“Central bankers control the price of money and therefore indirectly influence every market in the world. Given this immense power, the ideal central banker would be humble, cautious and deferential to market signals. Instead, modern central bankers are both bold and arrogant in their efforts to bend markets to their will. Top-down central planning, dictating resource allocation and industrial output based on supposedly superior knowledge of needs and wants, is an impulse that has infected political players throughout history. It is both ironic and tragic that Western central banks have embraced central planning with gusto in the early twenty-first century, not long after the Soviet Union and Communist China abandoned it in the late twentieth. The Soviet Union and Communist China engaged in extreme central planning over the world’s two largest countries and one-third of the world’s population for more than one hundred years combined. The result was a conspicuous and dismal failure. Today’s central planners, especially the Federal Reserve, will encounter the same failure in time. The open issues are, when and at what cost to society ?”
- James Rickards, ‘The death of money: the coming collapse of the international monetary system’, 2014. [Book review here]
“Sir, On the face of it stating that increasing the inheritance tax allowance to £1m would abolish the tax for “all except a very small number of very rich families” (April 5) sounds a very reasonable statement for the Institute for Fiscal Studies to make, but is £1m nowadays really what it used to be, bearing in mind that £10,000 was its equivalent 100 years ago ?
“A hypothetical “very rich” person today could have, for example, a house worth £600,000 and investments of £400,000. If living in London or the South East, the house would be relatively modest and the income from the investments, assuming a generous 4 per cent return, would give a gross income of £16,000 a year, significantly less than the average national wage.
“So whence comes the idea that nowadays such relatively modest wealth should be classified as making you “very rich” ? The middle-aged should perhaps wake up to the fact that our currency has been systematically debased, though it may be considered impolite to say so as it challenges the conventional political and economic wisdom. To be very rich today surely should mean you have assets that give you an income significantly higher than the national average wage ?”
- Letter to the editor of the Financial Times from Mr John Read, London NW11, 12 April 2014
“The former coach house in Camberwell, which has housed the local mayor’s car, was put on the market by Southwark council as a “redevelopment opportunity”. At nearly £1,000 per square foot, its sale value is comparable to that of some expensive London homes.”
- ‘London garage sells for £550,000’ by Kate Allen, The Financial Times, 12 April 2014.
“Just Eat, online takeaway service, slumped below its float price for the first time on Tuesday as investors dumped shares in a raft of recently floated web-based companies amid mounting concern about their high valuations..
“Just Eat stunned commentators last week when it achieved an eye-watering valuation of £1.47 billion, more than 100 times its underlying earnings of £14.1 million..
““They have fallen because the company was overvalued. Just Eat was priced at a premium to Dominos, an established franchise that delivers and makes the pizzas and has revenues of £269 million. Just Eat by comparison is a yellow pages for local takeaways where there is no quality control and no intellectual property and made significantly less revenues of £96.8 million. A quality restaurant does not need to pay 10 per cent commission to Just Eat to drive customers through the door,” Michael Hewson, chief market analyst at CMC Markets said.”
- ‘Investors lose taste for Just Eat as tech stocks slide’ by Ashley Armstrong and Ben Martin,
The Daily Telegraph, 8 April 2014.
Keep interest rates at zero, whilst printing trillions of dollars, pounds and yen out of thin air, and you can make investors do some pretty extraordinary things. Like buying shares in Just Eat, for example. But arguably more egregious was last week’s launch of a €3 billion five-year Eurobond for Greece, at a yield of just 4.95%. UK “investors” accounted for 47% of the deal, Greek domestic “investors” just 7%. Just in case anybody hasn’t been keeping up with current events, Greece, which is rated Caa3 by Moody’s, defaulted two years ago. In the words of the credit managers at Stratton Street Capital,
“The only way for private investors to justify continuing to throw money at Greece is if you believe that the €222 billion the EU has lent to Greece is entirely fictional, and will effectively be converted to 0% perpetual debt, or will be written off, or Greece will default on official debt while leaving private creditors untouched.”
In a characteristically hubris-rich article last week (‘Only the ignorant live in fear of hyperinflation’), Martin Wolf issued one of his tiresomely regular defences of quantitative easing and arguing for the direct state control of money. One respondent on the FT website made the following comments:
“The headline should read, ‘Only the EXPERIENCED fear hyperinflation’. Unlike Martin Wolf’s theorising, the Germans – and others – know only too well from first-hand experience exactly what hyperinflation is and how it can be triggered by a combination of unforeseen circumstances. The reality, not a hypothesis, almost destroyed Germany. The Bank of England and clever economists can say what they like from their ivory towers, but meanwhile down here in the real world, as anyone who has to live on a budget can tell you, every visit to the supermarket is more expensive than it was even a few weeks ago, gas and electricity prices have risen, transport costs have risen, rents have risen while at the same time incomes remain static and the little amounts put aside for a rainy day in the bank are losing value daily. Purchasing power is demonstrably being eroded and yet clever – well paid – people would have us believe that there is no inflation to speak of. It was following theories and forgetting reality that got us into this appalling financial mess in the first place. Somewhere, no doubt, there’s even an excel spreadsheet and a powerpoint presentation with umpteen graphs by economists proving how markets regulate themselves which was very convincing up to the point where the markets departed from the theory and reality took over. I’d rather trust the Germans with their firm grip on reality any day.”
As for what “inflation” means, the question hinges on semantics. As James Turk and John Rubino point out in the context of official US data, the inflation rate is massaged through hedonic quality modelling, substitution, geometric weighting and something called the Homeowners’ equivalent rent. “If new cars have airbags and new computers are faster, statisticians shave a bit from their actual prices to reflect the perception that they offer more for the money than previous versions.. If [the price of ] steak is rising, government statisticians replace it with chicken, on the assumption that this is how consumers operate in the real world.. rising price components are given less relative weight.. homeowners’ equivalent rent replaces what it actually costs to buy a house with an estimate of what homeowners would have to pay to rent their homes – adjusted hedonically for quality improvements.” In short, the official inflation rate – in the US, and elsewhere – can be manipulated to look like whatever the authorities want it to seem.
But people are not so easily fooled. Another angry respondent to Martin Wolf’s article cited the “young buck” earning £30K who wanted to buy a house in Barnet last year. Having saved for 12 months to amass a deposit for a studio flat priced at £140K, he goes into the estate agency and finds that the type of flat he wanted now costs £182K – a 30% price increase in a year. Now he needs to save for another 9 years, just to make up for last year’s gain in property prices.
So inflation is quiescent, other than in the prices of houses, shares, bonds, food, energy and a variety of other financial assets.
The business of rational investment and capital preservation becomes unimaginably difficult when central banks overextend their reach in financial markets and become captive to those same animal spirits. Just as economies and markets are playing a gigantic tug of war between the forces of debt deflation and monetary inflation, they are being pulled in opposite directions as they try desperately to anticipate whether and when central bank monetary stimulus will subside, stop or increase. Central bank ‘forward guidance’ has made the outlook less clear, not more. Doug Noland cites a recent paper by former IMF economist and Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan titled ‘Competitive Monetary Easing: Is It Yesterday Once More ?’ The paper addresses the threat of what looks disturbingly like a modern retread of the trade tariffs and import wars that worsened the 1930s Great Depression – only this time round, as exercised by competitive currency devaluations by the larger trading economies.
Conclusion: The current non-system [a polite term for non-consensual, non-cooperative chaos] in international monetary policy [competitive currency devaluation] is, in my view, a source of substantial risk, both to sustainable growth as well as to the financial sector. It is not an industrial country problem, nor an emerging market problem, it is a problem of collective action. We are being pushed towards competitive monetary easing. If I use terminology reminiscent of the Depression era non-system, it is because I fear that in a world with weak aggregate demand, we may be engaged in a futile competition for a greater share of it. In the process, unlike Depression- era policies, we are also creating financial sector and cross-border risks that exhibit themselves when unconventional policies come to an end. There is no use saying that everyone should have anticipated the consequences. As the former BIS General Manager Andrew Crockett put it, ‘financial intermediaries are better at assessing relative risks at a point in time, than projecting the evolution of risk over the financial cycle.’ A first step to prescribing the right medicine is to recognize the cause of the sickness. Extreme monetary easing, in my view, is more cause than medicine. The sooner we recognize that, the more sustainable world growth we will have.
The Fed repeats its 2% inflation target mantra as if it were some kind of holy writ. 2% is an entirely arbitrary figure, subject to state distortion in any event, that merely allows the US government to live beyond its means for a little longer and meanwhile to depreciate the currency and the debt load in real terms. The same problem in essence holds for the UK, the euro zone and Japan. Savers are being boiled alive in the liquid hubris of neo-Keynesian economists explicitly in the service of the State.
Doug Noland again:
“While I don’t expect market volatility is going away anytime soon, I do see an unfolding backdrop conducive to one tough bear market. Everyone got silly bullish in the face of very serious domestic and global issues. Global securities markets are a problematic “crowded trade.” Marc Faber commented that a 2014 crash could be even worse than 1987. To be sure, today’s incredible backdrop with Trillions upon Trillions of hedge funds, ETFs, derivatives and the like make 1987 portfolio insurance look like itsy bitsy little peanuts. So there are at this point rather conspicuous reasons why Financial Stability has always been and must remain a central bank’s number one priority. Just how in the devil was this ever lost on contemporary central bankers?”
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.
Incoming from Dave Doctor at Monetary Choice:
The dollar price of Amazon Prime, the two-day delivery program for Amazon, rises on April 17th to $99, from the original $79 price set in 2005, a 25 percent increase. However, when measured in gallons of gas and pounds of coffee, the price or cost declined, by 27 percent in gas and 53 percent in coffee. This is not surprising since Amazon is much more efficient now. The dollar price rose because there are twice as many dollars, created by banks to fund the U.S. federal government’s deficit and low-interest loans, all at the expense of savers.
On Tuesday July 2, US central bank policy makers voted in favour of the US version of the global bank rules known as the Basel 3 accord. The cornerstone of the new rules is a requirement that banks maintain high quality capital, such as stock or retained earnings, equal to 7% of their loans and assets.
The bigger banks may be required to hold more than 9%. The Fed was also drafting new rules to limit how much banks can borrow to fund their business known as the leverage ratio.
We suggest that the introduction of new regulations by the Fed cannot make the current monetary system stable and prevent financial upheavals.
The main factor of instability in the modern banking system is the present paper standard which is supported by the existence of the central bank and fractional reserve lending.
Now in a true free market economy without the existence of the central bank, banks will have difficulties practicing fractional reserve banking.
Any attempt to do so will lead to bankruptcies, which will restrain any bank from attempting to lend out of “thin air”.
Fractional reserve banking can, however, be supported by the central bank. Note that through ongoing monetary management, i.e., monetary pumping, the central bank makes sure that all the banks can engage jointly in the expansion of credit out of “thin air” via the practice of fractional reserve banking.
The joint expansion in turn guarantees that checks presented for redemption by banks to each other are netted out, because the redemption of each will cancel the other redemption out.
By means of monetary injections, the central bank makes sure that the banking system is “liquid enough” so that banks will not bankrupt each other.
The consequences of the monetary management of the Fed as a rule are manifested in terms of boom-bust cycles.
As times goes by this type of management runs the risk of severely weakening the wealth generation process and runs the risk of severely curtailing so called real economic growth.
We maintain that as long as the present monetary system stays intact it is not possible to prevent a financial crisis similar to the one we had in 2007-9. The introduction of new tighter capital requirements by banks cannot make them more solvent in the present monetary system.
Meanwhile, banks have decided to restrain their activity irrespective of the Fed’s new rules. Note that they are sitting on close to $2cg trillion in excess cash reserves. The yearly rate of growth of banks inflationary lending has fallen to 4.1% in June from 4.2% in May and 22.4% in June last year.
Once the economy enters a new economic bust banks are likely to run the risk of experiencing a new financial crisis, the reason being that so called current good quality loans could turn out to be bad assets once the bust unfolds.
A visible decline in the yearly rate of growth of banks inflationary lending is exerting a further downward pressure on the growth momentum of our monetary measure AMS.
Year-on-year the rate of growth in AMS stood at 7.7% in June against 8.3% in May and 11.8% in June last year.
We suggest that a visible decline in the growth momentum of AMS is expected to bust various bubble activities, which sprang up on the back of the previous increase in the growth momentum of money supply.
Remember that economic bust is about busting bubble activities. Beforehand it is not always clear which activity is a bubble and which is not.
Note that once a bust emerges seemingly good companies go belly up. Given that since 2008 the Fed has been pursuing extremely loose monetary policy this raises the likelihood that we have had a large increase in bubble activities as a percentage of overall activity.
Once the bust emerges this will affect a large percentage of bubble activities and hence banks that provided loans to these activities will discover that they hold a large amount of non-performing assets.
A likely further decline in lending is going to curtail lending out of “thin air” further and this will put a further pressure on the growth momentum of money supply.
In fractional reserve banking, when money is repaid and the bank doesn’t renew the loan, money evaporates. Because the loan was originated out of nothing, it obviously couldn’t have had an owner.
In a free market, in contrast, when money i.e. gold is repaid, it is passed back to the original lender; the money stock stays intact.
Since the present monetary system is fundamentally unstable it is not possible to fix it. The central bank can keep the present paper standard going as long as the pool of real wealth is still expanding.
Once the pool begins to stagnate – or worse, shrinks – then no monetary pumping will be able to prevent the plunge of the system.
A better solution is of course to have a true free market and allow the gold to assert its monetary role. As opposed to the present monetary system in the framework of a gold standard money cannot disappear and set in motion the menace of the boom-bust cycles.
Summary and conclusion
Last week US central bank policy makers voted in favour of tighter rules on banks’ activities. The essence of the new rules is that banks maintain high quality capital equal to 7% of their assets. The new rules are aimed at making banks more solvent and to prevent repetitions of the 2008-2009 financial upheavals. We suggest that in the present monetary system which involves the existence of the central bank and fractional reserve banking it is not possible to make the monetary system more stable and immune to financial upheavals. As long as the Fed continues to tamper with interest rates and money supply we are going to have boom-bust cycles and financial upheavals.
In a recent Mises Daily article Mark Thornton has offered an excellent critique of why Krugman’s attack on the Austrian view of money market mutual funds (MMMF) is totally misplaced. I would like to add another angle as to why Krugman’s attack on the Austrian School of Economics is fundamentally flawed. According to Krugman as quoted in Thornton’s article:
How do the Austrians propose dealing with money market funds? I mean, it has always been a peculiarity of that school of thought that it praises markets and opposes government intervention — but that at the same time it demands that the government step in to prevent the free market from providing a certain kind of financial service. As I understand it, the intellectual trick here is to convince oneself that fractional reserve banking, in which banks don’t keep 100 percent of deposits in a vault, is somehow an artificial creation of the government. This is historically wrong, but maybe the actual history of banking is deep enough in the past for that wrongness to get missed.
But consider a more recent innovation: money market funds. Such funds are just a particular type of mutual fund — and surely the Austrians don’t want to ban financial intermediation (or do they?). Yet shares in a MMF are very clearly a form of money — you can even write checks on them — created out of thin air by financial institutions, with very few pieces of green paper behind them.
So are such funds illegitimate?
It seems that Krugman has a problem with the money supply definition. Once the definition is established even Krugman could see that the whole issue of the MMMF is irrelevant as far as the money supply issues are concerned.
The purpose of a definition is to present the essence, the distinguishing characteristic of the subject we are trying to identify. A definition is to tell us what the fundamentals of a particular entity are. To establish the definition of money we have to ascertain how the money economy came about.
Money emerged because barter could not support the market economy. A butcher who wanted to exchange his meat for fruit might not have been able to find a fruit farmer who wanted his meat, while the fruit farmer who wanted to exchange his fruit for shoes might not have been able to find a shoemaker who wanted his fruit.
The distinguishing characteristic of money is that it is the general medium of exchange. It has evolved from the most marketable commodity.
Through an ongoing selection process over thousands of years, people have settled on gold as money. In other words, gold served as the standard money. In today’s monetary system, the core of the money supply is no longer gold but coins and notes issued by the government and the central bank.
Consequently, coins and notes constitute the standard money, known as cash, that is employed in transactions. In other words, goods and services are sold for cash.
At any point in time part of the stock of cash is stored, that is, deposited in banks. Once an individual places his money in a bank’s warehouse he is in fact engaging in a claim transaction.
In depositing his money, he never relinquishes his ownership. No one else is expected to make use of it. When Bob stores his money with a bank, he continues to have an unlimited claim against it and is entitled to take charge of it at any time. Consequently, these deposits, labeled demand deposits, are part of money.
Thus, if in an economy people hold $10,000 in cash, we would say that the money supply of this economy is $10,000. But, if some individuals have stored $2,000 in demand deposits, the total money supply will remain $10,000: $8,000 cash and $2,000 in demand deposits—that is, $2,000 cash is stored in bank warehouses. Finally, if individuals deposit their entire stock of cash, the total money supply will remain $10,000, all of it in demand deposits.
This must be contrasted with a credit transaction, in which the lender of money relinquishes his claim over the money for the duration of the loan. As a result, in a credit transaction, money is transferred from a lender to a borrower.
The distinction between a credit and a claim transaction serves as an important means of identifying the amount of money in an economy.
Following this approach, one could easily note that, notwithstanding popular practice, money invested with money market mutual funds (MMMF) must be excluded from the money supply definition. Investment in a money market mutual fund is in fact an investment in various money-market instruments.
The quantity of money is not altered as a result of this investment; only the ownership of money has temporarily changed. Including investment in MMMFs in the money definition will only lead to a double-counting thereof.
The fact that mutual funds offer their clients cheque facilities has prompted some analysts to suggest that deposits with mutual funds are similar to bank demand deposits.
However, when an individual writes a cheque against his account with the money market fund, he in fact instructs them to sell some of his money market certificates for cash. The buyer of these certificates parts with his money, which is then transferred to the writer of the cheque; money changes hands, but no new money is created.
Furthermore, the fact that MMMF cheques are employed in payments does not mean that they are money. Cheques are a particular way of employing existing money in transactions.
The crux in identifying what must be included in the money supply definition is to adhere to the distinction between a claim transaction and a credit transaction.
Contrary to Krugman, Austrians are in favor of a free market in financial markets. Austrians, however, oppose the creation of money out of “thin air”, which sets in motion the consumption of capital and economic impoverishment. Austrians hold that the key to true free financial markets is to close all the loopholes that enable the creation of money supply out of “thin air”. This means the closure of the Central Bank and passing a law that forbids fractional reserve banking .
In his various speeches and comments the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke has given the impression that the central bank’s monetary policy remains a very powerful tool to steer the economy away from serious economic slumps.
Equally monetary policy can also be very effective in preventing the economy from entering an “over heating” phase – monetary policy, if set expertly, can keep the economy on a stable growth path with a moderate unemployment rate and a moderate rate of inflation, or so it is held by many economists.
Note again that in this way of thinking by means of suitable monetary policies the US central bank can keep the economy on a stable economic path.
Now if we accept that key economic data such as GDP and industrial production mirror fluctuations in the money supply rate of growth then one can deduce that by stabilizing the money supply rate of growth one can stabilize fluctuations in economic activity.
Indeed Professor Milton Friedman suggested keeping the money supply rate of growth at a given figure in order to stabilize the economy. But is it possible to stabilize the money supply rate of growth given that the Fed all the time reacts to fluctuations in various economic indicators?
On account of a variable time lag between changes in the money supply and changes in various indicators there are going to be various responses by the Fed.
For instance, whilst previous loose monetary policy could start producing upward pressure on prices in general, a more recent tightening in the monetary stance could start to depress the pace of economic activity.
Given that the central bank regards itself as inflation fighter it is likely to tighten its stance thereby exacerbating the economic slump.
As a result lending by banks is likely to slow down and this, on account of a decline in the rate of growth of credit out of “thin air”, is going to put downward pressure on the growth momentum of money supply.
After a time lapse this is going to put downward pressure on various economic indicators and in turn will cause the Fed to ease its stance.
In short, a tighter or a looser monetary stance by the central bank affects the growth momentum of the money supply, which after a time lag affects economic activity.
Once the Fed responds to the changes in various indicators, it sets in motion more fluctuations in the money supply rate of growth and thus creates further fluctuations in economic activity and in turn in the money supply rate of growth.
In this sense the Fed it would appear is chasing it’s ”own tail”.
Now, from 1960 to the present day, the growth momentum of our monetary measure, AMS, has been displaying visible fluctuations, which were followed by the fluctuations in economic activity.
Most economists view these types of fluctuations in economic activity as cyclical in nature and are not related to Fed’s policies as such. (On this way of thinking the source of the so-called cycles are various external and internal shocks).
Whilst the Fed is not the cause behind the cyclical fluctuations, it can move the economy away from a lower cyclical phase by means of a looser stance, so it is held.
This is also the view of the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke who holds that the current elevated unemployment rate of 8.1% can be lowered by strengthening the pace of economic activity through an aggressively loose monetary stance.
The opponents of this view hold that currently this way of thinking is not valid. They believe that on account of structural issues the rate of unemployment is stacked at a very high level and cannot be lowered by means of monetary pumping. If anything, monetary policy is likely to generate a higher rate of inflation. The opponents are of the view that the so called structural problems can be fixed by means of fiscal rather than monetary policies.
We suggest that the history of the last 60 years tends to support the view of Bernanke, i.e. that loose monetary policy can move the economy away from an economic slump.
Having said that, one needs to acknowledge periods such as the Great Depression, when during the 1930’s monetary pumping was ineffective in moving economic activity away from an economic “black hole”.
After closing at 11% in August 1931, the yearly rate of growth of Fed’s assets jumped to 105% by October 1931. Despite this massive pumping, the yearly rate of growth of AMS fell from minus 6.2% in August 1931 to minus 14.5% by July 1932.
As a result, the yearly rate of growth of industrial production plunged to minus 31% by July 1932. It stood in negative territory until April 1933 when it reached a zero percent rate of growth.
We suggest that on account of a severe depletion of the pool of savings — that is, the pool of sustenance — it took some time before the rate of growth of industrial production moved into positive territory. (Note that a fall in the money supply stopped the diversion of resources away from wealth generators towards non-productive activities, allowing the strengthening in the pool of sustenance and in turn in economic activity).
We suspect that at present the pool of sustenance is also likely to be in trouble. It remains to be seen whether the pool is still growing or stagnant. If it is stagnant then Bernanke’s opponents are likely to be right – monetary policy is going to be ineffective in reviving the economy. (Note that as far as we are concerned loose monetary policy can never revive an economy, it can only create an illusion that it can do so when the pool of sustenance is still expanding).
We suggest that the opponents are wrong that somehow loose fiscal policy could do the trick. In similarity to loose monetary policy, a loose fiscal policy can only create an illusion that it is effective when the pool of sustenance is expanding. When the pool is stagnant or declining this illusion is shattered.
If anything, the more the government tries to “help” the more damage it inflicts upon the pool of the means of sustenance and the worst things become. It is for this reason that the great Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard argued that the best way to revive the economy is for the Fed and the government to do nothing as soon as possible.
Nothing here means that the Fed must stop pumping money while at the same time government outlays must be cut to the bone. All this will release resources to the wealth generators who will set in motion a genuine economic recovery.
Summary and conclusion
In his various speeches the Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has given the impression that the US central bank has the tools to stabilize the economy. We suggest that this is not possible given the Fed’s responses to the movement of various economic indicators such as unemployment, real GDP and the CPI, responses which have subsequently set in motion various shocks. All this is manifested through the fluctuations in the rate of growth of the money supply, which after a time lag sets in motion fluctuations in economic indicators. Whilst the Fed cannot stabilize the economy it would appear that it can somehow counter cyclical swings. For instance, when the economy falls into a recession the Fed at least historically was able to revive the economic statistics by means of monetary policy. Some commentators contest this way of thinking, arguing that currently various structural issues have made monetary policy ineffective. We hold that the issues are not structural as such, but have emerged on account of past and present reckless policies of the Government and the Fed which have severely weakened the economy’s ability to generate wealth. We hold that the real economy could be fairly quickly revived by drastically reducing government outlays and by stopping the Fed’s monetary pumping.
This post originally appeared on www.stevebaker.info.
I spoke last night in the general debate on the economy, saying*:
As I rise to speak I am reminded of a quotation from an economist who was a fierce critic of Keynes, a chap called Henry Hazlitt, who said:
“Today is already the tomorrow which the bad economist yesterday urged us to ignore.”
We have heard today some moving accounts of individual and collective suffering in different regions of the country and among different sections of the public. We should be asking ourselves why, oh why, have we been delivered into this misery, which looks as if it will extend over years. Much of the conversation we have heard has been along the lines of aggregates, coarse economic aggregates, and has tended to stray away from individual choices and consequences. We have talked about markets in the abstract, and it is a pity that we seem to have forgotten that markets are a social phenomenon, and that they are about people co-operating. When we talk about markets, we tend to imagine overpaid people, high-frequency trading and those who add nothing to society.
I am reminded of something a constituent said to me recently after hearing a Minister’s speech. He asked, “Why is it that everything always seems to get harder for the working man, whoever is in power?” Indeed, in my constituency unemployment is up by 6.3% among the over-50s, up by 9.5% among those aged 25 to 49 and, scandalously, up by 23% among the young. We have heard that child poverty increased by 200,000 under the previous Government and that it is likely to increase by up to 100,000 under this Government. In the 21st century, that should not be our economic position.
Why are we in this debt crisis? I have just checked the M4 money supply figures—I am sorry to return to aggregates, but needs must. When Labour came to power the money supply was about £700 billion and it is now about £2.1 trillion, so it has tripled over the past 14 years. Unfortunately, most economists talk about money flowing into the economy as if it were water poured into a tank that found its own level immediately, but what if it is like treacle or honey? What if it builds up in piles when poured into the economy and takes a while to spread out? What if that money was loaned into existence in response to individual choices led by the excessively low interest rates pushed by the central bank? What if it was loaned into existence in particular sectors, such as the housing sector, where prices have more than doubled over the same period, and what if it was the financial sector that received the benefit of that new money first? Would that not explain why financiers and bankers are so much wealthier than everyone else, and why economic activity and wealth has been reorientated towards the south-east?
Unfortunately, the idea that money takes some time to move around the economy is lost on most economists, which I very much regret. Why did most economists not see the crisis coming? I put it to the House that it is because their theories of credit are mistaken. They make fundamental errors. Unfortunately I do not have time to go into that, but the fundamental point is that credit is a choice to consume more now and less later. It is about the exchange of present goods for future goods, and co-ordinating the economy through time, and I am afraid that the current intellectual mainstream in economics has dropped us into this desperate mess.
Opposition Members criticise the Thatcher and Reagan years. I think that there was much to applaud in those years, but unfortunately their intellectual underpinning was monetarism, which, like Keynesianism, is infected with those dreadful mistakes. People in the Occupy movement, and our constituents, are right to question the justice of our economic processes. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) said earlier that the system cannot endure, and I am inclined to agree. I agree that the current debt-based and—I am afraid to say—statist system cannot endure. However, if this system is not to endure, which way should it fall? [Humanity] tried the statist direction in the past and it led to misery and murder. I stand for free markets and free co-operation, but I say this to the House: if this is capitalism, I am not a capitalist.
* (I have made a small correction to the quote and a clarification in , both of which I have requested from Hansard)
Related reading can be found here:
- Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson (buy, PDF), chapters 1, 6 and 23 in particular.
- Mises, Human Action (buy, online), especially chapter 20 “Interest, Credit Expansion, and the Trade Cycle”
- Hulsmann, The Ethics of Money Production (buy, PDF).
The Bank of England’s money supply measure M4, which I referred to, may be found here. I used M4 in this context because it is the conventional mainstream measure, but I prefer Kaleidic Economics’ MA for reasons explained on that site (Notes and Coins is too narrow and M4 too broad). MA tells a clear story of where jobs and growth came from and where they went – money supply growth created the illusion of prosperity, broke the banking system and collapsed, taking the illusion with it:
Year on year change in Kaleidic Economics' MA - click for source
When we updated MA (our Austrian school measure of the money supply) for August, we expected to see signs of the market turbulence that has characterised recent events. Although still in a monetary contraction, MA is falling at a lower rate than previous months. It has been indicating a tightening of credit conditions for several years now, but has not significantly deteriorated.
Via Honesty is best policy | The Jewish Chronicle, I set out MA, the Austrian measure of the money supply developed by Dr Anthony J Evans and Toby Baxendale:
Ask economists how much money there is and you will get many answers. You know money is what you can exchange for real goods and services, but economists often include things like time deposits, which cannot be spent because they have fixed terms. Money is one half of every transaction, so its supply really matters. According to my colleague Dr Anthony J Evans of Kaleidic Economics, the Bank of England’s preferred measures, “Narrow Money” and “Broad Money”, are either too narrow or too broad. From the perspective of the Austrian School of Economics, Anthony, together with entrepreneur Toby Baxendale, chairman of The Cobden Centre, has established and now publishes a different measure which they call “MA”. A chart (see above) of the growth of MA shows a pattern that is not visible in the Bank of England’s measures.
Given a good measure of the money supply, we shouldn’t be surprised that our economic and financial troubles continue.
Please see the full article for more and Kaleidic Economics for the data and explanation.
Another classic article, brought forward. This is a speech by James Tyler to the Adam Smith Institute Next Generation Group on 6 October 2009. This speech is also available on hedgehedge.com.
I have spent the best part of the last two decades pitting my wits against the market. It’s an unforgiving game: I’ve seen ups and downs, and many of my rivals buried under an avalanche of hubris, passion, illogical thought and unchecked emotion.
I have witnessed the sheer folly of the ERM crisis, the Asian crisis, the failure of the Gods at Long Term Capital Management and the insanity of the tech boom.
I have enjoyed the ‘NICE’ decade (Non-Inflationary Constant Expansion), and scared myself silly during the credit crisis.
I am a trader.
I risk my own money and live or die by my decisions, and face the threat of personal bankruptcy every time I switch my screens on. I get no salary – indeed I turn up at the start of the month with a large office overhead – a ‘negative’ salary. I have no fancy company pension scheme, no lucrative monopoly or franchise.
I eat what I kill.
Mistakes cost me my livelihood, so, above all, my decisions have to be rooted in practical and logical decision making.
Some have called my kind parasitic, but I would have said that I bring order, efficiency, predictability, stability and deep liquidity to a crucial process: a process that makes the whole world keep ticking.
I make money work.
I make the market in interest rate derivatives: a market born out of the neo classical revolution in finance fostered in Chicago during the 1970s. I am a child of Friedman, Fisher Black, Myron Scholes and the modern international financial system.
My analysis was steeped in the neo-classical, efficient markets paradigm.
Friedman’s ideal was working. Enlightened central bankers guided the free market with gentle nudges and short term liquidity infusions, free floating currencies gently adjusted themselves to the constant flow of new information and efficient and rational markets took all in their stride.
Credit flowed, people got wealthier, economies developed and all was well.
And then the crisis struck.
Continue reading “My Journey to Austrianism via the City”