In recent months talking heads, disappointed with the lack of economic recovery, have turned their attention to wages. If only wages could grow, they say, there would be more demand for goods and services: without wage growth, economies will continue to stagnate. It amounts to a non-specific call to stimulate aggregate demand by continuing with or even accelerating the expansion of money supply. The thinking is the same as that behind Bernanke’s monetary distribution by helicopter. Unfortunately for these wishful-thinkers the disciplines of the markets cannot be bypassed. If you give everyone more money without a balancing increase in the supply of goods, there is no surer way of stimulating price inflation, collapsing a currency’s purchasing power and losing all control of interest rates.
The underlying error is to fail to understand that economising individuals make things in order to be able to buy things. That is the order of events, earn it first and spend it second. No amount of monetary shenanigans can change this basic fact. Instead, expanding the quantity of money will always end up devaluing the wealth and earning-power of ordinary people, the same people that are being encouraged to spend, and destroying genuine economic activity in the process.
This is the reason monetary stimulation never works, except for a short period if and when the public are fooled by the process. Businesses – owned and managed by ordinary people – are not fooled by it any more: they are buying in their equity instead of investing in new production because they know that investing in production doesn’t earn a return. This is the logical response by businesses to the destruction of their customers’ wealth through currency debasement.
Let me sum up currency debasement with an aphorism:
“You print some money to rob the wealth of ordinary people to give to the banks to lend to business to make their products for customers to buy with money devalued by printing.”
It is as ridiculous a circular proposition as perpetual motion, yet central banks never seem to question it. Monetary stimulus fails with every credit cycle when the destruction of wealth is exposed by rising prices. But in this credit cycle the deception was so obvious to the general public that it failed from the outset.
The last five years have seen all beliefs in the manageability of aggregate demand comprehensively demolished by experience. The unfortunate result of this failure is that central bankers now see no alternative to maintaining things as they are, because the financial system has become horribly over-geared and probably wouldn’t survive the rise in interest rates a genuine economic recovery entails anyway. Price inflation would almost certainly rise well above the 2% target forcing central banks to raise interest rates, throwing bonds and stocks into a severe bear market, and imperilling government finances. The financial system is simply too highly geared to survive a credit-driven recovery.
Japan, which has accelerated monetary debasement of the yen at an unprecedented rate, finds itself in this trap. If anything, the pace of its economic deterioration is increasing. The explanation is simple and confirms the obvious: monetary debasement impoverishes ordinary people. Far from boosting the economy it is rapidly driving us into a global slump.
The solution is not higher wages.
So far in August the differential between the yield on the 10-year Treasury note and the yield on the 3-month Treasury bill stood at 2.38% against 2.95% in December 2013.
Historically the yield differential on average has led the yearly rate of growth of industrial production by fourteen months. This raises the likelihood that the growth momentum of industrial production will ease in the months ahead, all other things being equal.
It is generally held that the shape of the yield curve is set by investors’ expectations. According to this way of thinking – also labeled as the expectation theory (ET) – the key to the shape of the yield curve is the notion that long-term interest rates are the average of expected future short-term rates.
If today’s one-year rate is 4% and next year’s one-year rate is expected to be 5%, the two-year rate today should be (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5%.
It follows that expectations for increases in short-term rates will make the yield curve upward sloping, since long-term rates will be higher than short-term rates.
Conversely, expectations for a decline in short-term rates will result in a downward sloping yield curve. If today’s one-year rate is 5% and next year’s one – year rate is expected to be 4%, the two-year rate today (4%+5%)/2 = 4.5% is lower than today’s one year rate of 5% – i.e. downward sloping yield curve.
But is it possible to have a sustained downward sloping yield curve on account of expectations? One can show that in a risk-free environment, neither an upward nor a downward sloping yield curve can be sustainable.
An upward sloping curve would provoke an arbitrage movement from short maturities to long maturities. This will lift short-term interest rates and lower long-term interest rates, i.e., leading towards a uniform interest rate throughout the term structure.
Arbitrage will also prevent the sustainability of an inverted yield curve by shifting funds from long maturities to short maturities thereby flattening the curve.
It must be appreciated that in a free unhampered market economy the tendency towards the uniformity of rates will only take place on a risk-adjusted basis. Consequently, a yield curve that includes the risk factor is likely to have a gentle positive slope.
It is difficult to envisage a downward sloping curve in a free unhampered market economy – since this would imply that investors are assigning a higher risk to short-term maturities than long-term maturities, which doesn’t make sense.
The Fed and the shape of the yield curve
Even if one were to accept the rationale of the ET for the changes in the shape of the yield curve, these changes are likely to be of a very short duration on account of arbitrage. Individuals will always try to make money regardless of the state of the economy.
Yet historically either an upward sloping or a downward sloping yield curve has held for quite prolonged periods of time.
We suggest an upward or a downward sloping yield curve develops on account of the Fed’s interest rate policies (there is an inverse correlation between the yield curve and the fed funds rate).
While the Fed can exercise a certain level of control over short-term interest rates via the federal funds rate, it has less control over long-term interest rates.
For instance, the artificial lowering of short-term interest rates gives rise to an upward sloping yield curve. To prevent the flattening of the curve the Fed must persist with the easy interest rate stance. Should the Fed slow down on its monetary pumping the shape of the yield curve will tend to flatten. Whenever the Fed tightens its interest rate stance this leads to the flattening or an inversion of the yield curve. In order to sustain the new shape of the curve the Fed must maintain its tighter stance. Should the Fed abandon the tighter stance the tendency for rates equalisation will arrest the narrowing or the inversion in the yield curve.
The shape of the yield curve reflects the monetary stance of the Fed. Investors’ expectations can only reinforce the shape of the curve. For instance, relentless monetary expansion that keeps the upward slope of the curve intact ultimately fuels inflationary expectations, which tend to push long-term rates higher thereby reinforcing the positive slope of the yield curve.
Conversely, an emerging recession on account of a tighter stance lowers inflationary expectations and reinforces the inverted yield curve.
A loose Fed monetary policy i.e. a positive sloping curve, sets in motion a false economic boom – it gives rise to various false activities. A tighter monetary policy, which manifests through an inversion of the yield curve, sets in motion the process of the liquidation of false activities i.e. an economic bust is ensued.
A situation could emerge however where the federal funds rate is around zero, as it is now, and then the shape of the yield curve will vary in response to the fluctuations in the long-term rate. (The fed funds rate has been around zero since December 2008).
Once the Fed keeps the fed funds rate at close to zero level over a prolonged period of time it sets in motion a severe misallocation of resources – a severe consumption of capital.
An emergence of subdued economic activity puts downward pressure on long-term rates. On the basis of a near zero fed funds rate this starts to invert the shape of the yield curve.
At present, we hold the downward slopping yield curve has emerged on account of a decline in long term rates whilst short-term interest rate policy remains intact.
We suggest this may be indicative of a severe weakening in the wealth generation process and points to stagnant economic growth ahead.
Note again the downward sloping curve is on account of the Fed’s near zero interest rate policy that has weakened the process of wealth formation.
This month we observe the 40th anniversary of the resignation, under threat of imminent impeachment, of President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon aide and loyalist Pat Buchanan sums up, in a column in USA Today Liberal Elites Toppled Nixon his view:
“Richard Nixon was not brought down by any popular uprising. The breaking of his presidency was a product of the malice and collusion of liberal elites who had been repudiated in Nixon’s 49-state landslide in 1972.”
Nixon, as it happens, was not 1974’s only casualty. As William Safire recalls, Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, John Connally, “was indicted for taking graft on the same day the President was charged by the House Judiciary Committee for abuse of power.”
Both men were instrumental in the repudiation of the Bretton Woods gold-dollar monetary system that had undergirded post-war American (and world prosperity). Bretton Woods, indeed, was coming apart (as a gold+paper pastiche standard inevitably is prone to do). A gold-based international monetary order called out, however, to be mended not ended. Nixon ended it.
The House Judiciary Committee’s charges and the Connally indictment uncannily fulfill a prophecy by Tom Paine. Paine’s Common Sense triggered the American Revolution. Paine later wrote a tract, Dissertations On Government; The Affairs of the Bank; and Paper Money in 1786. It was issued the year before the Constitutional Convention that would send the confederated former colonies into the epic called the United States of America. It was, in part, a perfect diatribe against paper-based (rather than gold or silver defined) money.
But the evils of paper money have no end. Its uncertain and fluctuating value is continually awakening or creating new schemes of deceit. Every principle of justice is put to the rack, and the bond of society dissolved: the suppression, therefore; of paper money might very properly have been put into the act for preventing vice and immorality.
As to the assumed authority of any assembly in making paper money, or paper of any kind, a legal tender, or in other language, a compulsive payment, it is a most presumptuous attempt at arbitrary power. There can be no such power in a republican government: the people have no freedom, and property no security where this practice can be acted: and the committee who shall bring in a report for this purpose, or the member who moves for it, and he who seconds it merits impeachment, and sooner or later may expect it.
Of all the various sorts of base coin, paper money is the basest. It has the least intrinsic value of anything that can be put in the place of gold and silver. A hobnail or a piece of wampum far exceeds it. And there would be more propriety in making those articles a legal tender than to make paper so.
The laws of a country ought to be the standard of equity, and calculated to impress on the minds of the people the moral as well as the legal obligations of reciprocal justice. But tender laws, of any kind, operate to destroy morality, and to dissolve, by the pretense of law, what ought to be the principle of law to support, reciprocal justice between man and man: and the punishment of a member who should move for such a law ought to be death.
The death penalty for proposing paper money? Paine called for the criminal indictment as a capital crime, and for impeachment, of any who even would call for tender laws.
Connally was acquitted on the charges of graft and perjury. Later he underwent bankruptcy before dying in semi-disgrace. Nixon resigned rather than undergoing impeachment, also living out his life in disgraced political exile. The spirit of Paine’s declaration was fulfilled in both cases. Connally and Nixon engineered this violation, abandoning the good, precious-metal, money contemplated by the Constitution. Nemesis followed hubris.
The closing of the “gold window” was based, by Connolly, on deeply wrong premises. It was sold to the public, by Nixon, on deeply false promises.
On August 15, 1971 President Nixon came before the American people to announce:
We must protect the position of the American dollar as a pillar of monetary stability around the world.
In the past 7 years, there has been an average of one international monetary crisis every year. Now who gains from these crises? Not the workingman; not the investor; not the real producers of wealth. The gainers are the international money speculators. Because they thrive on crises, they help to create them.
In recent weeks, the speculators have been waging an all-out war on the American dollar. The strength of a nation’s currency is based on the strength of that nation’s economy–and the American economy is by far the strongest in the world. Accordingly, I have directed the Secretary of the Treasury to take the action necessary to defend the dollar against the speculators.
I have directed Secretary Connally to suspend temporarily the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets, except in amounts and conditions determined to be in the interest of monetary stability and in the best interests of the United States.
Now, what is this action–which is very technical–what does it mean for you?
Let me lay to rest the bugaboo of what is called devaluation.
If you want to buy a foreign car or take a trip abroad, market conditions may cause your dollar to buy slightly less. But if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.
The effect of this action, in other words, will be to stabilize the dollar.
Now, this action will not win us any friends among the international money traders. But our primary concern is with the American workers, and with fair competition around the world.
To our friends abroad, including the many responsible members of the international banking community who are dedicated to stability and the flow of trade, I give this assurance: The United States has always been, and will continue to be, a forward-looking and trustworthy trading partner. In full cooperation with the International Monetary Fund and those who trade with us, we will press for the necessary reforms to set up an urgently needed new international monetary system. Stability and equal treatment is in everybody’s best interest. I am determined that the American dollar must never again be a hostage in the hands of international speculators.
Nixon’s promise that “your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today” has, of course, completely falsified. The 2014 dollar is worth only 15 cents in 1971 terms, buying 85% less than it did in 1971. Some bugaboo. All of Nixon’s other rationalizations for going off gold also have been falsified.
The closing of the gold window turned out to be the slamming of the golden door to social mobility and equitable prosperity. In the wake of the closing of the gold window median family income stagnated, never again experiencing secular recovery. Meanwhile the income of the wealthy has continued apace. This has produced the very income inequality so loudly denounced by progressives who, ironically, are the last defenders of the very policy which is the probable cause of our inequitable prosperity.
Brother Pat Buchanan states that Nixon
…ended the Vietnam War with honor, brought all our troops and POWs home, opened up China, negotiated historic arms agreements with Moscow, ended the draft, desegregated southern schools, enacted the 18-year-old vote, created the EPA, OSHA and National Cancer Institute, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with a 61% landslide.
Even as Watergate broke, he ordered the airlift that saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War, for which Golda Meir called him the best friend Israel ever had.
His enemies were beside themselves with rage and resentment.
Buchanan, while admirably loyal, ignores the correlation between Nixon’s embrace of paper money and Paine’s prophetic call for impeachment for that high crime. Let us now, in this month of the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation and the 43rd of his abandonment of the gold standard, pause to wonder. It is bewildering circumstance that the very liberal elites Buchanan indicts as malicious in their treatment of Nixon today represent the most reactionary of defenders of the most pernicious, and only enduring, residue of the Nixon Shock: paper money, “a most presumptuous attempt at arbitrary power.”
Originating at http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/08/18/pat-buchanan-ignores-the-underlying-reason-richard-nixon-was-forced-to-resign/
The Federal Reserve increasingly is attracting scrutiny across the board. Now add to that a roller coaster of a thriller, using a miracle of a rare device, shining a light into the operations of the Fed — that contemporary riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: Matthew Quirk’s latest novel, The Directive.
“If I’ve made myself too clear, you must have misunderstood me,” Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan once famously said. The era of a mystagogue Fed may be ending. Recently, the House Government Oversight Committee passed, and referred to the full House, theFederal Reserve Transparency Act of 2014. This legislation is part of the legacy of the great former Representative Ron Paul. It popularly is known as “Audit the Fed.” How ironic that a mystery novel proves a device to dispel some of the Fed’s obscurantist mystery.
Novelist/reporter Matthew Quirk’s The Directive does for he Fed what Alan Drury did for Senate intrigue with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent, what Aaron Sorkin did for the White House in The West Wing and, now, what Beau Willimon, is doing for the Congress with House of Cards. Quirk takes the genre of political thriller into virgin territory: the Fed. Make to mistake. Engaging the popular imagination has political potency. As Victor Hugo, nicely paraphrased, observed: Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.
Quirk, according to his website,“studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic reporting on crimes, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs.” His background shows. Quirk’s writings drips with the kind of eye for the telling detail that only a canny reporter, detective, or spy possesses. (Readers will learn, just in passing, the plausible identity of the mysterious “secure undisclosed location” where the vice president was secreted following 9/11.)
If you like Ludlum you are certain to like Quirk. And who isn’t intrigued by such a mysteriously powerful entity as the Fed? Booklist calls The Directive a “nonstop heart-pounding ride in which moral blacks and whites turn gray in the ‘efficient alignment of power and interests’ that is big time politics.” Amen.
The Directive describes an effort to rob the biggest bank in the world. The object of the heist is not the tons of gold secured in the basement of 33 Liberty Street. (As Ian Fleming pointed out, in Goldfinger it logistically is impossible to move the mass of so much gold quickly enough to effect a robbery.) Rather, Quirk uses as his literary device, with a touch of dramatic license, the interception of the Federal Open Market Committee’s directive to the trading desk of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to raise (or lower) interest rates in order to use that insider information to make a fast killing.
Lest anyone doubt the power of such insider information consider William Safire’s report, from his White House classic memoir Before the Fall, of the weekend at Camp David before Nixon “closed the gold window.”
After the Quadriad meeting, the President remained alone while the rest of the group dined at the Laurel Cabin. The no-phone-calls edict was still in force, raising some eyebrows of men who had shown themselves to be trustworthy repositories of events. but the 6’8″, dour Treasury Under Secretary Volcker explained a different dimension to the need for no leaks: “Fortunes could be made with this information.” Haldeman, mock-serious, leaned forward and whispered loudly, “Exactly how?” The tension broken, Volcker asked Schulz, “How much is your budget deficit?” George estimated, “Oh, twenty three billion or so — why?” Volcker looked dreamily at the ceiling. “Give me a billion dollars and a free hand on Monday, and I could make up that deficit in the money markets.”
Safire provides context making Volcker’s integrity indisputable lest anyone be tempted to misinterpret this as a trial balloon.
This columnist has been inside the headquarters of the Fed, including, many years ago, the boardroom. Quirk:
Every eight weeks or so, a committee gathers near the National Mall in a marble citadel known as the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve. Twenty-five men and women sit at a long wooden table with an inset of black stone shined to a high gloss. By noon they decide the fate of the American economy.
This columnist never has stepped foot inside the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, much less its trading floor(s). Few have entered that sanctum sanctorum. By taking his readers inside Quirk provides his readers a narrative grasp to how the Fed does what it does.
[T]he Fed is by design very friendly to large New York banks. When the committee in DC decides what interest rates should be, they can’t simply dictate them to the banks. They decide on a target interest, and then send the directive to the trading desk at the New York Fed to instruct them about how to achieve it. The traders upstairs go into the markets and wheel and deal with the big banks, buying and selling Treasury bills and other government debts, essentially IOUs from Uncle Sam. When the Fed buys up a lot of those IOUs, they flood the economy with money; when they sell them, they take money out of circulation.
They are effectively creating and destroying cash. By shrinking or expanding the supply of money in the global economy, making it more or less scarce, they also make it more or less expensive to borrow; the interest rate. In this way, trading back and forth with the largest banks in the world, they can drive interest rates toward their target.
The amount of actual physical currency in circulation is only a quarter of the total monetary supply. The rest is just numbers on a computer somewhere. When people say the government can print as much money as it wants, they’re really talking about the desk doing its daily work of resizing the monetary supply—tacking zeros onto a bunch of electronic accounts—that big banks are allowed to lend out to you and me.
Every morning, on the ninth floor of the New York Fed, the desk gets ready to go out and manipulate the markets according to the instructions laid out in the directive. Its traders are linked by computer with twenty-one of the largest banks in the world. When they’re ready to buy and sell, in what are called open market operation, one trader presses a button on his terminal and three chimes — the notes F-E-D — sound on the terminals of his counterparties. Then they’re off to the races.
There are usually eight to ten people on that desk, mostly guys in their late twenties and early thirties, and they manage a portfolio of government securities worth nearly $4 trillion that backs our currency. Without it, the bills in your wallet would be as worthless as Monopoly cash. The traders on that floor carry out nearly $5.5 billion in trades per day, set the value of every penny you earn or spend, and steer the global economy.
As Quirk recently told Matthew Yglesias, at Vox.com:
I was casting about for the biggest hoards of money in the world, and you get to the Federal Reserve Bank in New York fairly quickly. But that’s been done. Then I learned more and more about the trading desk, and my mind was blown.
You get to have this great line where you say, “There’s $300 billion worth of gold in the basement, but the real money is on the ninth floor.” …
I was a reporter in Washington for a while, and I thought, “Oh, the Fed sets interest rates,” because that’s always what people say. But as you dig into it, you realize that the Fed just has to induce interest rates to where they want to be. They have to trade back and forth with these 19 or 20 banks, and they have 8‑10 guys at this trading desk, trading about $5.5 billion a day. That’s actually how the government prints money and expands and contracts the monetary supply.
It’s this high wire act. You explain it to people and they say, “Oh, it’s a conspiracy thriller.” You say, “No, no. That’s the real part. I haven’t gotten to the conspiracy yet.” But it’s a miracle that it works.
Quirk’s own dual mandate? Combine fast-paced drama with a peek behind the scenes of the world’s biggest bank, providing vivid entertainment while teaching more about the way that one of the most powerful and mysterious institutions in the world works. In The Directive Matthew Quirk shakes, rather than stirs, his readers brilliantly.
Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/08/04/signs-of-the-feds-era-of-secrecy-coming-to-an-end/
[Editor's Note: this piece, by Brendan Brown, was first published at mises.org]
First the good news. The House Financial Services Committee has held a hearing on “Legislation to Reform the Federal Reserve on its 100-year Anniversary.” The hearing focused on a bill introduced by Scott Garrett and Bill Huizenga which would require the Fed to provide Congress with a clear rule to describe the course of monetary policy. Now for the bad news. The rule is to be an equation showing how the Fed would adjust interest rates in response to changes in certain economic variables. And the star witness before the committee proposing his own version of such a rule is renowned neo-Keynesian economist, ex-Bush official Professor John B. Taylor.
Inputs into the so-called “Taylor Rule” involve key magnitudes such as “the neutral rate of interest” and “the natural rate of unemployment” as well as the “targeted rate of inflation.” One might have hoped that the Republicans by now would have realized that monetary reform should involve first and foremost jettisoning neo-Keynesian economics. Even the most talented Fed official cannot know the neutral level of interest rates (whether for short, medium, or long maturities) or the natural level of unemployment. And as to inflation targets, these should be scrapped in any monetary reform and replaced by the aim of monetary stability broadly defined to include absence of asset price inflation and a very long-run stable anchor to goods and services prices.
First, Set Interest Rates Free
An essential component of monetary reform should be setting interest rates free. This means no more official pegging or guidance of short-term interest rates and no attempt to manipulate in various ways long-term interest rates. Markets can do a better job of discovering the neutral rates of interest (across different maturities) and positioning market rates at any time relative to these so as to guide the economy along an equilibrium path than any set of well-informed and even well-meaning Fed officials. This is all on the big assumption that the reformers can design a monetary system around a suitable firmly placed pivot.
Under the gold standard the pivot was a fixed price for gold alongside the widespread use of gold coins. And so the amount of high-powered money in the world grew in line with the above ground stock of yellow metal, which occurred at a glacial, but flexible pace. The demand for high-powered money was itself a fairly stable function of income and wealth. And so the system was well-anchored. Yes, there were imperfections, including the advent of fractional-reserve banking which meant that the demand for high-powered money became less stable. Yet given the absence of deposit insurance and too-big-to-fail and only limited lender of last resort roles banks could be counted upon to have a strong demand for reserves (mainly in the form of gold) to back their deposits. Moreover the obligation to convert customers’ deposits into gold coin on request buttressed this demand for high powered money from the banks.
More Steps Toward Proper Reform
As a matter of practical politics the Republican Congressmen may well conclude that an imminent return to gold is unfeasible. But they could consider in the light of these considerations how best to re-secure the pivot to the US monetary system by creating high-powered money for which demand would be stable and the rate of increase in supply flexibly very low. The steps toward this end would include:
· Abolishing the payment of interest on bank reserves.
· Strict curtailment of lender of last resort function.
· Long-term abolition of deposit insurance.
· Fed withdrawal from creating liquidity in debt markets (no more eligible bills, repo-transactions, etc.).
· Issuance of large-denomination notes (adding to the demand for currency, a key component of high-powered money).
· A legal attack on monopoly power in the credit card business which results often in payers of cash not enjoying a discount.
In this suitably reformed system there would be a huge demand for high-powered money (whether in the form of currency or reserves held by the banks) highly distinct in function from any alternative assets. This demand would not depend on legislating artificially high reserve requirements which bank lobbyists would surely whittle down over time. That was the Achilles heel of the briefly successful monetarist experiment in Germany during the 1970s and early 1980s, as the bankers were finally able to bring political pressure toward lowering reserve requirements such that monetary base no longer was a secure pivot to the monetary system. Accordingly, the Bundesbank gradually shifted to explicit pegging of short-term interest rates albeit subject to a medium-term target for wider money supply growth.
Turning back to the US, even with the reforms suggested, there would still be the difficult question of how to determine the growth in supply of high-powered money. Without a gold connection there has to be some degree of discretionary control in this process, albeit constrained by a quantitative guide (such as an average 1 to 1.5-percent rate of expansion per annum, similar to the expansion rate of above ground gold over the past century) and ultimately constitutionally-embedded legal restrictions.
High-powered money as defined by such a monetary reform would be a far cry from the present situation where the size of the Federal Reserve balance sheet has been recording explosive growth for many years and where the main form of high-powered money, excess reserves, pays interest at above the market rate to the banks. The Republicans in their pursuance of monetary reform would do well to propose some initial steps which would prepare the way for bolder change at a later date with the aim of creating a stable supply and demand for high-powered money.
A key step would be the immediate suspension of interest payments on reserves (which only started in 2008) coupled with a rapid timetable for disposing of the Fed’s massive portfolio of long-term fixed-rate bonds. The Bernanke Fed, and now the Yellen Fed, has used this portfolio as a means of manipulating long-term interest rates (with this depending on an emperor’s new clothes effect whereby markets attach unquestioning importance to the Fed’s massive holdings in forming their expectations of bond prices) and of scaring investors into real assets so adding to the strength of their asset price inflation virus injections.
One suggestion for a rapid timetable would be the Treasury and Fed entering into a deal in which the long-term fixed-rate T-bonds held by the Fed would be converted into long-term floating rate debt and into short- or medium-term T-bills. This would mean less accounting profit under the present structure of yields for the Fed and a lower cost of borrowing for the Treasury. But who really cares about such bookkeeping between the federal government and its monetary agency? In turn the Treasury would announce a long-term timetable for raising the ratio of long-maturity fixed to floating rate debt in the overall total outstanding.
Rome was not made in a day. And the Republicans are certainly not in a position to legislate radical monetary reform. But that is no excuse for a careless decision by the would-be reformers to veer into a cul-de-sac under the misleading directions of Professor Taylor.
[Editor's note: now that Steve Baker MP is on the Treasury Select Committee, it should be of interest to all Austrianists, and those interested in monetary reform in general, to re-visit Anthony Evans and Toby Baxendale's 2008 paper on whether there is room for Austrian ideas at the top table. Within the paper they also reference William White, of the BIS, who has made several comments in the past that are sympathetic to the Austrian School. The recent BIS Annual Report, at least relative to individual, national central banks, shows some consideration of the distorting effects of monetary policy, and the cleansing effects of liquidation (note that the BIS does not face the same political pressures as supposedly independent national central banks). It will be of major importance to followers of the Austrian School around the world to follow the progress of Steve as things develop. Below is the introduction to the paper, the paper in its entirety can be downloaded here aje_2008_toptable]
At a speech in London in 2006 Fynn Kydland surveyed ‘the’ three ways in which governments can achieve credible monetary policy: the gold standard, a currency board or independent central banks. After taking minimal time to dismiss the first two as either outdated or unsuitable for a modern, prosperous economy the majority of the speech was focused on the latter, and the issue of independence. However, the hegemony of this monetary system belies the relative novelty of its use. Indeed the UK presents an especially peculiar history, given the genesis of independence with the New Labour government of 1997. A decade is a short time and two large coincidences should not be ignored. First, independence has coincided with an unprecedented period of global growth, giving the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) a relatively easy ride. Second, the political system has been amazingly consistent with the same government in place throughout, and just two Chancellors of the Exchequer (Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling). These two conditions have meant that from its inception the UK system of central bank independence has not been properly tested.
Our main claim in this article is that monetary policy has converged into a blend of two theoretical approaches, despite there being three established schools of thought. We feel that there is room at the top table of policy debate for more explicit attention to Austrianideas, and will survey emerging and prevailing attention amongst policy commentary.
Troubling times to be a central banker
Current economic conditions are proving to be of almost universal concern. In the UK general price levels are rising (with the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) hitting 3.8% and in the retail price index reaching 4.6% in June 2008) whilst output growth is falling (with GDP growth slowing to 0.2% in quarter two 2008), raising the possibility of stagflation. This comes after a serious credit crunch that has led to the nationalisation of Northern Rock and an estimated £50 billion being used as a credit lifeline. Most of the prevailing winds are global and are related to two recent financial bubbles. From late 2000 to 2003 the NASDAQ composite index (of primarily US technology stocks) lost a fifth of its value. This was followed with a bubble in the housing market that burst in 2005/06 leading to a liquidity crisis concentrated on sub-prime mortgages. Although the UK has fewer sub-prime lendings, British banks were exposed through their US counterparts and it is now widely acknowledged that a house price bubble has occurred (the ratio of median house prices to median earnings rising steadily from 3.54 in 1997 to 7.26 in 2007) and that a fall in prices is still to come. Also worrying, we see signs that people are diverting their wealth from financial assets altogether and putting them into hard commodities such as gold or oil.
Although academic attention to developing new models is high, there seems to be a request on the part of central bankers for less formal theory building and more empirical evidence.
Alan Greenspan has ‘always argued that an up-to-date set of the most detailed estimates for the latest available quarter are far more useful for forecasting accuracy than a more sophisticated model structure’ (Greenspan, 2007), which N. Gregory Mankiw interprets to mean ‘better monetary policy . . . is more likely to follow from better data than from better models’. But despite the settled hegemony of theoretical frameworks, there is a genuine crisis in some of the fundamental principles of central bank independence. Indeed three points help to demonstrate that some of the key tenets of the independence doctrine are crumbling.
Monetary policy is not independent of political pressures
The UK government grants operational independence to the Bank of England, but sets the targets that are required to be hit. This has the potential to mask inflation by moving the goalposts, as Gordon Brown did in 1997 when he switched the target from the retail price index (RPIX) to the narrower CPI. Although the relatively harmonious macroeconomic conditions of the first decade of UK independence has created little room for conflict, the rarity of disagreement between the Bank of England and Treasury also hints at some operational alignment. On the other side of the Atlantic the distinction between de facto and de jure independence is even more evident, as Allan Meltzer says,
‘The Fed has done too much to prevent a possible recession and too little to prevent another round of inflation. Its mistake comes from responding to pressure from Congress and the financial markets. The Fed has sacrificed its independence by yielding to that pressure.’
Monetary policy is not merely a technical exercise
The point of removing monetary policy from the hands of politicians was to provide a degree of objectivity and technical competence. Whilst the Treasury is at the behest of vested interests, the Bank of England is deemed impartial and able to make purely technical decisions. In other words, the Treasury targets the destination but the Bank steers the car. But the aftermath of the Northern Rock bailout has demonstrated the failure of this philosophy. As Axel Leijonhufvud says,
‘monetary policy comes to involve choices of inflating or deflating, of favouring debtors or creditors, of selectively bailing out some and not others, of allowing or preventing banks to collude, no democratic country can leave these decisions to unelected technicians. The independence doctrine becomes impossible to uphold [italics in original].’
As these political judgments are made, there will be an increasing conflict between politicians and central bankers.
Inflation targeting is too simplistic
The key problem with the UK is that a monetary system of inflation targeting supposes that interest rates should rise to combat inflation, regardless of the source. Treating inflation as the primary target downplays conflicting signals from elsewhere in the economy. In an increasingly complex global economy it seems simplistic at best to assume such a degree of control. We have seen productivity gains and cheaper imports that should result in falling prices, but a commitment to 2% inflation forces an expansionary monetary policy. As Joseph Stiglitz has said, ‘today inflation targeting is being put to the test – and it will almost certainly fail’. He believes that rising commodity prices are importing inflation, and therefore domestic policy changes will be counterproductive. We would also point out the possibility of reverse causation, and instead of viewing rising oil prices as the cause of economic troubles, it might be a sign of capital flight from financial assets into hard commodities (Frankel, 2006). Underlying this point is a fundamental fallacy that treats aggregate demand as being the main cause of inflationary pressure. This emphasis on price inflation rather than monetary inflation neglects the overall size of the monetary footprint, which is ‘the stock of saved goods that allow entrepreneurs to invest in more roundabout production’ (Baxendale and Evans, 2008). It is actually the money supply that has generated inflationary pressures.
The current challenges have thus led to an increasingly unorthodox use of policy tools, with the British government making up the rules as it went along over Northern Rock, and the Fed going to the ‘very edge’ of its legal authority over Bear Stearns. Paul Volcker made the accusation that ‘out of perceived necessity, sweeping powers have been exercised in a manner that is neither natural nor comfortable for a central bank’, McCallum’s rule and Taylor’s rule fall by the wayside as the New York Times screams out, ‘It’s a Crisis, and Ideas Are Scarce’.
“Central bankers control the price of money and therefore indirectly influence every market in the world. Given this immense power, the ideal central banker would be humble, cautious and deferential to market signals. Instead, modern central bankers are both bold and arrogant in their efforts to bend markets to their will. Top-down central planning, dictating resource allocation and industrial output based on supposedly superior knowledge of needs and wants, is an impulse that has infected political players throughout history. It is both ironic and tragic that Western central banks have embraced central planning with gusto in the early twenty-first century, not long after the Soviet Union and Communist China abandoned it in the late twentieth. The Soviet Union and Communist China engaged in extreme central planning over the world’s two largest countries and one-third of the world’s population for more than one hundred years combined. The result was a conspicuous and dismal failure. Today’s central planners, especially the Federal Reserve, will encounter the same failure in time. The open issues are, when and at what cost to society ?”
- James Rickards, ‘The death of money: the coming collapse of the international monetary system’, 2014. [Book review here]
“Sir, On the face of it stating that increasing the inheritance tax allowance to £1m would abolish the tax for “all except a very small number of very rich families” (April 5) sounds a very reasonable statement for the Institute for Fiscal Studies to make, but is £1m nowadays really what it used to be, bearing in mind that £10,000 was its equivalent 100 years ago ?
“A hypothetical “very rich” person today could have, for example, a house worth £600,000 and investments of £400,000. If living in London or the South East, the house would be relatively modest and the income from the investments, assuming a generous 4 per cent return, would give a gross income of £16,000 a year, significantly less than the average national wage.
“So whence comes the idea that nowadays such relatively modest wealth should be classified as making you “very rich” ? The middle-aged should perhaps wake up to the fact that our currency has been systematically debased, though it may be considered impolite to say so as it challenges the conventional political and economic wisdom. To be very rich today surely should mean you have assets that give you an income significantly higher than the national average wage ?”
- Letter to the editor of the Financial Times from Mr John Read, London NW11, 12 April 2014
“The former coach house in Camberwell, which has housed the local mayor’s car, was put on the market by Southwark council as a “redevelopment opportunity”. At nearly £1,000 per square foot, its sale value is comparable to that of some expensive London homes.”
- ‘London garage sells for £550,000’ by Kate Allen, The Financial Times, 12 April 2014.
“Just Eat, online takeaway service, slumped below its float price for the first time on Tuesday as investors dumped shares in a raft of recently floated web-based companies amid mounting concern about their high valuations..
“Just Eat stunned commentators last week when it achieved an eye-watering valuation of £1.47 billion, more than 100 times its underlying earnings of £14.1 million..
““They have fallen because the company was overvalued. Just Eat was priced at a premium to Dominos, an established franchise that delivers and makes the pizzas and has revenues of £269 million. Just Eat by comparison is a yellow pages for local takeaways where there is no quality control and no intellectual property and made significantly less revenues of £96.8 million. A quality restaurant does not need to pay 10 per cent commission to Just Eat to drive customers through the door,” Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets said.”
- ‘Investors lose taste for Just Eat as tech stocks slide’ by Ashley Armstrong and Ben Martin,
The Daily Telegraph, 8 April 2014.
Keep interest rates at zero, whilst printing trillions of dollars, pounds and yen out of thin air, and you can make investors do some pretty extraordinary things. Like buying shares in Just Eat, for example. But arguably more egregious was last week’s launch of a €3 billion five-year Eurobond for Greece, at a yield of just 4.95%. UK “investors” accounted for 47% of the deal, Greek domestic “investors” just 7%. Just in case anybody hasn’t been keeping up with current events, Greece, which is rated Caa3 by Moody’s, defaulted two years ago. In the words of the credit managers at Stratton Street Capital,
“The only way for private investors to justify continuing to throw money at Greece is if you believe that the €222 billion the EU has lent to Greece is entirely fictional, and will effectively be converted to 0% perpetual debt, or will be written off, or Greece will default on official debt while leaving private creditors untouched.”
In a characteristically hubris-rich article last week (‘Only the ignorant live in fear of hyperinflation’), Martin Wolf issued one of his tiresomely regular defences of quantitative easing and arguing for the direct state control of money. One respondent on the FT website made the following comments:
“The headline should read, ‘Only the EXPERIENCED fear hyperinflation’. Unlike Martin Wolf’s theorising, the Germans – and others – know only too well from first-hand experience exactly what hyperinflation is and how it can be triggered by a combination of unforeseen circumstances. The reality, not a hypothesis, almost destroyed Germany. The Bank of England and clever economists can say what they like from their ivory towers, but meanwhile down here in the real world, as anyone who has to live on a budget can tell you, every visit to the supermarket is more expensive than it was even a few weeks ago, gas and electricity prices have risen, transport costs have risen, rents have risen while at the same time incomes remain static and the little amounts put aside for a rainy day in the bank are losing value daily. Purchasing power is demonstrably being eroded and yet clever – well paid – people would have us believe that there is no inflation to speak of. It was following theories and forgetting reality that got us into this appalling financial mess in the first place. Somewhere, no doubt, there’s even an excel spreadsheet and a powerpoint presentation with umpteen graphs by economists proving how markets regulate themselves which was very convincing up to the point where the markets departed from the theory and reality took over. I’d rather trust the Germans with their firm grip on reality any day.”
As for what “inflation” means, the question hinges on semantics. As James Turk and John Rubino point out in the context of official US data, the inflation rate is massaged through hedonic quality modelling, substitution, geometric weighting and something called the Homeowners’ equivalent rent. “If new cars have airbags and new computers are faster, statisticians shave a bit from their actual prices to reflect the perception that they offer more for the money than previous versions.. If [the price of ] steak is rising, government statisticians replace it with chicken, on the assumption that this is how consumers operate in the real world.. rising price components are given less relative weight.. homeowners’ equivalent rent replaces what it actually costs to buy a house with an estimate of what homeowners would have to pay to rent their homes – adjusted hedonically for quality improvements.” In short, the official inflation rate – in the US, and elsewhere – can be manipulated to look like whatever the authorities want it to seem.
But people are not so easily fooled. Another angry respondent to Martin Wolf’s article cited the “young buck” earning £30K who wanted to buy a house in Barnet last year. Having saved for 12 months to amass a deposit for a studio flat priced at £140K, he goes into the estate agency and finds that the type of flat he wanted now costs £182K – a 30% price increase in a year. Now he needs to save for another 9 years, just to make up for last year’s gain in property prices.
So inflation is quiescent, other than in the prices of houses, shares, bonds, food, energy and a variety of other financial assets.
The business of rational investment and capital preservation becomes unimaginably difficult when central banks overextend their reach in financial markets and become captive to those same animal spirits. Just as economies and markets are playing a gigantic tug of war between the forces of debt deflation and monetary inflation, they are being pulled in opposite directions as they try desperately to anticipate whether and when central bank monetary stimulus will subside, stop or increase. Central bank ‘forward guidance’ has made the outlook less clear, not more. Doug Noland cites a recent paper by former IMF economist and Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan titled ‘Competitive Monetary Easing: Is It Yesterday Once More ?’ The paper addresses the threat of what looks disturbingly like a modern retread of the trade tariffs and import wars that worsened the 1930s Great Depression – only this time round, as exercised by competitive currency devaluations by the larger trading economies.
Conclusion: The current non-system [a polite term for non-consensual, non-cooperative chaos] in international monetary policy [competitive currency devaluation] is, in my view, a source of substantial risk, both to sustainable growth as well as to the financial sector. It is not an industrial country problem, nor an emerging market problem, it is a problem of collective action. We are being pushed towards competitive monetary easing. If I use terminology reminiscent of the Depression era non-system, it is because I fear that in a world with weak aggregate demand, we may be engaged in a futile competition for a greater share of it. In the process, unlike Depression- era policies, we are also creating financial sector and cross-border risks that exhibit themselves when unconventional policies come to an end. There is no use saying that everyone should have anticipated the consequences. As the former BIS General Manager Andrew Crockett put it, ‘financial intermediaries are better at assessing relative risks at a point in time, than projecting the evolution of risk over the financial cycle.’ A first step to prescribing the right medicine is to recognize the cause of the sickness. Extreme monetary easing, in my view, is more cause than medicine. The sooner we recognize that, the more sustainable world growth we will have.
The Fed repeats its 2% inflation target mantra as if it were some kind of holy writ. 2% is an entirely arbitrary figure, subject to state distortion in any event, that merely allows the US government to live beyond its means for a little longer and meanwhile to depreciate the currency and the debt load in real terms. The same problem in essence holds for the UK, the euro zone and Japan. Savers are being boiled alive in the liquid hubris of neo-Keynesian economists explicitly in the service of the State.
Doug Noland again:
“While I don’t expect market volatility is going away anytime soon, I do see an unfolding backdrop conducive to one tough bear market. Everyone got silly bullish in the face of very serious domestic and global issues. Global securities markets are a problematic “crowded trade.” Marc Faber commented that a 2014 crash could be even worse than 1987. To be sure, today’s incredible backdrop with Trillions upon Trillions of hedge funds, ETFs, derivatives and the like make 1987 portfolio insurance look like itsy bitsy little peanuts. So there are at this point rather conspicuous reasons why Financial Stability has always been and must remain a central bank’s number one priority. Just how in the devil was this ever lost on contemporary central bankers?”
Book Review: The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System by James Rickards
The title will no doubt give Cobden Centre readers a feeling of déjà vu, but James Rickards’ new book (The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System) deals with more than just the fate of paper money – and in particular, the US dollar. Terrorism, financial warfare and world government are discussed, as is the future of the European Union.
Though he quotes F.A. Hayek a few times, the Austrian School gets only one mildly disparaging mention in the entire book. This seems odd for an author who devotes a whole chapter to the benefits of the gold standard. His first bestselling book, Currency Wars, argues that currency wars are not just an economic or monetary concern, but a national security concern for the USA.
Rickards relies on emerging Chaos theories of economics and markets (1) to buttress his arguments in favour of sound money and prudent – limited – government. He uses the same insights, twinned with years of Wall Street experience, to explain why the “coming collapse of the dollar and the international monetary system is entirely foreseeable.”
One of Rickards’ key arguments is that exponential increases in the total size of credit markets mean exponential increases in risk. The gross size of derivative markets is the problem, irrespective of false assurances about netting, he claims. Politicians and central bankers have by and large learnt nothing from recent crises, and are still “in thrall to bank political contributions.”
He makes the case for the US federal government to reinstate Depression-era restrictions on banking activities and for most derivatives to be banned. As a former Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, said in 2009, “the only useful thing banks have invented in 20 years is the ATM” – a sentiment Rickards would probably be sympathetic to.
The chapter dealing with the Fed’s hubris and what investment writer James Grant calls our “PhD Standard” of macroeconomic management will be familiar territory for readers of this site. The Fed is trapped between the rock of natural deflationary forces of excessive debt, an ageing population and cheap imports frustrating its efforts to generate a self-sustaining economic recovery and the hard place of annualised inflation of 2%. Rickards quotes extensively from eminent economist and Ben Bernanke mentor Frederic Mishkin, who noted in a 2013 paper titled Crunch Time: Fiscal Crises and the Role of Monetary Policy that “ultimately, the central bank is without power to avoid the consequences of an unsustainable fiscal policy.”
More interesting is the author’s attempt to map out what-happens-next scenarios. The chapter about the on-going transformation of the International Monetary Fund into the world’s central bank, and Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) into a global currency, is particularly insightful. Though Rickards doesn’t say it, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff (and current Mayor of Chicago) Rahm Emanuel’s dictum about never letting a crisis go to waste seems to apply here: hostile acts of financial warfare would lead to calls for more international regulation, and to more government intervention and monitoring of markets. Observers of the EU’s crab-like advance over the last half century will be familiar with the process.
Indeed, my only quibble with this book is Rickards’ starry-eyed take on the EU – soon to be “the world’s economic superpower” in his view. Though he makes a good argument – similar to Jesús Huerta de Soto’s – that relatively-tight European Central Bank monetary policy is forcing effective structural adjustments in the eurozone periphery, as well as in eastern states that wish to join the euro, his endorsement of other aspects of the EU seem too sweeping.
The author talks of the benefits of “efficiencies for the greater good” in supranational government, and how subsidiarity makes allowances for “local custom and practice”. But, as the regulatory débacle surrounding the Somerset floods has shown recently, EU rule frequently licenses bureaucratic idiocies that destroy effective, established national laws. Regulatory central planning for an entire continent is, I’d say, just as suspect as monetary central planning for one country.
The continent’s demographic problems are probably containable in the short-term, as Rickards says. But mass immigration is driving increasing numbers of white Europeans to far-right parties. And while there is consistently strong public support for the euro in the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), he’s silent on the broader question of the EU’s democratic legitimacy. No mention of those pesky ‘No’ votes in European Constitution, Maastricht and Lisbon Treaty referendums – or of the Commission’s own Eurobarometer polls, which show more and more Europeans losing faith in “the project”.
No matter I suppose: the eurocrats will rumble on regardless. But what was that quote about democracy being the worst form of government apart from all the others?
All in all though, this is a great book – even for someone like me who’s not exactly new to the economic doom ‘n’ gloom genre. As Rickards says at the end of his intro: “The system has spun out of control.”
(1) For example Juárez, Fernando (2011). “Applying the theory of chaos and a complex model of health to establish relations among financial indicators”. Procedia Computer Science 3: 982–986.
Editor’s note: this article, under the title “No end to central bank meddling as ECB embraces ‘quantitative easing’, faulty logic” appears on Detlev Schlichter’s site. It is reprinted with kind permission.
The 2nd edition of his excellent Paper Money Collapse is available for pre-order.
“Who can print money, will print money” is how my friend Patrick Barron put it succinctly the other day. This adage is worth remembering particularly for those periods when central bankers occasionally take the foot off the gas, either because they genuinely believe they solved the problem, or because they want to make a show of appearing careful and measured.
The US Federal Reserve is a case in point. Last year the Fed announced that it was beginning to ‘taper’, that is, carefully reduce its debt monetization program (‘quantitative easing’, QE), and this policy, now enacted, is widely considered the beginning of policy normalization and part of an ‘exit strategy’. But as Jim Rickards pointed out, the Fed already fully tapered twice – after QE1 and after QE2 – only to feel obliged to ‘qe’ again some time later. Whether Ms Yellen is going to see the present ‘taper’ through to its conclusion and whether the whole project will in future be remembered as an ‘exit strategy’ remains to be seen.
So far none of the big central banks has achieved the ‘exit’ despite occasional noises to the contrary. Since the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the global trend has been in one direction and one direction only: From easy money we moved to easier money. QE has been followed by more QE. As I mentioned before, the Fed’s most generous year in its 100-year history was 2013, any talk of ‘tapering’ notwithstanding.
ECB mistrusted by Keynesian consensus
Whenever the European Central Bank reduces its money printing and scales back its market rigging, it invariably unleashes the fury of the Keynesian and inflationist commentariat. In the eyes of its numerous critics, the ECB lacks the proper money-printing credentials of the more pro-active and allegedly more ‘modern’ central banks. It still has a whiff of the old Bundesbank about it, although a few years back, when the ECB flooded the European banking system with cheap liquidity, its balance sheet was larger as a share of GDP than those of its comrades, the Fed and the Bank of England.
The ECB went through two periods of restraint since the crisis: In early 2011 it began to hike interest rates, and in 2013, after the eurozone debt crisis died down, the ECB allowed its balance sheet to shrink by more than €700 billion as banks repaid cheap loans from the central bank. This stood in stark contrast to the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of about $1,000 billion over the same period. The first episode of restraint came to an end in 2012 when the ECB reversed its rate hikes and then cut rates further, ultimately to a new low of just 0.25 percent. Presently, we are still in the second period of restraint, although it too appears to be about to end soon as the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi hinted in his press conference last week at a newfound willingness to embrace unconventional policies to combat ‘deflation’ or even ‘long periods of low inflation’. (The ECB’s harmonized index of consumer prices stood probably at just 0.5% last month.) This means the ECB is likely to cut rates to zero or below soon, or to start asset purchases (‘QE’), or probably both.
This move is hardly surprising in the big scheme of things as outlined above, and the ECB will explain it officially with its mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, from which it does not want to deviate in either direction. This target itself is silly as it assumes that inflation of 1.8 percent is inherently better than inflation of zero (true price stability, if it ever was attainable), or inflation of minus 1.8 percent (deflation). This is, of course, precisely the argument that has been relentlessly and noisily trumpeted by the easy-money advocates in the media, the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, and the reliably shrill Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, among others. A certain measure of inflation is deemed good, very low inflation is bad, and anything below zero, even mild deflation, potentially a disaster. But why should this be the case?
Moderate deflation, that is, slowly declining money prices, may or may not be a symptom of problems elsewhere in the economy, but that slowly declining money prices as such constitute an economic problem lacks any foundation in economics and can easily and quickly be refuted by even a cursory look at economic history. In the 19th century we find extended periods of ongoing, moderate deflation in many economies that simultaneously experienced solid growth in output and substantial rises in living standards, a “coincidence”, wrote Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their influential A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 – 1960, that “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”
Many commentators advance the argument that falling prices depress consumption as purchases get constantly deferred. Even the usually more sober FT-writer John Authers seems to have succumbed to this argument as he explained to his readers last Saturday that prices “fall, thanks to sluggish economic activity. Consumers do not buy now, as goods will be cheaper in future. This lack of consumption slows growth further, and pushes prices down even further.” (John Authers, “Draghi has to back his QE words with action” Financial Times, Saturday April 5/ Sunday April 6 2014, page 24)
This argument, constantly regurgitated by the cheerleaders of money-printing, is weak. First of all, it is certainly no argument in the present environment of close to zero but still positive inflation. If the ECB plans to fight even very low inflation, as Draghi stated at the ECB press conference, than this argument does nothing to support that policy. Certainly, no one defers any purchases when prices are just stable. However, and more importantly, even in a mildly deflationary environment of let’s say 1 to 2 percent per annum, the argument does appear to be a stretch.
Argument ignores time preference
Consumers only contemplate buying something that they consider an economic good, that is, that they consider useful, that they want because it expends some (subjective) use-value to them. In deferring a purchase they can, in a deflationary environment, save money but at the cost of not enjoying the possession of what they want for some time. By not buying a toaster now you may be able to buy it 1 or 2 percent cheaper in a year’s time, or 2 to 4 percent cheaper in two years’ time (always assuming, of course, that the mild deflation persists that long, which nobody can guarantee), but even these small monetary gains come at the expense of not enjoying ownership of the toaster for two years. The small monetary gain obtained by delaying purchases is not for free, as the argument seems to assume, but comes at the cost of waiting. I suggest that only a very small number of items, and only those for which there is very marginal demand indeed, would be affected.
Time preference is not a concept of psychology, it is a constituting element of human action. It is a priori to human action, which means it exists independent of experience or of personal circumstances as it is already entailed in the very concept of what constitutes an ‘economic good’.
If you experienced no time preference in relation to a specific good you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed the possession of that good today or tomorrow. And tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed it that day or the next, and so forth. Logically, you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed possession of it at all, and this means that the good in question is not an economic good for you. You do not care for it.
As George Reisman put is succinctly: To want something means, all else being equal, to want it sooner rather than later.
Be honest, how many purchases over the past 12 months would you not have made had you had a reasonable chance of obtaining the item in question at a 1 or 2 percent discount if you waited a year?
That the prospect of falling prices does not usually deter consumption can be readily seen today in the market for consumer electronics (mobile phones, computers), which has been in deflation – and considerable deflation – for quite some time.
Argument ignores opportunity costs of holding money
The argument also seems to ignore that holding one’s wealth in the form of money involves opportunity costs. Rather than sitting on cash you could enjoy the things you could buy with it. In a deflationary environment, your cash hoard’s purchasing power slowly rises and you can afford ever more nice things with your money, which means the opportunity cost of not spending it constantly goes up. (In a way, while you are waiting four years to buy your toaster at an 8 percent discount to today’s price, buying the toaster is also becoming marginally more attractive to others who are presently holding cash and who may initially not even had an interest in a toaster.)
I think that all that would follow from secular (that is ongoing, systematic but moderate) deflation is that cash would be a more meaningful competitor for other depositories of deferred consumption. Saving by simply holding money makes sense in a deflationary environment, so other vehicles to save with (bonds and shares) would have to offer a return reasonably above the expected deflation rate to attract savings. I think this is not an unreasonably high hurdle.
Furthermore, if what Authers and others describe were true for even marginal deflation, that is, if marginal deflation indeed led to more deflation and a progressively weakening economy, the reverse must logically be true for marginal inflation. Consumers would accelerate their purchases to avoid the 1 or 2 percent loss in purchasing power per annum, and this would quickly drive inflation higher. If two percent deflation led to cash hoarding and a collapse in consumption, would the 2 percent inflation advocated today as ‘price stability’ not lead to a spike in money velocity and an inflationary boom? Either scenario seems highly unrealistic.
Monetary causes versus non-monetary causes
If we use the economic terminology correctly, then inflation and deflation are always monetary phenomena, that is, they always have monetary causes. (As an aside, I here use the now standard definition of inflation as an ongoing, trending rise in the general price level, and deflation as the opposite, rather than the traditional meaning of inflation as an expansion of the money supply and deflation as a contraction.) However, the starting point of the present discussion is simply some low readings on the official inflation statistics in the eurozone. And that those could have non-monetary causes, that they could be the consequence of a crisis-driven drop in real demand in certain industries and certain countries is a realistic assumption and is in fact implied by the arguments of the QE-advocates. Outright deflation is presently being recorded in Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. And John Authers’ short statement on deflation in the FT also starts from the assumption that “prices fall thanks to sluggish economic activity.”
But to the extent that recorded deflation is not due to a general rise in money’s purchasing power (due to a general rise in money demand or an unchanged or falling money supply, to which I come soon) but the result of some producers slashing certain prices in certain industries and regions, and of those price drops not being fully compensated by rising prices somewhere else in eurozone, then this has various implications:
Consumers cannot simply assume that this is a lasting trend. The liquidation of capital misallocations and the discounting of merchandise to get it moving are crisis phenomena and cannot simply be extrapolated into the future the way consumers may have extrapolated the secular deflation of gold standard economies in the 19th century. But the straight extrapolation of very recent price changes into the future is at the core of the argument that even small deflation would be disastrous.
Furthermore, it would seem bizarre to advice merchants to not slash prices when demand drops as that would, according to the logic advanced by Authers et al, only lead to further postponement of consumption and a further drop in demand as consumers would simply expect price declines to continue. Would hiking prices be a better strategy to counter falling demand? Should we reconsider the concept of the “sale” and of “discounting” inventory to encourage buying?
To a considerable degree, the reduction in certain prices for ‘real’ economic reasons could be part of the economic healing process. It is a way for many producers, sectors of the economy, and economic regions, to regain competitiveness. It is true that falling wages in certain industries or regions make it more difficult for workers to repay mortgages and consumer loans but often the lower wage may be the only way to avoid unemployment, which would make repaying debt harder still. Behind the often-quoted headline inflation rate of presently 0.5% per annum lie numerous relative price changes by which the economy re-balances. All discussions about the ‘price index’ ignore these all-important changes in relative prices. It so happens that what goes on with the multitude of individual prices in the economy adds up, according to the techniques of the ECB statisticians, to a 0.5% harmonized inflation rate at the moment, and it may all add up to -0.5% next month or next year, or maybe even – 1 percent. To simply conclude from this one aggregate price number that the economy is getting progressively sicker would be wrong.
There is no escaping the fact that recent economic difficulties are the result of imbalances that accumulated during the credit boom that preceded the 2007/2008 financial crisis, of which the eurozone debt crisis was an after quake. Artificially cheap money created the credit boom and these imbalances. A period of liquidation, contraction, changing relative prices and occasionally falling prices is now necessary, and short-circuiting this process via renewed central bank intervention seems counterproductive and ultimately dangerous.
There is, of course, the possibility that proper monetary causes are behind the eurozone’s low inflation and soon deflation, and that those might persist. Banks still feel constrained in their ability to extend new loans and thus create new money. The growth in bank lending and thus in wider monetary aggregates may fall short of the growth in money demand. But it is an essential feature of money that any demand for it can be fully satisfied with a rise in its price. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power, and by allowing the market to lift the purchasing power of money, that is, through deflation, that demand can be met. The secular, moderate and largely harmless deflation of 19th century gold standard economies had essentially the same origin. Money production did not keep pace with money demand, so money demand was satisfied via slowly falling prices.
And here the same conclusion applies: a more restrained approach to lending, credit risk, and financial leverage, now adopted by banks and the public at large as a consequence of the crisis, may be a good thing, and for the central bank to mess with this process and to use ‘unconventional’ means to force more bank lending and money creation onto the system, out of some misguided commitment to the arbitrarily chosen statistical goal of ‘2-percent inflation’ seems foolish. If successful in raising the headline inflation rate it may succeed in creating the same imbalances (excessive leverage, misallocations of capital and distorted asset prices) that have created the recent crisis.
One commentator recently said the eurozone could ill afford deflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector. But the question is if it can afford the level of lending to attain 2 percent inflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector.
The fallacy of macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy
Let me be clear: I do not recommend a zero-inflation target or a target of moderate deflation. Moderate deflation in and of itself is a little a solution as moderate inflation in and of itself is a problem. I recommend no target as I reject the entire concept of ‘monetary policy’, of the notion that a state agency could conceivably enhance, through clever manipulation of interest rates and bank reserve policy, the coordinating powers of the market that help people realize their personal economic objectives through free trade.
We should remember that no one participates in the economy and in trade and commerce because his or her goal is that the general price level goes up by 2 percent, or that nominal GDP increases by 5 percent. People have their own personal objectives. The market is simply a powerful tool for voluntary and decentralized plan-coordination among independent individuals and groups of individuals that pursue their own goals. It is best left undisturbed. This entire project of ‘monetary policy’ is absurd in the extreme, regardless of what the target is.
It is the fallacy of macroeconomics that certain statistical aggregates, such as CPI, GDP or nominal GDP, are deemed reliable representatives of what goes on in a complex market economy, and it is dangerous hubris to believe that the state should define ‘targets’ for these statistical aggregates and then use policy intervention to achieve them. This might be an approach intellectually suitable for the ruler of a communist or fascist society. It is fundamentally at odds with free trade and a free market, and it must and will fail. That should have been a clear lesson from the financial crisis.
Instead, the mainstream consensus, deeply influenced by Keynesianism and macroeconomics, continues to embrace policy activism and intervention. I fully expect central banks to continue on their path towards more aggressive meddling and generous fiat money production. It won’t take long for the ECB to take the next step.
Incoming from Dave Doctor at Monetary Choice:
The dollar price of Amazon Prime, the two-day delivery program for Amazon, rises on April 17th to $99, from the original $79 price set in 2005, a 25 percent increase. However, when measured in gallons of gas and pounds of coffee, the price or cost declined, by 27 percent in gas and 53 percent in coffee. This is not surprising since Amazon is much more efficient now. The dollar price rose because there are twice as many dollars, created by banks to fund the U.S. federal government’s deficit and low-interest loans, all at the expense of savers.