Authors

Economics

Back to the future

“Sir, Arnaud Montebourg, the former French economy minister and the sourest note in the Hollande repertoire, dares to complain of “absurd” austerity policies ? (“Hollande purges cabinet following leftwing revolt”, August 26.) If those policies are absurd, it is because they were not accompanied by the structural reforms so badly needed to make the French economy healthy. I am speaking of long outdated redundancy and seniority labour laws, oppressive regulations for the business sector and the unbearable bureaucratic roadblocks that stand in the way of start-ups.

“To these, one can also add the traditional Gallic mindset of envy, if not outright hostility, towards those French citizens and other Europeans who are willing to work longer, harder and smarter and want to make good money; a mindset that Mr Montebourg never hesitated to parade before the world. Now that he and his cohorts on the left of the Socialist party have departed the government, perhaps François Hollande can move forward and leapfrog France from the 19th to the 21st century.” Letter to the FT from Stan Trybulski, Branford, Connecticut, 28th August 2014.

“There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Adam Smith.

“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats, procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” Thomas Sowell.

Much of what we think we know isn’t necessarily so. The invention of the printing press with movable type ? Traditionally credited to fifteenth-century Germany and Johannes Gutenberg, it was actually invented in eleventh-century China. Paper also originated in China long before it was used in the West. As did paper money and toilet paper (albeit today, these are pretty much interchangeable). English agriculturalist Jethro Tull is widely credited with the discovery of the seed drill in 1701. It was in fact invented by the Chinese 2,000 years beforehand. The first blast furnace for iron smelting is associated with Coalbrookdale – tragically close to schools in the West Midlands. It was actually introduced by the Chinese before 200 BC. The Chinese were also first to use the fishing reel, matches, the magnetic compass, playing cards, the toothbrush and the wheelbarrow. Perhaps even golf. So how did a society apparently so dynamic and innovative by comparison with the West then enter a centuries’ long decline ?

Niall Ferguson, in his excellent book ‘Civilization’ (Penguin, 2012) puts forward six “identifiably novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviours” that account for the cultural and economic outperformance of the West between, say, the 16th and 20th centuries:

Competition
Science
Property rights
Medicine
The consumer society
The work ethic.

He defines these trends as follows:

1. Competition: “a decentralization of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-states and capitalism”.
2. Science: “a way of studying, understanding and ultimately changing the natural world, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest”.
3. Property rights: “the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government”.
4. Medicine: “a branch of science that allowed a major improvement in health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also in their colonies”.
5. The consumer society: “a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable”.
6. The work ethic: “a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by “killer apps” 1 to 5”.

For our purposes we are most interested in Ferguson’s first “killer app”, Competition. But we will also refer to it in a slightly different context – “the lack of bureaucracy”. As the chart below shows, from 1000 AD to its high water mark in the 1960s, UK GDP relative to China’s was a one-way bet. Since then, however, the trend has gone into reverse.

UKChina GDP Ratio

Source: Niall Ferguson / Penguin Books
What can account for this dramatic reversal of economic fortunes ? Economic reforms in China, led by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, are likely to be responsible for at least part of the turnaround. But the relentless and sclerotic expansion of the State in Britain has also played a role.

UK general government expenditure (green) and private expenditure (black) as a proportion of GDP

Govt Expenditure

Source: David B. Smith / Steve Baker MP

As the chart above shows, at the turn of the last century, UK state spending accounted for roughly 10% of the economy and the private sector accounted for the rest. But as the welfare state has swelled, government spending has mushroomed to account, now, for something like half or more of the entire economy. And state spending, by and large, is inefficient spending – at least by comparison with the inevitably more disciplined for-profit sector. In other words, our relative economic prospects have declined in inverse proportion to the expansion (metastasis) of the State. In turn, bureaucratic parasitism likely accounts for productivity differentials in the euro zone; the German State accounts for roughly 45% of its economy, the French State 56%.

This might account for the differential between German and French productivity

Holland Merkel Umbrellas
As might this

Holland Watch
Politicians have been able to swell the State thus far only with assistance by two groups: with the involuntary support of taxpayers, and with the connivance of central bankers. Popular resentment of what is laughably termed ‘austerity’ threatens the ongoing indulgence of the first group; the almost terminal straining of market forces by the latter runs the risk of a disorderly collapse of confidence in bond markets, after which continued Western deficit spending would be virtually impossible.

We seem to be close to the endgame. Even as perversely, record-low bond yields (indiscriminately – across markets as diverse as Austria, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Finland, Ireland, Italy and Spain) have sent desperate investors scurrying into stocks instead, those same investors are, with extra perversity, displaying a similar lack of discrimination and not even attempting to locate relative value within markets. Extraordinarily, the Wall Street Journal points out that

“Investors are pouring money into Vanguard Group, the epitome of the hands-off approach to investing, flocking to funds that track market indexes and aren’t run by stock pickers or star managers. The inflow has pushed the mutual-fund giant to almost $3 trillion in assets under management for the first time. The surge is part of a sea change in the fund business in which investors are increasingly opting for products that track the market rather than relying on managers to pick winners… Investors poured a net $336 billion into passively managed stock and bond funds in 2013, handily beating the $53 billion invested in traditional mutual funds of the same type, according to Morningstar. So far this year through July, investors put a net $177 billion into those passive funds, compared with $74 billion in actively managed funds… Through July, passively managed stock funds have seen a net $128.4 billion in investor inflows, compared with $18 billion for traditional stock funds…”

Nor is this lack of judicious investment a product of bullish US market sentiment. The same arbitrary index-following – at all-time highs – is being pursued in the UK. Trade magazine FTAdviser reports that

“Retail investors put more money into tracker funds in July than in any other month since records began, according to the latest IMA data.”

Index-tracking may have merit at the bottom of the market, but at the top ?

Having singularly failed to reform or restructure their dilapidated economies, many governments throughout the West have left it to their central banks to keep a now exhausted credit bubble to inflate further. Unprecedented monetary stimulus and the suppression of interest rates have now boxed both central bankers and many investors into a corner. Bond markets now have no value but could yet get even more delusional in terms of price and yield. Stock markets are looking increasingly irrational relative to the health of their underlying economies. The euro zone looks set to re-enter recession and now expects the ECB to unveil outright quantitative easing. If the West wishes to regain its economic vigour versus Asia, it would do well to remember what made it so culturally and economically exceptional in the first place.

Economics

Niall Ferguson on the rise of China

Episode 69: Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson talks to GoldMoney’s Alasdair Macleod about global politics, with special emphasis on China’s prospects and challenges in the years ahead.

They discuss the political and economic situation in China, and the need for the Chinese government to start privatising state enterprises, reshape the country’s rule of law and globalise the renminbi. For Ferguson, the key question is whether or not Beijing will introduce reliable private property rights so that the rising middle class can feel secure.

China fears that its large dollar claims will be worth much less in the future. Besides complaining about this, they are looking for ways to diversify their wealth and revenue stream. Ferguson points out though that there are limits to their ability to secure hard assets. They also discuss China’s relationship with Russia and its role in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation.

Ferguson states that the gold flow from “the West to the Rest” is reflective of declining Western power. The world’s centre of gravity is shifting east – a shift that is going to continue, and that is taking place at an extremely fast pace when looked at in a historical context. Though China’s economic expansion could slow, Ferguson expects another 20 years of solid growth before demographic problems force the country’s economy to stall.

Finally they talk about Japan’s debt problems and the faulty design of the European currency union. Though Ferguson expects the eurozone to stay together, he expects a Japanese-style “lost decade” – and one sadly lacking in Japanese-style social harmony.

This podcast was recorded on 14 November 2012 and previously published at GoldMoney.com.

Economics

Niall Ferguson on Keynesianism

Steve Baker’s researcher, Tim Hewish, found an interesting CNN interview with Niall Ferguson on the US approach to the economic crisis:

… the way that the discussion is conducted it seems like there is only a Keynesian option and the alternative is just sort of passively waiting for disaster. I think there is a better strategy that we could adopt. Imagine radical fiscal reform that attacked not only the entitlements problem — that fundamental problem of Medicare and Social Security that is going to bankrupt the country if something isn’t done — and rationalised the tax code: simplified income tax, maybe even created just a simple flat tax rate; simplified, and indeed reduced corporate tax; created a federal sales tax. There is a way of creating a confidence-boosting fiscal reform … I’m depressed at how few people in Washington are prepared to talk about this option.

And later on:

one reason I’m sceptical of [Krugman’s proposed] response is that we used to do this. It’s not like we haven’t tried Keynesianism in the past. Indeed it was orthodoxy for most of the 60s and 70s that what you did in the face of unemployment was that you ran deficits and printed money. And guess what we ended up with? The 1970s — stagflation: double digit inflation and low growth. I don’t quite understand why Keynes is suddenly so fashionable … we need to look at some radical alternatives.

In his Ascent of Money, Ferguson takes a view of economic history that many Cobden Centre readers would question. Even after the financial crisis, he wrote,

The historical reality, as should by now be clear, is that states and financial markets have always existed in a symbiotic relationship. Indeed, without the exigencies of public finance, much of the financial innovation that produced central banks, the bond market and the stock market would never have occurred.

Read into that what you will. Personally, I suspect that two parasites can coexist symbiotically on a shared host. More encouraging was Ferguson’s December 2009 endorsement of Laurence Kotlikoff’s Limited Purpose Banking proposals.

Mutual funds are, effectively, small banks, with a 100 per cent capital requirement under all circumstances. Thus, LPB delivers what many advocate – small banks with more capital. Will this work? It has. Unlike so much of the financial system, the mutual fund industry came through this crisis unscathed. True, the Primary Reserve Fund broke the buck by investing in Lehman and had to be bailed out. But under LPB only cash mutual funds (invested solely in cash) would never lose investors’ principal. The first line of all other funds’ prospectuses would state: “This fund is risky and can break the buck.”

In any case, this interview is worth watching. High profile questioning of Keynesianism is always welcome.

There’s a follow-up article on Ferguson’s website: