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Economics

Should economics emulate natural sciences?

Economists have always been envious of the practitioners of the natural and exact sciences. They have thought that introducing the methods of natural sciences such as laboratory where experiments could be conducted could lead to a major break-through in our understanding of the world of economics.
But while a laboratory is a valid way of doing things in the natural sciences, it is not so in economics. Why is that so?
A laboratory is a must in physics, for there a scientist can isolate various factors relating to the object of inquiry.
Although the scientist can isolate various factors he doesn’t, however, know the laws that govern these factors.
All that he can do is hypothesize regarding the “true law” that governs the behaviour of the various particles identified.
He can never be certain regarding the “true” laws of nature. On this Murray Rothbard wrote,
The laws may only be hypothecated. Their validity can only be determined by logically deducing consequents from them, which can be verified by appeal to the laboratory facts. Even if the laws explain the facts, however, and their inferences are consistent with them, the laws of physics can never be absolutely established. For some other law may prove more elegant or capable of explaining a wider range of facts. In physics, therefore, postulated explanations have to be hypothecated in such a way that they or their consequents can be empirically tested. Even then, the laws are only tentatively rather than absolutely valid.1
Contrary to the natural sciences, the factors pertaining to human action cannot be isolated and broken into their simple elements.

However, in economics we have certain knowledge about certain things, which in turn could help us to understand the world of economics.
For instance, we know that an increase in money supply results in an exchange of nothing for something. It leads to a diversion of wealth from wealth generators to non wealth generating activities. This is certain knowledge and doesn’t need to be verified.
We also know that for a given amount of goods an increase in money supply all other things being equal must lead to more money paid for a unit of a good –an increase in the prices of goods. (Remember a price is the amount of money per unit of a good).
We also know that if in the country A money supply grows at a faster pace than money supply in the country B then over time, all other things being equal, the currency of A must depreciate versus the currency of B. This knowledge emanates from the law of scarcity.
Hence for something that is certain knowledge, there is no requirement for any empirical testing.
How this certain knowledge can be applied?
For instance, if we observe an increase in money supply – we can conclude that this resulted in a diversion of real wealth from wealth generators to non-wealth generating activities. It has resulted in the weakening of the wealth generating process.
This knowledge however, cannot tell us about the state of the pool of real wealth and when the so-called economy is going to crumble.
Whilst we can derive certain conclusions from some factors, however, the complex interaction of various factors means that there is no way for us to know the importance of each factor at any given point in time.
Some factors such as money supply – because it operates with a time lag, could provide us with useful information about the future events – such as boom-bust cycles and price inflation.
(Note that a change in money supply doesn’t affect all the markets instantly. It goes from one individual to another individual – from one market to another market. It is this that causes the time lag from changes in money and its effect on various markets).
Contrary to the natural sciences, in economics, by means of the knowledge that every effect must have a cause and by means of the law of scarcity (the more we have of something the less valuable it becomes), we can derive the entire body of economics knowledge.
This knowledge, once derived, is certain and doesn’t need to be verified by some kind of laboratory.

 

1. Murray N. Rothbard, “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”, On Freedom and Free Enterprise: The Economics of Free Enterprise, May Sennholz, ed. (Princeton, N.J.: D.Van Nostrand, 1956), p3.

Economics

Brave new world

“Sir, Adair Turner suggests some version of monetary financing is the only way to break Japan’s deflation and deal with the debt overhang (“Print money to fund the deficit – that is the fastest way to raise rates”, Comment, November 11). This was precisely how Korekiyo Takahashi, Japanese finance minister from 1931 to 1936, broke the deflation of the 1930s. The policy was discredited because of the hyperinflation that followed.”

–       Letter to the Financial Times, 11th November 2014. Emphasis ours. Name withheld to protect the innocent.

 

 

“Don’t need to read the book – here is the premise. Business dreams are nothing more than greed. And you greedy business people should pay for those who are not cut out to take risk. You did not build your business – you owe everyone for your opportunity – you may have worked harder, taken more risk and even failed and picked yourself up at great personal risk and injury     (yes we often lose relationships and loved ones fall out along the way). However, none the less you are not entitled to what you make. Forget the fact that the real reason we have massive wealth today is we can now reach the global consumers – not just local – so the numbers are larger. Nonetheless the fact is that is not fair – and fair is something life now guarantees – social engineers demand that you suspend the laws of nature and reward all things equally. 2 plus 2 = 5 so does 3 plus 3 = 5; everything is now levelled by social engineers.  We need to be responsible for those who choose not to take risk, want a 9 to 5 job and health benefits and vacation. The world is entitled to that – it is only right – so you must be taxed to make up for those who are too lazy to compete, simply don’t try, or fail. In short the rich must mop up the gap for the also ran’s. Everyone gets a ribbon. There are exceptions – if you are Google, BAIDU, Apple or someone so cool or cute or a liberal who will tell people they should pay more taxes – you aren’t to be held to the same standard as everyone else.”

–       ‘cg12348’ responds to the FT’s announcement that Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ has won the FT / McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, 11th November 2014.
“@cg12348, I think you succeeded in discrediting yourself comprehensively. You didn’t read the book. You do not in fact know what is in it. But you just “know” what is in it. One can only hope that you do a little more work in your business ventures.”

–       Martin Wolf responds to ‘cg12348’.

“Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it..”

 

“Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?”

 

–       Thomas Sowell.

 

 

Forbes recently published an article suggesting that Google might be poised to enter the fund management sector. The article in question linked to an earlier FT piece by Madison Marriage (‘Google study heightens fund industry fears’, 28.9.2014) reporting that the company had, two years ago, commissioned a specialist research firm for advice about initiating an asset management offering. An unnamed US fund house reportedly told FTfm that Google entering the market was its “biggest fear”. An executive from Schroders was reported to be “concerned” and senior executives at Barclays Wealth & Investment Management were reported to perceive the arrival of the likes of Google and Facebook on their turf as a “real threat”. Campbell Fleming of Threadneedle was quoted in the FT piece as saying,

“Google would find the fund management market more difficult than it thinks. There are significant barriers to entry and it’s not something you could get into overnight.”

Bluntly, faced with backing Google or a large fund management incumbent, we’d be inclined to back Google. Perhaps most surprising, though, were the remarks by Catherine Tillotson of Scorpio Partnership, who said,

“There probably is a subsection of investors who would have confidence in Google, but I think the vast majority of investors want a relationship with an entity which can supply them with high quality information, market knowledge and a view on that market. I think it is unlikely they would turn to Google for those qualities.”

We happen to think that many investors would turn precisely to Google for those qualities – assuming they found those qualities remotely relevant to their objective in the first place. So what, precisely, do we think investors really want from their fund manager ? All things equal, it’s quite likely that investment performance consistent with an agreed mandate is likely to be high on the list; “high quality information, market knowledge and a view on that market” are, to our way of thinking, almost entirely subjective attributes and largely irrelevant compared to the fundamental premise of delivering decent investment returns.

After roughly 20 years of the Internet slowly achieving almost complete penetration of the investor market across the developed world, fund management feels destined to get ‘Internetted’ (or disintermediated) in the same way that the music and journalism industries have been. The time is ripe, in other words, for a fresh approach; the pickings for incumbents have been easy for far too long, and investors are surely open to the prospect of dealing with new entrants with a fundamentally different approach.

Another thing prospective digital entrants into the fund management marketplace have going for them is that they haven’t spent the last several years routinely cheating their clients, be it in the form of the subprime mortgage debacle, payment protection insurance mis-selling, Libor rigging, foreign exchange rigging, precious metals rigging.. Virtually no subsidiary of a full service banking organisation can say the same.

Sean Park, founder of Anthemis, suggests (quite fairly, in our view) that the demand for a fresh approach to financial services has never been stronger. In part, this is because

“..the global wealth management and asset allocation paradigm is fundamentally broken.  Or rather it’s a model that is past its sell-by date and is increasingly failing its ultimate customers. The “conventional wisdom” has disconnected from its “source code” meaning that the industry has forgotten the original reasons why things were initially done in a certain way and these practices have simply taken on quasi-mystical status, above questioning.. which means that the system is unable and unwilling to adapt to fundamentally changed conditions (technological, economic, financial, cultural, demographic..)

“And so opportunities (to take a step back and do things differently) abound..

“Coming back to the.. “broken asset allocation paradigm” – the constraints (real, i.e. regulatory and imagined, i.e. convention) and processes around traditional asset management and allocation (across the spectrum of asset classes) now mean that it is almost impossible to do anything but offer mediocre products and returns if operating from within the mainstream framework. (Indeed the rise and rise of low cost ETF / passive products is testimony to this – if you can’t do anything clever, at least minimise the costs as much as possible..)  The real opportunities arise when you have an unconstrained approach – when the only thing driving investment decisions is, well, analysis of investment opportunities – irrespective of what they may be, how they may be structured, and how many boxes in some cover-my-ass due diligence list they may tick (or not)..”

As we have written extensively of late, one of those practices that have taken on “quasi-mystical status” is benchmarking, especially with reference to the bond market. This is an accident waiting to happen given that we coexist with the world’s biggest bond market bubble.

Another problem is that low cost tracking products are fine provided that they’re not flying off the shelf with various asset markets at their all-time highs. But they are, and they are.

We have a great deal of sympathy with the view that the fundamental nature of business became transformed with the widespread adoption of the worldwide web. There is no reason why fund management should be exempt from this trend. What was previously an almost entirely adversarial competition between a limited number of gigantic firms has now become a more collaborational competition between a much more diverse array of boutique managers who also happen to be fighting gigantic incumbents. Here is just one example. Last week we came across a tweet from @FritzValue (blog:http://fritzinvestments.wordpress.com/) that touched on the theme of ‘discipline in an investment process’. With his approval we republish it here:

“Daily checklist:

8am – 10am: Read trade journals and regional newspapers for ideas on companies with 1) new products, 2) new regulation, 3) restructurings, 4) expansions, 5) context for investment ideas

10am – 6pm: Find new ideas. Read 1) company announcements.. 2) annual reports from A-Z or 3) annual reports of companies screened for buybacks / insider buying / dividend omission, etc.

7pm – 10pm: Read books to understand the world / improve forecasts / fine tune investment process

Before each investment:

1)    What do you think will happen to the company and by consequence the stock price ?

2)    Go through a personal investment checklist

3)    Use someone else or yourself as a devil’s advocate to disprove your own investment theses

4)    Have we reached “peak negativity” / has narrative played out ?

5)    Are fundamentals improving ?

6)    Why is it cheap ? Especially if it screens well in the eyes of other investors – i.e. exciting story, other investors, low P/E, etc.

7)    Decide what will be needed for you to admit defeat / sell the position

If you lose focus, sell all the positions, take a break and start again.

Only expose yourself to serious and intelligent people on Twitter / investor letters / media and avoid the noise that other investors expose themselves to.”

Fabulous advice, that has the additional advantage of being completely free. While we spend quite a bit of time agonising over the State’s ever more desperate attempts to keep a debt-fuelled Ponzi scheme on the road, we take heart from the fact that – through social media – an alternative community exists that doesn’t just know what’s going on but is perfectly happy to share its informed opinions with that community at no cost to users whatsoever. O brave new world, that has such people in it !

Money

Understanding the Money Creation and Society Debate

Together with colleagues spanning four parties – Michael Meacher (Lab), Caroline Lucas (Green), Douglas Carswell (UKIP) and David Davis (Con) – I have secured a debate on Money Creation and Society for Thursday 20 November. Here’s a quick guide to understanding the debate.

First, we have a system of paper or “fiat” money: it exists due to legal mandate as opposed to being a physical commodity like gold. Reserves, notes and coins are created by the state but claims on money are created by the banks when they lend. Most of the money we have was created by banks lending.

This excellent video from Dominic Frisby is a great place to begin:

There was once a time when the literature about money creation was sufficiently off the mainstream to be dismissed. The Bank of England now explains:

I published a short paper on what is wrong with the current system and what to do about it, first inBanking 2020 and then Jesús Huerta de Soto kindly republished it in his journal Procesos De Mercado Vol.X nº2 2013. A further monetary economist privately reviewed the paper but errors and omissions remain my own. You can download it here:

Recent emergency monetary policy has been dominated by Quantitative Easing: the Bank of England has provided a report on The distributional effects of asset purchases (PDF). However, the financial system has been chronically inflationary throughout my lifetime, ever since the Bretton Woods currency system ended.

If QE has distributional effects, why not all money creation?

Here is a historic price index from the Office for National Statistics and House of Commons Library: Consumer Price Inflation since 1750 (PDF).

Price Index 1750-2003

And here is the growth of broad money from 1982 to date via the Bank of England (series LPMAUYM). Note that the money supply stopped accelerating in the course of the crisis, during the period of QE:

M4: 1982-2014

No one can argue prosperity has not increased over the period but if distributional effects matter at all, one must ask “Who benefits?” Via Positive Money, here’s where the new money went:

Sectoral lending

As I said in debate on 6 Dec 2011:

Why are we in this debt crisis? I have just checked the M4 money supply figures—I am sorry to return to aggregates, but needs must. When Labour came to power the money supply was about £700 billion and it is now about £2.1 trillion, so it has tripled over the past 14 years. Unfortunately, most economists talk about money flowing into the economy as if it were water poured into a tank that found its own level immediately, but what if it is like treacle or honey? What if it builds up in piles when poured into the economy and takes a while to spread out? What if that money was loaned into existence in response to individual choices led by the excessively low interest rates pushed by the central bank? What if it was loaned into existence in particular sectors, such as the housing sector, where prices have more than doubled over the same period, and what if it was the financial sector that received the benefit of that new money first? Would that not explain why financiers and bankers are so much wealthier than everyone else, and why economic activity and wealth has been reorientated towards the south-east?

This debate will explore the effects on society of long-term money creation by private banks’ lending in the context of the present financial system.

Further reading:

Ethics

Means-ends and consumer choices

A major problem with the mainstream framework of thinking is that people are presented as if a scale of preferences were hard-wired in their heads.
Regardless of anything else this scale remains the same all the time.
Valuations however, do not exist by themselves regardless of the things to be valued. On this Rothbard wrote,

There can be no valuation without things to be valued.1

Valuation is the outcome of the mind valuing things. It is a relation between the mind and things.
Purposeful action implies that people assess or evaluate various means at their disposal against their ends.

An individual’s ends set the standard for human valuations and thus choices. By choosing a particular end an individual also sets a standard of evaluating various means.
For instance, if my end is to provide a good education for my child, then I will explore various educational institutions and will grade them in accordance with my information regarding the quality of education that these institutions are providing.

Observe that the standard of grading these institutions is my end, which is to provide my child with a good education.
Or, for instance, if my intention is to buy a car then there is all sorts of cars available in the market, so I have to specify to myself the specific ends that the car will help me achieve.
I need to establish whether I plan to drive long distances or just a short distance from my home to the train station and then catch the train.

My final end will dictate how I will evaluate various cars. Perhaps I will conclude that for a short distance a second hand car will do the trick.
Since an individual’s ends determine the valuations of means and thus his choices, it follows that the same good will be valued differently by an individual as a result of changes in his ends.
At any point in time, people have an abundance of ends that they would like to achieve. What limits the attainment of various ends is the scarcity of means.
Hence, once more means become available, a greater number of ends, or goals, can be accommodated—i.e., people’s living standards will increase.

Another limitation on attaining various goals is the availability of suitable means.
Thus to quell my thirst in the desert, I require water. Any diamonds in my possession will be of no help in this regard.

1. Murray N. Rothbard, Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics.

Economics

Macro economic data: an instrument for government intervention

It is generally held that for an economist to be able to assess the state of the economy he requires macro-economic indicators which will tell him what is going on. The question that arises is why is it necessary to know about the state of the overall economy? What purpose can such types of information serve?

Careful examination of these issues shows that in a free market environment it doesn’t make much sense to measure and publish various macro-economic indicators. This type of information is of little use to entrepreneurs. The only indicator that any entrepreneur pays attention to is whether he makes profit. The higher the profit, the more benefits a particular business activity bestows upon consumers.

Paying attention to consumers wishes means that entrepreneurs have to organise the most suitable production structure for that purpose. Following various macro-economic indicators will be of little assistance in this endeavour.

What possible use can an entrepreneur make out of information about the rate of growth in gross domestic product (GDP)? How can the information that GDP rose by 4% help an entrepreneur make a profit? Or what possible use can be made out of data showing that the national balance of payments has moved into a deficit? Or what use can an entrepreneur make out of information about the level of employment or the general price level?

What an entrepreneur requires is not general macro-information but rather specific information about consumers demands for a product or a range of products. Government lumped macro-indicators will not be of much help to entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur himself will have to establish his own network of information concerning a particular venture. Only an entrepreneur will know what type of information he requires in order to succeed in the venture. In this regard no one can replace the entrepreneur.

Thus if a businessman assessment of consumers demand is correct then he will make profits. Wrong assessment will result in a loss. The profit and loss framework penalizes, so to speak, those businesses that have misjudged consumer priorities and rewards those who have exercised a correct appraisal. The profit and loss framework makes sure that resources are withdrawn from those entrepreneurs who do not pay attention to consumer priorities to those who do.

In a free market environment free of government interference the “economy” doesn’t exist as such. A free market environment is populated by individuals, who are engaged in the production of goods and services required to sustain their life and well being i.e. the production of real wealth. Also, in a free market economy every producer is also a consumer. For convenience sake we can label the interaction between producers and consumers (to be more precise between producers) as the economy. However, it must be realised that at no stage does the so called “economy” have a life of its own or have independence from individuals.

While in a free market environment the “economy” is just a metaphor and doesn’t exist as such, all of a sudden the government gives birth to a creature called the “economy” via its constant statistical reference to it, for example using language such as the “economy” grew by such and such percentage, or the widening in the trade deficit threatens the “economy”. The “economy” is presented as a living entity apart from individuals.

According to the mainstream way of thinking one must differentiate between the activities of individuals and the economy as a whole, i.e. between micro and macro-economics. It is also held that what is good for individuals might not be good for the economy and vice-versa. Within this framework of thinking the “economy” is assigned a paramount importance while individuals are barely mentioned.

In fact one gets the impression that it is the “economy” that produces goods and services. Once the output is produced by the “economy” what is then required is its distribution among individuals in the fairest way. Also, the “economy” is expected to follow the growth path outlined by government planners. Thus whenever the rate of growth slips below the outlined growth path, the government is expected to give the “economy” a suitable push.

In order to validate the success or failure of government interference various statistical indicators have been devised. A strong indicator is interpreted as a success while a weak indicator a failure. Periodically though, government officials also warn people that the “economy” has become overheated i.e. it is “growing” too fast.

At other times officials warn that the “economy” has weakened. Thus whenever the “economy” is growing too fast government officials declare that it is the role of the government and the central bank to prevent inflation. Alternatively, when the “economy” appears to be weak the same officials declare that it is the duty of the government and central bank to maintain a high level of employment.

By lumping into one statistic many activities, government statisticians create a non-existent entity called the “economy” to which government and central bank officials react. (In reality however, goods and services are not produced in totality and supervised by one supremo. Every individual is pre-occupied with his own production of goods and services).

We can thus conclude that so called macro-economic indicators are fictitious devices that are used by governments to justify intervention with businesses. These indicators can tell us very little about wealth formation in the economy and thus individuals’ well-being.

Book Reviews

A Vindication of Commercial Society

In the Wealth of Nations Adam Smith outlines a commercial society:

When the division of labour has been once thoroughly established, it is but a very small part of a man’s wants which the produce of his own labour can supply. He supplies the far greater part of them by exchanging… the produce of his own labour… for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for. Every man thus lives by exchanging, or becomes in some measure a merchant, and the society itself grows to be what is properly a commercial society.

The last sentence of the just quoted passage forms the leitmotif of this immensely accomplished and insightful book by Christopher Berry, Professor Emeritus in Political Theory at Glasgow University. The book’s cover is graced by a drawing of the inner court of that university where Smith, in a letter of thanks upon his installation as its rector in 1787, reports he had spent “by far the most useful and therefore as by far the happiest and most honourable period” of his life, both as student and subsequently successor to his one-time teacher there, Francis Hutcheson, in the Chair of Moral Philosophy.

Hutcheson, an Ulster-born Presbyterian Scot, had, in turn, also been educated there before moving to Dublin to open and run an academy. It was there Hutcheson acquired international fame that led to his appointment at Glasgow by writing and publishing in 1725 a celebrated tract on the origin of our moral ideas. This tract had been heavily influenced by works in ethics with which he first became acquainted in Dublin written by John Locke’s former tutee, the third Earl of Shaftesbury to whom Hutcheson dedicated the first edition of his own tract. Shaftesbury, in a letter to the Swiss theologian Jean Le Clerc in March 1705, made the following highly prescient observation about that great efflorescence of ideas in Europe in the eighteenth century, subsequently known as the Enlightenment, in which Adam Smith’s Scotland was to play such a prominent part:

There is a mighty light which spreads itself over the world especially in those two free nations of England and Holland… and if Heaven sends us soon a peace… it is impossible but letters and knowledge must advance in greater proportion than ever.

Shaftesbury made this remark early on during the so-called War of Spanish Succession which raged in Europe for more than a decade until 1714. It was during it that, to forestall its becoming allied with and used as springboard for invasion by its traditional enemy, France, England was to engineer political union with Scotland, in return for which it provided its economically backward northern neighbour with an enormous economic stimulus. Within a few decades, this previous economic and cultural backwater became the epitome of a commercial society whose idea was to fascinate and absorb the intellectual energies of that small country’s band of literati whose most illustrious member was Adam Smith.

Berry’s book is about how these Scottish literati conceptualised and reacted to this novel form of society their country was fast turning into during the half century between publication of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature in 1739-40 and the sixth edition of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1790. It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of their achievement. As was noted by Arthur Herman in his 2001 book How the Scots Invented the Modern World:

The Scots created the basic ideals of modernity… When we gaze out on the contemporary world shaped by technology, capitalism, and modern democracy… we are in effect viewing the world through the same lens as the Scots did… In 1700 Scotland was Europe’s poorest independent country… [By 1800] this small, underpopulated, and culturally backward nation had] rose to become the driving wheel of modern progress… [I]f you want a monument to the Scots, look around you.

As Berry observes, the Enlightenment was not just a collection of forward-looking intellectuals and their ideas. It was also a set of formal and informal institutions through which the intellectuals propagated these ideas and drew mutual support and encouragement.

In his opening chapter, Berry explains just how tight-knit this set of institutions was in Scotland’s case. At their core were its universities whose curricula became modernised more than a century before England’s did. Closely connected with them was a large network of clubs and debating societies which brought together academics, merchants, lawyers and clergymen in a highly fruitful symbiosis. As Berry remarks ‘these various societies were an important part of the institutional fabric and played a leading role within Scotland… By forming a point of convergence for universities, the law, the church and the ‘improving’ gentry… the idea of a commercial society took on an institutional form… thinking about “commercial society” was woven into the fabric; it was not some detached academic exercise.’

What, then, did Scotland’s eighteenth century thinkers observe about the new form of society that they were witnessing springing up around them?

In the second chapter of his book, Berry offers a highly useful account of their understanding of this idea from which the following vignettes are taken:

One of the ideas for which the Scots are best known is their notion of the four stages (hunting, herding, farming, commerce)… To understand their own commercial era meant for the Scots placing it in a narrative that began with the destruction of the Roman Empire, but in which the pivotal ‘event’ is the collapse of feudalism… [T]he history… portrayed in the four stages rests on a particular model of ‘natural’ development… from concrete to abstract, from simple to complex, from rude to cultivated or civilised…. A commercial society does indeed have a distinctive property regime but that is only one aspect of the complex inter-related whole which defines that type of society.

The remaining chapters of Berry’s book explore various aspects that comprised a commercial society in the eyes of Scotland’s literati. Of them, the much greater opulence and freedom it confers on all its members, relative to other social formations, constitute its two chief distinguishing features as well as its most salient advantages over them. As Berry puts it:

Although in the Scots’ writings there is no explicit definition or even delineation of what constitutes ‘civilisation’ (a new term), nevertheless there was a definitive difference between Athens and Edinburgh (the so-called ‘Athens of the North’). The latter was civilised and free. The Scots are clear that their own (and similar) society is civilised… Contrary to Stoic and republican ‘frugality’ or Christian asceticism… Smith [along with his fellow Scottish literati] is firmly repudiating any notion that poverty is ennobling or redemptive… Smith’s and others’ repudiation of the nobility of poverty is a key factor in the vindication of a commercial society.

Underpinning commercial societies, in the eyes of the Scottish literati, is the rule of law as the one institution on which depends the mutual trust between strangers involved in regular trade, contract, credit, and paper money. As Berry explains with characteristic cogency:

The argument relies on a series of [posited] causal connections: stability from a framework of law causes security and security is a causal precondition for the development of a market and extension of contracts and exchange. This goes to the heart of the idea of a commercial society… What the authority of law provides is security of property for all… Perhaps the most decisive development [in the establishment of the rule of law] was the separation and independency of the judiciary for it is that which ensures the impartiality of administration [of justice] that imparts security to all.

Yet, a problem remains as to how such rule becomes established and what maintains it. There is a problem here, of which the Scottish literati were acutely aware and did their best to address. Berry explains the problem so: ‘In a commercial society we live predominantly among “an assembly of strangers”… Since the bulk of our dealings are impersonal then they must be conducted on the basis of adhering to the complementary impersonal (abstract) rules of justice… [Yet] the Scots are aware that this society can be construed to appear to rely to a reprehensible extent on “self” or “private”, rather than, “social” or “public”, interest.’

Self-love is the animating force behind commerce, yet the viability of commerce presupposes a degree of self-restraint on the part of those who engage in it, out of consideration for others. From whence arises the motivation needed to energise such self-restraint? Their answer was that such consideration arose from individual moral conscience variously understood, with Smith having characteristically described its restraining power the most graphically as well as illuminatingly. He writes of it in one of the most memorable passages in his Theory of Moral Sentiments:

When our passive feelings are almost always so sordid and so selfish, how comes it that our active principles should often be so generous and so noble?… It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence… that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct…

While the rule of law could thus be supposed capable of prevailing within commercial society through the moral probity induced in members by the strictures of their consciences, the Scottish literati remained exercised by the notion that commerce had a morally deleterious effect on those whose livelihoods were gained by means of it, which increasingly meant everyone in a commercial society. The source of such concern lay in the ancient republican notion that true freedom and virtue demanded a form of active citizenship governed by a concern for the public good for which a narrow preoccupation with mercenary self-interest characteristic of commerce simply had no place. Berry terms this concern ‘the luxury critique’ of commercial society and characterises it so:

A free state depended on virtuous (free) men devoted to the public good for which they were willing to fight (and die)… A society where wealth is valued will produce a generation… [that]will devote itself to private ends and… be unwilling to act foe the public good, where crucially central to such action is a willingness to fight… Once poisoned by luxury they invest life itself with value and become afraid of death, with the consequence that the society will be militarily weak – a nation of cowards… will easily succumb.

Among the Scots literati, Adam Ferguson and Lord Kames who were the most exercised by this issue. Hume and Smith by contrast tended to consider such concern about the morally corrupting effects of luxury misplaced, being redolent of nostalgia for a bygone era irretrievably passed whose claim in any case to greater valour than modernity was in their view highly exaggerated. Berry is particularly instructive in detailing the argumentative stratagems through which Hume and Smith sought to defuse and repudiate the luxury critique of commerce.

Thus, in the case of Hume, Berry notes: ‘The Spartan regime, where everyone has a “passion for the public good”, is contrary to “the natural bent of the mind”, and ‘to govern men along Spartan lines would require a “miraculous transformation of mankind”.’ Similarly, for Hume: ‘The supposed causal link between luxury and military weakness fails the test of constant conjunction, as manifest by the cases of France and England, that is, the two most powerfulbecause the two most polished and commercial societies’. Likewise: ‘For Smith, militias are outmoded… in an “opulent and civilised nation” a professional army is the means to preserve civilisation against invasion from a “poor and barbarous nation”… In explicit repudiation of the position of “men of republican principles”.., he claims [a professional] army’ can… ‘be favourable to liberty’… in those circumstances where the chief officers… are drawn from the “principal nobility and gentry”.’

Berry is rightly not oblivious to the morally detrimental effects that Smith identified commercial society having on its members. He notes that: ‘In Book 5 of the Wealth of Nations he [Smith] observes… that the dexterity of the specialised operative (read pin-maker) is bought at the cost of his “intellectual, social and martial virtues”.’ Yet, for all that, contrary to many recent expositors of Smith such as Denis Rasmussen and Ryan Hanley, Berry contends that:

Smith is… not to be saddled with the possession of some profound disquiet about the soul of modern man… Smith’s purpose in identifying these threats to these virtues, these deficiencies or ailments of commercial society, is programmatic…. [T]he point is to identify where government action, and the public purse, is called for in order to remedy the deficiencies…

The remedy for torpid intellectual virtues is… [publicly-funded] education… [T]he shortfall in the “pin-maker’s” social virtues… [can be remedied by] use of the tax system to reduce the number of alehouses… [plus state support of] “public diversions”, such as drama, music, dancing and the like… to lift the “melancholy and gloomy humour” that Smith associates with the “disagreeably rigorous and unsocial character “of [austere religious] sects [to which he considers are especially prone migrants to large cities from rural backgrounds]… When it comes to addressing the erosion of the martial virtues… [Smith] refers to the military exercises that the Greeks and Romans made the citizens perform… He does not say the exercises should be compulsory but… recurrence of the phrase ‘premiums and badges of distinction’ with respect both to parish schools and the Greek and Roman republics suggests… [Smith favored] a government-backed incentive structure to encourage participation in activities that would help the decline of the martial spirit.

What is being suggested here is that whatever morally subversive effects commerce might have upon populaces whose ways of life had become deeply informed by it can all be adequately addressed by judicious forms of state intervention be they public subsidy of schooling, of the arts, or of sport. Berry ably sums up the resultant idea of a commercial society when he observes that:

What the Scots’ idea seems to resemble is the outlines of a “liberal” picture of society… The complex interlocking whole is not some perfect functioning system… [T]he Scots are well-aware of commercial society’s imperfections just as they remain cautiously optimistic that these will be eroded by progress.

Whether we can share their optimism remains an open question. Even should we not be able to, we can nonetheless still share their common confidence that this form of societal organisation is superior to all others. Berry is to be commended for having explained so clearly and carefully why members of the Scottish Enlightenment shared such confidence and why we might do so too.

Ethics

In defence of capitali$m

[This article was written for BMS World Mission and can be found here.]

I want an end to poverty. I want a social system which operates justly in the general interest without boom and bust. I want to force even the most selfish into the service of others. I want to bring good news to the poor.

We do not live in the Garden of Eden. Scarcity is a fundamental fact. I see a world in which I cannot survive alone. In so far as we enjoy abundance, it is because we share the work of providing for one another.

That sharing of work implies a serious problem: how shall we decide how much of what to produce?

There is a choice: either voluntary ownership, control and risk bearing in the means of production, or collective ownership through the state plus economic planning. We must choose between capitalism or socialism.

Capitalism allocates effort and resources through the price system plus profit and loss accounting. When prices are formed through voluntary exchange of the goods and services people want, a profit shows that value is being created for customers, in their opinion. A loss indicates the collective opinion of society that value is being destroyed.

Only the price system reveals the shifting preferences in the minds of billions of individuals. That is why economic planning by authority always fails. It is why actual socialist societies are highly authoritarian: ever more power is applied in a futile attempt to make planning work.

"only the price system reveals the shifting preferences of billions"

Understanding our present plight requires insight into the financial system.

Banks lend money into existence. They do not merely lend what people have saved. When a loan is made, bank deposits are created out of nothing. That’s why the UK money supply tripled between 1997 and 2010 from about £700 billion to just over £2.2 trillion.

A society simply cannot triple its money supply in 13 years without profound consequences. Understand that new money went first into the financial system and housing, London and the South East and you have a good explanation for the structural problems in our economy.

We had a chronic oversupply of credit, then sudden undersupply. It is a typical failure of economic planning by authority, a failure of central banking.

The “greedy bankers” argument is inadequate. Thanks to various state-provided guarantees, bankers were gambling with other people’s money, at other people’s risk. Of course they frequently succumbed to temptation. Then governments forced us to bail them out. The injustice of it is palpable.

Look at the cost of energy, the queues on our roads or land use decisions and the story is the same: comprehensive regulation failing to produce the right results. Yes, there is often private investment but it is protected by legal privileges. Even without considering the high level of state spending, it is impossible to sustain the argument that our economy has been too free.

We have preached capitalism but practiced socialism before blaming inevitable failure on the market.

The Peruvian economist Hernando De Soto asked why people in the developing world do not prosper despite being clever, industrious and willing to take risks. Marx believed the problem is that the poor have formal rights but no property.

De Soto demonstrated the opposite. The poorest of the poor in the developing world possess $9.3 trillion worth of land, roughly the size of US GDP and over 70 times the entire world’s foreign aid budget. It turns out the poor in developing countries possess real property but inadequate rights. Co-operation cannot work for the common good without strong property rights and contractual exchange.

We have lived through a deep crisis of the Third Way. How we respond to it is crucial. Is justice and sustained, inclusive prosperity to be delivered through a return to comprehensive economic planning by authority or should we try freedom?

The only system capable of co-ordinating the shared work of providing for one another in this world of scarcity is founded on property rights, voluntary exchange, prices, profit and loss. It is the only system capable of bending even the most selfish to the service of others. Governments must stop deranging it if we are to bring good news to the poor through voluntary co-operation in free markets.

Media

Interview with St. Louis Fed Vice President on Bitcoin

Dr David Andolfatto, who is Vice President of the St. Louis Fed, has been one of the most forward-looking people at central banks around the world when it comes to crypto-currencies. Here he speaks with Max Rangeley, Editor at The Cobden Centre, and gives his views on what Bitcoin means for commerce, finance, and the dollar itself.

Max: How have you found the reactions to Bitcoin within the Fed?

David: Bitcoin is barely on the radar screen for most Fed researchers and policymakers. This is to be expected, given the large size of the Fed’s balance sheet and the debate over how to conduct monetary policy with the existence of large excess reserves. But I am aware of a small group of researchers scattered throughout the Fed system that seem interested in the Bitcoin phenomenon. Some, like Francois Velde of the Chicago Fed, have written nice primers on the phenomenon. I am also aware of a cryptocurrency workshop that meets monthly at the New York Fed. The reaction of most people (who study it) might be described as “academic agnosticism” in the sense that people are curious, but not enthusiastically in favor or against the idea.

Max: How do you see Bitcoin being used in the future? Do you foresee private currencies being commonly used on the high street alongside state-backed currencies, or remaining largely online phenomena?

David: Who can say how the future will evolve, especially in this space? My best guess is that Bitcoin will find a niche market. It’s cool to use bitcoin to pay for your Starbucks latte on university campuses (this is what my university is doing). It may very well find a place on the high street, at least among some shops catering to the “cool” crowd. But for advanced economies, at least, it is hard to see how consumers will benefit directly by using bitcoins instead of dollars or pounds. As Satoshi Nakamoto wrote in his seminal 2008 paper introducing Bitcoin, “…the [current] system works well enough for most transactions…”

Max: If the use of private currencies became more widespread, do you think that central banks would ever track monetary aggregates in circulation, even if just approximately, much as M2, M3 etc are tracked now?

David: Anything is possible, but I doubt it. One issue is that there many of these “wildcat” currencies, with more appearing every day (every online game has its own currency for example, as do most social media sites). In a sense, these currencies are “local” monies (much like the local currencies that have always existed, like the Ithaca hour, for example). I’m not sure how a statistical agency could keep track of all these little local currencies, or whether it would even be worthwhile to do so. But who knows?

Max: If private currencies were to become widely used around the world, do you think that this could have an effect on the business cycle, since central banks would not have as much control over monetary factors?

David: I do not think it would have much of an effect on the business cycle, which I think is rooted more in “real” and “financial” factors, rather than “monetary” factors, per se.

Max: You mentioned in your presentation on Bitcoin that although supply is fixed, demand can fluctuate significantly, which causes volatility, would you say this is a weakness inherent in private currencies, or is there the possibility that algorithms could evolve to incorporate a degree of elasticity?

David: Remember that Bitcoin is *more* than a private currency: it is a payment system and monetary policy with *no trusted intermediary* involved. Most private currencies entail the use of trusted third parties. EVE online, for example, an online game founded in 2003 has evidently managed its money supply in a manner that keeps its value relatively stable. It may be possible to code an “elastic money supply” rule in the Bitcoin protocol, but it is not immediately clear to me how this might work. Injecting new money into the system would be easy. The tricky part would be in how to destroy money (having the algorithm debit Bitcoin wallets that are secured by private keys).

Max: You mentioned that you welcome the competition for central banks; if private currencies became widely used, could it chip away at American supremacy, a degree of which is based on the dollar, the so-called “exorbitant privilege”?

David: In my view, America supremacy is not based on the dollar. The status of the dollar simply reflects American supremacy, which is based fundamentally on the structure of that economy (something “real” not “monetary”). The America dollar already faces stiff competition from a variety of alternative candidates, including the Yen, the Euro, and gold. If gold cannot displace the USD, why would we expect Bitcoin to?

Politics

New Normal

Just over three weeks ago, in his keynote address to the Global Corporocracy at the so-called ‘Summer Davos’ meeting in Tianjin, Li Keqiang firmly stated that:  ‘…we [have] focused more on structural readjustment and other long-term problems, and refrained from being distracted by the slight short-term fluctuations of individual indicators.’

 

He went on to downplay the fetish for the 7.5% GDP number, saying that ‘…we believe the actual economic growth rate is within the proper range, even if it is slightly higher or lower than the… target.’

 

As if that were not clear enough, Finance Minister Lou Jiwei rather spoiled Madame Lagarde’s infrastructure orgy at the Sep 20th weekend G20 meeting in Australia when he pointed out that China had already tried the very approach which his Western peers are itching to undertake – and which they hope can be financed by a grab at their citizens’ private pension funds.

 

Lou pointed out that while the programme may well have provided a short term fillip to ‘growth’, it brought environmental damage, capital misallocation, and dangerously increased indebtedness in its train. As if that were not enough of an ‘ice bucket challenge’ for his audience of panting Keynesians, he reiterated Li’s diagnosis that his government’s macro-economic policy would ‘continue to focus on the general objectives, in particular to maintain employment growth and price stability’ and that [emphasis added], ‘policy adjustments will not change on a single economic indicator’.

 

However determinedly deaf certain Occidental wise monkeys were to this pronouncement, Lou’s local market traders certainly took the words to heart: rebar, rubber, and iron ore fell 4% to major new lows in the Monday session, while a whole range of metals, petrochemicals, and others dropped 2% or more. If the impending Golden Week holiday may have been enough to discourage any further initiative selling of the metals over the succeeding few days (steel, iron, rubber, and cotton were NOT similarly spared), nevertheless the verdict was clear: the pain would continue.

 

Li himself seemed to be resolutely sticking to his guns. In the two policy announcements he has made since his big speech, he has continued to tinker with microeconomic reforms (e.g., liberalizing delivery services) and to enact fiscal measures (notably the introduction of  a series of accelerated depreciation measures aimed both at alleviating the current tax burden and at encouraging SMEs to undertake a little more capex in future). Nowhere is there any hint that the regime’s nerve has failed or therefore that the spigots are about to be opened once more.

 

The latest kite to be flown on this account is the speculation raised by the WSJ that PboC chief Zhou Xiaochuan will be ‘retired’ at the upcoming autumn plenum. Though no confirmation of any sort has been forthcoming so far, we have already been subjected to no shortage of punditry as to the whys and wherefores of the supposed move.

 

Chief among these have been somewhat conflicting conspiracy theories that his expulsion would represent variously a reassertion of its influence by the factions so far largely being steam-rolled by Xi and, in almost exact opposition to this, a move by Xi to ride himself of a turbulent monetary priest who – wait for it – has proved too reluctant to swamp the ailing economy with the massive amounts of liquidity Xi has now decided is necessary in complete contradiction of the programme he and his team have been pursuing!

 

Though we have no special insight into this matter, it does strike us as unlikely that Zhou is suddenly now regarded as an enemy – this is, after all, the man whose gravitas and reputation for calm confidence was deemed so valuable to the incoming administration that it deliberately bent the rules concerning the mandatory retirement of top officials in order to keep him in his post. It seems far more probable, therefore, that if the personnel change is indeed to be affected – and the fulsome encomium to this ‘wise old sage’ which was carried in all the main outlets over the weekend rather diminishes the prospect – his baton would be passed on to someone of like mind. Several commentators have already noted that this may well be the case if the go-to man tipped to be his successor, Guo Shuqing, actually does get the nod.

 

Whether the incumbent stays or goes, however, the very fact that the mere rumour of his departure was enough to have the stimulus junkies drooling that their itch for the next fix would soon be assuaged is revealing of the parlous state to which we have all been reduced in our QEternity, Goldilocks world of an utter reliance on the foibles of central bank heads to determine where we should place our next bets, to the exclusion of all other factors.

 

Giving this crowd some brief hope, the PboC did in fact adjust the repo rate lower and also offered (in its usual, frustratingly opaque manner) a CNY500 billion injection of funds to the five biggest state-owned banks even though this may have been no more than a partial offset to the ongoing lack of foreign exchange accumulation – of especial significance now that the CBRC has clamped down on end-period deposit hunting – and/or a timely assist aimed at preventing the IPO flood from dampening a rekindled enthusiasm for stocks.

 

The realisation that the country’s current afflictions might not be susceptible of alleviation in the time-honoured Yellen-Draghi fashion seems to be spreading. With the capital market queue for bank refinancing now said to stretch to CNY600 billion and with the count of bad and doubtful loans rising rapidly (if still hugely understated), the lenders seem to have a somewhat different focus than that of showering credit on each and every would-be borrower.

 

Nor are borrowers beating down their doors, at least according to the results of the central bank’s latest quarterly survey. This has loan demand falling below the lows of 2012, so no wonder the monthly data dump shows the pace of increase in yuan loans on bank books dropping to the lowest levels of the past eight years. No wonder either when, as CASS academician Yu Yongding told an audience at Tsinghua University, a recent NBS survey found that lending rates for the average SME was no less than 25.1% annualized.

 

The combination of usurious rates and burgeoning liabilities (especially accounts receivable which are up more than 14% yoy) means that financing costs for SOEs are rising at a rate of 16.7% p.a. (as the MOF tells us), while those for joint-stock enterprises are growing 14.4%, and for the usually more profitable HK, Macau & Taiwanese owned-firms at no less than 27.2%, so says the NBS. The Chinese Enterprise Confederation also reported that the top 205 state-owned manufacturing companies’ income margin was a mere 1.8% this past year, while that for their 295 private counterparts was a less than stellar 2.8% (for comparison, over the past 4 ½ years, US manufacturers have returned an average of 10.6¢ pre- and 8.7¢ after-tax on each $1 of sales).

 

Would you be borrowing more in a decelerating economy if these were your business metrics?

 

Reflecting all this on the macro side, Want China Times reported that, with several Chinese provinces finding it ‘hard’ to reach their GDP numbers, voices are being raised in favour of a lowering of the goalposts (the message naturally being far more important than the medium in Leninist thinking).

 

Recall here that the official spin keeps emphasizing both the long-term nature of the shift to the ‘New Normal’ (which one unnamed cynic dared to translate as ‘recession’!) and continually pleads the medium-term difficulties associated with the ‘Three Overlay’ constellation – viz., the problems of changing the emphasis from the quantity to the quality of output; the ‘structural’ shift away from investment and toward consumption as the focus of future development; and the tribulations of eliminating (‘digesting’ in Newspeak) some of the excess capacity and crippling debt levels built up during the ‘stimulus’ the Party unleashed in the attempt to combat the effects of the financial crisis.

 

Significantly, at the grandly titled ‘2014 Co-prosperity Capital Wealth Summit’ held on Sunday, former NBS chief economist and State Department advisor Yao Jingyuan opined that this baleful cyclical conjunction would last for another three to five years. Simultaneously, Shengsong Cheng of the central bank pointed out – in what may be the first serious attempt at disassociating the regime from its previous expectational anchor – that if China were to grow at no more than 6.7% p.a. over the remainder of the decade, the desideratum of doubling the size of the economy over the whole of that ten year stretch would still have been achieved. It would also seriously embarrass many of the Sinomaniacs’ determinedly bullish projections.

 

As Want China Times also wrote, besides the growing shortfalls in Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanxi, Heilongjiang, Hunan, and Guangdong provinces, Shenzhen is labouring under the burden of a fall in two-way trade volumes of 28% over the first seven months of the year in addition to a 60% plunge in newly constructed real estate.

 

As 21st Century Herald has pointed out, the upshot has been that many local governments are trimming outlays, dipping into reserves, and even indulging in asset fire-sales in order to stem the fiscal haemorrhage. Even then, in order to meet revenue goals, resort has been made to a neat, fraudulent round-robin whereby local businesses borrow the money with which to pay fictional taxes and then recoup the outlay in the form of phony subsidies, rebates, and contracts. An official at one northern city admitted that up to 15% of his authority’s budget consisted of such shenanigans but that in certain county governments the padding amounted to 30% of the total. No wonder the expansion of bank balance sheets is having so little effect on genuine activity.

 

Further to the regional tale of woe, the local stats bureau made it known that even mighty Shanghai’s industries saw an actual drop in the value of output of 2.5% yoy in August, figures which represent a truly stunning reversal from June’s +7.1 gain and the first half’s overall increase of +4.4%.

 

Meanwhile, the CISA reported that implied steel consumption has failed to grow so far this year for the first time in the new millennium. No surprise then that rumours continue to swirl about the possible CNY10’s of billions involved in the potential bankruptcy of Sinosteel. Likewise, Reuters reported that ‘sources at the country’s major oil companies have predicted that China’s diesel consumption is set to post its first decline in more than a decade.’ How much of even that is real demand is another moot point given that SAFE has just announced the identification of $10 billion in fake cross-border transactions in a scandal which has progressively widened out from the initial Qindao port incident to encompass no less than 24 separate provinces and cities thus far.

 

Globally, the impact is being felt in the bellwether chemical industry.  As the American Chemistry Council noted, there was a ‘worrying’ slide in operating rates during what is typically the seasonally strong second quarter.  Things have not improved much since. Q2.   The ACC showed Germany dropping from 4.8% growth in February to a fall of 3.5% in August.  India crashed from +12.9% in January to +3.4% in August. Japan fell from +9.2% in March to just +0.8% in August. Mexico went from 1% growth in April to -2.8% and Russia slowed from +4.2% in January to -10.4% last month.

 

Only one major country managed to maintain a relatively strong growth level. You may not be surprised to learn that this stalwart was China, where output peaked at +11.1% in April, was still a strong +8.8% four months later. Why the anomaly? No real mystery: the country has swung from being a net importer of bulk chemicals to being a net exporter, much as it has in refined oil products and also in some metals. No-one dare utter the word, ‘dumping’!

 

All of this is a sharp contrast to the first stages of Chinese expansion when the country purchased large quantities of raw and semi-processed items – without much regard to their cost – either to employ them in building out its own industries and infrastructure (as Mr Lou pointed out) or to incorporate – along with a range of other bought-in, more sophisticated components – into finished-goods exports bound for Western consumers who were borrowing a goodly portion of the necessary invoice amounts.

 

Nowadays, many of those foreign customers are either unwilling or unable add any  more to their slate, while the prevailing quest for China’s factory owners is to find some way of more profitably utilising some of the vast overcapacity they have built up in the interim.

 

One consequence is that, even allowing for possible distortions in the data, it is clear that things are running no where near as hot as they once were. Taking the five years to the peak of the last cycle, Chinese industrial corporations enjoyed compound annual revenue growth of over 25% and profit growth of 37%. Fast forward and since the end of 2012, earnings growth and – perhaps even more tellingly – revenues are up by a much lesser 10% or so. Not a basis on which to be too gung-ho on further capital outlays, nor one in which double-digit rises in wage costs can continue to be blithely accommodated.

 

At the largest of scales, evidence of this change can also be found. During the whole of the two decades before Crash, world trade volumes rose at 7.2% a year, compounded: since the start of 2011, that pace has slowed to a tardy 2.0%, meaning that now, some six years on from the Snowball Earth episode, we are only at three quarters of the level we would have attained had the crisis not intervened. And, as we know, all this is closely related in a complex web of cause-and-effect to the rate global money growth. That latter is facing its own challenges given that the ongoing steep rise in the dollar reduces the effective global heft of the monies being emitted by just about everyone other than the Chinese themselves with their similarly-soaring currency.

 

In passing, economic turmoil may be one thing with which the leadership has to contend, but the upsurge of violence in Xinjiang – where up to 50 people were reported killed during a bomb attack on two Luntai police stations – and the rather more peaceful, if no less weighty, street protests in HK – with their uncomfortable echoes of East European ‘Colour’ revolutions – are another matter entirely.

 

All told, the Chinese CCP and its new leaders have some sizeable challenges to overcome in the months ahead.

Economics

A difficult question

In a radio interview recently* I was asked a question to which I could not easily give a satisfactory reply: if the gold market is rigged, why does it matter?
I have no problem delivering a comprehensive answer based on a sound aprioristic analysis of how rigging markets distorts the basis of economic calculation and why a properly functioning gold market is central to all other financial prices. The difficulty is in answering the question in terms the listeners understand, bearing in mind I was told to assume they have very little comprehension of finance or economics.
I did not as they say, want to go there. But it behoves those of us who argue the economics of sound money to try to make the answer as intelligible as possible without sounding like a committed capitalist and a conspiracy theorist to boot, so here goes.

Manipulating the price of gold ultimately destabilises the financial system because it is the highest form of money. This is why nearly all central banks retain a holding. The fact we don’t use it as money in our daily business does not invalidate its status. Rather, gold is subject to Gresham’s Law, which famously states bad money drives out the good. We would rather pay for things in government-issue paper currency and hang on to gold for a rainy day.

As money, it is on the other side of all asset prices. In other words stocks, bonds and property prices can be expected to rise measured in gold when the gold price falls and vice-versa. This relationship is often muddled by other factors, the most obvious one being changing levels of confidence in paper currencies against which gold is normally priced. However, with bond yields today at record lows and equities at record highs this relationship is apparent today.

Another way to describe this relationship is in terms of risk. Banks which dominate asset markets become complacent about risk because they are greedy for profit. This leads to banks competing with one another until they end up ignoring risk entirely. It happened very obviously with the American banking crisis six years ago until house prices suddenly collapsed, threatening to take the whole financial system down. In common with all financial bubbles everyone ignored risk. History provides many other examples.

Therefore, gold is unlike other assets because a rising gold price reflects an increasing perception of general financial risk, ensuring downward pressure on other financial asset prices. So while the big banks are making easy money ignoring risks in equity and bond markets, they will not want their party spoiled by warning signs from a rising gold price.

This is a long way from proof that the gold market is manipulated. But the big banks, and we must include central banks which are obviously keen to maintain financial confidence, have the motive and the means. And if they have these they can be expected to take the opportunity.

So why does it matter if the gold price is rigged? A freely-determined gold price is central to ensuring that reality and not financial bubbles guides us in our financial and economic activities. Suppressing the gold price is rather like turning off a fire alarm because you can’t stand the noise.

*File on 4: BBC Radio4 due to be broadcast on 23 September at 8.00pm UK-time and repeated on 28 September at 5.00pm.