Some things are stated as fact which are nothing of the kind. Right up until the Congressional deal raising the debt ceiling news anchors were parroting that without it the United States government would default. This is nonsense.
Over the next year the US government will take in around $3 trillion in taxes. The interest payments on its $16.9 trillion debt in that period are estimated at around $240 billion. As long as its income is greater than its debt repayments there is no reason whatsoever why the US government should default on those debt repayments.
It may choose to do so, deciding to anger China rather than domestic recipients of Federal money, but there is nothing automatic about it. But at some point the US government will default on somebody.
Since 2002 US government debt has risen from $6 trillion to nearly $17 trillion, a rise of 183%. Under George W. Bush it increased at $625 billion a year, and in 2008 Senator Obama was moved to declare “That’s irresponsible. It’s unpatriotic.” Under President Obama that debt has increased by $900 billion a year. It now stands at around 73% of GDP, or $131,368 for every man, woman, and child in America. Even with record low interest rates, by 2015 repayments on this debt will come to $50,000 a year for each American family .
And the situation is forecast to get worse. The Congressional Budget Office’s September 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook warns that government spending is set to outstrip revenues in each of at least the next twenty-five years with the gap opening from 2% of GDP at its narrowest point in 2015 to 6.5% of GDP at its widest in 2038, “larger than in any year between 1947 and 2008”. As a result, after a slight improvement between 2014 and 2018, Federal government debt as a percentage of GDP is projected to rise from about 75% to around 100% in 2038.
The CBO identifies the drivers of this increased spending and debt as “increasing interest costs and growing spending for Social Security and the government’s major health care programs (Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and subsidies to be provided through health insurance exchanges)”. Spending on the “major health care programs and Social Security”, the CBO writes, “would increase to a total of 14 percent of GDP by 2038, twice the 7 percent average of the past 40 years” and “The federal government’s net interest payments would grow to 5 percent of GDP, compared with an average of 2 percent over the past 40 years”.
The CBO’s conclusion is stark; “Unless substantial changes are made to the major health care programs and Social Security, those programs will absorb a much larger share of the economy’s total output in the future than they have in the past”. Sadly for the taxpayers of 2038 these are just the changes President Obama and Congressional Democrats steadfastly refuse to consider.
But a refusal to see reality doesn’t make that reality go away. These sorts of figures are unprecedented in peacetime and unsustainable and as the saying goes, ‘If something can’t continue it won’t’. The essential problem is that the US government, as with other western governments, has made spending commitments its tax base cannot support. And a promise that can’t be kept won’t be kept. Drastic change will come to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, not because of ‘evil’ or ‘heartless’ Republicans, but because of math, because there isn’t the money to pay for them.
The desperately sad truth is that Uncle Sam won’t keep his current promise to pay pensions, pay for medical care for the poor or the elderly at a given level because he won’t be able to. This will amount to defaulting on elderly and sick Americans, the only question is whether it happens through some entitlement reform (whether the Democrats want it or not) or through meeting these commitments with devalued dollars (over to you Janet Yellen). Either way, if ‘default’ means a repudiation of a promise of payment this will be America’s default. The US government has a choice about ‘default’ now, it won’t in the future.
 The Telegraph, 8 October 2013.
We use the term “reserve currency” when referring to the common use of the dollar by other countries when settling their international trade accounts. For example, if Canada buys goods from China, it may pay China in US dollars rather than Canadian dollars, and vice versa. However, the foundation from which the term originated no longer exists, and today the dollar is called a “reserve currency” simply because foreign countries hold it in great quantity to facilitate trade.
The first reserve currency was the British pound sterling. Because the pound was “good as gold,” many countries found it more convenient to hold pounds rather than gold itself during the age of the gold standard. The world’s great trading nations settled their trade in gold, but they might hold pounds rather than gold, with the confidence that the Bank of England would hand over the gold at a fixed exchange rate upon presentment. Toward the end of World War II the US dollar was given this status by international treaty following the Bretton Woods Agreement. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was formed with the express purpose of monitoring the Federal Reserve’s commitment to Bretton Woods by ensuring that the Fed did not inflate the dollar and stood ready to exchange dollars for gold at $35 per ounce. Thusly, countries had confidence that their dollars held for trading purposes were as “good as gold,” as had been the Pound Sterling at one time.
However, the Fed did not maintain its commitment to the Bretton Woods Agreement and the IMF did not attempt to force it to hold enough gold to honor all its outstanding currency in gold at $35 per ounce. The Fed was called to account in the late 1960s, first by France and then by others, until its gold reserves were so low that it had no choice but to revalue the dollar at some higher exchange rate or abrogate its responsibilities to honor dollars for gold entirely. To it everlasting shame, the US chose the latter and “went off the gold standard” in September 1971.
Nevertheless, the dollar was still held by the great trading nations, because it still performed the useful function of settling international trading accounts. There was no other currency that could match the dollar, despite the fact that it was “delinked” from gold.
There are two characteristics of a currency that make it useful in international trade: one, it is issued by a large trading nation itself, and, two, the currency holds its value vis-à-vis other commodities over time. These two factors create a demand for holding a currency in reserve. Although the dollar was being inflated by the Fed, thusly losing its value vis-à-vis other commodities over time, there was no real competition. The German Deutsche mark held its value better, but German trade was a fraction of US trade, meaning that holders of marks would find less to buy in Germany than holders of dollars would find in the US. So demand for the mark was lower than demand for the dollar. Of course, psychological factors entered the demand for dollars, too, since the US was seen as the military protector of all the Western nations against the communist countries for much of the post-war period.
Today we are seeing the beginnings of a change. The Fed has been inflating the dollar massively, reducing its purchasing power in relation to other commodities, causing many of the world’s great trading nations to use other monies upon occasion. I have it on good authority, for example, that DuPont settles many of its international accounts in Chinese yuan and European euros. There may be other currencies that are in demand for trade settlement by other international companies as well. In spite of all this, one factor that has helped the dollar retain its reserve currency demand is that the other currencies have been inflated, too. For example, Japan has inflated the yen to a greater extent than the dollar in its foolish attempt to revive its stagnant economy by cheapening its currency. So the monetary destruction disease is not limited to the US alone.
The dollar is very susceptible to losing its vaunted reserve currency position by the first major trading country that stops inflating its currency. There is evidence that China understands what is at stake; it has increased its gold holdings and has instituted controls to prevent gold from leaving China. Should the world’s second largest economy and one of the world’s greatest trading nations tie its currency to gold, demand for the yuan would increase and demand for the dollar would decrease. In practical terms this means that the world’s great trading nations would reduce their holdings of dollars, and dollars held overseas would flow back into the US economy, causing prices to increase. How much would they increase? It is hard to say, but keep in mind that there is an equal amount of dollars held outside the US as inside the US.
President Obama’s imminent appointment of career bureaucrat Janet Yellen as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board is evidence that the US policy of continuing to cheapen the dollar via Quantitative Easing will continue. Her appointment increases the likelihood that demand for dollars will decline even further, raising the likelihood of much higher prices in America as demand by trading nations to hold other currencies as reserves for trade settlement increase. Perhaps only such non-coercive pressure from a sovereign country like China can wake up the Fed to the consequences of its actions and force it to end its Quantitative Easing policy.
This article was previously published at Mises.org.
We are now into a second week of a partial Federal Government shut-down, which is causing considerable concern, centred on the Government’s ability to finance its debt and pay interest without a budget agreed for the new fiscal year. Should this continue into next week and beyond, the Fed will have to enter damage-limitation mode if the Treasury cannot issue any more bonds because of the separate problem of the debt ceiling.
Most likely, QE will have to be switched from financing the government to buying Treasuries already owned by the private sector. Any attempt to reduce the monthly addition of raw money will simply result in bond yields and then interest rates rising. And indeed, already this week we have seen yields on short-term T-bills rise in anticipation of a possible default. The market is naturally beginning to discount the possibility that the Fed may not be able to control the situation.
The T-bill issue is very serious, because they are the most liquid collateral for the $70 trillion shadow banking system. And without the liquidity they provide securities and derivative markets, we can say that Round Two of the banking crisis could make Lehman look like a picnic in the park.
This is the sort of event deflationists have long been expecting. According to their analysis there comes a point where debt liquidation is triggered and there is a dash for cash as assets collapse. But they reckon without allowing for the fact that deposits can only be encashed at the margin; otherwise they are merely transferred, and only destroyed when banks go under. This is the risk the Fed anticipates, and we can be certain it will move heaven and earth to avoid bank insolvencies.
Furthermore the deflationists do not have a satisfactory argument for the effect on currency exchange rates. Iceland went through a similar deflationary event to that risked in the US today when its banking system collapsed and the currency halved overnight. Today a dollar collapse on the back of a banking crisis would also disrupt all other fiat currencies, forcing central banks to coordinate intervention to conceal the currency effect. This leaves gold as the only true reflector of loss of confidence in the dollar and therefore all other fiat currencies.
Those worrying about deflation ignore the fact that it is the fiat currency that takes it on the chin while gold rises – every time without exception. This was even the experience of the 1930s, when Roosevelt suspended convertibility, increased the price of gold by 40% to $35 per ounce, and the banking crisis was contained.
Of course there is likely to be some short-term uncertainty; but against the Fiat Money Quantity (FMQ) gold is down 30% compared with the price pre-Lehman crisis. This is shown in the chart below.
With gold at an extreme low in valuation terms, current events, whichever way they go, seem unlikely to drive it much lower. A wise man perhaps should copy the Asians, who know a thing or two about paper currencies, and are buying gold in ever-increasing quantities.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
“The goods and services traded on the semi-secretive website Silk Road since February 2011 with the virtual currency Bitcoins were so varied that the Federal Bureau of Investigation described it as “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet today”.
￼Its philosophical underpinnings, however, were not solely a desire to get rich quick but, according to the FBI complaint published on Wednesday after the site was shut down, “Austrian economic theory” and the works of Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard, economists closely associated with the Mises Institute, in the US state of Alabama.”
- More obnoxious anti-Austrian School slurs from the Financial Times, on this occasion by John Aglionby and Tracy Alloway.
The Daily Mail no longer has a monopoly on libelling the dead: the Financial Times is also doing a pretty good job. John Aglionby’s story this week (‘Libertarian economics underpinned Silk Road Bitcoin drug website’) was, even by the standards of a paper coloured pink that should really be coloured yellow, an extraordinary piece of character assassination. You do not have to be a believer in Austrian business cycle theory to find the linkage between an apparently criminal website and two widely respected economic theorists to be utterly objectionable. Those FT readers who were moved to respond on the paper’s website tended to think similarly:
“the lowest of lows..”
“FT trying to discredit Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian business cycle theory and Bitcoins all in one go.. for god’s sake, you do not have any decency left..”
“childish, glib and misleading.. a new low for the FT.. Disgusting, to say the least”
“Another shining example of the death of journalism”
“The goods and services traded on the semi-secretive website Silk Road since February 2011 with the virtual currency Bitcoins were so varied that the Federal Bureau of Investigation described it as “the most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the internet today”.
￼￼“Sorry to say, but you all seem to fail to understand that the FT is making a heroic attempt to switch from factual financial reporting to a top position in entertainment of the masses. Don’t you think they are doing well? I most certainly do.”
That the Austrian business cycle theory should be held in such low esteem by such a prominent financial journal might be taken as an admission of guilt for not having noticed the credit bubble while it was inflating, and for then having continually defended the (neo-Keynesian) establishment line rather than debate the practical value of any alternative policy course.
In Austrian business cycle theory, the central bank is the culprit responsible for every boom and bust, firstly in fuelling excessive bank credit growth and maintaining interest rates at overly stimulative lows; then in prolonging the inevitable recession by propping up asset prices, bailing out insolvent banks, and attempting to stimulate the economy via the mechanism of deficit spending. It is difficult to see why the theory is so problematic given that the US Federal Reserve, for example, is not an agency of the US government per se but rather a private banking cartel. When push comes to shove, whose interests will the Fed ultimately protect – those of the banks, or those of the rest of the productive population?
But in any discussion of the ‘long emergency’ enduring throughout the insolvent West, the role of politicians should not be ignored. If politicians had moderated their tendencies to make unaffordable promises to their electorates, western fiscal disasters and the attendant debt mountains would now be less dramatic. And if politicians were not slaves to the electoral calendar, it is fair to assume that difficult choices might even have been taken in the long term interests of their respective economies.
The current gridlock in the US political system (first over the shutdown and latterly over the debt ceiling) is a perfect example of grandstanding politicians abdicating all responsibility for the electorate they claim to serve. And as a glaring example of cognitive dissonance, Treasury bond investors’ responses to fears over a looming default really do take some beating. That beating should, of course, be reserved for investors stupid enough to believe that debt issued by the world’s largest debtor country should be somehow treated as risk-free, especially when the possibility of formal default is only a matter of days away.
Treasury bond defenders will no doubt point out that in a fiat currency world where the central bank has the freedom to print ex nihilo money to its heart’s content, the very idea of default is absurd. But that is to confuse nominal returns with real ones. Yes, the Fed can expand its balance sheet indefinitely beyond the $3 trillion they have already conjured out of nowhere. The world need not fear a shortage of dollars. But in real terms, that’s precisely the point. The Fed can control the supply of dollars, but it cannot control their value on the foreign exchanges. The only reason that US QE hasn’t led to a dramatic erosion in the value of the dollar is that every other major economic bloc is up to the same tricks. This makes the rational analysis of international investments virtually impossible. It is also why we own gold – because it is a currency that cannot be printed by the Fed or anybody else.
On the topic of gold, the indefatigable Ronni Stoeferle of Incrementum in Liechtenstein has published his latest magisterial gold chartbook. (FT: if you’re reading, Ronni is an Austrian, so you’ll probably want to start the character assassinating now.) Set against the correction in the gold price 1974-1976, the current sell-off (September 2011 – ?) is nothing new. The question is really whether our financial (and in particular debt) circumstances today are better than they were in the 1970s. We would merely suggest that they are objectively worse.
Trying to establish a fair price for gold is obviously difficult, but treating it as a commodity like any other suggests that the current sell-off is not markedly different from any previous correction during its bull run:
To cut to the chase, it makes sense to own gold because currencies are being printed to destruction; the long term downtrend in paper money (as expressed in terms of gold) remains absolutely intact:
And we cannot discuss the merits of gold as money insurance over the medium term without acknowledging the scale of the problem in (US) government debt:
Whatever happens in the absurd and increasingly dangerous debate over raising the US debt ceiling, the fundamental problem remains throughout the western economic system. Governments have lived beyond their means for decades and must tighten their belts. Taxes are certain to rise, and welfare systems certain to contract. Even if western governments manage to rein in their morbidly obese consumption patterns without a disorderly market crisis, their legacy will be felt by generations yet to come. The debt mountain cannot and will not resolve itself. (Why, again, we own gold; because we think there is a non-trivial chance of a gigantic financial system reset.) The piper must, at some point, be paid. Western economic policy can be distilled down into just four words: the unborn cannot vote.
This article was previously published at The price of everything.
Now that there is growing evidence of GDP growth, we must consider a new topic: the likely effect on central bank balance sheets, using the US Fed as an example.
Since the banking crisis the Fed has acquired substantial quantities of securities as a result of the assistance it gave to too-big-to-fail banks and subsequently through quantitative easing, most of the assistance to the banks, the Maiden Lane and TALF securitisations, has been repaid. But since then, QE has swelled the Fed’s balance sheet to $3.6 trillion. The financing of this expansion is reflected mainly in excess reserves, which are deposits in favour of depository institutions, in excess of their required reserves.
As bond yields rise, it is obvious that the Fed will have to absorb portfolio losses, currently amounting to about $20bn for each one per cent fall in the value of its US Treasuries and $13bn on its mortgage securities (though these are likely to be more stable in price due to their self-liquidating nature). So far, 10-year Treasuries have fallen about 12% since end-April, and the Fed has $522bn of Treasuries with a maturity of over 10 years. In very rough terms the losses on its Treasuries of all maturities are likely to be about $200bn since April, larger than the Fed’s own capital by a very wide margin.
On the face of it, it doesn’t matter if the Fed’s capital is wiped out because it can easily magic up some more. But another problem will come when it has to raise interest rates: what will it do to stop banks withdrawing their excess reserve deposits? Presumably raise the interest rate paid on them. But it will probably appear to the wider public that the Fed is paying the banks not to lend money to businesses and people. At the moment interest on reserve deposits is only ¼%, but what if it has to be raised to 3% or 4% or even more to control bank credit? The banks will be earning between them $60-80bn per annum by leaving their excess reserves at the Fed.
It can be seen that rising bond yields and interest rates will play havoc with central bank accounts. It wasn’t meant to be like this: economic recovery was going to allow the Fed to taper its QE, and government deficits would disappear as tax revenues recover, giving the space for the Fed to unwind its purchases of Treasury debt. Instead, rising interest rates are likely to make it very difficult for the Fed to reduce its holdings of Treasuries, eliminating all those inflationary excess reserves at the same time.
The other major central banks face the same problem, having expanded their balance sheets in the wake of the banking crisis. They will be expected to stabilise the banking system and ensure undercapitalised banks are not wiped out by rising bond yields, or wrong-footed by interest-rate swap exposures. If, at the same time, the central banks are forced to recapitalise themselves to appear solvent, one wonders what the effect will be on the currencies concerned.
We might be about to discover how sound they and their currencies really are.
“This took guts.”
- Comment by Steven Ricchiuto of Mizuho Securities in response to the Federal Reserve’s surprise decision to refrain from “tapering” its $85 billion monthly bond purchase programme, as reported by the Financial Times, 19 September.
Human beings are suckers for a story. The story peddled by mainstream economic commentators goes that the US Federal Reserve and its international cousins have acted boldly to prevent a second Great Depression by stepping in to support the banks (and not coincidentally the government bond markets) by printing trillions of dollars of ex nihilo money which, through the mechanism of quantitative easing, will mysteriously reflate the economy. It’s a story alright, but more akin to a fairy story. We favour an alternative narrative, namely that with politicians abdicating all real responsibility in addressing the financial and economic crisis (see this article), the heavy lifting has been left to central bankers, who have run out of conventional policy options and are now stoking the fire for the next financial crisis by attempting to rig prices throughout the financial system, notably in property markets, but having a grave impact on volatility across credit markets, government bond markets, equities, commodities.. As politicians might have told either them, or Steven Ricchiuto of Mizuho Securities, it’s quite easy to be brave when you’re spending other people’s money.
Before we get back to the Fed, it’s worth a minute recapping why it was created, namely as a private banking cartel with a monopoly over the country’s financial resources and the facility to shift losses when they occur to the taxpayers. Satire goes a long way here (not least because the reality is so depressing) – here is Punch’s take on the banks from April 1957*:
Q: What are banks for?
A: To make money.
Q: For the customers?
A: For the banks.
Q: Why doesn’t bank advertising mention this ?
A: It wouldn’t be in good taste. But it is mentioned by implication in references to reserves of $249,000,000 or thereabouts. That is the money they have made.
Q: Out of the customers?
A: I suppose so.
Q: They also mention Assets of $500,000,000 or thereabouts. Have they made that too ? A: Not exactly. That is the money they use to make money.
Q: I see. And they keep it in a safe somewhere?
A: Not at all. They lend it to customers.
Q: Then they haven’t got it?
Q: Then how is it Assets?
A: They maintain that it would be if they got it back.
Q: But they must have some money in a safe somewhere?
A: Yes, usually $500,000,000 or thereabouts. This is called Liabilities.
Q: But if they’ve got it, how can they be liable for it?
A: Because it isn’t theirs.
Q: Then why do they have it?
A: It has been lent to them by customers.
Q: You mean customers lend banks money?
A: In effect. They put money into their accounts, so it is really lent to the banks.
Q: And what do the banks do with it?
A: Lend it to other customers.
Q: But you said that money they lent to other people was Assets?
Q: Then Assets and Liabilities must be the same thing.
A: You can’t really say that.
Q: But you’ve just said it. If I put $100 into my account the bank is liable to have to pay it back, so it’s Liabilities. But they go and lend it to someone else, and he is liable to pay it back, so it’s Assets. It’s the same $100, isn’t it?
A: Yes, but..
Q: Then it cancels out. It means, doesn’t it, that banks don’t really have any money at all?
Q: Never mind theoretically. And if they haven’t any money, where do they get their Reserves of $249,000,000 or thereabouts?
A: I told you. That is the money they’ve made.
A: Well, when they lend your $100 to someone they charge him interest.
Q: How much?
A: It depends on the Bank rate. Say five and a half percent. That’s their profit.
Q: Why isn’t it my profit ? Isn’t it my money ?
A: It’s the theory of banking practice that..
Q: When I lend them my $100 why don’t I charge them interest?
A: You do.
Q: You don’t say. How much?
A: It depends on the Bank rate. Say half a percent.
Q: Grasping of me, rather?
A: But that’s only if you’re not going to draw the money out again.
Q: But of course I’m going to draw it out again. If I hadn’t wanted to draw it out again I could have buried it in the garden, couldn’t I ?
A: They wouldn’t like you to draw it out again.
Q: Why not? If I keep it there you say it’s a Liability. Wouldn’t they be glad if I reduced their Liabilities by removing it?
A: No. Because if you remove it they can’t lend it to anyone else.
Q: But if I wanted to remove it they’d have to let me?
Q: But suppose they’ve already lent it to another customer?
A: Then they’ll let you have someone else’s money.
Q: But suppose he wants his too.. and they’ve let me have it?
A: You’re being purposely obtuse.
Q: I think I’m being acute. What if everyone wanted their money at once?
A: It’s the theory of banking practice that they never would.
Q: So what banks bank on is not having to meet their commitments?
A: I wouldn’t say that.
Q: Naturally. Well, if there’s nothing else you think you can tell me..
A: Quite so. Now you can go off and open a banking account.
Q: Just one last question.
A: Of course.
Q: Wouldn’t I do better to go off and open up a bank?
*Cited in G. Edward Griffin’s history of the Fed, ‘The Creature From Jekyll Island’.
If only. In defending an insolvent banking system, central banks have now created a more absurd situation than Punch could ever have dreamed of. This commentator, for example, has a meaningful cash deposit with a UK commercial bank that is currently earning 0.0% interest (let’s say minus 3% in real terms). To put it another way, we have 100% counterparty and credit risk with a minus 3% annual return. Is it any wonder the UK savings rate is not higher ? Is it any wonder that savers are stampeding into risk assets ? But the likes of the Fed have muddied the pond further by attempting a policy of “forward guidance” that is little more than a sick joke, given the recent sell-off in government bond markets and the resultant rise in government bond yields, on fears of “tapering”. The Fed has lost control of the bond market. As Swiss investor Marc Faber puts it,
The question is when will it lose control of the stock market.
For several years we have been warning of the dangers of central banks becoming increasingly interventionist in the capital markets. We are old school free market libertarians: if bankers make bad decisions, let their banks fail. This is essentially the same perspective taken by Michael Lewis, recently interviewed in Bloomberg Businessweek. On the fifth anniversary of its bankruptcy, Lewis was asked whether he thought Lehman Brothers had been unfairly singled out when it was allowed to fail (given that every other investment bank was quickly rescued, courtesy of the US taxpayer). His response:
Lehman Brothers was the only one that experienced justice. They should’ve all been left to the mercy of the marketplace. I don’t feel, oh, how sad that Lehman went down. I feel, how sad that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley didn’t follow. I would’ve liked to have seen the crisis play itself out more. The problem is, we would’ve all paid the price. It’s a close call, but I think the long-term effects would’ve been better.
But that is not what happened. We didn’t get runs on investment banks. We got bank bailouts, taxpayer rescues, QE1, QE2, QE3 and now QE-Infinity. The impact on the real economy has been questionable, to say the least:
But the impact on financial markets has been demonstrably beneficial to investment banks and their largest clients.
As Stanley Druckenmiller points out, the Fed didn’t act bravely, they bottled it. They had the opportunity to start, ever so gently, to reverse a policy of monstrous intervention in the capital markets, and they blew it. That makes it all the harder for them to “taper” next time round. When do capital markets free themselves from the baleful manipulation of the state? Marc Faber was similarly unimpressed:
The endgame is a total collapse, but from a higher diving board. The Fed will continue to print and if the stock market goes down 10% they will print even more. And they don’t know anything else to do. And quite frankly, they have boxed themselves into a corner where they are now kind of desperate.
The Fed may be desperate, but we’re not. We have our client assets carefully corralled into four separate asset classes. High quality debt (not US Treasuries or UK Gilts) offers income and a degree of capital protection given that the central banks have demolished deposit rates. Defensive equities give us some skin in the game given central bank bubble-blowing in the stock market – but this game ends in tears. Uncorrelated, systematic trend-followers give us a “market neutral” way of prospectively benefiting from any disorderly market panic. And real assets give us some major skin in the game in the event of an inflationary disaster. Since pretty much all of these assets can be marked to market on a daily basis, they are not free of volatility, but we are more concerned with avoiding the risk of permanent loss of capital, Cypriot bank-style. We have, in other words, Fed-proofed our portfolios to the best of our ability. And on the topic of gold alone, Marc Faber again:
I always buy gold and I own gold. I don’t even value it. I regard it as an insurance policy. I think responsible citizens should own gold, period.
Now that the Fed has blinked in the face of market resistance, it seems inevitable to us, as it does to people like Marc Faber, that at some point, possibly in the near future, traditional assets are at risk of loudly going bang. How close are you going to be to the explosion?
This article was previously published at The price of everything.
It was not too surprising that there is going to be no tapering for some very good reasons. The commencement of tapering would have led deliberately to bond yields rising, triggered by an increase in sales of government bonds to the public and at the same time escalating sales by foreign governments as they attempt to retain control over their own currencies and interest rates. This was the important lesson from floating the rumour of tapering in recent months.
The reason tapering was not going to happen is summarised as follows:
1. Monetarists and therefore central bankers believe that rising bond yields and interest rates will strangle economic recovery. They want to see more robust evidence of recovery before permitting that to happen.
2. Rising bond yields would have required the Fed to raise interest rates sooner rather than later to stem the flight of bank deposits from the Fed’s own balance sheet held as excess reserves, which only earn 0.25%.
3. Importantly, the global banking system has too much of its collective balance sheet invested in fixed-interest bonds, and is also exposed to rising interest rates through interest rate swap derivatives. Tapering would almost certainly have precipitated a second bank crisis starting at the system’s weakest point.
4. The cost of funding the US Government’s deficit would have risen, difficult when the debt ceiling has to be renegotiated yet again.
5. Rising US interest rates will most probably destabilise emerging market currencies, risking a new Asian crisis.
6. It is a bad time to shift the burden of government funding back into the markets, because foreign holders have shown they will sell into rising yields.
The Fed has reaffirmed that zero interest rates will be with us for some time to come. It simply has no choice: it has to play down the risk of inflation. The result will be more price inflation, which is bad for the dollar and good for gold. This was reflected in the US Treasury yield curve, where prices of long maturities fell yesterday relative to the short end.
The markets had wrongly talked themselves into believing that tapering was going to happen, when the rumour was no more than an experiment. In the process precious metals were sold, driven by increasingly bearish technical talk every time a support level was breached. It is hardly surprising therefore that the recovery in gold and silver prices last night was dramatic, with gold moving up $70 and silver by $2 from intra-day lows. It looks like a significant second bottom is now in place above the June lows and the bear position, coupled with the shortage of physical metal will drive prices in the coming weeks.
The implications of the Fed not going ahead with tapering are bad for the dollar and won’t stop bond yields at the long end from rising. It shows that the whole US economy is in a massive debt trap that cannot be addressed for powerful reasons. The reality is the expansion of cash and deposits in the US banking system is tending towards hyperinflation and is proving impossible to stop. That is the message from this week’s FOMC meeting, and I expect it to gradually dawn on investors world-wide in the coming weeks.
A new meme is spreading in financial markets: the Fed is about to turn off the monetary spigot. US Printmaster General Ben Bernanke announced that he might start reducing the monthly debt monetization program, called ‘quantitative easing’ (QE), as early as the autumn of 2013, and maybe stop it entirely by the middle of next year. He reassured markets that the Fed would keep the key policy rate (the Fed Funds rate) at near zero all the way into 2015. Still, the end of QE is seen as the beginning of the end of super-easy policy and potentially the first towards normalization, as if anybody still had any idea of what ‘normal’ was.
Fearing that the flow of nourishing mother milk from the Fed could dry up, a resolutely unweaned Wall Street threw a hissy fit and the dummy out of the pram.
So far, so good. There is only one problem: it won’t happen.
Now I am the first to declare that the Fed SHOULD abolish QE, and not only in the autumn of this year or the summer of next, but right now. Pronto. Why? Because a policy of QE and zero interest rates is complete madness. It distorts markets, sabotages the liquidation of imbalances, prohibits the correct pricing of risk, and encourages renewed debt accumulation. It numbs the market’s healing powers – by enabling more ‘pretend and extend’ in the financial industry – and it adds new imbalances to the old ones that it also helps to maintain.
This policy may have prevented – for now – debt deflation, but maybe debt deflation is what is needed.
QE is nothing but heavy-handed market intervention. It is destructive. It doesn’t solve the underlying problems. It creates new ones.
Larry Summers’ getaway car
However, none of these objections even register at the Fed. The Fed has a completely different perspective: this policy was a roaring success and as it has worked so well it can now be faded out. Soon there will be no need for it. Larry Summers’ dreadful phrase captures that thinking best: the economy will soon have achieved ‘escape velocity’.
Most analogies are somewhat poor but this one is particularly inept. Ironically, though, the reference to mechanics captures beautifully the logic of Keynesians and other interventionists: the economy is like a physical object moving through space and is occasionally in need of a little push to get moving again at an appropriate speed. Policy provides the push.
Bernanke doesn’t use these terms but his thinking is similar. He explained QE to the American public in 2010 by announcing that his job was to occasionally manipulate interest rates and asset prices to encourage lending, borrowing, spending, shopping, and other healthy economic activities, and that once his machinations had stimulated enough of those activities, the economy would again enter a virtuous cycle (his words) of self-sustained growth. Escape velocity has been restored.
I think this is nonsense – however appealing it may sound to many laypersons. The economy is not an object that needs a push, or a machine that needs to be jump-started, or a lazy mule that needs a gentle slap on its behind to get going again (of course, you should never hurt an animal!). The economy is a complex process of coordination, an elaborate system that allows an extensive and diverse group of actors with different and frequently conflicting goals and interests to co-operate with one another peacefully toward the best possible realization of their own material aims. A crisis is a failure of that coordination process. It is a cluster of errors. The only explanation for the occurrence of such a cluster of errors is a systematic distortion of the market’s coordinating properties, such as occurs when monetary expansion distorts interest rates and other relative prices, and leads to imbalances that unhinge the economy.
The economy went into recession because of massive financial deformations. Easy money had led to excessive indebtedness, a housing bubble and dangerous levels of leverage. The problems were such distortions, not lack of momentum. The real question is not whether the GDP statistics exhibit the right velocity but if the underlying dislocations – which, to the chagrin of the econometricians, cannot be easily ascertained from the macro-data – have now dissolved.
The Fed believes it has healed an economy that was sick from easy money with more easy money. The patient is feeling better and can soon be released from intensive care. In my view, the patient is still sick and now suffers from a dangerous addiction to boot. The ‘feeling-better’ bit maybe, just maybe, a lingering drug high from Dr. Bernanke’s generous medication. Withdrawal symptoms may surface soon. If they do, Dr. Bernanke will simply open the medicine cupboard again. Don’t forget, only a few weeks ago the man appeared on TV and tried to talk up the Russell 3000 stock index.
I do not doubt that, if measured by overall GDP, the US economy is presently doing better. I would be foolish to take on the Fed on this point. The Fed has a staff of 200-plus economists, most of them, I assume, from America’s finest universities, which doesn’t mean they are good economists but at any rate they are probably good statisticians. If they say there are signs of life in the economy, that’s good enough for me.
Where I disagree is on the narrative. The deformations are largely still there. How can they not, given the enormous policy effort to suppress the very market forces that would – in a free market – have exposed and liquidated these deformations? They are still visible, among other indicators, in high degrees of indebtedness. And they matter. That is why I am mistrustful of the Fed’s projections. Their theories compel them to believe in virtuous cycles and ‘escape velocity’ and to disregard imbalances and distortions. Any sustained removal of super-easy money will allow these deformations to resurface and immediately cloud the near term cyclical outlook. According to my worldview, this should be allowed to happen as it is part of the essential healing process. But it runs counter to the Fed’s worldview and the Fed’s view of its own mission.
The one institution that lacks ‘escape velocity’ is the Fed. It will remain hostage to the financial monsters it created and the dangerous misconception of its own grandeur.
This article was previously published at DetlevSchlichter.com.
Once again, the European press is trumpeting the triumph of the prodigals after a week in which both the Spanish and the French were accorded more time to get their budgetary house in order – a move which, given the downward economic trajectory of the pair, has something of a whiff of force majeure about it – and the German Finance Minister Schaeuble acknowledged that, yes, the fiscal pact around which he and his boss have built so much of their electoral credibility did in fact encompass a ‘certain flexibility’.
In the wake of a mass demonstration on the streets of Paris at which the Left Front’s heavily-defeated presidential candidate Melenchon fulminated that “We do not want the world of finance in power!” – an expostulation delivered to the strains of ‘Ca ira!’, one supposes – Schaeuble’s Gallic counterpart Moscovici was hardly in a position to soft-pedal the German concession, instead vaunting grandiosely in his turn that, “We are witnessing the end of the dogma of austerity… we are at a decisive turning point in the history of the European Project”.
Brave words, indeed, but Frau Merkel, for one, begged to disagree – or, at least, to dissemble for the benefit of her domestic audience. “If one regularly spends more than one earns, something must be awry,” she opined, while one of her party’s spokesmen, Steffen Seibert declared that, “Our contention is that the… crisis has its roots in the overindebtedness of many member states… in to low a degree of competitiveness.” No prizes for guessing to whom he was referring.
Last week’s supposed poster boy for the new laxity, Commissar – sorry, Commissioner – Barroso, was also out on the circuit, denying that he had endorsed any such slippage by telling Welt am Sonntag that he had been “deliberately misinterpreted”, that – au contraire, mes amis – “growth which depends upon debt is unsustainable” and that the blame for the ‘Project’s’ woes should not be pinned on German policy but rather on “excessive outlays, lack of competitiveness” – that word again – “and irresponsible finance.” “Each nation,” he went on, “should look to clean up the mess on its own doorstep.”
Amid all this posturing, it does strike your author as a touch ironic that while the commentariat treats Europe’s persistence with its failed experiment in ‘fauxterity’ as a clear and undeniable symptom of the mental inadequacy of its ruling elite, the members of that same consensus themselves retain what is, if anything, an even more delusional faith in the combined evils of inflation and Big Government as the magical means with which to conjure away all our present woes.
In case you hadn’t noticed, fellas, we have been reinforcing monetary-fiscal failure for the past five years, by continuing to ply the patient with ever stronger doses of what it was that made him ill in the first place. Just multiply the DAX by the youth unemployment rate if you want a snapshot of where your approach has gone horribly wrong – of where you have let the GINI out of the bottle, as it were – and you might realise that if there is anyone who needs to reconsider their attachment to a discredited dogma, it is you!
Whisper it, but even your hero seems to be getting the drift. For witness that, in his latest speech in Rome, Mario Draghi was happy to say that “Fiscal policies must follow a sustainable path, separate and distinct from cyclical fluctuations. Without this prerequisite, lasting growth is not possible… Particularly for countries with structurally high levels of public debt…”, before going on to assert far more boldly that – as we have said since Day One of the crisis – “…to mitigate the inevitable recessionary effects of fiscal consolidation, the composition of such measures must favour the reduction of current public spending and of taxes, particularly in a context such as in Europe where taxation is already high by international standards….” [our emphasis].
Though we must be careful not to read too much into the man’s words, it is hard not to hope that this might reflect the first fragile flowering of a genuinely new approach – of the inauguration of a policy of REAL austerity, this time of the invigorating kind which incorporates a partial lifting of the deadening hand of the state, rather than the enervating, bastardized version of slower spending growth and rapidly rising taxes with which we have been so far afflicted and which has only served to compound the financial shock delivered by the collapse of the last bubble.
All this remains to be seen but, in the here-and-now, the temptation to use this effusion of political hot-air as an excuse to buy yet more stocks, more ailing sovereign debt, and more junk credit has become well-nigh irresistible, especially since Super-Mario not only overrode what he hinted was some internal opposition to an official rate cut at the latest ECB meeting, but also managed to leave dangling before a slavering crowd of stimulus junkies a tantalising hint that he might soon push the level below zero. In case we were too obtuse to get the point, he underlined his intentions with another of his famously portentous, almost Delphic pronouncements: that even though the ECB council was still scrambling to divine whether anything could possibly go wrong with such step into the unknown, he, Draghi, stood ‘ready to act’.
It was not the first time in recent days, of course, that the marbled halls of Mount Olympus had echoed to the sonorous baritone of the Gods as they sought to reassure us poor mortals that they had matters well in hand: that they had taken time off from their weighty contemplation of the sublime, the eternal, and the infinite to tend instead to our petty concerns. Had not the Bernanke Fed subtly quashed all thoughts that it might soon ‘taper’ its own open-handed distribution of milk and honey with that one, equally Pythian phrase: “the Committee is prepared to increase or reduce the pace of its purchases to maintain appropriate policy accommodation”?
How can a man NOT want to buy the market in the face of the solicitous stance being taken by the venerated possessors of such unchallenged omniscience?
For all this, the imposition of the near-mythical, negative deposit rate might seem to entail more problems than advantages, not least because it would effectively act as a tax, a drain upon the earnings, of the very same banks that the last five year’s ruinous policies have been attempting to bolster. Bear in mind that, even after the recent redemptions, European banks have a hefty €628 billion parked with the ECB and so a 50bp levy on this could amount annually to perhaps 15% of industry-wide profits.
Nor can banks simply avoid this by withdrawing their funds: outside money – the kind created by the central bank – is, after all – outside. This means that its supply can only be altered with the complicity of the bank of issue itself which must therefore allow its myrmidons to pay back more of their LTROs, covered bond repos, and so forth – a reduction of liquidity which one might think would run counter to the original intention. Thus, one supposes, the idea will be that the banks will enact the Gesellian wet dream of passing on the cost to their own depositors, of taxing their money instead.
Here we must consider the fact that while the individual can easily seek to disembarrass himself of what he now considers an excess proportion of money among his holdings, collectively the public can only have their aggregate stock of inside (bank-created) monies diminished in one of three ways: they must repay their loans (deleverage further); the banks themselves must call in said loans (intensify the crunch); or people who hold a demand account must swap it for a term deposit (which does not constitute money-proper), or invest in a long-term security issued by the bank itself (we specify this last because a moment’s thought will reveal that the purchase of non-bank paper simply passes the parcel to the seller or issuer of said obligations who must then rid himself of them in his turn).
While that latter condition might seem an ideal juncture at which the banks could seek to boost their levels of capital (albeit at an average price:book of significantly less than one), the truth is that what the authorities seem most keen to provoke is a what is technically called a ‘monetary disequilibrium’ – that is, the situation where the public’s demand to hold money is thrown out of kilter. Under such conditions – and given the nominal inflexibility discussed above – the money stock can only be effectively reduced if its real value falls; if prices rise and so reduce its worth; i.e., if there is an inflation.
In that regard, the impulse to buy stocks on what is no more than a vague expression of intent might not seem so wholly irrational, after all. To see this in what is admittedly a toy example, suppose that half the population holds only cash and no equities (call these sticks-in-the-mud Group A), while the remainder has a reverse proportion of all equities, no cash to an equal overall nominal value held in their portfolios (call the ‘Nothing but Blue Skies’ crowd, Group B). The aggregate cash ratio from which we start is therefore 50% (albeit thanks to a not-to-be-exceeded and somewhat unrealistic divergence of preferences between our two cohorts).
Now suppose the members of Group A change their outlook on life and seek to acquire equities from Group B, paying successively higher prices for ever smaller increments in order to tempt their counterparts into the trade. Under some fairly crude assumptions, after four rounds of such bidding, with one third of the stock of equities having exchanged against two-thirds the stock of money, equity prices will have tripled, the cash ratio of both groups will have converged on 25%, and aggregate net worth will have doubled (to the relative advantage of the initial equity holders, but to the outright, if decidedly notional, benefit of all).
Note, however, that none of this says that the equities are worth three times as much for even if the monetary disturbance has somehow meant that earnings have also tripled (and this is far from being guaranteed even should revenues rise in proportion), this may represent no material gain whatsoever, but only register the inflation of a wider range of prices which here has not been consequent upon an increase in the stock of money per se but solely upon a diminution in its societal valuation.
Herein lies the great gaping hole at the centre of official policy. Yes, the central banks can increase the stock of outside money almost without limit. Yes, they can make it as unattractive as possible for anyone to hold this (though when we come to think about the impact of negative rates, let us not forget that people are generally happy to pay to have their other valuables safely stored, or that bank charges used to be a routine imposition upon the short-term depositor). And yes, to some extent they can assume that their actions will enhance the relative appeal of things other than money or its partial substitutes.
But what they cannot ever gauge is how much influence they can exert, nor how quickly their will may be done, nor even upon what specific mix of goods, services, or claims their policy will have most impact. As the great Richard Cantillon pointed out three centuries since, the whole question is highly path dependent and the path actually followed will be the result of an incredible cascade of interactions between individual, subjective choices, each one altering the quantum field in which the next has to be taken. As we Austrians have been saying for the past one hundred years, this affects relative prices much more profoundly than it does average ones. Crucially, it is in that matrix of relative prices that you find the motivations for all economic actions and the justification or otherwise for both the composition of the capital stock and the distribution and employment of labour. If entrepreneurial uncertainty and personal bewilderment have been major contributors to our ongoing malaise, as many of us have been arguing, it should be clear that we seek to introduce further sources of instability and potential disruption only at our peril.
Nor can our Sorcerer’s Apprentices be entirely sure that, as the demons they have summoned out of the vasty deep continue to chip away at the foundations of trust in the very currency which they, the necromancers, are charged with upholding, they do not unleash a catastrophic collapse of the whole superstructure of values and contractual chains which towers above them, reducing the whole economic system to chaos in the process.
If you can convince me that any mortal can hold such a complex tangle of possible outcomes within their comprehension, I will allow that our monetary heretics may be right to do away with the combined practical experience and theoretical understanding of all those who have gone before them over the ages. Until you do, I shall be forced to withhold my endorsement and to mutter darkly about the unexpiable sin of hubris instead.
According to a European Central Bank Governing Council member Ewald Nowotny, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke sees no risk to inflation in the United States. According to Nowotny, Bernanke had given a “very optimistic” portrayal of the U.S. outlook.
“They see absolutely no danger of an expansion in inflation,” Nowotny said. Bernanke had said U.S. inflation should be 1.3 percent this year.
Fed forecasts put inflation by the end of this year in a range of 1.3 to 1.7 percent. The yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) stood at 1.5% in March against 2% in February and 2.7% in March last year.
Also the growth momentum of the core CPI (the CPI less food and energy) has eased in March from the month before. Year-on-year the rate of growth has softened to 1.9% from 2% in February and 2.3% in March last year.
For Bernanke and most experts the key factor that sets the foundation for healthy economic fundamentals is a stable price level as depicted by the consumer price index.
On this way of thinking a stable price level doesn’t obscure the visibility of the relative changes in the prices of goods and services.
Consequently, it is held, this leads to the efficient use of the economy’s scarce resources and hence results in better economic fundamentals.
A stable price level enables businesses to see clearly market signals that are conveyed by the relative changes in the prices of goods and services.
For instance, let us say that a relative strengthening in people’s demand for potatoes versus tomatoes took place. This relative strengthening, it is held, is going to be depicted by the relative increase in the prices of potatoes versus tomatoes.
Now in a free market businesses pay attention to consumer wishes as manifested by changes in the relative prices of goods and services. Failing to abide by consumer wishes will lead to the wrong production mix of goods and services and will lead to losses.
Hence in our case businesses, by paying attention to relative changes in prices, are likely to increase the production of potatoes versus tomatoes.
On this way of thinking if the price level is not stable then the visibility of the relative price changes becomes blurred and consequently, businesses cannot ascertain the relative changes in the demand for goods and services and make correct production decisions.
This leads to a misallocation of resources and to the weakening of economic fundamentals. In short, unstable changes in the price level obscure changes in the relative prices of goods and services.
Consequently, businesses will find it difficult to recognize a change in relative prices when the price level is unstable.
Based on this way of thinking it is not surprising that the mandate of the central bank is to pursue policies that will bring price stability i.e. a stable price level.
By means of various quantitative methods the Fed’s economists have established that at present policy makers must aim at keeping price inflation at 2%. Any significant deviation from this figure constitutes deviation from the growth path of price stability.
Observe that Fed policy makers are telling us that they have to stabilize the price level in order to allow the efficient functioning of the market economy.
Obviously this is a contradiction in terms since any attempt to manipulate the so called price level implies interference with markets and hence leads to false signals as conveyed by changes in relative prices.
By means of setting targets to interest rates and by means of monetary pumping it is not possible to strengthen economic fundamentals, but on the contrary it only makes things much worse. Here is why.
Policy of price stability leads to more instability
Let us say that the so called price level is starting to exhibit a visible decline in growth momentum. To prevent this decline the Fed starts to aggressively push money into the banking system.
As a result of this policy, after a time lag, the price level has stabilized. Should we regard this as a successful monetary policy action? The answer is categorically no.
Given that monetary pumping sets in motion the diversion of wealth from wealth generating activities to non-wealth generating activities obviously this leads to the weakening of the wealth generation process and to economic impoverishment.
Note that the economic impoverishment has taken place despite price level stability. Also, note that in order to achieve price stability the Fed had to allow an increase in the growth momentum of its balance sheet and consequently in the growth momentum of the money supply.
It is the fluctuations in the balance sheet and the subsequent fluctuations in the growth momentum of money supply that matter here. It is this that sets in motion the menace of the boom bust cycle regardless of whether the price level is stable or not.
While increases in money supply are likely to be revealed in general price increases, this need not always be the case. Prices are determined by real and monetary factors.
Consequently, it can occur that if the real factors are pulling things in an opposite direction to monetary factors, no visible change in prices might take place.
In other words, while money growth is buoyant prices might display low increases.
Clearly, if we were to pay attention to the so called price level and disregard increases in the money supply, we would reach misleading conclusions regarding the state of the economy.
On this, Rothbard wrote,
“The fact that general prices were more or less stable during the 1920s told most economists that there was no inflationary threat, and therefore the events of the great depression caught them completely unaware”
(America’s Great Depression, Mises Institute, 2001 , p. 153).
During the 1926 to 1929 the alleged stability of the price level caused most economic experts including the famous American economist Irving Fisher to conclude that US economic fundamentals were doing fine and that there was no threat of an economic bust.
The yearly rate of growth of the CPI displayed stability during 1926 to 1929 (see chart). Most experts have ignored the fact that the yearly rate of growth of the US central bank balance sheet jumped to 42% by June 1928 from minus 14% in February 1927.
The sharp fall in the growth momentum of the Fed’s balance sheet after June 1928 (see chart) set in motion an economic bust and the Great Depression.
At present the Fed continues to push money aggressively into the banking system with its balance sheet standing at $3.3 trillion as at the end of April against $0.9 trillion in January 2008. We suggest however that a fall in the growth momentum of AMS since October 2011 raises the likelihood of a bust in the months ahead.
If one adds to all this the possibility that the process of real wealth generation has been badly damaged by the Fed’s loose policies it shouldn’t surprise us that we could enter a severe slump in the months ahead.
Summary and conclusion
For most economists the key to healthy economic fundamentals is price stability. A stable price level, it is held, leads to the efficient use of the economy’s scarce resources and hence results in better economic fundamentals. It is not surprising that the mandate of the Federal Reserve is to pursue policies that will generate price stability. We suggest that by means of monetary policies that aim at stabilizing the price level the Fed actually undermines economic fundamentals.