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Economics

ECB embraces QE faulty logic

Editor’s note: this article, under the title “No end to central bank meddling as ECB embraces ‘quantitative easing’, faulty logic” appears on Detlev Schlichter’s site. It is reprinted with kind permission.

The 2nd edition of his excellent Paper Money Collapse is available for pre-order.

“Who can print money, will print money” is how my friend Patrick Barron put it succinctly the other day. This adage is worth remembering particularly for those periods when central bankers occasionally take the foot off the gas, either because they genuinely believe they solved the problem, or because they want to make a show of appearing careful and measured.

The US Federal Reserve is a case in point. Last year the Fed announced that it was beginning to ‘taper’, that is, carefully reduce its debt monetization program (‘quantitative easing’, QE), and this policy, now enacted, is widely considered the beginning of policy normalization and part of an ‘exit strategy’. But as Jim Rickards pointed out, the Fed already fully tapered twice – after QE1 and after QE2 – only to feel obliged to ‘qe’ again some time later. Whether Ms Yellen is going to see the present ‘taper’ through to its conclusion and whether the whole project will in future be remembered as an ‘exit strategy’ remains to be seen.

So far none of the big central banks has achieved the ‘exit’ despite occasional noises to the contrary. Since the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the global trend has been in one direction and one direction only: From easy money we moved to easier money. QE has been followed by more QE. As I mentioned before, the Fed’s most generous year in its 100-year history was 2013, any talk of ‘tapering’ notwithstanding.

ECB mistrusted by Keynesian consensus

Whenever the European Central Bank reduces its money printing and scales back its market rigging, it invariably unleashes the fury of the Keynesian and inflationist commentariat. In the eyes of its numerous critics, the ECB lacks the proper money-printing credentials of the more pro-active and allegedly more ‘modern’ central banks. It still has a whiff of the old Bundesbank about it, although a few years back, when the ECB flooded the European banking system with cheap liquidity, its balance sheet was larger as a share of GDP than those of its comrades, the Fed and the Bank of England.

The ECB went through two periods of restraint since the crisis: In early 2011 it began to hike interest rates, and in 2013, after the eurozone debt crisis died down, the ECB allowed its balance sheet to shrink by more than €700 billion as banks repaid cheap loans from the central bank. This stood in stark contrast to the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of about $1,000 billion over the same period. The first episode of restraint came to an end in 2012 when the ECB reversed its rate hikes and then cut rates further, ultimately to a new low of just 0.25 percent. Presently, we are still in the second period of restraint, although it too appears to be about to end soon as the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi hinted in his press conference last week at a newfound willingness to embrace unconventional policies to combat ‘deflation’ or even ‘long periods of low inflation’. (The ECB’s harmonized index of consumer prices stood probably at just 0.5% last month.) This means the ECB is likely to cut rates to zero or below soon, or to start asset purchases (‘QE’), or probably both.

Poor logic

This move is hardly surprising in the big scheme of things as outlined above, and the ECB will explain it officially with its mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, from which it does not want to deviate in either direction. This target itself is silly as it assumes that inflation of 1.8 percent is inherently better than inflation of zero (true price stability, if it ever was attainable), or inflation of minus 1.8 percent (deflation). This is, of course, precisely the argument that has been relentlessly and noisily trumpeted by the easy-money advocates in the media, the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, and the reliably shrill Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, among others. A certain measure of inflation is deemed good, very low inflation is bad, and anything below zero, even mild deflation, potentially a disaster. But why should this be the case?

Moderate deflation, that is, slowly declining money prices, may or may not be a symptom of problems elsewhere in the economy, but that slowly declining money prices as such constitute an economic problem lacks any foundation in economics and can easily and quickly be refuted by even a cursory look at economic history. In the 19th century we find extended periods of ongoing, moderate deflation in many economies that simultaneously experienced solid growth in output and substantial rises in living standards, a “coincidence”, wrote Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their influential A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 – 1960, that “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”

Many commentators advance the argument that falling prices depress consumption as purchases get constantly deferred. Even the usually more sober FT-writer John Authers seems to have succumbed to this argument as he explained to his readers last Saturday that prices “fall, thanks to sluggish economic activity. Consumers do not buy now, as goods will be cheaper in future. This lack of consumption slows growth further, and pushes prices down even further.” (John Authers, “Draghi has to back his QE words with action” Financial Times, Saturday April 5/ Sunday April 6 2014, page 24)

This argument, constantly regurgitated by the cheerleaders of money-printing, is weak. First of all, it is certainly no argument in the present environment of close to zero but still positive inflation. If the ECB plans to fight even very low inflation, as Draghi stated at the ECB press conference, than this argument does nothing to support that policy. Certainly, no one defers any purchases when prices are just stable. However, and more importantly, even in a mildly deflationary environment of let’s say 1 to 2 percent per annum, the argument does appear to be a stretch.

Argument ignores time preference

Consumers only contemplate buying something that they consider an economic good, that is, that they consider useful, that they want because it expends some (subjective) use-value to them. In deferring a purchase they can, in a deflationary environment, save money but at the cost of not enjoying the possession of what they want for some time. By not buying a toaster now you may be able to buy it 1 or 2 percent cheaper in a year’s time, or 2 to 4 percent cheaper in two years’ time (always assuming, of course, that the mild deflation persists that long, which nobody can guarantee), but even these small monetary gains come at the expense of not enjoying ownership of the toaster for two years. The small monetary gain obtained by delaying purchases is not for free, as the argument seems to assume, but comes at the cost of waiting. I suggest that only a very small number of items, and only those for which there is very marginal demand indeed, would be affected.

Time preference is not a concept of psychology, it is a constituting element of human action. It is a priori to human action, which means it exists independent of experience or of personal circumstances as it is already entailed in the very concept of what constitutes an ‘economic good’.

If you experienced no time preference in relation to a specific good you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed the possession of that good today or tomorrow. And tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed it that day or the next, and so forth. Logically, you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed possession of it at all, and this means that the good in question is not an economic good for you. You do not care for it.

As George Reisman put is succinctly: To want something means, all else being equal, to want it sooner rather than later.

Be honest, how many purchases over the past 12 months would you not have made had you had a reasonable chance of obtaining the item in question at a 1 or 2 percent discount if you waited a year?

Exactly.

That the prospect of falling prices does not usually deter consumption can be readily seen today in the market for consumer electronics (mobile phones, computers), which has been in deflation – and considerable deflation – for quite some time.

Argument ignores opportunity costs of holding money

The argument also seems to ignore that holding one’s wealth in the form of money involves opportunity costs. Rather than sitting on cash you could enjoy the things you could buy with it. In a deflationary environment, your cash hoard’s purchasing power slowly rises and you can afford ever more nice things with your money, which means the opportunity cost of not spending it constantly goes up. (In a way, while you are waiting four years to buy your toaster at an 8 percent discount to today’s price, buying the toaster is also becoming marginally more attractive to others who are presently holding cash and who may initially not even had an interest in a toaster.)

I think that all that would follow from secular (that is ongoing, systematic but moderate) deflation is that cash would be a more meaningful competitor for other depositories of deferred consumption. Saving by simply holding money makes sense in a deflationary environment, so other vehicles to save with (bonds and shares) would have to offer a return reasonably above the expected deflation rate to attract savings. I think this is not an unreasonably high hurdle.

Furthermore, if what Authers and others describe were true for even marginal deflation, that is, if marginal deflation indeed led to more deflation and a progressively weakening economy, the reverse must logically be true for marginal inflation. Consumers would accelerate their purchases to avoid the 1 or 2 percent loss in purchasing power per annum, and this would quickly drive inflation higher. If two percent deflation led to cash hoarding and a collapse in consumption, would the 2 percent inflation advocated today as ‘price stability’ not lead to a spike in money velocity and an inflationary boom? Either scenario seems highly unrealistic.

Monetary causes versus non-monetary causes

If we use the economic terminology correctly, then inflation and deflation are always monetary phenomena, that is, they always have monetary causes. (As an aside, I here use the now standard definition of inflation as an ongoing, trending rise in the general price level, and deflation as the opposite, rather than the traditional meaning of inflation as an expansion of the money supply and deflation as a contraction.) However, the starting point of the present discussion is simply some low readings on the official inflation statistics in the eurozone. And that those could have non-monetary causes, that they could be the consequence of a crisis-driven drop in real demand in certain industries and certain countries is a realistic assumption and is in fact implied by the arguments of the QE-advocates. Outright deflation is presently being recorded in Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. And John Authers’ short statement on deflation in the FT also starts from the assumption that “prices fall thanks to sluggish economic activity.”

But to the extent that recorded deflation is not due to a general rise in money’s purchasing power (due to a general rise in money demand or an unchanged or falling money supply, to which I come soon) but the result of some producers slashing certain prices in certain industries and regions, and of those price drops not being fully compensated by rising prices somewhere else in eurozone, then this has various implications:

Consumers cannot simply assume that this is a lasting trend. The liquidation of capital misallocations and the discounting of merchandise to get it moving are crisis phenomena and cannot simply be extrapolated into the future the way consumers may have extrapolated the secular deflation of gold standard economies in the 19th century. But the straight extrapolation of very recent price changes into the future is at the core of the argument that even small deflation would be disastrous.

Furthermore, it would seem bizarre to advice merchants to not slash prices when demand drops as that would, according to the logic advanced by Authers et al, only lead to further postponement of consumption and a further drop in demand as consumers would simply expect price declines to continue. Would hiking prices be a better strategy to counter falling demand? Should we reconsider the concept of the “sale” and of “discounting” inventory to encourage buying?

To a considerable degree, the reduction in certain prices for ‘real’ economic reasons could be part of the economic healing process. It is a way for many producers, sectors of the economy, and economic regions, to regain competitiveness. It is true that falling wages in certain industries or regions make it more difficult for workers to repay mortgages and consumer loans but often the lower wage may be the only way to avoid unemployment, which would make repaying debt harder still. Behind the often-quoted headline inflation rate of presently 0.5% per annum lie numerous relative price changes by which the economy re-balances. All discussions about the ‘price index’ ignore these all-important changes in relative prices. It so happens that what goes on with the multitude of individual prices in the economy adds up, according to the techniques of the ECB statisticians, to a 0.5% harmonized inflation rate at the moment, and it may all add up to -0.5% next month or next year, or maybe even – 1 percent. To simply conclude from this one aggregate price number that the economy is getting progressively sicker would be wrong.

There is no escaping the fact that recent economic difficulties are the result of imbalances that accumulated during the credit boom that preceded the 2007/2008 financial crisis, of which the eurozone debt crisis was an after quake. Artificially cheap money created the credit boom and these imbalances. A period of liquidation, contraction, changing relative prices and occasionally falling prices is now necessary, and short-circuiting this process via renewed central bank intervention seems counterproductive and ultimately dangerous.

There is, of course, the possibility that proper monetary causes are behind the eurozone’s low inflation and soon deflation, and that those might persist. Banks still feel constrained in their ability to extend new loans and thus create new money. The growth in bank lending and thus in wider monetary aggregates may fall short of the growth in money demand. But it is an essential feature of money that any demand for it can be fully satisfied with a rise in its price. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power, and by allowing the market to lift the purchasing power of money, that is, through deflation, that demand can be met. The secular, moderate and largely harmless deflation of 19th century gold standard economies had essentially the same origin. Money production did not keep pace with money demand, so money demand was satisfied via slowly falling prices.

And here the same conclusion applies: a more restrained approach to lending, credit risk, and financial leverage, now adopted by banks and the public at large as a consequence of the crisis, may be a good thing, and for the central bank to mess with this process and to use ‘unconventional’ means to force more bank lending and money creation onto the system, out of some misguided commitment to the arbitrarily chosen statistical goal of ‘2-percent inflation’ seems foolish. If successful in raising the headline inflation rate it may succeed in creating the same imbalances (excessive leverage, misallocations of capital and distorted asset prices) that have created the recent crisis.

One commentator recently said the eurozone could ill afford deflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector. But the question is if it can afford the level of lending to attain 2 percent inflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector.

The fallacy of macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy

Let me be clear: I do not recommend a zero-inflation target or a target of moderate deflation. Moderate deflation in and of itself is a little a solution as moderate inflation in and of itself is a problem. I recommend no target as I reject the entire concept of ‘monetary policy’, of the notion that a state agency could conceivably enhance, through clever manipulation of interest rates and bank reserve policy, the coordinating powers of the market that help people realize their personal economic objectives through free trade.

We should remember that no one participates in the economy and in trade and commerce because his or her goal is that the general price level goes up by 2 percent, or that nominal GDP increases by 5 percent. People have their own personal objectives. The market is simply a powerful tool for voluntary and decentralized plan-coordination among independent individuals and groups of individuals that pursue their own goals. It is best left undisturbed. This entire project of ‘monetary policy’ is absurd in the extreme, regardless of what the target is.

It is the fallacy of macroeconomics that certain statistical aggregates, such as CPI, GDP or nominal GDP, are deemed reliable representatives of what goes on in a complex market economy, and it is dangerous hubris to believe that the state should define ‘targets’ for these statistical aggregates and then use policy intervention to achieve them. This might be an approach intellectually suitable for the ruler of a communist or fascist society. It is fundamentally at odds with free trade and a free market, and it must and will fail. That should have been a clear lesson from the financial crisis.

Instead, the mainstream consensus, deeply influenced by Keynesianism and macroeconomics, continues to embrace policy activism and intervention. I fully expect central banks to continue on their path towards more aggressive meddling and generous fiat money production. It won’t take long for the ECB to take the next step.

Economics

Five years of disastrously low interest rates have left Britain addicted to cheap credit

The Bank of England

This article originally appeared in The Telegraph on 5 March 2014. It is reproduced by permission of the author.

Five years ago today, the Bank of England cut interest rates about as low as they can go: 0.5 percent. And there they have remained.

If rates have been rock bottom for five years, our central bankers have been cutting them for even longer. You need to go back almost nine years to find a time when real interest rates last rose. Almost a million mortgage holders have never known a rate rise.

And this is all a Good Thing, according to the orthodoxy in SW1. Sure, low rates might hit savers, who don’t get such good returns, but for home owners and businesses, it’s been a blessing.

Don’t just compare the winners with the losers, say the pundits. Think of the whole economy. Rates were set at rock bottom shortly after banks started to go bust. Slashing the official cost of borrowing saved the day, they say.

I disagree. Low interest rates did not save the UK economy from the financial crisis. Low interest rates helped caused the crisis – and keeping rates low means many of the chronic imbalances remain.

To see why, cast your mind back to 1997 and Gordon Brown’s decision to allow the Bank of England to set interest rates independent of any ministerial oversight.

Why did Chancellor Brown make that move? Fear that populist politicians did not have enough discipline. Desperate to curry favour with the electorate, ministers might show themselves to be mere mortals, slashing rates as an electoral bribe.

The oppostite turned out to be the case.  Since independence, those supermen at the central bank set rates far lower than any minister previously dared.  And the results of leaving these decisions to supposedly benign technocrats at the central bank has been pretty disastrous.

Setting interest rates low is simply a form of price fixing. Set the price of anything – bread, coffee, rental accommodation – artificially low and first you get a glut, as whatever is available gets bought up.

Then comes the shortage. With less incentive to produce more of those things, the supply dries up. So, too, with credit.

With interest rates low, there is less incentive to save. Since one persons savings mean another’s borrowing, less saving means less real credit in the system. With no real credit, along comes the candyfloss variety, conjured up by the banks – and we know what happened next.  See Northern Rock…

When politicians praise low interest rates, yet lament the lack of credit, they demonstrate an extraordinary, almost pre-modern, economic illiteracy.

Too many politicians and central bankers believe cheap credit is a cause of economic success, rather than a consequence of it. We will pay a terrible price for this conceit.

Low interest rates might stimulate the economy in the short term, but not in a way that is good for long-term growth. As I show in my paper on monetary policy, cheap credit encourages over-consumption, explaining why we remain more dependent than ever on consumer- (and credit-) induced growth.

Cheap credit cannot rebalance the economy. By encouraging over-consumption, it leads to further imbalances.

Think of too much cheap credit as cholesterol, clogging up our economic arteries, laying down layer upon layer of so-called “malinvestment”.

“Saved” by low rates, an estimated one in 10 British businesses is now a zombie firm, able to service its debts, but with no chance of ever being able to pay them off.

Undead, these zombie firms can sell to their existing customer base, keeping out new competition. But what they cannot do is move into new markets or restructure and reorganise. Might this help explain Britain’s relatively poor export and productivity performance?

What was supposed to be an emergency measure to get UK plc through the financial storm, has taken on an appearance of permanence. We are addicted to cheap credit. Even a modest 1 per cent rate rise would have serious consequences for many.

Sooner or later, interest rates will have to rise. The extent to which low interest rates have merely delayed the moment of reckoning, preventing us from making the necessary readjustments, will then become painfully evident.

We are going to need a different monetary policy, perhaps rather sooner than we realise.

Economics

The 80/20 rule

Recent statistics are confirming “economic recovery” in the UK and even some of the weaker eurozone states. I put this in quotes, because what we are seeing is expanding nominal GDP, which is not the same thing. GDP reflects money and credit going into the economy, which everyone believes is the same thing.

Instead of economic recovery, GDP is reflecting money leaving financial markets, particularly bonds, for less interest-rate sensitive havens. Globally, bonds represent invested capital of over $150 trillion, or more than twice global GDP, so even marginal amounts unleashed by rising bond yields can be financially destabilising and the effect on GDP growth could be electric. The mistake of confusing economic progress (a better description of what we all desire) with GDP is about to bite the economic establishment big-time and pressure for interest rates to rise early and substantially will intensify as a result, dragged up by those rising bond yields.

The problem facing central planners is that this GDP chimera is driven by a predominantly financial community that has money to invest in capital assets such as housing and even motor cars. The vast majority of economic actors, comprised of pensioners, low-wage workers living from payday to payday and the unemployed are simply disadvantaged as prices, already often beyond their reach, become even more unaffordable. It is a misfortune encapsulated in the concept of the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, where the substantial majority will be badly squeezed by rising prices generated by the spending of that few.

The central planners are understandably focused on the misfortunes of the majority. For many of them, as prices start to rise so too do costs for their employers, many of which will be squeezed out of business. How can interest rates possibly be permitted to rise in the face of these dangers?

Central banks have drawn their line in the sand over interest rates and they will eventually be forced to reconsider their position. They are almost certain to be too slow in raising interest rates and so the markets will continually expect higher bond yields and higher interest rates to come. For those of us with long memories it is a repeat of the late-seventies stagflation era. Except this time, aggressively raising interest rates to stabilise the purchasing power of the currency is not an option: it will simply break the banking system lumbered with its share of the $150 trillion invested in bonds.

Markets are blithely assuming that central banks are in control of events. They are not even in control of their own governments’ profligacy, and they are losing their control over markets as well, as the tapering episode showed. The fatal error of rescuing both the banking system and government finances by reckless currency inflation is in the process of becoming apparent to all. Unless this policy is somehow reversed we risk a global rerun of the collapse of the German mark in 1923.

This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.

Economics

No tapering, no surprise

It was not too surprising that there is going to be no tapering for some very good reasons. The commencement of tapering would have led deliberately to bond yields rising, triggered by an increase in sales of government bonds to the public and at the same time escalating sales by foreign governments as they attempt to retain control over their own currencies and interest rates. This was the important lesson from floating the rumour of tapering in recent months.

The reason tapering was not going to happen is summarised as follows:

1.       Monetarists and therefore central bankers believe that rising bond yields and interest rates will strangle economic recovery. They want to see more robust evidence of recovery before permitting that to happen.

2.       Rising bond yields would have required the Fed to raise interest rates sooner rather than later to stem the flight of bank deposits from the Fed’s own balance sheet held as excess reserves, which only earn 0.25%.

3.       Importantly, the global banking system has too much of its collective balance sheet invested in fixed-interest bonds, and is also exposed to rising interest rates through interest rate swap derivatives. Tapering would almost certainly have precipitated a second bank crisis starting at the system’s weakest point.

4.       The cost of funding the US Government’s deficit would have risen, difficult when the debt ceiling has to be renegotiated yet again.

5.       Rising US interest rates will most probably destabilise emerging market currencies, risking a new Asian crisis.

6.       It is a bad time to shift the burden of government funding back into the markets, because foreign holders have shown they will sell into rising yields.

The Fed has reaffirmed that zero interest rates will be with us for some time to come. It simply has no choice: it has to play down the risk of inflation. The result will be more price inflation, which is bad for the dollar and good for gold.  This was reflected in the US Treasury yield curve, where prices of long maturities fell yesterday relative to the short end.

The markets had wrongly talked themselves into believing that tapering was going to happen, when the rumour was no more than an experiment. In the process precious metals were sold, driven by increasingly bearish technical talk every time a support level was breached. It is hardly surprising therefore that the recovery in gold and silver prices last night was dramatic, with gold moving up $70 and silver by $2 from intra-day lows. It looks like a significant second bottom is now in place above the June lows and the bear position, coupled with the shortage of physical metal will drive prices in the coming weeks.

The implications of the Fed not going ahead with tapering are bad for the dollar and won’t stop bond yields at the long end from rising. It shows that the whole US economy is in a massive debt trap that cannot be addressed for powerful reasons. The reality is the expansion of cash and deposits in the US banking system is tending towards hyperinflation and is proving impossible to stop. That is the message from this week’s FOMC meeting, and I expect it to gradually dawn on investors world-wide in the coming weeks.

Economics

Mark Carney’s grand experiment began today

I was grateful to the BBC World at One programme for giving me the opportunity today to comment on Mark Carney’s first Inflation Report. You can listen to what I said here.

The essence of what the Bank has announced is well known: they have begun using forward guidance to anchor both inflation and interest rate expectations as a cover for more active monetary policy.

This will usher in a new age of monetary Kremlinology.

The policy is all about the Committee’s intentions and judgments. It’s hedged about with provisos and escape routes. Journalists were quick to ask who thought what on the Committee, spotting that which thresholds are used and which judgments are made is dependent on the opinions of a few wise men.

If you read Mark Carney’s speech to the U.S. Monetary Policy Forum in New York last year, it is clear what he intends. Mark Carney apparently understands the critique of the Austrian School, but he believes it is “a counsel of despair for current problems” so he proposes to prevent the disruption easy money creates using “broader macroprudential management”.

Today’s announcement includes,

The  guidance will remain in place only if, in the MPC’s view, CPI inflation 18 to 24 months  ahead is more likely than not to be below 2.5%, medium-term inflation expectations remain  sufficiently well anchored, and the FPC has not judged that the stance of monetary policy poses a significant threat to financial stability that cannot otherwise be contained through the  considerable supervisory and regulatory policy tools of the various authorities.

In so far as we did not already, we now live in a world of extensive explicit discretionary power over both money and the financial system which ought to allocate real capital to the most productive uses. To believe this will end well is hubris.

Manipulating the expectations of millions of individuals, households, businesses and financial market participants will create herding on a mass scale. Like a loose load in a ship, that will result in severe instability.

Employment created through an “exceptionally stimulative monetary stance” will come to an end when that stimulation is withdrawn. In chasing its employment threshold, the Bank will paint the economy and society into a corner.

Inflation will take the Bank by surprise. The “slack in the economy”, on which the Bank is relying to avoid price inflation, will turn out to be wasted capital, not idle capital waiting to come back into use. Prices will rise.

I’m reminded of something I heard economist Steve Horwitz say, and I feel sure he will forgive and correct me if my notes are not faithful,

Central banks cannot solve the problems they created any more than an arsonist makes a good firefighter.

Unfortunately, Mark Carney is nevertheless about to conduct a grand experiment which will prove that this is so.

Economics

Price inflation approaching

There is some evidence in the UK of a pick-up in consumer spending, probably echoed elsewhere. There are two likely factors behind this, the first perhaps being seasonal, aided by the fine weather. The second is less obvious, but combines with the first to encourage purchases of big ticket items; and this is cheap consumer finance coupled with growing expectations of higher interest rates in the future.

Interest rate expectations are therefore fuelling demand for big-ticket items, such as autos and electronic goods, where the cost of credit has been cut to maintain sales. There also appears to be growing demand for fixed-rate mortgages, and thanks to banks willing to borrow short and lend long there are some very tempting refinancing deals available. In summary, low financing costs plus a decent summer is the basis for kick-starting economic optimism.

Economists are already revising their GDP growth expectations upwards. However, there is likely to be a growing tendency for prices to rise due to capacity constraints in companies that have bolstered their profits by withholding investment for the last three or four years. Consequently price rises will be greater than generally expected.

The situation in the US is similar, with an added factor. US consumers are more responsive to confidence in stock markets and property prices than in the UK, and here the news has been bullish. Interest rates are low, and they will rise, so buy those big-ticket items now. The cost of buying and financing the average house purchase has already risen an estimated 40%.

Governments and economists will think they have the recovery they have wished for. Unfortunately it will almost certainly be marred by price inflation greater than the increase in demand suggests. So while nominal GDP growth rates will turn out to be somewhat better than currently expected, the talk will be of temporary capacity constraints.

The end result is that while central banks will realise that price inflation is a growing problem they will be reluctant to use higher interest rates to choke off inflation. And if consumers see central banks are behind this curve, further consumer borrowing will be encouraged.

This leads into the second phase of inflation. The first was expansion of cash and deposit money and the second is its mobilisation. The price effect is likely to be dramatic as money shifts from Wall Street to Main Street (or in British terms, from the City of London to the high street). However, there is an additional currency effect which few economists factor in: markets begin to discount the future purchasing power of paper currencies, bringing anticipated and higher prices forward in time, while central banks appear to be reluctant to raise interest rates. The Volcker remedy of raising interest rates to choke off inflation is simply not a policy-maker’s option.

The central banks are bound to be more focused on the damage from rising bond yields to government deficits and bank balance sheets. They will also be acutely aware of the effect higher borrowing costs has on today’s high levels of consumer debt.

The conclusion is that the central banks’ inflationary response to the banking crisis five years ago is going to get considerably more difficult in the coming months as monetary inflation morphs into price inflation.

This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com

Economics

Untangling gold at the Bank of England

From 2006 the Bank of England’s Annual Report has declared the quantity of gold in its custody, including the UK’s own 310 tonnes. Prior to that date a diminishing quantity of on-balance sheet gold (sight accounts) was recorded in the audited accounts, which then disappeared. This tells us that sight accounts (where the BoE acts as banker and not custodian) were dropped. This is sensible, because the BoE is no longer directly liable to other central banks while gold prices are rising.

Of course, the BoE doesn’t hold just central banks’ gold; it also holds gold on behalf of LBMA members. However, LBMA storage at the BoE is probably a fairly small part of the total, because the bulk of settled transactions are in unallocated accounts where the underlying owner does not own physical metal, and the majority of transactions are closed even before settlement is due. Furthermore LBMA members have their own storage facilities or use independent vaults. So to all intents we can regard the BoE’s custody gold as owned by central banks.

It should be borne in mind London is the most important market for physical delivery, particularly for central banks. For this reason most central banks buy, sell, swap or lease their monetary gold in London. The exceptions are Russia, China and the central Asian states who have been the main buyers of gold – always from their own mine output – and do not ship this gold to London; and having substantial foreign reserves from trade surpluses, they have no requirement to do so.

To add to our analytical difficulties, the custody figures presented are net of gold being leased, because leased gold is delivered out of custody. We know that the BoE encourages its central bank customers to pay for its expensive storage charges by earning leasing income, thanks to an unguarded admission from the Austrian central bank last year that it had defrayed its storage costs this way, and a Bundesbank statement that it withdrew gold from London rather than pay high storage fees. The BoE’s custody total is therefore a net figure, with significant quantities of gold out on lease and not actually in custody. However, we can derive some interesting information given the headline custody numbers and some reasonable assumptions.

We can therefore draw up a tentative table as follows:

The approach is to start with the declared gold in custody and subtract what we reasonably know exists to see what’s left. On reasonable assumptions (described in the notes to the table) we can account for all but 467 tonnes of the gold in the BoE’s custody in March 2006. However, remember this is a composite figure, because the BoE leases custodial gold by agreement with its customers – the majority of which will have been delivered out of custody to the market. We have no way of knowing whose gold is actually leased, but at least we more or less know what should be there.

We also know that the gold owned by the central banks represented in the table above plus that of Russia, China, the central Asian states and the US, totalled 12,361 tonnes in March 2006 according to the IMF/WGC statistics. The remaining central banks which are certain to keep gold in London between them owned 18,377 tonnes. To suggest that they had only 467 tonnes of this at the BoE is only true in the sense that some of their gold is out on lease. We can only speculate how much on the basis of what portion of 18,377 tonnes we would expect to be stored in London, but a figure in excess of 5,000 tonnes seems highly likely.

By March this year, the quantity of gold in custody had mysteriously risen from 3,532 tonnes to 6,284 tonnes, leaving a balance not-accounted-for in our table of 2,888 tonnes. Over the intervening years, western central banks officially sold 1,184 tonnes, most of which will have probably passed through the BoE’s vaults. This gold flow is not reflected in custody figures in the table.

The custody ledger is therefore more complicated than its face value. Gold is being leased and has gone out of the door. Gold is being held and not leased, and yet more gold has been shipped in from other centres to be sold, leased or swapped. The amount disclosed by the BoE is effectively a “float”: a net figure comprised of larger amounts. We can therefore assume that despite the rise in custodial gold, gold from the BoE vault has also been supplied to the market.

It is extraordinary that the BoE on behalf of other central banks has been arranging leasing contracts for gold that seems unlikely to return. The lessees may from time to time have been able to buy back the bullion to deliver to the lessor and re-deposited it back with the BoE; but most of bullion goes to India, China or South East Asia from whence it never returns. This may have been less of a problem before Chinese demand took off, people began buying ETFs, and there was a growing supply of scrap. But this has not been the case for several years now, and the remaining leasing agreements must have to be rolled forward, leaving central bank customers of the BoE semi-permanent creditors of bullion banks.

One can only surmise that the central banking community of North America and Europe see gold as an increasing embarrassment. Nevertheless it is hard to understand why central banks continue to lease gold, particularly after the banking crisis when central banks must have become more aware of systemic risks and the possibility their lessees might go bankrupt. More recently, leasing will have almost certainly been a source of finance for cash-strapped eurozone states, and might help explain how they have survived in recent months. However, this cannot go on for ever.

Since the Cyprus debacle

We now turn to the last column dated June this year. The figure for custodial gold of 4,977 tonnes is “at least 400,000 400-ounce bars” taken from tour-note 2 of the new virtual tour of the gold vaults on the BoE’s website. Tour-note 3 gives us the date the information was collated as June this year. This compares with the figure at February 28 from the BoE’s Annual Report of the equivalent of 505,117 bars. So it appears that at least 100,000 bars have disappeared in about four months.

Is the difference of 100,000 bars a mistake? The wording suggests not. The Bank appears to have thought that if it said in the virtual tour, “over 400,000 bars in custody” it would be sufficiently vague to be without meaning; but it is so much less than the figure in the Annual Report dated only four months earlier that it is unlikely to be a mistake. We must therefore conclude that they meant what they said, and that some 1,300 tonnes has left the vault since 1 March.

We now consider where this gold has gone. Gold demand in Europe began to accelerate after the Cyprus debacle at a time when Chinese and Indian demand was also growing rapidly. Meanwhile mine production was steady and scrap sales in the West were diminishing. This was leading to a crisis in the markets, with the bullion banks caught badly short. Hence the need for the price knock-down in early April.

The price knock-down appears to have been engineered on the US futures market, triggering stop-loss orders and turning a significant portion of ETF holders bearish. However, the lower price of gold spurred unprecedented demand for physical gold from everywhere, considerably in excess of ETF sales. The fact the gold price did not stage a lasting recovery tells us that someone very big must have been supplying the market from mid-April onwards, and therefore keeping the price suppressed.

So now we have the answer. The BoE sold about 1,300 tonnes into the London market, which given the explosion in demand for physical at lower prices looks about right.

This leaves us with two further imponderables. It seems reasonable given the acceleration in global demand that the bulk of the gold supplied by the BoE has gone to the non-bank sector around the world. In which case, the bullion banks in London still have substantial uncovered liabilities on their customers’ unallocated accounts, on top of the leases being rolled. The second is a question: how much of the remaining 1,580 tonnes not-accounted-for last month been sold since June?

Conflating these two imponderables, unless the BoE can ship in some more gold sharpish, there is unlikely to be enough available to supply the market at current prices and bail out the bullion banks in London, so they must still be in trouble. The supply of gold for lease seems to have diminished, because the Gold Forward Rate has gone persistently negative indicating a shortage.

It appears the leasing scheme, whereby central bank gold is supplied into the market, has finally backfired. Prices have risen over the period being considered and leased gold has disappeared into Asia at an accelerating rate never to return. While the bullion banks operating in the US futures market have got themselves broadly covered, the bullion banks in London appear to have passed up on the opportunity to gain protection from rising bullion prices.

The final and fatal mistake was to misjudge the massive demand unleashed as the result of price suppression. This was a schoolboy-error with far-reaching consequences we have yet to fully understand.

This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.

Economics

Fed tightens control over banks activities

On Tuesday July 2, US central bank policy makers voted in favour of the US version of the global bank rules known as the Basel 3 accord. The cornerstone of the new rules is a requirement that banks maintain high quality capital, such as stock or retained earnings, equal to 7% of their loans and assets.

The bigger banks may be required to hold more than 9%. The Fed was also drafting new rules to limit how much banks can borrow to fund their business known as the leverage ratio.

We suggest that the introduction of new regulations by the Fed cannot make the current monetary system stable and prevent financial upheavals.

The main factor of instability in the modern banking system is the present paper standard which is supported by the existence of the central bank and fractional reserve lending.

Now in a true free market economy without the existence of the central bank, banks will have difficulties practicing fractional reserve banking.

Any attempt to do so will lead to bankruptcies, which will restrain any bank from attempting to lend out of “thin air”.

Fractional reserve banking can, however, be supported by the central bank. Note that through ongoing monetary management, i.e., monetary pumping, the central bank makes sure that all the banks can engage jointly in the expansion of credit out of “thin air” via the practice of fractional reserve banking.

The joint expansion in turn guarantees that checks presented for redemption by banks to each other are netted out, because the redemption of each will cancel the other redemption out.

By means of monetary injections, the central bank makes sure that the banking system is “liquid enough” so that banks will not bankrupt each other.

The consequences of the monetary management of the Fed as a rule are manifested in terms of boom-bust cycles.

As times goes by this type of management runs the risk of severely weakening the wealth generation process and runs the risk of severely curtailing so called real economic growth.

We maintain that as long as the present monetary system stays intact it is not possible to prevent a financial crisis similar to the one we had in 2007-9. The introduction of new tighter capital requirements by banks cannot make them more solvent in the present monetary system.

Meanwhile, banks have decided to restrain their activity irrespective of the Fed’s new rules. Note that they are sitting on close to $2cg trillion in excess cash reserves.  The yearly rate of growth of banks inflationary lending has fallen to 4.1% in June from 4.2% in May and 22.4% in June last year.

Once the economy enters a new economic bust banks are likely to run the risk of experiencing a new financial crisis, the reason being that so called current good quality loans could turn out to be bad assets once the bust unfolds.

A visible decline in the yearly rate of growth of banks inflationary lending is exerting a further downward pressure on the growth momentum of our monetary measure AMS.

Year-on-year the rate of growth in AMS stood at 7.7% in June against 8.3% in May and 11.8% in June last year.

We suggest that a visible decline in the growth momentum of AMS is expected to bust various bubble activities, which sprang up on the back of the previous increase in the growth momentum of money supply.

Remember that economic bust is about busting bubble activities. Beforehand it is not always clear which activity is a bubble and which is not.

Note that once a bust emerges seemingly good companies go belly up. Given that since 2008 the Fed has been pursuing extremely loose monetary policy this raises the likelihood that we have had a large increase in bubble activities as a percentage of overall activity.

Once the bust emerges this will affect a large percentage of bubble activities and hence banks that provided loans to these activities will discover that they hold a large amount of non-performing assets.

A likely further decline in lending is going to curtail lending out of “thin air” further and this will put a further pressure on the growth momentum of money supply.

In fractional reserve banking, when money is repaid and the bank doesn’t renew the loan, money evaporates. Because the loan was originated out of nothing, it obviously couldn’t have had an owner.

In a free market, in contrast, when money i.e. gold is repaid, it is passed back to the original lender; the money stock stays intact.

Since the present monetary system is fundamentally unstable it is not possible to fix it. The central bank can keep the present paper standard going as long as the pool of real wealth is still expanding.

Once the pool begins to stagnate – or worse, shrinks – then no monetary pumping will be able to prevent the plunge of the system.

A better solution is of course to have a true free market and allow the gold to assert its monetary role. As opposed to the present monetary system in the framework of a gold standard money cannot disappear and set in motion the menace of the boom-bust cycles.

Summary and conclusion

Last week US central bank policy makers voted in favour of tighter rules on banks’ activities. The essence of the new rules is that banks maintain high quality capital equal to 7% of their assets. The new rules are aimed at making banks more solvent and to prevent repetitions of the 2008-2009 financial upheavals. We suggest that in the present monetary system which involves the existence of the central bank and fractional reserve banking it is not possible to make the monetary system more stable and immune to financial upheavals. As long as the Fed continues to tamper with interest rates and money supply we are going to have boom-bust cycles and financial upheavals.

Economics

Bank reform demands monetary reform – an essay for Banking 2020

This article was published yesterday at stevebaker.info.

A vision for the future

Today sees the return of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill to Parliament. It does not do enough.

In the book Banking 2020: A vision for the future, my essay summarises the institutional problems with our monetary and banking orthodoxy:

The features of today’s banking system

As Governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervyn King told us in 2010: ‘Of all the many ways of organising banking, the worst is the one we have today.’

Notes and coins are irredeemable: the promise to pay the bearer on demand cannot be fulfilled, except with another note or coin with the same face value. Notes and coins are tokens worth less than their face value and are issued lawfully and exclusively by the state. This is fiat money.

When this money is deposited at the bank it becomes the bank’s property and a liability. The bank does not retain a full reserve on demand deposits. In the days of gold as money, fractional reserves on demand deposits explained how banks created credit. Today, credit expansion is not bounded by the redemption of notes, coins, and bank deposits in gold.

Because banks are funded by demand deposits but create credit on longer terms, they are risky investment vehicles subject to runs in a loss of confidence. States have come to provide taxpayer-funded deposit insurance. This subsidises commercial risk, producing more of it and creating moral hazard amongst depositors who need not concern themselves with the conduct of banks.

The state also provides a privileged lender of last resort: the central bank. It lends to illiquid but solvent banks getting them through moments of crisis. In a fiat money system, central banks have the power to create reserves and otherwise intervene openly in the money markets. Today this is most evident in the purchase of government bonds with new money, so-called quantitative easing.

The central banks also manipulate interest rates in the hope of maintaining a particular rate of price inflation through just the right rate of credit expansion to match economic growth. That otherwise free-market economists and commentators support such obvious economic central planning is one of the absurdities of contemporary life.

Compounding these flaws is the limited liability corporate form. Whereas limited liability was introduced to protect stockholders from rapacious directors, its consequence today is ensuring no one taking commercial risks within banks stands to share in the downside. This creates further moral hazard.

Regulatory decisions have been taken to encourage banks to make bad loans and dispose of them irresponsibly. Among these are the US Community Reinvestment Act and the present government’s various initiatives to promote the housing market and further credit expansion.

Having insisted banks make bad loans, the regulatory state imposed the counterproductive International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) which can over-value assets and over-state the capital position of banks. This drives the creation of financial products and deals which appear profitable but which are actually loss-making. Since these notoriously involve vast quantities of instruments tied to default, the system is booby-trapped.

Amongst the many practical consequences of these policies was the tripling of the money supply (M4) in the UK from £700 billion in 1997 to £2.2 trillion in 2010. Credit expansion at this rate has had predictable and profound consequences including asset bubbles, sectoral and geographic imbalances, unjust wealth inequality, erosion of physical capital, excess consumption over saving, and the redirection of scarce resources into unsustainable uses.

Moreover, credit cannot be expanded without limit. Eventually, the real world catches up with credit not backed by tangible assets: booms are followed by busts.

The essay provides some objectives for monetary reform and sets out proposals from Dowd et al and Huerta de Soto.

I was pleased that the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards highlighted problems with incentives and accounting – the conversation is going in the right direction. At some point, when it becomes apparent that Mervyn King was right and we do have the worst possible banking system, I hope decision makers will realise that banks and the product in which they deal, money, are inseparable and that meaningful banking reform demands monetary reform.

You can download the book here.

Economics

Confessions of a central bank official (two in fact and one to come)

City A.M. reports today Dovish Carney stuns markets:

EQUITY markets jumped yesterday after the Bank of England shocked investors by indicating that rates would stay at historic lows in the near future, despite recent signs that the British economy is starting to strengthen.

That investors are shocked by the news that Mark Carney plans a further extended period of easy money is more surprising than the news itself. But it turns out markets are good at responding to superficial data over the clearly stated intent of big players in the market, like central bank officials.

Consider the evidence of Lord George, former Bank of England Governor, to the Treasury Select Committee in 2007, in which he confesses his role in seeding economic disruption in an attempt to avoid recession:

Tuesday 20 March 2007 – Treasury – Minutes of Evidence

Q117 Ms Keeble: What makes it worse is that the one tool that the MPC has is interest rates and that filters through to our constituents in the form of higher mortgages. That makes them complain even more; it becomes cyclical.

Lord George: Yes, if house prices are going up. But one has to step back and recognise—I referred to it earlier—that when we were in an environment of global economic weakness at the beginning of the decade it meant that external demand was declining. Related to that, business investment was declining. One had only two alternatives in sustaining demand and keeping the economy moving forward: one was public spending and the other was consumption. It is true that taxation and public spending can influence the demand climate and consumer spending, but confronted with what we saw we knew that we had to stimulate consumer spending. We knew that we had pushed it up to levels that could not possibly be sustained in the medium and longer term, but for the time being if we had not done that the UK economy would have gone into recession, just like the economies of the United States, Germany and other major industrial countries. That pushed up house prices and increased household debt. That problem has been a legacy to my successors; they have to sort it out, but we really did not have much of a choice about what we did unless we accepted that we would yank it back or give up stability altogether. That is the point I am trying to make in answer to Mr Newmark. There are some people—maybe lots—who say that house prices is the biggest problem, that the mortgage rate is going up, housing is not affordable and so on.

And a few weeks ago, the Bank’s Andy Haldane confessed that they “have intentionally blown the biggest government bond bubble in history” (I abridge a little):

Wednesday 12 June 2013 – TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE

Q41 Mark Garnier: … If you thought that QE was creating financial instability, would you try to warn the MPC and, if so, how would you do it?

Andrew Haldane: I absolutely see it as my one of jobs as an FPC member to alert not just the MPC but this Committee and the wider world if I thought that QE, or monetary policy actions more broadly, was posing significant risks to UK financial system stability. …

To the substance, this is a risk that I feel very acutely right now. If I were to single out what for me would be the biggest risk to global financial stability right now it would be a disorderly reversion in the yields of government bonds globally, for any one of a variety of reasons. We have seen shades of that over the last two or three weeks. Let’s be clear, we have intentionally blown the biggest government bond bubble in history. That is where we are, so we need to be vigilant to the consequences of that bubble deflating more quickly than we might otherwise have wanted. That is a risk. It is one we as FPC need to be very vigilant to.

So, by officials’ own admission, the Bank under Eddie George created levels of debt-fuelled consumption which they knew could not last in the hope of avoiding recession and, following that bubble bursting, they have now deliberately inflated the biggest bond market bubble in history. When I see markets herding in response to the pronouncements of these big players, I think “What could possibly go wrong?”

As I set out in my speech on the Budget (video), Mark Carney has clearly explained his intention to use the Bank of England to manipulate economic expectations to manufacture recovery. This will not work.

It is certainly true that the central banks can alter economic expectations but the idea that they can do so helpfully is fanciful. It is founded on the same errors as socialism and like socialism, it cannot work because the information necessary is not available and because it relies on aggregating away much that makes us human.

We’ve had two confessions from central bank officials. I feel I can predict confidently that Mark Carney will one day confess, more or less, “We thought we could manage the economy by steering the expectations of tens of millions of people using monetary policy to blow various bubbles while making pronouncements about policy. We were wrong.”

One of the great tragedies of our circumstances is that so many people will label this central planning “capitalism”. Eventually, the state will have to get out of money and banking. Mark Carney’s coming failure should accelerate the day.