Money

Janet Yellen, Politicizing the Fed?

Janet Yellen gave a widely noted speech, Perspectives on Inequality and Opportunity from the Survey of Consumer Finances, at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality held  by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on October 17th.

The speech presented as a if ghostwritten for her by Quincy Magoo, that beloved cartoon character described by Wikipedia as “a wealthy, short-statured retiree who gets into a series of comical situations as a result of his nearsightedness compounded by his stubborn refusal to admit the problem.” What was most interesting was how political was the speech… and what Madame Yellen didn’t say.

Her omission even raised an eyebrow of one of the commentariat’s most astute Fed sympathizers, The Washington Post‘s Ylan Q. Mui. Mui:  “Yellen did not address in her prepared text whether the Fed has contributed to inequality. Nor did she weigh in on whether it may actually be slowing down economic growth, an idea that is gaining traction among economists but which remains controversial.”

Yellen’s speech drew a public comment from the Hon. Steve Lonegan, director of monetary policy for American Principles Project and project director of its sister organization’s grass roots FixTheDollar.com campaign (which I professionally advise):

There is a strong correlation between the post-war equitable prosperity to which Madam Yellen alluded and the post-war Bretton Woods gold-exchange standard.  And there is a strong correlation between the increase in inequality under the Federal Reserve Note standard put into effect by President Richard Nixon to supplant Bretton Woods.

The monetary policy of the United States has a profound impact on wage growth and prices, both domestically and internationally.  Hence the importance of a thorough, objective, and empirical look at its policies — from Bretton Woods through the era of stagflation, the Great Moderation, and the “Little Dark Age” of the past decade.

That is why the Brady-Cornyn Centennial Monetary Commission, and the Federal Reserve Transparency Act which recently passed the House with a massive bipartisan majority, are critical steps forward to ending wage stagnation and helping workers and median income families begin to rise again.  As President Kennedy once said, “Rising tide lifts all boats.”

Madam Yellen addresses four factors in what she calls “income and wealth inequality.”  Madame Yellen stipulates that “Some degree of inequality in income and wealth, of course, would occur even with completely equal opportunity because variations in effort, skill, and luck will produce variations in outcomes. Indeed, some variation in outcomes arguably contributes to economic growth because it creates incentives to work hard, get an education, save, invest, and undertake risk.”

Even with that ostentatious stipulation, the Fed Chair’s speech is amplifying one of the Democratic Party’s foremost election themes, “income inequality.”  The New York Times‘s Neil Irwin observed of this speech: “Nothing about those statements would seem unusual coming from a left-leaning politician or any number of professional commentators. What makes them unusual is hearing them from the nation’s economist-in-chief, who generally tries to steer as far away from contentious political debates as possible.”

Her speech could be read as an Amen Corner to Elizabeth Warren’s stump speech, on behalf of Sen. Al Franken’s reelection effort, that The game is riggedand the Republicans rigged it.Her speech could be read as a little election-season kiss blown to Sen. Franken (D-Mn), who voted for her confirmation and then glowed on Madame Yellen very publicly.

One cringes at the thought that the Fed even might be giving the appearance of playing politics.  To align the Fed, even subtly, with either party’s election themes during an election season would seem a deeply impolitic, and unwise, violation of the Fed’s existential principle of political independence.  House Financial Services Committee chair Jeb Hensarling and Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Id), should he accede to the chairmanship of the Senate Banking Committee, might just wish to call up Madam Yellen for a public conversation about avoiding even the appearance of impropriety.

The Fed’s independence is as critical as it is delicate. To preserve it demands as much delicacy by the officials of the Federal Reserve System as by the Congress. As Barack Obama might say, here is a “teachable moment” for our new Fed chair.

Also troubling is the decision by the Chair to focus her mental energy, and remarks, on four areas entirely outside the Fed’s jurisdiction: resources available for children; higher education that families can afford; opportunities to build wealth through business ownership; and inheritances.  These might be splendid areas for a president’s Council of Economic Advisors (which Madame Yellen chaired, commendably, under President Clinton).  Good topics for a professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business, as is Madam Yellen.

They are, however, at best mere homilies from the leader of the world’s most powerful central bank. We would like to hear Madam Yellen talk about monetary policy and its possible role in the diminishing of economic mobility. It does not seem like too much to ask.

Since Madame Yellen, rightly, is considered an eminent Keynesian (or Neo-Keynesian), why not begin with Keynes? In The Economic Consequences of the Peace, Chapter VI, Keynes addressed this very point. The brilliant young Keynes was addressing the insidious power of inflation, not now in evidence and not portended by the data.  Yet let it be noted that there is more than one way to debauch a currency:

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. … By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become ‘profiteers,’ who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. …

Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.

America and the world needs, and rightly expects, the chair of the Federal Reserve to be that one in a million able to diagnose.  Madame Yellen is called upon to step up her game and pivot from pious homilies to the heart of the matter.  If Keynes could call out how bad monetary policy can strike “at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth,” perhaps so too ought his followers.

What is to be done? Wikipedia also observes of Mr. Magoo that “through uncanny streaks of luck, the situation always seems to work itself out for him, leaving him no worse than before.”  We devoutly hope that Madame Yellen — and, thus, the economy — will be the beneficiary of “uncanny streaks of luck.”  Hope is not a strategy.  Relying on luck tautologically is a dicey way of bringing America, and the world, to a renewed state of equitable prosperity.

Rely on luck?  It really is time to shift gears.  An obvious place for Madame Yellen to begin would be to register active support for the Brady-Cornyn Centennial Monetary Commission designed to conduct a thorough, empirical, bipartisan study of what Fed policies have worked.   What policies of the Federal Reserve have proven, in practice, or credibly portend to be, conducive to equitable prosperity and healthy economic mobility?

Should the correlation between the (infelicitously stated if technically accurate) “40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression” and the Bretton Woods gold-exchange standard be ignored?  Why ignore this?  Should the tight correlation of “the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century” with the extended experiment in fiduciary dollar management be ignored? Why ignore that?

What might be learned from the successes of the Great Moderation inaugurated by Paul Volcker?  Is Volcker’s recent call for a “rules-based” system, a position from which Madam Yellen staunchly dissents, pertinent? Discuss.

Madame Yellen?  Let’s have a national conversation about monetary policy and its effects on economic mobility.  It really is time to bring to a decisive end many decades of Magooonomics and the disorders that derive therefrom.  Fire Magoo.  Show the world that you are Keynes’s one in a million.

Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/10/20/janet-yellen-the-new-magoo-2/

Economics

Like treating cancer with aspirin

“Sir, Your editorial “A Nobel award for work of true economic value” (October 15) cites the witty and memorable line of JM Keynes about wishing that economists could be “humble, competent people, on a level with dentists”, which concludes his provocative 1930 essay on the economic future. You fail to convey, however, the irony and condescension of the original text of the arrogant, intellectual elitist Keynes, who, while superlatively competent, was assuredly not humble. With the passage of 84 years, the irony has changed directions, for modern dentistry is based on real science, and has made huge advances in scientific knowledge, applied technology and practice, to the great benefit of mankind. It is obviously far ahead of economics in these respects, and it is indeed unlikely that economics will ever be able to rise to the level of dentistry.”

  • Letter to the FT from Alex J. Pollock of the American Enterprise Institute, 20th October 2014.

Changing people’s minds, apparently, has very little to do with winning the argument. Since people tend to make decisions emotionally, ‘evidence’ is a secondary issue. We are attempting to argue that the policy of QE, quantitative easing, is not just pointless but expensively pointless. Apparently, instead of using cold logic, we will have to reframe our argument as follows:

  1. Agree with our argumentative opponents;

  2. Reframe the problem;

  3. Introduce a new solution;

  4. Provide a way to “save face”.

In terms of argumentative opponents, they don’t come much bigger than the former Fed chairman himself, Ben Bernanke. And it was Bernanke himself who rather pompously declared, shortly before leaving the Fed this year, that

“The problem with QE is it works in practice, but it doesn’t work in theory.”

There is, of course, no counter-factual. We will never know what might have happened if, say, the world’s central banks had elected not to throw trillions of dollars at the world’s largest banks and instead let the free market work its magic on an overleveraged financial system. But to suggest credibly that QE has worked, we first have to agree on a definition of what “work” means, and on what problem QE was meant to solve. If the objective of QE was to drive down longer term interest rates, given that short term rates were already at zero, then we would have to concede that in this somewhat narrow context, QE has “worked”. But we doubt whether that objective was front and centre for those people – we could variously call them “savers”, “investors”, “the unemployed” or “honest workers” – who are doubtless wondering when the economy will emerge from its current state of depression. As James Grant recently observed in the FT (“Low rates are jamming the economy’s vital signals”), it’s quite remarkable how, thus far, savers in particular have largely suffered in silence.

So yes, QE has “succeeded” in driving down interest rates. But we should probably reframe the problem. The problem isn’t that interest rates were or are too high. Quite the reverse: interest rates are clearly already too low – at least for savers, and for that matter investors in the euro zone and elsewhere. All the way out to 3 year maturities, investors in German government bonds, for example, are now faced with negative interest rates, and still they’re buying. This isn’t monetary policy success; this is madness. We think the QE debate should be reframed: has QE done anything to reform an economic and monetary system urgently in need of restructuring ? We think the answer, self-evidently, is “No”. The answer is also “No” to the question: “Can you solve a crisis of too much indebtedness by a) adding more debt to the pile and simultaneously b) suppressing interest rates ?” The toxic combination of more credit creation and global financial repression will merely make the ultimate Minsky moment that much more spectacular.

What accentuates the problem is market noise. @Robustcap fairly points out that there are (at least) four groups at play in the markets – and that at least three of them aren’t adding to the sum of human wisdom:

Group 1 comprises newsletter writers, and other dogmatic “End of the world newsletter salesmen” using every outlet to say “I told you so…” (even though some of them have been saying so for the last 1000 S&P handles..).

Group 2 comprises Perma-Bulls and other Wall Street product salesmen, offering “This is a buying opportunity” and other standard from-the-hip statements whenever the Vix index reaches 30 and the market trades 10% off from its high, at any time.

Group 3 includes “any moron with a $1500 E-trade account, twitter, Facebook etc…”, summing to roughly 99% nonsense and noise.

Group 4, however, comprises “True investors and traders” asking questions such as, “Is this a good price ?”; “Is this a good level ?”; “What is my risk stepping in here, on either side ?”; “Am I getting better value than I am paying for ?”; “What is the downside / upside ?” etc.

“With the “magnification” of noise by social media and the internet in general, one must shut off the first three groups and try to engage, find, follow, communicate with the fourth group only, those looking at FACTS, none dogmatic, understand value, risk, technicals and fundamentals and most importantly those who have no agenda and nothing to sell.”

To Jim Rickards, simply printing money and gifting it to the banks through the somewhat magical money creation process of QE is like treating cancer with aspirin: the supposed “solution” does nothing to address the root cause of the problem. The West is trapped in a secular depression and “normal” cyclical solutions, such as monetary policy measures, are not just inappropriate, but damnably expensive for the rest of us. Only widespread economic restructuring will do. And that involves hard decisions on the part of politicians. Thus far, politicians have shown themselves predictably not up to the task. Or in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker,

“We all know what to do; we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we’ve done it.”

And let’s not forget that other notable Junckerism,

“When it becomes serious, you have to lie.”

No cheers for democracy, then.

So, back to the debate:

  1. Yes, QE has driven down long term interest rates.

  2. But the problem wasn’t the cost of capital. The problem was, and remains, an oversupply of debt, insufficient economic growth, and the risk, now fast becoming realised, of widespread debt deflation. To put it another way, the world appears to be turning Japanese after all, despite the best efforts of central bankers and despite the non-efforts of politicians.

  3. The solution is fundamental economic restructuring along with measures that can sustainedly boost economic growth rather than just enriching the already rich through artificial financial asset price boosterism. Government spending cuts will not be optional, although tax cuts might be. The expansion of credit must end – or it will end in an entirely involuntary market-driven process that will be extraordinarily messy.

  4. How to “save face” ?

This is where we start to view the world, once again, through the prism of investments – not least since we’re not policy makers. For those wondering why a) markets have become that much more volatile recently (and not just stocks – see the recent wild trading in the US 10 year government bond) and b) inflation (other than in financial asset prices) seems weirdly quiescent – the answer has been best expressed by both Jim Rickards and by the good folk at Incrementum. The pertinent metaphor is that of the tug of war. The image below (source: Incrementum) states the case.

Inflation vs Deflation

The blue team represents the markets. The markets want deflation, and they want the world’s unsustainable debt pile to be reduced. There are three ways to reduce the debt pile. One is to engineer sufficient economic growth (no longer feasible, in our view) to service the debt. The second is to default (which, in a debt-based monetary system, amounts to Armageddon). The third brings us over to the red team: explicit, state-sanctioned inflationism, and financial repression. The reason why markets have become so volatile is that from day to day, the blue and red teams of deflationary and inflationary forces are duking it out, and neither side has yet been convincingly victorious. Who ultimately wins ? We think we know the answer, but the outcome will likely be a function of politics as much as investment forces (“markets”). While we wait for the outcome, we believe the most prudent and pragmatic course of action is to seek shelter in the least overpriced corners of the market. For us, that means explicit, compelling value and deep value equity. Nothing else, and certainly nothing by way of traditional government or corporate debt investments, or any form of equity or bond market index-tracking, makes any sense at all.

Economics

Four Reasons the Bernanke-Yellen Asset-Price Inflation May Be Nearing Its End

There are strong indications that the remarkable run up of asset prices in the last few years is beginning to run out of steam and may be on the verge of collapse. We will leave aside the question of whether the asset inflation is symptomatic of a garden-variety inflationary boom or is a more virulent bubble phenomenon in which prices are rising today simply because buyers anticipate that they will rise tomorrow.

The Evidence

1. The dizzying climb of London real estate prices since the financial crisis, noted in a recent postby Dave Howden, may be fizzling out. Survey data from real-estate agents indicate London housing prices in September fell 0.1 percent from August, their first decline since November 2012. Meanwhile, an index of U.K. housing prices declined for the first time in 17 months. In explaining the “pronounced slowdown” in the London real estate market, the research director of Hometrack Ltd. commented, “Buyer uncertainty is growing in the face of a possible interest-rate rise, a general election on the horizon and recent warnings of a house-price bubble,” which is playing out “against a backdrop of tougher mortgage affordability checks and limits on high loan-to-income lending.”

2. Just released data from the Dow Jones S&P/Case Schiller Composite Home Price Indices through July 2014 shows a marked deceleration of U.S. housing prices. 17 of the 20 cities included in the 20-City Composite Index experienced lower price increases in July than in the previous month. Both the 10- and 20-City Index recorded a 6.7 percent year-over-year rate of increase, down sharply from the post-crisis peak of almost 14 percent less than a year ago.

3. More ominously, U.S. Total Household Net Worth (HNW), as recently reported by the Fed for the second quarter of 2014, reached a record high of $81.5 trillion, over $10 trillion higher than the level at the peak of the asset bubble in 2007. Furthermore, the 2014 figure was $20 trillion higher than the level of the post-crisis — and pre-QE — year of 2008, when asset prices and the real structure of production were just beginning to adjust to the massive capital consumption and malinvestment wreaked by the Great Asset Inflation of 1995-2005. The increase in household wealth has been driven mainly by the increase in prices of financial assets which was generated by the Fed’s zero interest rate policy and its force feeding of additional bank reserves into the financial system via its quantitative easing programs. (See chart below). These policies falsify profit and wealth calculations and give rise to unsustainable investments and overconsumption. Once interest rates begin to adjust to their natural levels, however, asset prices are revealed to be grossly inflated and collapse. The asset inflation may be reversed even without an increase of interest rates, if people lose confidence in the narratives fabricated and propagated by government policymakers, economists, and the financial commentators to promote the continuation of the inflation in asset markets. Furthermore it is risible to believe that real wealth in the US in terms of the factories and other capital goods to which financial assets are merely ownership claims, has increased by over one-third since 2008, especially in light of the additional malinvestment and overconsumption caused by monetary and fiscal policy “stimulus” since then.

4. If we look at HNW in historical perspective, we note that, in the chart below, the HNW/GDP (or wealth to income) ratio is now at an all-time high. From 1952 to the mid-1990s this ratio averaged a little more than 350 percent and never went above 400 percent until 1998 as the dot-com bubble was blowing up. It peaked at nearly 450 percent before the bubble collapsed causing the ratio to plummet to slightly below 400 percent, indicating the beginning of the purging of the illusory capital gains created during the asset inflation.

But just as the adjustment was beginning to take hold in 2002, the Greenspan Fed played the deflationphobia card, driving interest rates to postwar lows and pumping up the money supply (MZM) by $2 trillion from beginning of 2001 to the end of2005. During this second phase of the Great Asset Inflation, the HNW/GDP ratio again reached a new high before plunging below 400 percent during the financial crisis. And, tragically, the nascent readjustment of financial markets to the underlying reality of the economy’s shattered and shrunken production structure was yet again aborted by government intervention in the form of the heterodox monetary policies of Bernankeism combined with the outsized deficits of the Obama administration. These policies succeeded in driving the HNW/GDP ratio to yet another new high, but without having the expected stimulatory effect on consumption and investment spending.

Conclusion

In sum, I do not expect that the ratio will rise much above 500 percent — Americans have just not saved enough since 1995 to have increased their real wealth from 3.5 times to 5 times their annual income. Nor is there much reason to expect a plateau anywhere near the current level. Once interest rates begin to rise — and rise they must, whether as a result of Fed policy or not — the end of the asset price inflation will be at hand. The result will be another financial crisis and accompanying recession. The Fed and the Administration will no doubt attempt to bail and stimulate their way out but given the still dangerously enervated state of the financial system and the real economy, it will be like dosing a horse that has already been overdosed to death. Thus my forecast for the U.S. economy one year to two years out echoes that of Clubber Lang, the villain in the movie Rocky III. When questioned about his forecast for the forthcoming fight against Rocky, Lang replied, “Pain.”

http://www.economicgreenfield.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/CR-9-19-14-HouseholdQ22014.png

Economics

A market reset due

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.

Total World Money 2013

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.

Prices

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.

Gold

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.

Money

The Rise And Fall And Rise And Fall Of King Dollar, Part 2

As stated in the preceding column, here, eminent labor economist Jared Bernstein recently called, in the New York Times, for the dethroning of “King Dollar,” claiming that the reserve currency status of the dollar has cost the United States as many as “six million jobs in 2008, and these would tend to be the sort of high-wage manufacturing jobs.”

Six million is about as many jobs as presidents Bush and Obama together, over 13+ years, created. So this is a big claim.  Whether or not one accepts the magnitude of the jobs deficit proclaimed by Dr. Bernstein, reserve currency status comes with heavy costs.

As former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas Bob McTeer wrote in a Forbes.com column entitled Reserve Currency Status — A Mixed Blessing:

The advantages of reserve currency status for the dollar are well known. The world’s willingness to accumulate dollar reserves in the post World War II period first removed and later reduced the requirement of maintaining balance of payments equilibrium, or, more specifically, current account balance. By removing or weakening this restraint, U.S. policymakers had more freedom than policymakers in other countries to pursue strictly domestic objectives. We ran current account deficits year after year, balanced, or paid for, by capital inflows from our trading partners. The good side of that was that we could import real goods and services for domestic consumption or absorption and pay for them with paper, or the electronic equivalent. In other words, our contemporary standard of living was enhanced by others’ willingness to hold our currency without “cashing it in” for goods and services, or, before 1971, gold.

The bad side of our reserve currency status, although seldom recognized, was that the very leeway that enhanced our current standard of living built up debt (and/or reduced foreign assets) to dangerous levels. I remember well when, in 1985, the United States ceased being a net creditor nation to the rest of the world and, instead, became a net debtor nation. Our net indebtedness has only grown over the years, and hangs over us like the legendary sword of Damocles.

Sword of Damocles? Lehrman, in his Money, Gold, and History states:

[W]hen one country’s currency — the dollar reserve currency of today — is used to settle international payments, the international settlement and adjustment mechanism is jammed — for that country — and for the world.  This is no abstract notion. …

The reality behind the “twin deficits” is simply this: the greater and more permanent the Federal Reserve and foreign reserve facilities for financing the U.S. budget and trade deficits, the greater will be the twin deficits and the growth of the Federal government.  All congressional, administrative and statutory attempts to end the U.S. deficit have proved futile, and will prove futile, until the crucial underlying flaw — namely the absence of an efficient international settlements and adjustment mechanism — is remedied by international monetary reform inaugurating a new international gold standard and the prohibition of official reserve currencies.

By pinning down the future price level by gold convertibility, the immediate effect of international monetary reform will be to end currency speculation in floating currencies, and terminate the immense costs of inflation hedging.  Gold convertibility eliminates the very costly exchange of currencies at the profit-seeking banks.  Thus, new savings will be channeled out of financial arbitrage and speculation, into long-term financial markets.

Increased long-term investment and improvements in world productivity will surely follow, as investment capital moves out of unproductive hedges and speculation — made necessary by floating exchange rates — seeking new and productive investments, leading to more quality jobs.

The sobering views expressed by McTeer and by Lehrman more than neutralize Heritage Foundation’s Bryan Riley and William Wilson’s valiant championship of the dollar’s reserve currency status, in opposition to Bernstein.  Heritage’s championship is gallant but … unpersuasive.

John Mueller, who served as gold standard advocate Jack Kemp’s chief economist and now as the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics and Director, Economics and Ethics Program, crisply observes in an interview for this column:

As Kenneth Austin lucidly reminded us, it is a necessity of double-entry bookkeeping that any increase in foreign official dollar reserves equals the increase in combined US  current and private capital account deficits. Denying the connection requires magical thinking. The entire decline in the international investment position since 1976 is due to Congress’s borrowing from foreign central banks–that is, the dollar’s official reserve currency role–while the books of private US residents with the rest of the world have remained close to balance.

There are differing schools of thought among the gold standard’s most prominent adherents as to the significance of merchandise deficit account.  Their theoretical differences about current accounts are likely to prove, operationally, immaterial.

Both the Forbes and Lehrman schools share mortal opposition to mercantilism.  Both passionately oppose the cheapening of the dollar.  Both see the gold standard as a critical mechanism to restoring the brisk growth of, as Lehrman termed it, “quality jobs” … and the restoration of median family income growth that began, profoundly, to stagnate with Nixon’s destruction of Bretton Woods.

In this columnist’s own earnest, if much less erudite, view the most significant element of the reserve currency curse derives from how it subtracts capital from the real, e.g. goods and services, economy.  Corporate earnings are taken, in return for local currency, into the coffers of the relevant international central bank. That central bank then promptly loans the proceeds directly to the federal government of the United States by purchase of treasury instruments.

The way the world of central banking works thus subverts a process extolled by Adam Smith (in the context of his analysis of the benefits of fractional reserve money) in Wealth of Nations.  Smith:

When, therefore, by the substitution of paper, the gold and silver necessary for circulation is reduced to, perhaps, a fifth part of the former quantity, if the value of only the greater part of the other four-fifths be added to the funds which are destined for the maintenance of industry, it must make a very considerable addition to the quantity of that industry, and, consequently, to the value of the annual produce of land and labour.

The mechanics of the reserve currency system preempt these funds’ ready availability for “the maintenance of industry.” The mechanics of the dollar as a reserve asset, therefore, finance bigger government while insidiously preempting productivity, jobs, and equitable prosperity.

This columnist agrees wholeheartedly with Bernstein on what seem his three most important points.  The reserve currency status of the dollar causes American workers, and the world, big problems. The exorbitant privilege deserves and demands far more attention than it receives.  Moving the dollar away from being the world’s reserve currency would be a great deal easier than many now assume.

Bernstein, in his blog,  identifies four mechanisms as “out there” (without explicitly endorsing, or critiquing, them): by legislation (which this columnist views as playing with tariff fire); taxation (thereby “raising the price of currency management,” which this columnist finds hardly an obvious source of job creation); reciprocity (demanding the right to buy foreign treasuries); and an international reserve currency.

Mueller says of Bernstein’s legislative and tax proposals, “you simply can’t solve a monetary problem with a fiscal solution.”

As for reciprocity, the United States Treasury, even under a Joe Biden or even a Bernie Sanders presidency, is never going to turn away ready lenders. This homely truth seems about as self-evident as it gets.  Beyond that, even if China were to undertake market-oriented reforms — and, according to the Wall Street Journal, the political winds seem to be blowing the other way just now — the RMB accounts for only 1.64% of global payments. It is not even close to being a power player. Beyond the beyond … it is well beyond dubious to expect international central banks enthusiastically to bulk up on the debt instruments of the People’s Republic of China for the indefinite future.

An “international reserve currency,” however, is a sound proposition if well designed.  Proposing SDRs for that role does not hold up. As then-Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, during a hearing of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations on March 9, 2011, stated, “There is no risk of the SDR playing that [a reserve currency] role.  The SDR is not a currency.  It’s a unit of account.  And it can’t provide the role that many people aspire to it.  There is no risk of that happening.”  Mueller, elucidating why this is so, states:

It’s not possible to solve the problems caused by tying other nations’ domestic currencies to one nation’s inconvertible domestic currency (the dollar), by tying them all to a basket of  inconvertible domestic fiat currencies–that is, to a subset of themselves. The result has no anchor. And the world economy always gravitates to a single “final asset,” because using several multiplies transactions costs.

There appear to be but two technically plausible ways of getting there.  One is Nobel economics laureate Robert Mundell’s proposal of a world currency.  The other, of course, represents a sort of “reversion to the mean.” Restore a 21st century international gold standard.

While the gold standard is very unfashionable it by no means is absurd. Then-World Bank Group president Robert Zoellick, in 2010, was dead on when he observed in an FT column that “Although textbooks may view gold as the old money, markets are using gold as an alternative monetary asset today.”  About a year later, the Bank of England issued a startling but meticulous white paper demonstrating that the “Federal Reserve Note standard” materially has underperformed, in every area considered, both the Bretton Woods gold-exchange standard and the classical gold standard itself.

As previously referenced in this column Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann, in a 2012 speech, forthrightly stated:

Concrete objects have served as money for most of human history; we may therefore speak of commodity money. A great deal of trust was placed in particular in precious and rare metals – gold first and foremost – due to their assumed intrinsic value. In its function as a medium of exchange, medium of payment and store of value, gold is thus, in a sense, a timeless classic.

The gold standard, notwithstanding Churchill’s not-to-be-repeated 1925 blunder, is in no way a prescription for austerity.  The classical gold standard, properly constructed, is a recipe for workers, and median income families, to flourish economically.

We have not flourished, consistently, since its last remnants were destroyed by President Nixon on August 15, 1971.  So… what to do?

The first thing to do is to address the important issue, squarely. By shrewdly posing the right question Jared Bernstein has raised the odds, perhaps significantly, that we finally will find our way to the right answer. Getting out of the woods may be no more complicated than following JFK/LBJ economic advisor Walter Heller’s most famous dictum: “Put aside principle and do what’s right.”

Adroitly resolving the reserve currency issue as part of implementing an international reserve currency is far more likely to be fruitful in generating quality jobs, by the millions, than are earnest jeremiads, such as that by Dr. Bernstein himself, that “American political elites have completely failed to understand what the Fed should be doing right now.”  Relying on central bankers consistently to get discretionary management right represents a triumph of hope over experience.  Or as novelist Rita Mae Brown memorably observed, “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Let us take Keynes, in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, chapter VI, to heart:

Lenin is said to have declared that the best way to destroy the capitalist system was to debauch the currency. By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens. By this method they not only confiscate, but they confiscate arbitrarily; and, while the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth. Those to whom the system brings windfalls, beyond their deserts and even beyond their expectations or desires, become ‘profiteers,’ who are the object of the hatred of the bourgeoisie, whom the inflationism has impoverished, not less than of the proletariat. … Lenin was certainly right. There is no subtler, no surer means of overturning the existing basis of society than to debauch the currency. The process engages all the hidden forces of economic law on the side of destruction, and does it in a manner which not one man in a million is able to diagnose.

As Steve Forbes pithily puts it, “You’ve got to get the money right.”  Time to lift the reserve currency curse.  Time to fix the dollar.

Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/09/30/the-rise-and-fall-and-rise-and-fall-of-king-dollar-part-2/

Money

The Rise And Fall And Rise And Fall Of King Dollar, Part 1

The Wall Street Journal, recently, in The Return of the Greenback, observed that “the resurgent dollar has logged its longest winning streak in 17 years, rising against a broad basket of currencies for nine straight weeks.”  This has led to, perhaps irrational, exuberance from supply side titans Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore.

Cheapening the dollar is a bad thing, unequivocally.  It does not necessarily follow that making the dollar dearer is a good thing.  And there is a frequently unnoticed factor at work: the dollar’s status as the world reserve currency.  Dr. Jared Bernstein, senior fellow with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and, previously, chief economist to Vice President Biden and executive director of the White House Task Force on the Middle Class, boldly claims that the dollar’s reserve currency status has cost America 6 million jobs.  This is a startling, and potentially important, claim.

We live in a world monetary system that makes the U.S. dollar its official reserve currency.  About 60%  of international central bank reserves are Yankee dollars. Some, both right and left, in America and abroad, consider the reserve currency status of the dollar a bug in the software of our world monetary system. Getting this fixed is, in the opinion of some consequential thinkers, of capital importance for the generation of quality jobs, and equitable prosperity, in America and the world.

The reserve currency status of the dollar, particularly as a potential factor in wage stagnation, has profound political implications.  Dispirited voters yearn for leadership that actually understands how to get the economic tide to lift all boats again.  Notwithstanding his promotion of some marked policy differences with this columnist, this columnist says three cheers for Dr. Bernstein for squarely pushing the reserve currency question into play.

Dr. Bernstein stirred up a healthy argument in an August New York Times op-ed entitled Dethrone ‘King Dollar.’  Bernstein:

[T]he new research reveals that what was once a privilege is now a burden, undermining job growth, pumping up budget and trade deficits and inflating financial bubbles. To get the American economy on track, the government needs to drop its commitment to maintaining the dollar’s reserve-currency status.

Bernstein draws on an interesting, and thoughtful, paper by economist Kenneth Austin in The Journal of Post Keynesian Economics. Austin dramatically illustrates the explosion of international dollar reserves and explores the possible significance to our economy.  Bernstein performs a signal public service by placing this into the policy discourse. Bernstein:

Mr. Austin argues convincingly that the correct metric for estimating the cost in jobs is the dollar value of reserve sales to foreign buyers. By his estimation, that amounted to six million jobs in 2008, and these would tend to be the sort of high-wage manufacturing jobs that are most vulnerable to changes in exports.

Bernstein’s proposal drew a tart riposte at Café Hayek from Don Boudreaux and another from the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal by Bryan Riley and William Wilson. 

Shortly after Bernstein’s proposed dethroning of ‘King Dollar’ Larry Kudlow and Steve Moore, in their NRO column, joyfully celebrated The Return of King Dollar:

[W]hen the dollar crashed in the 1970s — especially relative to gold — the economy collapsed into a crippling stagflation. From 1999 to 2009, the dollar index dropped by almost 40 percent, with only a brief surge between 2004 and 2006. The economy and wages were sluggish at best.

The relationship between a strong currency and prosperity is lost on the many nations that adhere to the mercantilist model whereby a devalued currency supposedly gives a country a competitive edge by making exports cheaper. …

Kudlow and Moore deserve praise for their opposition to cheapening the dollar.  That said, cheering on a “strong” dollar intellectually is akin to calling for a longer inch or a heavier ounce as a recipe to — magically — make us richer.

No.  What is needed is a high integrity, meticulously defined, dollar.

A dollar at the mercy of a freelancing Fed, subject to being whipsawed in value, up or down, is a barrier to commerce.  Money, by definition, is a medium of exchange, a store of value and — not be overlooked — a unit of account.  There are many empirical data tending to show that only by meticulously maintaining the definition of the unit — for example, by defining the dollar by grains of gold and making it legally convertible thereunto — can good job creation, and equitable prosperity, consistently be achieved.

There is a deep, fascinating, historical context.  It extends even to the use of the regal metaphor.  Therein rests an irony wrapped in a controversy inside some history.

The history? Keynes employed a regal metaphor (applied to gold rather than currency) in his 1930 tract Auri Sacra Fames in which he writes

… gold, originally stationed in heaven with his consort silver, as Sun and Moon, having first doffed his sacred attributes and come to earth as an autocrat, may next descend to the sober status of a constitutional king with a cabinet of Banks….

The irony? Keynes explicitly mistrusted the Fed.  Keynes did not wish to endow the U.S. Federal Reserve with the power that, under then-prevailing circumstances which no longer need apply, a return to the gold standard would have entailed.  Keynes, in his 1923 essay, Alternative Aims In Monetary Policy:

It would be rash in present circumstances to surrender our freedom of action to the Federal Reserve Board of the United States. We do not yet possess sufficient experience of its capacity to act in times of stress with courage and independence. The Federal Reserve Board is striving to free itself from the pressure of sectional interests; but we are not yet certain that it will wholly succeed. It is still liable to be overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.

Keynes expressed wariness of the risk of currency depreciation (better known as inflation). Sure enough, eventually the Federal Reserve indeed became “overwhelmed by the impetuosity of a cheap money campaign.”  The Fed cheapened its product — Federal Reserve Notes — by 85% since 1971 (and by about 95% since the Fed’s inception).

A dollar today is worth a 1913 nickel and a 1971 nickel and dime.  This gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “nickeled and dimed to death.”

Cheapening of money is very bad for business.  It is really, really, terrible for labor.  Ron Paul, call your office: Keynes proved quite right to be dubious about the Fed.

Why do so few of the economists who exalt Keynes share his tough-mindedness toward the Fed?  Why do so few grasp the irony of their mesmerized adulation of an institution with such a mediocre (and sometimes catastrophic) track record? Many acorns have fallen far from the tree.

One of the factors in play involves one of the standard tropes of mercantilism, to which Kudlow and Moore allude: the intentional depreciation of a national currency to gain unfair trade advantage.  This is what classically was called a “beggar-thy-neighbor” policy.  The neighbor, in this instance, is America. Forbes Media chairman, and Editor-in-Chief, Steve Forbes, and Forbes.com columnist Nathan Lewis, both gold standard advocates, are zealous critics of mercantilism (as is this columnist).

Steve Forbes (with Elizabeth Ames) in their recent book Money: How the Destruction of the Dollar Threatens the Global Economy and What We Can Do About It observes:

The neo-mercantilists of the twentieth century may have thought that floating exchange rates would allow countries to correct perceived imbalances with their rivals and bolster their domestic economies.  But the monetary system they created was more volatile than the one they had destroyed, with balance harder than ever to achieve.

The turmoil of the post-Bretton Woods era is what sent European nations scurrying for the shelter of a stable currency, setting the stage for the euro.  The explosion of currency trading it has wrought has become a huge source of fees for banks.  It has helped produce the market swings and giant windfalls so decried by Occupy Wall Street and others.  In this dangerous world, monetary policy is deployed as a frequent weapon, nearly always with destructive consequences.”

Nathan Lewis writes, in his Forbes.com column Keynes and Rothbard Agree: Today’s Economics is Mercantilism:

All of today’s premier economic policies, notably monetary manipulation and floating fiat currencies, attempts to “manage the economy” via government deficit spending, and the never-ending concern over “imbalances” in trade, are straight-up Mercantilism.

We really won’t make much progress in our economic understanding until this is recognized. The entirety of today’s Mercantilist agenda should be discarded; first, at an intellectual level, and then at the level of public policy. Britain did this, and went from an economic backwater overshadowed by tiny Holland, to the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the center of the largest empire of the nineteenth century.

Forbes and Lewis are skeptical about the power of manipulating currency to achieve trading advantage.  The intramural dispute among gold standard advocates around the current account, however, is of mostly academic significance.  The respective camps respectfully agree as to most of the disorders caused by paper money.  They agree that the remedy to our “Little Dark Age” of wage stagnation lies in the definition of the dollar by gold.

Businessman/scholar Lewis E. Lehrman, founder and chairman of the Lehrman Institute (whose monetary policy website this columnist professionally edits) too is an outspoken critic of mercantilism.  Lehrman is the leader of a group of thinkers influenced by the works of his mentor Jacques Rueff, influential French monetary official, public intellectual (Mont Pelerin society member), and iconic classical gold standard advocate.

As for the unjustly obscure Rueff, keen monetary observer Robert Pringle, author of The Money Trap states in his influential blog of the same name:

[Rueff] would have predicted the Global Financial Crisis and economic catastrophe of the past seven years – and would certainly have attributed it to the absence of an international monetary system worth the name. He would have been equally critical of the flawed construction of the euro.

He saw that the globalizing trading regime was fundamentally at odds with mercantilist monetary and exchange rate policies: one aspired to universality and openness, the other pointed to particularization and separation.

More generally, monetary nationalism, unleashed by the absence of a global standard for money, is inconsistent with a liberal order.

Reserve currency status of the dollar, the more emphatically when the dollar is not defined by and redeemable in a fixed weight of gold, is a form of monetary nationalism inconsistent with a liberal order.  And according to Bernstein reserve currency status also is costing millions of jobs.

What are some of the costs of the “exorbitant privilege” as the dollar’s reserve currency status was called by then finance minister of France Valery Giscard d’Estaing?  Ought now America to give the exorbitant privilege a gold watch and send it into retirement?

To be continued.

Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/09/29/the-rise-and-fall-and-rise-and-fall-of-king-dollar-part-1/

Money

Does low US price inflation provide room for a more aggressive Fed?

The US Federal Reserve can keep stimulating the US economy because inflation is posing little threat, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis President Kocherlakota said. “I am expecting an inflation rate to run below 2% for the next four years, through 2018”, he said. “That means there is more room for monetary policy to be helpful in terms of … boosting demand without running up against generating too much inflation”.

The yearly rate of growth of the consumer price index (CPI) stood at 1.7% in August against 2% in July and the official target of 2%. According to our estimate the yearly rate of growth of the CPI could close at 1.4% by December. By December next year we forecast the yearly rate of growth of 0.6%.

Shostak CPI

It seems that the Minneapolis Fed President holds that by boosting the demand for goods and services by means of an additional monetary pumping it is possible to strengthen the economic growth. He believes that by means of strengthening the demand for goods and services the production of goods and services will follow suit. But why should it be so?

If by means of monetary pumping one could strengthen the economic growth then it would imply that by means of monetary pumping it is possible to create real wealth and generate an everlasting economic prosperity.

This would also mean that world wide poverty should have been erased a long time ago, after all most countries today have central banks that possess the skills of how to pump money. Yet world poverty remains intact.

Despite the massive monetary pumping since 2008 and the policy interest rate of around zero Fed policy makers seem to be unhappy with the so-called economic recovery. Note that the Fed’s balance sheet, which stood at $0.86 trillion in January 2007 jumped to $4.4 trillion by September this year – a monetary pumping of almost $4 trillion.

Shostak Fed Balance Sheet

We suggest that there is no such thing as an independent category called demand. Before an individual can exercise demand for goods and services he/she must produce some other useful goods and services. Once these goods and services are produced individuals can exercise their demand for the goods they desire. This is achieved by exchanging things that were produced for money, which in turn can be exchanged for goods that are desired. Note that money serves here as the medium of the exchange – it produces absolutely nothing. It permits the exchange of something for something. Any policy that results in monetary pumping leads to an exchange of nothing for something. This amounts to a weakening of the pool of real wealth – and hence to reduced prospects for the expansion of this pool.

What is required to boost the economic growth – the production of real wealth – is to remove all the factors that undermine the wealth generation process. One of the major negative factors that undermine the real wealth generation is loose monetary policy of the central bank, which boosts demand without the prior production of wealth. (Once the loopholes for the money creation out of “thin air” are closed off the diversion of wealth from wealth generators towards non-productive bubble activities is arrested. This leaves more real funding in the hands of wealth generators – permitting them to strengthen the process of wealth generation i.e. permitting them to grow the economy).

Now, the artificial boosting of the demand by means of monetary pumping leads to the depletion of the pool of real wealth. It amounts to adding more individuals that take from the pool of real wealth without adding anything in return –an economic impoverishment.

The longer the reckless loose policy of the Fed stays in force the harder it gets for wealth generators to generate real wealth and prevent the pool of real wealth from shrinking.

Finally, the fact that the yearly rate of growth of the CPI is declining doesn’t mean that the Fed’s monetary pumping is going to be harmless. Regardless of price inflation monetary pumping results in an exchange of nothing for something i.e. an economic impoverishment.

Money

Valuing gold and turkey-farming

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.

FMQ 26092014

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).

Effective Fed Funds 26092014

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.

Gold USD 26092014

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.

Money

End the Fed’s War on Paychecks

The Democratic Party has made “income inequality” a signature issue for the 2014 (and, presumably, 2016) election cycle.  Democrats, en masse, shout “J’accuse!” at Republicans.  There is a very different story to tell.

“Income inequality” is a crude, and twisted, heuristic for stagnant median family income.   “Income inequality” does not really resonate with voters, asnoted by the Washington Post‘s own Catherine Rampell, with a mountain of evidence showing that Americans don’t begrudge the wealthy their wealth, just are frustrated at the lack of widespread economic opportunity.

So let’s get down to cases.  Stagnant median family income is not the GOP’s fault.  It’s the Fed who done it.

The Atlantic Media Company’s Quartz recently claimed that the Fed has been intentionally keeping a lid on wages.  This has potentially major political implications.  Among other things, this view would allow the Republicans to push the discourse back toward the real problem, wage stagnation.  It can serve to refocus the Congress on the real solution, restoring real, rule-based, integrity to monetary policy as a way to get America moving again.

A culpable Fed gives irony to the fact that it is the Democrats that protect the Fed as if it were the Holy of Holies of the Temple.  What if, as asserted inQuartz, the Fed, by policy, and not the GOP, is the source of wage stagnation?  This opens an opportunity for the GOP to parry the political narrative of “income inequality” and feature the real issue on the mind of the voters and forthrightly to address its core cause, poor monetary policy.

This has been slow to happen because Federal Reserve has exalted prestige. The elite media has a propensity to canonize the Chair of the Fed.   Media adulation has obscured the prime source of the stagnation besetting American wage earners for the past 43 years.

Paul Volcker’s life was exalted (with some real justification), for instance by New York Times prize-winning journalist Joseph B. Treaster as The Making of a Financial Legend.  Downhill from there…

English: Official picture of Janet Yellen from...Official picture of Janet Yellen from FRBSF web site.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chairman Greenspan was featured on the cover of Time Magazine’s February 15, 1999 issue as the most prominent member of “The Committee To Save The World.”  One of the greatest investigative journalists of our era, Bob Woodward, wrote a deeply in-the-tank hagiography of Alan Greenspan, entitled Maestro. In retrospect, the halo the media bestowed was faux.

The Atlantic Monthly, in its February 12, 2012 issue, featured Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on its cover as The Hero.  (Hedging its bets, The Atlantic ran a duplicate inside cover referencing him as The Villain.)  Author Roger Lowenstein wrote: “Ben Bernanke saved the economy—and has navigated masterfully through the most trying of times.”  The adulation for Chairman Bernanke, in retrospect, seems overdone.  Even President Obama, at the end of Bernanke’s final term, gave him a not-so-subtle push out the door, as reported by CNN: “He’s already stayed a lot longer than he wanted, or he was supposed to….”

It’s Janet Yellen’s turn for media canonization.  This is premature.

Madame Yellen’s institutional loyalty and obvious decency command this columnist’s respect. Her intentions present as — profoundly — good.  That said, the road to a well-known, notorious, destination is said to be paved with good intentions.  Moreover, canonization demands that a miracle be proven.  None yet is in evidence.

The canonization of Madame Yellen began in earnest with an August 24 article in Politico by Michael Hirsch, The Mystery Woman Who Runs Our Economy. The process was taken up to the next level the very next day in an article by Matt Phillips in QuartzJanet Yellen’s Fed is more revolutionary than Ben Bernanke’s ever was

Hirsch tees it up in Politico nicely:

As has been written, Yellen is clearly passionate about the employment problem. It was no accident that the theme of this year’s Jackson Hole meeting was “labor market dynamics,” and the AFL-CIO’s chief economist, Bill Spriggs, was invited while Wall Street economists were not.

Yellen is also very cagey about whether that’s happening or not: She’s playing her own private game of chicken with inflation, indicating that she wants to see more wage growth for workers (another thing that’s hard to track ahead of time) before she raises rates. Beneath the careful analysis and the caveat-freighted sentences, the bottom line seems to be: “We’re making this up as we go along.”

Phillips, in Quartz, observes that it has been Fed policy to suppress wages for two generations.  Phillips:

From her position as the world’s single most powerful economic voice, the chair of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, is forcing the financial markets to rethink assumptions that have dominated economic thinking for nearly 40 years. Essentially, Yellen is arguing that fast-rising wages, viewed for decades as an inflationary red flag and a reason to hike rates, should instead be welcomed, at least for now.

It might sound surprising to most people who work for a living, but for decades the most powerful people in economics have seen strong real wage growth—that is, growth above and beyond the rate of inflation—as a big problem.

Phillips then gets to the point, providing what passes for economic wisdom among the enablers of the Fed’s growth-sapping (including wage-enervating) interventions.

Since the end of the Great Inflation, the Fed—and most of the world’s important central banks—have gone out of their way to avoid a replay of the wage-price spiral. They’ve done this by tapping on the economic brakes—raising interest rates to make borrowing more expensive and discourage companies from hiring—as wages started to show strong growth.

Phillips provides this exaltation of Janet Yellen:

If she’s right, and American paychecks can improve without setting off an inflationary spiral, it could upend the clubby world of monetary policy, reshape financial markets, and have profound implications for everything ….

Higher real wages, without exacerbating inflation, indeed would be something to cheer.  That, demonstrably, is possible.  The devil is in the details.

There’s persuasive, even compelling, evidence that the international monetary system is better governed by, and working people benefit from, a smart rule rather than the discretion of career civil servants, however elite.  An important Bank of England paper in 2011, Financial Stability Paper No. 13, contrasts the poor performance, since 1971, of the freelancing Fed with the precursor Bretton Woods, and with classical gold standard, rules.  This paper materially advances the proposition of exploring “a move towards an explicit rules-based framework.”

A rule-based system would represent a profound transformation of how the Fed currently does its business. House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tx) said, in a recent hearing, that “The overwhelming weight of evidence is that monetary policy is at its best in maintaining stable prices and maximum employment when it follows a clear, predictable monetary policy rule.”

Madame Yellen stated that “It would be a grave mistake for the Fed to commit to conduct monetary policy according to a mathematical rule.”  Contrast Madame Yellen’s protest with a recent speech by Paul Volcker in which he forthrightly stated: “By now I think we can agree that the absence of an official, rules-based cooperatively managed, monetary system has not been a great success.  In fact, international financial crises seem at least as frequent and more destructive in impeding economic stability and growth. … Not a pretty picture.”

Madame Yellen’s ability to achieve her (postulated) goal of rising real wages in a non-inflationary environment likely depends on who is right here, Yellen or Volcker.  It is a key issue of the day.  The threshold issue currently is framed as between “a clear, predictable monetary policy rule” and the discretion of the Federal Open Market Committee.  The available rules are not limited to mathematical ones but, to achieve real wage growth and equitable prosperity, the evidence fully supports the proposition that a rule is imperative.

Returning America to consistently higher real wage growth is a Holy Grail for this columnist.  Equitable prosperity, very much including the end of wage stagnation, is a driving objective for most advocates of a rule-based system, very much including advocates of “the golden rule.”

Getting real wages growing is a laudable, and virtuous, proposition.  Premature canonization, however, is a flattering injustice to Madame Yellen … and to the Fed itself.  The Federal Reserve is lost in a wilderness — “uncharted territory” — partly, perhaps mainly, of its own (well-intended) concoction.

The road to the declaration of sainthood requires, according to this writer’s Catholic friends, documentation of miracles.  If this writer may be permitted to play the role of advocatus diaboli for a moment … no American Economic Miracle — akin to the Ludwig Erhard’s German “Economic Miracle,” the Wirtschaftswunder, driven by currency reform — yet appears in evidence.

Expertise, which Chair Yellen certainly possesses in abundance, can lead to hubris … and hubris in disaster as it did in 2008.  Good technique is necessary but not sufficient.

As this writer elsewhere has noted,

Journalist Edwin Hartrich tells the following story about Erhard …. In July 1948, after Erhard, on his own initiative, abolished rationing of food and ended all price controls, Clay confronted him:

Clay:  “Herr Erhard, my advisers tell me what you have done is a terrible mistake. What do you say to that?”

Erhard: “Herr General, pay no attention to them! My advisers tell me the same thing.”

Erhard, famously, proved right, his experts, wrong.

Madame Yellen by dint of her decency and intellect may yet prove capable of restoring the Great Moderation … and the real wage growth, with low inflation, that went with that.  Yet, at best, Great Moderation 2.0 would be, as was its predecessor, a temporary, rather than sustainable, solution. “Making it up as you go along” is a proposition fraught with peril.

At worst, if Madam Yellen has, as observers such as Forbes.com‘s John Tamny detect, a proclivity for cheapening the dollar as a path to real wage growth she easily could throw working people out of the frying pan and into the fires of inflation.  Moreover, the Fed’s proclivities toward central planning may be one of the most atavistic relics of a bygone era.  Central planning, by its very nature, even if well meant, always suppresses prosperity.   As the sardonic statement from the Soviet Union went, “So long as the bosses continue to pretend to pay us we will pretend to work.”

Some who should know better ignorantly, and passionately, still are stuck in William Jennings Bryan’s rhetorically stirring but intellectually vacuous 1896 declaration, “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”  This is a plank that won Bryan his party’s nomination and cost him the presidency… three times. The electorate knows that cheapening the money is the problem, not the solution.

The Fed, not the gold standard, pressed down the crown of thorns upon labor’s brow. The GOP, rather than playing rope-a-dope on “income inequality,” would do well to dig down to find the monetary rule with which to restore a climate of equitable prosperity and real wage growth.  Results, not intentions, are what counts.

There is abundant evidence that the right rule-based system would not be a “grave mistake” but a smart exit ramp back to growth of real wages.  Anything the Fed does that departs from a dollar price rule is anti-equitable-prosperity.  Anything else hurts all, labor and capital. The Congress, under the leadership of Chairmen Garrett (R-NJ) and Hensarling (R-Tx), whose committee has in front of it the Federal Reserve Accountability and Transparency Act and Joint Economic Committee Chairman Kevin Brady’s (R-Tx) Centennial Monetary Commission, at long last, is bestirring itself. Now is the right time to amp up the crucial debate over monetary policy … by enacting both of these pieces of legislation.

Money

Don’t Believe Government About Price Inflation

[Editor's note, this piece, by Richard Ebeling, is from EpicTimes]
It is an old adage that there are lies, damn lies and then there are statistics. Nowhere is this truer that in the government’s monthly Consumer Price Index (CPI) that tracks the prices for a selected “basket” of goods to determine changes in people’s cost-of-living and, therefore, the degree of price inflation in the American economy.

On August 19th, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its Consumer Price Index report for the month of July 2014. The BLS said that prices in general for all urban consumers only rose one-tenth of one percent for the month. And overall, for the last twelve months the CPI has only gone up by 2 percent.

A basket of goods that had cost, say, $100 to buy in June 2014 only cost you $100.10 in July of this year. And for the last twelve months as a whole, what cost you $100 to buy in August 2013, only increased in expense to $102 in July 2014.

By this measure, price inflation seems rather tame. Janet Yellen and most of the other monetary central planners at the Federal Reserve seem to have concluded, therefore, that they have plenty of breathing space to continue their aggressive monetary expansion when looking at the CPI and related price indices as part of the guide in deciding upon their money and interest rate manipulation policies.

Overall vs. “Core” Price Inflation

The government’s CPI statisticians distinguish between two numbers: the change in the overall CPI, which rose that 2 percent for the last year, and “core” inflation, which is the rate of change in the CPI minus food and energy prices. Leaving these out, “core” price inflation went up even less over the last twelve months, by only 1.9 percent.

The government statisticians make this distinction because they argue that food and energy prices are more “volatile” than many others. Fluctuating more frequently and to a greater degree than most other commonly purchased goods and services, they can create a distorted view, it is said, about the magnitude of price inflation during any period of time.

The problem is that food and energy costs may seem like irritating extraneous “noise” to the government number crunchers. But to most of the rest of us what we have to pay to heat our homes and put gas in our cars, as well as buying groceries to feed our families, is far from being a bothersome distraction from the statistical problem of calculating price inflation’s impact on our everyday lives.

Constructing the Consumer Price Index

How do the government statisticians construct the CPI? Month-by-month, the BLS tracks the purchases of 6,100 households across the country, which are taken to be “representative” of the approximately 320 million people living in the United States. The statisticians then construct a representative “basket” of goods reflecting the relative amounts of various consumer items these 6,100 households regularly purchase based on a survey of their buying patterns. They record changes in the prices of these goods in 24,000 retail outlets out of the estimated 3.6 million retail establishments across the whole country.

And this is, then, taken to be a fair and reasonable estimate – to the decimal point! – about the cost of living and the rate of price inflation for all the people of the United States.

Due to the costs of doing detailed consumer surveys and the desire to have an unchanging benchmark for comparison, this consumer basket of goods is only significantly revised about every ten years or so.

This means that over the intervening time it is assumed that consumers continue to buy the same goods and in the same relative amounts, even though in the real world new goods come on the market, other older goods are no longer sold, the quality of many goods are improved over the years, and changes in relative prices often result in people modifying their buying patterns.

The CPI vs. the Diversity of Real People’s Choices

The fact is there is no “average” American family. The individuals in each household (moms and dads, sons and daughters, and sometimes grandparents or aunts and uncles) all have their own unique tastes and preferences. This means that your household basket of goods is different in various ways from mine, and our respective baskets are different from everyone else’s.

Some of us are avid book readers, and others just relax in front of the television. There are those who spend money on regularly going to live sports events, others go out every weekend to the movies and dinner, while some save their money for an exotic vacation.

A sizable minority of Americans still smoke, while others are devoted to health foods and herbal remedies. Some of us are lucky to be “fit-as-a-fiddle,” while others unfortunately may have chronic illnesses. There are about 320 million people in the United States, and that’s how diverse are our tastes, circumstances and buying patterns.

Looking Inside the Consumer Price Index

This means that when there is price inflation those rising prices impact on each of us in different ways. Let’s look at a somewhat detailed breakdown of some of the different price categories hidden beneath the CPI aggregate of prices as a whole.

In the twelve-month period ending in July 2014, food prices in general rose 2.5 percent. A seemingly modest amount. However, meat, poultry, fish and egg prices increased, together, by 7.6 percent. But when we break this aggregate down, we find that beef and veal prices increased by 10.4 percent and frankfurters went up 6.9 percent, but lamb rose by only by 1.7 percent. Chicken prices increased more moderately at 2.7 percent, but fresh fish and seafood were 8.8 percent higher than a year earlier.

Milk was up 5.4 percent in price, but ice cream products decreased in price by minus 1.4 percent over the period. Fruits increased by 5.7 percent at the same time that fresh vegetable prices declined by minus 0.5 percent.

Under the general energy commodity heading, prices went up by 1.2 percent, but propane increased by 7.3 percent in price over the twelve-month period, while electricity prices, on the other hand, increased by 4 percent.

So why does the overall average of the Consumer Price Index seem so moderate at a measured 2 percent, given the higher prices of these individual categories of goods? Because furniture and bedding prices decreased by minus 3.1 percent, and major appliances declined in price over the period by minus 6.2. New televisions went down a significant minus15 percent

In addition, men’s apparel went down a minus 0.2 percent over the twelve months, but women’s outerwear rose a dramatic 12.3 percent in the same time frame. And boys and girls footwear went up, on average, by 8.2 percent.

Medical care services, in general, rose by 2.5 percent, but inpatient and outpatient hospital services increased, respectively, by 6.8 percent and 5.6 percent.

Smoke and Mirrors of “Core” Inflation    

These subcategories of individual price changes highlight the smoke and mirrors of the government statisticians’ distinction between overall and “core” inflation. We all occasionally enter the market and purchase a new stove or a new couch or a new bedroom set. And if the prices for these goods happen to be going down we may sense that our dollar is going further than in the past as we make these particular purchases.

But buying goods like these is an infrequent event for virtually all of us. On the other hand, every one of us, each and every day, week or month are in the marketplace buying food for our family, filling our car with gas, and paying the heating and electricity bill. The prices of these goods and other regularly purchased commodities and services, in the types and combinations that we as individuals and separate households choose to buy, are what we personally experience as a change in the cost-of-living and a rate of price inflation (or price deflation).

The Consumer Price Index is an artificial statistical creation from an arithmetic adding, summing and averaging of thousands of individual prices, a statistical composite that only exists in the statistician’s calculations.

Individual Prices Influence Choices, Not the CPI

It is the individual goods in the subcategories of goods that we the buying public actually confront and pay when we shop as individuals in the market place. It is these individual prices for the tens of thousands of actual goods and services we find and decide between when we enter the retail places of business in our daily lives. And these monetary expenses determines for each of us, as individuals and particular households, the discovered change in the cost-of-living and the degree of price inflation we each experience.

The vegetarian male who is single without children, and never buys any types of meat, has a very different type of consumer basket of goods than the married male-female couple who have meat on the table every night and shop regularly for clothes and shoes for themselves and their growing kids.

The individual or couple who have moved into a new home for which they have had to purchase a lot of new furniture and appliances will feel that their income has gone pretty far this past twelve months compared to the person who lives in a furnished apartment and has no need to buy a new chair or a dishwasher but eats beef or veal three times a week.

If the government were to impose a significant increase in the price of gasoline in the name of “saving the planet” from carbon emissions, it will impact people very differently depending up whether an individual is a traveling salesman or a truck driver who has to log hundreds or thousands of miles a year, compared to a New Yorker who takes the subway to work each day, or walks to his place of business.

It is the diversity of our individual consumer preferences, choices and decisions about which goods and services to buy now and over time under constantly changing market conditions that determines how each of us are influenced by changes in prices, and therefore how and by what degree price inflation or price deflation may affect each of us.

Monetary Expansion Distorts Prices in Different Ways

An additional misunderstanding created by the obsessive focus on the Consumer Price Index is the deceptive impression that increases in the money supply due to central bank monetary expansion tend to bring about a uniform and near simultaneous rise in prices throughout the economy, encapsulated in that single monthly CPI number.

In fact, prices do not all tend to rise at the same time and by the same degree during a period of monetary expansion. Governments and their central banks do not randomly drop newly created money from helicopters, more or less proportionally increasing the amount of spending power in every citizen’s pockets at the same time.

Newly created money is “injected” into the economy at some one or few particular points reflecting into whose hands that new money goes first. In the past, governments might simply print up more banknotes to cover their wartime expenditures, and use the money to buy armaments, purchase other military supplies, and pay the salaries of their soldiers.

The new money would pass into the hands of those selling those armaments or military supplies or offering their services as warriors. These people would spend the new money on the particular goods and services they found desirable or profitable to buy, raising the demands and prices for a second group of prices in the economy. The money would now pass to another group of hands, people who in turn would now spend it on the market goods they wanted to demand.

Step-by-step, first some demands and some prices, and then other demands and prices, and then still other demands and prices would be pushed up in a particular time-sequence reflecting who got the money next and spent in on specific goods, until finally more or less all prices of goods in the economy would be impacted and increased, but in a very uneven way over time.

But all of these real and influencing changes on the patterns of market demands and relative prices during the inflationary process are hidden from clear and obvious view when the government focuses the attention of the citizenry and its own policy-makers on the superficial and simplistic Consumer Price Index.

Money Creation and the Boom-Bust Cycle

Today, of course, virtually all governments and central banks inject new money into the economy through the banking system, making more loanable funds available to financial institutions to increase their lending ability to interested borrowers.

The new money first passes into the economy in the form of investment and other loans, with the affect of distorting the demands and prices for resources and labor used in capital projects that might not have been undertaken if not for the false investment signals the monetary expansion generates in the banking and financial sectors of the economy. This process sets in motion the process that eventually leads to the bust that follows the inflationary bubbles.

Thus, the real distortions and imbalances that are the truly destabilizing effects from central banking inflationary monetary policies are hidden from the public’s view and understanding by heralding every month the conceptually shallow and mostly superficial Consumer Price Index.