A specter is haunting the world, the specter of two percent inflationism. Whether pronounced by the U.S. Federal Reserve or the European Central Bank, or from the Bank of Japan, many monetary central planners have declared their determination to impose a certain minimum of rising prices on their societies and economies.
One of the oldest of economic fallacies continues to dominate and guide the thinking of monetary policy makers: that printing money is the magic elixir for the creating of sustainable prosperity.
In the eyes of those with their hands on the handle of the monetary printing press the economic system is like a balloon that, if not “fully inflated” at a desired level of output and employment, should be simply “pumped up” with the hot air of monetary “stimulus.”
The Fallacy of Keynesian Macro-Aggregates
The fallacy is the continuing legacy of the British economist, John Maynard Keynes, and his conception of “aggregate demand failures.” Keynes argued that the economy should be looked at in terms of series of macroeconomic aggregates: total demand for all output as a whole, total supply of all resources and goods as a whole, and the average general levels of all prices and wages for goods and services and resources potentially bought and sold on the overall market.
If at the prevailing general level of wages, there is not enough “aggregate demand” for output as a whole to profitably employ all those interested and willing to work, then it is the task of the government and its central bank to assure that sufficient money spending is injected into the economy. The idea being that at rising prices for final goods and services relative to the general wage level, it again becomes profitable for businesses employ the unemployed until “full employment” is restored.
Over the decades since Keynes first formulated this idea in his 1936 book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, both his supporters and apparent critics have revised and reformulated parts of his argument and assumptions. But the general macro-aggregate framework and worldview used by economists in the context of which problems of less than full employment continue to be analyzed, nonetheless, still tends to focus on and formulate government policy in terms of the levels of and changes in output and employment for the economy as a whole.
In fact, however, there are no such things as “aggregate demand,” or “aggregate supply,” or output and employment “as a whole.” These are statistical creations constructed by economists and statisticians, out of what really exists: the demands and supplies of multitudes of individual and distinct goods and services produced, and bought and sold on the various distinct markets that comprise the economic system of society.
The Market’s Many Demands and Supplies
There are specific consumer demands for different kinds and types of hats, shoes, shirts, reading glasses, apples, and books or movies. But none of us just demands “output,” any more than there is just a creation of “employment.”
When we go into the marketplace we are interested in buying the specific goods and services for which we have particular and distinct demands. And businessmen and entrepreneurs find it profitable to hire and employ particular workers with specific skills to assist in the manufacture, production, marketing and sale of the distinct goods that we as individual consumers are interested in purchasing.
In turn, each of these individual and distinct goods and services has its own particular price in the market place, established by the interaction of the individual demanders with the individual suppliers offering them for sale.
The profitable opportunities to bring desired goods to market results in the demand for different resources and raw materials, specific types of machinery and equipment, and different categories of skilled and lesser skilled individual workers to participate in the production processes that bring those desired goods into existence.
The interactions between the individual businessmen and the individual suppliers of these factors of production generate the prices for their purchase, hire or employment on, again, multitudes of individual markets in the economic system.
The “macro” economist and his statistician collaborator then proceed to add up, sum and averages all these different individual outputs, employments and specific prices and wages into a series of economy-wide measured aggregates.
But it should be fairly clear that in doing so all the real economic relationships in the market, the actual structure of relative prices and wages, and all the multitude of distinct and interconnected patterns of actual demands and supplies are submerged and lost in the macro-economic aggregates and totals.
Balanced Markets Assure Full Employment
Balanced production and sustainable employments in the economy as a whole clearly requires coordination and balance between the demands and supplies of all the particular goods and services in each of the specific markets on which they are bought and sold. And parallel to this there must be comparable coordination and balance between the businessmen’s demands for resources, capital equipment and different types of labor in each production sector of the market and those supplying them.
Such coordination, balance, and sustainable employment requires adaptation to the every-changing circumstance of market conditions through adjustment of prices and wages, and to shifts in supplies and demands in and between the various parts and sectors of the economy.
In other words, it is these rightly balanced and coordinated patterns between supplies and demands and their accompanying structures of relative prices and wages that assure “full employment” and efficient and effective use of available resources and capital, so entrepreneurs and businessmen are constantly and continuously tending to produce the goods we, the consumers, want and desire, and at prices that are covering competitive costs of production.
All this is lost from view when reduced to that handful of macro-aggregates of “total demand” and “total supply” and a statistical average price level for all goods relative to a statistical average wage level for all workers in the economy.
The Keynesian Government “Big Spender”
In this simplified and, indeed, simplistic view Keynesian-type view of things all that needs to be done from the government’s policy perspective is to run budget deficits or create money through the banking system to push up “aggregate demand” to assure a targeted rise in the general price level so profit-margins “in general” are widened relative to the general wage level so employment “in general” will be expanded.
We can think of government as a “big spender” who comes into a town and proceeds to increase “aggregate demand” in this community by buying goods. Prices for final output rise, profit margins are widened relative to the general wage level and other general cost-prices. Private businesses, in general, employ more workers, purchase or hire other inputs, and “aggregate supply” expands to a point of desired “full employment.”
The presumption on the part of the center bankers in targeting a rate of an average annual price inflation of two percent is that while selling prices are to be pushed up at this average annual rate through monetary expansion, the average level of cost prices (including money wages in general) will not rise or not by the same percentage increase as the average increase in the “price level.”
If cost prices in general (including money wages) were to rise at the same rate as the price level, there would be no margin of additional profits to stimulate greater aggregate output and employment.
The fallacy in thinking that cost-prices in general will permanently lag behind the rate of increase in the price level of final goods and services was pointed out long ago, in 1898, by the famous Swedish economist, Knut Wicksell:
“If a gradual rise in prices, in accordance with an approximately known schedule, could be reckoned on with certainty, it would be taken into account in all current business contracts; with the result that its supposed beneficial influence would necessarily be reduced to a minimum.
“Those people who prefer a continually upward moving to a stationary price level forcibly remind one of those who purposely keep their watches a little fast so as to be more certain of catching their train. But to achieve their purpose they must not be conscious or remain conscious of the fact that their watches are fast; otherwise they become accustomed to take the extra few minutes into account, and so after all, in spite of their artfulness, arrive too late . . .”
The Government “Big Spender” Unbalances Markets
But the more fundamental error and misconception in the macro-aggregate approach is its failure to appreciate and focus on the real impact of changes in the money supply that by necessity result in an unsustainable deviation of prices, profits, and resources and labor uses from a properly balanced coordination, the end result of which is more of the very unemployment that the monetary “stimulus” was meant to cure.
Let’s revert to our example of the “big spender” who comes into a town. The townspeople discover that our big spender introduces a greater demand into the community, but not for “goods in general.” Instead, he announces his intention of building a new factory on the outskirts of the town.
He leases a particular piece of land and pays for the first few months rent. He hires a particular construction company to build the factory, and the construction company in turn increases its demand not only for workers to do the work, but orders new equipment, that, in turn, results in the equipment manufacturers adding to their workforce to fulfill the new demand for construction machinery.
Our big spender, trumpeting the wonders for the community from his new spending, starts hiring clerical staff and sales personal in anticipation of fulfilling orders once the factory is completed and producing its new output.
The new and higher incomes earned by the construction and machinery workers, as well as the newly employed clerical and sales workers raise the demand for various and specific consumer and other goods upon which these people want to spend their new and increased wages.
The businesses in the town catering to these particular increased consumer demands now attempt to expand their supplies and, perhaps, hire more retail store employees.
Over time the prices of all of these goods and services will start to rise, but not at the same time or to the same degree. They will go up in a temporal sequence that more or less tends to match the pattern and sequence of the changed demands for those goods and services resulting from the new money injected by the “big spender” into this community.
Inflationary Spending Has to Continue and Increase
Now, whether some of the individual workers drawn into this specific pattern of new employments were previously unemployed or whether they had to be attracted away from existing jobs they already held in other parts of the market, the fact remains that their continued employments in these particular jobs is dependent on the “big spender” continuing to inject and spend his new money, period-after-period of time, in the same way and in sufficient amounts of dollar spending to assure that the workers he has drawn into his factory project are not attracted to other employments due to the rise in all of these alternative or other demands, as well.
If the interdependent patterns of demands and supplies, and the structure of interconnected relative prices and wages generated by the big spender’s spending are to be maintained, his injection of new money into the community must continue, and at an increasing rate of spending if they are not be fall apart.
An alternative imagery might be the dropping of a pebble or stone into a pond of water. From the epicenter where the stone has hit the surface of the water a sequence of ripples will be sent out which will be reversed when the ripples finally hit the surrounding shore, and will then finally come to rest when there is no longer any new disturbances affecting the surface of the pond.
But if the pattern of ripples created are to be sustained, new pebbles or stones must be continuously dropped into the pond and with increasing force if the resulting counter-waves coming back from the shore are not to disrupt and overwhelm the ripple pattern moving out from the original epicenter.
The “Austrian” Analysis of Inflation
It is no doubt that this way of analyzing and understanding the dynamics of how monetary expansion affects market activities is more complex and complicated than the simplistic Keynesian-style of macro-aggregate analysis. But as the famous Austrian-born economist, Joseph A. Schumpeter emphasized:
“The Austrian way of emphasizing the behavior or decisions of individuals and of defining the exchange value of money with respect to individual commodities rather than with respect to a price level of one kind or another has its merits, particularly in the analysis of an inflationary process; it tends to replace a simple but inadequate picture by one which is less clear-cut but more realistic and richer in results.”
And, indeed, it is this “Austrian” analysis of monetary expansion and its resulting impact on prices, employment and production, especially as developed in the 20th century by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek, that explains why the Keynesian-originated macro-aggregate approach is fundamentally flawed.
As Hayek once explained the logic of the monetary inflationary process:
“The influx of the additional money into the [economic] system always takes place at some particular points. There will always be some people who have more money to spend before the others. Who these people are will depend on the particular manner in which the increase in the money stream is being brought about . . .
“It may be spent in the first instance by government on public works or increased salaries, or it may be first spent by investors mobilizing cash balances for borrowing for that purpose; it may be spent in the first instance on securities, or investment goods, on wages or on consumers’ goods . . .
“The process will take very different forms according to the initial source or sources of the additional money stream . . . But one thing all these different forms of the process will have in common: that the different prices will rise, not at the same time but in succession, and that so long as the process continues some prices will always be ahead of others and the whole structure of relative prices therefore will be very different from what the pure theorist describes as an equilibrium position.”
An inflationary process, in other words, brings about distortions, mismatches, and imbalanced relationships between different supplies and demands, and the relationships between the structure of relative prices and wages that only last for as long as the inflationary process continues, and often only at an accelerating rate.
Or as Hayek expressed it on a different occasion:
“Any attempt to create full employment by drawing labor into occupations where they will remain employed only so long as the [monetary and] credit expansion continues creates the dilemma that either credit expansion must continue indefinitely (which means inflation), or that, when it stops unemployment will be greater than it would be if the temporary increase in employment had never taken place.”
The Inflationary “Cure” Creates More Market Problems
Once the inflationary monetary expansion ends or is slowed down, it is discovered that the artificially created supply and demand patterns and relative price and wage structure are inconsistent with non-inflationary market conditions.
In our example of the “big spender,” one day the townsfolk discover that he was really a con artist who had only phony counterfeit money to spend, and whose deceptive promises and temporary spending drew them into in all of those specific and particular activities and employments. They now find out that the construction projects began cannot be completed, the employments created cannot be maintained, and the investments started in response to the phony money the big spender injected into this community cannot be completed or continued.
Many of the townspeople now have to stop what they had been doing, and try to discover other demanders, other employers and other possible investment opportunities in the face of the truth of the big spenders false incentives to do things they should not have been doing from the start.
The unemployment and under utilization of resources that “activist” monetary policy by governments are supposed to reduce, in fact, set the stage for an inescapable readjustment period of more unemployment and temporary idle resources, when many of the affected supplies and demands have to be rebalanced at newly established market-based prices if employments and productions are to be sustainable and consistent with actual consumer demands and the availability of scarce resources in the post-inflationary environment.
Thus, recessions are the inevitable result from prior and unsustainable inflationary booms. And even the claimed “modest” and “controlled” rate of two percent annual price inflation that has become the new panacea for economic stability and growth in the minds of central bankers, brings in its wake a “wrong twist” to many of the micro-economic supply and demand and price-wage relationships that are the substance of the real economy beneath the superficial macro-aggregates.
Governments and their monetary central planners, therefore, are the cause and not the solution to the instabilities and hardships of inflations and recessions. To end them, political control and manipulation of the money and banking systems will have to be abolished.
“Except for US Treasuries, what can you hold ? US Treasuries are the safe haven. For everyone, including China, it is the only option.. Once you [Americans] start issuing $1 trillion – $2 trillion.. we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do.”
– Luo Ping, official at the China Banking Regulatory Commission, addressing an audience in New York in early 2009.
“This is a big change and it cannot happen too quickly, but we want to use our reserves more constructively by investing in development projects around the world rather than just reflexively buying US Treasuries. In any case, we usually lose money on Treasuries, so we need to find ways to improve our return on investment.”
– Unnamed senior Chinese official, cited in an FT article, ‘Turning away from the dollar’, 10th December 2014.
The Commentary will shortly be off for its winter break. We wish all clients and readers a merry Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year. See you in 2015.
“Mutually assured destruction” was a doctrine that rose to prominence during the Cold War, when the US and the USSR faced each other with nuclear arsenals so populous that they ensured that any nuclear exchange between the two great military powers would quickly lead to mutual overkill in the most literal sense. Notwithstanding the newly dismal relations between the US and Russia, “mutually assured destruction” now best describes the uneasy stand-off between an increasingly indebted US government and an increasingly monetarily frustrated China, with several trillion dollars’ worth of foreign exchange reserves looking, it would now appear, for a more productive home than US Treasury bonds of questionable inherent value. Until now, the Chinese have had little choice where to park their trillions, because only markets like the US Treasury market (and to a certain extent, gold) have been deep and liquid enough to accommodate their reserves.
The FT article, by James Kynge and Josh Noble, points to three related policy developments on the part of the Chinese authorities:
1) China’s appetite for US Treasury bonds is on the wane;
2) China is ramping up its overseas development programme for both financial and geopolitical reasons;
3) The promotion of the renminbi as a global currency “is gradually liberating Beijing from the dollar zone”.
The US has long enjoyed what Giscard d’Estaing called the “exorbitant privilege” of issuing a currency that happens to be the global reserve currency. The FT article would seem to suggest that the days of exorbitant privilege may be coming to an end – to be replaced, in time, with a bi-polar reserve currency world incorporating both the US dollar and the renminbi. (The euro might be involved, if that demonstrably dysfunctional currency bloc lasts long enough.) Here’s a quiz we often wheel out for prospective clients:
1) Which country is the world’s largest sovereign miner of gold ?
2) Which country doesn’t allow an ounce of that gold to be exported ?
3) Which country has advised its citizenry to purchase gold ?
Three questions. One answer. In each case: China. Is it plausible that, at some point yet to be determined, a (largely gold-backed) renminbi will either dethrone the US dollar or co-exist alongside it in a new global currency regime ? We think the answer is yes, on both counts.
Meanwhile the US appears to be doing everything in its power to hasten the relative decline of its own currency. There is a new ‘big figure’ to account for the size of the US national debt, which now stands at some $18 trillion. That only accounts for the on-balance sheet stuff. Factor in the off-balance sheet liabilities of the US administration and pretty soon you get to a figure (un)comfortably north of $100 trillion. It will never be paid back, of course. It never can be. The only question is which poison extinguishes it: formal repudiation, or informal inflation. Perhaps we, or future generations, get both.
So the direction of travel of two colossal ‘macro’ themes is clear (the insolvency of the US administration, and its replacement on the geopolitical / currency stage by that of the Chinese). The one question neither we, nor anybody else, can answer precisely is: when ?
There are other statements that beg the response: when Government bond yields have already entered a ‘twilight zone’ of practical irrelevance to rational and unconstrained investors. But when do they go into reverse ? When will the world’s most frustrating trade (‘the widow-maker’, i.e. shorting the Japanese government bond market) start finally to work ? When will investors be able to enter or re-enter stock markets without having to worry about the malign impact of central bank price support mechanisms (a polite way of describing asset price boosterism and state-sanctioned inflationism) ?
Here’s another statement that begs the response: when ? The US stock market is already heavily overvalued by any objective historical measure. When is Jack Bogle, the founder of the world’s largest index-tracking business, Vanguard, going to acknowledge that advocating 100% market exposure to one of the world’s most expensive markets, at its all-time high, might amount to something akin to “overly concentrated investment risk” ? Barron’s Magazine asks broadly the same question.
Lots of questions, and not many definitive answers. Some suggestions, though:
At the asset class level, diversification – by geography, and underlying asset type – makes more sense than ever, unless you strongly believe you can anticipate the actions and intentions of central banking bureaucrats throughout the world. Warren Buffett once said that wide diversification was only required when investors do not understand what they are doing. We would revise that statement to take into account the unusual risks at play in the global macro-economic arena today: wide diversification is precisely required when central bankers do not understand what they are doing.
Expanding on the diversification theme, explicit value (“cheapness”) today only exists meaningfully in the analytically less charted territories of the world. @RobustCap highlights the discrepancy between valuations in the US stock market versus those of Russia, China and emerging Europe. There are clearly ‘fundamental’ and corporate governance reasons that account for some of this discrepancy, but in our view certainly not the entirety of it. Some examples:
Country C.A.P.E. P/E P/B
North America 23.8 20.2 2.7x
Russia 5.2 6.8 0.7x
China 17.2 6.9 1.1x
Austria 6.8 43.4 0.9x
In emerging and ‘challenged’ markets, there are always reasons not to invest. Nevertheless, price is what you pay and value is what you get.
Some form of renminbi exposure makes total sense as part of a diversified currency portfolio.
US equities should be selected, if at all, with extreme care; ditto the shares of global mega-cap consumer brands, where valuations point strongly to the triumph of the herd.
And whatever their direction of travel in the short to medium term, US Treasuries at current levels make no sense whatsoever to the discerning investor. The same holds for Gilts, Bunds, JGBs, OATs.. Arguments about Treasury yields reverting to a much lower longer term mean completely ignore a) the overwhelming current and future oversupply, and b) the utter lack of endorsement from one of their largest foreign holders. Foreign holders of US Treasuries, you have been warned. The irony is that many of you are completely price-insensitive so you will not care.
There are other reasons to be fearful of stock market valuations, notably in pricey western markets, over and above concerns over the debt burden. As Russell Napier points out in his latest ‘The Solid Ground’ piece,
“In 1919-1921, 1929-1932, 2000-2003, 2007-2009 it was not a resurgence in wages, Fed-controlled interest rates or corporate taxes which produced a collapse in corporate profits and a bear market in equities. On those four occasions equity investors suffered losses of 32%, 85%, 41% and 51% respectively despite the continued dormancy of labour, creditors and the state. It was deflation, or the fear of deflation, which cost equity investors so much. There is a simple reason why deflation has always been so damaging to corporate profits and equity valuations: it brings a credit crisis..
“Investors forget at their peril what can happen to the credit system in a highly leveraged world when cash-flows, whether of the corporate, the household or the state variety, decline. In a deflationary world credit is much more difficult to access, economic activity slows and often one very large institution or country fails and creates a systemic risk to the whole system. The collapse in commodity prices and Emerging Market currencies in conjunction with the general rise of the US$ suggests another credit crisis cannot be far away. With nominal interest rates already so low, monetary remedies to a credit seizure today would be much less effective. Such a shock, after five and a half years of QE, might suggest that the patient does not respond to this type of medicine.”
And since Christmas fast approaches, we can’t speak to the merits of frankincense and myrrh, but gold, that famous “6,000 year old bubble”, has always been popular, but rarely more relevant to the investor seeking a true safe haven from forced currency depreciation and an ever vaster mountain of unrepayable debt.
Some economists such as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman hold that during an economic slump it is the duty of the government to run large budget deficits in order to keep the economy going. On this score given that during 2011 to 2014 the rate of growth of real gross domestic product (GDP) hovered at around 2% many experts are of the view that the budget deficit, which stood at $483 billion in 2014, wasn’t large enough.
According to this way of thinking if overall demand in the economy weakens on account of a weakening in consumer outlays then the government must step in and boost its spending in order to prevent overall demand from declining. Note that government outlays in 2014 stood at $3.5 trillion against $1.788 trillion in 2000 – an increase of 96%.
Nobel Laureate in economics Paul Krugman and other commentators are of the view that a widening of the budget deficit in response to larger government outlays can be great news for the economy.
Furthermore, they hold that there is very little empirical evidence that budget deficits are stifling economic growth as such. If anything, they hold it can only benefit an economy once it falls below its average growth path. In contrast the opponents of this view hold that a widening in the budget deficit tends to be monetized and subsequently leads to a higher inflation.
Also a widening in the budget deficit tends to crowd out the private sector and this stifles economic growth, so it is held. So from this perspective a government must avoid as much as possible a widening in the budget deficit. In fact the focus should always be on achieving a balanced budget.
We suggest that the goal of fixing the budget deficit as such, whether to keep it large or trying to eliminate it altogether, could be an erroneous policy. Ultimately what matters for the economy is not the size of the budget deficit but the size of government outlays – the amount of resources that government diverts to its own activities. Note that contrary to Krugman we hold that an increase in government outlays is bad news for the economy.
Observe that a government is not a wealth generating entity – the more it spends the more resources it has to take from wealth generators. This in turn undermines the wealth generating process of the economy. This means that the effective level of tax is the size of the government and nothing else. For instance, if the government plans to spend $3 trillion and funds these outlays by means of $2 trillion in taxes there is going to be a shortfall, labeled as a deficit, of $1 trillion. Since government outlays have to be funded it means that in addition to taxes the government has to secure some other means of funding such as borrowing or printing money, or new forms of taxes.
The government is going to employ all sorts of means to obtain resources from wealth generators to support its activities. Hence what matters here is that government outlays are $3 trillion, and not the deficit of $1 trillion.
For instance, if the government would have lifted taxes to $3 trillion and as a result would have a balanced budget, would this alter the fact that it still takes $3 trillion of resources from wealth generators? We hold that an increase in government outlays sets in motion an increase in the diversion of wealth from wealth generating activities to non-wealth generating activities. It leads to economic impoverishment. So in this sense an increase in government outlays to boost the overall economy’s demand should be regarded as bad news for the wealth generating process and hence to the economy.
Contrary to commentators such as Krugman, the IMF and various Fed officials, we suggest that a cut in government outlays should be seen as great news for wealth generators. It is of course bad news for various artificial forms of life that emerged on the back of increases in government outlays.
[Editor’s Note; this interview, with Cobden Centre contributor Jesus Huerta de Soto, was by Malte Fischer of Handelsblatt]
Professor Huerta de Soto, the inflation rate in the euro zone is now only 0.4 percent. Is deflation threatening us, as many experts maintain?
Deflation means that the money supply is shrinking. This is not the case in the euro zone. The M3, the broadly defined supply of money, is growing by about two percent, while the more narrowly defined money supply, M1, by more than six percent. Although the inflation rate in the euro zone is below the European Central Bank’s target of barely two percent, that’s no reason to stir up fears of deflation like some central bankers are doing.
By doing so, they are suggesting that lowering prices is something bad. That is wrong. Price deflation is not a catastrophe, but rather a blessing.
You’ll have to explain that.
Take my homeland, Spain. At the moment, the consumer prices there are decreasing. At the same time, the economy is growing by around two percent on a yearly basis. Some 275,000 new jobs were created in 2013 and unemployment fell from 26 to 23 percent. The facts contradict the horror scenarios of deflation.
Does that mean we should be happy about deflation?
Certainly. It is particularly beneficial when it results from an interplay of a stable money supply and increasing productivity. A fine example is the gold standard in the 19th century. Back then, the money supply only grew by one to two percent per year. At the same time, industrial societies generated the greatest increase in prosperity in history. That is why the ECB should use the gold standard as an example and lower the target for the growth of the M3 money supply from 4.5 to around 2.0 percent.
If the euro economy were to grow by about three percent – which it is capable of doing if it were freed from the shackles of state regulations – prices would decrease by about one percent per annum.
If deflation is so beneficial, why are people afraid of it?
I don’t believe that the average person is frightened by falling prices. It is the representatives of mainstream economics fomenting a deflation phobia. They argue that deflation allows the actual debt burden to increase, and thus strangles the overall economic demand. The deflation alarmists fail to mention that creditors benefit from deflation, which stimulates demand.
Isn’t there a danger consumers will roll back their spending if everything is cheaper tomorrow?
That is an abstruse argument you hear again and again. Look at how fast the latest smartphones sell, although consumers know that the phones will be sold at a lower cost a few months afterwards. America was dominated by deflation for decades after the Civil War. In spite of that, consumption increased. If people were to put off buying because of lower prices, they ultimately would starve to death.
But lowering prices drives down sales figures and lessens the willingness of companies to invest. Do you want to ignore that?
Sales figures are not crucial for companies, but rather their earnings, meaning the difference between revenues and costs. Sinking sales prices increase pressure to reduce costs. The companies, therefore, replace manpower with machines. That means more machines need to be produced, which increases the demand for manpower in the capital goods sector. In this way, workers who lost their jobs in the wake of price deflation find new work in the capital goods sector. The capital stock grows without resulting in mass unemployment.
Aren’t you making that too easy for yourself ? In reality, the gap between the qualifications of the unemployed and the needs of companies is, at times, quite large.
I’m not claiming the market is perfect. That means it’s crucial that the labor market is flexible enough to offer incentives for creative employers to hire new workers.
What role does politics play?
The problem is that politicians have a short time horizon. That is why we need a monetary policy framework that holds both politicians and unions in check. The euro has this job in Europe. The common currency has removed the option of governments to devalue the currency to cover for their misguided economic policies. Economic policy mistakes are seen directly in the affected country’s loss of competitiveness, which forces politicians to make harsh reforms. Two governments in Spain within one and half years have implemented reforms that I hadn’t even dared to dream of. Now, the economic situation is improving and Spain is reaping the harvest of the reforms.
You may be right in the matter of Spain, but there have been no signs of fundamental reforms in Italy and France…
Which is why conditions there will first have to get worse before reforms come. We have learned from experience that the more miserable the economic situation, the stronger the pressure to reform. The reform successes that Spain and other euro countries have achieved increase the pressure on Paris and Rome. High unemployment in Spain had pushed down labor costs. At an average of €20, or $24.90, per hour, they are now half the rate as in France. That is why the French cannot avoid a drastic economic policy cure, even if the people oppose it. Germany should hold to its budgetary consolidation to keep up pressure on France and Italy.
The ECB is coming under increasing pressure to open the monetary floodgates and devalue the euro. The pressure is coming from academics, financial markets and politicians.
The economic mainstream of Keynesianism and monetarism explains the Great Depression of the 1930s with a shortage of money, which allowed an anti-deflation mentality to develop among academics. Politicians use the academic sounding board to pressure the ECB to reinflate the economy. Governments love inflation because it gives them the opportunity to live beyond their means and pile up huge mountains of debt that the central bank devaluates through inflation. It is no wonder it just happens to be the opponents of austerity policies who warn about deflation and demonize the euro’s set of stability policy regulations. They are afraid of presenting the true costs of the welfare state to the electorate.
The head of the ECB, Mario Draghi, succumbed to the pressure with his promise to save the euro if needs be by firing up the money printing presses. A mistake?
Careful. Until now, Mr. Draghi has been mainly making promises, but has barely acted. Although the ECB has initiated generous money lending transactions, and lowered the prime lending rate, the actual yield for 10-year government bonds of ailing euro zone members is above those in America. Measured on the balance sheet totals, the ECB has done less than other Western central banks. As long as the guardians of the euro are only talking but not acting, the pressure will remain on Italy and France to reform. That is why it is crucial the ECB resists the pressure of the governments and the Anglo-Saxon financial world and buys no state bonds.
What role do the Anglo-Saxon financial markets play?
The Anglo-Saxon press and the financial markets are ostentatiously conducting a crusade against the euro and the austerity policy in continental Europe necessitated by it. I am really no believer in conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out attacks against the euro by Washington and London suggest a hidden agenda. The Americans are afraid that the days of the dollar as a global currency are numbered if the euro survives as a hard currency.
Can the euro survive without political union?
A political union will not draw majority support in the population. It also isn’t desirable because it reduces the pressure for fiscal austerity. The best monetary regime for a free society is the gold standard, with all deposits covered by full reserves and without state central banks. As long as we don’t have that, we should defend the euro because it deprives governments of access to the money printing presses and forces them to consolidate their budgets and make reforms. In a certain way, it has the effect of the gold standard.
October 31st saw the belated release of the 2014 Input-Output Supply and Use Data. This is important because it incorporates a larger amount of economic activity than GDP data, but comes at the cost of only appearing as an annual series, and with an 18 month (or longer) lag. The diagram below shows the breakdown of the measure for 1997:
Firstly, in terms of absolute numbers, we can see that Total Output dwarfs Nominal GDP.
In fact Total Output is around twice as large as Nominal GDP:
The reduction in the ratio that occured in 2002-2005 is a result of Nominal GDP growth running ahead of Total Output growth. But notice the dramatic increase in the ratio in 2006. This was because Nominal GDP was growing at 5.81%, whilst Total Output grew at 8.73%. This reveals that economic activity was running at a significantly higher pace than a focus on GDP data was telling us:
One of the main reasons why the September revisions to GDP had such an impact was because of a reclassification of R&D spending. This rests on a conceptual problem with distinguishing between investment and intermediate consumption. As more and more economic activity becomes service based we might expect this problem to grow over time. One of the chief benefits of using a broader measure of national income is that it captures all intermediate consumption, and therefore the boundary between intermediate and final consumption/investment becomes less relevent.
These figures reveal that in 2010 and 2011 the wider economy was growing at a higher rate than that being measured by GDP, and in 2012 they were effectively the same. It is very difficult to read much into these annual growth rates, given that there is likely to be a lot of quarterly volatility. But in the same way that the US have started releasing this as a quarterly series, there would be much to gain from the ONS doing likewise.
Anthony J. Evans is Associate Professor of Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, and Founding Fellow of The Cobden Centre | Contact us
2 December 14 | Tags: Economic Cycles, Economics, GDP | Category: Economics | Comments are closed
Together with colleagues spanning four parties – Michael Meacher (Lab), Caroline Lucas (Green), Douglas Carswell (UKIP) and David Davis (Con) – I have secured a debate on Money Creation and Society for Thursday 20 November. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the debate.
First, we have a system of paper or “fiat” money: it exists due to legal mandate as opposed to being a physical commodity like gold. Reserves, notes and coins are created by the state but claims on money are created by the banks when they lend. Most of the money we have was created by banks lending.
I published a short paper on what is wrong with the current system and what to do about it, first inBanking 2020 and then Jesús Huerta de Soto kindly republished it in his journal Procesos De Mercado Vol.X nº2 2013. A further monetary economist privately reviewed the paper but errors and omissions remain my own. You can download it here:
Recent emergency monetary policy has been dominated by Quantitative Easing: the Bank of England has provided a report on The distributional effects of asset purchases (PDF). However, the financial system has been chronically inflationary throughout my lifetime, ever since the Bretton Woods currency system ended.
If QE has distributional effects, why not all money creation?
Why are we in this debt crisis? I have just checked the M4 money supply figures—I am sorry to return to aggregates, but needs must. When Labour came to power the money supply was about £700 billion and it is now about £2.1 trillion, so it has tripled over the past 14 years. Unfortunately, most economists talk about money flowing into the economy as if it were water poured into a tank that found its own level immediately, but what if it is like treacle or honey? What if it builds up in piles when poured into the economy and takes a while to spread out? What if that money was loaned into existence in response to individual choices led by the excessively low interest rates pushed by the central bank? What if it was loaned into existence in particular sectors, such as the housing sector, where prices have more than doubled over the same period, and what if it was the financial sector that received the benefit of that new money first? Would that not explain why financiers and bankers are so much wealthier than everyone else, and why economic activity and wealth has been reorientated towards the south-east?
This debate will explore the effects on society of long-term money creation by private banks’ lending in the context of the present financial system.
AEI’s James Pethokoukis and National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru — among many others — appear to have fallen victim to what I have called “the Eichengreen Fallacy,” the demonstrably incorrect proposition that the gold standard caused the Great Depression. This fallacy is at the root of much confusion in the discourse.
Mssrs. Pethokoukis and Ponnuru appear to have been misled by an ambient fallacy (reprised recently by Bloomberg View‘s Barry Ritholtz) that there is an inherent deflationary/recessionary propensity of the gold standard. Thus they are being lured into opposition to such respected center-right thought leaders as Lewis E. Lehrman (whose Institute’s monetary policy website I professionally edit); Steve Forbes, Chairman of Forbes Media; Sean Fieler, chairman of American Principles in Action (for which I serve as senior advisor, economics) and the Honorable Steve Lonegan, APIA’s monetary policy director.
They also put themselves sideways with Cato Institute president John Allison; Professors Richard Timberlake, Lawrence White, George Selgin and Brian Domitrovic; Atlas Economic Research Foundation’s Dr. Judy Shelton; Ethics and Public Policy Center’s John Mueller; public figures such as Dr. Ben Carson and, perhaps, Peter Thiel; journalists such as George Melloan and James Grant; and Forbes.com commentators John Tamny, Nathan Lewis, Peter Ferrara, and Jerry Bowyer, among others.
At odds, too, with such esteemed international figures as former Indian RBI deputy governor S.S. Tarapore; former El Salvadoran finance minister Manuel Hinds; and Mexican business titan Hugo Salinas Price. And, at least by way of open-mindedness and perhaps even outright sympathy, TheWeekly Standard editor-in-chief William Kristol; Cato’s Dr. James Dorn; Heritage Foundation’s Dr. Norbert Michel; the UK’s Honorable Kwasi Kwarteng and Steve Baker … among many other respected contemporary figures. Not to mention libertarian lions such as the Honorable Ron Paul.
Gold advocates and sympathizers from the deep past include Copernicus and Newton, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Witherspoon, John Marshall and Tom Paine, among many other American founders; and, from the less distant past, such important thinkers as Carl Menger, Ludwig von Mises and Jacques Rueff, as well as revered political leaders such as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp.
Alan Greenspan recently, in Foreign Affairs, while not discerning gold on the horizon,recently celebrated the “universal acceptability of gold” while raising a quizzical avuncular eyebrow, or two, at what he describes as “fiat” currency.
Let not pass unnoticed the recent statement by Herr Jens Wiedmann, president of the Bundesbank,
Concrete objects have served as money for most of human history; we may therefore speak of commodity money. A great deal of trust was placed in particular in precious and rare metals – gold first and foremost – due to their assumed intrinsic value. In its function as a medium of exchange, medium of payment and store of value, gold is thus, in a sense, a timeless classic.
Nor let pass unnoticed the Bank of England’s 2011 Financial Stability Paper No. 13 assessing the long term performance of the Federal Reserve Note standard and assessing its real outcomes — in every category reviewed, including job creation, economic growth, and inflation — to have proven itself, over 40 years, as deeply inferior in practice to the gold and even gold-exchange standards.
Seems a puzzling mésalliance on the part of Mssrs. Pethokoukis and Ponnuru.The Eichengreen Fallacy — that the gold standard caused and protracted the Great Depression — has led the discourse severely astray. It is imperative to set matters straight. As I previously have written:
Prof. Eichengreen, author of Golden Fetters, was and remains non-cognizant of a subtle but crucial aspect of world monetary history — and, apparently, of the works of Profs. Jacques Rueff and Robert Triffin elucidating the implications. Eichengreen blundered by attributing the Great Depression to the gold standard. This, demonstrably, is untrue.
As Lehrman puts it, the true gold standard repeatedly has proven, in practice, the least imperfect of monetary regimes tried. Robust data actually recommend the gold standard as a powerful force for equitable prosperity.
Just perhaps it can be bettered. So let the games begin. That said, proposing alternatives to the gold standard is very different from denigrating it.
Pethokoukis (whose writings I regularly follow and with appreciation) recently presented, at AEIdeas, The gold standard is fool’s gold for Republicans. This was a riposte to my here calling him to task for insinuating a connection between the gold standard and the rise of the Nazis and Hitler. And to task for making statements in another of his AEIdea blogs taking Professors Beckworth and Tyler Cowen out of context. He also therein conflated the “weight of the evidence” with “weight of opinion.” It appears that he has fallen prey to the Eichengreen Fallacy.
In self-defense Pethokoukis cites scholarly materials which tend to prove the innocence of the gold standard rather than his insinuation. For example: he cites Prof. Beckworth’s statement that “the flawed interwar gold standard … probably … led to the Great Depression which, in turn, guaranteed the rise of the Nazis….”
Prof. Beckworth’s characterization “flawed” is entirely consistent with the characterization by the great French monetary official and savant Jacques Rueff, whose work informs my own, of the gold-exchange standard as “a grotesque caricature” of the gold standard.
Similarly, his reference to Prof. Sumner overlooks the obvious fact that Prof. Sumner would appear fully to grasp the key distinction. Sumner, as quoted by Pethokoukis:
The gold standard got a bad reputation after the Great Depression, when it was seen as contributing to worldwide deflation. Kurt Schuler points out that the interwar gold standard didn’t follow the rules of the game, which is true.
Perhaps advocates are so sensitive to charges that the gold standard played a key role in the Great Depression, that nuance gets lost in their knee-jerk counterattacks. After all, many gold bugs think their moment is approaching once again. As Ron Paul wrote in his 2009 book “End the Fed”: ” … we should be prepared for hyperinflation and a great deal of poverty with a depression and possibly street violence as well.” And when the stuff hits the fan, nations will again return to the gold standard for stability. Or so goes the theory over at Forbes.
Notwithstanding my high regard for Dr. Ron Paul I have not shared in prognostications of hyperinflation, poverty, and possible street violence. If such sentiments have occurred at Forbes.com, whose columnists trend to the classical liberal rather than Austrian model preferred by Dr. Paul, they are vanishingly rare. To indict Forbes.com by imputing Dr. Paul’s views here suggests a lack of familiarity with these publications. There are some crucial distinctions to which his attention hereby is invited.
There are some civil disputes amongst various camps of gold standard proponents. They are far less material than the demonstrably incorrect fallacy that the authentic gold standard has deflationary tendencies which precipitated the Great Depression. Once this fallacy is dispelled, James Pethokoukis and Ramesh Ponnuru may find it congenial to adopt a different posture in the — steadily rising — debate over the gold standard. They, as do Profs. Beckworth and Sumner, might find themselves arguing for their version of a better policy rather than denigrating the case for gold standard as, in Pethokoukis’s words, “pretty awful.”
Ralph Benko is senior advisor, economics, for American Principles in Action, in Washington, DC, specializing in the gold standard and advisor to and editor of the Lehrman Institute's The Gold Standard Now. He is editor-in-chief of thesupplyside.blogspot.com. With Charles Kadlec, he is co-author of The 21st Century Gold Standard: For Prosperity, Security, and Liberty available for free download here. Benko and Kadlec are co-editors of the Laissez Faire Books edition of Copernicus's Essay on Money. He also manages the Facebook page The Gold Standard. Follow him on Twitter as TheWebster. | Contact us
13 November 14 | Tags: Economic Cycles, Financial Stability, Gold, gold standard, Honest Money | Category: Money, Politics | One comment
There are strong indications that the remarkable run up of asset prices in the last few years is beginning to run out of steam and may be on the verge of collapse. We will leave aside the question of whether the asset inflation is symptomatic of a garden-variety inflationary boom or is a more virulent bubble phenomenon in which prices are rising today simply because buyers anticipate that they will rise tomorrow.
1. The dizzying climb of London real estate prices since the financial crisis, noted in a recent postby Dave Howden, may be fizzling out. Survey data from real-estate agents indicate London housing prices in September fell 0.1 percent from August, their first decline since November 2012. Meanwhile, an index of U.K. housing prices declined for the first time in 17 months. In explaining the “pronounced slowdown” in the London real estate market, the research director of Hometrack Ltd. commented, “Buyer uncertainty is growing in the face of a possible interest-rate rise, a general election on the horizon and recent warnings of a house-price bubble,” which is playing out “against a backdrop of tougher mortgage affordability checks and limits on high loan-to-income lending.”
2. Just released data from the Dow Jones S&P/Case Schiller Composite Home Price Indices through July 2014 shows a marked deceleration of U.S. housing prices. 17 of the 20 cities included in the 20-City Composite Index experienced lower price increases in July than in the previous month. Both the 10- and 20-City Index recorded a 6.7 percent year-over-year rate of increase, down sharply from the post-crisis peak of almost 14 percent less than a year ago.
3. More ominously, U.S. Total Household Net Worth (HNW), as recently reported by the Fed for the second quarter of 2014, reached a record high of $81.5 trillion, over $10 trillion higher than the level at the peak of the asset bubble in 2007. Furthermore, the 2014 figure was $20 trillion higher than the level of the post-crisis — and pre-QE — year of 2008, when asset prices and the real structure of production were just beginning to adjust to the massive capital consumption and malinvestment wreaked by the Great Asset Inflation of 1995-2005. The increase in household wealth has been driven mainly by the increase in prices of financial assets which was generated by the Fed’s zero interest rate policy and its force feeding of additional bank reserves into the financial system via its quantitative easing programs. (See chart below). These policies falsify profit and wealth calculations and give rise to unsustainable investments and overconsumption. Once interest rates begin to adjust to their natural levels, however, asset prices are revealed to be grossly inflated and collapse. The asset inflation may be reversed even without an increase of interest rates, if people lose confidence in the narratives fabricated and propagated by government policymakers, economists, and the financial commentators to promote the continuation of the inflation in asset markets. Furthermore it is risible to believe that real wealth in the US in terms of the factories and other capital goods to which financial assets are merely ownership claims, has increased by over one-third since 2008, especially in light of the additional malinvestment and overconsumption caused by monetary and fiscal policy “stimulus” since then.
4. If we look at HNW in historical perspective, we note that, in the chart below, the HNW/GDP (or wealth to income) ratio is now at an all-time high. From 1952 to the mid-1990s this ratio averaged a little more than 350 percent and never went above 400 percent until 1998 as the dot-com bubble was blowing up. It peaked at nearly 450 percent before the bubble collapsed causing the ratio to plummet to slightly below 400 percent, indicating the beginning of the purging of the illusory capital gains created during the asset inflation.
But just as the adjustment was beginning to take hold in 2002, the Greenspan Fed played the deflationphobia card, driving interest rates to postwar lows and pumping up the money supply (MZM) by $2 trillion from beginning of 2001 to the end of2005. During this second phase of the Great Asset Inflation, the HNW/GDP ratio again reached a new high before plunging below 400 percent during the financial crisis. And, tragically, the nascent readjustment of financial markets to the underlying reality of the economy’s shattered and shrunken production structure was yet again aborted by government intervention in the form of the heterodox monetary policies of Bernankeism combined with the outsized deficits of the Obama administration. These policies succeeded in driving the HNW/GDP ratio to yet another new high, but without having the expected stimulatory effect on consumption and investment spending.
In sum, I do not expect that the ratio will rise much above 500 percent — Americans have just not saved enough since 1995 to have increased their real wealth from 3.5 times to 5 times their annual income. Nor is there much reason to expect a plateau anywhere near the current level. Once interest rates begin to rise — and rise they must, whether as a result of Fed policy or not — the end of the asset price inflation will be at hand. The result will be another financial crisis and accompanying recession. The Fed and the Administration will no doubt attempt to bail and stimulate their way out but given the still dangerously enervated state of the financial system and the real economy, it will be like dosing a horse that has already been overdosed to death. Thus my forecast for the U.S. economy one year to two years out echoes that of Clubber Lang, the villain in the movie Rocky III. When questioned about his forecast for the forthcoming fight against Rocky, Lang replied, “Pain.”
In its latest edition, in a piece entitled ‘Monetary policy: Tight, loose, irrelevant’, the ineffably dire Ekonomista considers the work of three members of the Sloan School of Management who conducted a study of the factors which – according to their rendering of the testimony of the 60-odd years of data which they analysed in their paper, “The behaviour of aggregate corporate investment” – have historically exerted the most influence on the propensity for American businesses to ‘invest’.
The article itself starts by deploying that unfailingly patronising, ‘it’s economics 101′ cliché by which we should really have long ago learned to expect some weary truism will soon be rehashed as fresh journalistic wisdom.
It may be only partly an exaggeration to say that the weekly then adopts a breathless, teen-hysterical approach to a set of results which, with all due respect to the worthies who compiled them, should have been instantly apparent to anyone devoting a moment’s thought to the issue (and if that’s too big a task for the average Ekonomista writer, perhaps they could pause to ask one of those grubby-sleeved artisans who actually RUNS a business what it is exactly that they get up to, down there at the coalface of international capitalism). Far from being a Statement of the Bleedin’ Obvious, our fearless expositors of the Fourth Estate instead seem to regard what appears to be a tediously positivist exercise in data mining as some combination of the elucidation of the nature of the genetic code and the first exposition of the uncertainty principle. This in itself is a telling indictment of the mindset at work.
For can you even imagine what it was that our trio of geniuses ‘discovered’? Only that firms tend to invest more eagerly if they are profitable and if those profits (or their prospect) are being suitably rewarded with a rising share price – i.e. if their actions are contributing to capital formation, realised or expected, and hence to the credible promise of a maintained, increased, lengthened or accelerated schedule of income flows – that latter condition being one which also means the firms concerned can issue equity on advantageous terms, where necessary, in the furtherance of their aims.
[As an aside, do you remember when we used to ISSUE equity for purposes other than as a panic measure to keep the business afloat after some megalomaniac CEO disaster of over-leverage or as part of a soak-the-patsies cash-out for the latest batch of serial shell-gamers and their start-up sponsors?]
Shock, horror! Our pioneering profs then go on to share the revelation that firms have even been known to invest WHEN INTEREST RATES ARE RISING; i.e., when the specific real rate facing each firm (rather than the fairly meaningless, economy-wide aggregate rate observable in the capital market with which it is here being conflated) is therefore NOT estimated to constitute any impediment to the future attainment (or preservation) of profit. Whatever happened to the central bank mantra of the ‘wealth effect’ and its dogma about ‘channels’ of monetary transmission? How could those boorish mechanicals in industry not know they are only to invest when their pecuniary paramounts signal they should, by lowering official interest rates or hoovering up oodles of government securities?
At this point we might stop to insist that the supercilious, wielders of the ‘Eco 101’ trope at the Ekonomista note that these firms’ own heightened appetite for a presumably finite pool of loanable funds should firmly be expected to nudge interest rates higher precisely in order to bring forth the necessary extra supply thereof, just as a similar shift in demand would do in any other well-functioning market (DOH!), so please could they take the time in future to ponder the workings of cause and effect before they dare to condescend to us.
They might also reflect upon the fact that when the banking system functions to supplement such hard-won funds with its own, purely ethereal emissions of unsaved credit – thereby keeping them too cheap for too long and so removing the intrinsically self-regulating and helpfully selective effect which their increasing scarcity would otherwise have had on proposedschemes of investment – they pervert, if not utterly vitiate, a most fundamental market process. Having a pronounced tendency to bring about a profound disco-ordination in the system to the point of precluding a holistic ordering of ends and means as well as of disrupting the timetable on which the one may be transformed into the other, we Austrians recognize this as theprimary cause of that needless and wasteful phenomenon which is the business cycle. It is therefore decidedly not a cause for perplexity that investment, quote: ‘…expands and contracts far more dramatically than the economy as a whole’ as the Ekonomista wonderingly remarks
Nigh on unbelievable as it may appear to the policy-obsessed, mainstream journos who reviewed the academics’ work, all of this further implies that the past two centuries-odd of absolutely unprecedented and near-universal material progress did NOT take place simply because the central banks and their precursors courageously and unswervingly spent the whole interval doing ‘whatever it took’ to progressively lower interest rates to (and in some cases, through) zero! Somewhere along the line, one supposes that the marvels of entrepreneurship must have intruded, as well as what Deidre McCloskey famously refers to as an upsurge in ‘bourgeois dignity’ – i.e., the ever greater social estimation which came to be accorded to such agents of wholesale advance. This truly must shake the pillars of the temple of the cult of top-down, macro-economic command of which the Ekonomista is the house journal.
Remarkably, the Ekonomista’s piece is also daringly heterodox in inferring that, given this highly singular insensitivity to market interest rates, we might therefore return more assuredly to the long-forsaken path of growth if Mario Draghi and his ilk were to treat themselves to a long, contemplative sojourn, taking the waters at one of Europe’s idyllic (German) spa townsinstead of constantly hogging the limelight by dreaming up (and occasionally implementing) ever more involved, Cunning Plans directed towards driving people to act in ways in which they would otherwise not choose to do, but in which Mario and Co. conceitedly deem that they should.
Rather, the hacks have the temerity to assert – and here, Keynes be spared! – it might do much more for the investment climate if the Big Government to which they so routinely and so obsequiously defer were to pause awhile in its unrelenting programme to destroy all private capital, to suppress all economic initiative, and to restrict the disposition of income to thecentralized mandates of its minions and not to trust them to the delocalized vagaries of the market – all crimes which it more readily may perpetrate under the camouflage provided by the central banks’ mindless and increasingly counter-productive, asset-bubble inflationism.
Having reached this pass, might we dare to push the deduction one step closer to its logical conclusion and suggest that the only reason we continue today to suffer a malaise which the self-exculpatory elite (of whom none is more representative than the staff of the Ekonomista itself) loves to refer to as ‘secular stagnation’ is because its own toxic brew of patent nostrums is making the unfortunate patient upon whom it inflicts them even more sick? That, pace Obama the Great, The One True Indispensable Chief of the NWO, the three principal threats we currently face are not Ebola, but QE-bola – a largely ineradicable pandemic of destruction far more virulent than even that dreadful fever; not the locally disruptive Islamic State but the globally detrimental Interventionist State – the perpetrator of a similarly backward and repressive ideology which the IMF imamate seeks to impose on us all; and definitely not the Kremlin’s alleged (though highly disputable) revanchism being played out on Europe’s ‘fringe’ but the Kafkaesque reality of stifling and undeniable regulationism at work throughout its length and breadth?
We might end by reminding the would-be wearer of the One Ring, as He lurks warily, watching the opinion polls from His lair in the White House, that in being so active in propagating each one of these genuinely existential threats to our common well-being, He (capitalization ironically intended) will not so much ‘help light the world’ – as He nauseatingly claimed in His purple-drenched, sophomore’s set-piece at the UN recently – as help extinguish what little light there still remains to us poor, downtrodden masses.
Interest rates do not seem to affect investment as economists assume
IT IS Economics 101. If central bankers want to spur economic activity, they cut interest rates. If they want to dampen it, they raise them. The assumption is that, as it becomes cheaper or more expensive for businesses and households to borrow, they will adjust their spending accordingly. But for businesses in America, at least, a new study* suggests that the accepted wisdom on monetary policy is broadly (but not entirely) wrong.
Using data stretching back to 1952, the paper concludes that market interest rates, which central banks aim to influence when they set their policy rates, play some role in how much firms invest, but not much. Other factors—most notably how profitable a firm is and how well its shares do—are far more important (see chart). A government that wants to pep up the economy, says S.P. Kothari of the Sloan School of Management, one of the authors, would have more luck with other measures, such as lower taxes or less onerous regulation.
Establishing what drives business investment is difficult, not. These shifts were particularly manic in the late 1950s (both up and down), mid-1960s (up), and 2000s (down, up, then down again). Overall, investment has been in slight decline since the early 1980s.
Having sifted through decades of data, however, the authors conclude that neither volatility in the financial markets nor credit-default swaps, a measure of corporate credit risk that tends to influence the rates firms pay, has much impact. In fact, investment often rises when interest rates go up and volatility increases.
Investment grows most quickly, though, in response to a surge in profits and drops with bad news. These ups and downs suggest shifts in investment go too far and are often ill-timed. At any rate, they do little good: big cuts can substantially boost profits, but only briefly; big increases in investment slightly decrease profits.
Companies, Mr Kothari says, tend to dwell too much on recent experience when deciding how much to invest and too little on how changing circumstances may affect future returns. This is particularly true in difficult times. Appealing opportunities may exist, and they may be all the more attractive because of low interest rates. That should matter—but the data suggest it does not.
* “The behaviour of aggregate corporate investment”, S.P. Kothari, Jonathan Lewellen, Jerold Warner
“Sir, The next financial apocalypse is imminent. I know this to be true because the House & Home section in FT Weekend is now assuming the epic proportions last seen before the great crash. Twenty-four pages chock full of adverts for mansions and wicker tea-trays for $1,000. You’re all mad.
Sell everything and run for your lives.”
Letter to the FT from Matt Long, Seilh, France, 3rd October 2014.
“Investors unfortunately face enormous pressure—both real pressure from their anxious clients and their consultants and imagined pressure emanating from their own adrenaline, ego and fear—to deliver strong near-term results. Even though this pressure greatly distracts investors from a long-term orientation and may, in fact, be anathema to good long-term performance, there is no easy way to reduce it. Human nature involves the extremes of investor emotion—both greed and fear—in the moment; it is hard for most people to overcome and act in opposition to their emotions. Also, most investors tend to project near-term trends—both favourable and adverse—indefinitely into the future. Ironically, it is this very short-term pressure to produce—this gun to the head of everyone—that encourages excessive risk taking which manifests itself in several ways: a fully invested posture at all times; for many, the use of significant and even extreme leverage; and a market-centric orientation that makes it difficult to stand apart from the crowd and take a long-term perspective.”
Seth Klarman, Presentation to MIT, October 2007.
“At first, the pendulum was swinging towards infinite interest, threatening the dollar with hyperinflation. Right now the pendulum is swinging to the other extreme, to zero interest, spelling hyper-deflation. This is just as damaging to producers as the swing towards infinite interest was in the early 1980’s. It is impossible to predict whether one or the other extreme in the swinging of the wrecking ball will bring about the world economy’s collapse. Hyperinflation and hyper-deflation are just two different forms of the same phenomenon: credit collapse. Arguing which of the two forms will dominate is futile: it blurs the focus of inquiry and frustrates efforts to avoid disaster.”
Professor Antal Fekete, ‘Monetary Economics 101: The real bills doctrine of Adam Smith. Lecture 10: The Revolt of Quality’.
“Low interest rate policy has the following grave consequences:
Normally conservative investors are increasingly under duress and due to the outlook for interest rates remaining low for a long time, are taking on excessive risk. This leads to capital misallocation and the formation of bubbles.
The sweet poison of low interest rates and easy money therefore leads to massive asset price inflation (stocks, art, real estate).
Through carry trades, interest rates that are structurally too low in the industrialized nations lead to asset bubbles and contagion effects in emerging markets.
A structural weakening of financial markets, as reckless behaviour of market participants is fostered (moral hazard).
A change in human behaviour patterns, due to continually declining purchasing power. While thrift is slowly but surely transmogrified into a relic of the past, taking on debt becomes rational.
The acquisition of personal wealth becomes gradually more difficult.
The importance of money as a medium of exchange and a unit of account increases in importance relative to its role as a store of value.
Incentives for fiscal probity decline. Central banks have bought time for governments. Large deficits appear less problematic, there is no incentive to implement reform, resp. consolidate public finances in a sustainable manner.
The emergence of zombie-banks and zombie-companies. Very low interest rates prevent the healthy process of creative destruction. Zero interest rate policy makes it possible for companies with low profitability to survive, similar to Japan in the 1990s. Banks are enabled to nigh endlessly roll over potentially delinquent loans and consequently lower their write-offs.
Unjust redistribution (Cantillon effect): the effect describes the fact that newly created money is neither uniformly nor simultaneously distributed in the population. Monetary expansion is therefore never neutral. There is a permanent transfer of wealth from later to earlier receivers of new money.”
Ronald-Peter Stöferle, from ‘In Gold We Trust 2014 – Extended Version’, Incrementum AG.
The commentary will have its next outing on Monday 27th October.
“When sorrows come,” wrote Shakespeare, “they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Jeremy Warner for the Daily Telegraph identifies ten of them. His ‘ten biggest threats to the global economy’ comprise:
The threat of oil and gas price spikes;
A hard landing in China;
Normalisation of monetary policy in the Anglo-Saxon economies;
Euro zone deflation;
The size of the debt overhang;
House price bubbles;
Other than making the fair observation that stock markets (for example) are not entirely correlated to economic performance – an observation for which euro zone equity investors must surely be hugely grateful – we offer the following response.
Geopolitical risk, like the poor, will always be with us.
Yes, the prices for oil and natural gas could spike, but as things stand WTI crude futures have fallen by over 15% from their June highs, in spite of the clear geopolitical problems. And the US fracking revolution, in combination with fast-improving fundamentals for solar power, may turn out to be a secular (and disinflationary) game-changer for energy prices.
China, however, is tougher to dismiss. If we had any meaningful exposure to Chinese equity or debt we would be more concerned. But we don’t, so we aren’t.
Five of Jeremy Warner’s ‘threats’ are inextricably linked. The pending normalisation of monetary policy in the UK and US clearly threatens the integrity of the credit markets. It’s worth asking whether either central bank could possibly afford to let interest rates rise. This begets a follow-on question: could the markets afford to let the central banks off the hook ? Could we, in other words, finally see the return of the long absent and much desired bond market vigilantes ? That monetary policy rates are so low is a function of the growing prospect of euro zone deflation (less of a threat to solvent consumers, but deadly for heavily indebted governments). Absent a capitulation by the Bundesbank to Draghi’s hopes or intentions for full-blown QE, it’s difficult to see how the policy log-jam gets resolved. But since all German government paper out to three years now offers a negative yield, it’s difficult to see why any euro zone debt is worth buying today for risk-conscious investors. Cash is probably preferable and gives optionality into the bargain. ‘Secular stagnation’ is now a fair definition of the euro zone’s economic prospects. But all things lead back to Warner’s point 7: the size of the debt overhang. Since this was never addressed in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, it’s hardly a surprise to see its poison continue to drip onto all things financial. And since the policy response has been to slash rates and keep them at multi-century lows, it’s hardly a surprise to see property prices in the ascendant.
Complacent markets ? Check. But stocks have lost a lot of their nerve over the last week. Not before time.
Ageing populations ? Yes, but this problem has been widely discussed in the investment community over the past two decades – it simply isn’t new news.
We saw one particularly eye-catching chart last week, via Grant Williams, comparing the leverage ratios of major US financial institutions over recent years (shown below).
Source: Grant Williams, ‘Things that make you go Hmmm…’
The Fed’s leverage ratio (total assets to capital) now stands at just under 80x. That compares with Lehman Brothers’ leverage ratio, just before it went bankrupt, of just under 30x. Sometimes a picture really does paint a thousand words. And this, again, brings us back to the defining problem of our time, as we see it: too much debt in the system, and simply not enough ideas about how to bring it down – other than through inflationism, and even that doesn’t seem to be working quite yet.
In a recent interview with Jim Grant, Sprott Global questioned the famed interest rate observer about the likely outlook for bonds:
“What would a bear market in bonds look like? Would it be accompanied by a bear market in the stocks?
“Well, we have a pretty good historical record of what a bear market in bonds would look like. We had one in modern history, from 1946 to 1981. We had 25 years’ worth of persistently – if not steadily – rising interest rates, and falling bond prices. It began with only around a quarter of a percent on long-dates US Treasuries, and ended with about 15% on long-dated US Treasuries. That’s one historical beacon. I think that the difference today might be that the movement up in yield, and down in price, might be more violent than it was during the first ten years of the bear market beginning in about 1946. Then, it took about ten years for yields to advance even 100 basis points, if I remember correctly. One difference today is the nature of the bond market. It is increasingly illiquid and it is a market in which investors – many investors – have the right to enter a sales ticket, and to expect their money within a day. So I’m not sure what a bear market would look like, but I think that it would be characterized at first by a lot of people rushing through a very narrow gate. I think problems with illiquidity would surface in the corporate debt markets. One of the unintended consequences of the financial reforms that followed the sorrows of 2007 to 2009 is that dealers who used to hold a lot of corporate debt in inventories no longer do so. If interest rates began to rise and people wanted out, I think that the corporate debt market would encounter a lot of ‘air pockets’ and a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside.”
We like that phrase “a lot of very discontinuous action to the downside”. Grant was also asked if it was possible for the Fed to lose control of the bond market:
“Absolutely, it could. The Fed does not control events for the most part. Events certainly will end up controlling the Fed. To answer your question – yeah. I think the Fed can and will lose control of the bond market.”
As we have written on innumerable prior occasions, we wholeheartedly agree. Geopolitics, energy prices, demographics – all interesting ‘what if’ parlour games. But what will drive pretty much all asset markets over the near, medium and longer term is almost entirely down to how credit markets behave. The fundamentals, clearly, are utterly shocking. The implications for investors are, in our view, clear. And as a wise investor once observed, if you’re going to panic, panic early.