Authors

Economics

A conversation with John Llewellyn

Not your typical Cobden Centre interview, but hopefully thought-provoking …

John Llewellyn is one of the most highly regarded economists in Europe, having worked in the private sector, academia, and national and supranational policy institutions. He now runs his own consultancy, advising governments, multinational corporations, and institutional and private investors. He was educated in the neo-Keynesian tradition but, on becoming an applied economist, he became what he terms “an evidence-based eclectic”. As such John recognises the potential explanatory limitations of the Keynesian paradigm for a world of excessive debt and unprecedented policy activism. At present, he is concerned about what appears to be an unfolding, synchronised global cyclical downturn amidst what remains a structurally weak growth environment. The consensus is in his view too complacent in believing that recent policy stimulus actions will either lift growth rates or reduce debt burdens meaningfully over the coming 1-2 years.

BY WAY OF BACKGROUND…

Born in England, but raised in New Zealand, John Llewellyn attended The Victoria University of Wellington for his BA (Hons) degree and then Oxford University, where he obtained his DPhil. He then researched and taught at Cambridge University for nearly ten years, and was a Fellow of St John’s College. Thereafter, he moved to Paris to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the supranational economic policy analysis and forecasting organisation, where he rose from Head of Economic Forecasting to Deputy Director for Employment, and finally Chef de Cabinet to the Secretary General. In 1995 he moved to London, where he was Global Chief Economist for Lehman Brothers until 2005, when he became the firm’s Senior Economic Policy Adviser. Following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers he set up his own firm in 2009, Llewellyn Consulting, which specialises in thematic macro research (e.g. demographics, technological innovation, climate change) and economic risk assessment.

I came to know John during my time at Lehman Brothers in the mid-2000s, where I was the European Head of Interest Rate Strategy. We worked closely together to link economic forecasts and risks with practical, implementable strategies for the global interest rate and currency markets.

We both became deeply concerned by developments in global housing and credit markets in the mid-2000s, in particular in the US, agreeing that a dangerous bubble was forming in association with global trade and capital flow imbalances. On numerous occasions we presented our counterparts and other colleagues in New York with this view. It was not well received.

When the crisis began to unfold in 2007, and then intensified in 2008, neither of us was particularly
surprised. We did not, however, predict that not only Lehman Brothers but also a number of major financial institutions would fail. The intensity of the crisis and the aftermath of tepid growth, together with lingering structural problems and global imbalances, have caused both of us, each in our own way, to change the way we think about the world, and question some core assumptions. In general, this process has led us to become decidedly less optimistic in how we see the economic future.

John and I continue to speak on a weekly basis, and get together at least once a month to review global economic developments and assess the risks, as we see them. Recently, John identified an associated set of economic risks that could well result in a much sharper downturn in global growth over the coming year than the consensus expects. What follows below is a rough amalgamation of several informal, recent conversations between us about how John came to this view; about the risks associated with excessive debts and so-called ‘financial repression’; the future of the euro and possible alternatives to the current set of national economic policy choices. The conversation then turns to the financial markets.

THE GATHERING STORM

JB: John, in your most recent economic risks publication, you write that, in 2013, economic activity in nearly every part of the world is likely to slow. That is highly unusual. Normally there are at least a few pockets of strength that support demand for weaker economies. If that is not going to be the case, does this raise the risk of a generally sharper downturn across the world?

JL: It does. Conventional, single-economy, economic models assume stable and reasonably large fiscal and monetary multipliers. These are derived from historical observation. But there is little evidence about synchronised global downturns, so most of the data are irrelevant, or at least potentially misleading: policymakers are therefore likely to underestimate the size of the coming slowdown. This analytic point used to be one of the major reasons for, and messages from, the OECD; but the message is heard less these days. Were the US, the EU, or China to get traction with new stimulus in the near-term, then the slowdown would be less likely to be synchronised, and the consensus, as best I can tell, would be more likely to be correct that 2013 growth will be similar to 2012. On the other hand, if there is a further move toward outright tightening of policy, say due to the fiscal cliff in the US, or enhanced austerity in Europe, things could get worse.

JB: Let’s step back for a moment. Neither the fiscal cliff nor austerity would be an issue if debt burdens were lower, or growth higher, or both. Manageable debts are a nonissue. How did the developed world get into this mess? Is it purely a result of the financial crisis, or were there longer-term, structural forces at work, largely unseen by the policy mainstream?

JL: To some extent the answer differs from country to country. Some, like Greece and Portugal, were simply consuming beyond their means, and had to rein in total expenditure. Others, like Spain and Ireland, as well as the UK and the US, let leverage in their financial systems build up to such an extent that, when assets prices collapsed, the authorities had little option but, in effect, to nationalise the resulting private sector debt in order to keep the financial system functioning. But overlaying this in virtually all economies was, and is, a set of promises made by generations of politicians that they will be unable to meet, not least given the ageing of populations.

JB: Doesn’t this bring a central tenet of Keynesian economics into doubt, that you can borrow your way to prosperity? While countercyclical government borrowing and spending seems reasonable on paper, we now have quite a bit of empirical evidence that these debt burdens accumulate over time, that governments embrace deficit spending but eschew the offsetting surpluses required to keep finances in balance. Going forward, should we have faith that policy can be more responsible?

JL: The central tenet of Keynesianism is subtler than the bastardised version that came to be taught later. I was taught what I would term ‘classical Keynesianism’ in New Zealand, and had it reinforced at Cambridge by former colleagues of Keynes, such as Joan Robinson, Austin Robinson, Richard Kahn, Nicholas Kaldor, as well as more recent luminaries, such as Geoff Harcourt and John Eatwell. This central tenet is that borrowing works if it takes GDP back towards full employment, and fairly quickly, and if it kindles, or re-kindles, Keynes’ ‘animal spirits’ – the entrepreneur’s intrinsic faith such that he or she is willing to incur the certain cost of borrowing now in the expectation that he or she will earn a return in an unavoidably uncertain future. In other words, as Robin Matthews pointed out in the 1960s, Keynesianism works only if people believe it will work. Or, as Keynes observed, economies are held up by their own bootstraps.

FINANCIAL REPRESSION PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE

JB: Returning to the fix we appear to be in, I know you have thought extensively about policies that limit financial freedom in order to subsidise government debt service and reduction, collectively termed in the jargon as ‘financial repression’. Could you elaborate on this and how you see it developing going forward?

JL: Basically in such circumstances, governments do four things: they encourage inflation; they instruct the central bank to keep short rates and bond yields along the curve low; they oblige savers (including pension companies and insurance companies) to hold an increased proportion of their assets in government bonds; and they impose capital controls to prevent savers from taking their capital abroad in search of higher real yields.

JB: But does it work? Recall that Carmen Reinhart made explicit that ‘financial repression’ is historically associated with failing third-world governments desperate for public revenue. What does this imply about the developed world today? Are you troubled by this? Does it not seem, potentially, to be a road to ‘financial tyranny’? A road to Argentina, to name an obvious case in point?

JL: It does work; but of course it is troubling. The West has used these policies before. The UK, the US, and France amongst others did exactly what I have summarised to reduce public debt as a proportion of GDP after WWII. But there was a difference then: As various people of that generation have told me, they were completely aware at the time that the war bonds that they were buying would not be worth much, if anything, after the War. But they bought them nevertheless, because that was the price for having a chance to defeat tyranny. I am not sure that the younger generation will be so tolerant today with politicians and political parties who made promises only to get elected, and which they knew they could not fulfil.

PRESENT AT THE CREATION

JB: You were, to use a colloquial term, present at the creation of the euro. You knew some of the architects. You observed, indeed contributed to, some of the planning, as well as the implementation. And now you have observed the crisis unfolding. You have always held that the euro is a political project, and remains so. You are also on record as having more confidence than most that the euro will not only survive but that it will in time prove its detractors wrong, that it will enhance European economic performance through greater stability and integration.

Given recent developments, this seems a bold view to some. Would you care to elaborate?

JL: All economists involved in the creation of the euro knew that its initial institutional arrangements contained a number of important flaws. But those ‘present at the creation’ also knew that Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand knew this too. The Kohl / Mitterrand calculation was that they were the last generation fully able to appreciate the enormity of war in Europe; that they would bind their two economies together by ‘a thousand silken threads’; and that they would hope that when, in the future, the project ran into problems, their successors would choose to fix them rather than allow the union to break up. So far, the gamble has paid off. Of course, the British do not see it that way. They were told by Edward Heath that this was an economic union, and they believed him. And British economists in turn analyse the union purely in economic terms. That is a generalisation: but you get the point.

JB: You also hold, and rightly so I believe, that there is far too much focus on the troubles of the euro-area and not enough on those elsewhere. As a case in point, consider Japan, which has comparatively larger demographic issues with which to deal and which is, following a multi-decade period of sub-par growth, slipping out of trade surplus and into deficit. In my opinion, this is an issue not only for Japan but for the entire world. How do you feel about Japan?

JL: Under US guidance, Japan did a brilliant job after WWII in adapting its manufacturing sector to the Western (initially US) market which the US opened to it, and then widened further by admitting Japan to the OECD. But Japan’s policymakers drew a wrong conclusion: That the only way to grow was to sell goods to foreigners. As a result they never allowed any real competition, nor any structural reform, to take place in the service sector: They did not realise that they could get rich also by selling to themselves. To this day, they have not learned that lesson.

JB: It is so easy to forget that no single economy is a closed system. Especially today, given how globalised the world has become. Even the US, which has a comparatively small external sector, is today far more widely integrated into the global economy that it has ever been. There is also the non-trivial matter of the US providing the world’s reserve currency. Some argue that this ‘exorbitant privilege’, to use a term coined by former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, is not at risk. I know you disagree that the US is a ‘safe-haven’ in the way normally portrayed in the financial press. Could you please elaborate?

JL: A country is a safe haven right up until the moment when investors decide that it is not. The US economy produces a vast array of goods and services. If since WWII one had to hold monetary assets denominated in any currency, that currency would be the US dollar. Dollars can be converted into anything that one might conceivably want. But alternatives are emerging: The euro. The renminbi. At the least, investors will want to diversify; and indeed they are so doing. And if the US does not deal with its fiscal problem, the move away from the dollar will likely accelerate.

JB: But that is precisely the point: The US is not a safe haven. A safe haven cannot be a country that is at risk of devaluation, default, or some combination of the two. But that does leave a rather small list of countries, and I would suggest that none of them is realistically the provider of a dominant reserve currency, or the provider of sufficient additional aggregate demand to provide for Keynesian stimulus to bail the world out of its excessive debts. If this is the road we’re on, where does it lead? Can the economics profession continue to act as if the policy tools and actions that got us into this mess can get us out? Or does the solution lie elsewhere?

JL: Just as reflating one’s own economy requires that entrepreneurs and investors have faith in the future, so does reflating the world economy require that entrepreneurs and investors have faith in the currency or currencies that are attempting the reflating. I shudder to think what the world economy will look like of investors’ faith in the dollar declines, rather than revives.

FROM DEBT CRISES TO CURRENCY CRISES

JB: When a debt crisis becomes a currency crisis you have a problem that is an order of magnitude greater, because at that point you are not only distorting macro price signals via ‘financial repression’ but as there is now so little confidence in the stability of the currency, and households and businesses no longer have confidence in their ability to manage their time preferences effectively. Austrian economists would argue that this is so damaging that, if sustained, it will destroy an economy’s capital stock through severe resource misallocation. Do you have some sympathy with this view or is it too pessimistic?

JL: I have some sympathy, but also some humility. When economies are so far away from where they have even been in modern economic history; when the structure of our economies, with their much, much larger government sectors, is so unprecedented; and when we have been told so confidently what will happen by economists who engage in a priori theorising only to be proved wrong later, I am, I confess, rather more humble.

JB: The alternative to printing your way out of a debt burden is to allow for bankruptcy, restructuring and reorganisation of the capital stock to take place instead. Josef Schumpeter called this ‘creative destruction’, and he believed that it was not only helpful but in fact essential for economic progress. Might a severe recession be exactly the bitter medicine required at this point to save the patient, rather than more of the palliative to date that appears not to be working, or perhaps even making the problems worse? Would you argue that Britain’s basket case economy of the 1970s could only have been turned around in this way? Or could there have been a more mainstream, Keynesian way to go about it, such as an even larger currency devaluation?

JL: I have never liked ‘severe recession’ as the cure for anything. The spectre of all that lost output always appalls me. It smacks of the same mentality that advocated bloodletting and leeches. It has always seemed to me that more useful things could be done with potential output than just letting it flow out to sea. The state could build toll roads, harbours, airports, even certain types of housing, and sell them off later to the private sector when confidence returned. Surely that ought to be possible.

JB: Let’s move a bit closer to your current home. What about the UK of today? Does the UK need to undergo another Thatcher-like experience, something beyond timid ‘austerity’, including more meaningful structural reforms to make it more competitive internationally in exports? If so, would that be easier to accomplish were the UK to leave the EU? You have said that there is a distinct possibility of that in the coming few years.

JL: I think that leaving the EU is a distraction from the real issue, which is that UK companies are sitting on a pile of cash and are so uncertain about the future that they will not invest. Meanwhile households are trying to reduce their borrowing; and so is the government. The only thing to be done, in my view, would have been for the government to have undertaken the type of investment that companies otherwise would have done, and sell it on later. But that idea ran straight up against political dogma.

JB: But if the UK economy needs to rebalance, doesn’t the US need to as well? And on the other side of these trade deficits are trade surpluses elsewhere. Can the world continue to grow without first correcting these imbalances to at least some degree? And doesn’t history suggest that imbalances this large are ultimately corrected only in periods of unusually weak growth?

JL: Here you are putting your finger on a problem that Keynes highlighted at the end of WWII, but which Harry Dexter White, the senior US Treasury official at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, refused to acknowledge. Surpluses and deficits are mirror images of one another. Two sides of the same coin. There cannot be one without the other. Hence being in surplus is just as contributory to imbalances as being in deficit. In a properly run global world, policies would bear down on surplus economies and deficit economies equally. But they never do.

ON FINANCIAL MARKET VALUATIONS AND THE MONETARY FUTURE

JB: Taking into account our discussion so far, I think there are ample reasons why the stock market should appear ‘undervalued’ to many. P/E ratios may not be particularly high, even if profit margins are. The fact is, however, revenues simply cannot grow rapidly in this environment, at least not in real terms. And record profit margins cannot survive a proper global rebalancing as the cheap labour of emerging markets converges on the developed world. In my opinion, given the structural macroeconomic headwinds we have discussed, stock market valuations should, in fact, be at generational lows, perhaps below where they were in the early 1980s or early 1960s. Your thoughts?

JL: I think that that argument is correct as far as it goes. But given that investors are starting to lose confidence in paper assets, and particularly government paper, they want to hold something real: and that includes shares in companies. And it is not as if there is a stock market bubble – so far at least. PEs in the US and the UK are not far from their historical averages.

JB: But if stock market valuations need to adjust even lower from here, perhaps much lower if policymakers don’t embrace more meaningful structural reforms, and if bond markets are overvalued due to the risks of currency devaluations, where, exactly, is an investor to hide? I lean toward a diversified exposure to real assets, including raw commodities. Could you perhaps share your thoughts on that?

JL: Clearly, commodities, industrial, food, and of course gold, are obvious contenders.

JB: Speaking of gold, you are aware that I believe that there has now been so much global economic confidence lost that it will not be properly restored absent a return to some form of gold standard, if only for international rather than domestic commerce. While I know you are sceptical, you don’t disregard the idea entirely. You have mentioned before the possibility of an international pricing convention based on a ‘bancor’, a currency based on a fixed basket price of globally traded commodities. How might that work? And are you confident that there would be sufficient support for such a regime, given that global economic cooperation is endangered by the threat of competitive devaluation, trade wars and the rise of economic nationalism generally?

JL: It would work by governments setting fixed rates for converting currencies into a basket of commodities. I think that it makes logical sense; and it could help in spurring the production of commodities that would later be in demand as activity picked up. Kaldor thought a lot about this, and we discussed it when I worked under him. But equally, I am sure that it is a non-starter. Two decades of life in the OECD has shown me just how hard it is for countries to agree about anything so fundamental.

JB: Some economists simply dismiss the idea of a gold standard as archaic and unworkable. I don’t think you hold that strong an opinion. But what would you see as the primary disadvantages of a gold standard, or relative advantages of the current dollar reserve standard. Does it come down to how much confidence you have in policymakers?

JL: It is possible to have confidence in individual policymakers at the national level, while nevertheless having little confidence about their ability to agree to reforms to the international system as a whole. And that is where I come from. In any international negotiation of this sort, two types of country have disproportionate influence: the biggest; and those in current account surplus. Today, that would mean the US and China: and I doubt that they would agree on any reform that proved to be in the global interest.

IF JOHN WERE IN CHARGE

JB: Now I’m really going to put you on the spot. An economist of your stature must always be considered a potential candidate for a senior policy role, say as a senior advisor to a finance minister, or a member of a central bank policy committee. Were you to be appointed to a role in which you had a broad mandate to design and implement fiscal and monetary policy, say for the euro-area or the UK, what would you do? If hard choices need to be made and if you had the mandate to make them, what would these be?

JL: In the UK, about which I thought particularly as an adviser to the Treasury from 2009 to 2012, I would have “thrown everything at the 2008 crisis, including the kitchen sink” as my friend William Keegan put it and as, in fact, Alistair Darling did. And I would thereafter have set out on much the same course of fiscal consolidation as Darling did, and Osborne continued. I think that Paul Krugman and Ed Balls understate the risk that would attach to the government borrowing substantially more. But, as I indicated above, I would also have embarked on finding ways to support private-sector-like investment. My proposition throughout has been that the government should have been willing to underwrite, or undertake, investment that produces marketable output – ports; airports; toll roads; certain types of housing, etc. These could be valued and entered as an explicit, verifiable, line in the National Accounts, and could later be sold to the private sector. The ratings agencies would, on my understanding, have been open to such a plan being explained to them.

JB: I’m pleased to hear that there are things that might yet be done within the existing policy framework to help, at least if people listen to you a bit more! Thanks so much for your time; I’m certain that Amphora Report readers will appreciate it.

JL: Thank you John.

JB: Perhaps we can do this again in a year or so to see how things are panning out?

JL: It would be my pleasure. Perhaps you will even eventually win our bet that Greece withdraws from the euro-area.

JB: Well as you recall that bet expires on 31 December. It appears I will need to treat you to dinner in the New Year.

JL: Ah yes. Well as you strategists sometimes say, all views are potentially correct; the timing, however, is always uncertain.

JB: Indeed. Well Happy Holidays!

JL: To you too John.

POST-SCRIPT: FROM RISK TO UNCERTAINTY

My many conversations with John, including those recent ones merged into the transcript above, were an important input into my 2012 Amphora Reports. While the primary purpose of these reports is to interpret contemporary economic and financial market developments through the lens of Austrian economics (and occasional, plain common sense), it is essential to continuously check assumptions, however strongly held. As I’m certain is clear from the conversation(s) above, John has provided an invaluable source of such checking.

This is not to say that we agree on most things. Far from it. For example, as alluded to briefly in closing, I am of the opinion that the euro-area cannot survive in its current form. John believes that it is indeed salvageable, although he does doubt the willingness of policymakers to do what is necessary.
This brings us, I believe, to the crux of the risks the lie ahead. Policymaker activism continues to escalate across economies. This is not going to change in the near-term, nor absent another crisis that clearly and plainly discredits economic central planning generally, be it in fiscal or monetary matters. As has increasingly been the case in recent years, future risks are going to originate primarily from policy decisions. They will, in other words, be qualitative rather than quantitative in nature.

This article was previously published in The Amphora Report, Vol 3, 09 January 2013.

Economics

What’s wrong about the euro, and what is not

Every Monday morning the readers of the UK’s Daily Telegraph are treated to a sermon on the benefits of Keynesian stimulus economics, the dangers of belt-tightening and the unnecessary cruelty of ‘austerity’ imposed on Europe by the evil Hun. To this effect, the newspaper gives a whole page in its ‘Business’ section to Roger Bootle and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who explain that growth comes from government deficits and from the central bank printing money, and why can’t those stupid Europeans get it? The reader is left with the impression that, if only the European states could each have their little currencies back and merrily devalue and run some proper deficits again, Greece could be the economic powerhouse it was before the Germans took over.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (AEP) increasingly faces the risk of running out of hyperbolic war-analogies sooner than the euro collapses. For months he has been numbing his readership with references to the Second World War or the First World War, or to ‘1930s-style policies’ so that not even the most casual reader on his way to the sports pages can be left in any doubt as to how bad this whole thing in Europe is, and how bad it will get, and importantly, who is responsible. From declining car sales in France to high youth-unemployment in Spain, everything is, according to AEP, the fault of Germany, a ‘foolish’ Germany. Apparently these nations had previously well-managed and dynamic economies but have now sadly fallen under the spell of Angela Merkel’s Thatcherite belief in balancing the books and her particularly Teutonic brand of fiscal sadism.

Blame it on ze Germans

The pending bankruptcy of France’s already semi-nationalized car industry is, of course, not to be blamed on high French taxes, strangling French labour market regulation, increasingly uncompetitive French wages, and grave business errors – French car companies have been falling behind their German rivals for years – but the result of French ‘austerity’, which hasn’t even started yet and will culminate in – quote AEP, and drum roll please! – a ‘shock therapy’ next year of 2 percent. Mind you, France’s state has a 57% share in GDP, and the economy deserves the label socialist more than capitalist. Does France really need more state spending, or even unchanged state spending? Another government stimulus? I bet you could cut the French state by 10 percent instantly, and in a year or two you’d have faster growth, not slower growth!

However, Monsieur Hollande is eager to live up to his socialist promises, all the egalité he was voted for, and does not shrink the state but instead raises taxes further, lowers the pension age and raises minimum wages, none of this a demand from Rosa Klebb in Berlin, as far as I know, but AEP doesn’t quibble over such detail. It is all ‘austerity’ to him and ‘austerity’ is always imposed by Germany, and to make really sure that you get that this is a bad idea, and a bad idea coming from Germany, he now calls it the ‘contractionary holocaust’.

Nice touch. There is no place for subtlety, I guess.

Bootle does not stoop quite so low but his pieces are equally filled with the Keynesian myth that there is no economic problem that cannot be solved by more debt and easy money and the occasional devaluation. The fallacy here is the standard Keynesian one: there is no limit to debt, the market doesn’t matter, people can be fooled forever.

The real issue

The reality is different: the markets are slowly waking up to the fact that the social-democratic welfare-state that dominated the West since the First World War is going bust. Everywhere. Faster in some places (Greece, the UK), more slowly in others (Germany), but the direction and the endpoint are the same. This is not a specifically European problem, or even one that is particularly linked to the single currency project; it is pretty much a global phenomenon, and it will shape politics for years to come. It is naïve, dangerous and even irresponsible to dress this up as a design-fault of the euro and thus imply that the problem would be smaller or more easily manageable, or even non-existent, if countries could only issue their own currencies, print money, keep running deficits and devalue to their hearts’ content. The false impression that is being conveyed by Bootle and AEP is that Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy could somehow simply turn back the clock and, in the more open, more competitive world of the 21st century still run the cosy big state, high inflation, frequent debasement policies of the 1970s.

Bootle and AEP represent the naïve Keynesianism that still believes deficits just pop up in recessions as a ‘natural corrective’ – in fact, AEP exactly describes it that way. The truth is, countries like Greece have been running big deficits in good times and now run bigger deficits in bad times, and they are far from being alone in this. Since the introduction of unconstrained fiat money, most states see no need to balance the books but operate blissfully under the assumption that they can keep accumulating debt forever. Since Greece joined the euro and thereby benefitted from lower borrowing costs, the country’s average wage bill went up 60%, compared to 15% in Germany over the same period. Present Greek structures are simply unsustainable. An economy that has been stifled for decades by the persistent political rent-seeking of its powerful, connected and self-serving interest groups, by an overgrown public sector and uncompetitive wages, simply will not be reinvigorated by yet more debt. And in any case, the bond market has now had enough and won’t fund the Greek state any more anyway. Letting deficits rise, as AEP suggests, is no longer even an option. Not now in Greece, and soon elsewhere. Austerity is, increasingly, not a policy choice but an unavoidable necessity.

So what about devaluation? — It is a bad idea. It must mean inflation, the confiscation of wealth from savers – and savers are the backbone of any functioning economy, even though Bootle and AEP apparently believe it is the state and the central bank that make the economy tick – it must lead to persistent capital flight and hinder the build-up of a productive capital stock. And once you have accumulated a certain level of debt, devaluing the currency could undermine confidence completely and end in hyperinflation, default and total economic destruction.

No country has ever become prosperous by having a soft currency and devaluing repeatedly, yet many have become poor. A hundred years ago, Argentina was among the 8 richest nations in the world and has since managed to decline from first world status to third world status through persistent currency debasement. Since the end of Bretton Woods, Britain has consistently debased its currency, more rapidly than Germany or even the United States, a policy that has undoubtedly contributed to the country’s de-industrialization over this period, its high debt-load, low savings rate and its dependence on cheap money that lasts to this day.

True and lasting prosperity – as opposed to make-believe bubble wealth – has the same sources everywhere and at all times: true savings, proper capital accumulation, and as a result, rising labour productivity. Hard money is the best foundation for these powerful drivers of wealth creation to do their work.

Default instead of devaluation

It is not my goal to defend the policy of the German government or of Chancellor Merkel here. The present policy is wrong in many ways and will fail. But the reasons and my conclusions are different from those advanced by AEP and Bootle. Merkel is desperately trying to pretend that these governments are not bankrupt, that the debt will be repaid, and in so doing she throws good money – that of the German taxpayer – after bad. Most of the governments in Europe, plus the US, the UK and Japan, are unlikely to ever repay their debt, and the big risk is that, once the 40-year fiat money boom that facilitated this bizarre debt extravaganza has ended for good, and the illusion of living forever beyond your means has evaporated, a lot of that debt will have to be restructured, which means it will be defaulted on. That is not the end of the world, albeit the end of the type of government largesse that has defined politics in the West for generations, and it will be the end of the modern welfare state, and herald an era of proper austerity, imposed by the reality of the market and not the Germans. The question is only if policymakers will desperately try and postpone the inevitable and in the process also destroy their fiat monies.

In the case of Greece and Portugal and other countries, default should simply be allowed to occur, a proper default, not the type of managed default that Greece went through and that left the country with more debt as a result of more official aid – all in the vain attempt to pretend the country is somehow still solvent and creditworthy. Whether any issuer is solvent or not, is not decided by a bunch of Eurocrats in Brussels but by the market. The market is not lending to Greece, ergo Greece is bankrupt. Period. It would be better for everybody to admit it.

Germany is far from healthy. It, too, is travelling on the road to fiscal Armageddon, just at a slower speed. Merkel’s policy of bailing out her ‘European partners’ – a policy for which she gets little credit from AEP, Bootle and the rest of Europe – will only hasten that process.

Proper defaults on government debt would also teach bond investors a lesson, namely that they should not engage in the socially destructive practice of channelling scarce savings through the government bond market into the hands of politicians and bureaucrats with the aim of obtaining a ‘safe’ income stream out of the state’s future tax receipts (i.e. stolen goods) but to instead invest savings in capitalist enterprise and thus fund the creation and maintenance of a productive, wealth-enhancing capital stock. Losing their money in allegedly ‘safe’ government bonds is, quite frankly, what they deserve.

In defence of a common currency

None of this means that defaulting nations should be forced to leave the single currency. There is, in most cases, simply no need for leaving, and staying in a widely shared common currency does indeed have many benefits.

The idea that numerous countries – even countries with very diverse economic characteristics – should share the same money is entirely sensible and highly recommendable. Money is a medium of exchange that helps people interact on markets and cooperate via trade, and this cooperation does not stop at political borders. Money is valuable because it connects people via trade, and the more people money can connect (the more widely accepted and widely used any form of money is), the more valuable it is, and the more beneficial its services are to society overall. Yes, the best money would be universal money, global money, such as a global gold standard. It is nonsense to have money tied to the nation state. This type of thinking is a relic of the 19th century when the myth could still be maintained that a ‘national economy’ – somehow magically congruous with the political nation state – existed, and that the national government should manipulate the national money according to national objectives. That is the type of thinking that Bootle and AEP epitomize. Although, already by the late 19th century, this myth of the national economy was dying, as the Classical Gold Standard began to provide a stable global monetary framework that allowed peaceful cooperation across borders by vastly different states, and heralded a period of unprecedented globalization, harmonious economic relations and relative economic stability.

Every form of money is more valuable the wider its use. Currency competition is deceptively appealing to many free marketeers, and as an advocate of pure capitalism, I would never stop anybody from introducing a new form of money. But the economic good ‘money’ conveys enormous network benefits. Because of its very nature as a facilitator of trade, there will always be an extremely powerful tendency for the trading public to adopt a uniform medium of exchange, that is, for everybody to adopt the same money.

There is a persistent fallacy out there, and Bootle and AVP are among its numerous victims: the fallacy is that countries can do better economically by cleverly manipulating their own domestic monies. This is erroneous on a very fundamental level. Any easing of financial conditions through extra money creation, through an extra bit of inflation or a bit of devaluation, can never bestow lasting benefits. Such manipulations of money can only ever result in short-lived growth blips, at the most, and these growth blips always come at the price of severe economic costs in the medium to long run. Monetary manipulation is never a free lunch. It is always damaging in the final analysis.

Being part of a currency-union means the end of national monetary policy, and that is, on principle, to be welcome. The main problem with monetary policy today is that there is such a thing as monetary policy. Money should be hard, inflexible, apolitical and universally accepted to best deliver whatever services money can deliver to society. The problem with the euro is not that it encapsulates so many diverse countries but that it is not hard, not inflexible, and not apolitical. The euro is a paper currency, and like any state fiat money it is a political tool, constantly manipulated to achieve certain ends, and over which ends to pursue there is, quite naturally, almost constant conflict.

If only the euro was golden!

Some people say that the euro is like a gold standard and that its failure demonstrates the undesirability of a return to gold. This is nonsense. To the contrary, the euro would work better if it operated more like the gold standard and if it was as hard, as inflexible and as non-political as gold. Then, interest rates could not have been kept artificially low back in the early 2000s, for the benefit of Germany and France, a policy that laid the foundation for the real estate and debt bubbles in the EMU-periphery. Then banks could not have ballooned their balance sheets quite as much as they did with the help of the ECB and not have dragged us all into a major banking crisis, and once the banks had self-destructed, they could not have been bailed out with unlimited ECB loans and artificially low and even lower rates so that they might continue in their merry reckless ways. Today’s major imbalances, from over-extended and weak banks to excessive levels of debt, are inconceivable in a hard money system. But even now that these imbalances have been allowed to accumulate, it would still be preferable to go back to hard and inflexible money. Under a hard money system politicians and bureaucrats cannot lie and cheat and pretend, at least not as much as they can today. Hard money has a tendency to expose illusions.

This is not a defence of the EU, which is a wretched project, and increasingly morphs into a meddling, arrogant super-state, an ever more potent threat to our liberty and our prosperity. I am not particularly keen on the fiat-euro either. But still, the idea of many countries sharing the same currency is a good one. No question.

If Bootle and AEP were right that weaker nations should opt for weaker currencies, for the monetary quick-fixes of devaluation and inflation, what would that mean for so-called national currencies? By that logic, shouldn’t Italy not only exit the euro and return to the lira, but instead adopt a number of different local liras? Should Italy’s Mezzogiorno not issue its own super-soft currency and devalue against the hard lira of the north? Why should these two diverse regions be tied together under the same currency? Should Scotland have its own currency and happily devalue versus more prosperous South East England? And wouldn’t Liverpool and Manchester not benefit from their own monies, conveniently manipulated to stimulate and reinvigorate their local economies? The absurdity of the whole idea becomes quickly apparent.

But AEP is quite happy with his little island nation state. The extent to which he hopelessly underestimates the challenges facing his home nation – and by extension, the world – becomes apparent when he assures the reader that he, AEP, too, supports modest austerity, namely the present coalitions’ pathetic and entirely insufficient attempt of trimming spending by ‘1 pc of GDP each year’, ‘thankfully’ (AEP) flanked by generous debt monetization from the Bank of England and constantly checked by the Labour Party’s opportunistic clamouring for more deficit spending. Well, last I checked, the UK was running 8 pc deficits per annum. Next to Japan, Britain is the most highly geared society on the planet (private and public debt combined), and when the markets pull the plug on this island nation, the fallout might make Greece look like a walk in the park.

But then, AEP won’t be able to blame it on the Germans.

In the meantime, the debasement of paper money continues.

This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.

Economics

Godfrey Bloom MEP on Germany’s “golden opportunity”

Episode 73: GoldMoney’s Andy Duncan talks to Godfrey Bloom, who represents Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire in the European Parliament, and who is a member of the parliament’s Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs. They talk about the possibility of Germany instituting a gold-backed Deutschmark, and broader issues to do with European monetary and fiscal policy.

In a recent Mises.org daily article co-authored with Patrick Barron, Mr Bloom states that Germany now has a “Golden Opportunity” to get back to sound money by pulling out of the euro and introducing a gold-backed Deutschmark. However, given the lack of a comprehensive audit, suspicions about the integrity of the German gold reserves remain. Bloom therefore advocates that Germany should repatriate its physical gold from the storage locations abroad.

They also talk about monetary policies of the European Union, the errors of European politicians and whether or not the eurozone can be sustained. In addition, they also discuss Britain’s relationship with the EU and Britain’s own precarious financial position, particularly in relation to its welfare state and deficit spending.

This podcast was recorded on 21 November 2012 and previously published at GoldMoney.com.

Economics

A golden path: reply to Professor Cochran

In his recent Mises Daily article “Fool’s Gold Standards“, John P. Cochran warns his readers against accepting any monetary reform less than that of money created by the free market. Therefore, he felt it necessary to criticize our previous Mises Daily article “A Golden Opportunity,” in which we advised Germany to leave the European Monetary Union, reinstate the deutsche mark, and tie it to gold.

Although he admits that our “recommendation may be a step in the right direction … it leaves Germany with a central bank and a discretionary monetary policy.” That it does — for now.

In no way was our essay intended to imply that central-bank control of gold-backed money was the point at which we desired monetary reform to cease. As Austrian economists, we fully understand and support the goal of full monetary freedom of the marketplace as that which best advances liberty, prosperity, and peace. The question becomes, how will we achieve it?

We believe that Germany is in a unique position to end the destructive forces of fiat monetary expansion that seem to gain new impetus every day. That is number one. Before we can have the perfect money, we must have a better money, and Germany is in a position to show us the way. All of us who desire liberty, prosperity, and peace should ask Germany to seize this opportunity to stop what surely will destroy free-market capitalism. By reinstating the deutsche mark and tying it to its vast gold holdings, Germany can be the catalyst that creates a cascade of similar virtuous acts that will lead eventually to full monetary freedom and all that that will bring.

Consider the likely consequences of the world’s fourth-largest economy establishing a 100 percent gold-backed currency. This currency would dominate world trade, because all trading nations would desire to denominate their exchanges in the soundest money available. For a while at least, that would be the deutsche mark. Demand would drop for the currencies of all other nations unless and until these countries did the same thing. A virtuous cycle would ensue as first one then another country linked its currency to gold. The country with the most to lose would be the United States, whose dollar currently is preferred for international trade. But as demand increased first for the deutsche mark and later for the currencies of other nations who followed Germany’s example, demand for the dollar would fall and prices would rise precipitously in the United States as countries no longer found it advantageous to hold dollars abroad. At this point, the United States would be forced to return to gold. In our opinion, nothing less will bring the world’s superpower to its senses; i.e., the United States will not voluntarily adopt gold, because it benefits the most from the current inflationary system. However, if the major trading nations of the world adopt gold-backed currencies, even the United States will be forced by the market to do so.

But this is not the end. Once the peoples of the world see the advantages to using gold money, they will begin to understand that central banks are not required to perform the money function at all. Why couldn’t HSBC, Citibank, Barclays, Deutsche Bank, or any of a number of well-respected international private banks do the same? These international banks are more nimble than any ossified government bank to meet the needs of business and finance. Furthermore, these international banks are more trustworthy than national central banks, which tend to operate in great secrecy in order to hide the risk they are taking with our money. Private banks would have to answer to stockholders employing their own independent auditors.

Consider how religious toleration arose in the West, first as an expediency by princes who vied for power with the Catholic Church. Different religions were established and protected by the state. But over time, religious tolerance came to be seen as a good in itself. Today we accept religious tolerance in the West as a universal given, yet it is a relatively recent phenomenon.

It is in this vein that we recommend that Germany end the tyranny of the inflationary euro and adopt a golden deutsche mark. Such a courageous yet self-protective action will lead to a U-turn in monetary policy, away from monetary destruction and toward better and better money everywhere.

This article was previously published at Mises.org.

Economics

The myth of austerity

Many politicians and commentators such as Paul Krugman claim that Europe’s problem is austerity, i.e., there is insufficient government spending. The common argument goes like this: Due to a reduction of government spending, there is insufficient demand in the economy leading to unemployment. The unemployment makes things even worse as aggregate demand falls even more, causing a fall in government revenues and an increase in government deficits. European governments pressured by Germany (which did not learn from the supposedly fateful policies of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning) then reduce government spending even further, lowering demand by laying off public employees and cutting back on government transfers. This reduces demand even more in a never ending downward spiral of misery. What can be done to break out of the spiral? The answer given by commentators is simply to end austerity, boost government spending and aggregate demand. Paul Krugman even argues in favor for a preparation against an alien invasion, which would induce government to spend more. So the story goes. But is it true?

First of all, is there really austerity in the eurozone? One would think that a person is austere when she saves, i.e., if she spends less than she earns. Well, there exists not one country in the eurozone that is austere. They all spend more than they receive in revenues.

In fact, government deficits are extremely high, at unsustainable levels, as can been seen in the following chart that portrays government deficits in percentage of GDP. Note that the figures for 2012 are what governments wish for.

The absolute figures of government deficits in billion euros are even more impressive.

A good picture of “austerity” is also to compare government expenditures and revenues (relation of public expenditures and revenues in percentage).

Imagine that a person you know spends 12 percent more in 2008 than her income, spends 31 percent more than her income the next year, spends 25 percent more than her income in 2010, and 26 percent more than her income in 2011. Would you regard this person as austere? And would you regard this behavior as sustainable? This is what the Spanish government has done. It shows itself incapable of changing this course. Perversely, this “austerity” is then made responsible for a shrinking Spanish economy and high unemployment.

Unfortunately, austerity is the necessary condition for recovery in Spain, the eurozone, and elsewhere. The reduction of government spending makes real resources available for the private sector that formerly had been absorbed by the state. Reducing government spending makes profitable new private investment projects and saves old ones from bankruptcy.

Take the following example. Tom wants to open a restaurant. He makes the following calculations. He estimates the restaurant’s revenues at $10,000 per month. The expected costs are the following: $4,000 for rent; $1,000 for utilities; $2,000 for food; and $4,000 for wages. With expected revenues of $10,000 and costs of $11,000 Tom will not start his business.

Let’s now assume that the government is more austere, i.e., it reduces government spending. Let’s assume that the government closes a consumer-protection agency and sells the agency’s building on the market. As a consequence, there is a tendency for housing prices and rents to fall. The same is true for wages. The laid-off bureaucrats search for new jobs, exerting downward pressure on wage rates. Further, the agency does not consume utilities anymore, leading toward a tendency of cheaper utilities. Tom may now rent space for his restaurant in the former agency for $3,000 as rents are coming down. His expected utility bill falls to $500, and hiring some of the former bureaucrats as dish washers and waiters reduces his wage expenditures to $3,000. Now with expected revenue at $10,000 and costs at $8,500 the expected profits amounts to $1,500 and Tom can start his business.

As the government has reduced spending it can even reduce tax rates, which may increase Tom’s after-tax profits. Thanks to austerity the government could also reduce its deficit. The money formerly used to finance the government deficit can now be lent to Tom for an initial investment to make the former agency’s rooms suitable for a restaurant. Indeed, one of the main problems in countries such as Spain these days is that the real savings of the people are soaked up and channeled to the government via the banking system. Loans are practically unavailable for private companies, because banks use their funds to buy government bonds in order to finance the public deficit.

In the end, the question amounts to the following: Who shall determine what is produced and how? The government that uses resources for its own purposes (such as a “consumer-protection” agency, welfare programs, or wars), or entrepreneurs in a competitive process and as agents of consumers, trying to satisfy consumer wants with ever better and cheaper products (like Tom, who uses part of the resources formerly used in the government agency for his restaurant).

If you think the second option is better, austerity is the way to go. More austerity and less government spending mean fewer resources for the public sector (fewer “agencies”) and more resources for the private sector, which uses them to satisfy consumer wants (more restaurants). Austerity is the solution to the problems in Europe and in the United States, as it fosters sustainable growth and reduces government deficits.

Lower GDP?

But does austerity not at least temporarily reduce GDP and lead to a downward spiral of economic activity?

Unfortunately, GDP is a quite misleading figure. GDP is defined as the market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given period.

There are two minor reasons why a lower GDP may not always be a bad sign.

The first reason relates to the treatment of government expenditures. Let us imagine a government bureaucrat who licenses businesses. When he denies a license for an investment project that never comes into being, how much wealth is destroyed? Is it the expected revenues of the project or its expected profits? What if the bureaucrat has unknowingly prevented an innovation that could save the economy billions of dollars per year? It is hard to say how much wealth destruction is caused by the bureaucrat. We could just arbitrarily take his salary of $50,000 per year and subtract it from private production. GDP would be lower.

Now hold your breath. In practice, the opposite is done. Government expenditures count positively in GDP. The wealth destroying activity of the bureaucrat raises GDP by $50,000. This implies that if the government licensing agency is closed and the bureaucrat is laid off, then the immediate effect of this austerity is a fall in GDP by $50,000. Yet, this fall in GDP is a good sign for private production and the satisfaction of consumer wants.

Second, if the structure of production is distorted after an artificial boom, the restructuring also entails a temporary fall in GDP. Indeed, one could only maintain GDP if production remained unchanged. If Spain or the United States had continued to use their boom structure of production, they would have continued to build the amount of housing they did in 2007. The restructuring requires a shrinking of the housing sector, i.e., a reduced use of factors of production in this sector. Factors of production must be transferred to those sectors where they are most urgently demanded by consumers. The restructuring is not instantaneous but organized by entrepreneurs in a competitive process that is burdensome and takes time. In this transition period, when jobs are destroyed in the overblown sectors, GDP tends to fall. This fall in GDP is just a sign that the necessary restructuring is underway. The alternative would be to produce the amount of housing of 2007. If GDP did not fall sharply, it would mean that the wealth-destroying boom was continuing as it did in the years 2005–2007.

Conclusion

Public austerity is a necessary condition for private flourishing and a rapid recovery. The problem of Europe (and the United States) is not too much but too little austerity — or its complete absence. A fall of GDP can be an indicator that the necessary and healthy restructuring of the economy is underway.

This article was previously published at Mises.org.

Economics

The Keynesians’ new clothes

It might seem like yesterday to some but it was already in 2009 that politicians in Europe began to talk about ‘austerity’, a concept that quickly became the new black in European political fashion. In brief, austerity in Europe is based on the idea that the accumulated sovereign debts are now dangerously large and need to be reduced by some combination of temporary (so they claim) tax increases and spending cuts. Once the debt is reduced to a more manageable level, so the thinking goes, taxes can be cut and spending restored to the previous level.

Sounds oh-so reasonable now, doesn’t it? The problem is, however, it isn’t working. As we approach the end of 2012, in every instance of austerity being applied, economic growth is weaker and government deficits higher than projected, the result being that the accumulated debt burdens continue to grow. Indeed, they are growing more rapidly than prior to the onset of austerity!

Now one key reason for this is that, concerned about the dire state of the economies in question, the financial markets have dramatically driven up their governments’ borrowing costs. Private sector investors seem unwilling to underwrite the risk that austerity might not work. To a small extent, the European Central Bank (ECB) has stepped in to fill the funding gap, purchasing selective clips of bonds from distressed euro-area governments, but this provides only temporary support.[1]

The simple math of the matter is that unless borrowing costs fall substantially, austerity will fail. But how to bring down borrowing costs when private investors are not convinced austerity is going to work? Why, have the ECB take a much larger role. Hence the showdown between the German Bundesbank, opposed to open-ended bank and sovereign bail-outs, and, well, just about every euro-area politician, policy maker and Eurocrat involved. Let’s briefly explore this important tangent.

AUFTRITT DER UNBEUGSAME WEIDMANN
(ENTER THE UNYIELDING WEIDMANN)

To outside observers, this situation may seem rather odd. Following the introduction of the euro, the Bundesbank ceded power over German monetary policy and, by extension of the German mark’s previous role as anchor currency, over euro-area monetary policy as well. (The Bundesbank retains an important regulatory and supervisory role with respect to German financial institutions.) So how is it, exactly, that the Bundesbank is somehow in a position to resist what has now become a near universal euro-area march toward some form of debt monetisation?

Well, as it happens, the German public hold the Bundesbank in rather high regard. Most Germans recall how the Bundesbank long presided over Europe’s largest economy, maintaining price stability and fostering a sustained relative economic outperformance. Many Germans probably recall how, on multiple occasions, the Bundesbank successfully resisted inflationary government policy initiatives. Older Germans recall how the Bundesbank contributed to the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the 1950s and 1960s. And Germans know that the ECB was supposedly modelled on the Bundesbank and the euro on the German mark.

So when the Bundesbank speaks, Germans listen. And when the Bundesbank voices concern over ECB or German government policy, Germans become concerned. And so it is today. It has been widely reported in the German press that Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann has threatened to resign at least once in protest over potential German government participation in inflationary bail outs of distressed euro-area banks and governments. Apparently Chancellor Merkel has pleaded for Weidmann to remain at the helm and so far she has succeeded. [2]

But what if she should fail? What if Weidmann does indeed resign in protest at some point? His former colleagues Axel Weber and Juergen Stark have already done so (In Stark’s case, from the ECB, not the Bundesbank). What if some of his Bundesbank board colleagues join him?

I can’t emphasise this point enough: The institution of the Bundesbank is held in such high regard among the German public that should Weidmann and any portion of his colleagues resign in formal protest of bailouts in whatever form, it may well bring down the German government, throw any bailout arrangement into complete chaos, spark a huge rout in distressed euro-area sovereign and bank debt and quite possibly result in a partial or even complete breakup of the euro-area. The Bundesbank thus represents the normally unseen foundation on which the entire euro project rests. Should it remove its support, it may all come crashing down.

But why would the Bundesbank ever do such a thing? Isn’t it just a bureaucracy like any other, expected to serve the government? Well, no. Consider the unique role of the Bundesbank under German Law. It is not answerable to the government. It is its own regulator. Its board members are appointed by the president—the head of state—not the chancellor, the head of the government. Its employees are sworn to secrecy during both their active service and in retirement. The Bundesbank alone determines whether its employees have infringed its code of conduct and determines what disciplinary actions, if any, should be taken.

Weidmann’s intransigence is thus entirely in line with German law and tradition. The Bundesbank, by design, will confront the government if it believes that such action is necessary to carry out its mandate. And what is that mandate? As per the original Bundesbank Act, “The preservation of the value of German currency.” Previously the mark, the euro is now the German currency and the Bundesbank’s mandate is to preserve its value. Needless to say, open-ended bailouts of euro-area banks and sovereign countries would, without question, threaten that value.

You can be certain that when President Weidmann said earlier this year that what was being proposed by the ECB “violated its mandate,” he chose his words very, very carefully. In a subsequent speech on the same topic, he quoted from Goethe’s Faust, arguably the most famous play in German literature and a classic warning against hubris and temptation. You don’t do that if you are not deadly serious.[3] The implication, no doubt, is that Weidmann is sending a message that the Bundesbank is independent of the ECB with respect to determining whether or not ECB policies are consistent with “the preservation of the value of German currency,” which now happens to be the euro. The Bundesbank has thus re-assumed this dormant but ultimate power over German monetary policy. Under just what circumstances it will choose to exercise it, I don’t know, but if the German and other euro-area governments continue along the road to bailouts, it will almost certainly happen at some point, presenting the greatest challenge yet to the sustainability of EMU in its current form.

WHY ‘AUSTERITY’ DOESN’T WORK

As mentioned earlier, austerity isn’t working, in many countries largely because borrowing costs are not declining. But if austerity were credible, they would. What is it about austerity as implemented that is failing to win over bond investors?

I have some ideas. First, note that, so far at least, austerity in practice is more about tax increases than spending cuts. However, the countries in question are already among the most highly taxed in the world. As Arthur Laffer and others have suggested in theory and has often been observed in practice, beyond a certain point, tax increases not only fail to generate additional revenue but actually reduce it. (It so happens that the Scandinavian debt crisis of the early 1990s was addressed not with tax increases but with tax cuts, as well as spending cuts. Rapid growth followed, although for a variety of reasons including substantial currency devaluation.)

Second, consider that the countries in question have enormous accumulated debt burdens, in some cases previously disguised and underreported. Cooking the books does not instill investor confidence. Yet paying down such a large debt mountain is going to take a long, long time. Today’s investors need to trust not only today’s politicians, but their successors down the road, to make good on promises that will remain subject to political opportunism and expedience for many years.

Third, governments may talk a good game but can they walk the walk? A close look at European ‘austerity’ legislation reveals that actual spending cuts are few and far between. What is being proposed in most cases is that the rate of spending increases declines. But an increase is still an increase and absent healthy economic growth needs to be financed with, you guessed it, more debt. Investors may want to see real rather than ‘faux’ austerity before accepting lower debt yields.

Fourth, let’s consider the possibility that what investors are really interested in is not some accounting plan that looks nice on paper, assuming governments can rein in runaway spending, but rather a more comprehensive plan that fundamentally reforms economies, making them more flexible and competitive. If growth is not to be provided by deficit spending—the traditional welfare state model—it must be provided by an unsubsidised private sector. If an economy lacks capital or skilled workers, or taxes either labour or capital at too high a rate, it is not going to be able to grow and pay down debt. Such fundamental reform remains essentially off the table in the austerity plans discussed to date.

Finally, let’s turn to a technical but extremely important point, namely, how austerity as observed in practice adds further evidence to the already substantial pile demonstrating that the dominant neo-Keynesian paradigm held by the economic policy mainstream is itself deeply flawed.

INCONVENIENT MULTIPLIER MATHS

The difficulties with austerity go beyond merely placating the bond markets. The fact is, a large debt burden is a huge economic problem. Sure it is preferable to be able to finance the debt at low rates, but if you want to pay it down you must divert resources from elsewhere. That is going to be painful at any interest rate. But such are the political pressures on the modern welfare state that the accumulation of an excessive, unserviceable debt over time is a near certainty.

Why should this be so? Well, back in the days before the modern welfare, or ‘nanny’ state, politicians didn’t pretend to have solutions for everything. If you were overweight, it was your problem. If your kids didn’t learn basic reading, writing and numeracy, at home or at school, it was their problem. With the growth of the welfare state, however, more of your problems become politicians’ problems and, by extension, those of the taxpayers who must provide the funds for the ‘solutions’.

As the tax burden grows over time, however, taxpayers gradually begin to resist tax increases. In practice, this has resulted in the welfare states steadily accumulating debt, as taxpayers have repeatedly refused to pay the high rates of tax up front to finance the welfare policies in question.

In many welfare states, the average taxpayer is a major receiver of benefits, including publicly provided heathcare and education. Taxpayers in welfare states are suffering a collective ‘tragedy of the commons’, in which each tries to extract maximum benefit for minimum cost. The result is a steadily accumulating debt, representing that portion of welfare not covered by current tax revenues.

The dangers of an accumulating debt can be disguised, however, as long as economic growth appears healthy enough to service the debt. This is where the so-called ‘multiplier’ comes in. As the debt grows, it adds to GDP growth via the multiplier effect: for each unit of deficit spending, the economy will in fact grow by some multiple of that. (This is because deficit spending creates money through borrowing that would not otherwise have been created and this new money flows out into the economy where it stimulates growth generally). This process can go on for many years, as we have seen.

The neo-Keynesian economic mainstream doesn’t see anything wrong with this in principle, as long as debts don’t become excessive relative to GDP. But welfare politics being what they are, they do. (It is a rare welfare state indeed that can rein itself in as debts swell. Indeed, the exceptions that prove the rule here are few and far between and are explained primarily by natural economic advantages.[4]) When a welfare state finally reaches the limits of debt accumulation, as the bond markets refuse to finance any further increase in debt at serviceable rates, some form of austerity would seem to be required.

No so fast. In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) surveys the evidence of austerity in practice and does not like what it finds. In particularly, the IMF notes that the multiplier associated with fiscal tightening seems to be rather larger than they had previously assumed. That is, for each unit of fiscal tightening, there is a greater economic contraction than anticipated. This results in a larger shrinkage of the economy and has the unfortunate result of pushing up the government debt/GDP ratio, the exact opposite of what was expected and desired.[5]

While the IMF might not prefer to use the term, what I have just described above is a ‘debt trap’. Beyond a certain point an economy has simply accumulated more debt than it can pay back without resort to currency devaluation. (In the event that a country has borrowed in a foreign currency, even devaluation won’t work and some form of restructuring or default will be required to liquidate the debt.)[6]

The IMF is thus tacitly admitting that those economies in the euro-area struggling, and so far failing, to implement austerity are in debt traps. Austerity, as previously recommended by the IMF, is just not going to work. The question that naturally follows is, what will work?

Well, the IMF isn’t exactly sure. The paper does not draw such conclusions. But no matter. If austerity doesn’t work because the negative fiscal multiplier is larger than previously assumed, well then for now, just ease off austerity while policymakers consider other options. In other words, buy time. Kick the can. And hope that the bond markets don’t notice.

Speaking of not noticing, one could be forgiven for wondering whether this IMF paper was not in fact written with precisely this agenda, that is, to provide an expedient justification for easing off the austerity brakes for awhile. Why? Well as it happens, the IMF’s analysis is not particularly robust. First, they use a data set with a rather short history. Second, their claim to have generated robust statistical results seems questionable. How so? Well, have a look at the following chart:

 

Now the slope of the line through the data is meant to show the forecast error based on the old multiplier assumptions, in other words, the extent to which the IMF has got things wrong. Note Greece in the lower right corner, representing the unanticipated negative effects of a rather extreme fiscal tightening, and Germany in the upper left, representing the forecast error associated with a moderate fiscal expansion. But if you eliminate these two extreme observations from the sample—something any good statistician would do as a reality check—guess what? You are left with a statistically insignificant ‘blot’ of observations from which you can’t really conclude anything. In other words, the IMF is jumping to conclusions. Now why might that be?

I have an idea. Consider: some of the more outspoken Keynesians wasted no time touting these findings as ‘proof’ that austerity can’t work; that what is really needed is more stimulus, not less; that their arch-Keynesian views have now been vindicated!

Among this group are Paul Krugman, who never saw a stimulus he didn’t like; and former Fed economist Richard Koo of Nomura, who shows a bit more discretion in his views. But in this case they are on the same page: the IMF data are clear, unambiguous evidence, in their view, that the problems created by excessive debt are best addressed with more debt, rather than less. Logic, apparently, is mere inconvenience for those with a PhD in Keynesian economics, as are questionable, cursory statistical analyses, normally referred to pejoratively as ‘data-mining’.

MULTIPLIER REALITY CHECK

Now that we have seen how two prominent Keynesians have responded with applause to an unabashedly Keynesian-inspired IMF study, let’s step back and consider the broader implications for a moment. As is the case with many policy papers, this one is perhaps more notable for what it doesn’t say than for what it does.

Consider: even if the IMF paper is correct in its questionable statistical observations, why, exactly, might the multiplier be larger on the downside than on the upside? Could it be that the net economic benefits of borrowing and consuming through the years are more than outweighed by the eventual requirement that the accumulated debts are paid down? Could it be that borrowing and consuming your way to prosperity doesn’t actually work? Or, conversely, that good, old-fashioned saving and investing your way to prosperity does?

The IMF does not ask and thus does not even begin to answer these common-sense questions. If it did, it might come to some rather common-sense conclusions. That they just perform a data-mining exercise, apparently to serve an agenda, rather than ask and answer the real questions, is yet more evidence that the dominant neo-Keynesian paradigm is being exploited by self-serving policymakers seeking any excuse they need to keep borrowing, spending and consuming, so that the inevitable, unavoidable hard choices need not be made on their watch. Leave it rather to their successors or, better yet, the next generation, or the generation after. After all, isn’t it just human nature for parents and grandparents to expect their children and grandchildren to take care of them in their old, infirm age? In any case, it takes hard work and some sacrifice to actually provide for the next generation to have a higher standard of living. But hey, we’re rich enough as it is, aren’t we? Isn’t poverty a thing of the past? And don’t we aspire to higher things these days like economic equality, political correctness, or ‘nanny’ rules and regulations to keep us from smoking, or drinking, or gambling, or whatever other immoral, reprehensible, irresponsible behaviours? Worrying about debts and budgets is just so passé!

Well, ask the Greeks or the Spanish how they feel about political correctness these days. Or ‘nannystate’ rules on personal behaviour. Something tells me they might be rather more concerned with putting food on the table. And something tells me that the theoretical future of the welfare state, long predicted by von Hayek, von Mises, Friedman, Buchanan and other notable, non-Keynesian economists, is rapidly colliding with the actual present, in a list of countries that continues to grow.

Before we move to the next topic, some readers might be asking themselves, if neither ‘austerity’ nor stimulus is the answer, what on earth is? My answer to this question is that the ‘faux austerity’ I mentioned earlier isn’t really austerity at all. Tightening the screws on a failing welfare state without fundamental reform is not going to convince investors to hold additional debt. Corporations that are fundamentally uneconomic need to do more than cut a few costs here and there if they want to rollover their debts. They need to engage in some ‘creative destruction’ of their operations.[7] Anything less, and bond investors will walk away and leave them to their fate.

Unfortunately, the political processes of the modern welfare state, entrenched as they are in administering entitlements of various kinds, do not lend themselves to fundamental economic reform. Thatcher’s near-bankrupt Britain is a rare exception, in which a highly charismatic politician, against all political odds, took a principled stance against the relentless growth of the welfare state and managed to slow its growth for a time. She didn’t stop it, however, something that the present British government, soon to face near-bankruptcy yet again, no doubt regrets.

While Keynesians prefer to ignore relevant examples, the fact is, real austerity is possible. Look at the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Look at Bulgaria, or Slovakia, or Iceland. Look at South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia and other Asian countries hit hard by their collective debt crisis in the late 1990s. It can be done. But it implies real economic hardship for a period of time and it goes right to the heart of the government, which must shrink relative to the private sector. Many career politicians and bureaucrats will simply find that they are out of work and that they must seek private sector jobs, without guaranteed state pensions and other benefits, like most ordinary folks.

THE IMF RESURRECTS THE ‘CHICAGO PLAN’

The reality of contemporary welfare state politics being what it is, I would argue that there is essentially zero chance that the Keynesians in charge are going to do an about-face. Sure, they might have realised that their policies are not working, but this just means that they are going to raise the stakes. As some are now beginning to argue, there is in fact no reason to worry. Austerity might not work once you are stuck in a debt trap, but so what? What if you could just wave a magic wand and make the debt disappear? Now that would solve all our problems, wouldn’t it?

We know intuitively that this is nonsense. But just because something is nonsense doesn’t stop policymakers from spouting it when expedient. As I wrote in an Amphora Report back in 2010, as the euro-area debt crisis was escalating:

Just as there is no free lunch in economics generally, there is no magic wand in economic policy. Policymakers who claim otherwise are like magicians distracting their audience. As is the case in the physical world, in which there is conservation of energy–the first law of thermodynamics–there is also conservation of economic risk. It cannot be eliminated by waving a magic wand. It can, however, be transformed from one type of risk to another.[8]

As it happens, such sleight-of-hand risk transfer forms the core of the sophistic argument put forth in a superficially scholarly paper published recently by the IMF. The authors, Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof, resurrect the long-forgotten ‘Chicago Plan’ of the 1930s, first proposed by Irving Fisher, an early exponent of the Monetarist economic school associated with the University of Chicago. In brief, the Chicago Plan proposes changing the nature of money and money creation in the economy from a nominally private-sector affair, in which commercial banks serve as the engines of money growth, to an exclusively public sector one. Somehow, replacing private sector assets and liabilities with public sector ones is supposed to reduce or eliminate the various problems associated with the current system, in which money creation is supposedly a ‘private’ affair.[9]

While I could have a go at pointing out in detail just how hideously flawed this paper is, fortunately I don’t need to. My friend and fellow financial writer Detlev Schlichter recently penned a devastating critique and I highly recommend reading it in its entirety.[10] For our purposes here, a few particularly relevant quotes follow:

[T]he paper sets up an entirely new and I believe bogus problem based on the premise that in our monetary system money is supposedly provided ‘privately’, that is, by ‘private’ banks, and ‘state-issued’ money only plays a minor role. From this rather confused observation, the paper derives its key allegation that ‘state-issued money’ ensures stability, while ‘privately-issued money’ leads to instability. This claim is not supported by economic theory… Monetary theory does not distinguish between ‘state-controlled money’ and ‘privately produced’ money, it is a nonsensical distinction for any monetary theorist. An attempt to give credence to this distinction and its alleged importance is made in a later chapter in the Benes/Kumhof paper but, tellingly, this attempt is not based on monetary theory but on an ambitious, if not to say bizarre, re-writing of the historical record.

Detlev then goes on to point out precisely why this ‘public’ vs ‘private’ money distinction is all but meaningless not only in theory but in practice:

In recent decades, the global banking system found itself on numerous occasions in a position in which it felt that it had taken on too much financial risk and that a deleveraging and a shrinking of its balance sheet was advisable. I would suggest that this was the case in 1987, 1992/3, 1998, 2001/2, and certainly 2007/8. Yet, on each of these occasions, the broader economic fallout from such a de-risking strategy was deemed unwanted or even unacceptable for political reasons, and the central banks offered ample new bank reserves at very low cost in order to discourage money contraction and encourage further money expansion, i.e. additional fractional-reserve banking. It is any wonder that banks continued to produce vast amounts of deposit money – profitably, of course? Can the result really be blamed on ‘private’ initiative?

To answer Detlev’s rhetorical question: of course not! Just because commercial banks are legally private entities does not in any way imply that they are not de facto agencies of the government. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were private sector entities too, prior to being placed into official government ‘conservatorship’, albeit ones engaged in even narrower, more heavily regulated activities than ordinary commercial banks.

Perhaps the best way to think about how banking institutions have operated in recent decades is as private utility companies, with their activities heavily regulated and subsidised by the central bank and a handful of government agencies. Or, to use another industry as an example, consider defence contractors. Sure, they might be private firms in the legal sense, but the business in which they are engaged—defence—is so intertwined with the activities of government that it is essentially impossible to distinguish just where the public role ends and the private role begins.

No doubt the legal grey area that exists between public and private activities in any industry is fertile ground for corruption and abuse. In finance, however, this grey area reaches right into the heart of the money and credit creation process and, thereby, has an insidious if largely unseen impact on the entire economy. To blame ‘private sector’ money and credit growth for the mess we are in, as Messrs Benes and Kumhof do in their paper, demonstrates either colossal ignorance or disingenuousness. I leave it to the reader to decide which.

MONETISATION BY ANY OTHER NAME

If while reading the above you thought that what in effect is being proposed is a massive monetisation of debt, you are right. That is exactly what it is. All but the most radical of Keynesian economists, however, refrain from using the ‘m’ word. They prefer wonkish terms like ‘quantitative easing’ for example. Or, when there is natural downward pressure on prices, they say extreme measures are called for due to ‘inflation targeting’. When they get really desperate, they do occasionally refer to things like the ‘printing press’ or even ‘helicopters’, but somehow the ‘m’ word is something only ever contemplated by two-bit dictators, be they fascist, communist or some combination of the two. After all, monetisation is blatant, in-your-face wealth confiscation from private sector savers to public and financial sector borrowers. Modern, enlightened welfare state democracies would never contemplate such a thing now, would they?

Perhaps this is one reason why the German Weimar hyperinflation is regarded with such horror in the modern economics profession, even though it is but one of many fiat money hyperinflations of the past century. How could a reasonably free and open democracy—indeed, the one in which the idea for the modern welfare state originated—possibly resort to monetisation to solve its excessive debt problem, a legacy of WWI? How irresponsible! Had they just done as Krugman, Koo or other modern Keynesians recommend, and stuck to QE and double-digit fiscal deficits, why, they would have been just fine![11]

Yes, I’m being faceitious yet again. But come on folks, the idea that somehow, by calling ‘monetisation’ something else makes it so, is just another example of the intellectual sophistry being practiced at the IMF and elsewhere in Keynesian policy circles. They are playing a semantics game while trying desperately to get governments the world over to get on with outright debt monetisation, assuming that this would never morph into a hyperinflation or other such economic calamity.

Ah, but it might. Sorry to sound alarmist, but at some point it might. Reality is a harsh mistress. The future has a way of arriving now and again, sometimes when you least expect it. Responsible folks need to take a sober look at the road we are on. Ignore the can being kicked along the road and focus instead on where the road leads. In this case, it leads to some combination of currency debasement, devaluation and debt default (with the latter substantially less likely, in my opinion, although I would not rule it out in certain cases). It might, just might, lead to a hyperinflation.

So what is a defensive investor, interested primarily in wealth preservation, to do? My advice in this matter has changed little since the first Amphora Report went out in early 2010.[12] Diversify out of financial and into real assets that cannot be debased, devalued or defaulted on. Within financial assets, overweight income-generating stocks in industries with pricing power, that is, those more easily able to pass cost increases through to consumers. Within real assets, acquire some physical, allocated gold and silver but note that these are already trading somewhat expensive relative to most other commodities.

One important lesson of the Great Depression and other periods of severe economic deleveraging is that the prices of less fashionable commodities such as agricultural products can become extremely depressed from time to time and that they tend to outperform precious metals once they cheapen (in relative terms) to a certain point. I would argue that we are at or near that point already.

The Amphora mantra has always been and remains to diversify. Diversification is the only ‘free-lunch’ in economics, frequent Keynesian claims to the contrary notwithstanding, and it is the best form of financial insurance there is. Better than gold. Better than silver, or any single commodity. Better than any one stock, or stock market for that matter. Better than any one bond market, or any one currency. In a world of not just known unknowns, but even unknown unknowns, it would be imprudent to place any number of eggs in just one basket. Even golden ones.

 


[1] ECB President Mario Draghi affirmed this policy at today’s monthly ECB press conference and also suggested strongly that the ECB is likely to purchase substantially more debt in future.

[2] Among other German publications, Der Spiegel reported on this. The link to the article is here.

[3] Weidmann’s specific words, in German, for those interested, were the following: “Die Bundesbank steht hinter dem Euro. Und gerade deshalb setzen wir uns mit Verve dafür ein, dass der Euro eine stabile Währung bleibt und die Währungsunion eine Stabilitätsunion. Es gibt verschiedene Wege, dieses Ziel zu erreichen. Sicherlich nicht erreichen werden wir dieses Ziel aber, wenn die europäische Geldpolitik in zunehmendem Maße für Zwecke eingespannt wird, die ihrem Mandat nicht entsprechen. The link to this speech is here. His reference in a subsequent speech to Goethe’s Faust can be found at the link here.

[4] Those welfare states with manageable debt burdens tend to be endowed with plentiful natural resources, such as Norway, Sweden Finland, or Canada, for example. This makes them natural exporters and enables them to finance a certain degree of domestic welfare without resorting to chronic debt accumulation.

[5] The IMF World Economic Outlook can be found here.

[6] For more on the concept of a ‘debt trap’, please see “Caught in a Debt Trap”, Amphora Report vol 3 (July 2012). The link is here.

[7] I have written at length about the critical yet commonly overlooked role that Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’ plays in a healthy economy. For a recent example, please see “Why Banktuptcy is the New Black,” Amphora Report vol. 3 (April 2012). The link is here.

[8] “There May Be No Free Lunch, but Is There a Magic Wand?” Amphora Report vol. 1 (September 2010). The link is here.

[9] The entire paper, The Chicago Plan Revisited, can be found on the IMF’s website here.

[10] Detlev’s paper is posted to his blog, linked here. I also highly recommend Detlev’s book, Paper Money Collapse, details of which you can also find on his blog.

[11] For those curious, German chancellor Bismarck introduced the first European pay-as-you-go state pension in the 19th century. It has served as the original model for state pensions subsequently introduced in most of Europe and North America. Germany was also an early adopter of compulsory public education.

[12] You can find the inaugural Amphora Report here.


This article was previously published in  The Amphora Report, Vol 3, 8 November 2012.

Economics

Hope springs eternal

The minor uptick in China’s ‘flash’ PMI estimate for October – from 47.9 to 49.1 – has sparked the usual explosion of uncritical hopefulness (on the part of those who, by and large, thought there never could be a slowdown under the aegis of the all-powerful CCP to begin with,) that this finally marks a bottom in that country’s economic cycle.

In giving vent to such optimism, the Sinomaniacs conveniently overlooked the fact that much of the improvement was down to the fact that it was the price indices, rather than those relating to output or employment, which struggled back above the expansion/contraction threshold of 50 – a circumstance which might just temper their extend-and-pretend expectations of an ever-imminent monetary relaxation, were they to reflect on it for a moment between jubilations.

Worse still, the Pollyannas appear to have forgotten that the PMI simply gauges whether things are generally better or worse than they were last month – and that in a non-quantitative manner, to boot. The unequivocal answer is worse (if marginally so, this time) for the twelfth consecutive month and for the fifteenth out of the last sixteen occasions. Thus, it may be true that the rate of decline seems to have slowed – how enduringly, only time will tell – but the fact of that ongoing decline itself remains, even after so many uninterrupted months of economic deterioration.

China bulls and the other assorted, ‘next quarter’ blue-skyers may have either venal or psychological reasons to puff this one reading up as a sign of a coming (and oft-postponed) dawn, but the test of an analyst who knows his stuff – and who is not afraid to be honest with you – is whether he makes this simple, but crucial, distinction in his commentary.

Of course, such an outpouring of positive sentiment will be very much to the taste of those in Beijing who have managed the seemingly miraculous feat of going into the Party Congress to the glowing accompaniment of an official GDP series which has been accelerating all year, quickening from a 6.1% annualized pace in the first quarter to 8.2% in the second and a resounding 9.1% in the third.

The fact that those same quarters have seen rail freight traffic slow from 3.7% YOY to 0.8% and on to a contraction of 5.8%; or have witnessed Shanghai port container throughput reverse from an expansion of 3.5% YOY to a shrinkage of 1.2% is, apparently, not to be invested with any significance.

Nor is the fact that while industrial production is officially up 10% YTD, those same industries have managed to consume smaller and smaller marginal increments of electrical power along the way; sliding, month by month, from a 4.1% YOY gain in March to a 3.2% one in June and on to a paltry 0.9% increase in September (which slender, overall uptick was comprised of an actual fall in heavy industrial usage).

In much the same manner, apparent consumption of refined oil products was up only 3.4% YTD, with diesel barely ahead at +1.1%. Again, not much evidence of a robust economy, there.

As the slowdown progresses, everywhere but in the reports of the authorities and the minds of their cheerleaders, profits have collapsed in their turn. So far this year, the chemical industry has seen earnings decline 18.1%; cement makers returned 53% less than in 2011; flat glass makers swung to a loss equivalent to around one-third of last year’s reported profits. Miners – whether ferrous or non-ferrous – saw income slip by around 5%, while that accruing to smelters/processors in the first group slumped by no less than 81%, flattering the performance of companies in the second category, even though they themselves booked 30% less.

The other side to this has been a surge in the debts companies owe to one another. As Caixin reported, the China Iron & Steel Association said that, at the end of July, the amount of net receivables and net payables of the 81 steel companies it monitored were up 17.8% and 10.6% respectively from the same month the previous year.

In even worse straits, the 90 enterprises monitored by the China National Coal Association reported an increase of 48.7% in  net receivables from 2011, while the China Machinery Industry Federation said those for its members were up 16.9% YOY to a monster CNY 2.5 trillion. No wonder Caterpillar announced it was ‘ramping down’ production in the country.

To see these trends in a little more detail, let us examine those cosseted children of the latest economic cycle, the SOEs. These reported 9-month revenues of CNY 31 trillion which represented a relatively anaemic 9.5% gain from the like period in 2011 when sales had stormed ahead by almost a quarter from 2010. Costs were up 11.1% and hence profits fell a sharp 11.4% to CNY1.6 tln.

That represented a nominal ROE of 5.1% overall, split as to 5.5% for the centrally-controlled firms and a bare 2.9% for their local peers – which latter therefore made a big fat zero in real terms after accounting for the concurrent rise in consumer prices.

Even that does not tell the full horror of the troubles afflicting them, for the simultaneous rise in the tally of accounts receivable amounted to 1/3 of those ostensible ‘profits’ (the overall stock of receivables now stretches to 1.7 times annualised earnings), while inventories swelled by an amount equivalent to the whole of reported income. Days’ sales of inventory rose from 83 to 94.4, while days of receivables climbed to 31.8 from 28.8, putting their combined drain on working capital up to a whopping 126 days-equivalent!

So, here we have a bleak vista of mounting credit, declining margins, unpaid bills, underemployed capacity – even the rare earth market has swung so far from dearth to glut that plant is now being mothballed! – and there also remains precious little hope for making non-operating gains by diverting preferentially-granted credit into a bubbling property market. A clear indicator of this stress is that credit (deferred payment) is rising much faster than money (immediate payment).

This is an ugly constellation indeed, especially since it is giving rise to official concerns about the state of local government finances. Faced with slowing – even falling – tax revenues, these latter are squeezing already pincered companies by demanding advance payment of taxes, as well as by organizing sweeps whose aim is the mass-levying of ‘fines’ for alleged regulatory violations (presumably something of a shock after all these years of turning a blind eye in the pursuit of growth at all costs). These are also, of course, the very same local authorities who are nursing the sickliest of the SOEs and they are the same institutions who will supposedly be riding to the rescue by showering  trillions of yuan on even more infrastructure and real estate developments of dubious commercial worth.

According to a report issued by the Development Research Centre of the State Council, the final months of this year will be critical to the pretence of providing ‘stimulus’ via this medium as something of the order of two-fifths of all local government debts fall due by the end of this year, with another 10% or so scheduled to mature by the close of 2013.

Having all but tripled in the last six years, something in excess of CNY11 trillion is now owed by such entities – largely through the conduits offered by the infamous ‘financing vehicles’ – leaving Wei Jianing, deputy director of the Macroeconomy Department at the DRCSC, to fret that: “There are worries over whether local governments could pay off the principal and interests when the repayment hike comes.”

Presumably Mr Wei will be taking little comfort from the happenstance of a nugatory uptick in the Purchasing Managers’ Index!

Far across the Senkaku Islands, Japanese money supply has been decelerating from its recent impressive lick, while small business confidence has plummeted below even the post-Fukushima trough. Meanwhile, the nation’s exports languish at levels first seen in 2004, thanks to the toxic mix of the fallout from the territorial spat with the Chinese and the general Asian weakness – also evident this week in Singapore (IP -2.5% YOY), Thailand (manufacturing output off 13.7% YOY to rest where it was in 2007), and the Philippines (exports off 9% YOY to stand no higher than in 2005).

All this sufficed to bring about a record trade deficit of close to Y1 trillion in Japan itself last month, at which point it was threatening to swallow the large monthly investment income component whole and, hence, to restrict the growth of the capital pool on which the country so heavily relies.

Nothing daunted, after two decades of bluebottle-against-a-windowpane policy-making, the country is again to be dosed with the same old, ineffective, patent medicine as the BoJ prepares to increase its version of QE by a cool Y10 trillion ($125 billion), some of which will help fund the already over-indebted government’s imminent Y700 billion fiscal injection.

You would think they would long since have have learned the futility of what they are about; the fact that this has eluded them for all these years should worry us greatly about our own masters’ willingness to draw the correct lessons on that grim tomorrow when their own programmes are undeniably seen to have failed. Can we not admit it is folly always to resort to the crude economics of a Krugman – the macroeconomic equivalent of the château generalship of the Somme – and to whine that we have only failed because we have not thrown enough money or lives into the fray.

In Europe meanwhile, the gaudy circus of summitry has again rolled through town to little effect. Greece seems to be back to playing brinkmanship with the Troika. ‘Two more Years of Foot-dragging’ was the headline in one German newspaper as it was rumoured that our inveterate Hellenic hand-out seekers were about to pouch another €20 billion, together with extended payment terms and a reduced coupon on their Pelion upon Ossa of existing loans. Talk about creating financial zombies!!!

Draghi bearded the lions in their den when he dissembled before the Bundestag, giving them his earnest that he would never exceed his mandate; that it was simply inconceivable that his unlimited bond purchases could be construed as monetizing state debt, or that it could in any way turn out to be inflationary.

No-one asked the obvious question that if all this was true, and if the OMTs were to exert such a subtle influence on the economy, why he felt compelled to ride roughshod over the (adopted) traditions of the institution he heads in order to implement them.

Among the few dissenting voices was that of the president of the German Savings Bank Association, Georg Fahrenschon, who declared that: “Private savings should not be further penalised. The ECB should not direct itself to minimizing the outlays of the debtor countries, but to ensuring monetary stability, today, tomorrow, and the day after that” 

At the same press conference, however, he revealed the schizophrenia which Draghi’s actions have induced. German savers prefer to hold their wealth in the form of savings accounts – out of distrust and uncertainty – yet half of them see a house as the best guarantee for their old age and a third of them intend to buy one now.

If the former impulse gives way only a little in favour of the latter, that double-digit rate of increase in the local money supply will soon deliver the thrifty German burgers, almost the last of their breed, into that vortex of balance sheet ruination which is widely seen (if less openly articulated) as the real key to solving Europe’s otherwise intractable debt crisis.

Before then, however, it would seem that the country might be in for more testing times than has been the case to date. Certainly the decline in the IfO index this past six months – registered despite a rising stock market and a diminution of the sense of crisis in the Zone – is of a magnitude which has typically accompanied significant downturns in activity. With monetary creation running so hot in Germany, it would be unusual, to say the least, for revenues and profits to fall sufficiently far to trigger a serious setback – which is essentially what the IfO index is telling us is expected to occur – but nevertheless this does bear close attention.

Finally, there are one or two hints that the US is starting to sputter. Certainly, the rapid decline in core (ex-defence and aircraft) capital goods numbers tells us so. At -10% YOY, orders are now falling at the sorts of rates experienced in both the Tech bust and the GFC itself. In the past three months, nominal levels have come to rest where they were in the late 1990s while, in real terms, the series has not been this depressed since it was first compiled in the current form, two decades ago.

Those, like us, who have tended to regard the States as the best of a bad bunch, will have to hope this is nothing more than a little pre-election caution and that it will be accordingly reversed in a month or two’s time.

Economics

A golden opportunity

The euro debt crisis in Europe has presented Germany with a unique opportunity to lead the world away from monetary destruction and its consequences of economic chaos, social unrest, and unfathomable human suffering. The cause of the euro debt crisis is the misconstruction of the euro that allows all members of the European Monetary Union (EMU), currently 17 sovereign nations, to print euros and force them on all other members. Dr. Philipp Bagus of King Juan Carlos University in Madrid has diagnosed this situation as a tragedy of the commons in his aptly named book The Tragedy of the Euro. Germany is on the verge of seeing its capital base plundered from the inevitable dynamics of this tragedy of the commons. It should leave the EMU, reinstate the deutsche mark (DM), and anchor it to gold.

The Structure of the European Monetary Union

The European System of Central Banks (ESCB) consists of one central bank, the European Central Bank (ECB), and the national central banks of the EMU, all of which are still extant within their own sovereign nations. Although the ECB is prohibited by treaty from monetizing the debt of its sovereign members via outright purchases of their debt, it has interpreted this limitation on its power not to include lending euros to the national central banks taking the very same sovereign debt as collateral. Of course this is simply a backdoor method to circumvent the very limitation that was insisted on when the more responsible members such as Germany joined the European Monetary Union.

Corruption of the European Central Bank into an Engine of Inflation

When the ECB was first formed around the turn of the new millennium, the bond markets assumed that it would be operated along the lines of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, which ran probably the least inflationary monetary system in the developed world. However, they also assumed that the EMU would not allow one of its members to default on its sovereign debt. Therefore, the interest rate for many members of the EMU fell to German levels. Unfortunately, many nations in the EMU did not use this lower interest rate as an opportunity to reduce their budgets; rather, many simply borrowed more. Thus was born the euro debt crisis, when it became clear to the bond market that debt repayment by many members of the EMU was questionable. Interest rates for these nations soared.

Over the past few years the European Union itself has established several bailout funds, but the situation has not been resolved. In fact, things are even worse, for it now appears that even larger members of the EMU succumbed to the debt orgy and may need a bailout to avoid default. Thus we have arrived at the point predicted by Dr. Bagus in which the euro has been plundered by multiple parties and the pot is empty. The ECB and many sovereign members of the EMU want unlimited bond buying of sovereign debt by the ECB. Only Germany opposes this plan, but it is the lone voice against this new bout of monetary inflation.

The Historical Context of German Antipathy to Monetary Inflation

In 1923 Germany experienced one of the world’s worst cases of hyperinflation and the worst ever for an industrialized nation. The reichsmark was destroyed by its own central bank, plunging the German people into misery and desperation. Now, after only a dozen years of relative monetary discipline, the euro faces the same fate as country after country demands to be bailed out of its mounting debts by unlimited printing of money by the ECB. Because Germany is part of the EMU, it must accept these newly printed euros. This threatened monetary inflation of unlimited amounts has shaken German bankers to the core. It is the nightmare scenario that they feared when, against their better judgment, the German politicians agreed to give up their beloved deutsche mark and place the economic fate of the nation in the hands of a committee of foreigners not as concerned about monetary inflation. But Germany can put a stop to this destruction and save the world while it saves itself. It can leave the EMU, reinstate the deutsche mark, and tie it to gold.

A Golden Deutsche Mark Is Possible and Desirable

Despite the haughty pronouncements of EU officials, there is nothing that can stop a sovereign country from leaving the EMU and adopting a different monetary system. The most likely scenario would be a one-for-one redenomination of German banks’ euro-denominated accounts for deutsche marks. Thereafter, the DM would float freely in currency markets in the same way as British pounds and American dollars. The Bundesbank would be responsible for monetary policy just as it was before Germany joined the EMU. By leaving the EMU Germany would insulate itself from the consequences of the euro as a tragedy of the commons; i.e., monetary inflation by third parties would end, Germany would not experience higher prices due to the actions of third parties, and the capital-destroying transfers of wealth would end.

Yet Germany should go one step further. It should anchor the DM to gold. Germany is the world’s fourth-largest economy, behind only the United States, China, and Japan. Furthermore, Germany owns more of the world’s gold than any other entity except the United States, more than either China or Japan and more than any other European country. A prerequisite to market acceptance of any gold money would be confidence in the integrity of the sponsoring institution. Not only is the Bundesbank known for its integrity and reverence for stable money; Germany itself has a worldwide reputation for the rule of law, advanced financial architecture, and a stable political system. For these reasons, Germany would prove to the world that a gold-backed money is not only possible but desirable. Expect a cascade of similar pronouncements once Germany’s trading partners realize the importance of settling international financial transactions in the best money available — which initially at least would be a golden DM.

Germany Should Seize the Moment!

Of course the beneficial consequences of tying money to gold go beyond ending price inflation and capital-destroying wealth transfers. We can expect all the beneficial consequences of a return to limited government, for government could no longer fund itself through the unholy alliance with an inflationary central bank that creates fiat money in order to monetize government’s profligate spending. The people would no longer be so subservient to government, pleading and begging for special interests at the expense of the rest of society, for government would be forced to go to the people for approval to increase its budget. The list of benefits goes on and on. Suffice it to say that it all begins with truly sound money, money anchored in gold. Germany can lead the way and earn the just respect of a grateful world. It is in the right place at the right moment in history. It should seize the moment!

This article was previously published at Mises.org.

Economics

Subjective value and currencies

“The issuer’s promise” is a phrase I have used recently to describe the backing for fiat currencies. The purpose of this article is to define it further, given that it is increasingly likely to be challenged in the foreign exchange markets with respect to the euro.

To begin we need to define the principal difference between gold and a fiat currency. Gold has no price when it is used as money, other than what it is exchanged for in goods. Uniquely as money, it was in demand everywhere by all societies to settle their own domestic and foreign trade. Fiat money is only used to settle transactions in the jurisdiction to which it relates, and foreigners who end up with it exchange it for their own fiat money, because out of jurisdiction it is not money.

There are three basic exceptions to this rule. The dollar, through its original gold convertibility became a substitute for gold, and still enjoys an international role as a result of that legacy. A second exception is when governments intervene and build up holdings of foreign fiat money. And the third is when ownership of foreign currencies accumulates for speculative purposes. Otherwise, outside its jurisdiction a fiat currency has no useful value.

Its validity is based on a promise by the issuing central bank and the relevant government that it actually has value. The value of that promise is subjectively assessed in foreign exchange markets, where dealers compare fiat currencies. The result is that the purchasing power of a fiat currency can diminish substantially in foreign exchanges before disrupting its domestic monetary role. The dollar, for example, has lost most of its purchasing power since it became completely disconnected from gold in 1971, but Americans still think automatically “I have 10 bucks to spend: what shall I buy?” rather than “I must get rid of these 10 bucks before they lose yet more value”.

We all think like that with our respective fiat currencies, and the moment we don’t marks the start of a collapse in confidence in the issuer’s promise. This could be the euro’s Achilles Heel, because there is no identifiable government actually prepared to stand behind the European Central Bank, and as the crisis intensifies, there is a growing risk the promise will be found wanting by the eurozone’s own citizens.

Fiat money is managed by neoclassical economists at central banks who think they understand price theory. The euro is in danger of a sudden collapse, and it is not clear that the powers-that-be in the ECB understand this. It is not even clear if they understand that hyperinflation is not, as the term in modern usage suggests, an accelerating rise in the price of goods. Instead it is a collapse in the value of fiat money that arises from a reassessment of the issuer’s promise by domestic users.

The euro’s future is essentially tied to a collection of disparate governments. If any of them leaves, it risks bringing on a collapse in its value that is completely beyond the control of the ECB.

This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.

Economics

The inevitable death of the euro

On Thursday the European Central Bank’s Mario Draghi was moved to defend the euro, after Spain’s government bond yields rose dramatically through the 7% level. And when Valencia asked the central government for a bailout, followed by indications that other cities and regions have similar problems, it became clear that Spain is in deep trouble. We have got used to the concept of too-big-to-fail; now we have too-big-to-rescue.

We normally talk about Spain and also Italy in terms of government debt and budget deficits, forgetting they are only part of the problem. To these must be added regional and local governments, nationalised and subsidised industries, and off-balance sheet guarantees for other entities. Forget, for the moment, future health and welfare costs, which statistically dwarf everything: they are not the immediate problem. This still leaves us with rescues, without even considering commercial banks, amounting to perhaps between two and four times the headline government debt. People think Spain can be rescued, but when you take everything into account, including the prospect of a policy-induced slump from macro-economic mistakes, it is simply too big.

The failure to face up to financial reality is essentially political. Spain’s President of the Government, Mariano Rajoy, was elected with a clear majority last November, and has failed to cut spending. Instead of reducing the burden of the public sector on the economy, he has chosen to penalise the productive private sector through extra taxation. If anyone had an opportunity to face up to reality with an electoral mandate it was Rajoy, but he failed to do so either because he deemed it politically impossible or because he is simply too weak.

Perhaps it is political reality: this is certainly echoed in all the other crisis-hit states. France’s electorate has cut out any argument by electing a socialist president intent on increasing both public spending and taxes at the same time. The result is that Europe faces economic collapse sooner than it might otherwise, escalating the burden principally on Germany of bailing out impecunious states.

Germany is becoming isolated, and no longer is Chancellor Merkel able to pretend that, deo volente, it will come right in the end. Instead Germany faces a crippling bill, now recognised by the rating agencies. In a GoldMoney podcast released last Wednesday, Philipp Bagus estimated the total cost to Germany to be four times her total tax revenues. That implies personal taxes of over 100% of private sector income. How do you carry your electorate along with you, simply to keep the euro project alive, with that sort of cost?

You cannot. Bagus sees no alternative to money-printing, and that is effectively what Draghi now says he is prepared to do; but unlike other fiat currencies, the euro has no single government backing it. Therefore the effect on the euro of Draghi’s money printing could be catastrophic.

It would be quite an event. We have not seen a major fiat currency collapse in recent decades, though there are those in Germany who remember the misery it brings. The speed at which the euro weakens could be very surprising indeed.

This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.