The Cobden Centre’s Gordon Kerr can be seen on Bloomberg discussing the Euro and the state of Europe’s banks, which are now in a considerably worse state than they were in 2008.
The European Central Bank has announced its intention to create out of thin air over one trillion new Euros from March 2015 to September 2016. The rationale, the monetary central planners say, is to prevent price deflation and “stimulate” the European economy into prosperity.
The only problem with their plan is that their concern about “deflation” is a misguided fear, and printing money can never serve as a long-term solution to bring about sustainable economic growth and prosperity.
Europe’s High Unemployment and Economic Stagnation
The European Union (of which the Euro currency zone is a subset) is experiencing staggering levels of unemployment. The EU as a whole has 10 percent of the work force unemployed, and 11.5 percent in the Euro Zone.
But breaking these numbers down to the national levels show just how bad the unemployment levels are in the different member countries. In Greece it is nearly 26 percent of the work force. In Spain, it is 24 percent; Italy and Portugal are both over 13 percent. France has over 10 percent unemployment, with Sweden at 8 percent. Only Germany and Austria have unemployment of 5 percent or less out of the 28-member countries of the European Union.
Youth unemployment (defined as those between 16 and 25 years of age unable to find desired work) is even more catastrophic. For the European Union as a whole it is an average of over 22 percent, and more than 23 percent in the Euro Zone.
In Greece, its almost 60 percent of those under 25; in Spain, it is nearly 55 percent, with Italy at 43 percent, and over 22 percent in both France and Sweden. Only in Norway and Germany is youth unemployment less than 8 percent. Almost all the other EU countries are in the double-digit range.
At the same time, growth in Gross Domestic Product for the European Union as a whole in 2014 was well below one percent. Only in the Czech Republic, Norway, and Poland was it above 2 percent among the EU members.
Consumer prices for the EU averaged 0.4 percent in 2014, with most of the member countries experiencing average consumer price increases between 0.2 and 2 percent for the year. Only in Greece was the average level of prices calculated as having absolutely declined by a minus 1.3 percent. Hardly a measured sign of dramatically suffered price deflation in the EU or the Euro Zone!
Fears of Price Deflation are Misplaced
The monetary central planners who manage the European Central Bank are fearful that the Euro Zone may be plagued by a prolonged period of generally falling prices if they do not act to push measured price inflation towards their desired target of around two percent a year.
(It is worth pointing out that if the Euro Zone monetary central planners were to succeed with their goal and maintain two percent average annual price inflation, this would mean that over a twenty-year period the purchasing power of a Euro would decline by around 50 percent.)
Many commentators inside and outside of the European Union and the Euro Zone have insisted that price deflation needs to be prevented or reversed at all costs. The implicit premise behind their arguments is that deflation equals economic depression or recession, and therefore any such decline in prices in general must not be allowed.
In all these discussions it is often ignored or forgotten that annual falling prices can well be an indication of economic prosperity and rising standards of living. For instance, between 1865 and 1900, prices in general in the United States declined by around 50 percent, with overall standards of living in general estimated to have increased by 100 percent over these 35 years. This period is usually recognized as America’s time of rapid industrialization in the post-Civil War era that set the United States on the path to becoming the world’s economic giant through most of the 20thcentury.
Falling Prices and Improved Standards of Living
A hallmark of an innovative and competitive free market economy is precisely the never-ending attempt by entrepreneurs and enterprisers to devise ways to make new, better and less expensive goods to sell to the consuming public. The stereotypes in modern times have been pocket calculators, mobile phones, DVD players, and flat-screen TVs.
When pocket calculators first came on the market in the 1980s, they were too big to fit in your shirt pocket, basically performed only the most elementary arithmetic functions, and cost hundreds of dollars. Within a few years they fit in your shirt pocket with space to spare, performed increasingly complex mathematical functions, and became so inexpensive that many companies would give them away as advertising gimmicks.
The companies that made them did not proclaim their distress due to the lower and lower prices at which they sold the devices. Cost efficiencies were developed and introduced in their manufacture so they could be sold for less to consumers to expand demand and capture a larger share of a growing market.
In a dynamic, innovative and growing free market economy there normally would be a tendency for one product after another being improved in its quality and offered at lower prices as productivity gains and decreased costs made them less expensive to market and still make a profit.
Looking over a period of time, a statistical averaging of prices in general in the economy would no doubt show a falling price level, or “price deflation,” as one price after another experienced such a decline. This would be an indication of rising standards of living as the real cost of buying desired goods with our money incomes was decreasing.
Europe’s Problems are Due to Anti-Market Burdens
Relatively stagnant economies with high rates of unemployment like in the European Union and the Euro Zone are not signs of deflationary forces preventing growth and job creation. Indeed, since 2008, the European Central Bank has increased its balance sheet through monetary expansion by well over one trillion Euros, and prices in the Euro Zone, in general, have been rising on average between 0.5 and 2 percent throughout this period. Hardly an indication of “deflationary” forces at work.
The European Union’s problems are not caused by a lack of “aggregate demand” in the form of money spending. Its problems are on the “supply-side.” The EU is notorious for rigid labor markets in which trade unions limit worker flexibility and workplace adaptiveness to global market change.
Above market-determined wages and benefits price many who could be gainfully employed out of a possible job, because government policies and union power price these potential employees out of the market. Plus, the difficulty of firing someone once a worker is hired undermines the incentives of European companies to want to expand their work forces.
Even a number of international organizations, usually culprits in fostering anti-free market policies, have pointed out the need for European governments to introduce workplace reforms to free up labor markets in their countries, along with general reductions in regulations on business than hamper entrepreneurial incentives and prevent greater profit-oriented competitiveness.
Creating a Trillion Euros will only Imbalance Europe More
Creating a trillion more Euros cannot overcome or get around anti-competitive regulations, cost-price mismatches and imbalances due to government interventions and union restrictions, or the burdensomeness of taxes that reduce the willingness and ability of businessmen to undertake the enterprising activities that could lift Europe out of its economic malaise.
Furthermore, to the extent to which the European Central Bank succeeds in injecting this trillion Euros into the European economy it will only set in motion the danger of another future economic downturn. Not only may it feed an unsustainable financial and stock market run-up. The very manner in which the new money is introduced into the European-wide economy will inevitably distort the structure of relative prices and wages; wrongly twist the patterns of resource and labor uses; and induce forms of mal-invested capital.
Thus, the attempt to overcome Europe’s stagnant economy through monetary expansion will be the cause of a misdirection of labor, capital and production that will inescapably require readjustments and rebalances of supplies and demands, and price relationships that will mean people living through another recession at some point in the future.
A Market-Based Agenda for Growth and Jobs
What, then might be a “positive” pro-market agenda for economic recovery and job creation in the European Union, and in the United States, as well, for that matter? Among such policies should be:
- Significantly reduce marginal personal tax rates and corporate taxes, and eliminate inheritance taxes; this would create greater incentives and the financial means for private investment, capital formation and job creation;
- Cut government spending across the board by at a minimum of 10 percent more than taxes have been cut so to move the government in the direction of a balanced budget without any tax increases; this would take pressure off financial markets to fund government deficits, and end the growth in accumulated government debt, until finally government budgets would have surpluses to start paying down that debt;
- Reduce and repeal government regulations over the business sector and financial institutions to allow competitive forces to operate and bring about necessary adjustments and corrections for restoring economic balance;
- Institute real free trade through elimination and radical reduction of remaining financial and regulatory barriers to the competitive free flow of goods among countries;
- End central bank monetary expansions and manipulation of interest rates; interest rates need to tell the truth about savings availability and investment profitability for long-run growth that is market-based and sustainable. Monetary expansion merely sends out false signals that distort the normal functioning of the market economy.
A market-based set of policies such as these would serve as the foundation for a sound and sustainable real “stimulus” for the European and American economies. It also would be consistent with the limited government and free enterprise principles at the foundation of a free society.
So, finally, the world’s most open conspiracy came to full fruition and Magic Mario actually got to do a little of ‘whatever it takes’ after 2 1/2 long years of bluster. Sweeping aside the objections of what appears to have been most of Northern Europe, the triumph of the Latins was near complete. For all his stubborn resistance, Jens Weidmann proved no Arminius and the airy council rooms of the ECB building in Frankfurt no Teutoburger Wald whose mazy forest tracks and swampy margins proved so deadly to the legions of that earlier Roman legate, Publius Quinctilius Varus.
Indeed, there was some suggestion in the Dutch press that Mario got his way without even putting the issue of his vast ‘stimulus’ programme to a formal vote and so prevented Jens, his fellow German, Sabine Lautenschläger, the Netherlander Klaas Knot, and their Estonian and Austrian colleagues from registering their opposition to the decision and also therefore from making concrete the divisions which it has sharpened within an already fractious governing body.
In pressing ahead with the implementation of its own version of QE, the ECB has taken a further, significant step away from the template of the old Bundesbank and one more towards that of such latter-day, Gosplans of all-intrusive macro-management as the Fed and the PBoC. While any model of central banking is a very poor alternative to a system of genuinely free banking, one cannot quite suppress a pang of nostalgia for the traditions of the ECB’s predecessor, with its rigid insistence on being as far removed from politics as possible; for eschewing any taint of pliant fiscalism; and of sticking reasonably consistently to its primary task of preventing easy money from encouraging reckless behaviour – whether on the part of home-buyers, stock market plungers, Alexander-complex industrialists, or office-hungry politicians.
The hallowed institution of our youth may well have dished out a very tough form of love, but its true virtue was that its heads did not presume to sit at some metaphorical control centre of the economy, constantly flipping switches and pushing buttons to ordain whose traffic lights should be red and whose green; whose heating should be turned up and whose down; whose satellite dish should receive which channels and at what hour. Instead, the old Buba simply tried to ensure that the generators were running smoothly, that there would be neither blackouts nor power surges, and by and large left the choice of what its fellow did with their electricity down to them.
Sadly, as the crisis has dragged on and as the cost in forgone human opportunity has mounted, the established political architecture – a structure populated largely by careerist pygmies who clutch eagerly at anything which might boost them a few points in the next focus group assessment and who are therefore only too happy to absolve themselves of any duty of true statesmanship – has visibly crumbled. That degradation has elevated, almost by default, the central bank itself to the cloud-topped heights of an interventionist Olympus – and rare the presiding member of that august body who does not relish a taste of ambrosia and a sip of nectar before going out to hurl thunderbolts among the weaklings thronging helplessly among the mountain’s gloomy foothills.
No longer is the job seen as one of trying to ensure the wheels do not come off the creaking old Trabant of fractional reserve banking, or of trying to ensure that the nation does write too many cheques – whether issued abroad or at home – against its actual ability to generate income. No, now we must make constant appeal to the gods of central banking to assist us with all the minutiae of our lives in a show of the same touching naivety our ancestors displayed in regard to their tutelary deities. ‘O Holy Draghi, Thrice Blessed One, let it please Thee to ripen the corn in my field, to keep my children’s teeth from rotting too soon, and to allow me to win a few denarii when I play at dice in the tavern this evening!’
Such is the Zeitgeist that we deem it to be sacrilege even to look objectively back at the sorry record of the past seven years lest we start to wonder if we are in fact suffering from is the toxic side-effects of the attempted cure rather than from the disease we are aiming to treat with it. We see it as blasphemy, therefore, to ask whether the sanctimonious Austrian ‘liquidationists’, on the one hand, or those careful Japanese students of their own country’s long malaise – such as Keiichiro Kobayashi and Tadashi Nakamae – on the other, might be right in saying that we Westerners currently have everything back to front in our reasoning.
Might it be so hard to imagine that to try to tempt into renewed borrowing the very people who are still suffering the effects of their previous over-borrowing might not only be economically futile but ethically indefensible, too? Could it be that what is shackling enterprise and hobbling endeavour; that what prevents the crewing of a hopeful new fleet of merchantmen with the slaves loosed from the oars of a now obsolete galley, is the attempt to weld in place the rusted links of their chains of past obligation? Can we not simply strike off the irons even if some do collapse after their manumission? Or must we continue to prevaricate by slyly skewing all contractual terms in favour of the debtors – whether by forcibly suppressing the interest rates applicable to their claims (and so penalising the prudent everywhere); by depreciating the currency in which they are serviced and redeemed (with all the inequities that visits on buyers and sellers); or by transferring the IOUs to the government so that the non-exempt Estates might share the cost through a hike in their already burdensome taxes?
Apparently it is so hard to reconsider our methods that all we are left with is to double and redouble the dose of the poison we have been so unavailingly prescribed. Given the prevalence of this dogma, it was only to be expected that, once it had insidiously secured the political backing for the move, the ECB would not be in any way half-hearted about its first real foray into the world of Bernanke’s ‘making sure it‘ – i.e., that phylloxera of finance, the wasting disease of deflation – ‘doesn’t happen here.’ With a programme of €60 billion a month in bond purchases the Bank will henceforth be gorging on duration to the tune of €720 billion a year, a total heavily in excess of the past five years’ €315 billion average net new sovereign issuance.
Whether it will end up doing more harm than good, or indeed, doing anything at all, is another matter entirely. To see why we say this, we should first recall that Blackhawk Ben himself once tried to allay the fears being provoked by his bond buying drives by saying they were nothing more than an asset swap. Our response at the time was to say, ‘Yes, but you are swapping non-money for money on an unprecedented scale’ – an act that can have the most far-reaching consequences, indeed.
Moreover, the ‘swap’ is not just a monetary, but also an overtly fiscal act if you reckon with the reduction in the interest charged when rolling over some of the outstanding debt, as well as the naked seigniorage to be had from substituting reserves (especially those to which are appended negative interest rates) for higher-yielding securities in all their tens of hundreds of billions. The cynic might say that this is in fact nothing less than the most perfect form of debt repudiation ever carried out in the long, weary infamy of sovereign default.
The fact that the most feared of the likely effects of such a programme – a widespread, self-aggravating spiral of price rises to rage like a pestilence though the markets for goods, services, and labour – has not yet materialised is seen by the smug – and among them, we must count Friend Draghi, with his supercilious call for a ‘statute of limitations’ on the promulgation of such concerns – as a complete justification of their actions.
Ironically, since the QEasers are wedded to the same sort of cart-before-the-horse shamanism that Roosevelt and Morgenthau practised when setting the price of gold over the former’s breakfast egg – namely, the superstition which holds a rise in prices to be in and of itself the most effective trigger for a return to prosperity – the refusal to date of said prices to budge very far at all should have occasioned the Serial Stimulators to question the efficacy of their nostrums and not to stoop to throwing brickbats at those who expect the same thing to ensue which the policy-makers themselves so greatly desire, if admittedly in a somewhat less vigorous fashion than the one the wheelbarrow worrywarts have been publicly dreading.
Faced with the patient’s continued lack of response, the physician should really be posing the question not only of whether the medicine is appropriate for the case but whether he completely misdiagnosed the ailment in the first place. There are many plausible explanations for why recorded ‘inflation’ has been so subdued, among which narratives are several common themes t be found. One such is that the debt overhang and the consequent evergreening of loans keeps other lenders chary of becoming exposed to firms being run for cash at their bankers’ behest lest the first hint of a better liquidation value, or the arrival of a new, get-all-the-bad-news-out-now, broom as CEO, signals a ruinous end to the lender’s forbearance.
Another postulates that the straitened condition of the public treasury leaves people anxious about the next wave of confiscatory taxation. A third contends that mere basis point levels of interest rates are counterproductive in serving to eradicate the necessary distinction between money – whose main purpose is to circulate uninterruptedly from one transaction to the next – and savings – which are supposed to pass the baton of spending on to a third party, giving them the power to transact in one’s place. One can see elements of all these at work today, frustrating the designs of those in command of the printing press.
But yet another feasible diagnosis is that ‘inflation’ is not so much as dead as it is hidden: that its true measure is the admittedly unobservable one of how much policy has propped up prices which should have fallen much, much further when the overabundance caused by the credit-driven malinvestment of the past met with the much lessened appetite and much reduced means of purchase of consumers who also had succumbed to the lure of too much cheap credit in the boom.
Central bankers would view that last scenario as something of a triumph, for they are utterly wedded to the myth that falling prices are especially pernicious in the face of unresponsive or ‘sticky’ wages – a credo to which the Swiss may be about to give the lie as they consider whether to offset the franc’s dramatic rise with the introduction of extra, unpaid hours for workers, or even the dismissal and re-engagement on inferior terms of their entire staff. The central bankers also subscribe to the risible theory that the very expectation that prices may be about to fall is enough to send the Body Economic into an instant catatonia of abstention: a state of utter pecuniary paralysis where we all sit around, bellies rumbling, fires unstoked, children unshod – and latest tech upgrades unqueued for – until those prices finally bottom out.
The greater truth, however, may be that what is being done prevents markets from clearing; that it magnifies entrepreneurial uncertainty (and so effectively raises hurdle rates much faster than low market rates can reduce them); and that, by avoiding the bankruptcy of the few, it ensures the enervation of the many, as sub-marginal businesses cling on to labour and capital which could be better used elsewhere and where the life-support afforded them absorbs too much space on bank balance sheets – much to the detriment of the would-be creatively destructive who must wait in vain to snap up the bargains with which they stand ready to reorder the commercial world.
Beyond this, it is also doubtful whether this sort of QE is even well-grounded in the basic theory of how it is supposed to take effect, rather than at the more rarefied levels we have visited above regarding why we should wish it to do so. While no one can condemn the lack of effort expended by the BOJ, the Fed, the BOE, or even the PBoC, the track record is in truth a spotty one.
This is not least because it is not at all evident that central bank gavage can always do much to get the golden goose laying again. Instead, the record suggests that its creation of vast increments of ‘outside’ money – currency and reserve balances – is not quite so ‘high-powered’ as the textbooks would have us believe, not in a world where it has for long not been banks’ reserve quotients which matter for the application of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum to credit policy. Indeed, if we look at what has happened to the other big central banks when they have opened the sluice-gates, we must conclude that their ‘outside’ money has largely come to substitute, not provide the catalyst for ‘inside’ money creation by the commercial banks.
Take the UK. There, since the Crash of 2008, the BOE has quintupled the monetary base, no less: yet money supply is up only a third (and M4 lending has actually declined £158 billion or ~7%), meaning that while at least positive in this case, the ‘multiplier’ has amounted to a paltry 16p of extra ‘inside’ money for every £1 sterling of the ‘outside’ kind. [Draghi, Deflationistas more generally and retro-Radcliffian ‘total liquidity’ fans should all take note that falling bank lending has been clearly trumped by the impact of rising money supply in exciting Britain’s typically unbalanced recovery]
For its part, QEI-III in the US has seen roughly $2.7 trillion added to reserves and so – with currency included – the monetary base has been pumped up by $3.2 trillion since the LEH-AIG crisis. However, money supply proper (essentially M1+) has ‘only’ risen by $1.8 trillion (actually an ‘only’ which constitutes an historically high deviation from trend). This is a combination which bears the construction, therefore, that far from boosting its stock, the Fed has destroyed 45¢ of bank ‘inside’ money for every $1 of the ‘outside’ variety it has injected.
Capping it all, since the assault on good sense that is Abenomics was first perpetrated two years ago, the BOJ has doubled the monetary base there, an increase of Y138 trillion. Yet M1 has grown by no more than 11%, or Y60 trillion, in that same period, implying that the BOJ has managed to vaporise 57 ‘inside’ sen for every ‘outside’ yen it writes onto its own books.
As for the ECB itself, it has actually managed to keep the nominal money supply growing at the eminently reasonable clip of 6.6% CAR since the Crash. Moreover, 2014 closed with the growth of real money accelerating to almost 7% – a whisker off the best in nearly a decade if we ignore the anomalous rebound from 2008’s tailspin. In the background, the reader should be aware, the monetary base has been wildly erratic as policy has coughed and spluttered, fortunately with very little correlation to what has being going on beyond the corridors of power.
Why is it, then, that the members of the Southern Front of the ECB have pushed through such a controversial policy now? Are they really that anxious to prevent the hard-pressed Spanish housewife from reaping the benefits of lower fuel costs in her household budget? Do they really suppose they will advance the cause of ‘structural’ reform when even the most reckless government can now turn to the Bank to ensure that its debt will always find a willing buyer? Do they think they are unwinding the ‘Doom Loop’ between banks and their governmental masters or that, if they do, this will again spur the banks to lend to every businessmen crossing their threshold or – a proposition harder yet to defend – that it will make businessmen more eager to borrow from the banks? Do they ever stop to work out whether this would be a good thing if it were to occur, rather than a three-lane highway to hell?
One thing the policy will certainly do is bleed income from those very same, sorely afflicted banks their Guardian Angel purports to protect. Why do we say this? Simple arithmetic shows us that once banks have satisfied their circa €100 billion minimum reserve requirement (and earned the associated €50 million interest on it) they start to become subject to the negative deposit rate – as they are already to the tune of around €140 billion in excess holdings. In a year’s time, Messrs. Draghi et Cie will have bought their €720 billion allotment, so banks will be paying 20bps on €860 billion per annum, or €1.72 billion, to their overlords in Frankfurt. Six months later, they will be the grateful recipients of another €360 billion and will be paying a further €720 million to keep them safe, too. Potentially, they will simultaneously lose earnings on their €1.87 trillion in holdings of government securities (the average interest rate at issuance for all of which is 3.0% but whose replacement rate and/or running yield will be not only be appreciably lower now but destined to decline further as a result of the ECB’s actions).
Now given that the Bloomberg European Banks index has a market cap of €900 billion and trades on a multiple of approaching 45, we can see that earnings for its members amount to roughly €20 billion (including the winnings of British, Swiss, and Scandinavian, as well as Euro banks). That €2 billion deposit tax therefore represents a sizeable chunk of profit, even without reckoning on income losses elsewhere in the portfolio and before allowing for the cost of any extra capital which has to be raised as balance sheets swell and leverage ratios rise.
But what of the wider effects? Well, householders earn around €70 billion in net interest a year (before taxes), so that is about to take a hit. They also keep around 60% of their financial assets – a sum of €12.2 trillion as of QI’14 – in the form of deposits, debt securities, and loans, around a third of which resides in their pension and insurance plans rather than being directly owned. Against this, they are collectively on the hook for €6.1 trillion in loans, so putting their chances of loss at twice those of the possibilities for gain even before they start to cough up higher pension contributions and insurance premia as institutional income dwindles.
For all those involved in this grouping, the main hope – apart from some miraculous burst of hiring and productive expansion suddenly occurring in response to Draghi the Magnificent’s latest conjuring trick – is that the notional gains on their €8.2 trillion of equity exposure (€3 trillion of that at the pension and insurance companies) continue to accrue and that these can actually be used to pay the bills, as and when they arrive.
The caveat here is that contained in our previous piece and embedded in our header: that ‘silver is the true sinews of the circulation’. Let us try to explain.
One of the most evident effects of all the reflationary attempts to date is that while it is no more than arguable that they may have had some marginal impact on actual wealth creation above and beyond what would have happened anyway as people readjusted to the post-Crash, they have without doubt unleashed one speculative wave after another in the markets.
Rather than the greater weight of nominal money at people’s disposal being recalibrated as the kind of precautionary realbalance one holds against one’s foreseeable regular outlay on goods and services (a phenomenon which comprises the old-school inflationary reapportionment for which the authorities so yearn), it has taken place in terms of the portfolio balance of assets to be held in a minimal interest rate environment. If the excess money burns a hole in one’s pocket, the ‘inside’ type cannot be collectively diminished, except by paying down debt (and the ‘outside’ type not all unless the central bank is complicit in the deed). Thus, it will be used mainly to pass other assets around in an ascending spiral of price appreciation until a new level of comfort is reached between notional net worth and cash at hand.
The problem is that such a spiral can all so easily go into reverse if the money is now withdrawn from its job of passing parcels between the players so it can be used to buy things outside the circle. Prices will assuredly dip and if the check delivered to the rise in valuations as the first few cash out their chips dislodges one or two too many margined grains of sand, the resulting avalanche can swiftly come to make boring old money seem winningly secure once more and so give rise to further waves of selling. What goes up, and all that.
So has it largely been these past several years. A perceived surfeit of money has not circulated with much renewed vigour against tangible goods and real side transactions, as was hoped would be the case, but it has swirled with often cyclonic fury among all the buyers and sellers, firstly of commodities, then of EM securities, then of junk debt, tech stocks, equities in general, and lately of US equities in particular.
Hence the overstretched valuations in both bond and stock markets and hence the politically-sensitive perception that ‘inequality’ is rising – that only the 1% is benefiting. To the extent that latter charge holds water, the great irony is that – pacePiketty and the rest of the petulant Progressives – it is not because the evil Plutocrats have somehow rigged the game in their favour, but because the Global Left, being avowedly Keynesian-Inflationist for the most part, has got its redistributional arithmetic horribly wrong.
The ‘euthanasia of the rentier’ is not, dear Maynard, taking place to the advantage of the horny-handed sons of toil, nor even to the gain of the scowling industrialists who ‘exploit’ them so mercilessly, but the spoils are rather going to the remuneration committee royalists in the corporat(ist)e boardroom – furnished as it is in C-Suite plush with trimmings of ESOP perverse incentive. And what is true of Davos Man holds true in spades of the grandest of punters of Other People’s Money who can nowfont leurs jeux in a global financial casino made even bigger and brasher than before by the misplaced arguments and ill-judged actions of the Krugmans, Kurodas, Carneys, and Coeurés of this world.
Too low interest rates and falsified capital calculation is at the root of much of what afflicts us, gentlemen of the central bank, and the sooner you accept this truth and retreat humbly to your appointed place, adopting as you do the self-effacing demeanour and taciturn approach of the Bundesbanker of yore, the better it will be for all us in the sorely put-upon 99% for a change.
Addendum: Some members of the Euroclerisy have been stamping their feet in pique in recent days, moaning that the tattered fig leaf offered by Draghi to the dwindling band of constitutionalists – viz., that four-fifths of QE will be a home-grown affair whereby the National Central Banks will be charged with buying whatever bonds and incurring whatever risks they see fit – has been a gross breach of the principle (!) of solidarity and that it enshrines a dreadful obeisance to those outdated tenets of democratic sovereignty which is anathema to all good servants of the Apparat.
That this is nothing more than a straw man, served up to hide their, the QEasers’, end run around the spirit of the law should be obvious from a scan of the Eurobanks’ own accounts (much less from a glance at the still lofty T2 totals extant out there).
As of the third quarter of last year, Euro MFIs had, as a group, non-bank deposit liabilities of €12.2 trillion, 87% of which were taken from individuals and businesses in their own country and just 5% from other members of the Zone. Of the €12.7 trillion in loans to non-banks, again seven-eighths were domestic and a piffling 5% were extended to residents among their Euro ‘partners’. Seen in that light, an inspection of the geographical origin of securities held showed they were, by comparison, the souls of impartiality with a mere 65% issued within the home borders and 23% coming from across the frontier.
That’s integration for you!
Despite the uncertainties ahead of the Greek general election, the European Central Bank (ECB) went ahead and announced quantitative easing (QE) of €60bn per month from March to at least September 2016.
What makes this interesting is the mounting evidence that QE does not bring about economic recovery. Even Jaime Caruana, General Manager of the Bank for International Settlements and who is the central bankers’ central banker, has publicly expressed deep reservations about QE. However, the ECB ploughs on regardless.
The Keynesians at the ECB are unclear in their thinking. They are unable to answer Caruana’s points, dismissing non-Keynesian economic theory as “religion”, and they sweep aside the empirical evidence of Keynesian policy failures. Instead they are panicking at the spectre of too little price inflation, the continuing fall in Eurozone bank lending and now falling commodity prices. To them, it is a situation that can only be resolved by monetary stimulation of aggregate demand applied through increased government deficit spending.
This is behind the supposed solution of the ECB’s QE, most of which will involve national central banks in the euro-system propping up their own national governments’ finances.
The increased socialisation of the weaker Eurozone economies, especially those of France, Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal, will inevitably lead to unnecessary economic destruction. QE always transfers wealth from savers to financial speculators and other early receivers of the new money. Somehow, the impoverishment of the working and saving masses for the benefit of the central bankers’ chosen few is meant to be good for the economy.
Commercial banks will be corralled into risk-free financing of their governments instead of lending to private enterprise. This is inevitable so long as the Single Supervisory Mechanism (the pan-European banking regulator) with a missionary zeal is discouraging banks from lending to anyone other than governments and government agencies. So the only benefit to employment will come from make-work programmes. Otherwise unemployment will inevitably increase as the states’ shares of GDP grow at the expense of their private sectors as the money and bank credit shifts from the former to the latter: this is the unequivocal lesson of history.
It may be that by passing government financing to the national central banks, the newly-elected Greek government can be bought off. It will be hard for this rebelling government to turn down free money, however angry it may be about austerity. But this is surely not justification for a Eurozone-wide monetary policy. While the Greek government might find it easier to appease its voters, courtesy of easy money through the Bank of Greece, hard-money Germans will be horrified. It may be tempting to think that the ECB’s QE relieves Germany from much of the peripheral Eurozone’s financing and that Germans are therefore less likely to oppose the ECB’s QE. Not so, because the ECB is merely the visible head of a wider euro-system, which includes the national central banks, through which there are other potential liabilities.
The principal hidden cost to Germany is through the intra-central bank settlement system, TARGET2, which should only show minor imbalances. This was generally true before the banking crisis, but since then substantial amounts have been owed by the weaker southern nations, notably Italy, to the stronger northern countries. Today, the whole of the TARGET2 system is being carried on German and Luxembourg shoulders as creditors for all the rest. Germany’s Bundesbank is owed €461bn, a figure that is likely to increase as the debtors’ negative balances continue to accumulate.
The currency effect
The immediate consequence of the ECB’s QE has been to weaken the euro against the US dollar, and importantly, it has forced the Swiss franc off its peg. The sudden 20% revaluation of the Swiss franc has generated significant losses for financial institutions which were short of the franc and long of the euro, which happens to have been the most important carry-trade in Europe, with many mortgages in Central and Eastern Europe denominated in Swiss francs as well. The Greek election has produced a further problem with a developing depositor run on her banks. Doubtless both the carry-trade and Greek bank problems can be resolved or covered up, but problems such as these are likely to further undermine international confidence in the euro, particularly against the US dollar, forcing the US’s Fed to defer yet again the day when it permits interest rates to rise.
This was the background to the Fed’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) meeting this week, and the resulting press release can only be described as a holding operation. Statements such as “the Committee judges that it can be patient in beginning to normalise the stance of monetary policy” are indicative of fence-sitting or lack of commitment either way. It is however clear that despite the official line, the US economy is far from “expanding at a solid pace” (FOMC’s words) and external events are not helping either. For proof of that you need look no further than the slow-down of America’s overseas manufacturing and production facility: China.
The consequences for gold
Until now, central banks have restricted monetary policy to domestic economic management; this is now evolving into the more dangerous stage of internationalisation through competitive devaluations. We now have two major currencies, the yen and the euro, whose central banks are set to weaken them further against the US dollar. Sterling, being tied through trade with the euro, should by default weaken as well. To these we can add most of the lesser currencies, which have already fallen against the dollar and may continue to do so. The Fed’s 2% inflation target will become more remote as a consequence, and this is bound to defer the end of zero interest rate policy. So from all points of view competitive devaluations should be good for gold prices.
This is so far the case, with gold starting to rise against all major currencies, including the US dollar, with the price above 200-day and 50-day moving averages in bullish formation. To date from its lows gold has risen by up to 13% against the USD, 18% against the pound, 30% against the euro, and 32% against the yen. The rise against weaker emerging market currencies is correspondingly greater, fully justifying Asian caution about their government currencies as stores of value.
We know that Asian demand for bullion has absorbed all mine production, scrap and net selling of investment gold from advanced economies for at least the last two years. Indeed, the bear market in gold has been a process of redistribution from weak western into stronger eastern hands. So if there is a revival in physical demand from the public in these advanced economies it is hard to see how it can be satisfied at anything like current prices, with physical bullion now in firm hands.
The gold price is an early warning of future monetary and currency troubles, and it is now becoming apparent how they may transpire. The ECB move to give easy money to profligate Eurozone politicians is likely to have important ramifications well beyond Europe, and together with parallel actions by the Bank of Japan, can now be expected to increase demand for physical gold in the advanced economies once more.
The European Central Bank (ECB) is planning to pump 1.1 trillion euro’s into the banking system to fend off price deflation and revive economic activity. The ECB president and his executive board are planning to spend 60 billion euro’s a month from March 2015 to September 2016.
Most experts hold that the ECB must start acting aggressively against the danger of deflation. The yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) fell to minus 0.2% in December last year from 0.3% in November and 0.8% in December 2013.
Many commentators are of the view that the ECB should initiate an aggressive phase of monetary pumping along the lines of the US central bank. Moreover the balance sheet of the ECB has in fact been shrinking. On this the yearly rate of growth of the ECB balance sheet stood at minus 2.1% in January against minus 8.5% in December. Note that in January last year the yearly rate of growth stood at minus 24.4%.
Why is a declining rate of inflation bad for economic growth? According to the popular way of thinking declining price inflation sets in motion declining inflation expectations. This, so it is held, is likely to cause consumers to postpone their buying at present and that in turn is likely to undermine the pace of economic growth.
In order to maintain their lives and well being individuals must buy present goods and services, so from this perspective a fall in prices as such is not going to curtail consumer outlays. Furthermore, a fall in the growth momentum of prices is always good for the economy.
An expansion of real wealth for a given stock of money is going to manifest in a decline in prices (remember a price is the amount of money per unit of real stuff), so why should this be regarded as bad for the economy?
After all, what we have here is an expansion of real wealth. A fall in prices implies a rise in the purchasing power of money, and this in turn means that many more individuals can now benefit from the expansion in real wealth.
Now, if we observe a decline in prices on account of an economic bust, which eliminates various non-productive bubble activities, why is this bad for the economy?
The liquidation of non-productive bubble activities – which is associated with a decline in the growth momentum of prices of various goods previously supported by non-productive activities – is good news for wealth generation.
The liquidation of bubble activities implies that less real wealth is going to be diverted from wealth generators. Consequently, this will enable them to lift the pace of wealth generation. (With more wealth at their disposal they will be able to generate more wealth).
So as one can see a fall in price momentum is always good news for the economy since it reflects an expansion or a potential expansion in real wealth.
Hence a policy aimed at reversing a fall in the growth momentum of prices is going to undermine and not strengthen economic growth.
We hold that the various government measures of economic activity reflect monetary pumping and have nothing to do with true economic growth.
An increase in monetary pumping may set in motion a stronger pace of growth in an economic measure such as gross domestic product. This stronger growth however, should be regarded as a strengthening in the pace of economic impoverishment.
It is not possible to produce genuine economic growth by means of monetary pumping and an artificial lowering of interest rates. If this could have been done by now world poverty would have been erased.
Summary and conclusion
The European Central Bank (ECB) is planning to pump 1.1 trillion euro’s into the banking system to fend off price deflation and revive economic activity in the Euro-zone. Most experts are supportive of the ECB’s plan. We question the whole logic of the monetary pumping.
A fall in the growth momentum of prices either on account of real wealth expansion or on account of the demise of bubble activities is always good news for wealth producers.
Hence any policy that is aimed at preventing a fall in prices is only likely to strengthen bubble activities and undermine the process of wealth generation.
As inflation rates continue to fall across the Eurozone one might expect Austrian economists to rejoice. After all, inflation reduces our purchasing power and acts as a hidden form of taxation. Failure to control inflation caused some of the greatest social and political disturbances of the twentieth century, and attempts to centrally plan the monetary system are destined to failure. George Selgin’s “Less than Zero” is the seminal account of how deflation can be beneficial, and why central banks should be willing to tolerate it. However it also provides a useful, and highly relevant distinction between “good” and “bad” deflation. The underlying point that needs to be expressed is that not all deflation is ghastly. Indeed the readily available examples of falling prices – such as the Great Depression – are not representative. Allowing a fear of deflation to prevent deflation in any circumstance will commit monetary policy to steady and suboptimally high inflation. The Great Moderation is perhaps the best example of the harm that can be done when we fail to allow increases in productivity to manifest themselves in falling prices. But the relevant point is whether this is the situation we find ourselves in right now.
Austrians tended to be ahead of the expectations revolution therefore to some extent it isn’t inflation or deflation per se that matters, but how it ties into expectations. If the inflation rate is falling, and especially if it’s falling more than expected, we have problems. If inflation is 2% a year, but this is anticipated, then the costs of inflation are reasonably low. If it’s -2% a year, and anticipated, ditto. The problems occur if we transition from one to the other.
Inflation in the Eurozone is currently 0.3%, and the rate has been steadily falling since early 2012. There’s two main reasons why we may expect falling pressure on prices. One is that the underlying capacity of the economy has increased. Positive productivity shocks will increase the potential growth rate, make it easier to produce output for a given amount of inputs, and make things cheaper. In terms of Dynamic AD-AS analysis
, it constitutes an increase in the Solow curve. This is good deflation. But it also implies that real GDP will be rising.
Alternatively, prices might be falling because of a reduction in what Keynesians call “aggregate demand”, Monetarists call “nominal income”, or what Austrians call “the total income stream”. These are all various ways to refer to total spending. This could fall as a result of a monetary contraction, or an increase in the demand for money. It’s important to realise that whilst central banks are the prime culprits of the former, they are also a key instigator of the latter. Keynesians might blame it on “animal spirits”, but we can also think of this as “regime uncertainty”. These are two ways to treat confidence as a meaningful concept, and something that can be negatively affected by central bank policy.
Many commentators attribute low inflation to low oil prices. On the surface this seems like a positive supply shock and hence the reason for low prices is a good one. However the reason oil prices are low is because of increases in supply and decreases in demand. The former is a result of IS getting the keys to the pumps. The latter is due to a slowdown in China. Neither of these bode well for the global economy. Both of them have reduced confidence.
We can see this negative AD shock in the data. With GDP growth of just 0.7% this means that total spending is just 1%. This is significantly lower than where we would like it to be in a world with a greater rate of achievable growth and a 2% inflation target.
So what needs to be done? Austrians are loathe to advocate monetary activism and for good reason. But the goal of monetary policy is not inactivism, but neutrality. The issue comes down to the costs of adjustment. If aggregate demand remains at 1% then people will adjust their expectations, prices will adjust, and output will return to normal. During the Great Depression Hayek advocated this path, even though he recognised that prices take time to adjust, and whilst they do so unemployment would rise. His reasoning was that increasing the load on price adjustments will increase their flexibility. In a time of chronic wage and price inflexibility it was a moment to bust the unions. However he later came round to the idea that those costs were too high. The collateral damage of using a downturn to put more emphasis on nominal wage adjustments was unfair. For the mass unemployed, nominal wage rigidities isn’t their fault. So instead of placing the burden on wage adjustments, central banks have the option of maintaining a certain level of total income. This avoids the necessity of a nominal wage adjustment, in part because inflation allows real wages to adjust.
The fact that we are starting to see inflation expectations fall
implies that this is only the beginning of an economic adjustment. If the total income stream continues to grow at a less than expected (and possibly even a negative) rate then we will have plenty new problems to worry about. This isn’t just the economy responding to the pre 2007 boom. This is the economy responding to fresh problems being introduced by central bank incompetence.
The difficulty for the ECB – and possibly the explanation for why things are so much worse in the Eurozone than in the US or UK – is that they don’t have the same tools available. But let’s leave a debate over tools for another time. The bottom line is that the ECB should be striving to give clear guidance and generate credibility for pursuing a steady increase in a target nominal variable. Monetary policy cannot generate wealth – all it can do is buy time for governments to sort out their competitiveness and improve their public finances. The fact that they aren’t making use of the breathing room provided by central banks is their fault. But monetary policy can destroy wealth, and a failure to maintain a steady total income stream is contributing to those competitiveness and public finance problems. I would love to believe that this impending deflation is the good sort, or that Eurozone labour markets were flexible enough to allow prices to do all the heavy lifting. But I fear that we’re seeing an impending catastrophe, and the ECB needs to take bolder action to prevent making things even worse.
What is Super Mario up to?
First, he gave an unexpectedly dovish speech at the Jackson Hole conference, rather ungallantly upstaging the host, Ms Yellen, who was widely anticipated to be the most noteworthy speaker at the gathering (talking about the labor market, her favorite subject). Having thus single-handedly and without apparent provocation raised expectations for more “stimulus” at last week’s ECB meeting, he then even exceeded those expectations with another round of rate-cuts and confirmation of QE in form of central bank purchases of asset-backed securities.
These events are significant not because they are going to finally kick-start the Eurozone economy (they won’t) but because 1) they look rushed, and panicky, and 2) they must clearly alienate the Germans. The ideological rift that runs through the European Union is wide and deep, and increasingly rips the central bank apart. And the Germans are losing that battle.
As to 1), it was just three months ago that the ECB cut rates and made headlines by being the first major central bank to take a policy rate below zero. Whatever your view is on the unfolding new Eurozone recession and the apparent need for more action (more about this in a minute), the additional 0.1 percent rate reduction will hardly make a massive difference. Yet, implementing such minor rate cuts in fairly short succession looks nervous and anxious, or even headless. This hardly instils confidence.
And regarding the “unconventional” measures so vehemently requested by the economic commentariat, well, the “targeted liquidity injections” that are supposed to direct freshly printed ECB-money to cash-starved corporations, and that were announced in June as well, have not even been implemented yet. Apparently, and not entirely unreasonably, the ECB wanted to wait for the outcome of their “bank asset quality review”. So now, before these measures are even started, let alone their impact could even be assessed, additional measures are being announced. The asset purchases do not come as a complete surprise either. It was known that asset management giant BlackRock had already been hired to help the ECB prepare such a program. Maybe the process has now been accelerated.
This is Eurozone QE
This is, of course, quantitative easing (QE). Many commentators stated that the ECB shied away from full-fledged QE. This view implies that only buying sovereign debt can properly be called QE. This does not make sense. The Fed, as part of its first round of QE in 2008, also bought mortgage-backed securities only. There were no sovereign bonds in its first QE program, and everybody still called it QE. Mortgage-backed securities are, of course, a form of asset-backed security, and the ECB announced purchases of asset-backed securities at the meeting. This is QE, period. The simple fact is that the ECB expands its balance sheet by purchasing selected assets and creating additional bank reserves (for which banks will now pay the ECB a 0.2 percent p.a. “fee”).
As to 2), not only will the ECB decisions have upset the Germans (the Bundesbank’s Mr. Weidmann duly objected but was outvoted) but so will have Mr. Draghi’s new rhetoric. In Jackson Hole he used the F-word, as in “flexibility”, meaning fiscal flexibility, or more fiscal leeway for the big deficit countries. By doing so he adopted the language of the Italian and French governments, whenever they demand to be given more time for structural reform and fiscal consolidation. The German government does not like to hear this (apparently, Merkel and Schäuble both phoned Draghi after Jackson Hole and complained.)
The German strategy has been to keep the pressure on reform-resistant deficit-countries, and on France and Italy in particular, and to not allow them to shift the burden of adjustment to the ECB. Draghi has now undermined the German strategy.
The Germans fear, not quite unjustifiably, that some countries always want more time and will never implement reform. In contrast to those countries that had their backs to the wall in the crisis and had little choice but to change course in some respect, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, France and Italy have so far done zilch on the structural reform front. France’s competitiveness has declined ever since it adopted the 35-hour workweek in 2000 but the policy remains pretty much untouchable. In Italy, Renzi wants to loosen the country’s notoriously strict labour regulations but faces stiff opposition from the trade unions and the Left, not least in his own party. He now wants to give his government three years to implement reform, as he announced last week.
Draghi turns away from the Germans
German influence on the ECB is waning. It was this influence that kept alive the prospect of a somewhat different approach to economic challenges than the one adopted in the US, the UK and, interestingly, Japan. Of course, the differences should not be overstated. In the Eurozone, like elsewhere, we observed interest rate suppression, asset price manipulations, and massive liquidity-injections, and worse, even capital controls and arbitrary bans on short-selling. But we also saw a greater willingness to rely on restructuring, belt-tightening, liquidation, and, yes, even default, to rid the system of the deformations and imbalances that are the ultimate root causes of recessions and the impediments to healthy, sustainable growth. In the Eurozone it was not all about “stimulus” and “boosting aggregate demand”. But increasingly, the ECB looks like any other major central bank with a mandate to keep asset prices up, government borrowing costs down, and a generous stream of liquidity flowing to cover the cracks in the system, to sustain a mirage of solvency and sustainability, and to generate some artificial and short-lived headline growth. QE will not only come to the Eurozone, it will become a conventional tool, just like elsewhere.
I believe it is these two points, Draghi’s sudden hyperactivity (1) and his clear rift with the Germans and his departure from the German strategy (2) that may explain why the euro is finally weakening, and why the minor announcements of last Thursday had a more meaningful impact on markets than the similarly minor announcements in June. With German influence on the ECB waning, trashing your currency becomes official strategy more easily, and this is already official policy in Japan and in the US.
Is Draghi scared by the weak growth numbers and the prospect of deflation?
Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.
Europe has a structural growth problem as mentioned above. If the structural impediments to growth are not removed, Europe won’t grow, and no amount of central bank pump priming can fix it.
Nobody should be surprised if parts of Europe fall into technical recessions every now and then. If “no growth” is your default mode then experiencing “negative growth” occasionally, or even regularly, should not surprise anyone. Excited talk about Italy’s shocking “triple-dip” recession is hyperbole. It is simply what one should expect. Having said this, I do suspect that we are already in another broader cyclical downturn, not only in Europe but also in Asia (China, Japan) and the UK.
The deflation debate in the newspapers is bordering on the ridiculous. Here, the impression is conveyed that a drop in official inflation readings from 0.5 to 0.3 has substantial information content, and that if we drop below zero we would suddenly be caught in some dreadful deflation-death-trap, from which we may not escape for many years. This is complete hogwash. There is nothing in economic theory or in economic history that would support this. And, no, this is not what happened in Japan.
The margin of error around these numbers is substantial. For all we know, we may already have a -1 percent inflation rate in the Eurozone. Or still plus 1 percent. Either way, for any real-life economy this is broadly price-stability. To assume that modest reductions in any given price average suddenly mean economic disaster is simply a fairy tale. Many economies have experienced extended periods of deflation (moderately rising purchasing power of money on trend) in excess of what Japan has experienced over the past 20 years and have grown nicely, thank you very much.
As former Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa has explained recently, Japan’s deflation has been “very mild” indeed, and may have had many positive effects as well. In a rapidly aging society with many savers and with slow headline growth it helped maintain consumer purchasing power and thus living standards. Japan has an official unemployment rate of below 4 percent. Japan has many problems but deflation may not be one of them.
Furthermore, the absence of inflation in the Eurozone is no surprise either. There has been no money and credit growth in aggregate in recent years as banks are still repairing their balance sheets, as the “asset quality review” is pending, and as other regulations kick in. Banks are reluctant to lend, and the private sector is careful to borrow, and neither are acting unreasonably.
Expecting Eurozone inflation to clock in at the arbitrarily chosen 2 percent is simply unrealistic.
Draghi’s new activism moves the ECB more in the direction of the US Fed and the Bank of Japan. This alienates the Germans and marginally strengthens the position of the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. This monetary policy will not reinvigorate European growth. Only proper structural reform can do this but much of Europe appears unable to reform, at least without another major crisis. Fiscal deficits will grow.
Monetary policy is not about “stimulus” but about maintaining the status quo. Super-low interest rates are meant to sustain structures that would otherwise be revealed to be obsolete, and that would, in a proper free market, be replaced. The European establishment is interested in maintaining the status quo at all cost, and ultra-easy monetary policy and QE are essentially doing just that.
Under the new scheme of buying asset-backed securities, the ECB’s balance sheet will become a dumping ground for unwanted bank assets (the Eurozone’s new “bad” bank). Like almost everything about the Euro-project, this is about shifting responsibility, obscuring accountability, and socializing the costs of bad decisions. Monetary socialism is coming. The market gets corrupted further.
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.
[Editor’s note: this article, by Brendon Brown, was first published by Mises.org.]
Just as Professor Bernanke exits center stage at the end of Act I of the monetary comedy he created, the scene shifts to Frankfurt. The star of Act II is European Central Bank (ECB) chief Mario Draghi. As we pick up the story, Mr. Draghi has been launching a defense against a phantom threat of deflation.
Meanwhile, our retired star is busy collecting top fees from appreciative “fans,” especially from Wall Street, an area where he once admitted “he had to hold his nose.” What are these fans hoping to gain from their fawning of ex-superstar Bernanke in this new world of monetary transparency, which he proudly claims to have created? Is it the privileged insights that come from networking and knowing how the replacement actor will handle the Fed’s machinery for manipulating long-term interest rates? It has been said that the new chief, rising star Janet Yellen, is “joined at the hip” to her predecessor.
Mario Draghi has yet to acknowledge how much the success of Act II depends on the quantitative easing from Act I, as written and choreographed by Professor Bernanke. The ECB illusionist scored his first big ovation from center stage by proclaiming he would do “whatever it takes to save the euro.” The global asset price inflation plague created by the Bernanke Fed turned those words into immediate virtual reality. Irrationally exuberant investors in their search for yield have been chasing any half-plausible story. Europe with its onetime array of high-yielding markets has been fertile ground for such speculative hypotheses, including Draghi’s boast.
The ECB president is impervious to the critics who say his new strategy of injecting an added strain of asset price inflation into the veins of the European economy, though bolstering the European Monetary Union (EMU) in the short-term, could be fatal in the longer term. That is no laughing matter, because the collapse of EMU in the next great asset price deflation in global markets could bring a monetary revolution.
The essence of comedy is inflexibility, not the volume of the laughter. Don Juan is comic because even when granted a last chance of repentance, or else face death by fire, he cannot change his ways. In the present Bernanke authored comedy, the central bank actors cannot stop trembling for fear of deflation. Yet there has been no actual or threatened monetary deflation during all the years of this long-running show (and well before then).
Under a hypothetical regime of monetary stability the invisible hand of market forces would cause there to be periods of falling and rising prices. The determination of the Federal Reserve to fight those natural down-waves in prices such as occur in business contractions, or under the influence of technological change, has been the source of outbreaks of asset price inflation culminating in great recession and in long-run diminution of economic dynamism.
The Bernanke-ite comedic characters, though, remain convinced that any episode of falling prices would mean economic catastrophe and they have conjured a whole folklore, spanning from the Great Depression to Japan’s Lost Decade, to demonstrate this misleading assertion. ECB chief Mario Draghi cites the fight against deflation as the principal reason for introducing negative interest rates on deposits at the ECB, and a further package of below market cost loans to weak banks.
Yes, prices, and even some wages have been falling in Spain and Italy. But this is simply a result of the unsustainable high levels that resulted from the asset and credit inflation of the last decade, and are now falling slowly in line with real equilibrium tendencies. In Germany, goods-and-services inflation is running at over 1 percent per annum and real estate price inflation is at 10 percent-plus in many cities.
Understandably the German media is voicing complaints by savers being penalized for the camouflaged purpose of aiding crony-capitalist bankers in southern Europe. Mario Draghi gives the standard response of the deflation phobic central banker: Non-conventional policy tools will stimulate a strong recovery which should ultimately benefit the rentier. Who is he kidding?
It appears he is kidding many. The boom in carry trade (the assumption of currency, credit, or maturity risk in the pursuit of higher yields), a key symptom of the asset price inflation disease which ECB and Fed deflation fighting created, now features 10-year yields on Spanish government bonds, below those on US bonds.
Many in the marketplace now question whether there ever really was a crisis in the European Monetary Union. The David Low cartoon comes to mind, John Bull rubs his eyes on March 13, 1939, asking whether the Munich crisis of the previous November was just a bad dream. No wonder the euro stays at high levels.
Back on stage, the Bernanke-ite comedians are now puppeteers, pulling the strings of their puppets, donning their Emperor’s new clothes (in the form of rate manipulation machinery the effectiveness of which depends on market irrationality), and waving their wands. The question of whether the comedians are themselves puppets does not cloud the minds of those in the audience mesmerized by the show, and expecting to cash their profits before speculative temperatures drop. The retired actor and author, in the twilight of his career, knows his appearance fees depend on the show’s continued power to mesmerize the crowd.
Brendan Brown is an associated scholar of the Mises Institute and is author of Euro Crash: How Asset Price Inflation Destroys the Wealth of Nations and The Global Curse of the Federal Reserve: Manifesto for a Second Monetarist Revolution.
[Editor’s note: This article also appears on Detlev Schlichter’s blog here. It is reproduced with kind permission and should NOT be taken to be investment advice.]
There is apparently a new economic danger out there. It is called “very low inflation” and the eurozone is evidently at great risk of succumbing to this menace. “A long period of low inflation – or outright deflation, when prices fall persistently – alarms central bankers”, explains The Wall Street Journal, “because it [low inflation, DS] can cripple growth and make it harder for governments, businesses and consumers to service their debts.” Official inflation readings at the ECB are at 0.7 percent, still positive so no deflation, but certainly very low.
How low inflation cripples growth is not clear to me. “Very low inflation” was, of course, once known as “price stability” and used to invoke more positive connotations. It was not previously considered a health hazard. Why this has suddenly changed is not obvious. Certainly there is no empirical support – usually so highly regarded by market commentators – for the assertion that low inflation, or even deflation, is linked to recessions or depressions, although that link is assumed to exist implicitly or explicitly in the financial press almost daily. In the twentieth century the United States had many years of very low inflation and even outright deflation that were not marked by recessions. In the nineteenth century, throughout the rapidly industrializing world, “very low inflation” or even persistent deflation were the norm, and such deflation was frequently accompanied by growth rates that would today be the envy of any G8 country. To come to think of it, the capitalist economy with its constant tendency to increase productivity should create persistent deflation naturally. Stuff becomes more affordable. Things get cheaper.
“Breaking news: Consumers shocked out of consuming by low inflation!”
So what is the point at which reasonably low inflation suddenly turns into “very low inflation”, and thus becomes dangerous according to this new strand of thinking? Judging by the reception of the Bank of England’s UK inflation report delivered by Mark Carney last week, on the one hand, and the ridicule the financial industry piles onto the ECB on the other – “stupid” is what Appaloosa Management’s David Tepper calls the Frankfurt-based institution according to the FT (May 16) -, the demarcation must lie somewhere between the 1.6 percent reported by Mr. Carney, and the 0.7 that so embarrasses Mr. Draghi.
The argument is frequently advanced that low inflation or deflation cause people to postpone purchases, to defer consumption. By this logic, the Eurozonians expect a €1,000 item to cost €1,007 in a year’s time, and that is not sufficient a threat to their purchasing power to rush out and buy NOW! Hence, the depressed economy. The Brits, on the other hand, can reasonably expect a £1,000 item to fetch £1,016 in a year’s time, and this is a much more compelling reason, one assumes, to consume in the present. The Brits are in fact so keen to beat the coming 2 percent price hikes that they are even loading up on debt again and incur considerable interest rate expenses to buy in the here and now. “Britons are re-leveraging,” tells us Anne Pettifor in The Guardian, “Net consumer credit lending rose by £1.1bn in March alone. Total credit card debt in March 2014 was £56.9bn. The average interest rate on credit card lending, [stands at] at 16.86%.” Britain is, as Ms. Pettifor reminds us, the world’s most indebted nation.
I leave the question to one side for a minute whether these developments should be more reason to “alarm central bankers” than “very low inflation”. They certainly did not alarm Mr. Carney and his colleagues last week, who cheerfully left rates at rock bottom, and nobody called the Bank of England “stupid” either, to my knowledge. They certainly seem not to alarm Ms. Pettifor. She wants the Bank of England to keep rates low to help all those Britons in debt – and probably yet more Britons to get into debt.
Ms. Pettifor has a highly politicized view of money and monetary policy. To her this is all some giant class struggle between the class of savers/creditors and the class of spenders/debtors, and her allegiance is to the latter. Calls for rate hikes from other market commentator thus represent “certain interests,” meaning stingy savers and greedy creditors. That the policy could set up the economy for another crisis does not seem to trouble her.
Echoing Ms. Pettifor, Martin Wolf flatly stated in the FT recently that the “low-risk-seeking saver” no longer served a useful purpose in the global economy, and he approvingly quoted John Maynard Keynes with his call for the “euthanasia of the rentier”. “Interest today rewards no genuine sacrifice,” Keynes wrote back then, obviously in error: Just ask Britons today if not spending their money now but saving it for a rainy day does not involve a genuine sacrifice. Today’s rentiers do not even get interest for their sacrifices, thanks to all the “stimulus” policy. And now the call is for an end to price stability, for combining higher inflation with zero rates. It is not much fun being a saver these days – and I doubt that these policies will make anyone happy in the long run.
Euthanasia of the Japanese rentier
What the “euthanasia of the rentier” may look like we may have chance to see in Japan, an ideal test case for the policy given that the country is home to a rapidly aging population of life-long savers who will rely on their savings in old age. The new policy of Abenomics is supposed to reinvigorate the economy through, among other things, monetary debasement. “In as much as Abenomics was intended to generate strong nominal growth, I have been a big believer,” Trevor Greetham, asset allocation director at Fidelity Worldwide Investment, wrote in the FT last week (FT, May 15, 2014, page 28). “Japan has been in debt deflation for more than 20 years.”
Really? – In March 2013, when Mr. Abe installed Haruhiko Kuroda as his choice of Bank of Japan governor, and Abenomics started in earnest, Japan’s consumer price index stood at 99.4. 20 years earlier, in March 1994, it stood at 99.9 and 10 years ago, in March 2004, at 100.5. Over 20 years Japan’s consumer prices had dropped by 0.5 percent. Of course, there were periods of falling prices and periods of rising prices in between but you need a microscope to detect any broad price changes in the Japanese consumption basket over the long haul. By any realistic measure, the Japanese consumer has not suffered deflation but has enjoyed roughly price stability for 20 years.
“The main problem in the Japanese economy is not deflation, it’s demographics,” Masaaki Shirakawa declared in a speech at Dartmouth College two weeks ago (as reported by the Wall Street Journal Europe on May 15). Mr. Shirakawa is the former Bank of Japan governor who was unceremoniously ousted by Mr. Abe in 2013, so you may say he is biased. Never mind, his arguments make sense to me. “Mr. Shirakawa,” the Journal reports, “calls it ‘a very mild deflation’ [and I call it price stability, DS] that had the benefit of helping Japan maintain low unemployment.” The official unemployment rate in Japan stands at an eye-watering 3.60%. Maybe the Japanese have not fared so poorly with price stability.
Be that as it may, after a year of Abenomics it turns out that higher inflation is not really all it’s cracked up to be. Here is Fidelity’s Mr. Greetham again: “Things are not as straightforward as they were….The sales tax rise pushed Tokyo headline inflation to a 22-year high of 2.9 percent in April, cutting real purchasing power and worsening living standards for the many older consumers on fixed incomes.”
Mr. Greetham’s “older consumers” are probably Mr. Wolf’s “rentiers”, but in any case, these folks are not having a splendid time. The advocates of “easy money” tell us that a weaker currency is a boost to exports but in Japan’s case a weaker yen lifts energy prices as the country is heavily dependent on energy imports.
The Japanese were previously thought to not consume enough because prices weren’t rising fast enough, now they may not consume enough because prices are rising. The problem with going after “nominal growth” is that “real purchasing power” may get a hit.
If all of this is confusing, Fidelity’s Mr. Greetham offers hope. We may just need a bigger boat. More stimulus. “The stock market may need to get lower over the next few months before the government and Bank of Japan are shocked out of their complacency…When domestic policy eases further, as it inevitably will, the case for owning the Japanese market will be compelling once again.”
You see, that is the problem with Keynesian stimulus, you need to do ever more of it, and make it ever bigger, in an effort to outrun the unintended consequences.
Whether Mr. Greetham is right or not on the stock market, I do not know. But one thing seems pretty obvious to me. If you could lastingly improve your economy through easy money and currency debasement, Argentina would be one of the richest countries in the world today, as it indeed was at the beginning of the twentieth century, before the currency debasements of its many incompetent governments began.
No country has ever become more prosperous by debasing its currency and ripping off its savers.
This will end badly – although probably not soon.
What does it all mean? – I don’t know (and I could, of course, be wrong) but I guess the following:
The ECB will cut rates in June but this is the most advertised and anticipated policy easing in a long while. Euro bears will ultimately be disappointed. The ECB does not go ‘all in’, and there is no reason to do so. My hunch is that a pronounced weakening of the euro remains unlikely.
In my humble opinion, and contrary to market consensus, the ECB has run the least worst policy of all major central banks. No QE thus far; the balance sheet has even shrunk; large-scale inactivity. What is not to like?
Ms Pettifor and her fellow saver-haters will get their way in that any meaningful policy tightening is far off, including in the UK and the US. Central banks see their main role now in supporting asset markets, the economy, the banks, and the government. They are positively petrified of potentially derailing anything through tighter policy. They will structurally “under-tighten”. Higher inflation will be the endgame but when that will come is anyone’s guess. Growth will, by itself, not lead to a meaningful response from central bankers.
Abenomics will be tried but it will ultimately fail. The question is if it will first be implemented on such a scale as to cause disaster, or if it will receive its own quiet “euthanasia”, as Mr. Shirakawa seems to suggest. At Dartmouth he claimed “to have the quiet support of some Japanese business leaders who joined the Abe campaign pressuring the Shirakawa BoJ. ‘One of the surprising facts is what CEOs say privately is quite different from what they say publicly,’ he said….’in private they say, No, no, we are fed up with massive liquidity – money does not constrain our investment.’”