Recent evidence points increasingly towards global economic contraction.
Parts of the Eurozone are in great difficulty, and only last weekend S&P the rating agency warned that Greece will default on its debts “at some point in the next fifteen months”. Japan is collapsing under the wealth-destruction of Abenomics. China is juggling with a debt bubble that threatens to implode. The US tells us through government statistics that their outlook is promising, but the reality is very different with one-third of employable adults not working; furthermore the GDP deflator is significantly greater than officially admitted. And the UK is financially over-geared and over-dependent on a failing Eurozone.
This is hardly surprising, because the monetary inflation of recent years has transferred wealth from the majority of the saving and working population to a financial minority. A stealth tax through monetary inflation has been imposed on the majority of people trying to earn an honest living on a fixed salary. It has been under-recorded in consumer price statistics but has occurred nonetheless. Six years of this wealth transfer may have enriched Wall Street, but it has also impoverished Main Street.
The developed world is now in deep financial trouble. This is a situation which may be coming to a debt-laden conclusion. Those in charge of our money know that monetary expansion has failed to stimulate recovery. They also know that their management of financial markets, always with the objective of fostering confidence, has left them with market distortions that now threaten to derail bonds, equities and derivatives.
Today, central banking’s greatest worry is falling prices. The early signs are now upon us, reflected in dollar strength, as well as falling commodity and energy prices. In an economic contraction exposure to foreign currencies is the primary risk faced by international businesses and investors. The world’s financial system is based on the dollar as reserve currency for all the others: it is the back-to-base option for international exposure. The trouble is that leverage between foreign currencies and the US dollar has grown to highly dangerous levels, as shown below.
Plainly, there is great potential for currency instability, compounded by over-priced bond markets. Greece, facing another default, borrows ten-year money in euros at about 6.5%, while Spain and Italy at 2.1% and 2.3% respectively. Investors accepting these low returns should be asking themselves what will be the marginal cost of financing a large increase in government deficits brought on by an economic slump.
A slump will obviously escalate risk for owners of government bonds. The principal holders are banks whose asset-to-equity ratios can be as much as 40-50 times excluding goodwill, particularly when derivative exposure is taken into account. The stark reality is that banks risk failure not because of Irving Fisher’s debt-deflation theory, but because they are exposed to a government debt bubble that will inevitably burst: only a two per cent rise in Eurozone bond yields may be sufficient to trigger a global banking crisis. Fisher’s nightmare of bad debts from failing businesses and falling loan collateral values will merely be an additional burden.
Macro-economists refer to a slump as deflation, but we face something far more complex worth taking the trouble to understand.
The weakness of modern macro-economics is it is not based on a credible theory of prices. Instead of a mechanical relationship between changes in the quantity of money and prices, the purchasing power of a fiat currency is mainly dependent on the confidence its users have in it. This is expressed in preferences for money compared with goods, and these preferences can change for any number of reasons.
When an indebted individual is unable to access further credit, he may be forced to raise cash by selling marketable assets and by reducing consumption. In a normal economy, there are always some people doing this, but when they are outnumbered by others in a happier position, overall the economy progresses. A slump occurs when those that need or want to reduce their financial commitments outnumber those that don’t. There arises an overall shift in preferences in favour of cash, so all other things being equal prices fall.
Shifts in these preferences are almost always the result of past and anticipated state intervention, which replaces the randomness of a free market with a behavioural bias. But this is just one factor that sets price relationships: confidence in the purchasing power of government-issued currency must also be considered and will be uppermost in the minds of those not facing financial difficulties. This is reflected by markets reacting, among other things, to the changing outlook for the issuing government’s finances. If it appears to enough people that the issuing government’s finances are likely to deteriorate significantly, there will be a run against the currency, usually in favour of the dollar upon which all currencies are based. And those holding dollars and aware of the increasing risk to the dollar’s own future purchasing power can only turn to gold and subsequently those goods that represent the necessities of life. And when that happens we have a crack-up boom and the final destruction of the dollar as money.
So the idea that the outlook is for either deflation or inflation is incorrect, and betrays a superficial analysis founded on the misconceptions of macro-economics. Nor does one lead to the other: what really happens is the overall preference between money and goods shifts, influenced not only by current events but by anticipated ones as well.
Recently a rising dollar has led to a falling gold price. This raises the question as to whether further dollar strength against other currencies will continue to undermine the gold price.
Let us assume that the central banks will at some time in the future try to prevent a financial crisis triggered by an economic slump. Their natural response is to expand money and credit. However, this policy-route will be closed off for non-dollar currencies already weakened by a flight into the dollar, leaving us with the bulk of the world’s monetary reflation the responsibility of the Fed.
With this background to the gold price, Asians in their domestic markets are likely to continue to accumulate physical gold, perhaps accelerating their purchases to reflect a renewed bout of scepticism over the local currency. Wealthy investors in Europe will also buy gold, partly through bullion banks, but on the margin demand for delivered physical seems likely to increase. Investment managers and hedge funds in North America will likely close their paper-gold shorts and go long when their computers (which do most of the trading) detect a change in trend.
It seems likely that a change in trend for the gold price in western capital markets will be a component part of a wider reset for all financial markets, because it will signal a change in perceptions of risk for bonds and currencies. With a growing realisation that the great welfare economies are all sliding into a slump, the moment for this reset has moved an important step closer.
“There are two ways of learning how to ride a fractious horse; one is to get on him and learn by actual practice how each motion and trick may be best met; the other is to sit on a fence and watch the beast a while, and then retire to the house and at leisure figure out the best way of overcoming his jumps and kicks. The latter system is the safest; but the former, on the whole, turns out the larger proportion of good riders. It is very much the same in learning to ride a flying machine; if you are looking for perfect safety, you will do well to sit on a fence and watch the birds, but if you really wish to learn, you must mount a machine and become acquainted with its tricks by actual trial.”
“So, too, for the stock market. It is easy to study stock tables in solitude from the comfort of your office and declare the market efficient. Or you can be a full-time investor for a number of years and, if your eyes are open, learn that it is not. As with the Wrights, the burden of proof is somehow made to fall on the practitioner to demonstrate that he or she has accomplished something the so-called experts said could not be done (and even he may find himself explained away as aberrational). Almost none of the burden seems to fall on the armchair academics, who cling to their theories even in the face of strong evidence that they are wrong.”
Days of miracle and wonder in the bond markets.. but not necessarily in any good way. Last week we highlighted the seeming anomaly that even as there has never been so much debt in the history of the world, it has also never been so expensive. Between 2000 and 2013, the value of outstanding tradeable debt rose from $33 trillion to $100 trillion, according to research from Incrementum AG. (Over the same period, total equity market capitalisation rose “merely” from $49 trillion to $66 trillion.) Although we would suggest there is now no semblance of traditional value in conventional government debt whatsoever, it could yet get more expensive still.
Albert Edwards of SocGen deserves some credit for maintaining his ‘Ice Age’ thesis over a sustained period of widespread scepticism from other market participants. He summarises it as follows:
“First, that the West would drift ever closer to outright deflation, following Japan’s template a decade earlier. And second, financial markets would adjust in the same way as in Japan. Government bonds would re-rate in absolute and relative terms compared to equities, which would also de-rate in absolute terms..
“Another associated element of the Ice Age we also saw in Japan is that with each cyclical upturn, equity investors have assumed with child-like innocence that central banks have somehow ‘fixed’ the problem and we were back in a self-sustaining recovery. These hopes would only be crushed as the next cyclical downturn took inflation, bond yields and equity valuations to new destructive lows. In the Ice Age, hope is the biggest enemy..
“Investors are beginning to see how impotent the Fed and ECB’s efforts are to prevent deflation. And as the scales lift from their eyes, equity, credit and other risk assets trading at extraordinarily high valuations will take their next Ice Age stride towards the final denouement.”
It is certainly staggering that even after expanding its balance sheet by $3.5 trillion, the Fed has been unable to trigger visible price inflation in anything other than financial assets. One dreads to contemplate the scale of the altogether less visible private sector deleveraging that has cancelled it out. One notes that while bonds are behaving precisely in line with the Ice Age thesis, stock markets – by and large – are not quite following the plot. But there were signs last week that they may finally have got a copy of the script.
The tragedy of our times, unfolding slowly but surely via ever-lower bond yields, is that there is a vacuum at the heart of the political process where bold action – not least to grasp the debt nettle – should reside. Since nature abhors the vacuum, central bankers have filled it. They say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To a central banker facing the prospect of outright deflation, the answer to everything is the printing of ex nihilo money and the manipulation of financial asset prices. The by-product of these malign trends is that it makes rational investment and asset allocation, indeed more narrowly the pursuit of real capital preservation, impossible.
Since the integrity of the debt (and currency) markets is clearly at risk, we have long sought alternatives that offer much diminished credit and counterparty risk. The time-honoured alternative has been gold. As the chart below (via Nick Laird) shows, between 2000 and 2011, gold
tracked the expansion in US debt pretty handily. In 2008 and then in 2011/2012 gold became overextended relative to US debt. Beginning in 2013 gold then decoupled in the opposite direction. As things stand today, if one expects that relationship to resume – and we do – then gold looks anomalously cheap relative to the gross level of US debt, which clearly is not going to contract any time soon.
A second rationale for holding gold takes into account the balance sheet expansion of the broader universe of central banks:
If one accepts that gold is not merely an industrial commodity but an alternative form of money (and central banks clearly do, or they would not be holding it in the form of reserves), than it clearly makes sense to favour a money whose supply is growing at 1.5% per annum over monies whose supply is growing at between 8% and 20% per annum. It then merely comes down to biding one’s time and waiting for Albert Edwards’ “final denouement” (or simply the next phase of the global financial crisis that never really went away).
Two recent tweets from George Cooper on the topic of bond investing are also worthy of republication here:
“The combination of indexing / rating agencies and syndication means that collectively the investment industry does not provide effective discipline to borrowers.”
This is a clear example of market failure brought about by institutional fund managers and the consultants that “guide” their institutional investor clients. There is simply no punishment for ill-disciplined government borrowers (i.e., all of them). To put it another way, where have the bond vigilantes gone ? And,
“The best thing the ECB could do here is state clearly that it has reached the limit of monetary policy and the rest is up to politicians.”
It is not as if politicians asleep at the wheel have gone entirely unnoticed. Two high-profile reports have been published this year drawing attention to the debt problems gnawing away at the economic vitality of the West. Perhaps the most damning response to date has come from the euro zone’s pre-eminent political cynic, Jean-Claude Juncker:
“We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”
No discussion of the bond market could possibly be complete without a brief mention of the defenestration of the so-called ‘Bond King’, Bill Gross, from Pimco. For the benefit of anyone living under a rock these past weeks, the manager of the world’s largest bond fund jumped ship before he could be shoved overboard. Pimco’s owners, Allianz, must surely regret having allowed so much power to be centralised in the form of one single ‘star’ manager. In a messy transfer that nobody came out of well, Janus Capital announced that Bill Gross would be joining to run a start-up bond fund, before he had even announced his resignation from Pimco (but then Janus was a two-faced god). This was deliriously tacky behaviour from within a normally staid backwater of the financial markets. Some financial media reported this as a ‘David vs Goliath’ story; in reality it is anything but. The story can be more accurately summarised as ‘Bond fund manager leaves gigantic asset gatherer for other gigantic asset gatherer’ (Janus Capital’s $178 billion in client capital being hardly small potatoes). This is barely about asset management in the truest, aspirational sense of the phrase. This writer recalls the giddy marketing of a particularly new economy-oriented growth vehicle called the ‘Janus Twenty’ fund in the UK back in 2000. Between March 2000 and September 2001, that particular growth vehicle lost 63% of its value. Faddish opportunism is clearly still alive and well. This gross behaviour may mark a market top for bonds, but probably not. But it’s difficult to shake off the suspicion that navigating the bond markets profitably over the coming months will require almost supernatural powers in second-guessing both central banks and one’s peers – especially if doing so on an indexed basis. For what it’s worth this is a game we won’t even bother playing. Our pursuit of the rational alternative – compelling deep value in equity markets – continues.
If there is one concept that illustrates the difference between a top-down macro-economic approach and the reality of everyday life it is the velocity of circulation of money. Compare the following statements:
“The collapse in velocity is testament to the substantial misallocation of capital brought about by the easy money regimes of the past 20 years.” Broker’s research note issued September 2014; and
“The mathematical economists refuse to start from the various individuals’ demand for and supply of money. They introduce instead the spurious notion of velocity of circulation according to the pattern of mechanics.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action.
This article’s objective is not to disagree with the broker’s conclusion; rather it is to examine the basis upon which it is made.
The idea of velocity of circulation referred to arose from the quantity theory of money, which links changes in the quantity of money to changes in the general level of prices. This is set out in the equation of exchange. The basic elements are money, velocity and total spending, or GDP. The following is the simplest of a number of ways it has been expressed:
Amount of Money x Velocity of Circulation = Total Spending (or GDP)
Assuming we can quantify both money and total spending, we end up with velocity. But this does not tell us why velocity might vary: all we know is that it must vary in order to balance the equation. You could equally state that two completely unrelated quantities can be put into a mathematical equation, so long as a variable is included whose only function is to always make the equation balance. In other words the equation of exchange actually tells us nothing per se.
This gives analysts a problem, not resolved by the modern reliance on statistics and computer models. The dubious gift to us from statisticians is their so-called progress made in quantifying the economy, so much so that at the London School of Economics a machine called MONIAC (monetary national income analogue computer) used fluid mechanics to model the UK’s economy. This and other more recent computer models give unwarranted credence to the idea that the economy can be modelled, derivations such as velocity explained, and valid conclusions drawn.
Von Mises’s criticism is based on the philosopher’s logic that economics is a social and not a physical science. Therefore, mathematical relationships must be strictly confined to accounting and not be confused with economics, or as he put it human action. Unfortunately we now have the concept of velocity so ingrained in our thinking that this vital point usually escapes us. Indeed, the same is true of GDP, or the right hand side of the equation of exchange.
GDP is only an accounting identity: no more than that. It ranks gin with golf-balls by reducing them both to a monetary value. Statisticians select what’s included so it is biased in favour of consumer goods and against capital investment. Crucially it does not tell us about an ever-changing economy comprised of successes, failures, and hard-to-predict human needs and wants, which taken all together is economic progress. And because it is biased in its composition and says nothing about progress the value of this statistic is grossly exaggerated.
The only apparent certainty in the equation of exchange is the quantity of money, assuming it is all recorded. No one seems to allow for unrecorded money such as shadow banking, but we shall let that pass. If the money is sound, as it was when the quantity theory of money was devised, one could assume that an increase in its quantity would tend to raise prices. This was experienced following Spain’s importation of gold and silver from the new world in the sixteenth century, and following the gold mining booms in California and South Africa. But relating an increase in the quantity of gold to prices in general is at best a summary of a number of various factors that drive the price relationship between money and goods.
Today we no longer have sound money, whose purchasing power was regulated by human preferences across national boundaries. Instead we have fiat currencies whose purchasing power is formalised in foreign exchanges. When the Icelandic krona on 8th October 2008 halved in value, it had nothing to do with changes in the quantity of money or Iceland’s GDP. Yet if we try to interpret velocity in this case, we will find ourselves pleading a special case to explain its substantial increase as domestic prices absorbed the shock imparted through the foreign exchanges.
Iceland’s currency collapse is not an isolated event. The purchasing power of a fiat currency varies constantly, even to the point of losing it altogether. The truth of the matter is the utility of a fiat currency is entirely dependent on the subjective opinions of individuals expressed through markets, and has nothing to do with a mechanical quantity relationship. In this respect, merely the potential for unlimited currency issuance or a change in perceptions of the issuer’s financial stability, as Iceland discovered, can be enough to destabilise it.
According to the equation of exchange, this is not how things should work. The order of events is first you have an increase in the quantity of money and then prices rise, because monetarist logic states that prices rise as a result of the extra money being spent, not as a result of money yet to be spent. With a mechanical theory there can be no room for subjectivity.
It is therefore nonsense to conclude that velocity is a vital signal of some sort. Monetarism is at the very least still work-in-progress until monetarists finally discover velocity is no more than a factor to make their equation balance. The broker’s analyst quoted above would have been better to confine his statement to the easy money regimes of the past 20 years being responsible for the substantial misallocation of capital, and leaving out the bit about velocity entirely.
A small slip perhaps on the way to a sensible conclusion; but it is indicative of the false mechanisation of human behaviour by modern macro-economists. However it should also be noted that is impossible to square the concept of velocity of circulation with one simple fact of everyday life: we earn our salaries once and we dispose of it. That’s a constant velocity of roughly one.
Today’s financial markets are built on the sand of unsound currencies. Consequently brokers, banks and investors are wedded to monetary inflation and have lost both the desire and ability to understand gold and properly value it.
Furthermore governments and central banks in welfare-driven states see markets themselves as the biggest threat to their successful management of the economy, a threat that needs to be tamed. This is the backdrop to the outlook for the price of gold today and of the forces an investor in gold is pitted against.
At the heart of market control is the substitution of unsound currency for sound money, which historically has been gold. Increasing the quantity of currency and encouraging banks to increase credit out of thin air is the principal means by which central banks operate. No matter that adulterating the currency impoverishes the majority of the population: central banks are working from the Keynesian and monetarist manual of how to manage markets.
In this environment an investor risks all he possesses if he insists on fighting the system; and nowhere is this truer than with gold. Gold is not about conventional investing in this world of fiat currencies, it is about insurance against the financial system collapsing under the weight of its own delusions. Regarded as an insurance premium against this risk, gold is common sense; and there are times when it is worth increasing your insurance. In taking that decision, an individual must be able to evaluate three things: the relative quantities of currency to gold, the likelihood of a systemic crisis and the true cost of insuring against it. We shall consider each of these in turn.
The relationship of currency to gold
Not only has the quantity of global currency and bank credit expanded dramatically since the Lehman crisis, it is clear that this is a trend that cannot now be reversed without triggering financial chaos. In other words we are already committed to monetary hyperinflation. Just look at the chart of the quantity of US dollar fiat money and note its dramatic growth since the Lehman crisis in 2008.
Meanwhile, the quantity of above-ground stocks of gold is growing at less than 2% annually. Gold is therefore getting cheaper relative to the dollar by the day. [Note: FMQ is the sum of all fiat money created both on the Fed’s balance sheet and in the commercial banks. [See here for a full description]
Increasing likelihood of a systemic crisis
Ask yourself a question: how much would interest rates have to rise before a systemic crisis is triggered? The clue to the answer is illustrated in the chart below which shows how lower interest rate peaks have triggered successive recessions (blue shaded areas are official recessions).
The reason is simple: it is the accumulating burden of debt. The sum of US federal and private sector debt stands at about$30 trillion, so a one per cent rise in interest rates and bond yields will simplistically cost $300bn annually. The increase in interest rates during the 2004-07 credit boom added annual interest rate costs of a little over double that, precipitating the Lehman crisis the following year. And while the US this time might possibly weather a two to three per cent rise in improving economic conditions, much less would be required to tip other G8 economies into financial and economic chaos.
The real cost of insurance
By this we mean the real price of gold, adjusted by the rapid expansion of fiat currency. One approach is to adjust the nominal price by the ratio of US dollars in circulation to US gold reserves. This raises two problems: which measure of money supply should be used, and given the Fed has never been audited, are the official gold reserves as reported to be trusted?
The best option is to adjust the gold price by the growth in the quantity of fiat money (FMQ) relative to the growth in above-ground stocks of gold. FMQ is constructed so as to capture the reversal of gold’s demonetisation. This is shown in the chart below of both the adjusted and nominal dollar price of gold.
Taken from the month before the Lehman collapse, the real price of gold adjusted in this way is $550 today, based on a nominal price of $1220. So in real terms, gold has fallen 40% from its pre-Lehman level of $920, and has roughly halved from its adjusted high in 2011.
So to summarise:
• We already have monetary hyperinflation, defined as an accelerating debasement of the dollar. And so for that matter all other currencies that are referenced to it are on a similar course, a condition which is unlikely to be halted except by a final systemic and currency crisis.
• Attempts to stabilise the purchasing power of currencies by raising interest rates will very quickly develop into financial and economic chaos.
• The insurance cost of owning gold is anomalously low, being considerably less than at the time of the Lehman crisis, which was the first inkling of systemic risk for many people.
So how is the global economy playing out?
If the economy starts to grow again a small rise in interest rates would collapse bond markets and bankrupt over-indebted businesses and over-geared banks. Alternatively a contracting economy will increase the debt burden in real terms, again threatening its implosion. So the last thing central banks will welcome is change in the global economic outlook.
Falling commodity prices and a flight from other currencies into the dollar appear to be signalling the greater risk is that we are sliding into a global slump. Even though large financial speculators appear to be driving commodity and energy prices lower, the fact remains that the global economy is being undermined by diminishing affordability for goods and services. In other words, the debt burden is already too large for the private sector to bear, despite a prolonged period of zero official interest rates.
A slump was halted when prices collapsed after Lehman went bust; that time it was the creation of unlimited money and credit by the Fed that saved the day. Preventing a slump is the central banker’s raison d’être. It is why Ben Bernanke wrote about distributing money by helicopter as the final solution. It is why we have had zero interest rates for six years.
In 2008 gold and oil prices fell heavily until it became clear that monetary stimulus would prevail. Equities also fell with the S&P 500 Index down 60% from its October 2007 high, but this index was already 24% down by the time Lehman failed.
The precedent for unlimited creation of cash and credit has been set and is undisputed. The markets are buoyed up by a sea of post-Lehman liquidity, are not discounting any trouble, and are ignoring the signals from commodity prices. If the economic downturn shows any further signs of accelerating the adjustment is likely to be brutal, involving a complete and sudden reassessment of financial risk.
This time gold has been in a bear market ahead of the event. This time the consensus is that insurance against financial and systemic risk is wholly unnecessary. This time China, Russia and the rest of Asia are buying out physical bullion liquidated by western investors.
We are being regularly advised by analysts working at investment banks to sell gold. But bear in mind that the investment industry is driven by trend-chasing recommendations, because that is what investors demand. Expecting analysts to value gold properly is as unlikely as farmers telling turkeys the truth about Thanksgiving.
In a radio interview recently* I was asked a question to which I could not easily give a satisfactory reply: if the gold market is rigged, why does it matter?
I have no problem delivering a comprehensive answer based on a sound aprioristic analysis of how rigging markets distorts the basis of economic calculation and why a properly functioning gold market is central to all other financial prices. The difficulty is in answering the question in terms the listeners understand, bearing in mind I was told to assume they have very little comprehension of finance or economics.
I did not as they say, want to go there. But it behoves those of us who argue the economics of sound money to try to make the answer as intelligible as possible without sounding like a committed capitalist and a conspiracy theorist to boot, so here goes.
Manipulating the price of gold ultimately destabilises the financial system because it is the highest form of money. This is why nearly all central banks retain a holding. The fact we don’t use it as money in our daily business does not invalidate its status. Rather, gold is subject to Gresham’s Law, which famously states bad money drives out the good. We would rather pay for things in government-issue paper currency and hang on to gold for a rainy day.
As money, it is on the other side of all asset prices. In other words stocks, bonds and property prices can be expected to rise measured in gold when the gold price falls and vice-versa. This relationship is often muddled by other factors, the most obvious one being changing levels of confidence in paper currencies against which gold is normally priced. However, with bond yields today at record lows and equities at record highs this relationship is apparent today.
Another way to describe this relationship is in terms of risk. Banks which dominate asset markets become complacent about risk because they are greedy for profit. This leads to banks competing with one another until they end up ignoring risk entirely. It happened very obviously with the American banking crisis six years ago until house prices suddenly collapsed, threatening to take the whole financial system down. In common with all financial bubbles everyone ignored risk. History provides many other examples.
Therefore, gold is unlike other assets because a rising gold price reflects an increasing perception of general financial risk, ensuring downward pressure on other financial asset prices. So while the big banks are making easy money ignoring risks in equity and bond markets, they will not want their party spoiled by warning signs from a rising gold price.
This is a long way from proof that the gold market is manipulated. But the big banks, and we must include central banks which are obviously keen to maintain financial confidence, have the motive and the means. And if they have these they can be expected to take the opportunity.
So why does it matter if the gold price is rigged? A freely-determined gold price is central to ensuring that reality and not financial bubbles guides us in our financial and economic activities. Suppressing the gold price is rather like turning off a fire alarm because you can’t stand the noise.
*File on 4: BBC Radio4 due to be broadcast on 23 September at 8.00pm UK-time and repeated on 28 September at 5.00pm.
First it was the government’s miraculous ability to deliver on-target GDP growth that got the permabulls bellowing again, then it was the striking (world-beating, one might even say), 12% currency-adjusted rally in its stock market that got them triumphantly pawing the ground. Nor did the drop in interest rates serve in any way to dampen the eternal hope that China was once again deferring meaningful structural reform in the face of a threat to near-term output.
Quite what was actually behind the equity rally is not easy to say. There were whispers that the Russians (who else?) were piling in, now that their assets were subject to arbitrary seizure as part of Nova Roma’s vilification of their leader and proxy war against their homeland. There was also talk that the imminent linkage of the Shanghai and HK bourses was driving an arbitrage between the unusually-discounted mainland A-shares and their offshore H-share equivalents. Finally, in a typically neat piece of circular reasoning, the imminent rebound in the economy which we have even seen some brave (or foolhardy, according to preference) souls project at a startling 8.5% (sic) early next year was held to be at work to push up what was an otherwise under-owned and thus optically ‘cheap’ emerging market.
On the face of it, news that, over the first seven months of the year, the increase in SOE earnings had accelerated from June’s 8.9% YOY to July’s 9.2% – well up on the first quarter’s paltry 3.3% pace – may have seemed to have offered some much-needed confirmation of this optimistic thesis. However, a closer glance at the figures would not have proven quite so reassuring, had anyone bothered to actually take one.
Over the past, supposedly brighter three months, revenues advanced a modest 6.2% compared to the like period in 2013, though with as-reported profits up an ostensibly more creditable 12.1%. There, all grounds for positive spin, alas, were exhausted. For one, operating profits were, in fact, only up 4.0% like-for-like (a wide discrepancy which can only excite suspicion as to the nature of the headline surplus) while financing costs vaulted a fifth higher.
Worse still, in eking out even this degree of improvement since May, liabilities have soared by an incredible CNY2.320 trillion (around $125 billion a month) – an increment fully half as big again as that registered twelve months ago and a sum which is actually greater than the entire reported sum of ‘total social finance’ over the trimester (that latter ‘only’ managed CNY 2.240 trillion after last month’s thoroughly unexpected swoon).
And what did our proud commanders of the economic heights achieve for shouldering such a hefty weight of obligations? An addition to revenues of CNY719 billion (extra debt to extra ‘sales’ therefore coming in at a ratio of 3.2:1); a pick-up in ‘profit’ of CNY76 billion (d[Debt]:d[Income] = 30:1); and a blip up in operating profit of just CNY16 billion (at a truly staggering ratio of 144 to 1).
Reversing these latter relationships, we can see that while swallowing up all of the nation’s available new credit since the spring, China’s SOEs added 31 fen per one renminbi in sales, 3.3 fen in reported profit, and a bare 0.7 fen in the operating version of income. Just the sort of performance on which to base expectations of a significant coming rise in growth and prosperity!
Armed with such an underwhelming use of resources – both physical and financial – it is perhaps no wonder that MIIT is again trying to shut down swathes of superfluous capacity, issuing what are effectively cease-and-desist orders against 132 firms in a whole range of heavy industries – iron, steel, coke, ferroalloy, calcium carbide, aluminium, copper and lead smelting, cement, flat glass, paper, leather, printing and dyeing, chemical fibres, and lead-acid batteries. Shipbuilding may not be far behind, either, given that it formed the main topic of discussion at a meeting of the National Committee of the CPPCC this week.
The language used was, in some cases, pretty uncompromising, too: “Total industrial capacity in cement and plate glass is still growing, but the industry-wide sales rate is in decline and accounts receivable are increasing… there are to be no new projects in the sector for any reason,” thundered the MIIT communique.
This time around, given Chairman Xi’s rigorous ‘anti-corruption’ campaign, there might well be a little less of the back-sliding and wilful defiance which has greeted such edicts in the past. The emperor is no longer quite so fare away, nor the mountain quite so high, if you are a recalcitrant local cadre these days!
Even before this, the signs were there for those with eyes to see. Despite the much-bruited pick-up in activity, Chinese power use, excluding the residential component, SLOWED to 4.5% YOY in the three months to July from 8.1% in the preceding three months. Nor did this come without a significant deceleration in so-called ‘tertiary’ industry sector (loosely, that encompassing services and light indstry) which is henceforth supposed to be the torchbearer for growth and employment. Here, consumption dropped from the spring’s 10%-plus rates to just 7.4% YOY last month. Added buring of lights and turning of lathes in the secondary industry category – essentially manufacturing – was a tardy 4.2% even though growth in industrial production, we were told, had averaged 9.0% in that same period.
Hmmmm. No wonder the PMI seems to be shedding some of its recent, rather inexplicable exuberance.
Round and round the circle of vicious consequences swirls. As Wang Xianzheng, President of the China Coal Industry Association, admitted: ‘Currently, more than 50 percent of enterprises are in payment arrears and have delayed paying wages.’ Of 26 large companies spread across nine provinces, he revealed that 20 are making losses, only 9 are still in the black, and the remainder are hovering uneasily between (commercial) life and death.
Other obvious signs of distress are to be had among the loan guarantee networks which had everywhere come into being with the then-laudable aim of persuading constitutionally reluctant banks to lend to customers other than SOEs when times were good. Now trapped in flagging businesses which are more correlated than perhaps the participants had realised – and often having succumbed to the diversion of funds to less commendable ends in the interim – they are all going sour together and the same interconnectedness which was once their mainstay is proving instead a sheet anchor with which to drag them all under.
As Zhou Dewen, president of Zhejiang Federation of Private Enterprise Investment, told the Global Times, the rash of bankruptcies in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces has disrupted production and led to lay-offs, with 80% of all sour loans in the area associated with such mutual guarantee schemes. So elevated is the level of distrust, as bad debts have risen at an annualized 30% pace this year, that banks are now trying to call loans in early and obtaining court orders to freeze the assets of those firms that are unable to comply with their demands.
The banks themselves are beginning to accelerate write-offs dramatically – even though the official NPL ratios still look woefully understated. They are also drawing heavily upon the markets in order to bolster their capital as a precaution. As the WSJ reported, the four largest state-owned lenders have started raising a planned $73 billion in debt and equity this year – a call which is expected to jump to more than $300bn in the next five years, according to the banking regulator.
In addition, five local governments in the south and east of the country are setting up so-called ‘asset-management companies’ – effectively state-sponsored ‘bad banks’ – in a mirror of the system used by Zhu Rongji in the 1990s to shuffle the more toxic stuff off its originators’ balance sheets and thus allow them to continue to lend while the bitter fruits of their previous mistakes were hidden away elsewhere.
Though this only disguises and does not in any way alleviate the economic waste spawned by the boom, it might at least allow banks to issue new equity-like capital – perhaps to the insurers who are themselves being heavily promoted by Beijing as the next battalion of systemic saviours – at above notional book value and hence to enable them to remain a viable source of new credit. Note that the last time this was done, the losses were essentially fiscalized: banks simply swapped the bad loans on their books for what have since proven to be irredeemable – but nonetheless fully par-valued – loans to the state entities which, in turn, financed the obliging AMCs. Balance sheets will not shrink, therefore, only become sanitised, by the operation of this mechanism.
Here, however, is where it all gets fraught once more, because the same local governments who are being marshalled to assume the banks’ bad debts (many of them ensuing from extending credit to LGFPs) are themselves becoming desperate for funds given that all too many of their own, sure-fire investment gambits are turning out to be the dampest of damp squibs.
As the Economic Information Daily reported, an audit of 448 eastern township platform companies found that two-fifths of them were curently loss making, while a further thirty percent barely broke even. With these bodies so heavily dependent on land sales to generate the revenues needed to cover their current outlays, much less their ambitious capital expansion plans and ongoing debt service costs – and with such ‘sales’ only being possible in large part if the authorities extend the credit to the purchasers in the first place – a decidedly negative feedback loop has begun to tighten around their necks as the property market itself enters a slump.
Indeed, according to research conducted by brokerage company Centaline Property Agency, twenty major developers have between them spent CNY182.5 billion yuan so far this year to purchase new sites – a drastic 38% down on the like period last year.
‘Worsening property sales have undercut the willingness of developers to buy land. Their focus now is on raising cash from the sales of what they’ve already built. Few are in the mood to buy more,’ said Zhang Dawei who headed up the company’s research team.
In July alone, aggregate land sales revenue for 300 Chinese cities was off by a half from the same month in 2013, as reported by the China Index Academy. Sales in the four largest cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen – normally a slam-dunk – sank by a staggering 70%.
‘The downturn means that the scale of land sales for the remainder of this year could continue to contract. Developers have pushed the “conservative” button,’ said Zhang with commendable understatement.
And quite right, too, as anecdotal evidence grows that formerly avid house-buyers are beginning to adopt that age-old American practice of ‘jingle mail’ – that is, they are simply walking away from properties they either cannot afford or do not believe will again appreciate in price.
At one end of the scale, one Nanjing online estate agent recorded a growing back-log of such defalcations and referred to the ‘unspeakable pain’ in the local market – an agony apparently shared in at least six other of the districts neighbouring his.
Despite the widespread belief that Chinese buyers are sitting on a typical equity cushion of 30-40% of the property value – and hence, unlike their less well-endowed US, Irish, and Spanish cousins, are impervious to all bar the most extreme events in the market – the scary truth is that much of the real estate to which they do hold title has been, how shall we say, ‘rehypothecated’ – i.e., pledged as collateral for a range of business loans as well as for the more speculative use of funds.
‘In the past few years, many small business owners blindly invested in real estate, mining and other industries. These industries are now suffering from overcapacity and falling asset prices, so business owners are unable to pay their debts,’ said one general manager of a Wenzhou microfinance company.
‘Many [of these] use the house as collateral when business loans go wrong,‘ Ge Ningbo, a county bank manager, told a journalist.
To get a feel for the scale of the problem, consider press reports that in Wenzhou, 1,000 homes were abandoned as a result of the decline, homes with an ostensible market value of more than Y6.4 Billion – or roughly $1 million a pop! No scrabbling rural migrants, these, but possibly members of an increasingly scrutiny–shy party apparatus! Clearly, the banks will need to suck in even more money from their gullible preference shareholders if this phenomenon starts to spread and, in the meanwhile, it is hard to see how they will be empowered to make sufficient revenue-positive new loans to keep the whirligig in motion in such a climate of confusion and disabusal.
Sadly, we have not finished our tale of woe there because there are also stories circulating in the official media that those same local governments, who are in many ways the lynchpins of the whole merry-go-round, may be far deeper into the mire than has been recognised to date.
As the articles detail, a member of the relevant NPC standing committee confided to a press contact that when hidden liabilities are taken into account alongside those uncovered in a recent audit, the true total of LG debt almost doubles to a wince-inducing Y30 trillion. Just for sheer size – some 50% of national GDP – this would be a matter of concern, but it also should not be overlooked that far too much of that monstrous total is comprised of short-term obligations against which are held long-term, illiquid, and often economically redundant ‘assets’.
Given that the last NAO study showed that are some 3,700 governmental bodies across various categories which had debts in excess of 100% of their local GDP, something patently needs to be done if the mad Chinese juggler is to keep his profusion of balls bobbing in the air.
So, welcome to local scrip issues. Yes, it seems that ingenious local cadres have dusted off their depression-era news clippings and revisited the age of the mediaeval mint and simply started using their own IOUs as media of exchange wherever their writ may run.
Economic Information Daily reported that in Hubei, Hunan and Guangdong, among others, government IOUs have become a ‘discount currency.’ In fact, commentary on Caijing suggests that not only are even small, rural communities now doing likewise, but that some companies, too, are paying their workers in scrip – just as in the early days of the Western factory age when resort by employers to what was called the ‘truck’ or ‘Tommy’ system was widespread.
As the early 19th century English radical, William Cobbett noted, ‘… when this tommy system… makes its appearance where money has for ages been the medium of exchange, and of payments for labour; when this system makes its appearance in such a state of society, there is something wrong; things are out of joint; and it becomes us to inquire into the real cause of its being resorted to…’
His answer? The state of economic depression brought about by the costs imposed upon entrepreneurs by the dead-weight of government:-
‘It is not the fault of the masters, who can have no pleasure in making profit in this way: it is the fault of the taxes, which, by lowering the [net] price of their goods, have compelled them to resort to this means of diminishing their expenses, or to quit their business altogether, which a great part of them cannot do without being left without a penny… Everything was on the decline… I was assured that shop-keepers in general did not now sell half the quantity of goods in a month that they did in that space of time four or five years ago… need we then wonder that the iron in Staffordshire has fallen, within these five years, from thirteen pounds to five pounds a ton [metal-bashers were similarly bearing the brunt, it appears]… and need we wonder that the iron-masters, who have the same rent and taxes to pay that they had to pay before, have resorted to the tommy system, in order to assist in saving themselves from ruin!’
‘Here is the real cause of the tommy system; and if [we wish] to put an end to it… prevail upon the Parliament to take off taxes to the amount of forty millions a year.’
Caijing devoted quite some space to ‘netizen’ comments on this state of affairs, several of which reflected a considerable degree of awareness that this had come about because of the unbridled spending and lavish self-indulgence of the relevant officials, while some were also aware that such an emission of fiat money was a direct parallel of the official money-creation process and further that it could only persist for so long as some minimal degree of trust resided in the councils’ ability one day to redeem the claims. Moreover, it was noted that since people ultimately expect the discount between township paper and that issued by the PBOC to widen, they were using the former preferentially to buy and sell and clinging on to the latter – a classic, Gresham’s Law example of bad money driving out good.
If the localities are in such dire straits as these, then it is hard to resist the temptation to believe that we are approaching some sort of end-game. But what, we should ask ourselves, might be the trigger for its no-doubt jarring denouement?
Well, here we come full circle with the latest act of Xi Jinping’s grand ‘anti-corruption’ drive. For, as well as Our Glorious Leader’s insistence at last week’s Leading Group get-together that everyone must ‘truly push forward reform with real guns and knives’ (ulp!), news has come out that the National Audit Commission will next conduct a full, ‘rigorous’ check of all land sales and related transactions carried out between 2008-13 and that, moreover, the results will be to hand when the top men convene for their next Plenum this coming October.
One can only imagine the consternation in the ranks which this announcement has unleashed. After all, there is unlikely to be overmuch evidence that any of these deals were conducted transparently, competitively, honestly, and legally, in the absence of any and all inducements, kickbacks, or displays of favouritism, not only since such was the accepted practice during the reign of Wen and Hu – especially during the infamous, no questions asked, frenzy of post-Crash stimulus – but also because this is a sphere notoriously subject to peculation in what we fondly imagine to be our more enlightened polities, too.
We can therefore not only expect the bodycount to rise substantially as officials fearful of censure seek to avoid their imminent disgrace and subsequent punishment, but we should also be prepared for the possibility that when this most capacious of all cylindrical metallic containers of vermiform invertebrae is opened, it will be accompanied by a blast of sufficient megatonnage to bring the whole flawed edifice crashing to the ground.
Under such circumstances, we find it very hard to shake off the presentiment that, on the one side, some commentators’ touching faith in an incipient re-acceleration are horribly misplaced while, on the other, the tired old ‘Goldilocks’ scenario whereby all bad news is good because it presages the launch of another round of sustained, indiscriminate ‘stimulus’ seems equally out of key with what Xi tells us he is trying to achieve.
Having dealt at such length with China, let us try and dispose of the rest of the globe in as short a space as possible.
Japan: Abenomics is still a horrible failure as drooping machine orders, frozen store sales, and exports back at 4 ½ year (currency-adjusted), one-quarter-from-the-peak lows reveal. So, guess what? As the PM’s approval ratings slip, another ‘stimulus’ package is said to be in the offing (sigh!)
Europe: Even one of Hollande’s own ministers confided to the press a couple of weeks back, ‘the truth is, he thinks we don’t have a chance’ – who are we to disagree? Meanwhile, the chap at the head of the other Sick Man, Matteo Renzi, has undergone a moment of almost Caligulan delusion, assuring supporters that the hour had come for Italy ‘to tow Europe out of the crisis’ and ‘to assume… the leadership’ of the Continent.
And what of his first steps to make good on such a vaunting claim? Why, in an Onion-like act of farce, to insist that ISTAT no longer releases the GDP numbers a week ahead of its peers and thereby afford underemployed analysts and commentators more opportunity to be critical of the country’s performance! And then there’s the Neocon-inspired catastrophe unfolding on the bloc’s eastern fringe from which the emergence of a bout of renewed economic difficulty is the very least of our worries.
USA: Chairperson Yellen is currently holding court at Jackson Hole as the US numbers continue their rebound from the winter’s retardation. What a moment for her to take the stage. Non-financials (large cap-led) are at new records, Tech at new, post-Bubble highs; junk spreads have narrowed sharply; vol has again crashed, correlations fallen, and put-call ratios evaporated. With the Bund-UST spread at a 15-year high and equities outperforming, the USD stands on the verge of a break out and up from what is already its best level in a year. The cycle is still running in favour of the States on a comparison basis, no matter how ninety-Nth percentile many of its valuations are when considered in isolation.
With money supply still swelling rapidly – and amid hints that it is being more actively utilised than of late—it is hard to see quite what will bring that run to an end in the near term. Were we to really be critical, one of the few clouds ‘no bigger than a man’s hand’ is that the growth of both inventories and payroll expenses are outstripping sales in the durable goods sector. Thus, while US assets are hardly ‘investible’ in the Benjamin Graham sense, they are also a tough short in the Sell’em Ben Smith one.
Britain: While MPC member David Miles saw fit to describe the EU as ‘dead in the water’ as a trade partner, closer to home some of the gloss is finally coming off the reputation of one of the country’s most expensive recent imports, its egregious Bank governor.
No doubt, dear reader, you too were shocked – shocked! – to hear local Tory Mark Field, the Honourable Member for the Cities of London and Westminster, opine to his mates in Grub Street that “…from the moment Mark Carney became governor in July 2013, it was pretty clear forward guidance was an indication rates would not rise this side of the election – for all the talk of Bank of England independence, there was a clear bargain between him and George Osborne.” Be that as it may, it is surely not too cynical to note that Fred Carney’s Army will not want to contibute to a possible defeat by Alex the Bruce’s forces in the coming Scottish independence vote.
You can just hear it now, that ringing oration:-
‘Aye, vote ‘Yes’ and interest rates may rise. Vote ‘No’ and they’ll stay as is … at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin’ to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our neighbours that they may take our pound and their nuclear subs, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!
Truth be told, it has not been the kindest of summers for commodities. Since reaching their late June peak, returns have suffered a 7.5% slump to touch six month lows even as US equities have added 2%. For the record, in that crumbling eight week stretch EM stocks put on 4.7%, US bonds were up 1% and junk was flat.
Within commodities themselves, what some commentators have been calling a ‘Garden of Eden’ summer in the US grain belt has ensured that the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye almost everywhere you look, while oilseeds and wheat have been similarly profuse. A loss of 11.3% and, in fact, the casting into jeopardy of the entire cyclical bull market in prices has been the result.
Energy, too, has suffered, as the record longs in oil finally began to liquidate, triggering the biggest 6-week sell-off of positions in WTI on record. IN notional value terms, net spec longs in Brent and WTI combined crashed from close to $97 billion worth of contracts to $59 billion. It is possible to read the charts to declare that this swoon has violated the uptrend in place for the last five years, as well as breaking all major MAs. Against that, we are arguably a touch oversold and the last four years’ sideways stationary, Arab Spring range remains intact. Tacticians, Faites vos jeux!
Dollar strength, the subsidence of financial market anxieties alluded to above, and the cessation of labour unrest in SA have hardly been conducive to higher PM prices (palladium — and Russia—excepted). Gold has also broken 200, 100, 50-day MAs and is threatening the uptrend drawn from the June 30-Dec 31 $1180 double bottom and June 3rd’s $1240 probe. Lease rates remain positive and net specs—at 43% of total O/I – as long as they have been on average throughout the last 12 years’ bull market.
Only Base metals seem to offer any hope (they rallied 4.2% while everything else was collapsing). Strength has partly been predicated upon what we think are decidedly ephemeral signs of a Chinese renaissance, but also on evidence of dwindling stockpiles and the litany of capex cuts and asset disposals emanating from the mining industry. They appear, therefore, to offer the least dirty shirt in the laundry basket.
Although it might seem odd for a school of economics to largely ignore the role of money in the economy, this is indeed the case with traditional Keynesian economics. Declaring in 1963 that, “Inflation is, always and everywhere, a monetary phenomenon,” Milton Friedman sought to place money at the centre of economics where he and his fellow Monetarists believed it belonged. Keynesian policies continued to dominate into the 1970s, however, and were blamed by the Monetarists and others for the ‘stagflation’ of that decade—weak growth with rising inflation. Today, stagflation is re-appearing, the inevitable result of the aggressive, neo-Keynesian policy responses to the 2008 global financial crisis. In this report, I discuss the causes, symptoms and financial market consequences of the new stagflation, which could well be worse than the 1970s.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF KEYNESIANISM
During the ‘Roaring 20s’, US economists mostly belonged to various ‘laissez faire’ or ‘liquidationist’ schools of thought, holding that economic downturns were best left to sort themselves out, with a minimal role for official intervention. President Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (in)famously represented this view following the 1929 stock market crash when he admonished the government to stay out of private affairs and allow businesses and investors to “Liquidate! Liquidate! Liquidate!”
The severity of the Depression caught much of the laissez faire crowd off guard and thus by 1936, the year John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory, there was a certain open-mindedness around what he had to say, in particular that there was a critical role for the government to play in supporting demand during economic downturns through deficit spending. (There were a handful of prominent economists who did warn that the 1920s boom was likely to turn into a big bust, including Ludwig von Mises.)
While campaigning for president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously painted Herbert Hoover as a lasseiz faire president, when in fact Hoover disagreed with Mellon. As Murray Rothbard and others have demonstrated, Hoover was a highly interventionist president, setting several major precedents on which FDR would subsequently expand. But all is fair in politics and FDR won that election and subsequent elections in landslides.
With the onset of war and the command war economy it engendered, in the early 1940s the economics debate went silent. With the conclusion of war, it promptly restarted. Friedrich von Hayek fired an early, eloquent shot at the Keynesians in 1946 with The Road to Serfdom, his warning of the longer-term consequences of central economic planning.
The Keynesians, however, fired back, and with much new ammunition. Beginning in the early 20th century, several US government agencies, including the Federal Reserve, began to compile vast amounts of economic statistics and to create indices to aggregate macroeconomic data. This was a treasure-trove to Keynesians, who sought quantitative confirmation that their theories were correct. Sure enough, in 1947, a new, definitive Keynesian work appeared, Foundations of Economic Analysis, by Paul Samuelson, that presented statistical ‘proof’ that Keynes was right.
One of Samuelson’s core contentions was that economic officials could and should maintain full employment (ie low unemployment) through the prompt application of targeted stimulus in recessions. As recessions ended, the stimulus should be withdrawn, lest price inflation rise to a harmful level. Thus well-trained economists keeping an eye on the data and remaining promptly reactive in response to changes in key macroeconomic variables could minimise the business cycle and prevent Depression.
For government officials, Samuelson’s work was the Holy Grail. Not only was this a theoretical justification for an active government role in managing the economy, as Keynes had provided; now there was hard data to prove it and a handbook for just how to provide it. A rapid, historic expansion of public sector macroeconomics soon followed, swelling the ranks of Treasury, Commerce, Labor Department and Federal Reserve employees.
CHICAGO AND THE ‘FRESHWATER’ DISSENT
Notwithstanding the establishment of this new economic mainstream and a public sector that wholeheartedly embraced it, there was some dissent, in particular at the so-called ‘freshwater’ universities of the American Midwest: Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and St Louis, among others.
Disagreeing with key Keynesian assumptions and also with Samuelson’s interpretation of historical data, Monetarists mounted an aggressive counterattack in the 1960s, led by Milton Friedman of the Chicago School. Thomas Sargent, co-founder of Rational Expectations Theory, also took part.
The Chicago School disagreed that there was a stable relationship between inflation and employment that could be effectively managed through fiscal policy. Rather, Friedman and his colleagues argued that Keynesians had made a grave error in largely ignoring the role of money in the economy. Together with his colleague Anna Schwarz, Friedman set out to correct this in the monumental Monetary History of the United States, which re-interpreted the Great Depression, among other major events in US economic history, as primarily a monetary- rather than demand-driven phenomenon. Thus inflation, according to Friedman and Schwarz, was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” rather than a function of fiscal policy or other demand-side developments.
By the late 1960s the dissent played a central role in escalating policy disputes, due primarily to a prolonged expansion of US fiscal policy. Following Keynesian policy guidance, the government responded to the gentle recession of the early 1960s with fiscal stimulus. However, even after the recession was over, there was a reluctance to tighten policy, for reasons both foreign and domestic. At home, President Johnson promised a ‘Great Society’: a huge expansion of various programmes supposedly intended to help the poor and otherwise disadvantaged groups. Abroad, the Vietnam War had escalated into a major conflict and, combined with other Cold War military commitments, led to a huge expansion of the defence budget.
DE GAULLE AND INTERNATIONAL DISSENT
In the early 1960s a handful of prescient domestic observers had already begun to warn of the increasingly inflationary course of US fiscal and monetary policy (Henry Hazlitt wrote a book about it, What Inflation Is, in 1961.) In the mid-1960s this also became an important international topic. Under the Bretton-Woods system, the US was obliged to back dollars in circulation with gold reserves and to maintain an international gold price of $35/oz. In early 1965, as scepticism mounted that the US was serious about sustaining this arrangement, French President Charles De Gaulle announced to the world that he desired a restructuring of Bretton-Woods to place gold itself, rather than the dollar, at the centre of the international monetary system.
This prominent public dissent against Bretton-Woods unleashed a series of international monetary crises, roughly one each year, culminating in President Nixon’s decision to suspend ‘temporarily’ the dollar’s convertibility into gold in August 1971. (Temporarily? That was 43 years ago this month!)
The breakdown of Bretton-Woods would not be complete until 1973, when the world moved formally to a floating-rate regime unbacked by gold. However, while currencies subsequently ‘floated’ relative to one another, they collectively sank in purchasing power. The price of gold soared, as did the price of crude oil and many other commodities.
Rather than maintain stable prices by slowing the growth rate of the money supply and raising interest rates, the US Federal Reserve fatefully facilitated the dollar’s general devaluation
with negative real interest rates. While it took several years to build, in part because Nixon placed outright price controls on various goods, eventually the associated inflationary pressure leaked into consumer prices more generally, with the CPI rising steadily from the mid-1970s. Growth remained weak, however, as the economy struggled to restructure and rebalance. Thus before the decade was over, a new word had entered the economic lexicon: Stagflation.
STAGFLATION IS A KEYNESIAN PHENOMENON
Keynesians were initially mystified by this dramatic breakdown in the supposedly stable and manageable relationship between growth (or employment) and inflation. Their models said it couldn’t happen, so they looked for an explanation to deflect mounting criticism and soon found one: The economy had been hit by a ‘shock’, namely sharply higher oil prices! Never mind that the sharp rise in oil prices followed the breakdown of Bretton-Woods and devaluation of the dollar: This brazen reversal of cause and effect was too politically convenient to ignore. Politicians could blame OPEC for the stagflation, rather than their own policies. But an objective look at history tells a far different story, that the great stagflation was in fact the culmination of years of Keynesian economic policies. To generalise and to paraphrase Friedman, stagflation is, always and everywhere, a Keynesian phenomenon.
Why should this be so? Consider the relationship between real economic activity and the price level. If the supply of money is perfectly stable, then any negative ‘shock’ to the economy may reduce demand, but that will result in a decline rather than a rise in the general price level. The ‘shock’ might also increase certain prices in relative terms, but amidst stable money it simply cannot increase prices across the board, as is the case in stagflation.
They only way in which the toxic stagflationary mix of both reduced growth and rising prices can occur is if the money supply is flexible. Now this does not imply that a flexible money supply is in of itself a Keynesian policy, but deficit spending is far easier with a flexible money supply that can be increased as desired to finance the associated deficits. Yes, this then crowds out real private capital, with negative long-term consequences for economic health, but as we know, politicians are generally more concerned with the short-term and the next election.
CONTEMPORARY EVIDENCE OF STAGFLATION
Contemporary examples provide support for the reasoning above. It is instructive that two large economies, Japan and France, have been chronically underperforming in recent years, slipping in and out of recession. Both run chronic budget deficits in blatant Keynesian efforts to stimulate demand. In Japan, where the money supply is growing rapidly, inflation has been picking up despite weak growth: stagflation. In France, where the money supply has been quite stable, there is price stability: That is merely stagnation, not stagflation.
The UK, US and Germany have all been growing somewhat faster. Following the large devaluation of sterling in 2008, the UK experienced a multi-year surge in prices amidst weak growth, clearly a stagflationary mix. The US also now appears to be entering stagflation. Growth has been weak on average in recent quarters—outright negative in Q1 this year—yet inflation has now risen to 4% (3m annualised rate). Notwithstanding a surge in labour costs this year, the US Fed has, up to this point, dismissed this rise in CPI as ‘noise’. But then the Fed repeatedly made similar claims as CPI began to rise sharply in the mid-1970s.
In Japan, the UK and US, the stagflation is highly likely to continue as long as the current policy mix remains in place. (For all the fanfare surrounding the US Fed’s ‘tapering’, I don’t consider this terribly meaningful. Rates are still zero.) In France, absent aggressive structural reforms that may be politically impossible, the stagnation is likely to remain in place.
Germany is altogether a different story than the rest of these mature economies. While sharing the same, relatively stable euro money supply as France, the price level in Germany is also stable. However, Germany has been growing at a faster rate than most other developed economies, notwithstanding a smaller deficit. This is compelling evidence that Germany is simply a more competitive, productive economy than either the US or UK. But this is nothing new. The German economy has outperformed both the US and UK in nearly every decade since WWII. (Postwar rebuilding provided huge support in the 1950s and 1960s but those days are long past.)
The persistence of German economic outperformance through the decades clearly demonstrates the fundamental economic superiority of what is arguably the least Keynesian set of policies in the developed world. Indeed, Germans are both famed and blamed for their embrace of sound money and fiscal sustainability. ‘Famed’ because of their astonishing success; ‘blamed’ because of, well, because of their astonishing success relative to economic basket cases elsewhere in Europe and around the world. As I sometimes say in jest to those who ‘blame’ the Germans for the economic malaise elsewhere: “If only the Germans weren’t so dammed productive, we would all be better off!”
INVESTING FOR STAGFLATION
Stagflation is a hostile environment for investors. As discussed above, Keynesian policies require that the public sector siphon off resources from the private sector, thereby reducing the ability of private agents to generate economic profits. So-called ‘financial repression’, a more overt seizure of private resources by the public sector, is by design and intent hostile for investors. Regardless of how you choose to think about it, stagflation reveals previously unseen resource misallocations. As these become apparent, investors adjust financial asset prices accordingly. (Perhaps this is now getting under way. The Dow fell over 300 points yesterday.)
The most recent historical period of prolonged stagflation was the 1970s, although there have been briefer episodes since in various countries. Focusing here on the US, although there was a large stock market decline in 1973-4, the market subsequently recovered these losses and then roughly doubled in value. The bond market, by contrast, held up during the first half of the decade but, as stagnation gradually turned into stagflation, bonds sold off and were sharply outperformed by stocks.
That should be no surprise, as inflation erodes the nominally fixed value of bonds. Stock prices, however, can rise along with the general price level along as corporate revenues and profits also rise. It would seem safe to conclude, therefore, that in the event stagflationary conditions intensify from here, stocks will outperform bonds.
While that might be a safe conclusion, it is not a terribly helpful one. Sure, stocks might be able to outperform bonds in stagflation but, when adjusted for the inflation, in real terms they can still lose value. Indeed, in the 1970s, stock market valuations failed to keep pace with the accelerating inflation. Cash, in other words, was the better ‘investment’ option and, naturally, a far less volatile one.
Best of all, however, would have been to avoid financial assets and cash altogether and instead to accumulate real assets, such as gold and oil. (Legendary investors John Exter and John van Eck did precisely this.) The chart below shows the total returns of all of the above and the relative performance of stocks, bonds and cash appears irrelevant when compared to the soaring prices of gold and oil, both of which rose roughly tenfold.
REAL VS NOMINAL ASSETS IN STAGFLATION
(Jan 1971 = 100)
Source: Bloomberg; Amphora
Some readers might be sceptical that, from their current starting point, gold, oil or other commodity
prices could rise tenfold in price from here. Oil at $100/bbl sounds expensive to those (such as I) who remember the many years when oil fluctuated around $20. Gold at $1,300 also seems expensive compared to the sub-$300 price fetched by UK Chancellor Brown in the early 2000s. In both cases, prices have risen by a factor of 4-5x. Note that this is the rough order of magnitude that gold and oil rose into the mid-1970s. But it was not until the late 1970s that both really took off, leaving financial assets far behind.
If anything, a persuasive case can be made that the potential for gold, oil and other commodity prices to outperform stocks and bonds is higher today than it was in the mid-1970s. Monetary policies around the world are generally more expansionary. Government debt burdens and deficits are far larger. If Keynesian policies caused the 1970s stagflation, then the steroid injection of aggressive Keynesian policies post-2008 should eventually result in something even more spectacular.
While overweighting commodities can be an effective, defensive investment strategy for a stagflationary future, it is important to consider how best to implement this. Here at Amphora, we provide investors with an advisory service for constructing commodity portfolios. Most benchmark commodity indices and the ETFs tracking them are not well designed as investment vehicles for a variety of reasons. In particular, they do not provide for efficient diversification and their weightings are not well-specified to a stagflationary environment. With a few tweaks, however, these disadvantages can be remedied, enabling a commodity portfolio to produce the desired results.
CURRENT COMMODITY OPPORTUNITIES
For those inclined to trade commodities actively, and relative to each other, there are an unusual number of opportunities at present. First, grains are now unusually cheap, especially corn. This is understandable given current global weather patterns supportive of high yields, but beyond a certain point producers are fully hedged and/or are considering withholding some production to sell once prices recover. That point is likely now close.
Second, taking a look at tropical products, cotton has resumed the sharp slide that began earlier this year. As is the case with grains, we are likely nearing the point where producer hedging and/or holding out for higher prices will support the price. By contrast, cocoa prices continue their rise and I note that several major chocolate manufacturers have recently increased prices sharply to maintain margins. That is a classic indication that prices are near a peak.
Third, livestock remains expensive. Hog prices have finally begun to correct lower but cattle prices are at record highs. There are major herd supply issues that are not easily resolved in the near-term but consumers are highly price sensitive in the current environment and substitution into pork or poultry products is almost certainly now taking place around the margins. Left to run for awhile, this is likely to place a lid on cattle prices, although I do expect them to remain elevated for a sustained period until herds have had a chance to re-build.
Fourth, following a brief correction lower several weeks ago, palladium prices have risen back near to their previous highs of just under $900/oz. Palladium now appears expensive relative to near-substitute platinum; to precious and base metals generally; and relative to industrial commodities. The primary source of demand, autocatalysts, has remained strong due to auto production, but recent reports of rising unsold dealer inventory in a handful of major countries, including the US, may soon weaken demand. In the event that the fastest growing major auto markets—the BRICS—begin to slow, then a sharp decline in palladium to under $700 is likely.
Finally, a quick word on silver and gold. While both have tremendous potential to rise in a stagflationary environment, it is worth noting that, following a three-year correction, they appear to have found long-term support. Thus I believe there is both near-term and well as longer-term potential and I would once again recommend overweighting both vs industrial commodities.
1Von Mises not only warned of a financial crash and severe economic downturn in 1929; he refused the offer of a prominent position at the largest Austrian bank, Kreditanstalt, around the same time, not wanting to be associated with what he correctly anticipated would soon unfold. A Wall Street Journal article discussing this period in von Mises’ life is linked here.
2A classic revisionist view is that of Murray Rothbard, AMERICAS GREAT DEPRESSION. More recent scholarship by Lee Ohanian has added much additional detail to Rothbard’s work. I briefly touch on this subject in my book and also in a previous Amphora Report, THE RIME OF THE CENTRAL BANKER, linked here.
[Editor’s note: The Cobden Centre is happy to republish this commentary by Alasdair Macleod, the original can be found here.]
The London bullion market is an over-the-counter unregulated market and has had this status since the mid-1980s. The disadvantage of an OTC market being unregulated is that change often ends up being driven by a cartel of members promoting their own vested interests. Sadly, this has meant London has not kept pace with developments in market standards elsewhere.
The current row is focused on the twice-daily gold fix. The fix has been giving daily reference prices for gold since 1919, useful in the past when dealing was unrecorded and over-the-counter by telephone. The London gold fix could be described as an antiquated deal-based version of the LIBOR fix that has itself been discredited.
It was with this in mind that the House of Commons Treasury Committee called witnesses before it to give evidence on the matter on 2nd July. This dramatically exposed the inconsistences in the current situation, and was summed up by the Chairman Andrew Tyrie as follows: “Is there any reason we should not be treating this as an appalling story?”
These were strong words and his question remains hanging over the heads of all involved. It would be a mistake to think the Financial Conduct Authority which was given a rough ride by the Committee can ignore this “appalling story”. The FCA will almost certainly seek significant reforms, and reform means greater market transparency and no fix procedure that does not comply with IOSCO’s nineteen principles.
The current fix is thought to comply with only four of them, which is a measure of how things have moved on while the London bullion market has stood still. London effectively remains a cartel between bullion banks and the Bank of England (BoE). It has worked well for London in the past, because the BoE has used its position as the principal custodian of central bank gold to enhance liquidity. And when bailouts are required, the Bank has provided them behind closed doors.
The world has moved on. IOSCO has provided a standard for behaviour not just to cherry-pick, but as a minimum for credibility. China, which we routinely deride for the quality of official information, has a fully functioning gold bullion market which provides turnover and delivery statistics, as well as trade by the ten largest participants by both volume and bar sizes. China has also tied up mine output in Asia, Australia and Africa which now bypasses London completely. Dubai also has ambitions to become a major physical market, being in the centre of middle-eastern bullion stockpiles and with strong links into the Indian market.
Even Singapore sees itself servicing South East Asia and becoming a global centre. These realities are reflected in the 995 LBMA 400oz bar being outdated and being replaced by a new Asian 1kg 9999 standard, with refiners working overtime to affect the transition. London cannot possibly meet these global challenges without major reform.
Central banks are now net buyers of bullion, withdrawing liquidity from the London market instead of adding to it. With the FCA as one of its new responsibilities, the ability of the BoE to act as ringmaster in the LBMA is changing from an interventionist to a regulatory role. If it is to retain the physical gold business, London’s standards, on which users’ trust is ultimately based, must be of the highest order with the maximum levels of information disclosure.
Comes now to respectful international attention a volume entitled War and Gold: A 500-Year History of Empires, Adventures, and Debt by Member of Parliament Kwasi Kwarteng. This near-perfect volume appears with almost preternaturally perfect timing around the centenary of the beginning of World War I and, with that, the end of the classical gold standard. It, along with the work of Steve Baker, MP (co-founder of the Cobden Centre), constitutes a sign of sophistication about the gold standard in the British House of Commons.
Kwarteng, the most historically literary Member of Parliament since Churchill, is an impressive figure. As War and Gold‘s jacket flap biography summarizes, “Kwasi Kwarteng was born in London to Ghanaian parents in 1975. … After completing a PhD in history at Cambridge University, he worked as a financial analyst in London. He is a Conservative member of parliament and author of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World.” Kwarteng thus possesses four crucial skill sets: an international, multicultural, perspective; rigorous training as an historian; direct experience in the financial markets; and the perspective of an elected legislator. It shows.
- Kwasi Kwarteng MP at Global Growth: Challenge or opportunity for the UK (Photo credit: Policy Exchange)
War and Gold is a compelling successor to Liaquat Ahamed’s delightful and invaluable The Lords of Finance, awarded the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in history. Kwarteng delivers up a successor volume worthy of such a prize. It extends Ahamed’s temporal framework by a factor of ten, to 500 years. Kwarteng, too, has compelling narrative virtuosity. His book is full of dramatic, charming, often wry vignettes of fascinating characters — heroes and villains, adventurers and knaves — spinning around, and off, the axis of the gold standard, in war and in peace.
Let us pause to pay tribute to Kwarteng’s Ghanian ancestry. Ghana, once known as the “Gold Coast,” was part of the Ashanti Empire. Ghana is a too-often overlooked gem of civilization. The most iconic piece of Ashanti regalia, as described by Wikipedia, was a Golden Stool:
The Golden Stool is sacred to the Ashanti, as it is believed that it contains the Sunsum viz, the spirit or soul of the Ashanti people. Just as man cannot live without a soul, so the Ashanti would cease to exist if the Golden Stool were to be taken from them. The Golden Stool is regarded as sacred that not even the king was allowed to sit on it, a symbol of nationhood and unity.
War and Gold provides a literary symphony in four movements.
Its first movement commences with the story of the Holy Roman Emperor whose wars bankrupted his empire. This is counterpoised with stories of rapacious Conquistadors, especially Pizzaro plundering the Inca for their gold, “the sweat of the sun,” and silver, “the tears of the moon.”
Kwarteng thereupon moves smartly to the military, political and economic skirmishing between France and England; the upheavals produced by the American and French revolutions and their aftermaths; the prosperity and stability of the Victorian era… and the rise of the United States. Many of our economic challenges have a long pedigree. The fundamental things don’t change as times goes by.
Its second movement, describing the epic era of the first World War, notes that this war destroyed the classical international gold standard. Chapter 9, “World Crisis,” contains the only significant point of confusion in this otherwise masterful work: the attribution to the gold standard of the Great Depression. That error is widespread. It is a crucial mistake to dispel for the discourse to move forward. Call it the Eichengreen Fallacy.
Prof. Eichengreen, author of Golden Fetters, was and remains non-cognizant of a subtle but crucial aspect of world monetary history — and, apparently, of the works of Profs. Jacques Rueff and Robert Triffin elucidating the implications. Eichengreen blundered by attributing the Great Depression to the gold standard. This, demonstrably, is untrue. That claim has led the discourse astray.
The classical gold standard, as Kwarteng points out, collapsed under the pressure of the first World War, long before the Great Depression. The classical gold standard was suspended when the Depression hit.
An attempt was made to resuscitate the gold standard in Genoa, in 1922, putting in place what that great French classical liberal economist Jacques Rueff called “a grotesque caricature” of the gold standard: the gold-exchange standard. Genoa authorized a deformed pastiche of gold and paper currency as official central bank reserve assets.
Genoa set up a system mistaken (then as now) as equivalent to the classical gold standard. The inclusion of (gold-convertible) currencies as an official reserve asset for central banks thwarted the ability of the system to extinguish excess liquidity balances. This, due to an intrinsic moral hazard not fully grasped even by many gold standard proponents, led to a systemic inflation — increasing all commodities except, of course, as monetized, gold. Key classical gold standard advocates, such as Rueff protégé Lewis E. Lehrman (with whose Institute this writer has a professional association), consider this the key cause of the Great Depression.
FDR did not, despite his grandiose declaration to that effect, end the gold standard. FDR performed an appropriate and crucial revaluation of the dollar from $20.67/oz to $35/oz. This was utterly needed to adjust for distortions caused by the inherent defect of the gold-exchange standard.
The revaluation worked and to stunning (if temporary, likely due to a subsequent Treasury decision to sterilize gold inflows as suggested by Calomiris, et al) effect. As described by Ahamed:
But in the days after the Roosevelt decision, as the dollar fell against gold, the stock market soared by 15%. Even the Morgan bankers, historically among the most staunch defenders of the gold standard, could not resist cheering. ‘Your action in going off gold saved the country from complete collapse,’ wrote Russell Leffingwell to the president.
Taking the dollar off gold provided the second leg to the dramatic change in sentiment… that coursed through the economy that spring. … During the following three months, wholesale prices jumped by 45 percent and stock prices doubled. With prices rising, the real cost of borrowing money plummeted. New orders for heavy machinery soared by 100 percent, auto sales doubled, and overall industrial production shot up 50 percent.
The dollar had not, in fact, been taken “off gold.” As Kwarteng astutely notes, “The United States, as already stated, was still on gold, but it had devalued the dollar by over 50 per cent.”
Given Kwarteng’s current and, likely, future importance to the world monetary discourse it really would be invaluable were he to master the arguments of Jacques Rueff, and of Lewis Lehrman, as well as those of Triffin (who shared the same diagnosis while offering a different prescription). It is important, for the long run, to recognize the innocence of the classical gold standard in the matter of the Great Depression and to grasp the insidious toxicity of the gold-exchange standard, which Rueff termed “an unbelievable collective mistake which, when people become aware of it, will be viewed by history as an object of astonishment and scandal.”
War and Gold’s third movement opens with America at its apogee: “In 1945 the United States was by far the most powerful nation on earth. It could also be argued that no nation has ever enjoyed such preponderant influence on the world’s affairs as did as the U.S. did at the close of the Second World War.”
Kwarteng then provides a vivid picture of an era in some ways nearly as distant as the 16th century. Quoting from a 1947 article in the Journal of Political Economy: “Some people are thinking in terms of only 18 or 20 billion dollars [of federal government spending] per year. Others see a possibility that federal expenditures may run to 25 or 40 billions annually.” Uncle Sam lately spends over $10 billion per day. While this sum is not adjusted for inflation or population growth, still it conveys a stunning difference of scale of government spending.
It is a pleasure to see the great Fed chairman William McChesney Martin given his due. Kwarteng references a speech by the newly appointed Martin alluding to “the Frankenstein mechanics of an uncontrolled supply of money.” If Frankenstein’s monster was an apt metaphor in the 1950s, surely Godzilla better fits the bill today. “To be a sound money man was a moderately easy task for a Chairman of the Federal Reserve in the 1950s,” Kwarteng notes. “The dollar, through the Bretton Woods Agreement, had preserved the all-important link to gold, which still held the almost magical value of US$35 an ounce.”
Kwarteng then presents a lucid presentation of post-war economic policies of Britain, Germany, and Japan. This columnist took special pleasure in his resurrection of the role of unjustly obscure Joseph Dodge, a key architect of the resurrection of both Germany and Japan and who later balanced the budget of the Eisenhower administration.
Looping back to the United States, Kwarteng describes what might fairly be called the Götterdämmerung:
The final break with gold was dramatic and, as much as any other development of monetary system, can almost be entirely attributable to the action of one man, the President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon. It was Nixon’s decision in August 1971 which substantially altered the course of monetary history and inaugurated a period, for the first time in 2,500 years, in which gold was effectively demonetized in most of what had been understood to be the Western world.
The world goes fast downhill from there.
The fourth movement delineates the chaos of, and various attempts to cope with, our current era of monetary anarchy. He recounts the oil price shocks, Reagan and Thatcher, the creation of the Euro, the rise of China, the delusions of debt, and the emergence of crises and bailouts. He goes on to provide an epilogue on the Greek economic crisis and on precarious conditions in America. Kwarteng concludes:
Gold itself…remains embedded in the public’s consciousness as a monetary metal. It is held most commonly by central banks and there remains an almost mysterious fixation with it. Its value equally mysteriously can be reflected in the growth of the world economy. … [T]he value of gold, better than perhaps any currency, reflects this process most accurately. The gold standard will never formally return, but movements in the price of gold may well suggest that investors, in their lack of faith in paper money, have informally adopted one.
Great Britain, and the world, hardly could be better served than by, in due course, elevating Kwarteng to the Exchequer. Notwithstanding his curious demurral that the “gold standard will never formally return,” gold, recovering from the false charge of blame for the Great Depression, slowly is becoming a fully respectable option. Perhaps even, in the not too distant future, a movement to consider, and restore, the classical gold standard might be led by Kwasi Kwarteng and like-minded classical liberal-minded officials around the world.
The following text is from the notes I made of a talk that I gave to the “End of The World Club” at the Institute of Economic Affairs on 18 April 2014.
If there is one feature of human society that makes it successful, it is the capacity that human beings have of choosing to satisfy short-term appetites or to defer gratification. This ability to distinguish between short term and long term interests is at the heart of economics.
But why defer consumption? Why save at all?
One reason is the transmission of wealth from one generation to the next. Another is to ensure security in hard times.
A complaint of American academics about French savings in the 19th century is that they were too conservative. Easy for them to say.
The population of France grew more slowly than any other industrialising nation in the 19th century (0.2% per year from 1870 to 1913, compared with 1.1% for Germany and 0.9% for Great Britain). The figures would be even worse if emigration from the British Isles were added to the headcount.
This slower rate of population growth would tend to mean a slower rate of economic growth: smaller local markets, fewer opportunities for mass production. This was well known to be a problem in France. In fact Jean-Baptiste Say was sent to England in 1815 to study the growth of English cities such as Birmingham and its effect on the economy (here in French).
The causes of low investment must surely include political and social instability.
Here are the changes of regime in France during the 19th century:
1800-1804: The Consulate
1804-1814: The Empire
1814: The First Restoration
1814-1815: The Return of Napoleon
1815-1830: The Return of the Restoration
1830-1848: The British Experiment
1848-1851: The Second Republic
1851-1852: The military coup-d’état
1852-1859: The Empire Strikes Back
1860-1870: The Free Trade Experiment (supported by Richard Cobden)
1870-1871: Three sieges of Paris, two civil wars, one foreign occupation
1870-1879: The State Which Dare Not Speak Its Name (retrospectively declared to be a republic)
1879-1914: La Belle Epoque (including the anarchist bombings 1892-1894 and the Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906)
If instability discourages savings, it is remarkable how much there actually was.
Five billion francs in gold, raised by public subscription to pay for the German army of occupation to leave France after the Franco-Prussian War. The amount was supposed to be impossible to pay and designed to provide an excuse for a prolonged German occupation. It was paid in full in two years. 80% of the money (equivalent to over two and half times the national government’s total annual spending, was raised in one day).
What the modern academics decried was that these sorts of sums weren’t invested in industry or agricultural technology. In 1880, French private investments amounted to 7.3 billion Francs, but this was less than half of all investments (48%), versus 52% for government bonds.
You can’t pick up your factory machines and run away from the Uhlans, or the Communards.
Gold was one preferred wealth storage option. It still is in France.
Government bonds were generally considered a good deal: backed by the power of taxation, and, unlike gold, they earned interest.
One constant concern of French governments in the 19th century was the diplomatic isolation enforced by the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Various attempts were made to break this, some successful like the split of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1830, the Crimean War (co-operation with the British), others failed (Napoleon III’s Mexican adventure, the Franco-Prussian War).
By 1882, Germany looked like getting economic and military supremacy in Europe, with an Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. With the British playing neutral, the best bet was to build up Russia.
The first Russian bonds sold in France were in 1867 to finance a railroad. Others followed, notably in 1888. At this point the French government decided on a policy of alliance with Russia and the encouragement of French savers to invest in Russian infrastructure. From 1887 to 1913, 3.5% of the French Gross National Product is invested in Russia alone. This amounted to a quarter of all foreign investment by French private citizens. That’s a savings ratio (14% in external investment alone) we wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK today!
A massive media campaign promoting Russia as a future economic giant (a bit like China in recent years) was pushed by politicians. Meanwhile French banks found they could make enormous amounts of commission from Russian bonds: in this period, the Credit Lyonnais makes 30% of its profits from it’s commission for selling the bonds.
In 1897, the ruble is linked to gold. The French government guarantees its citizens against any default. The Paris Stock Exchange takes listings for, among others: Banque russo-asiatique, la Banque de commerce de Sibérie, les usines Stoll, les Wagons de Petrograd.
The first signs of trouble come in 1905, with the post-Russo-Japanese War revolution. A provisional government announced a default of foreign bonds, but this isn’t reported in the French mainstream media or the French banks that continue to sell (mis-sell?).
During the First World War, the French government issued zero interest bonds to cover the Russian government’s loan repayment, with an agreement to sort out the problem after the war. However, in December 1917, Lenin announced the repudiation of Tsarist debts.
The gold standard was abolished, allowing the debasement of the currency, private citizens were required to turn over their gold for government bonds.
Income tax was introduced (with a top rate of 2%) after the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife.
In 1923, a French parliamentary commission established that 9 billion Francs had effectively been stolen from French savers in the Russian bonds affair. Bribes had been paid to bankers and news outlets to promote the impression of massive economic growth in Russia. Many of the later bonds were merely issued to repay the interest on earlier debt.
For the next 70 years, protest groups attempted to obtain compensation, either from the Russian government or from the French government that had provided “guarantees”. You won’t be surprised to know that some banks managed to sell their bonds to private investors after 1917, having spread false rumours that the Soviets would honour the bonds.
Successive French governments found themselves caught between the requirements of “normal” relations with the USSR and the clamour of dispossessed savers and their relatives.
In November 1996, the post-Soviet Yelstin government agreed a deal to settle the Russian bonds for $400 million. The deal covered less than 10% of the families demanding compensation. Despite this, 316,000 people are thought to have received some compensation, suggesting that over 3 million families were affected by the Russian bonds scandal.
There are similarities with the present day but also significant differences.
First, the role of government guarantees and links with favoured banks, ensuring savers were complacent.
Second the manipulation of economic data by the Russian government, which looks a lot like what’s been happening in China.
Third the fragility of the situation: war can break out. All sorts of assumptions we can make about safe investments go out of the window.
One specifically French response to all this is something I would like to see an academic study of. What changes to consumption and savings would follow from growing up in a family where savings have been wiped out by government action (Russian or one’s own)? If three million people were directly involved, most French people would have known someone who had deferred consumption and been robbed. To what extent does the post-1945 explosion in mass consumption in France reflect a view that deferring consumption is foolish when savings can be stolen with the connivance or lack of concern of one’s own government?