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.
In recent months talking heads, disappointed with the lack of economic recovery, have turned their attention to wages. If only wages could grow, they say, there would be more demand for goods and services: without wage growth, economies will continue to stagnate. It amounts to a non-specific call to stimulate aggregate demand by continuing with or even accelerating the expansion of money supply. The thinking is the same as that behind Bernanke’s monetary distribution by helicopter. Unfortunately for these wishful-thinkers the disciplines of the markets cannot be bypassed. If you give everyone more money without a balancing increase in the supply of goods, there is no surer way of stimulating price inflation, collapsing a currency’s purchasing power and losing all control of interest rates.
The underlying error is to fail to understand that economising individuals make things in order to be able to buy things. That is the order of events, earn it first and spend it second. No amount of monetary shenanigans can change this basic fact. Instead, expanding the quantity of money will always end up devaluing the wealth and earning-power of ordinary people, the same people that are being encouraged to spend, and destroying genuine economic activity in the process.
This is the reason monetary stimulation never works, except for a short period if and when the public are fooled by the process. Businesses – owned and managed by ordinary people – are not fooled by it any more: they are buying in their equity instead of investing in new production because they know that investing in production doesn’t earn a return. This is the logical response by businesses to the destruction of their customers’ wealth through currency debasement.
Let me sum up currency debasement with an aphorism:
“You print some money to rob the wealth of ordinary people to give to the banks to lend to business to make their products for customers to buy with money devalued by printing.”
It is as ridiculous a circular proposition as perpetual motion, yet central banks never seem to question it. Monetary stimulus fails with every credit cycle when the destruction of wealth is exposed by rising prices. But in this credit cycle the deception was so obvious to the general public that it failed from the outset.
The last five years have seen all beliefs in the manageability of aggregate demand comprehensively demolished by experience. The unfortunate result of this failure is that central bankers now see no alternative to maintaining things as they are, because the financial system has become horribly over-geared and probably wouldn’t survive the rise in interest rates a genuine economic recovery entails anyway. Price inflation would almost certainly rise well above the 2% target forcing central banks to raise interest rates, throwing bonds and stocks into a severe bear market, and imperilling government finances. The financial system is simply too highly geared to survive a credit-driven recovery.
Japan, which has accelerated monetary debasement of the yen at an unprecedented rate, finds itself in this trap. If anything, the pace of its economic deterioration is increasing. The explanation is simple and confirms the obvious: monetary debasement impoverishes ordinary people. Far from boosting the economy it is rapidly driving us into a global slump.
The solution is not higher wages.
This month we observe the 40th anniversary of the resignation, under threat of imminent impeachment, of President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon aide and loyalist Pat Buchanan sums up, in a column in USA Today Liberal Elites Toppled Nixon his view:
“Richard Nixon was not brought down by any popular uprising. The breaking of his presidency was a product of the malice and collusion of liberal elites who had been repudiated in Nixon’s 49-state landslide in 1972.”
Nixon, as it happens, was not 1974’s only casualty. As William Safire recalls, Nixon’s secretary of the treasury, John Connally, “was indicted for taking graft on the same day the President was charged by the House Judiciary Committee for abuse of power.”
Both men were instrumental in the repudiation of the Bretton Woods gold-dollar monetary system that had undergirded post-war American (and world prosperity). Bretton Woods, indeed, was coming apart (as a gold+paper pastiche standard inevitably is prone to do). A gold-based international monetary order called out, however, to be mended not ended. Nixon ended it.
The House Judiciary Committee’s charges and the Connally indictment uncannily fulfill a prophecy by Tom Paine. Paine’s Common Sense triggered the American Revolution. Paine later wrote a tract, Dissertations On Government; The Affairs of the Bank; and Paper Money in 1786. It was issued the year before the Constitutional Convention that would send the confederated former colonies into the epic called the United States of America. It was, in part, a perfect diatribe against paper-based (rather than gold or silver defined) money.
But the evils of paper money have no end. Its uncertain and fluctuating value is continually awakening or creating new schemes of deceit. Every principle of justice is put to the rack, and the bond of society dissolved: the suppression, therefore; of paper money might very properly have been put into the act for preventing vice and immorality.
As to the assumed authority of any assembly in making paper money, or paper of any kind, a legal tender, or in other language, a compulsive payment, it is a most presumptuous attempt at arbitrary power. There can be no such power in a republican government: the people have no freedom, and property no security where this practice can be acted: and the committee who shall bring in a report for this purpose, or the member who moves for it, and he who seconds it merits impeachment, and sooner or later may expect it.
Of all the various sorts of base coin, paper money is the basest. It has the least intrinsic value of anything that can be put in the place of gold and silver. A hobnail or a piece of wampum far exceeds it. And there would be more propriety in making those articles a legal tender than to make paper so.
The laws of a country ought to be the standard of equity, and calculated to impress on the minds of the people the moral as well as the legal obligations of reciprocal justice. But tender laws, of any kind, operate to destroy morality, and to dissolve, by the pretense of law, what ought to be the principle of law to support, reciprocal justice between man and man: and the punishment of a member who should move for such a law ought to be death.
The death penalty for proposing paper money? Paine called for the criminal indictment as a capital crime, and for impeachment, of any who even would call for tender laws.
Connally was acquitted on the charges of graft and perjury. Later he underwent bankruptcy before dying in semi-disgrace. Nixon resigned rather than undergoing impeachment, also living out his life in disgraced political exile. The spirit of Paine’s declaration was fulfilled in both cases. Connally and Nixon engineered this violation, abandoning the good, precious-metal, money contemplated by the Constitution. Nemesis followed hubris.
The closing of the “gold window” was based, by Connolly, on deeply wrong premises. It was sold to the public, by Nixon, on deeply false promises.
On August 15, 1971 President Nixon came before the American people to announce:
We must protect the position of the American dollar as a pillar of monetary stability around the world.
In the past 7 years, there has been an average of one international monetary crisis every year. Now who gains from these crises? Not the workingman; not the investor; not the real producers of wealth. The gainers are the international money speculators. Because they thrive on crises, they help to create them.
In recent weeks, the speculators have been waging an all-out war on the American dollar. The strength of a nation’s currency is based on the strength of that nation’s economy–and the American economy is by far the strongest in the world. Accordingly, I have directed the Secretary of the Treasury to take the action necessary to defend the dollar against the speculators.
I have directed Secretary Connally to suspend temporarily the convertibility of the dollar into gold or other reserve assets, except in amounts and conditions determined to be in the interest of monetary stability and in the best interests of the United States.
Now, what is this action–which is very technical–what does it mean for you?
Let me lay to rest the bugaboo of what is called devaluation.
If you want to buy a foreign car or take a trip abroad, market conditions may cause your dollar to buy slightly less. But if you are among the overwhelming majority of Americans who buy American-made products in America, your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today.
The effect of this action, in other words, will be to stabilize the dollar.
Now, this action will not win us any friends among the international money traders. But our primary concern is with the American workers, and with fair competition around the world.
To our friends abroad, including the many responsible members of the international banking community who are dedicated to stability and the flow of trade, I give this assurance: The United States has always been, and will continue to be, a forward-looking and trustworthy trading partner. In full cooperation with the International Monetary Fund and those who trade with us, we will press for the necessary reforms to set up an urgently needed new international monetary system. Stability and equal treatment is in everybody’s best interest. I am determined that the American dollar must never again be a hostage in the hands of international speculators.
Nixon’s promise that “your dollar will be worth just as much tomorrow as it is today” has, of course, completely falsified. The 2014 dollar is worth only 15 cents in 1971 terms, buying 85% less than it did in 1971. Some bugaboo. All of Nixon’s other rationalizations for going off gold also have been falsified.
The closing of the gold window turned out to be the slamming of the golden door to social mobility and equitable prosperity. In the wake of the closing of the gold window median family income stagnated, never again experiencing secular recovery. Meanwhile the income of the wealthy has continued apace. This has produced the very income inequality so loudly denounced by progressives who, ironically, are the last defenders of the very policy which is the probable cause of our inequitable prosperity.
Brother Pat Buchanan states that Nixon
…ended the Vietnam War with honor, brought all our troops and POWs home, opened up China, negotiated historic arms agreements with Moscow, ended the draft, desegregated southern schools, enacted the 18-year-old vote, created the EPA, OSHA and National Cancer Institute, and was rewarded by a grateful nation with a 61% landslide.
Even as Watergate broke, he ordered the airlift that saved Israel in the Yom Kippur War, for which Golda Meir called him the best friend Israel ever had.
His enemies were beside themselves with rage and resentment.
Buchanan, while admirably loyal, ignores the correlation between Nixon’s embrace of paper money and Paine’s prophetic call for impeachment for that high crime. Let us now, in this month of the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation and the 43rd of his abandonment of the gold standard, pause to wonder. It is bewildering circumstance that the very liberal elites Buchanan indicts as malicious in their treatment of Nixon today represent the most reactionary of defenders of the most pernicious, and only enduring, residue of the Nixon Shock: paper money, “a most presumptuous attempt at arbitrary power.”
Originating at http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/08/18/pat-buchanan-ignores-the-underlying-reason-richard-nixon-was-forced-to-resign/
Despite all the massive monetary pumping over the past six years and the lowering of interest rates to almost zero most commentators have expressed disappointment with the pace of economic growth. For instance, the yearly rate of growth of the EMU real GDP fell to 0.7% in Q2 from 0.9% in the previous quarter. In Q1 2007 the yearly rate of growth stood at 3.7%. In Japan the yearly rate of growth of real GDP fell to 0% in Q2 from 2.7% in Q1 and 5.8% in Q3 2010.
In the US the yearly rate of growth of real GDP stood at 2.4% in Q2 against 1.9% in the prior quarter. Note that since Q1 2010 the rate of growth followed a sideways path of around 2.2%. The exception is the UK where the growth momentum of GDP shows strengthening with the yearly rate of growth closing at 3.1% in Q2 from 3% in Q1. Observe however, that the yearly rate of growth in Q3 2007 stood at 4.3%.
In addition to still subdued economic activity most central bankers are concerned with the weakness of workers earnings.
Some of them are puzzled that despite injecting trillions of dollars into the financial system so little of it is showing up in workers earnings?
After all, it is held, the higher earnings are the more consumers can spend and consequently, the stronger the economic growth is going to be, so it is held.
The yearly rate of growth of US average hourly earnings stood at 2% in July against 3.9% in June 2007.
In the EMU the yearly rate of growth of weekly earnings plunged to 1.3% in Q1 from 5.4% in Q2 2009.
In the UK the yearly rate of growth of average weekly earnings fell to 0.7% in June this year from 5% in August 2007.
According to the Vice Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Stanley Fischer the US and global recoveries have been “disappointing” so far and may point to a permanent downshift in economic potential. Fisher has suggested that a slowing productivity could be an important factor behind all this.
That a fall in the productivity of workers could be an important factor is a good beginning in trying to establish what is really happening. It is however, just the identification of a symptom – it is not the cause of the problem.
Now, higher wages are possible if workers’ contribution to the generation of real wealth is expanding. The more a particular worker generates as far as real wealth is concerned the more he/she can demand in terms of wages.
An important factor that permits a worker to lift productivity is the magnitude and the quality of the infrastructure that is available to him. With better tools and machinery more output per hour can be generated and hence higher wages can be paid.
It is by allocating a larger slice out of a given pool of real wealth towards the buildup and the enhancement of the infrastructure that more capital goods per worker emerges (more tools and machinery per worker) and this sets the platform for higher worker productivity and hence to an expansion in real wealth and thus lifts prospects for higher wages. (With better infrastructure workers can now produce more goods and services).
The key factors that undermine the expansion in the capital goods per worker are an ever expanding government and loose monetary policies of the central bank. According to the popular view, what drives the economy is the demand for goods and services.
If, for whatever reasons, insufficient demand emerges it is the role of the government and the central bank to strengthen the demand to keep the economy going, so it is held. There is, however, no independent category such as demand that drives an economy. Every demand must be funded by a previous production of wealth. By producing something useful to other individuals an individual can exercise a demand for other useful goods.
Any policy, which artificially boosts demand, leads to consumption that is not backed up by a previous production of wealth. For instance, monetary pumping that is supposedly aimed at lifting the economy in fact generates activities that cannot support themselves. This means that their existence is only possible by diverting real wealth from wealth generators.
Printing presses set in motion an exchange of nothing for something. Note that a monetary pumping sets a platform for various non-productive or bubble activities – instead of wealth being used to fund the expansion of a wealth generating infrastructure, the monetary pumping channels wealth towards wealth squandering activities.
This means that monetary pumping leads to the squandering of real wealth. Similarly a policy of artificially lowering interest rates in order to boost demand in fact provides support for various non-productive activities that in a free market environment would never emerge.
We suggest that the longer central banks world wide persist with their loose monetary policies the greater the risk of severely damaging the wealth generating process is. This in turn raises the likelihood of a prolonged stagnation.
All this however, can be reversed by shrinking the size of the government and by the closure of all the loopholes of the monetary expansion. Obviously a tighter fiscal and monetary stance is going to hurt various non-productive activities.
“I say to all those who bet against Greece and against Europe: You lost and Greece won. You lost and Europe won.” –Jean-Claude Juncker, former prime minister of Luxembourg and president of the Eurogroup of EU Finance Ministers, 2014
“We have indeed at the moment little cause for pride: As a profession we have made a mess of things.” –Friedrich Hayek, Nobel Laureate in Economic Science, 1974
Jean-Claude Juncker is a prominent exception to the recent trend of economic and monetary officials openly expressing doubt that their interventionist policies are producing the desired results. In recent months, central bankers, the International Monetary Fund, the Bank for International Settlements, and a number of prestigious academic economists have expressed serious concern that their policies are not working and that, if anything, the risks of another 2008-esque global financial crisis are building. Thus we have arrived at a ‘Crisis of Interventionism’ as the consequences of unprecedented monetary and fiscal stimulus become evident, fuelling a surge in economic nationalism around the world, threatening the end of globalisation and the outbreak of trade wars. Indeed, a tech trade war may already have started. This is is perhaps the least appreciated risk to financial markets at present. How should investors prepare?
THE FATAL CONCEIT
Friedrich Hayek was the first Austrian School economist to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science. Yet Hayek took issue with the characterisation of modern economics as a ‘science’ in the conventional sense. This is because the scientific method requires theories to be falsifiable and repeatable under stable conditions. Hayek knew this to be impossible in the real world in which dynamic, spontaneous human action takes place in response to an incalculable number of exogenous and endogenous variables.
Moreover, Hayek believed that, due to the complexity of a modern economy, the very idea that someone can possibly understand how it works to the point of justifying trying to influence or distort prices is nonsensical in theory and dangerous in practise. Thus he termed such hubris in economic theory ‘The Pretence of Knowledge’ and, in economic policy, ‘The Fatal Conceit’.
History provides much evidence that Hayek was correct. Interventionism has consistently failed either to produce the desired results or has caused new, unanticipated problems, such as in the 1920s and 1930s, for example, an age of particularly active economic policy activism in most of the world. Indeed, as Hayek wrote in his most famous work, The Road to Serfdom, economic officials tend to respond to the unintended consequences of their failed interventions with ever more interventionism, eventually leading to severe restrictions of economic liberty, such as those observed under socialist or communist regimes.
Hayek thus took advantage of his Nobel award to warn the economics profession that, by embracing a flawed, ‘pseudo-scientific method’ to justify interventionism, it was doing itself and society at large a great disservice:
The conflict between what in its present mood the public expects science to achieve in satisfaction of popular hopes and what is really in its power is a serious matter because, even if the true scientists should all recognize the limitations of what they can do in the field of human affairs, so long as the public expects more there will always be some who will pretend, and perhaps honestly believe, that they can do more to meet popular demands than is really in their power. It is often difficult enough for the expert, and certainly in many instances impossible for the layman, to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate claims advanced in the name of science…
If we are to safeguard the reputation of economic science, and to prevent the arrogation of knowledge based on a superficial similarity of procedure with that of the physical sciences, much effort will have to be directed toward debunking such arrogations, some of which have by now become the vested interests of established university departments.
Hayek made these comments in 1974. If only the economics profession had listened. Instead, it continued with the pseudo-science, full-steam ahead. That said, by 1974 a backlash against traditional Keynesian-style intervention had already begun, led by, among others, Milton Friedman. But Friedman too, brilliant as he no doubt was, was seduced also by the culture of pseudo-science and, in his monetary theories, for which he won his Nobel prize in 1976, he replaced a Keynesian set of unscientific, non-falsifiable, intervention-justifying equations with a Monetarist set instead.
Economic interventionism did, however, fall out of intellectual favour following the disastrous late-1970s stagflation and subsequent deep recession of the early 1980s—in the US, the worst since WWII. It never really fell out of policy, however. The US Federal Reserve, for example, facilitated one bubble after another in US stock and/or property prices in the period 1987-2007 by employing an increasingly activist monetary policy. As we know, this culminated in the spectacular events of 2008, which unleased a global wave of intervention unparalleled in modern economic history.
THE KEYNESIANS’ NEW CLOTHES
Long out of fashion, Keynesian theory and practice returned to the fore as the 2008 crisis unfolded. Some boldly claimed at the time that “we are all Keynesians now.” Activist economic interventionism became the norm across most developed and developing economies. In some countries, this has taken a more fiscal policy form; in others the emphasis has been more on monetary policy. Now six years on, with most countries still running historically large fiscal deficits and with interest rates almost universally at or near record lows, it is entirely understandable that the economics profession is beginning to ask itself whether the interventions it recommended are working as expected or desired.
While there have always been disputes around the margins of post-2008 interventionist policies, beginning in 2012 these became considerably more significant and frequent. In a previous report, THE KEYNESIANS’ NEW CLOTHES, I focused on precisely this development:
In its most recent World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) surveys the evidence of austerity in practice and does not like what it finds. In particular, the IMF notes that the multiplier associated with fiscal tightening seems to be rather larger than they had previously assumed. That is, for each unit of fiscal tightening, there is a greater economic contraction than anticipated. This results in a larger shrinkage of the economy and has the unfortunate result of pushing up the government debt/GDP ratio, the exact opposite of what was expected and desired.
While the IMF might not prefer to use the term, what I have just described above is a ‘debt trap’. Beyond a certain point an economy has simply accumulated more debt than it can pay back without resort to currency devaluation. (In the event that a country has borrowed in a foreign currency, even devaluation won’t work and some form of restructuring or default will be required to liquidate the debt.)
The IMF is thus tacitly admitting that those economies in the euro-area struggling, and so far failing, to implement austerity are in debt traps. Austerity, as previously recommended by the IMF, is just not going to work. The question that naturally follows is, what will work?
Well, the IMF isn’t exactly sure. The paper does not draw such conclusions. But no matter. If austerity doesn’t work because the negative fiscal multiplier is larger than previously assumed, well then for now, just ease off austerity while policymakers consider other options. In other words, buy time. Kick the can. And hope that the bond markets don’t notice.
Now, nearly two years later, the IMF has been joined in its doubts by a chorus of economic officials and academics from all over the world increasingly concerned that their interventions are failing and, in some cases, putting forth proposals of what should be done.
Let’s start with the Bank of England. Arguably the most activist central bank post-2008, as measured by the expansion of its balance sheet, several members of the Banks’ Monetary Policy Committee have expressed concern about the risks to financial stability posed by soaring UK property prices, a lack of household savings and a financial sector that remains highly leveraged. In a recent speech, BoE Chief Economist Charlie Bean stated that:
[T]he experience of the past few years does appear to suggest that monetary policy ought to take greater account of financial stability concerns. Ahead of the crisis, Bill White and colleagues at the Bank for International Settlements consistently argued that when leverage was becoming excessive and/or asset prices misaligned, central bankers ought to ‘lean against the wind’ by keeping interest rates higher than necessary to meet the price stability objective in the short run. Just as central banks are willing to accept temporary deviations from their inflation targets to limit output volatility, so they should also be willing to accept temporary deviations to attenuate the credit cycle. Essentially it is worth accepting a little more volatility in output and inflation in the short run if one can thereby reduce the size or frequency of asset-price busts and credit crunches.
In other words, perhaps central bank policy should change focus from inflation targeting, which demonstrably failed to prevent 2008, and instead to focus on money and credit growth. This is clearly an anti-Kenyesian view in principle, although one wonders how it might actually work in practice. In closing, he offered these thoughts:
I opened my remarks tonight by observing that my time at the Bank has neatly fallen into two halves. Seven years of unparalleled macroeconomic stability have been followed by seven years characterised by financial instability and a deep recession. It was a salutary lesson for those, like me, who thought we had successfully cracked the problem of steering the economy, and highlighted the need to put in place an effective prudential framework to complement monetary policy. Policy making today consequently looks a much more complex problem than it did fourteen years ago.
Indeed. Policy making does look increasingly complex. And not only to the staff of the IMF and to Mr Bean, but also to the staff at the Bank for International Settlements, to which Mr Bean referred in his comments. In a recent speech, General Manager of the BIS, Jaime Caruana, taking a global view, expressed fresh concern that:
There is considerable evidence that, for the world as a whole, policy interest rates have been persistently below traditional benchmarks, fostering unbalanced expansions. Policy rates are comparatively low regardless of the benchmarks – be these trend growth rates or more refined ones that capture the influence of output and inflation… Moreover, there is clear evidence that US monetary policy helps explain these deviations, especially for small open and emerging market economies. This, together with the large accumulation of foreign exchange reserves, is consistent with the view that these countries find it hard, economically or politically, to operate with rates that are considerably higher than those in core advanced economies. And, alongside such low rates, several of these economies, including some large ones, have been exhibiting signs of a build-up of financial imbalances worryingly reminiscent of that observed in the economies that were later hit by the crisis. Importantly, some of the financial imbalances have been building up in current account surplus countries, such as China, which can ill afford to use traditional policies to boost domestic demand further. This is by no means new: historically, some of the most disruptive financial booms have occurred in current account surplus countries. The United States in the 1920s and Japan in the 1980s immediately spring to mind.
The above might not sound terribly controversial from a common-sense perspective but to those familiar with the core precepts of the neo-Keynesian mainstream, this borders on economic heresy. Mr Caruana is implying that the Great Depression was not caused primarily by the policy failures of the early 1930s but by the boom preceeding it and that the stagnation of Japan in recent decades also has its roots in an unsustainable investment boom. In both cases, these booms were the product of economic interventions in the form of inappropriately easy monetary policy. And whence does current inappropriate policy originate? Why, from the US Federal Reserve! Mr Caruana is placing the blame for the renewed, dangerous buildup of substantial global imbalances and associated asset bubbles specifically on the Fed!
Yet Mr Caruana doesn’t stop there. He concludes by noting that:
[T]he implication is that there has been too much emphasis since the crisis on stimulating demand and not enough on balance sheet repair and structural reforms to boost productivity. Looking forward, policy frameworks need to ensure that policies are more symmetrical over the financial cycle, so as to avoid the risks of entrenching instability and eventually running out of policy ammunition.
So now we have had the IMF observing that traditional policies aren’t working as expected; BoE Chief Economist Bean noting how policy-making has become ‘complex’; and BIS GM Caruana implying this is primarily due to the boom/bust policies of the US Federal Reserve. So what of the Fed itself? What have Fed officials had to say of late?
Arguably the most outspoken recent dissent of the policy mainstream from within the Fed is that from Jeffrey Lacker, President of the regional Richmond branch. In a recent speech, he voiced his clear opposition to growing central bank interventionism:
There are some who praise the Fed’s credit market interventions and advocate an expansive role for the Fed in promoting financial stability and mitigating financial system disruptions. They construe the founders of the Federal Reserve System as motivated by a broad desire to minimize and prevent financial panics, even beyond simply satisfying increased demand for currency. My own view, which I must note may not be shared by all my colleagues in the Federal Reserve System, favors a narrower and more restrained role, focused on the critical core function of managing the monetary liabilities of the central bank. Ambitious use of a central bank’s balance sheet to channel credit to particular economic sectors or entities threatens to entangle the central bank in distributional politics and place the bank’s independence at risk. Moreover, the use of central bank credit to rescue creditors boosts moral hazard and encourages vulnerability to financial shocks.
By explicitly referencing moral hazard, Mr Lacker is taking on the current leadership of the Federal Reserve, now headed by Janet Yellen, which denies that easy money policies have had anything to do with fostering financial instability. But as discussed earlier in this report, the historical evidence is clear that Fed activism is behind the escalating boom-bust cycles of recent decades. And as Mr Caruana further suggests, this has been a global phenomenon, with the Fed at the de facto helm of the international monetary system due to the dollar’s global reserve currency role.
EURO ‘MISSION ACCOMPLISHED’? UH, NO
As quoted at the start of this report, Jean-Claude Juncker, prominent Eurocrat and politician, recently claimed victory in the euro-crisis. “Greece and Europe won.” And who lost? Why, those who bet against them in the financial markets by selling their debt and other associated assets.
But is it really ‘mission accomplished’ in Europe? No, and not by a long shot. Yes, so-called ‘austerity’ was absolutely necessary. Finances in many EU countries were clearly on an unsustainable course. But other than to have bought time through lower borrowing costs, have EU or ECB officials actually achieved anything of note with respect to restoring economic competitiveness?
There is some evidence to this effect, for example in Ireland, Portugal and Spain, comprising some 15% of the euro-area economy. However, there is also evidence to the contrary, most clearly seen in France, comprising some 20% of the euro-area. So while those countries under the most pressure from the crisis have made perhaps some progress, the second-largest euro member country is slipping at an accelerating rate into the uncompetitive abyss. Italy, for many years a relative economic underperformer, is not necessarily doing worse than before, but it is hard to argue it is doing better. (Indeed, Italy’s recent decision to distort its GDP data by including estimates for non-taxable black-market activities smacks of a desperate campaign to trick investors into believing its public debt burden is more manageable than it really is.)
There is also a surge in economic nationalism throughout the EU, as demonstrated by the remarkable surge in support for anti-EU politicians and parties. It is thus far too early for Mr Juncker to claim victory, although politicians are naturally given to such rhetoric. The crisis of interventionism in the euro-area may is not dissipating; rather, it is crossing borders, where it will re-escalate before long.
THE SHORT HONEYMOON OF ‘ABENOMICS’
Turning to developments in Japan, so-called ‘Abenomics’, the unabashedly interventionist economic policy set implemented by Prime Minister Abe following his election in late 2012, has already resulted in tremendous disappointment. Yes, the yen plummeted in late 2012 and early 2013, something that supposedly would restore economic competitiveness. But something happened on the way, namely a surge in import prices, including energy. Now Japan is facing not just economic stagnation but rising inflation, a nasty cocktail of ‘stagflation’. Not that this should be any surprise: Devaluing your way to prosperity has never worked, regardless of when or where tried, yet doing so in the face of structural economic headwinds is guaranteed to produce rising price inflation, just as it did in the US and UK during the 1970s.
With reality now having arrived, it will be interesting to see what Mr Abe does next. Will he go ‘all-in’ with even more aggressive yen devaluation? Or will he consider focusing on structural reform instead? Although I am hardly a Japan expert, I have travelled to the country regularly since the late 1990s and my sense is that the country is likely to slip right back into the ‘muddle through’ that characterised the economy during most of the past decade. Of course, in the event that another major global financial crisis unfolds, as I regard as inevitable in some form, Japan will be unable to avoid it, highly integrated as it is.
THE BUCK STOPS HERE: A ‘BRIC’ WALL
In my book, THE GOLDEN REVOLUTION, I document how the BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China, now joined by South Africa to make the BRICS) have been working together for years to try and reorient themselves away from mercantilist, dollar-centric, export-led economic development, in favour of a more balanced approach. Certainly they have good reasons to do so, as I described in a 2012 report, THE BUCK STOPS HERE: A BRIC WALL:
[T]he BRICS are laying the appropriate groundwork for their own monetary system: Bilateral currency arrangements and their own IMF/World Bank. The latter could, in principle, form the basis for a common currency and monetary policy. At a minimum it will allow them to buy much global influence, by extending some portion of their massive cumulative savings to other aspiring developing economies or, intriguingly, to ‘advanced’ economies in need of a helping hand and willing to return the favour in some way.
In my new book, I posit the possibility that the BRICS, amid growing global monetary instability, might choose to back their currencies with gold. While that might seem far-fetched to some, consider that, were the BRICS to reduce their dependence on the dollar without sufficient domestic currency credibility, they would merely replace one source of instability with another. Gold provides a tried, tested, off-the-shelf solution for any country or group of countries seeking greater monetary credibility and the implied stability it provides.
Now consider the foreign policy angle: The Delhi Declaration makes clear that the BRICS are not at all pleased with the new wave of interventionism in Syria and Iran. While the BRICS may be unable to pose an effective military opposition to combined US and NATO military power in either of those two countries, they could nevertheless make it much more difficult for the US and NATO to finance themselves going forward. To challenge the dollar is to challenge the Fed to raise interest rates in response. If the Fed refuses to raise rates, the dollar will plummet. If the Fed does raise interest rates, it will choke off growth and tax revenue. In either case, the US will find it suddenly much more expensive, perhaps prohibitively so, to carry out further military adventures in the Middle East or elsewhere.
While the ongoing US confrontations with Iran and Syria have been of concern to the BRICS for some time, of acute concern to member Russia of late has been the escalating crisis in Ukraine. The recent ‘Maidan’ coup, clearly supported by the US and possibly some EU countries, is regarded with grave concern by Russia, which has already taken action to protect its naval base and other military assets in the Crimea. Now several other Russian-majority Ukrainian regions are seeking either autonomy or independence. The street fighting has been intense at times. The election this past weekend confirming what Russia regards as an illegitimate, NATO-puppet government changes and solves nothing; it merely renders the dipute more intractable and a further escalation appears likely. (Russia is pressing Kiev as I write to allow it to begin providing humanitarian assistance to the rebellious regions, something likely to be denied.)
US economic sanctions on Russia have no doubt helped to catalyse the most recent BRICS initiative, in this case one specific to Russia and China, who have agreed a landmark 30-year gas deal while, at the same time, preparing the groundwork for the Russian banking system to handle non-dollar (eg yuan) payments for Russian gas exports. This is a specific but nevertheless essential step towards a more general de-dollarisation of intra-BRICS trade, which continues to grow rapidly.
The dollar’s international role had been in slow but steady decline for years, with 2008 serving to accelerate the process. The BRICS are now increasingly pro-active in reducing their dollar dependence. Russia has been dumping US dollar reserves all year and China is no longer accumulating them. India has recently eased restrictions on gold imports, something that is likely to reduce Indian demand for US Treasuries. (Strangely enough, and fodder for conspiracy theorists, tiny Belgium has stepped in to fill the gap, purchasing huge amounts of US Treasuries in recent months, equivalent to some $20,000 per household! Clearly that is not actually Belgian buying at all, but custodial buying on behalf of someone else. But on behalf of whom? And why?)
As I wrote in my book, amid global economic weakness, the so-called ‘currency wars’ naturally escalate. Competitive devaluations thus have continued periodically, such as the Abenomics yen devaluation of 2012-13 and the more recent devaluation of the Chinese yuan. As I have warned in previous reports, however, history strongly suggests that protracted currency wars lead to trade wars, which can be potentially disastrous in their effects, including on corporate profits and valuations.
THE END OF GLOBALISATION?
Trade wars are rarely labelled as such, at least not at first. Some other reason is normally given for erecting trade barriers. A popular such reason in recent decades has been either environmental or health concerns. For example, the EU and China, among other countries, have banned the import of certain genetically modified foods and seeds.
Rather than erect formal barriers, governments can also seek ways to subsidise domestic producers or exporters. While the World Trade Organisation (WTO) aims to prevent and police such barriers and subsidies, in practice it can take it years to effectively enforce such actions.
Well, there is now a new excuse for trade barriers, one specific to the huge global tech and telecommunications industry: Espionage. As it emerges that US-built and patented devices in widespread use around the world contain various types of ‘backdoors’ allowing the US National Security Agency to eavesdrop, countries are evaluating whether they should ban their use. Cisco’s CEO recently complained of losing market share to rivals due to such concerns. Somewhat ominously, China announced over the past week that it would prohibit public entities from using Microsoft Windows version 8 and would require banks to migrate away from IBM computer servers.
There has also been talk amongst the BRICS that they should build a parallel internet infrastructure to avoid routing information via the US, where it is now assumed to be automatically and systematically compromised. Given these concerns, it is possible that a general tech trade war is now breaking out under an espionage pretext. What a convenient excuse for protecting jobs: Protecting secrets! What do you think the WTO will have to say about that?
Imagine what a tech trade war would do to corporate profits. Name one major tech firm that does not have widely dispersed global supply chains, manufacturing operations and an international customer base. Amid rising trade barriers, tech firms will struggle to keep costs down. Beyond a certain point they will need to pass rising costs on to their customers. The general deflation of tech in recent decades will go into reverse. Imagine what that will do to consumer price inflation around the world.
Yes, a tech trade war would be devastating. Household, ‘blue-chip’ tech names might struggle to survive, much less remain highly profitable. And the surge in price inflation may limit the ability of central banks to continue with ultra-loose monetary policies, to the detriment also of non-tech corporate profits and financial health. This could lead into a vicious circle of reactionary protectionism in other industries, a historical echo of the ‘tit-for-tat’ trade wars of the 1930s that were part and parcel of what made the Great Depression such a disaster.
Given these facts, it is difficult to imagine that the outbreak of a global tech trade war would not result in a major equity market crash. Current valuations are high in a historical comparison and imply continued high profitability. Major stock markets, including the US, could easily lose half their value, even more if a general price inflation led central banks to tighten monetary conditions by more than financial markets currently expect. Of all the ‘black swans’ out there, a tech trade war is not only taking flight; it is also potentially one of the largest, short of a shooting war.
A SILVER LINING TO THE GLOOM AND DOOM
With equity valuations stretched and complacency rampant—the VIX volatility index dipped below 12 this week, a rare event indeed—now is the time to proceed with extreme caution. The possible outbreak of a tech trade war only adds to the danger. Buying the VIX (say, via an ETF) is perhaps the most straightforward way to insure an equity portfolio, but there are various ways to get defensive, as I discussed in my last report.
Where there is risk, however, there is opportunity, and right now there is a silver lining: With a couple of exceptions, metals prices are extremely depressed relative to stock market valuations. Arguably the most depressed is silver. Having slipped below $20/oz, silver has given up all of its previous, relative outperformance vs other metals from 2010-11. It thus appears cheap vs both precious and industrial metals, with silver being something of a hybrid between the two. Marginal production capacity that was brought on line following the 2010-11 price surge is now uneconomic and is shutting down. But the long slide in prices has now attracted considerable speculative short interest. If for any reason silver finds a reason to recover, the move is likely to be highly asymmetric.
Investors seeing an opportunity in silver can, of course, buy silver mining shares, either individually or through an ETF. A more aggressive play would be to combine a defensive equity market stance—say buying the VIX—with a long position in the miners or in the metal itself. My view is that such a position is likely to perform well in the coming months. (Please note that volatility of the silver price is normally roughly double that of the S&P500 index, so a market-neutral, non-directional spread trade would require shorting roughly twice as much of the S&P500 as the purchasing of silver. Also note, however, that correlations are unstable and thus must be dynamically risk-managed.)
As famed distressed-debt investor Howard Marks says, investing is about capturing asymmetry. Here at Amphora we aim to do precisely that. At present, there appears no better way to go about it than to buy silver, either outright or combined with a stock market short/underweight. From the current starting point, this could well be one of the biggest trades of 2014.
Although it might seem odd for a school of economics to largely ignore the role of money in the economy, this is indeed the case with traditional Keynesian economics. Declaring in 1963 that, “Inflation is, always and everywhere, a monetary phenomenon,” Milton Friedman sought to place money at the centre of economics where he and his fellow Monetarists believed it belonged. Keynesian policies continued to dominate into the 1970s, however, and were blamed by the Monetarists and others for the ‘stagflation’ of that decade—weak growth with rising inflation. Today, stagflation is re-appearing, the inevitable result of the aggressive, neo-Keynesian policy responses to the 2008 global financial crisis. In this report, I discuss the causes, symptoms and financial market consequences of the new stagflation, which could well be worse than the 1970s.
THE GOLDEN AGE OF KEYNESIANISM
During the ‘Roaring 20s’, US economists mostly belonged to various ‘laissez faire’ or ‘liquidationist’ schools of thought, holding that economic downturns were best left to sort themselves out, with a minimal role for official intervention. President Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (in)famously represented this view following the 1929 stock market crash when he admonished the government to stay out of private affairs and allow businesses and investors to “Liquidate! Liquidate! Liquidate!”
The severity of the Depression caught much of the laissez faire crowd off guard and thus by 1936, the year John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory, there was a certain open-mindedness around what he had to say, in particular that there was a critical role for the government to play in supporting demand during economic downturns through deficit spending. (There were a handful of prominent economists who did warn that the 1920s boom was likely to turn into a big bust, including Ludwig von Mises.)
While campaigning for president in 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously painted Herbert Hoover as a lasseiz faire president, when in fact Hoover disagreed with Mellon. As Murray Rothbard and others have demonstrated, Hoover was a highly interventionist president, setting several major precedents on which FDR would subsequently expand. But all is fair in politics and FDR won that election and subsequent elections in landslides.
With the onset of war and the command war economy it engendered, in the early 1940s the economics debate went silent. With the conclusion of war, it promptly restarted. Friedrich von Hayek fired an early, eloquent shot at the Keynesians in 1946 with The Road to Serfdom, his warning of the longer-term consequences of central economic planning.
The Keynesians, however, fired back, and with much new ammunition. Beginning in the early 20th century, several US government agencies, including the Federal Reserve, began to compile vast amounts of economic statistics and to create indices to aggregate macroeconomic data. This was a treasure-trove to Keynesians, who sought quantitative confirmation that their theories were correct. Sure enough, in 1947, a new, definitive Keynesian work appeared, Foundations of Economic Analysis, by Paul Samuelson, that presented statistical ‘proof’ that Keynes was right.
One of Samuelson’s core contentions was that economic officials could and should maintain full employment (ie low unemployment) through the prompt application of targeted stimulus in recessions. As recessions ended, the stimulus should be withdrawn, lest price inflation rise to a harmful level. Thus well-trained economists keeping an eye on the data and remaining promptly reactive in response to changes in key macroeconomic variables could minimise the business cycle and prevent Depression.
For government officials, Samuelson’s work was the Holy Grail. Not only was this a theoretical justification for an active government role in managing the economy, as Keynes had provided; now there was hard data to prove it and a handbook for just how to provide it. A rapid, historic expansion of public sector macroeconomics soon followed, swelling the ranks of Treasury, Commerce, Labor Department and Federal Reserve employees.
CHICAGO AND THE ‘FRESHWATER’ DISSENT
Notwithstanding the establishment of this new economic mainstream and a public sector that wholeheartedly embraced it, there was some dissent, in particular at the so-called ‘freshwater’ universities of the American Midwest: Chicago, Wisconsin, Minnesota and St Louis, among others.
Disagreeing with key Keynesian assumptions and also with Samuelson’s interpretation of historical data, Monetarists mounted an aggressive counterattack in the 1960s, led by Milton Friedman of the Chicago School. Thomas Sargent, co-founder of Rational Expectations Theory, also took part.
The Chicago School disagreed that there was a stable relationship between inflation and employment that could be effectively managed through fiscal policy. Rather, Friedman and his colleagues argued that Keynesians had made a grave error in largely ignoring the role of money in the economy. Together with his colleague Anna Schwarz, Friedman set out to correct this in the monumental Monetary History of the United States, which re-interpreted the Great Depression, among other major events in US economic history, as primarily a monetary- rather than demand-driven phenomenon. Thus inflation, according to Friedman and Schwarz, was “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon,” rather than a function of fiscal policy or other demand-side developments.
By the late 1960s the dissent played a central role in escalating policy disputes, due primarily to a prolonged expansion of US fiscal policy. Following Keynesian policy guidance, the government responded to the gentle recession of the early 1960s with fiscal stimulus. However, even after the recession was over, there was a reluctance to tighten policy, for reasons both foreign and domestic. At home, President Johnson promised a ‘Great Society’: a huge expansion of various programmes supposedly intended to help the poor and otherwise disadvantaged groups. Abroad, the Vietnam War had escalated into a major conflict and, combined with other Cold War military commitments, led to a huge expansion of the defence budget.
DE GAULLE AND INTERNATIONAL DISSENT
In the early 1960s a handful of prescient domestic observers had already begun to warn of the increasingly inflationary course of US fiscal and monetary policy (Henry Hazlitt wrote a book about it, What Inflation Is, in 1961.) In the mid-1960s this also became an important international topic. Under the Bretton-Woods system, the US was obliged to back dollars in circulation with gold reserves and to maintain an international gold price of $35/oz. In early 1965, as scepticism mounted that the US was serious about sustaining this arrangement, French President Charles De Gaulle announced to the world that he desired a restructuring of Bretton-Woods to place gold itself, rather than the dollar, at the centre of the international monetary system.
This prominent public dissent against Bretton-Woods unleashed a series of international monetary crises, roughly one each year, culminating in President Nixon’s decision to suspend ‘temporarily’ the dollar’s convertibility into gold in August 1971. (Temporarily? That was 43 years ago this month!)
The breakdown of Bretton-Woods would not be complete until 1973, when the world moved formally to a floating-rate regime unbacked by gold. However, while currencies subsequently ‘floated’ relative to one another, they collectively sank in purchasing power. The price of gold soared, as did the price of crude oil and many other commodities.
Rather than maintain stable prices by slowing the growth rate of the money supply and raising interest rates, the US Federal Reserve fatefully facilitated the dollar’s general devaluation
with negative real interest rates. While it took several years to build, in part because Nixon placed outright price controls on various goods, eventually the associated inflationary pressure leaked into consumer prices more generally, with the CPI rising steadily from the mid-1970s. Growth remained weak, however, as the economy struggled to restructure and rebalance. Thus before the decade was over, a new word had entered the economic lexicon: Stagflation.
STAGFLATION IS A KEYNESIAN PHENOMENON
Keynesians were initially mystified by this dramatic breakdown in the supposedly stable and manageable relationship between growth (or employment) and inflation. Their models said it couldn’t happen, so they looked for an explanation to deflect mounting criticism and soon found one: The economy had been hit by a ‘shock’, namely sharply higher oil prices! Never mind that the sharp rise in oil prices followed the breakdown of Bretton-Woods and devaluation of the dollar: This brazen reversal of cause and effect was too politically convenient to ignore. Politicians could blame OPEC for the stagflation, rather than their own policies. But an objective look at history tells a far different story, that the great stagflation was in fact the culmination of years of Keynesian economic policies. To generalise and to paraphrase Friedman, stagflation is, always and everywhere, a Keynesian phenomenon.
Why should this be so? Consider the relationship between real economic activity and the price level. If the supply of money is perfectly stable, then any negative ‘shock’ to the economy may reduce demand, but that will result in a decline rather than a rise in the general price level. The ‘shock’ might also increase certain prices in relative terms, but amidst stable money it simply cannot increase prices across the board, as is the case in stagflation.
They only way in which the toxic stagflationary mix of both reduced growth and rising prices can occur is if the money supply is flexible. Now this does not imply that a flexible money supply is in of itself a Keynesian policy, but deficit spending is far easier with a flexible money supply that can be increased as desired to finance the associated deficits. Yes, this then crowds out real private capital, with negative long-term consequences for economic health, but as we know, politicians are generally more concerned with the short-term and the next election.
CONTEMPORARY EVIDENCE OF STAGFLATION
Contemporary examples provide support for the reasoning above. It is instructive that two large economies, Japan and France, have been chronically underperforming in recent years, slipping in and out of recession. Both run chronic budget deficits in blatant Keynesian efforts to stimulate demand. In Japan, where the money supply is growing rapidly, inflation has been picking up despite weak growth: stagflation. In France, where the money supply has been quite stable, there is price stability: That is merely stagnation, not stagflation.
The UK, US and Germany have all been growing somewhat faster. Following the large devaluation of sterling in 2008, the UK experienced a multi-year surge in prices amidst weak growth, clearly a stagflationary mix. The US also now appears to be entering stagflation. Growth has been weak on average in recent quarters—outright negative in Q1 this year—yet inflation has now risen to 4% (3m annualised rate). Notwithstanding a surge in labour costs this year, the US Fed has, up to this point, dismissed this rise in CPI as ‘noise’. But then the Fed repeatedly made similar claims as CPI began to rise sharply in the mid-1970s.
In Japan, the UK and US, the stagflation is highly likely to continue as long as the current policy mix remains in place. (For all the fanfare surrounding the US Fed’s ‘tapering’, I don’t consider this terribly meaningful. Rates are still zero.) In France, absent aggressive structural reforms that may be politically impossible, the stagnation is likely to remain in place.
Germany is altogether a different story than the rest of these mature economies. While sharing the same, relatively stable euro money supply as France, the price level in Germany is also stable. However, Germany has been growing at a faster rate than most other developed economies, notwithstanding a smaller deficit. This is compelling evidence that Germany is simply a more competitive, productive economy than either the US or UK. But this is nothing new. The German economy has outperformed both the US and UK in nearly every decade since WWII. (Postwar rebuilding provided huge support in the 1950s and 1960s but those days are long past.)
The persistence of German economic outperformance through the decades clearly demonstrates the fundamental economic superiority of what is arguably the least Keynesian set of policies in the developed world. Indeed, Germans are both famed and blamed for their embrace of sound money and fiscal sustainability. ‘Famed’ because of their astonishing success; ‘blamed’ because of, well, because of their astonishing success relative to economic basket cases elsewhere in Europe and around the world. As I sometimes say in jest to those who ‘blame’ the Germans for the economic malaise elsewhere: “If only the Germans weren’t so dammed productive, we would all be better off!”
INVESTING FOR STAGFLATION
Stagflation is a hostile environment for investors. As discussed above, Keynesian policies require that the public sector siphon off resources from the private sector, thereby reducing the ability of private agents to generate economic profits. So-called ‘financial repression’, a more overt seizure of private resources by the public sector, is by design and intent hostile for investors. Regardless of how you choose to think about it, stagflation reveals previously unseen resource misallocations. As these become apparent, investors adjust financial asset prices accordingly. (Perhaps this is now getting under way. The Dow fell over 300 points yesterday.)
The most recent historical period of prolonged stagflation was the 1970s, although there have been briefer episodes since in various countries. Focusing here on the US, although there was a large stock market decline in 1973-4, the market subsequently recovered these losses and then roughly doubled in value. The bond market, by contrast, held up during the first half of the decade but, as stagnation gradually turned into stagflation, bonds sold off and were sharply outperformed by stocks.
That should be no surprise, as inflation erodes the nominally fixed value of bonds. Stock prices, however, can rise along with the general price level along as corporate revenues and profits also rise. It would seem safe to conclude, therefore, that in the event stagflationary conditions intensify from here, stocks will outperform bonds.
While that might be a safe conclusion, it is not a terribly helpful one. Sure, stocks might be able to outperform bonds in stagflation but, when adjusted for the inflation, in real terms they can still lose value. Indeed, in the 1970s, stock market valuations failed to keep pace with the accelerating inflation. Cash, in other words, was the better ‘investment’ option and, naturally, a far less volatile one.
Best of all, however, would have been to avoid financial assets and cash altogether and instead to accumulate real assets, such as gold and oil. (Legendary investors John Exter and John van Eck did precisely this.) The chart below shows the total returns of all of the above and the relative performance of stocks, bonds and cash appears irrelevant when compared to the soaring prices of gold and oil, both of which rose roughly tenfold.
REAL VS NOMINAL ASSETS IN STAGFLATION
(Jan 1971 = 100)
Source: Bloomberg; Amphora
Some readers might be sceptical that, from their current starting point, gold, oil or other commodity
prices could rise tenfold in price from here. Oil at $100/bbl sounds expensive to those (such as I) who remember the many years when oil fluctuated around $20. Gold at $1,300 also seems expensive compared to the sub-$300 price fetched by UK Chancellor Brown in the early 2000s. In both cases, prices have risen by a factor of 4-5x. Note that this is the rough order of magnitude that gold and oil rose into the mid-1970s. But it was not until the late 1970s that both really took off, leaving financial assets far behind.
If anything, a persuasive case can be made that the potential for gold, oil and other commodity prices to outperform stocks and bonds is higher today than it was in the mid-1970s. Monetary policies around the world are generally more expansionary. Government debt burdens and deficits are far larger. If Keynesian policies caused the 1970s stagflation, then the steroid injection of aggressive Keynesian policies post-2008 should eventually result in something even more spectacular.
While overweighting commodities can be an effective, defensive investment strategy for a stagflationary future, it is important to consider how best to implement this. Here at Amphora, we provide investors with an advisory service for constructing commodity portfolios. Most benchmark commodity indices and the ETFs tracking them are not well designed as investment vehicles for a variety of reasons. In particular, they do not provide for efficient diversification and their weightings are not well-specified to a stagflationary environment. With a few tweaks, however, these disadvantages can be remedied, enabling a commodity portfolio to produce the desired results.
CURRENT COMMODITY OPPORTUNITIES
For those inclined to trade commodities actively, and relative to each other, there are an unusual number of opportunities at present. First, grains are now unusually cheap, especially corn. This is understandable given current global weather patterns supportive of high yields, but beyond a certain point producers are fully hedged and/or are considering withholding some production to sell once prices recover. That point is likely now close.
Second, taking a look at tropical products, cotton has resumed the sharp slide that began earlier this year. As is the case with grains, we are likely nearing the point where producer hedging and/or holding out for higher prices will support the price. By contrast, cocoa prices continue their rise and I note that several major chocolate manufacturers have recently increased prices sharply to maintain margins. That is a classic indication that prices are near a peak.
Third, livestock remains expensive. Hog prices have finally begun to correct lower but cattle prices are at record highs. There are major herd supply issues that are not easily resolved in the near-term but consumers are highly price sensitive in the current environment and substitution into pork or poultry products is almost certainly now taking place around the margins. Left to run for awhile, this is likely to place a lid on cattle prices, although I do expect them to remain elevated for a sustained period until herds have had a chance to re-build.
Fourth, following a brief correction lower several weeks ago, palladium prices have risen back near to their previous highs of just under $900/oz. Palladium now appears expensive relative to near-substitute platinum; to precious and base metals generally; and relative to industrial commodities. The primary source of demand, autocatalysts, has remained strong due to auto production, but recent reports of rising unsold dealer inventory in a handful of major countries, including the US, may soon weaken demand. In the event that the fastest growing major auto markets—the BRICS—begin to slow, then a sharp decline in palladium to under $700 is likely.
Finally, a quick word on silver and gold. While both have tremendous potential to rise in a stagflationary environment, it is worth noting that, following a three-year correction, they appear to have found long-term support. Thus I believe there is both near-term and well as longer-term potential and I would once again recommend overweighting both vs industrial commodities.
1Von Mises not only warned of a financial crash and severe economic downturn in 1929; he refused the offer of a prominent position at the largest Austrian bank, Kreditanstalt, around the same time, not wanting to be associated with what he correctly anticipated would soon unfold. A Wall Street Journal article discussing this period in von Mises’ life is linked here.
2A classic revisionist view is that of Murray Rothbard, AMERICAS GREAT DEPRESSION. More recent scholarship by Lee Ohanian has added much additional detail to Rothbard’s work. I briefly touch on this subject in my book and also in a previous Amphora Report, THE RIME OF THE CENTRAL BANKER, linked here.
Professor Paul Krugman is leaving Princeton. Is he leaving in disgrace?
Not long, as these things go, before his departure was announced Krugman thoroughly was indicted and publicly eviscerated for intellectual dishonesty by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson in a hard-hitting three-part series in the Huffington Post, beginning here, and with a coda in Project Syndicate, all summarized at Forbes.com. Ferguson, on Krugman:
Where I come from … we do not fear bullies. We despise them. And we do so because we understand that what motivates their bullying is a deep sense of insecurity. Unfortunately for Krugtron the Invincible, his ultimate nightmare has just become a reality. By applying the methods of the historian – by quoting and contextualizing his own published words – I believe I have now made him what he richly deserves to be: a figure of fun, whose predictions (and proscriptions) no one should ever again take seriously.
Princeton, according to Bloomberg News, acknowledged Krugman’s departure with an extraordinarily tepid comment by a spokesperson. “He’s been a valued member of our faculty and we appreciate his 14 years at Princeton.”
Shortly after Krugman’s departure was announced no less than the revered Paul Volcker, himself a Princeton alum, made a comment — subject unnamed — sounding as if directed at Prof. Krugman. It sounded like “Don’t let the saloon doors hit you on the way out. Bub.”
To the Daily Princetonian (later reprised by the Wall Street Journal, Volcker stated with refreshing bluntness:
The responsibility of any central bank is price stability. … They ought to make sure that they are making policies that are convincing to the public and to the markets that they’re not going to tolerate inflation.
This was followed by a show-stopping statement: “This kind of stuff that you’re being taught at Princeton disturbs me.”
Taught at Princeton by … whom?
Paul Krugman, perhaps? Krugman, last year, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled Not Enough Inflation. It betrayed an extremely louche, at best, attitude toward inflation’s insidious dangers. Smoking gun?
Volcker’s comment, in full context:
The responsibility of the government is to have a stable currency. This kind of stuff that you’re being taught at Princeton disturbs me. Your teachers must be telling you that if you’ve got expected inflation, then everybody adjusts and then it’s OK. Is that what they’re telling you? Where did the question come from?
Is Krugman leaving in disgrace? Krugman really is a disgrace … both to Princeton and to the principle of monetary integrity. Eighteenth century Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey)president John Witherspoon, wrote, in his Essay on Money:
Let us next consider the evil that is done by paper. This is what I would particularly request the reader to pay attention to, as it was what this essay was chiefly intended to show, and what the public seems but little aware of. The evil is this: All paper introduced into circulation, and obtaining credit as gold and silver, adds to the quantity of the medium, and thereby, as has been shown above, increases the price of industry and its fruits.
“Increases the price of industry and its fruits?” That’s what today is called “inflation.”
Inflation is a bad thing. Period. Most of all it cheats working people and those on fixed incomes who Krugman pretends to champion. Volcker comes down squarely, with Witherspoon, on the side of monetary integrity. Krugman, cloaked in undignified sanctimony, comes down, again and again, on the side of … monetary finagling.
Krugman consistently misrepresents his opponents’ positions, constructs fictive straw men, addresses marginal figures, and ignores inconvenient truths set forward by figures of probity such as the Bank of England and theBundesbank, thoughtful work such as that by Member of Parliament (with a Cambridge Ph.D. in economic history) Kwasi Kwarteng, and, right here at home, respected thought leaders such as Steve Forbes and Lewis E. Lehrman (with whose Institute this writer has a professional affiliation).
Professor Krugman, on July 7, 2014, undertook to issue yet another of his fatwas on proponents of the classical gold standard. His New York Times op-ed, Beliefs, Facts and Money, Conservative Delusions About Inflation, was brim full of outright falsehoods and misleading statements. Krugman:
In 2010 a virtual Who’s Who of conservative economists and pundits sent an open letter to Ben Bernanke warning that his policies risked “currency debasement and inflation.” Prominent politicians like Representative Paul Ryan joined the chorus.
Reality, however, declined to cooperate. Although the Fed continued on its expansionary course — its balance sheet has grown to more than $4 trillion, up fivefold since the start of the crisis — inflation stayed low.
Many on the right are hostile to any kind of government activism, seeing it as the thin edge of the wedge — if you concede that the Fed can sometimes help the economy by creating “fiat money,” the next thing you know liberals will confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent. Also, let’s not forget that quite a few influential conservatives, including Mr. Ryan, draw their inspiration from Ayn Rand novels in which the gold standard takes on essentially sacred status.
And if you look at the internal dynamics of the Republican Party, it’s obvious that the currency-debasement, return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength even as its predictions keep failing.
Krugman is, of course, quite correct that the “return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength.” Speculating beyond the data thereafter Krugman goes beyond studied ignorance. He traffics in shamefully deceptive statements.
Lewis E. Lehrman, protege of French monetary policy giant Jacques Rueff, Reagan Gold Commissioner, and founder and chairman of the Lehrman Institute, arguably is the most prominent contemporary advocate for the classical gold standard. Lehrman never rendered a prediction of imminent “runaway inflation.” Only a minority of classical gold standard proponents are on record with “dire” warnings, certainly not this columnist. So… who is Krugman talking about?
Of the nearly two-dozen signers of (a fairly mildly stated concern) open letter to Bernanke which Krugman cites as prime evidence, only one or two are really notable members of the “return-to-gold faction.” Perhaps a few other signers might have shown some themselves in sympathy the gold prescription. Most, however, were, and are, agnostic about, or even opposed to, the gold standard.
Indicting gold standard proponents for a claim made by gold’s agnostics and opponents is a wrong, cheap, bad faith, argument. More bad faith followed immediately. Whatever inspiration Rep. Paul Ryan draws from novelist Ayn Rand, Ryan is by no means a gold standard advocate. And very few “influential conservatives” (unnamed) “draw their inspiration” from Ayn Rand.
Nor are most proponents of the classical gold standard motivated by a fear that paper money is an entering wedge for liberals to “confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent.” A commitment to gold is rooted, for most, in the correlation between the gold standard and equitable prosperity. Income inequality demonstrably has grown far more virulent under the fiduciary Federal Reserve Note regime — put in place by President Nixon — than it was, for instance, under the Bretton Woods gold+gold-convertible-dollar system.
Krugman goes wrong through and through. No wonder Ferguson wrote: “I agree with Raghuram Rajan, one of the few economists who authentically anticipated the financial crisis: Krugman’s is “the paranoid style in economics.” Krugman, perversely standing with Nixon, takes a reactionary, not progressive, position. The readers of the New York Times really deserve better.
Volcker is right. “The responsibility of any central bank is price stability.” Krugman is wrong.
Prof. Krugman was indicted and flogged publicly by Niall Ferguson. Krugman thereafter announced his departure from Princeton. On his way out Krugman, it appears, was reprimanded by Paul Volcker. Krugman has been a disgrace to Princeton. Is he leaving Princeton in quiet disgrace?
Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/07/14/is-paul-krugm
Editor’s note: this article, under the title “No end to central bank meddling as ECB embraces ‘quantitative easing’, faulty logic” appears on Detlev Schlichter’s site. It is reprinted with kind permission.
The 2nd edition of his excellent Paper Money Collapse is available for pre-order.
“Who can print money, will print money” is how my friend Patrick Barron put it succinctly the other day. This adage is worth remembering particularly for those periods when central bankers occasionally take the foot off the gas, either because they genuinely believe they solved the problem, or because they want to make a show of appearing careful and measured.
The US Federal Reserve is a case in point. Last year the Fed announced that it was beginning to ‘taper’, that is, carefully reduce its debt monetization program (‘quantitative easing’, QE), and this policy, now enacted, is widely considered the beginning of policy normalization and part of an ‘exit strategy’. But as Jim Rickards pointed out, the Fed already fully tapered twice – after QE1 and after QE2 – only to feel obliged to ‘qe’ again some time later. Whether Ms Yellen is going to see the present ‘taper’ through to its conclusion and whether the whole project will in future be remembered as an ‘exit strategy’ remains to be seen.
So far none of the big central banks has achieved the ‘exit’ despite occasional noises to the contrary. Since the start of the financial crisis in the summer of 2007, the global trend has been in one direction and one direction only: From easy money we moved to easier money. QE has been followed by more QE. As I mentioned before, the Fed’s most generous year in its 100-year history was 2013, any talk of ‘tapering’ notwithstanding.
ECB mistrusted by Keynesian consensus
Whenever the European Central Bank reduces its money printing and scales back its market rigging, it invariably unleashes the fury of the Keynesian and inflationist commentariat. In the eyes of its numerous critics, the ECB lacks the proper money-printing credentials of the more pro-active and allegedly more ‘modern’ central banks. It still has a whiff of the old Bundesbank about it, although a few years back, when the ECB flooded the European banking system with cheap liquidity, its balance sheet was larger as a share of GDP than those of its comrades, the Fed and the Bank of England.
The ECB went through two periods of restraint since the crisis: In early 2011 it began to hike interest rates, and in 2013, after the eurozone debt crisis died down, the ECB allowed its balance sheet to shrink by more than €700 billion as banks repaid cheap loans from the central bank. This stood in stark contrast to the Fed’s balance sheet expansion of about $1,000 billion over the same period. The first episode of restraint came to an end in 2012 when the ECB reversed its rate hikes and then cut rates further, ultimately to a new low of just 0.25 percent. Presently, we are still in the second period of restraint, although it too appears to be about to end soon as the ECB’s boss Mario Draghi hinted in his press conference last week at a newfound willingness to embrace unconventional policies to combat ‘deflation’ or even ‘long periods of low inflation’. (The ECB’s harmonized index of consumer prices stood probably at just 0.5% last month.) This means the ECB is likely to cut rates to zero or below soon, or to start asset purchases (‘QE’), or probably both.
This move is hardly surprising in the big scheme of things as outlined above, and the ECB will explain it officially with its mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, from which it does not want to deviate in either direction. This target itself is silly as it assumes that inflation of 1.8 percent is inherently better than inflation of zero (true price stability, if it ever was attainable), or inflation of minus 1.8 percent (deflation). This is, of course, precisely the argument that has been relentlessly and noisily trumpeted by the easy-money advocates in the media, the likes of Martin Wolf and Wolfgang Münchau in the Financial Times, and the reliably shrill Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph, among others. A certain measure of inflation is deemed good, very low inflation is bad, and anything below zero, even mild deflation, potentially a disaster. But why should this be the case?
Moderate deflation, that is, slowly declining money prices, may or may not be a symptom of problems elsewhere in the economy, but that slowly declining money prices as such constitute an economic problem lacks any foundation in economics and can easily and quickly be refuted by even a cursory look at economic history. In the 19th century we find extended periods of ongoing, moderate deflation in many economies that simultaneously experienced solid growth in output and substantial rises in living standards, a “coincidence”, wrote Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz in their influential A Monetary History of the United States, 1867 – 1960, that “casts serious doubts on the validity of the now widely held view that secular price deflation and rapid economic growth are incompatible.”
Many commentators advance the argument that falling prices depress consumption as purchases get constantly deferred. Even the usually more sober FT-writer John Authers seems to have succumbed to this argument as he explained to his readers last Saturday that prices “fall, thanks to sluggish economic activity. Consumers do not buy now, as goods will be cheaper in future. This lack of consumption slows growth further, and pushes prices down even further.” (John Authers, “Draghi has to back his QE words with action” Financial Times, Saturday April 5/ Sunday April 6 2014, page 24)
This argument, constantly regurgitated by the cheerleaders of money-printing, is weak. First of all, it is certainly no argument in the present environment of close to zero but still positive inflation. If the ECB plans to fight even very low inflation, as Draghi stated at the ECB press conference, than this argument does nothing to support that policy. Certainly, no one defers any purchases when prices are just stable. However, and more importantly, even in a mildly deflationary environment of let’s say 1 to 2 percent per annum, the argument does appear to be a stretch.
Argument ignores time preference
Consumers only contemplate buying something that they consider an economic good, that is, that they consider useful, that they want because it expends some (subjective) use-value to them. In deferring a purchase they can, in a deflationary environment, save money but at the cost of not enjoying the possession of what they want for some time. By not buying a toaster now you may be able to buy it 1 or 2 percent cheaper in a year’s time, or 2 to 4 percent cheaper in two years’ time (always assuming, of course, that the mild deflation persists that long, which nobody can guarantee), but even these small monetary gains come at the expense of not enjoying ownership of the toaster for two years. The small monetary gain obtained by delaying purchases is not for free, as the argument seems to assume, but comes at the cost of waiting. I suggest that only a very small number of items, and only those for which there is very marginal demand indeed, would be affected.
Time preference is not a concept of psychology, it is a constituting element of human action. It is a priori to human action, which means it exists independent of experience or of personal circumstances as it is already entailed in the very concept of what constitutes an ‘economic good’.
If you experienced no time preference in relation to a specific good you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed the possession of that good today or tomorrow. And tomorrow you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed it that day or the next, and so forth. Logically, you would be indifferent as to whether you enjoyed possession of it at all, and this means that the good in question is not an economic good for you. You do not care for it.
As George Reisman put is succinctly: To want something means, all else being equal, to want it sooner rather than later.
Be honest, how many purchases over the past 12 months would you not have made had you had a reasonable chance of obtaining the item in question at a 1 or 2 percent discount if you waited a year?
That the prospect of falling prices does not usually deter consumption can be readily seen today in the market for consumer electronics (mobile phones, computers), which has been in deflation – and considerable deflation – for quite some time.
Argument ignores opportunity costs of holding money
The argument also seems to ignore that holding one’s wealth in the form of money involves opportunity costs. Rather than sitting on cash you could enjoy the things you could buy with it. In a deflationary environment, your cash hoard’s purchasing power slowly rises and you can afford ever more nice things with your money, which means the opportunity cost of not spending it constantly goes up. (In a way, while you are waiting four years to buy your toaster at an 8 percent discount to today’s price, buying the toaster is also becoming marginally more attractive to others who are presently holding cash and who may initially not even had an interest in a toaster.)
I think that all that would follow from secular (that is ongoing, systematic but moderate) deflation is that cash would be a more meaningful competitor for other depositories of deferred consumption. Saving by simply holding money makes sense in a deflationary environment, so other vehicles to save with (bonds and shares) would have to offer a return reasonably above the expected deflation rate to attract savings. I think this is not an unreasonably high hurdle.
Furthermore, if what Authers and others describe were true for even marginal deflation, that is, if marginal deflation indeed led to more deflation and a progressively weakening economy, the reverse must logically be true for marginal inflation. Consumers would accelerate their purchases to avoid the 1 or 2 percent loss in purchasing power per annum, and this would quickly drive inflation higher. If two percent deflation led to cash hoarding and a collapse in consumption, would the 2 percent inflation advocated today as ‘price stability’ not lead to a spike in money velocity and an inflationary boom? Either scenario seems highly unrealistic.
Monetary causes versus non-monetary causes
If we use the economic terminology correctly, then inflation and deflation are always monetary phenomena, that is, they always have monetary causes. (As an aside, I here use the now standard definition of inflation as an ongoing, trending rise in the general price level, and deflation as the opposite, rather than the traditional meaning of inflation as an expansion of the money supply and deflation as a contraction.) However, the starting point of the present discussion is simply some low readings on the official inflation statistics in the eurozone. And that those could have non-monetary causes, that they could be the consequence of a crisis-driven drop in real demand in certain industries and certain countries is a realistic assumption and is in fact implied by the arguments of the QE-advocates. Outright deflation is presently being recorded in Greece, Cyprus, and Spain. And John Authers’ short statement on deflation in the FT also starts from the assumption that “prices fall thanks to sluggish economic activity.”
But to the extent that recorded deflation is not due to a general rise in money’s purchasing power (due to a general rise in money demand or an unchanged or falling money supply, to which I come soon) but the result of some producers slashing certain prices in certain industries and regions, and of those price drops not being fully compensated by rising prices somewhere else in eurozone, then this has various implications:
Consumers cannot simply assume that this is a lasting trend. The liquidation of capital misallocations and the discounting of merchandise to get it moving are crisis phenomena and cannot simply be extrapolated into the future the way consumers may have extrapolated the secular deflation of gold standard economies in the 19th century. But the straight extrapolation of very recent price changes into the future is at the core of the argument that even small deflation would be disastrous.
Furthermore, it would seem bizarre to advice merchants to not slash prices when demand drops as that would, according to the logic advanced by Authers et al, only lead to further postponement of consumption and a further drop in demand as consumers would simply expect price declines to continue. Would hiking prices be a better strategy to counter falling demand? Should we reconsider the concept of the “sale” and of “discounting” inventory to encourage buying?
To a considerable degree, the reduction in certain prices for ‘real’ economic reasons could be part of the economic healing process. It is a way for many producers, sectors of the economy, and economic regions, to regain competitiveness. It is true that falling wages in certain industries or regions make it more difficult for workers to repay mortgages and consumer loans but often the lower wage may be the only way to avoid unemployment, which would make repaying debt harder still. Behind the often-quoted headline inflation rate of presently 0.5% per annum lie numerous relative price changes by which the economy re-balances. All discussions about the ‘price index’ ignore these all-important changes in relative prices. It so happens that what goes on with the multitude of individual prices in the economy adds up, according to the techniques of the ECB statisticians, to a 0.5% harmonized inflation rate at the moment, and it may all add up to -0.5% next month or next year, or maybe even – 1 percent. To simply conclude from this one aggregate price number that the economy is getting progressively sicker would be wrong.
There is no escaping the fact that recent economic difficulties are the result of imbalances that accumulated during the credit boom that preceded the 2007/2008 financial crisis, of which the eurozone debt crisis was an after quake. Artificially cheap money created the credit boom and these imbalances. A period of liquidation, contraction, changing relative prices and occasionally falling prices is now necessary, and short-circuiting this process via renewed central bank intervention seems counterproductive and ultimately dangerous.
There is, of course, the possibility that proper monetary causes are behind the eurozone’s low inflation and soon deflation, and that those might persist. Banks still feel constrained in their ability to extend new loans and thus create new money. The growth in bank lending and thus in wider monetary aggregates may fall short of the growth in money demand. But it is an essential feature of money that any demand for it can be fully satisfied with a rise in its price. Demand for money is always demand for readily exercisable purchasing power, and by allowing the market to lift the purchasing power of money, that is, through deflation, that demand can be met. The secular, moderate and largely harmless deflation of 19th century gold standard economies had essentially the same origin. Money production did not keep pace with money demand, so money demand was satisfied via slowly falling prices.
And here the same conclusion applies: a more restrained approach to lending, credit risk, and financial leverage, now adopted by banks and the public at large as a consequence of the crisis, may be a good thing, and for the central bank to mess with this process and to use ‘unconventional’ means to force more bank lending and money creation onto the system, out of some misguided commitment to the arbitrarily chosen statistical goal of ‘2-percent inflation’ seems foolish. If successful in raising the headline inflation rate it may succeed in creating the same imbalances (excessive leverage, misallocations of capital and distorted asset prices) that have created the recent crisis.
One commentator recently said the eurozone could ill afford deflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector. But the question is if it can afford the level of lending to attain 2 percent inflation considering the size of its bloated banking sector.
The fallacy of macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy
Let me be clear: I do not recommend a zero-inflation target or a target of moderate deflation. Moderate deflation in and of itself is a little a solution as moderate inflation in and of itself is a problem. I recommend no target as I reject the entire concept of ‘monetary policy’, of the notion that a state agency could conceivably enhance, through clever manipulation of interest rates and bank reserve policy, the coordinating powers of the market that help people realize their personal economic objectives through free trade.
We should remember that no one participates in the economy and in trade and commerce because his or her goal is that the general price level goes up by 2 percent, or that nominal GDP increases by 5 percent. People have their own personal objectives. The market is simply a powerful tool for voluntary and decentralized plan-coordination among independent individuals and groups of individuals that pursue their own goals. It is best left undisturbed. This entire project of ‘monetary policy’ is absurd in the extreme, regardless of what the target is.
It is the fallacy of macroeconomics that certain statistical aggregates, such as CPI, GDP or nominal GDP, are deemed reliable representatives of what goes on in a complex market economy, and it is dangerous hubris to believe that the state should define ‘targets’ for these statistical aggregates and then use policy intervention to achieve them. This might be an approach intellectually suitable for the ruler of a communist or fascist society. It is fundamentally at odds with free trade and a free market, and it must and will fail. That should have been a clear lesson from the financial crisis.
Instead, the mainstream consensus, deeply influenced by Keynesianism and macroeconomics, continues to embrace policy activism and intervention. I fully expect central banks to continue on their path towards more aggressive meddling and generous fiat money production. It won’t take long for the ECB to take the next step.
Steve Baker has written an article for today’s City A.M. calling for an end to the ‘cruel delusion of cheap money and reckless spending‘:
George Osborne will present his Autumn Statement to a country in the grip of a cruel economic delusion, perpetrated against the poor and the aspirational.
Welfare states everywhere are spending chronically beyond their means while papering over the cracks with easy money. Budget 2013 forecast spending in excess of receipts of about £9bn a month. Defence, criminal justice, local government and the Foreign Office have been squeezed. Two thirds of spending was expected on health, education and welfare, mostly pensions.
The sick and disabled, families, children and pensioners are reliant on these crucial services. With taxes already too high, government is critically funded by the bond markets. Those bond markets are in a dangerous bubble, deliberately inflated by central banks.
Keynesian economists prescribe even more stimulus to dreadfully-mistaken applause, as if it were in the general interest to expand the state yet further and borrow to do it. They should be more honest about their politics. It’s true the Budget isn’t like that of a household or business, because the government can tax, intervene and create money. That’s just the problem: state power is a great force for destruction …
Read the whole article.
Since our last attempt at a textual analysis of where the economic pain threshold lies for China’s rulers, the intervening period has been punctuated by a flurry of meetings, pronouncements, prognostications, and policy precursors.
The net result? That anxieties are certainly rising; that there are some signs of intense political manoeuvring; but that Xi and Li have so far largely stuck to their guns.
Taking the politics first, two items stand out: the news that court proceedings will shortly commence against the disgraced Bo Xilai – wherein he will face charges mostly relating to corruption and the abuse of power – and the post-dated report of a meeting with Henry Kissinger at which former President and éminence grise, Jiang Zemin, fully endorsed the policies of his successor-but-one.
The timing of the first seems nicely calculated to neutralize critics on the left of the party and to preclude any haggling over Bo’s fate from taking place at the upcoming Beidaihe party summit, thus leaving the agenda free to thrash out the nitty-gritty of economic policy ahead of the crucial autumn Plenum.
The second, by contrast, seems to rule out any open, factional divide between pro- and anti-reformers and, taken with Xi’s subsequent re-iteration of his call to ‘deepen reform and opening up’, provides another re-run of the manner in which Deng Xiaoping outflanked Jiang himself on his famous ‘Southern Tour’ of 1992 (an event symbolically commemorated by Xi on his scene-setting first excursion from Beijing after being sworn in as General Secretary in December).
On that earlier occasion, Deng ringingly declared to the back-sliders who were threatening to unravel his grand designs that ‘whoever does not support reforms should step down’ – an implied threat whose resonance will surely not be lost on any of today’s doubters.
Categorizing this as a ‘strategic decision’, last week Xi urged ‘a spirit of reform and innovation’ and for the Party to display ‘ever more political courage and wisdom.’
‘China must break the barriers from entrenched interest groups to further free up social productivity and invigorate creativity,’ he went on. ‘There is no way out if we stay still or head backward.’
Again, the official press coverage of Tuesday’s Politburo meeting was replete with the usual litany regarding fine-tuning, prudent monetary policy, fiscal adjustment, greater efficiency, scientific developments, etc., etc. But, again it emphasized that macro policy should be stable (read my lips: ‘no – monster – stimulus’) and micro policies should be active.
Along these lines, Premier Li had already unveiled a mini-package which sought to ease taxes on SMEs, to expedite the formalities associated with the export trade, and to move up consideration of further railway construction out in the under-developed Wild West of the country. But, far from a reversion to type, this was seemingly so underwhelming that since he announced this, the prices of the likes of steel, coal, aluminium, and copper have severally resumed their slide.
Even the resort to fiscal policy seems to envisage a refreshingly different approach, coming as it does with an avowed intent to limit the budget deficit and reduce spending while alleviating the tax burden where possible. Is this a hint that Beijing will pursue a proper, stimulatory austerity of less government on both sides of the ledger in place of the deadening ‘fauxterity’ of less rapidly increasing outlays mixed with swingeing tax rises currently being practiced in the West? One would certainly like to think so.
Taken with the diktat which aims to address at least some of the worst heavy incidences of industrial over-capacity (a move said to be ‘key to restructuring’ in Xi’s own emphasis), the buzzword for policy seems to be what Li termed ‘sustained release’ – i.e., that there will be no big, blockbuster launches if indiscriminate lending or spending, but instead a steady drumbeat of hopefully therapeutic micro-measures.
On top of that, there was an intriguing reference to the idea of ‘enhancing a sense of urgency’ which was closely linked to the vow ‘to firmly grasp the opportunity for major enhancements’. Does this mean that Xi and Li are cleverly playing the anxieties of the moment in order to lessen resistance to their program of change? That through a strategy of masterly inactivity they will first disabuse the hordes of disobedient local cadres and SOE oligarchs of the presumption that they are all Too Big To Fail, leaving them no option but to adapt to the new policy thrust as the only alternative road to promotion and self-enrichment? It would certainly be nice to think so.
Along these lines, it surely cannot be a coincidence that the press has been filled with cautionary tales deriving from the bankruptcy just declared by Detroit. Nor that a veritable army of 80,000 audit officials is being mustered to go out and assess the true level of local government indebtedness across all levels from the smallest township to the largest central city. The result cannot fail to be chastening even if it is deemed not to reach the CNY20-25 trillion which lies at the top end of some estimates. No doubt there will be sufficient violations of central policy, accounting practice, and banking regulation, not to mention outright criminality for the tally to give Xi and Li a powerful means of seeing that their wishes will henceforth be complied with.
Before we leave this issue, there is one broader point which we must make: namely, that this thoughtlessly regurgitated idea that what China needs is more ‘consumption’ and less ‘saving’ is nothing more than yet another dangerous Keynesian canard.
What the country needs – what any country needs – is more consumer satisfaction, agreed! But how this is to be most sustainably (not to mention most equitably) achieved is to ensure that the greatest possible fraction of production is geared to that end above all others. It should then be obvious that this is an endeavour that cannot fail to require investment: rationally-undertaken, market-oriented, ex ante, private savings-funded, entrepreneurially-directed investment of a kind that has been all too lacking in China, perhaps, but investment all the same – and a good deal of it, too, in a country where the average person suffers a standard of living still far below what could so easily be his to enjoy.
So, firstly, let’s be honest and reclassify all the sub-marginal, no-return-on-capital, ‘empty-asset’ ‘investment’ as what it really is – state-led CONSUMPTION and we will at once clear up a good deal of semantic confusion and hence lessen our chance of chasing off down the wrong macro-aggregate pathway.
China’s personal consumption may well be depressed below its potential – though the fact that households appear to save around a quarter of their income is not wholly exceptional in fast-developing countries, for how else is the growth to be funded? No, the real crux of the matter is that China’s collective consumption (largely undertaken by soft-budget SOE’s and deficit-junkie governments) is far too high and so thoroughly lacking in genuine prospective return to be further borne. It should therefore be no part of policy to increase blindly the degree of exhaustive consumption – especially where this is financed via the top-down suppression of interest rates and by wholesale misallocations of a cartelized, ex nihilo creation of credit.
Of course, the making of such a shift will be by no means a trivial task either to initiate or to see through to its end if only because the piling up of IOUs and the complex layering of both direct and hidden subsidies which has enabled so much mindless, Krude Keynesian, Keystone Krugmanite, New Deal reduplication to take place has also provided employment for one multitude, a core of seemingly reliable customers for another, and – alas! – an unavoidable outlet for the hard-won savings of them both. Not only the most shameless and venal of the princelings will therefore have a strong, vested interest in trying to perpetuate the existing schema, however much people may be aware that it cannot be continued indefinitely.
As the stilted language of the communiqués puts it, the external situation is also ‘complicated’- in other words the patterns of trade upon which China and its neighbours have built so much of their recent prosperity are now displaying at best a dispiriting stagnation and at worst an outright decline.
Thailand is a case in point: exports to China thence are back to 2010 levels and are falling at the fastest pace since the Crash itself. For all the ballyhoo about ‘Abenomics’ the specious glimmer of recovery there seems little more than money illusion. Industrial production has started to droop one more while, when rebased in the US dollars which are the regional standard, even exports are sickly – those to the rest of Asia are falling at their fastest rate since the Crash, also, to lie a good fifth lower than they did at the 2011 recovery peak.
No wonder the latest PMI fell 1.6 points to a 5-month low. Among the components, export orders were weak – mainly thanks to China – and there was evidence of a developing margin squeeze. As the report noted:-
Increases in the cost of raw materials due in turn to the yen’s weakness was cited as a key driver of rising input prices, which increased for the seventh consecutive month. Inflationary pressures were evident to a lesser degree in output prices, which grew at a slower pace than in June.
Weak PMIs were not exactly a rare occurrence, either. China, Taiwan, and South Korea all produced multi-month, contraction level lows.
What is perhaps of more concern is that, according to the latest IIF survey of emerging markets, not only were funding conditions in Asia becoming more straitened in the second quarter (in fact there were the worst of the four geographical divisions in the questionnaire), but loan demand was actually falling in all categories except real estate (where else?). Not a happy portent for vigorous second half growth and with it an enhanced call upon resources.