October 31st saw the belated release of the 2014 Input-Output Supply and Use Data. This is important because it incorporates a larger amount of economic activity than GDP data, but comes at the cost of only appearing as an annual series, and with an 18 month (or longer) lag. The diagram below shows the breakdown of the measure for 1997:
I’ve previously mentioned that Gross Output data is now an official BEA statistic, and I am interested in seeing equivelent figures for the UK. Here they are.
Firstly, in terms of absolute numbers, we can see that Total Output dwarfs Nominal GDP.
In fact Total Output is around twice as large as Nominal GDP:
The reduction in the ratio that occured in 2002-2005 is a result of Nominal GDP growth running ahead of Total Output growth. But notice the dramatic increase in the ratio in 2006. This was because Nominal GDP was growing at 5.81%, whilst Total Output grew at 8.73%. This reveals that economic activity was running at a significantly higher pace than a focus on GDP data was telling us:
One of the main reasons why the September revisions to GDP had such an impact was because of a reclassification of R&D spending. This rests on a conceptual problem with distinguishing between investment and intermediate consumption. As more and more economic activity becomes service based we might expect this problem to grow over time. One of the chief benefits of using a broader measure of national income is that it captures all intermediate consumption, and therefore the boundary between intermediate and final consumption/investment becomes less relevent.
These figures reveal that in 2010 and 2011 the wider economy was growing at a higher rate than that being measured by GDP, and in 2012 they were effectively the same. It is very difficult to read much into these annual growth rates, given that there is likely to be a lot of quarterly volatility. But in the same way that the US have started releasing this as a quarterly series, there would be much to gain from the ONS doing likewise.
Just over three weeks ago, in his keynote address to the Global Corporocracy at the so-called ‘Summer Davos’ meeting in Tianjin, Li Keqiang firmly stated that: ‘…we [have] focused more on structural readjustment and other long-term problems, and refrained from being distracted by the slight short-term fluctuations of individual indicators.’
He went on to downplay the fetish for the 7.5% GDP number, saying that ‘…we believe the actual economic growth rate is within the proper range, even if it is slightly higher or lower than the… target.’
As if that were not clear enough, Finance Minister Lou Jiwei rather spoiled Madame Lagarde’s infrastructure orgy at the Sep 20th weekend G20 meeting in Australia when he pointed out that China had already tried the very approach which his Western peers are itching to undertake – and which they hope can be financed by a grab at their citizens’ private pension funds.
Lou pointed out that while the programme may well have provided a short term fillip to ‘growth’, it brought environmental damage, capital misallocation, and dangerously increased indebtedness in its train. As if that were not enough of an ‘ice bucket challenge’ for his audience of panting Keynesians, he reiterated Li’s diagnosis that his government’s macro-economic policy would ‘continue to focus on the general objectives, in particular to maintain employment growth and price stability’ and that [emphasis added], ‘policy adjustments will not change on a single economic indicator’.
However determinedly deaf certain Occidental wise monkeys were to this pronouncement, Lou’s local market traders certainly took the words to heart: rebar, rubber, and iron ore fell 4% to major new lows in the Monday session, while a whole range of metals, petrochemicals, and others dropped 2% or more. If the impending Golden Week holiday may have been enough to discourage any further initiative selling of the metals over the succeeding few days (steel, iron, rubber, and cotton were NOT similarly spared), nevertheless the verdict was clear: the pain would continue.
Li himself seemed to be resolutely sticking to his guns. In the two policy announcements he has made since his big speech, he has continued to tinker with microeconomic reforms (e.g., liberalizing delivery services) and to enact fiscal measures (notably the introduction of a series of accelerated depreciation measures aimed both at alleviating the current tax burden and at encouraging SMEs to undertake a little more capex in future). Nowhere is there any hint that the regime’s nerve has failed or therefore that the spigots are about to be opened once more.
The latest kite to be flown on this account is the speculation raised by the WSJ that PboC chief Zhou Xiaochuan will be ‘retired’ at the upcoming autumn plenum. Though no confirmation of any sort has been forthcoming so far, we have already been subjected to no shortage of punditry as to the whys and wherefores of the supposed move.
Chief among these have been somewhat conflicting conspiracy theories that his expulsion would represent variously a reassertion of its influence by the factions so far largely being steam-rolled by Xi and, in almost exact opposition to this, a move by Xi to ride himself of a turbulent monetary priest who – wait for it – has proved too reluctant to swamp the ailing economy with the massive amounts of liquidity Xi has now decided is necessary in complete contradiction of the programme he and his team have been pursuing!
Though we have no special insight into this matter, it does strike us as unlikely that Zhou is suddenly now regarded as an enemy – this is, after all, the man whose gravitas and reputation for calm confidence was deemed so valuable to the incoming administration that it deliberately bent the rules concerning the mandatory retirement of top officials in order to keep him in his post. It seems far more probable, therefore, that if the personnel change is indeed to be affected – and the fulsome encomium to this ‘wise old sage’ which was carried in all the main outlets over the weekend rather diminishes the prospect – his baton would be passed on to someone of like mind. Several commentators have already noted that this may well be the case if the go-to man tipped to be his successor, Guo Shuqing, actually does get the nod.
Whether the incumbent stays or goes, however, the very fact that the mere rumour of his departure was enough to have the stimulus junkies drooling that their itch for the next fix would soon be assuaged is revealing of the parlous state to which we have all been reduced in our QEternity, Goldilocks world of an utter reliance on the foibles of central bank heads to determine where we should place our next bets, to the exclusion of all other factors.
Giving this crowd some brief hope, the PboC did in fact adjust the repo rate lower and also offered (in its usual, frustratingly opaque manner) a CNY500 billion injection of funds to the five biggest state-owned banks even though this may have been no more than a partial offset to the ongoing lack of foreign exchange accumulation – of especial significance now that the CBRC has clamped down on end-period deposit hunting – and/or a timely assist aimed at preventing the IPO flood from dampening a rekindled enthusiasm for stocks.
The realisation that the country’s current afflictions might not be susceptible of alleviation in the time-honoured Yellen-Draghi fashion seems to be spreading. With the capital market queue for bank refinancing now said to stretch to CNY600 billion and with the count of bad and doubtful loans rising rapidly (if still hugely understated), the lenders seem to have a somewhat different focus than that of showering credit on each and every would-be borrower.
Nor are borrowers beating down their doors, at least according to the results of the central bank’s latest quarterly survey. This has loan demand falling below the lows of 2012, so no wonder the monthly data dump shows the pace of increase in yuan loans on bank books dropping to the lowest levels of the past eight years. No wonder either when, as CASS academician Yu Yongding told an audience at Tsinghua University, a recent NBS survey found that lending rates for the average SME was no less than 25.1% annualized.
The combination of usurious rates and burgeoning liabilities (especially accounts receivable which are up more than 14% yoy) means that financing costs for SOEs are rising at a rate of 16.7% p.a. (as the MOF tells us), while those for joint-stock enterprises are growing 14.4%, and for the usually more profitable HK, Macau & Taiwanese owned-firms at no less than 27.2%, so says the NBS. The Chinese Enterprise Confederation also reported that the top 205 state-owned manufacturing companies’ income margin was a mere 1.8% this past year, while that for their 295 private counterparts was a less than stellar 2.8% (for comparison, over the past 4 ½ years, US manufacturers have returned an average of 10.6¢ pre- and 8.7¢ after-tax on each $1 of sales).
Would you be borrowing more in a decelerating economy if these were your business metrics?
Reflecting all this on the macro side, Want China Times reported that, with several Chinese provinces finding it ‘hard’ to reach their GDP numbers, voices are being raised in favour of a lowering of the goalposts (the message naturally being far more important than the medium in Leninist thinking).
Recall here that the official spin keeps emphasizing both the long-term nature of the shift to the ‘New Normal’ (which one unnamed cynic dared to translate as ‘recession’!) and continually pleads the medium-term difficulties associated with the ‘Three Overlay’ constellation – viz., the problems of changing the emphasis from the quantity to the quality of output; the ‘structural’ shift away from investment and toward consumption as the focus of future development; and the tribulations of eliminating (‘digesting’ in Newspeak) some of the excess capacity and crippling debt levels built up during the ‘stimulus’ the Party unleashed in the attempt to combat the effects of the financial crisis.
Significantly, at the grandly titled ‘2014 Co-prosperity Capital Wealth Summit’ held on Sunday, former NBS chief economist and State Department advisor Yao Jingyuan opined that this baleful cyclical conjunction would last for another three to five years. Simultaneously, Shengsong Cheng of the central bank pointed out – in what may be the first serious attempt at disassociating the regime from its previous expectational anchor – that if China were to grow at no more than 6.7% p.a. over the remainder of the decade, the desideratum of doubling the size of the economy over the whole of that ten year stretch would still have been achieved. It would also seriously embarrass many of the Sinomaniacs’ determinedly bullish projections.
As Want China Times also wrote, besides the growing shortfalls in Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanxi, Heilongjiang, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces, Shenzhen is labouring under the burden of a fall in two-way trade volumes of 28% over the first seven months of the year in addition to a 60% plunge in newly constructed real estate.
As 21st Century Herald has pointed out, the upshot has been that many local governments are trimming outlays, dipping into reserves, and even indulging in asset fire-sales in order to stem the fiscal haemorrhage. Even then, in order to meet revenue goals, resort has been made to a neat, fraudulent round-robin whereby local businesses borrow the money with which to pay fictional taxes and then recoup the outlay in the form of phony subsidies, rebates, and contracts. An official at one northern city admitted that up to 15% of his authority’s budget consisted of such shenanigans but that in certain county governments the padding amounted to 30% of the total. No wonder the expansion of bank balance sheets is having so little effect on genuine activity.
Further to the regional tale of woe, the local stats bureau made it known that even mighty Shanghai’s industries saw an actual drop in the value of output of 2.5% yoy in August, figures which represent a truly stunning reversal from June’s +7.1 gain and the first half’s overall increase of +4.4%.
Meanwhile, the CISA reported that implied steel consumption has failed to grow so far this year for the first time in the new millennium. No surprise then that rumours continue to swirl about the possible CNY10’s of billions involved in the potential bankruptcy of Sinosteel. Likewise, Reuters reported that ‘sources at the country’s major oil companies have predicted that China’s diesel consumption is set to post its first decline in more than a decade.’ How much of even that is real demand is another moot point given that SAFE has just announced the identification of $10 billion in fake cross-border transactions in a scandal which has progressively widened out from the initial Qindao port incident to encompass no less than 24 separate provinces and cities thus far.
Globally, the impact is being felt in the bellwether chemical industry. As the American Chemistry Council noted, there was a ‘worrying’ slide in operating rates during what is typically the seasonally strong second quarter. Things have not improved much since. Q2. The ACC showed Germany dropping from 4.8% growth in February to a fall of 3.5% in August. India crashed from +12.9% in January to +3.4% in August. Japan fell from +9.2% in March to just +0.8% in August. Mexico went from 1% growth in April to -2.8% and Russia slowed from +4.2% in January to -10.4% last month.
Only one major country managed to maintain a relatively strong growth level. You may not be surprised to learn that this stalwart was China, where output peaked at +11.1% in April, was still a strong +8.8% four months later. Why the anomaly? No real mystery: the country has swung from being a net importer of bulk chemicals to being a net exporter, much as it has in refined oil products and also in some metals. No-one dare utter the word, ‘dumping’!
All of this is a sharp contrast to the first stages of Chinese expansion when the country purchased large quantities of raw and semi-processed items – without much regard to their cost – either to employ them in building out its own industries and infrastructure (as Mr Lou pointed out) or to incorporate – along with a range of other bought-in, more sophisticated components – into finished-goods exports bound for Western consumers who were borrowing a goodly portion of the necessary invoice amounts.
Nowadays, many of those foreign customers are either unwilling or unable add any more to their slate, while the prevailing quest for China’s factory owners is to find some way of more profitably utilising some of the vast overcapacity they have built up in the interim.
One consequence is that, even allowing for possible distortions in the data, it is clear that things are running no where near as hot as they once were. Taking the five years to the peak of the last cycle, Chinese industrial corporations enjoyed compound annual revenue growth of over 25% and profit growth of 37%. Fast forward and since the end of 2012, earnings growth and – perhaps even more tellingly – revenues are up by a much lesser 10% or so. Not a basis on which to be too gung-ho on further capital outlays, nor one in which double-digit rises in wage costs can continue to be blithely accommodated.
At the largest of scales, evidence of this change can also be found. During the whole of the two decades before Crash, world trade volumes rose at 7.2% a year, compounded: since the start of 2011, that pace has slowed to a tardy 2.0%, meaning that now, some six years on from the Snowball Earth episode, we are only at three quarters of the level we would have attained had the crisis not intervened. And, as we know, all this is closely related in a complex web of cause-and-effect to the rate global money growth. That latter is facing its own challenges given that the ongoing steep rise in the dollar reduces the effective global heft of the monies being emitted by just about everyone other than the Chinese themselves with their similarly-soaring currency.
In passing, economic turmoil may be one thing with which the leadership has to contend, but the upsurge of violence in Xinjiang – where up to 50 people were reported killed during a bomb attack on two Luntai police stations – and the rather more peaceful, if no less weighty, street protests in HK – with their uncomfortable echoes of East European ‘Colour’ revolutions – are another matter entirely.
All told, the Chinese CCP and its new leaders have some sizeable challenges to overcome in the months ahead.
Governments and central banks have made little or no progress in recovering from the Lehman crisis six years ago. The problem is not helped by dependence on statistics which are downright misleading. This is particularly true of real GDP, comprised of nominal GDP deflated by an estimate of price inflation. First, we must discuss the inflation adjustment.
The idea that there is such a thing as a valid measure of price inflation is only true in an econometrician’s imagination. An index which might be theoretically valid at a single point in time is only subsequently valid in the wholly artificial construction of an unchanging, or “evenly rotating economy”: in other words an economy where everyone who is employed remains in the same employment producing at the same rate, retains the same proportion of cash liquidity, and buys exactly the same things in the same quantities. Furthermore business inventory quantities must also be static. All human choice must be excluded for this condition. Only then can any differences in prices be identified as due to changes in the quantity of money and credit. Besides this fiction, an accurate index cannot then be constructed, because not every economic transaction is reported. Furthermore biases are built into the index, for example to overweight consumer spending relative to capital investment, and to incorporate government activity which is provided to users free of cost or subsidised. Buying art, stockmarket investments or a house are as much economic transactions as buying a loaf of bread, but these activities and many like them are specifically excluded. Worse still, adjustments are often made to conceal price increases in index constituents under one pretext or another.
Economic activities are also only selectively included in GDP, which is supposed to be the total of a country’s transactions over a period of time expressed as a money total. A perfect GDP number would include all economic transactions, and in this case would capture the changes in consumer preferences excluded from a static price index. But there is no way of identifying them to tell the difference between changes due to economic progress and changes due to monetary inflation.
To illustrate this point further, let’s assume that in a nation’s economy there is no change in the quantity of money earned, held in cash, borrowed or repaid between two dates. This being the case, what will be the change in GDP? The answer is obviously zero. People can make and buy different products and offer and pay for different services at different prices, but if the total amount of money spent is unchanged there can be no change in GDP. Instead of measuring economic growth, a meaningless term, it only measures the quantity of money spent. To summarise so far, governments are using a price index, for which there is no sound theoretical basis, to deflate a money quantity mistakenly believed to represent economic progress. In our haste to dispense with the reality of markets we have substituted half-baked ideas utilising dodgy numbers. The error goes wholly unrecognised by the majority of economists, market commentators and of course the political classes.
It also explains some of the disconnection between monetary and price inflation. Price inflation in this context refers to the increase in prices due to demand enabled by extra money and credit. As already stated, newly issued money today is spent on assets and financial speculation, excluded from both GDP and its deflator.
It stands to reason that actions based on wrong assumptions will not achieve the intended result. The assumption is that money-printing and credit expansion are not having an inflationary effect, because the statistics say so. But as we have seen, the statistics are selective, focusing on current consumption. Objective enquiry about wider consequences is deterred, and nowhere is this truer than when seeking an understanding of the wider effects of monetary inflation. This leads us to the second error: we ignore the fact that monetary inflation is a transfer of wealth from the public to the creators of new money and credit.
The transfer of wealth through monetary inflation is initially selective, before being distributed more generally. The issuers of new currency and credit are governments and the banks, both of which reap the maximum benefit of utilising them before any prices rise. But the ultimate losers are the majority of the population: by the time new money ends up in wider circulation prices have already risen to reflect its existence.
Everywhere, monetary inflation transfers real wealth from ordinary people on fixed salaries or with savings. In the US for example, since the Lehman crisis money on deposit has increased from $5.4 trillion to $12.9 trillion. This gives us an idea of how much the original deposits are being devalued through monetary inflation, a continuing effect gradually revealed through those original deposits’ diminishing purchasing-power. The scale of wealth transfer from the public to both the government and the commercial banks, which is in addition to visible taxes, is strangling economic activity.
The supposed stimulation of an economy by monetary means relies on sloppy analysis and the ignorance of the losers. Unfortunately, it is process once embarked on that is difficult to stop without exposing the true weakness of government finances and the fragility of the banking system. Governments with the burden of public welfare costs are in a debt trap from which they lack the resolve to escape. The transformation of an economy from no monetary discipline into one based on sound-money principals is widely thought by central bankers to risk creating a major banking crisis. The crisis will indeed come, but it will probably have its origins in the inability of individuals, robbed of the purchasing power of their fixed salaries and savings, to pay the prices demanded from them by businesses. This is called a slump, an old-fashioned term for the simultaneous contraction of production and demand. Not even zero or negative interest rates will save the banks from this increasingly certain event, for a very simple reason: by continuing the transfer of wealth from individuals through monetary inflation, the cure will finally kill the patient.
There is a growing certainty in the global economic outlook that is deeply alarming. The welfare-driven nations continue to impoverish their people by debauching their currencies. As Japan’s desperate monetary expansion now shows, far from improving her economic outlook, she is moving into a deepening slump, for which this article provides the explanation. Unfortunately we are all on the path to the same destructive process.
“A balanced Input-Output framework…provides a more accurate and consistent picture of the U. S. economy.”
– Survey of Current Business
Starting in spring 2014, the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release a breakthrough new economic statistic on a quarterly basis. It’s called Gross Output, a measure of total sales volume at all stages of production. GO is almost twice the size of GDP, the standard yardstick for measuring final goods and services produced in a year.
This is the first new economic aggregate since Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was introduced over fifty years ago.
It’s about time. Starting with my work The Structure of Production in 1990 andEconomics on Trial in 1991, I have made the case that we needed a new statistic beyond GDP that measures spending throughout the entire production process, not just final output. GO is a move in that direction – a personal triumph 25 years in the making.
GO attempts to measure total sales from the production of raw materials through intermediate producers to final retail. Based on my research, GO is a better indicator of the business cycle, and most consistent with economic growth theory.
GO is a measure of the “make” economy, while GDP represents the “use” economy. Both are essential to understanding how the economy works.
While GDP is a good measure of national economic performance, it has a major flaw: In limiting itself to final output, GDP largely ignores or downplays the “make” economy, that is, the supply chain and intermediate stages of production needed to produce all those finished goods and services. This narrow focus of GDP has created much mischief in the media, government policy, and boardroom decision-making. For example, journalists are constantly overemphasizing consumer and government spending as the driving force behind the economy, rather than saving, business investment, and technological advances. Since consumer spending represents 70% or more of GDP, followed by 20% by government, the media naively concludes that any slowdown in retail sales or government stimulus is necessarily bad for the economy. (Private investment comes in a poor third at 13%.)
For instance, the New York Times recently reported, “Consumer spending makes up more than 70% of the economy, and it usually drives growth during economic recoveries.” (“Consumers Give Boost to Economy,” New York Times, May 1, 2010, p. B1) Or as the Wall Street Journal stated a few years ago, “The housing bust has chilled consumer spending — the largest single driver of the U. S. economy…” (“Home Forecast Calls for Pain,” Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2011, p. A1.)
Or take this report during the economic recovery:
“Friday’s estimates of second-quarter gross domestic product [1.3%, well below consensus forecasts] provided a sobering look at how a decline in public spending and investment can restrain growth….The astonishingly slow growth rate from April through June was due in large part to sluggish consumer spending and an increase in imports, which subtract from growth numbers. But dwindling government spending also held back growth.” (“The Role of Government Spending,” New York Times, July 29, 2011.)
In short, by focusing only on final output, GDP underestimates the money spent and economic activity generated at earlier stages in the production process. It’s as though the manufacturers and shippers and designers aren’t fully acknowledged in their contribution to overall growth or decline.
Gross Output exposes these misconceptions. In my own research, I’ve discovered many benefits of GO statistics. First, Gross Output provides a more accurate picture of what drives the economy. Using GO as a more comprehensive measure of economic activity, spending by consumers turns out to represent around 40% of total yearly sales, not 70% as commonly reported. Spending by business (private investment plus intermediate inputs) is substantially bigger, representing over 50% of economic activity. That’s more consistent with economic growth theory, which emphasizes productive saving and investment in technology on the producer side as the drivers of economic growth. Consumer spending is largely the effect, not the cause, of prosperity.
Second, GO is significantly more sensitive to the business cycle. During the 2008-09 Great Recession, nominal GDP fell only 2% (due largely to countercyclical increases in government), but GO collapsed by over 7%, and intermediate inputs by 10%. Since 2009, nominal GDP has increased 3-4% a year, but GO has climbed more than 5% a year. GO acts like the end of a waving fan. (See chart below.)
I believe that Gross Output fills in a big piece of the macroeconomic puzzle. It establishes the proper balance between production and consumption, between the “make” and the “use” economy, and it is more consistent with growth theory. As Steve Landefeld, director of the BEA, and co-editors Dale Jorgenson and William Nordhaus state in their work, A New Architecture for the U. S. National Accounts (University of Chicago Press, 2006), “Gross output [GO] is the natural measure of the production sector, while net output [GDP] is appropriate as a measure of welfare. Both are required in a complete system of accounts.”
The history of these two economic statistics goes back to several pioneers. Two economists in particular had much in common — they were both Russian Americans who taught at Harvard University, and both won the Nobel Prize. Simon Kuznets did breakthrough work on GDP statistics in the 1930s. Following the Bretton Woods Agreement in 1946, GDP became the standard measure of economic growth. A few years later, Wassily Leontief developed the first input-output tables, which he regarded as a better measure of the whole economy. I-O accounts require examining the “intervening steps” between inputs and outputs in the production process, “a complex series of transactions…among real people.”
I-O data created the first estimates of Gross Output. However, GO was not emphasized as an important macroeconomic tool until my own work, The Structure of Production,was published in 1990 by New York University Press. In chapters 6 and 9, I created a universal four stage model of the economy (see the diagram below) demonstrating the relationship between total spending in the economy and final output.
In chapter 6, I made the point that GDP was not a complete picture of economic activity, and compared it to GO for the first time, contending that GO was more comprehensive and more accurately revealed that business investment was far bigger than consumption in the economy.
Since writing Structure, I discovered that the BEA’s Gross Output does not include all sales at the wholesale and retail level. The BEA only includes value-added data for commodities after they become finished products. Gross sales are ignored at the final two stages of production. David Wasshausen, a BEA staff researcher, offers this rationale: since “there is no further transformation of these goods…to the production process, they are excluded from wholesale/retail trade output.”
Therefore, in the 2nd edition of Structure, published in 2007, I created my own aggregate statistic, Gross Domestic Expenditures (GDE), which includes gross sales at the wholesale and retail level and is therefore significantly larger (more than double GDP). For a comparison between GDE, GO and GDP, see my working paper.
The BEA has been compiling GO statistics from input-output data for years, but the media have largely ignored these figures because they came out only every five years (known as benchmark I-O tables). Since the early 1990s, the BEA has been estimating industry accounts annually. Even so, the data was never up-to-date like GDP. (The latest input-output industry accounts are for 2011).
That has gradually changed. Under the leadership of BEA director Steve Landefeld, the BEA now has the budget to report the input-output data, including Gross Output, on a quarterly basis, and has already begun publishing quarterly data prior to 2012. This is a major breakthrough involving the cooperation of the Bureau of the Census, Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Federal Reserve Board, and other government agencies.
Controversies Over This New Statistic
Several objections have been made over the years to the use of GO and GDE. Economists are especially fixated over the perceived problem of “double counting” with GO and GDE. I am the first to note that GO and GDE involve double counting. A commodity is often sold repeatedly as it goes through the resource, production, wholesale and retail stages. Why not just measure the value added at each stage rather than double or triple count? they ask. GDP eliminates double counting and measures only the value added at each stage.
There are several reasons why double counting should not be ignored and is actually a necessary feature to understanding the overall economy. As accountants and financiers know, double counting is essential in business. No company can operate or expand on the basis of value added or profits only. They must raise the capital necessary to cover the gross expenses of the company — wages and salaries, rents, interest, capital tools and equipment, supplies and goods-in-process. GO and GDE reflect this vital business decision making at each stage of production. Can publicly-traded firms ignore sales/revenues and only focus on earnings when they release their quarterly reports? Wall Street would object. Aggregate sales/revenues are important to measure on an individual firm and national basis.
In my own research, I find it interesting that GO and GDE are far more volatile than GDP during the business cycle. As noted in the chart above, sales/revenues rise faster than GDP during an expansion, and collapse during a contraction (wholesale trade fell 20% in 2009; retail trade dropped over 7%).
Economists need to explore the meaning of this cyclical behavior in order to make accurate forecasts and policy recommendations. Double counting counts.
Another objection involves outsourcing and merger/acquisitions. Companies that start outsourcing their products will cause an increase in GO or GDE, while companies that merge with another company will show a sudden decrease, even though there is essentially no change in final output (GDP).
That’s a legitimate concern. Similar problems occur with GDP. When a homeowner marries the maid, the maid may no longer be paid and therefore her services may no longer be included in GDP. Black market activities often fail to show up in GDP data as well. Certainly if a significant trend develops in outsourcing or merger & acquisition activity, it will be reflected in GO or GDE statistics, but not necessarly in GDP. It bears further investigation to see how serious this issue is. No aggregate statistic is perfect, but GO and GDE offer forecasters an improved macro picture of the economy.
In conclusion, GO or GDE should be the starting point for measuring aggregate spending in the economy, as it measures both the “make” economy (intermediate production), and the “use” economy (final output). It complements GDP and can easily be incorporated in standard
national income accounting and macroeconomic analysis. To see how, take a look at the 4th edition of my textbook, Economic Logic (Capital Press, 2014), available in paperback and Kindle.
A number of people have asked me to expand on how the rapid expansion of money supply leads to an effect the opposite of that intended: a fall in economic activity. This effect starts early in the recovery phase of the credit cycle, and is particularly marked today because of the aggressive rate of monetary inflation. This article takes the reader through the events that lead to this inevitable outcome.
There are two indisputable economic facts to bear in mind. The first is that GDP is simply a money-total of economic transactions, and a central bank fosters an increase in GDP by making available more money and therefore bank credit to inflate this number. This is not the same as genuine economic progress, which is what consumers desire and entrepreneurs provide in an unfettered market with reliable money. The second fact is that newly issued money is not absorbed into an economy evenly: it has to be handed to someone first, like a bank or government department, who in turn passes it on to someone else through their dealings and so on, step by step until it is finally dispersed.
As new money enters the economy, it naturally drives up the prices of goods bought with it. This means that someone seeking to buy a similar product without the benefit of new money finds it is more expensive, or put more correctly the purchasing power of his wages and savings has fallen relative to that product. Therefore, the new money benefits those that first obtain it at the expense of everyone else. Obviously, if large amounts of new money are being mobilised by a central bank, as is the case today, the transfer of wealth from those who receive the money later to those who get it early will be correspondingly greater.
Now let’s look at today’s monetary environment in the United States. The wealth-transfer effect is not being adequately recorded, because official inflation statistics do not capture the real increase in consumer prices. The difference between official figures and a truer estimate of US inflation is illustrated by John Williams of Shadowstats.com, who estimates it to be 7% higher than the official rate at roughly 9%, using the government’s computation methodology prior to 1980. Simplistically and assuming no wage inflation, this approximates to the current rate of wealth transfer from the majority of people to those that first receive the new money from the central bank.
The Fed is busy financing most of the Government’s borrowing. The newly-issued money in Government’s hands is distributed widely, and maintains prices of most basic goods and services at a higher level than they would otherwise be. However, in providing this funding, the Fed creates excess reserves on its own balance sheet, and it is this money we are considering.
The reserves on the Fed’s balance sheet are actually deposits, the assets of commercial banks and other domestic and foreign depository institutions that use the Fed as a bank, in the same way the rest of us have bank deposits at a commercial bank. So even though these deposits are on the Fed’s balance sheet, they are the property of individual banks.
These banks are free to draw down on their deposits at the Fed, just as you and I can draw down our deposits. However, because US banks have been risk-averse and under regulatory pressure to improve their own financial position, they have tended to leave money on deposit at the Fed, rather than employ it for financial activities. There are signs this is changing.
Rather than earn a quarter of one per cent, some of this deposit money has been employed in financial speculation in derivative markets, or found its way into the stock market, gone into residential property, and some is now going into consumer loans for credit-worthy borrowers.
In addition to the government’s deficit spending, these channels represent ways in which money is entering the economy. Furthermore, anyone working in the main finance centres is being paid well, so prices in New York and London are driven higher than in other cities and in the country as a whole. They spend their bonuses on flashy cars and country houses, benefiting salesmen and property values in fashionable locations. And with stock prices close to their all-time highs, investors with portfolios everywhere feel financially better off, so they can increase their spending as well.
All the extra spending boosts GDP, and to some extent it has a snowball effect. Banks loosen their purse strings a little more, and spending increases further. But the number of people benefiting is only a small minority of the population. The rest, low-paid workers on fixed incomes, pensioners, people living on modest savings in cash at the bank, and part time employed as well as the unemployed find their cost of living has gone up. They all think prices have risen, and don’t understand that their earnings, pensions and savings have been reduced by monetary inflation: they are the ultimate victims of wealth transfer.
While luxury goods are in strong demand in London and New York, general merchants in the country find trading conditions tough. Higher prices are forcing most people to spend less, or to seek cheaper alternatives. Manufacturers of everyday goods have to find ways to reduce costs, including firing staff. After all if you transfer wealth from ordinary folk they will simply spend less and businesses will suffer.
So we have a paradox: growth in GDP remains positive; indeed artificially strong because of the under-recording of inflation, while in truth the economy is in a slump. The increase in GDP, which reflects the money being spent by the fortunate few before it is absorbed into general circulation, conceals a worse economic situation than before. The effect of an expansion of new money into an economy does not make the majority of people better off; instead it makes them worse off because of the wealth transfer effect. No wonder unemployment remains stubbornly high.
It is the commonest fallacy in economics today that monetary inflation stimulates activity. Instead, it benefits the few at the expense of the majority. The experience of all currency inflations is just that, and the worse the inflation the more the majority of the population is impoverished.
The problem for central banks is that the alternative to maintaining an increasing pace of monetary growth is to risk triggering a widespread debt crisis involving both over-indebted governments and also over-extended businesses and home-owners. This was why the concept of tapering, or putting a brake on the rate of money creation, destabilised worldwide markets and was rapidly abandoned. With undercapitalised banks already squeezed between bad debts and depositor liabilities, there is the potential for a cascade of financial failures. And while many central bankers could profit by reading and understanding this article, the truth is they are not appointed to face up to the reality that monetary inflation is economically destructive, and that escalating currency expansion taken to its logical conclusion means the currency itself will eventually become worthless.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
Recent statistics are confirming “economic recovery” in the UK and even some of the weaker eurozone states. I put this in quotes, because what we are seeing is expanding nominal GDP, which is not the same thing. GDP reflects money and credit going into the economy, which everyone believes is the same thing.
Instead of economic recovery, GDP is reflecting money leaving financial markets, particularly bonds, for less interest-rate sensitive havens. Globally, bonds represent invested capital of over $150 trillion, or more than twice global GDP, so even marginal amounts unleashed by rising bond yields can be financially destabilising and the effect on GDP growth could be electric. The mistake of confusing economic progress (a better description of what we all desire) with GDP is about to bite the economic establishment big-time and pressure for interest rates to rise early and substantially will intensify as a result, dragged up by those rising bond yields.
The problem facing central planners is that this GDP chimera is driven by a predominantly financial community that has money to invest in capital assets such as housing and even motor cars. The vast majority of economic actors, comprised of pensioners, low-wage workers living from payday to payday and the unemployed are simply disadvantaged as prices, already often beyond their reach, become even more unaffordable. It is a misfortune encapsulated in the concept of the Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, where the substantial majority will be badly squeezed by rising prices generated by the spending of that few.
The central planners are understandably focused on the misfortunes of the majority. For many of them, as prices start to rise so too do costs for their employers, many of which will be squeezed out of business. How can interest rates possibly be permitted to rise in the face of these dangers?
Central banks have drawn their line in the sand over interest rates and they will eventually be forced to reconsider their position. They are almost certain to be too slow in raising interest rates and so the markets will continually expect higher bond yields and higher interest rates to come. For those of us with long memories it is a repeat of the late-seventies stagflation era. Except this time, aggressively raising interest rates to stabilise the purchasing power of the currency is not an option: it will simply break the banking system lumbered with its share of the $150 trillion invested in bonds.
Markets are blithely assuming that central banks are in control of events. They are not even in control of their own governments’ profligacy, and they are losing their control over markets as well, as the tapering episode showed. The fatal error of rescuing both the banking system and government finances by reckless currency inflation is in the process of becoming apparent to all. Unless this policy is somehow reversed we risk a global rerun of the collapse of the German mark in 1923.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.
Neil Macdonald of the CBC recently did an investigative piece on central bankers and what they’re doing to the world’s economies. Mark Carney was featured heavily. He told Macdonald, “there is no secret cabal orchestrating things,” despite CBC’s own findings earlier in the program. Central bankers around the world meet in Basel, Switzerland for secretive meetings. Of course, central banks have – and have always had – enormous power that remained more-or-less hidden until 2008. A paradigm shift is occurring where a large number of people (particularly young people) are questioning their assumptions. Some of them are even beginning to read economists like Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard. The “economics” of central bankers can now be revealed for what it truly is: statistical propaganda. Not only is the “Keynesian school” of economics unsound – the entire social science is bunk. Only the Austrian tradition can explain economic phenomena in such a way that makes common sense, scientific. Carney is asking us to trust him. This cannot be done. He is not speaking truth; he is speaking nonsense.
Who is Mark Carney?
Mark Carney: Bank of Canada governor, soon-to-be Bank of England governor. He was born in the Northwest Territories 48 years ago. He graduated from the University of Alberta in Edmonton before studying economics at Harvard and getting his master’s and doctorate from Oxford. He spent 13 years with Goldman Sachs in London, Tokyo, New York and Toronto. He then worked for the Department of Finance under both the Liberal and Conservative governments. He joined the Bank of Canada as a deputy governor before moving on into the top position. This was in 2007, just in time for the bursting of US housing bubble. Like every other central banker in the wake of the crisis, Mark Carney lowered interest rates and helped governments bail out large institutions.
What makes Carney unique is that he bumped up rates by a percent in 2010. Hardly a radical reversal, but it is something the US Federal Reserve has yet to accomplish. Carney got away with it because, at the time, Canadians were not as heavily indebted. The “boom” was still in its infancy. Carney still threatens to raise interest rates, but nobody believes him. All he does is give verbal warnings to Canadians that “taking advantage” of low rates is a bad idea. Despite all those educational institutions under his belt, Mark Carney does not understand human action.
Now he is bailing himself out from Canada’s certain crash and heading across the pond to lead the Bank of England. An already depressed economy, Britain won’t be any better under Carney’s rule unless he dismantles the Bank or at the very least raises interest rates to astronomical levels. Carney won’t do either of those things, though, because Mark Carney is a Keynesian. This ideological view of society and its economic structure is one where no capital structure exists. Absurd, given that nearly all consumer goods need some kind of input of capital stock. Keynesians also have a peculiar view on scarcity – a view that makes no economic sense whatsoever.
The public tend to have an unfavourable view of economics and economists – and for good reason. “Economics” is as dismal as it sounds; making economic sense is a whole other ball game. For Mark Carney, “economics” resembles something like physics and history. Although Carney would probably concede to the notion that an economy needs entrepreneurs and capital accumulation, his ideology assumes inherent failures in this process that must be corrected by state intervention. In actuality, it is state intervention that inhibits entrepreneurship, savings and investment. Therefore, the Bank of Canada publishes nonsense. Their CPI indexes and growth estimates are results of computer models that produce the results they expect. Lately, this method has been failing as economies stagnate where the BoC’s arithmetic predicts growth.
Mark Carney’s economic methodology mimics the “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry. But economics is not a mathematical discipline; it involves agents who have free-will. Making economic sense requires understanding praxeology. Praxeology is the scientific study of human action. It is empirical but not in the sense of quantitative data. Praxeology begins with what we know is true and broadens its horizon through deductive reasoning. Instead of making a hypothesis of what we don’t know and then using empirical testing to validate the hypothesis, praxeology begins with what we do know – such as individuals act on purpose and value is subjective – to build logical constructs. The axioms – and the deductive reasoning built from them – are not trying to “prove” a hypothesis. They are true because of human language and the semiotic sign-systems we use to communicate and validate what’s real. Therefore the logical constructs in praxeological economics don’t need empirical testing since they can be traced to their irrefutable origin.
The Austrian tradition studies economics as understood through praxeology. This method has a long history, starting with the Late Scholastics and revived later by Austrians such as Carl Menger, Eugen Böhm-Bawerk and Ludwig von Mises. It survived the 20th century thanks to a small group of Americans before exploding worldwide via the internet. With this school comes a deeper understanding of how we know. Human perception is a filter of information – five senses experiencing infinite possibilities. Language is crucial for understanding ideas. When individuals communicate we are quickly guessing and making decisions. Guessing if the words correspond to an objective reality and whether to choose those words. The process happens so fast that most of us are unaware of it; we do it instinctively.
Generations of state education have perverted the language to a degree that knowledge from logic is questionable, open to interpretation or deemed utterly unscientific. Bureaucratic schooling demotes common sense to the lowest common denominator. Mark Carney is a product of this conditioning but with a more intellectually rigorous indoctrination from Harvard and Oxford. It’s quite possible that he truly believes in what he’s doing.
Austrian Capital Theory
The Austrian School of Economics could in some cases also be called capital-based macroeconomics. Building from the irrefutable axioms that individuals act, value is subjective and the assumption that leisure is a valuable good, the Austrians can build an entire framework on the structure of production and interest rates. The clearest example I’ve ever come across is from Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy & State. Particularly Figure 41:
This figure is showing an “evenly-rotating economy,” a logical construct where certain things are assumed as to make economic principles more clear. In this economy, Mark Carney would experience reality as if every day were the same as the last. Risk, opportunity and uncertainty cease to exist. People still act – there is interest income, income to land and labour and consumer expenditure. But it is a closed system; everything behaves like clockwork.
On the right-hand side of the figure there are numbers ascending 1-6 starting with C. C is consumption, above it is the first-stage of production, then the second, third, etc. etc. If C is a nicely cooked t-bone steak, the stages of production are the process in which a cow becomes a steak on your plate. The cow is at the top, 19 ounces of gold to land and labour.
At each stage of production, a capitalist is purchasing capital goods (the shaded blocks) to be transformed by land and labour (the white blocks with numbers 8, 13, 12, 16, 15). For example, at the 1st stage of production a capitalist is purchasing t-bone steaks for 80 ounces, using 15 ounces worth of land and labour to cook it and collecting 5 ounces in interest. 80 + 15 + 5 = 100 ounces, which is what consumers spend on the product. If we trace the t-bone steak back to its nature-given resource we find cows. The capitalist at the fifth stage of production buys a cow for 20 ounces, earns 1 ounce in interest by investing in the 8 ounces (land and labour) required to butcher the cow and sell it to the next capitalist for 30 ounces. At each stage of production, value is added to the goods. This value is determined by the consumers willing to spend 100 ounces on cooked t-bone steak each period.
In Man, Economy & State, Murray Rothbard constructs sound economics step-by-step. Prices, he shows, are determined by individual valuations. This process is evident in this construct which has features to it that are not accidental. 83 ounces to land and labour and 17 ounces in interest equal the 100 ounces on consumer expenditure. While in the real world of uncertainty these price ratios would be constantly changing – the reality of human action keeps the economy heading in the direction of this stationary economy. However, the evenly-rotating economy will never arrive due to people’s ever-changing valuations and actions.
Mark Carney’s low interest rates are messing up the production structure. If the Bank of Canada analysed Figure 41, they’d conclude that GDP every period is 100 ounces and driven completely by consumer spending. If the economy were in a slump, the BoC would report that GDP is 100% consumer spending therefore we need consumers to drive us out of recession. But how do they get that GDP figure? By comparing consumption to net investment, where Y= 100 ounces, Y=C+I+G+(X – M).
In this economy, the Keynesian framework would tell central bankers that there’s no investment and that everything is driven purely by consumption. But that’s not true. Consumption is 100 ounces each period, but 318 ounces are being invested. There are 418 ounces spent each period, only 100 are directed to consumption.
Keynesians, if they are intellectually honest, must take this absurdity further. It takes six stages of production to get to this consumer good, but Keynesians would say everybody should consume as much as they can and that will grow the economy. But if all those capitalists at those various stages said “okay, let’s consume more,” and they went to buy t-bone steaks instead of reinvesting, that would a) push up the price of t-bone steaks, and b) create a shortage of t-bone steaks since the capitalists didn’t bother replenishing their capital stocks.
A Keynesian may argue, “but this is good; higher prices entice producers. Bigger, final demand.” But this is nonsensical. There aren’t more goods to go around just because people are spending more. There can only exist what’s actually been produced. If more buyers enter the market and push up the price, we won’t have more goods, just higher prices.
But won’t that stimulate production? No, it can’t because the capitalists invested less in production and more in consumption. There is no way around the physical reality of scarcity. The Keynesian solution is to dilapidate the capital structure by diverting resources out of gross investment and into consumption. Sometimes people change their preferences and consume more in the present and less in the future. This naturally changes interest rates and businesses adjust accordingly. When Mark Carney manually lowers interest rates, he’s leading you to believe that we can get a free lunch.
Carney’s Fallacies Exposed
Neil Macdonald sat down to interview Mark Carney for his CBC report. Although the full interview has yet to be released, it’s evident from excerpts that Mark Carney did not like Macdonald’s reasoning.
Carney says, “There is a logic to some of your questioning which is that wouldn’t it be better if interest rates were really high? … You wanna talk unintended consequences, I’ll give you intended consequences of that scenario, which is let’s get interest rates back to historic levels, so that the money you’ve saved … and the return on that in your bank account is going to commensurate with what you expected.” In other words, let’s make it so your money isn’t losing its purchasing power. Carney continues, “and we have double unemployment in this country, hundreds of thousands of people losing their homes, their businesses because we have deflation.”
Mark Carney’s ideology is illogical. It claims that an economy with high unemployment can be fixed by printing money because mass unemployment and mass inflation never occur together. The 1970′s pretty much ended this Keynesian argument until the ’08 crisis revived the monster. The paradox of high unemployment with high inflation is corrected by changing how governments and banks measure inflation. No longer defined by the money supply, inflation in Canada is defined by the Consumer Price Index. A collection of prices of goods chosen by central bankers. Naturally, food and energy prices are excluded. The bias is blatant.
Mark Carney has no capital theory. The effect on savings in a low interest rate environment is to him, “a distributional implication.” Interest rates are an objective expression of individual time preferences – not tools to be wielded. It’s true, high rates will cause immediate recession if not depression, but this is temporary and necessary as the malinvestments liquidate and labour and capital find more productive uses. When savers are no longer punished, economic growth can occur.
In additional footage of his CBC interview, Mark Carney reveals that he really has no idea what he’s talking about. For example: the US Government issues bonds to finance their massive debt. Increasingly, only the Fed is willing to buy them. So the US Federal Reserve is the bond market. They might as well print money and mail a cheque to everyone. But according to Carney, this is a monetary stimulus where the Fed buys all the bonds to encourage investors to go into something risky. Without risk, says Carney, economies don’t grow. “You find risk in lending money to corporates or buying their shares,” he says, “or… by investing in another country.” He doesn’t elaborate much further, simply stating that, “that’s how economies grow and that’s the process by which central banks are trying to restart real growth in the economy.”
The financial crisis, according to Carney, was not a result of government and central banking interventions. Carney thinks that money – “created in the private sector” – collapsed. By creating new money central banks are merely “leaning into” this collapse of money that threatened a repeat of the Great Depression. When Macdonald asks about central banks causing asset bubbles through quantitative easing, Carney answers in the affirmative. He says, “those are intended consequences, not unintended consequences.”
Mark Carney has no scientific backing to justify his actions. He is in a position that is dangerous and should not exist in a free society. Money is a commodity; not magic wand created by state decree. Is there an exit strategy for the Bank of Canada? What is Mark Carney’s plan to get England out of depression? It looks as if he isn’t too worried. Carney believes that everything depends on how governments act. “People can elect governments that do what they want,” says Carney. Funny, coming from the head of an institution that is supposed to remain independent of government influence.
This article was previously published at Mises.ca
Many politicians and commentators such as Paul Krugman claim that Europe’s problem is austerity, i.e., there is insufficient government spending. The common argument goes like this: Due to a reduction of government spending, there is insufficient demand in the economy leading to unemployment. The unemployment makes things even worse as aggregate demand falls even more, causing a fall in government revenues and an increase in government deficits. European governments pressured by Germany (which did not learn from the supposedly fateful policies of Chancellor Heinrich Brüning) then reduce government spending even further, lowering demand by laying off public employees and cutting back on government transfers. This reduces demand even more in a never ending downward spiral of misery. What can be done to break out of the spiral? The answer given by commentators is simply to end austerity, boost government spending and aggregate demand. Paul Krugman even argues in favor for a preparation against an alien invasion, which would induce government to spend more. So the story goes. But is it true?
First of all, is there really austerity in the eurozone? One would think that a person is austere when she saves, i.e., if she spends less than she earns. Well, there exists not one country in the eurozone that is austere. They all spend more than they receive in revenues.
In fact, government deficits are extremely high, at unsustainable levels, as can been seen in the following chart that portrays government deficits in percentage of GDP. Note that the figures for 2012 are what governments wish for.
The absolute figures of government deficits in billion euros are even more impressive.
A good picture of “austerity” is also to compare government expenditures and revenues (relation of public expenditures and revenues in percentage).
Imagine that a person you know spends 12 percent more in 2008 than her income, spends 31 percent more than her income the next year, spends 25 percent more than her income in 2010, and 26 percent more than her income in 2011. Would you regard this person as austere? And would you regard this behavior as sustainable? This is what the Spanish government has done. It shows itself incapable of changing this course. Perversely, this “austerity” is then made responsible for a shrinking Spanish economy and high unemployment.
Unfortunately, austerity is the necessary condition for recovery in Spain, the eurozone, and elsewhere. The reduction of government spending makes real resources available for the private sector that formerly had been absorbed by the state. Reducing government spending makes profitable new private investment projects and saves old ones from bankruptcy.
Take the following example. Tom wants to open a restaurant. He makes the following calculations. He estimates the restaurant’s revenues at $10,000 per month. The expected costs are the following: $4,000 for rent; $1,000 for utilities; $2,000 for food; and $4,000 for wages. With expected revenues of $10,000 and costs of $11,000 Tom will not start his business.
Let’s now assume that the government is more austere, i.e., it reduces government spending. Let’s assume that the government closes a consumer-protection agency and sells the agency’s building on the market. As a consequence, there is a tendency for housing prices and rents to fall. The same is true for wages. The laid-off bureaucrats search for new jobs, exerting downward pressure on wage rates. Further, the agency does not consume utilities anymore, leading toward a tendency of cheaper utilities. Tom may now rent space for his restaurant in the former agency for $3,000 as rents are coming down. His expected utility bill falls to $500, and hiring some of the former bureaucrats as dish washers and waiters reduces his wage expenditures to $3,000. Now with expected revenue at $10,000 and costs at $8,500 the expected profits amounts to $1,500 and Tom can start his business.
As the government has reduced spending it can even reduce tax rates, which may increase Tom’s after-tax profits. Thanks to austerity the government could also reduce its deficit. The money formerly used to finance the government deficit can now be lent to Tom for an initial investment to make the former agency’s rooms suitable for a restaurant. Indeed, one of the main problems in countries such as Spain these days is that the real savings of the people are soaked up and channeled to the government via the banking system. Loans are practically unavailable for private companies, because banks use their funds to buy government bonds in order to finance the public deficit.
In the end, the question amounts to the following: Who shall determine what is produced and how? The government that uses resources for its own purposes (such as a “consumer-protection” agency, welfare programs, or wars), or entrepreneurs in a competitive process and as agents of consumers, trying to satisfy consumer wants with ever better and cheaper products (like Tom, who uses part of the resources formerly used in the government agency for his restaurant).
If you think the second option is better, austerity is the way to go. More austerity and less government spending mean fewer resources for the public sector (fewer “agencies”) and more resources for the private sector, which uses them to satisfy consumer wants (more restaurants). Austerity is the solution to the problems in Europe and in the United States, as it fosters sustainable growth and reduces government deficits.
But does austerity not at least temporarily reduce GDP and lead to a downward spiral of economic activity?
Unfortunately, GDP is a quite misleading figure. GDP is defined as the market value of all final goods and services produced in a country in a given period.
There are two minor reasons why a lower GDP may not always be a bad sign.
The first reason relates to the treatment of government expenditures. Let us imagine a government bureaucrat who licenses businesses. When he denies a license for an investment project that never comes into being, how much wealth is destroyed? Is it the expected revenues of the project or its expected profits? What if the bureaucrat has unknowingly prevented an innovation that could save the economy billions of dollars per year? It is hard to say how much wealth destruction is caused by the bureaucrat. We could just arbitrarily take his salary of $50,000 per year and subtract it from private production. GDP would be lower.
Now hold your breath. In practice, the opposite is done. Government expenditures count positively in GDP. The wealth destroying activity of the bureaucrat raises GDP by $50,000. This implies that if the government licensing agency is closed and the bureaucrat is laid off, then the immediate effect of this austerity is a fall in GDP by $50,000. Yet, this fall in GDP is a good sign for private production and the satisfaction of consumer wants.
Second, if the structure of production is distorted after an artificial boom, the restructuring also entails a temporary fall in GDP. Indeed, one could only maintain GDP if production remained unchanged. If Spain or the United States had continued to use their boom structure of production, they would have continued to build the amount of housing they did in 2007. The restructuring requires a shrinking of the housing sector, i.e., a reduced use of factors of production in this sector. Factors of production must be transferred to those sectors where they are most urgently demanded by consumers. The restructuring is not instantaneous but organized by entrepreneurs in a competitive process that is burdensome and takes time. In this transition period, when jobs are destroyed in the overblown sectors, GDP tends to fall. This fall in GDP is just a sign that the necessary restructuring is underway. The alternative would be to produce the amount of housing of 2007. If GDP did not fall sharply, it would mean that the wealth-destroying boom was continuing as it did in the years 2005–2007.
Public austerity is a necessary condition for private flourishing and a rapid recovery. The problem of Europe (and the United States) is not too much but too little austerity — or its complete absence. A fall of GDP can be an indicator that the necessary and healthy restructuring of the economy is underway.
This article was previously published at Mises.org.
The US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said on August 22nd that scheduled tax increases and spending cuts in 2013 would reverse the current modest economic recovery. The CBO and other experts are of the view that large government spending cuts and tax hikes will cause severe economic slump.
Experts hold that without action by Congress to avoid a “fiscal cliff” Americans should expect a significant recession and the loss of some 2 million jobs. The CBO predicts that the real GDP could shrink by 0.5% next year while the unemployment rate could climb to around 9%.
The “fiscal cliff” refers to the impact of around $500 billion in expiring tax cuts and automatic government spending reductions set for 2013 as a result of successive failures by Congress to agree on some orderly alternative method of reducing budget deficits.
According to the CBO projection the budget deficit could fall to $641 billion in 2013 from $1.128 trillion in 2012.
We suggest that the goal of fixing the budget deficit as such could be an erroneous policy. Ultimately what matters for the economy is not the size of the budget deficit but the size of government outlays – the amount of resources that government diverts to its own activities. Note that since the government is not a wealth generating entity, the more it spends the more resources it has to take from wealth generators. This means that the effective level of tax here is the size of the government and nothing else.
For instance, the government outlays are $3 trillion and the government revenue is $2 trillion – the government has a deficit of $1 trillion. Since government outlays have to be funded it means that the government would have to secure some other sources of funding such as borrowing or printing money, or new forms of taxes. The government is going to employ all sorts of means to obtain resources from wealth generators to support its activities. What matters here is that government outlays are $3 trillion and not the deficit of $1 trillion. For instance, if the government revenue on account of higher taxes would have been $3 trillion then we would have a balanced budget. But would this alter the fact that the government still takes $3 trillion of resources from wealth generators?
According to the CBO data government outlays are expected to fall in 2013 by $9 billion to $3.563 trillion after a projected decline of $40 billion in 2012.
Given that there is a time lag between government outlays and their effect on economic activity it strikes us that it is the cut of $40 billion this year rather than the cut of $9 billion next year that should be of concern to various worried commentators.
We hold that an increase in government outlays sets in motion an increase in the diversion of real savings from wealth generating activities to non-wealth generating activities. It leads to economic impoverishment.
So in this context is it really bad news for the economy if on January 1, 2013 we will have an automatic cut in government outlays? Most commentators such as the IMF and the CBO are of the view that cutting government outlays could inflict severe damage to the real economy.
We suggest that a cut in government outlays should be seen as great news for wealth generators. It is of course bad news for various artificial forms of life that emerged on the back of increases in government outlays.
What about the fact that we will also have an increase in taxes as a result of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts? To the extent that government outlays are going to be curtailed the increase in taxes should be regarded as a monetary withdrawal from the economy. In this sense it is like a tight monetary policy. A tighter monetary stance in this respect should be seen as positive for wealth generators since it weakens various bubble activities that sprang up on the back of past loose monetary policies.
(Conversely, a reduction in taxes whilst government spending goes up is not a tax reduction as such but should be viewed as loosening in the monetary stance. Again, an increase in government amounts to an increase in effective tax. The government has to divert resources from wealth generators to support the increase in spending).
Note that the CBO projection of the future state of the US economy is in terms of GDP. Given that GDP is in fact monetary turnover its ultimate course is going to be dictated by the rate of growth of the money supply. The more money that is pumped the stronger GDP is going to be.
Contrary to the CBO and most commentators, we suggest that what is likely to undermine the growth momentum of GDP next year is the current visible decline in the growth momentum of money supply. In the week ending August 13 our monetary measure AMS fell by $70.9 billion from July. The yearly rate of growth of AMS fell to 6.5% from 12.3% in July. Observe that in October last year the yearly rate of growth stood at 14.7%.
As a result the yearly rate of growth of real AMS (AMS adjusted for CPI inflation) fell to 5.1% in the mid August from 10.9% in July. Based on the lagged by 14 months yearly rate of growth of real AMS we can suggest that the growth momentum of industrial production is likely to weaken sharply from the second half of next year.
Whilst the growth momentum of industrial production and real GDP could be in trouble from the second half of next year the underlying economy however should start strengthening. The demise of bubble activities will be good news for wealth generators.
Against the background of a still weak labour market we suspect that Fed officials are likely to introduce another massive pumping in a few months time. Given the current time lag structure it is unlikely however that more pumping can avoid a decline in the pace of economic activity in terms of GDP from the second half of next year.
Summary and conclusions
According to the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scheduled tax increases and spending cuts in 2013 (the so called “fiscal cliff”) could reverse the current economic recovery. We suggest that a cut in government outlays is actually going to be good news to wealth generators. It is, however, going to be bad news for various non-productive activities that emerged on the back of increases in government outlays. In the meantime, a serious threat to economic activity in terms of GDP is posed by a visible fall in the growth momentum of money supply. We suggest that the present fall in the growth momentum of money supply is likely to undermine the GDP rate of growth from the second half of next year.
The assessment of economic growth based on Gross Domestic Product is a fallacy, because GDP is merely a measure of the amount of money in an economy. The one thing it does not measure, which is central to economic progress (note progress, not growth), is the level of entrepreneurial activity. This has important implications for the efficacy of government interventions and solutions to the current economic crisis.
I have written about GDP before, but to refresh the reader’s memory, GDP is basically the sum total of recorded business activity at the consumption level plus government spending expressed in money terms. If the government spends more, GDP rises; give more money to consumers, GDP rises; give more bank credit to consumers or business, GDP rises. Cut government spending, GDP falls. This is not contentious and has nothing to do with economic progress. Importantly, it excludes future entrepreneurial activity, except to the extent that an entrepreneur has actually spent some money putting his future plans into action. The obsession with GDP means that entrepreneurial activity, which is Adam Smith’s unseen hand that guides our future, is invisible to economic planners.
If that was the only consequence of confusing a money quantity with economic progress the results would not be so serious. Instead, misleading statistics such as GDP are leading all governments into bad policy decisions, and their choice has narrowed down to either ever-greater reflationary attempts to pump up GDP, or alternatively facing a collapse in the GDP number as bank credit contracts. The situation facing the eurozone already precludes any compromise between these extremes, while other nations believe they can print their way out of this difficulty.
The twin errors of misunderstanding GDP are the failure to see that monetary inflation is concealing a deepening economic depression, and it encourages policies that destroy entrepreneurial activity, or economic progress itself. This is a deadly combination, the equivalent of being in a hole and continuing to dig.
We cannot expect politicians to stop digging deeper and faster when their economic advisors are calling for more shovels. All politicians are fully committed to the fallacies that result from confusing GDP with economic progress. They pursue economic policies that are the equivalent of eating their own children. The children being eaten are savers, increasingly raided to sustain the status quo: savers whose savings are a precondition for entrepreneurial activity, and without which increasing numbers of us become reliant on the state.
There can be little hope that this lunacy will be abandoned while statistical nonsense such as GDP growth persists. The underlying economic depression, evidenced by high levels of unemployment, is symptomatic of economies burdened by misallocated resources. The solution is to do exactly the opposite of actions currently being pursued. To quote Calvin Coolidge: “Perhaps one of the most important accomplishments of my administration has been minding my own business. Government shouldn’t play a part in everyday life.”
It is still possible to do this. What is required in our leaders is a sound understanding of economics instead of belief-based neoclassicism. Thus armed, a politician should be able to explain the proper course of action to the reasonable majority, and implement it with their support.
This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.