rising unsold dealer inventory in a handful of major countries, including the US, may soon weaken demand. In the event that the fastest growing major auto markets—the BRICS—begin to slow, then a sharp decline in palladium to under $700 is likely.
Finally, a quick word on silver and gold. While both have tremendous potential to rise in a stagflationary environment, it is worth noting that, following a three-year correction, they appear to have found long-term support. Thus I believe there is both near-term and well as longer-term potential and I would once again recommend overweighting both vs industrial commodities.
1Von Mises not only warned of a financial crash and severe economic downturn in 1929; he refused the offer of a prominent position at the largest Austrian bank, Kreditanstalt, around the same time, not wanting to be associated with what he correctly anticipated would soon unfold. A Wall Street Journal article discussing this period in von Mises’ life is linked here.
2A classic revisionist view is that of Murray Rothbard, AMERICAS GREAT DEPRESSION. More recent scholarship by Lee Ohanian has added much additional detail to Rothbard’s work. I briefly touch on this subject in my book and also in a previous Amphora Report, THE RIME OF THE CENTRAL BANKER, linked here.
June’s FMQ components have now been released by the St Louis Fed, and it stands at a record $13.132 trillion. As can be seen in the chart above, it is $5.48 trillion more than an extension of the pre-Lehman crisis exponential growth trend. At this point readers not familiar with the construction of FMQ and its purpose may wish to refer to the original paper, here.
It should be borne in mind that there may be seasonal factors at play, with dips in the growth rate discernable at this time of year in the past. So the slower growth rate of FMQ, up $44bn between April and June when it might have risen $150-200bn, is not necessarily due to tapering of QE3. If tapering was responsible for slowing growth in FMQ, we could expect to see some tightening in short-term interest rates. But as the chart of 3-month T-bill rates shows they have been in a declining trend since last November.
The chart confirms that tapering seems to be having little or no effect on money markets and therefore the growth rate of fiat currency.
Weakness in interest rates is also consistent with poor economic demand. This week the first estimate of Q2 GDP was released which came in at an annualised 4%, substantially above market estimates of 3.1%. This outturn conflicts sharply with the lack of any meaningful demand for money, until one looks at the underlying estimates.
Of this 4% increase, the change in real private inventories added 1.66%. In other words GDP based on goods and services actually sold was only 2.34%. That changes in unsold goods, which is what inventories represent, should be part of final consumption is a dubious proposition, but need not concern us here. According to the technical note accompanying the release, figures for inventories and durable goods (which showed an incredible rise of 14%) are estimated and not hard data, so are subject to future revision. On this basis, the surprise GDP figure is little more than a government econometrician’s guess until the real data is available. Suspicions that these guesses err on the optimistic side are confirmed by the experience of the Q1 GDP figure, which was revised sharply downwards from first estimates when hard data eventually became available.
Whichever way we look at FMQ, it continues to expand at a frightening pace irrespective of the GDP outturn and its flaws. Furthermore, a look at the most recent Fed balance sheet confirms this view, showing that the 1st August figure will be considerably higher, unless there is an offsetting contraction of bank credit.
There is little sign of any such contraction. We can conclude from short-term market interest rates that the US economy is going nowhere fast, contrary to this week’s GDP estimate, and that demand for credit continues to come from essentially financial activities. But given that GDP estimates turn out to be far too optimistic, what if the US economy stalls or even slumps? Won’t that lead to a reversal of FMQ’s growth trend?
This is essentially the argument of the deflationists. In a slump they expect a dash from credit into cash as asset prices tumble. The counterpart of credit is deposits, the major components of FMQ. And without Fed intervention FMQ would rapidly contract. But in the event of a slump the Fed cannot be expected to stand idly by without taking extraordinary measures: in the words of Mario Draghi at the ECB, whatever it takes.
[Editor's note: this piece was first published at Zero Hedge, which has had several excellent articles tracking the effusions of the PBOC and their effect on credit markets]
Shortly after we exposed the real liquidity crisis facing Chinese banks recently (when no repo occurred and money market rates surged), China (very quietly) announced CNY 1 trillion of ‘Pledged Supplementary Lending’ (PSL) by the PBOC to China Development Bank. This first use of the facility “smacks of quantitative easing” according to StanChart’s Stephen Green, noting it is “deliberate and significant expansion of the PBOC’s balance sheet via creating bank reserves/cash” and likens the exercise to the UK’s Funding For Lending scheme. BofA is less convinced of the PBOC’s quantitative loosening, suggesting it is more like a targeted line of credit (focused on lowering the costs of funding) and arguing with a record “asset” creation by Chinese banks in Q1 does China really need standalone QE?
China still has a liquidity crisis without the help of the PBOC… (when last week the PBOC did not inject liquidty via repo, money market rates spiked to six-month highs…)
And so the PBOC decided to unleash PSL (via BofA)
The China Business News (CBN, 18 June), suggests that the PBoC has been preparing a new monetary policy tool named “Pledged Supplementary Lending” (PSL) as a new facility to provide base money and to guide medium-term interest rates. Within the big picture of interest rate liberalization, the central banks may wish to have a series of policy instruments at hand, guaranteeing the smooth transition of the monetary policy making framework from quantity tools towards price tools.
PSL: a new tool for base money creation
Since end-1990s, China’s major source of base money expansion was through PBoC’s purchase of FX exchanges, but money created from FX inflows outpaced money demand of the economy. To sterilize excess inflows, the PBoC imposed quite high required reserve ratio (RRR) for banks at 17.5-20.0% currently, and issued its own bills to banks to lock up cash. With FX inflows most likely to slow after CNY/USD stopped its one-way appreciation and China’s current account surplus narrowed, there could be less need for sterilization. The PBoC may instead need to expand its monetary base with sources other than FX inflows, and PSL could become an important tool in this regard.
…and a tool for impacting medium-term policy rate
Moreover, we interpret the introduction of the PSL as echoing the remarks by PBoC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan in a Finance Forum this May that “the policy tool could be a short-term policy rate or a range of it, possibly plus a medium-term interest rate”. The PBoC is likely to gradually set short-term interbank rates as new benchmark rates while using a new policy scheme similar to the rate corridor operating frameworks currently used in dozens of other economies. A medium-term policy rate could be desirable for helping the transmission of short-term policy rate to longer tenors so that the PBoC could manage financing costs for the real economy.
Key features of PSL
Through PSL, the PBoC could provide liquidity with maturity of 3-month to a few years to commercial banks for credit expansion. In some way, it could be similar to relending, and it’s reported that the PBoC has recently provided relending to several policy and commercial banks to support credit to certain areas, such as public infrastructure, social housing, rural sector and smaller enterprises.
However, PSL could be designed more sophisticatedly and serve a much bigger monetary role compared to relending.
First, no collateral is required for relending so there is credit risk associated with it. By contrast, PSL most likely will require certain types of eligible collaterals from banks.
Second, the information disclosure for relending is quite discretionary, and the market may not know the timing, amount and interest rates of relending. If the PBoC wishes to use PSL to guide medium-term market rate, the PBoC perhaps need to set up proper mechanism to disclose PSL operations.
Third, relending nowadays is mostly used by the PBoC to support specific sectors or used as emergency funding facility to certain banks. PSL could be a standing liquidity facility, at least for a considerable period of time during China’s interest rate liberalization.
Some think China’s PSL Is QE (via Market News International reports),
Standard Chartered economist Stephen Green says in a note that reports of the CNY1 trillion in Pledged Supplementary Lending (PSL) that the People’s Bank of China recently conducted in the market smacks of quantitative easing. He notes that the funds which have been relent to China Development Bank are “deliberate and significant expansion of the PBOC’s balance sheet via creating bank reserves/cash” and likens the exercise to the UK’s Funding For Lending scheme. CDB’s balance sheet reflects the transfer of funds, even if the PBOC’s doesn’t.
The CNY1 trillion reported — no details confirmed by the PBOC yet — will wind up in the broader economy and boost demand and “sends a signal that the PBOC is in the mood for quantitative loosening,” Green writes
The impact will depend on whether the details are correct and if all the funds have been transferred already, or if it’s just a jumped up credit facility that CDB will be allowed to tap in stages.
But BofA believes it is more likely a targeted rate cut tool (via BofA)
The investment community and media are assessing the possible form and consequence of the first case of Pledged Supplementary Lending (PSL) by PBoC to China Development Bank (CDB). The planned total amount of RMB1.0tn of PSL is more like a line of credit rather than a direct Quantitative Easing (QE). The new facility can be understood as a “targeted rate cut” rather than QE. We reckon that only some amount has been withdrawn by CDB so far. Despite its initial focus on shantytown redevelopment, we believe the lending could boost the overall liquidity and offer extra help to interbank market. Depending on its timespan of depletion, the actual impact on growth could be limited but sufficient to help deliver the growth target.
Relending/PSL to CDB yet to be confirmed
The reported debut of PSL was not a straightforward one. The initial news report by China Business News gave no clues on many of the details of the deal expect for the total amount and purpose of the lending. With the limited information, we believe the lending arrangement is most likely a credit line offered by PBoC to CDB. The total amount of RMB1.0tn was not likely being used already even for a strong June money and credit data. According to PBoC balance sheet, its claims to other financial institutions increased by RMB150bn in April and May. If the full amount has been withdrawn by CDB, it is equivalent to say PBoC conducted RMB850bn net injection via CDB in June, since CDB has to park the massive deposits in commercial banks. We assess the amount could be too big for the market as the interbank rates were still rising to the mid-year regulatory assessment. The PBoC could disclose the June balance after first week of August, we expect some increase of PBoC’s claims on banks, but would be much less than RMB850bn.
Difference with expected one
In our introductory PSL report, we argue that the operation has its root in policy reform of major central banks. However, we do not wish to compare literally with these existing instruments, namely ECB’s TLTRO or BoE’s FLS. Admittedly, the PBoC has its discretion to design the tailor-made currency arrangement due to the special nature of policy need. However, the opaque operation of PSL will eventually prove it a temporary arrangement and perhaps not serving as an example for other PSLs for its initial policy design to be achieved. According to Governor Zhou, the PSL is supposed to provide a reference to medium-term interest rate, which is missing in today’s case.
The focus is lowering cost of funding
We have been arguing that relending is a Chinese version of QE. Although relending is granted to certain banks, but there is no restriction on how banks use the funding. However, we believe PSL is more than that. The purpose of CDB’s PSL has been narrowed down to shantytown redevelopment, an area usually demands fiscal budget or subsidy in the past. Funding cost is the key to this arrangement.
Indeed, the PBoC has been working hard to reduce the cost of funding in the economy since massive easing is not an option under the increasing leverage of the economy. A currency-depreciation easing has been initiated by PBoC to bring down the interbank rate. Since then the central bank carefully manages the OMO in order to prevent liquidity squeeze from happening. On 24 July, State Council and CBRC have introduced workable measures to reduce funding cost of small and micro-enterprises.
Impact of the lending
PSL is not a direct QE, but there could be some side effect by this targeted lending. PSL to CDB means the funding demand and provision come hand-inhand. Targeted credit easing by nature is a requirement by targeted areas demanding policy support, which could be SMEs, infrastructure or social housing. In this regard, it is not surprising to see more PSL to support infrastructure financing. In addition to the direct impact on those targeted areas, we expect the overall funding cost could benefit from liquidity spillover.
Since the news about PSL with CDB last Monday, we have seen a rally in the Shanghai Composite Index. However we believe multiple factors may have contributed to the rebound in the stock market including: (1) better than expected macro data in 2Q/June and HSBC PMI surprising on the upside leading to improved sentiment; (2) The State Council and the CBRC have introduced measures to reduce funding cost of small and micro-enterprises; (3) More property easing with the removal of home purchase restrictions in several cities. PSL could have contributed to the improved sentiment on expectation of further easing.
Since as we noted previously, China’s massive bank asset creation (dwarfing the US) hardly looks like it needs QE…
As Bank Assets exploded in Q1…
dramatically outpacing the US…
Unless something really bad is going on that needs an even bigger bucket of liquidity.
* * *
So whatever way you look at it, the PBOC thinks China needs more credit (through one channel or another) to keep the ponzi alive. Anyone still harboring any belief in reform, rotation to consumerism is sadly mistaken. One day of illiquidity appears to have been enough to prove that they need to keep the pipes wide open. The question is where that hot money flows as they clamp down (or not) on external funding channels.
Notably CNY has strengthened recently as the PSL appears to have encouraged flows back into China.
* * *
The plot thickened a little this evening as China news reports:
- *CBRC ALLOWS CHINA DEV. BANK TO START HOUSING FINANCE BUSINESS
- *CHINA APPROVES CDB’S HOME FINANCE DEPT TO START BUSINESS: NEWS
Thus it appears the PSL is a QE/funding channel directly aimed at supporting housing. CNY 1 trillion to start and maybe China is trying to create a “Fannie-Mae” for China.
[Editor's note: the following piece was originally published by World Dollar at zerohedge.com]
In 2003, Jörg Guido Hülsmann, a senior fellow of the Mises Institute, published the essay “Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?” in a Winter edition of The Independent Review. The key conclusion drawn was that it is the obfuscation of the difference between fractional-reserve IOUs and genuine money titles which preserves the the practice of fractional-reserve banking.
It is the belief of this author that this essay has not received the acclaim that it so richly deserves. Indeed, its implications for the future of money and banking are monumentous. If those who advance the Austrian School of economics, the Mises Institute and Zero Hedge most prominently among them, were to grant its ideas a great renaissance, the worldwide return to sound money may happen far sooner than most could have believed possible.
J.G. Hülsmann explains why “in a free market with proper product differentiation, fractional-reserve banking would play virtually no monetary role” (p.403). The incisive reason given is that genuine money titles are valued at par with money proper, while fractional-reserve IOUs + RP (Redemption Promise) would be valued below par, due to default risk.
Here is the deductive argument being made:
1. Debt (IOUs + RP) is promised money.
2. A promise has the risk of not being kept (default risk).
3. Therefore, promised money, debt (IOUs + RP), is less valuable than genuine money titles (/money proper).
J.G. Hülsmann goes on to explain why the mispricing of fractional-reserve debt (IOUs + RP) persists. The reasons given include the outlawing of genuine money titles and deceptive language (“deposits”). This author would like to add one more reason, namely the myth that the government could actually “guarantee” deposits in the event of a systemic run. Systemic runs mean, by definition, most if not all money proper exiting the fractional reserve banking system, meaning the money proper with which the “guarantees” could be fulfilled doesn’t exist, short of unprecedented levels of new money printing and financial repression. This point is acknowledged on p.22 of the otherwise unexceptional “The Chicago Plan Revisited” by Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof.
The history of fractional reserve banking is, then, defined by informational inefficiency. Market participants have failed to reflect the price differential between fractional reserve debt (IOUs + RP) and genuine money titles.
Let us now extend the deductive argument:
4. Therefore, an arbitrage opportunity exists. All holders of Debt (IOUs + RP) have an economic incentive to make the redemption request for genuine money titles (/money proper).
Mervyn King, ex-governor of the Bank of England, once claimed that it is irrational to start a bank run, but rational to participate in one once it has started. While the second part of the claim is correct, the first is not. It is irrational not to start a bank run, due to the arbitrage opportunity that exists.
This, of course, holds the assumption that the market will become informationally efficient, and will therefore capitalise on the mispricing. But the holding of this assumption is only credible if this idea is spread. We live in a time with an unprecedented level of competing voices wanting to be heard, the unfortunate consequence of which is that we drown out the voices that are truly exceptional. It is no exaggeration to say that “Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?” may prove to be the most revolutionary essay in the history of monetary economics and banking, if only it receives the level of appraisal and promotion it deserves.
On this matter, the reasons given for the persistence of the mispricing of fractional-reserve debt (IOUs + RP) are unsustainable in the long run. The lack of legal protection for genuine money titles is no more than a technicality, for there is nothing in practice that can sustainably prevent the existence of full reserve banks. Awareness that “deposits” are not actually money being held for safekeeping is a matter of educating the public, as is awareness that government’s deposit “guarantees” are not actually credible in the event of a systemic run.
If we assume, then, that fractional-reserve banking will come to its logical ending, there is good reason to believe that the shock will herald the endgame for fiat money. It is in fact the case that all fiat money is the liability of the central bank, which also carries the risk of non-repayment (default risk). This, again, means an arbitrage opportunity for market participants to withdraw the fiat money from the fiat money banking system. This confirms that the original basis for fiat money is destroyed, for its repayment to the central bank is not credible.
Finally, at long last, we have a worldwide return to sound money. Will there be a new 21st century Gold Standard? Will we recourse to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin? Will we see the rise of the Equal Opportunity Standard, with everyone in the world being issued once with an equal amount of World dollars? Or will there be another innovation to come? What we must defend, as proud advocates of freedom, is that the free market will decide. That governments finally learn to stop their oppressive, damaging interference with the monetary system.
[Editor's Note: this piece, by Brendan Brown, was first published at mises.org]
First the good news. The House Financial Services Committee has held a hearing on “Legislation to Reform the Federal Reserve on its 100-year Anniversary.” The hearing focused on a bill introduced by Scott Garrett and Bill Huizenga which would require the Fed to provide Congress with a clear rule to describe the course of monetary policy. Now for the bad news. The rule is to be an equation showing how the Fed would adjust interest rates in response to changes in certain economic variables. And the star witness before the committee proposing his own version of such a rule is renowned neo-Keynesian economist, ex-Bush official Professor John B. Taylor.
Inputs into the so-called “Taylor Rule” involve key magnitudes such as “the neutral rate of interest” and “the natural rate of unemployment” as well as the “targeted rate of inflation.” One might have hoped that the Republicans by now would have realized that monetary reform should involve first and foremost jettisoning neo-Keynesian economics. Even the most talented Fed official cannot know the neutral level of interest rates (whether for short, medium, or long maturities) or the natural level of unemployment. And as to inflation targets, these should be scrapped in any monetary reform and replaced by the aim of monetary stability broadly defined to include absence of asset price inflation and a very long-run stable anchor to goods and services prices.
First, Set Interest Rates Free
An essential component of monetary reform should be setting interest rates free. This means no more official pegging or guidance of short-term interest rates and no attempt to manipulate in various ways long-term interest rates. Markets can do a better job of discovering the neutral rates of interest (across different maturities) and positioning market rates at any time relative to these so as to guide the economy along an equilibrium path than any set of well-informed and even well-meaning Fed officials. This is all on the big assumption that the reformers can design a monetary system around a suitable firmly placed pivot.
Under the gold standard the pivot was a fixed price for gold alongside the widespread use of gold coins. And so the amount of high-powered money in the world grew in line with the above ground stock of yellow metal, which occurred at a glacial, but flexible pace. The demand for high-powered money was itself a fairly stable function of income and wealth. And so the system was well-anchored. Yes, there were imperfections, including the advent of fractional-reserve banking which meant that the demand for high-powered money became less stable. Yet given the absence of deposit insurance and too-big-to-fail and only limited lender of last resort roles banks could be counted upon to have a strong demand for reserves (mainly in the form of gold) to back their deposits. Moreover the obligation to convert customers’ deposits into gold coin on request buttressed this demand for high powered money from the banks.
More Steps Toward Proper Reform
As a matter of practical politics the Republican Congressmen may well conclude that an imminent return to gold is unfeasible. But they could consider in the light of these considerations how best to re-secure the pivot to the US monetary system by creating high-powered money for which demand would be stable and the rate of increase in supply flexibly very low. The steps toward this end would include:
· Abolishing the payment of interest on bank reserves.
· Strict curtailment of lender of last resort function.
· Long-term abolition of deposit insurance.
· Fed withdrawal from creating liquidity in debt markets (no more eligible bills, repo-transactions, etc.).
· Issuance of large-denomination notes (adding to the demand for currency, a key component of high-powered money).
· A legal attack on monopoly power in the credit card business which results often in payers of cash not enjoying a discount.
In this suitably reformed system there would be a huge demand for high-powered money (whether in the form of currency or reserves held by the banks) highly distinct in function from any alternative assets. This demand would not depend on legislating artificially high reserve requirements which bank lobbyists would surely whittle down over time. That was the Achilles heel of the briefly successful monetarist experiment in Germany during the 1970s and early 1980s, as the bankers were finally able to bring political pressure toward lowering reserve requirements such that monetary base no longer was a secure pivot to the monetary system. Accordingly, the Bundesbank gradually shifted to explicit pegging of short-term interest rates albeit subject to a medium-term target for wider money supply growth.
Turning back to the US, even with the reforms suggested, there would still be the difficult question of how to determine the growth in supply of high-powered money. Without a gold connection there has to be some degree of discretionary control in this process, albeit constrained by a quantitative guide (such as an average 1 to 1.5-percent rate of expansion per annum, similar to the expansion rate of above ground gold over the past century) and ultimately constitutionally-embedded legal restrictions.
High-powered money as defined by such a monetary reform would be a far cry from the present situation where the size of the Federal Reserve balance sheet has been recording explosive growth for many years and where the main form of high-powered money, excess reserves, pays interest at above the market rate to the banks. The Republicans in their pursuance of monetary reform would do well to propose some initial steps which would prepare the way for bolder change at a later date with the aim of creating a stable supply and demand for high-powered money.
A key step would be the immediate suspension of interest payments on reserves (which only started in 2008) coupled with a rapid timetable for disposing of the Fed’s massive portfolio of long-term fixed-rate bonds. The Bernanke Fed, and now the Yellen Fed, has used this portfolio as a means of manipulating long-term interest rates (with this depending on an emperor’s new clothes effect whereby markets attach unquestioning importance to the Fed’s massive holdings in forming their expectations of bond prices) and of scaring investors into real assets so adding to the strength of their asset price inflation virus injections.
One suggestion for a rapid timetable would be the Treasury and Fed entering into a deal in which the long-term fixed-rate T-bonds held by the Fed would be converted into long-term floating rate debt and into short- or medium-term T-bills. This would mean less accounting profit under the present structure of yields for the Fed and a lower cost of borrowing for the Treasury. But who really cares about such bookkeeping between the federal government and its monetary agency? In turn the Treasury would announce a long-term timetable for raising the ratio of long-maturity fixed to floating rate debt in the overall total outstanding.
Rome was not made in a day. And the Republicans are certainly not in a position to legislate radical monetary reform. But that is no excuse for a careless decision by the would-be reformers to veer into a cul-de-sac under the misleading directions of Professor Taylor.
“By sacrificing quality an investor can obtain a higher income return from his bonds. Long experience has demonstrated that the ordinary investor is wiser to keep away from such high-yield bonds. While, taken as a whole, they may work out somewhat better in terms of overall return than the first-quality issues, they expose the owner to too many individual risks of untoward developments, ranging from disquieting price declines to actual default.”
They call them ‘junk bonds’ for a reason. They now constitute an offence against linguistic decency: ‘high yield’ no longer even is. Consider the chart below:
BofA Merrill Lynch High Yield Master II Index (spread vs US Treasuries)
(Source: BofA Merrill Lynch, St. Louis Federal Reserve)
(The index in question is a benchmark for the broad high yield bond market.) Not for nothing did the Financial Times report at the weekend that “Retail investors are getting increasingly nervous about high-yield bonds”.
They should also be getting increasingly nervous about government bonds. Consider, first, this chart:
(Source: Thomson Reuters, Credit Suisse)
In the entire history of the UK Gilt market, yields have never been as low. This suggests that Gilt buyers at current levels are unlikely to enjoy an entirely blissful investment experience.
Just to round up this analysis of bond investor hyper-exuberance, consider this last chart, which puts interest rates (in this case, the UK base rate) in their historical context:
UK base rates, 1700 to 2014
(Source: The Bank of England, Church House)
(*The Bank Rate has comprised variously the Bank Rate, Minimum Lending Rate, Minimum Band 1 Dealing Rate, Repo Rate and Official Bank Rate.)
There is one (inverse) correlation in investment markets that is pretty much iron-clad. If interest rates go up, bond prices go down. This is entirely logical, since the coupon payments on bonds are typically fixed. If interest rates rise, that stream of fixed coupon payments loses its relative attractiveness. The bond price must therefore fall to compensate fixed coupon investors. So now ask yourself a question: in what direction are interest rates likely to go next ? Your answer may have some bearing on your preferred asset allocation.
Bond investors may be acting rationally inasmuch as they believe that central banks will keep interest rates “lower for longer”. But even more rational investors are now starting, loudly, to question the wisdom of central banks’ maintenance of emergency monetary stimulus measures, at least five years after the Global Financial Crisis flared up. Speaking at the ‘Delivering Alpha’ conference covered by CNBC, respected hedge fund manager Stanley Druckenmiller commented as follows:
“As a macro investor, my job for 30 years was to anticipate changes in the economic trends that were not expected by others – and therefore not yet reflected in securities prices. I certainly made my share of mistakes over the years, but I was fortunate enough to make outsized gains a number of times when we had different views from various central banks. Since most investors like betting with the central bank, these occasions provided our most outsized returns – and the subsequent price adjustments were quite extreme. Today’s Fed policy is as puzzling to me as during any of those periods and, frankly, rivals 2003 in the late-stages to early-2004, as the most baffling of a number of instances I have in mind. We at Duquesne [Capital Management] were mystified back at that time why the funds rate was one percent with the ‘considerable period’ attached to it, given the vigorous economic growth statistics available at the time. I recall walking in one day and showing my partners a bunch of charts of economics statistics of that day and asking them to take the following quiz: Suppose you had been on Mars the last five years and had just come back to planet Earth. I showed them five charts and I said, ‘If you had to guess, where would you guess the Federal funds rate was?’ Without exception, everyone guessed way north of one percent, as opposed to the policy at the time which was a verbal guarantee that they would stay at one percent for a ‘considerable period of time.’ So we were confident the Fed was making a mistake, but we were much less confident in how it would manifest itself. However, our assessment by mid-2005 that the Fed was fueling an unsustainable housing Bubble, with dire repercussions for the greater economy, allowed our investors to profit handsomely as the financial crisis unfolded. Maybe we got lucky. But the leadership of the Federal Reserve did not foresee the coming consequences as late as mid-2007. And, surprisingly, many Fed officials still do not acknowledge any connection between loose monetary policy and subsequent events..”
“I hope we can all agree that these once-in-a-century emergency measures are no longer necessary five years into an economic and balance sheet recovery. There is a heated debate as to what a ‘neutral’ Fed funds rate would be. We should be debating why we haven’t moved more meaningfully towards a neutral funds rate. If for no other reason, so the Fed will have additional weapons available if the outlook darkens again. Many Fed officials and other economists defend their current policies by claiming the economy is better than it would have been without their ongoing stimulus. No one knows for sure, but I believe that is logical and correct. However, I also believe if you’d asked the same question in 2006 – that the economy was better in 2004 to 2006 than it would have been without the monetary stimulus that preceded it. But was the economy better in total from 2003 to 2010 – without the monetary stimulus that preceded it? The same applies today. To economists and Fed officials who continually cite that we are better off than we would have been without zero rate policies for long, I ask ‘Why is that the relevant policy time frame?’ Five years after the crisis, and with growing signs of economic normalization, it seems time to let go of myopic goals. Given the charts I just showed and looking at economic history, today’s Fed policy seems not only unnecessary but fraught with unappreciated risk. When Ben Bernanke and his colleagues instituted QE1 in 2009, financial conditions in the real economy were in a dysfunctional meltdown. The policy was brilliantly conceived and a no-brainer from a risk/reward perspective. But the current policy makes no sense from a risk/reward perspective. Five years into an economic and balance sheet recovery, extraordinary money measures are likely running into sharply diminishing returns. On the other hand, history shows potential long-term costs can be quite severe. I don’t know whether we’re going to end with a mal-investment bust due to a misallocation of resources; whether it’s inflation; or whether the outcome will actually be benign. I really don’t. Neither does the Fed.”
No more charts. If these three don’t get the message across, nothing will.
The bond environment, ranging from high yield nonsense to government nonsense, is now fraught, littered with uncertainty and unexploded ammunition, and waiting nervously for the inevitable rate hike to come (or bracing for a perhaps messy inflationary outbreak if it doesn’t). There are clearly superior choices on a risk-reward basis; we think Ben Graham-style value stocks are the logical and compelling alternative.