Authors

Economics

The crisis of interventionism, the end of globalisation, and the looming tech trade war

[Editor's note: this edition of the Amphora Report is from several weeks ago, but is still apt at the moment]

“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’.1

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.2

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.3

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.4

 

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 thatremains 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.5

 

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.6

 

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 implyingthis 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.7

 

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.8

 

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.9

 

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.10

 

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.11

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.12

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—saybuying 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.

 

 

 

A QUICK WORD ON AMPHORA

Regular readers of this Report are aware that Amphora provides a commodity-focused advisory service to institutions and high net worth investors around the world. Having added new resources of late, we are looking to accelerate our growth and are open to the possibility of a strategic partnership to expand our client base. We encourage those who see value in a potential collaboration to consider reaching out to us at info@amphora-alpha.com

1 Hayek’s eloquent Nobel Memorial speech on this topic can be found at the link here.

2 Hayek explained his motivation to write the Road to Serfdom as a warning specifically to open, free societies that, even with entirely benign intentions, failed interventions on failed interventions could, over time, turn open, free societies into closed, authoritarian ones.

3 In later life Friedman came to question a number of his key assumptions, for example whether money-supply targeting could work consistently in practice and whether or not it was realistic to assume that central banks could remain independent of politics.

4 This report can be found at the link here.

5 The transcript of this speech can be found here.

6 This speech can be located at the link here.

7 The link to this speech can be found here.

8 For a thorough discussion of the dollar’s reserve role and the inflationary consequences thereof, please see THE CURSE OF THE RESERVE CURRENCY, Amphora Report vol. 3 (November 2012). The link to this report is here.

9 The link to this report is here.

10 For example please see A VICIOUS CYCLE, Amphora Report vol. 3 (October 2012). The link is here.

11 These events were reported by Bloomberg News here.

12 Please see 2014: A YEAR OF INVESTING DANGEROUSLY, Amphora Report vol. 5, (February 2014). The link is here.

Economics

Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?

[Editor's note: the following piece was originally published by World Dollar at zerohedge.com]

In 2003, Jörg Guido Hülsmann, a senior fellow of the Mises Institute, published the essay “Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?” in a Winter edition of The Independent Review. The key conclusion drawn was that it is the obfuscation of the difference between fractional-reserve IOUs and genuine money titles which preserves the the practice of fractional-reserve banking.

It is the belief of this author that this essay has not received the acclaim that it so richly deserves. Indeed, its implications for the future of money and banking are monumentous. If those who advance the Austrian School of economics, the Mises Institute and Zero Hedge most prominently among them, were to grant its ideas a great renaissance, the worldwide return to sound money may happen far sooner than most could have believed possible.

J.G. Hülsmann 
explains why “in a free market with proper product differentiation, fractional-reserve banking would play virtually no monetary role” (p.403). The incisive reason given is that genuine money titles are valued at par with money proper, while fractional-reserve IOUs + RP (Redemption Promise) would be valued below par, due to default risk.

Here is the deductive argument being made:

1.    Debt (IOUs + RP) is promised money.
2.    A promise has the risk of not being kept (default risk).
3.    Therefore, promised money, debt (IOUs + RP), is less valuable than genuine money titles (/money proper).

J.G. Hülsmann goes on to explain why the mispricing of fractional-reserve debt (IOUs + RP) persists. The reasons given include the outlawing of genuine money titles and deceptive language (“deposits”).  This author would like to add one more reason, namely the myth that the government could actually “guarantee” deposits in the event of a systemic run. Systemic runs mean, by definition, most if not all money proper exiting the fractional reserve banking system, meaning the money proper with which the “guarantees” could be fulfilled doesn’t exist, short of unprecedented levels of new money printing and financial repression. This point is acknowledged on p.22 of the otherwise unexceptional “The Chicago Plan Revisited” by Jaromir Benes and Michael Kumhof.

The history of fractional reserve banking is, then, defined by informational inefficiency. Market participants have failed to reflect the price differential between fractional reserve debt (IOUs + RP) and genuine money titles.

Let us now extend the deductive argument:

4.    Therefore, an arbitrage opportunity exists. All holders of Debt (IOUs + RP) have an economic incentive to make the redemption request for genuine money titles (/money proper).

Mervyn King, ex-governor of the Bank of England, once claimed that it is irrational to start a bank run, but rational to participate in one once it has started. While the second part of the claim is correct, the first is not. It is irrational not to start a bank run, due to the arbitrage opportunity that exists.

This, of course, holds the assumption that the market will become informationally efficient, and will therefore capitalise on the mispricing. But the holding of this assumption is only credible if this idea is spread. We live in a time with an unprecedented level of competing voices wanting to be heard, the unfortunate consequence of which is that we drown out the voices that are truly exceptional. It is no exaggeration to say that “Has Fractional-Reserve Banking Really Passed the Market Test?” may prove to be the most revolutionary essay in the history of monetary economics and banking, if only it  receives the level of appraisal and promotion it deserves.

On this matter, the reasons given for the persistence of the mispricing of fractional-reserve debt (IOUs + RP) are unsustainable in the long run. The lack of legal protection for genuine money titles is no more than a technicality, for there is nothing in practice that can sustainably prevent the existence of full reserve banks. Awareness that “deposits” are not actually money being held for safekeeping is a matter of educating the public, as is awareness that government’s deposit “guarantees” are not actually credible in the event of a systemic run.

If we assume, then, that fractional-reserve banking will come to its logical ending, there is good reason to believe that the shock will herald the endgame for fiat money. It is in fact the case that all fiat money is the liability of the central bank, which also carries the risk of non-repayment (default risk). This, again, means an arbitrage opportunity for market participants to withdraw the fiat money from the fiat money banking system. This confirms that the original basis for fiat money is destroyed, for its repayment to the central bank is not credible.

Finally, at long last, we have a worldwide return to sound money. Will there be a new 21st century Gold Standard? Will we recourse to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin? Will we see the rise of the Equal Opportunity Standard, with everyone in the world being issued once with an equal amount of World dollars? Or will there be another innovation to come? What we must defend, as proud advocates of freedom, is that the free market will decide. That governments finally learn to stop their oppressive, damaging interference with the monetary system.

Economics

Is there room for Austrian ideas at the top table?

[Editor's note: now that Steve Baker MP is on the Treasury Select Committee, it should be of interest to all Austrianists, and those interested in monetary reform in general, to re-visit Anthony Evans and Toby Baxendale's 2008 paper on whether there is room for Austrian ideas at the top table. Within the paper they also reference William White, of the BIS, who has made several comments in the past that are sympathetic to the Austrian School. The recent BIS Annual Report, at least relative to individual, national central banks, shows some consideration of the distorting effects of monetary policy, and the cleansing effects of liquidation (note that the BIS does not face the same political pressures as supposedly independent national central banks).  It will be of major importance to followers of the Austrian School around the world to follow the progress of Steve as things develop. Below is the introduction to the paper, the paper in its entirety can be downloaded here aje_2008_toptable]

 

Introduction

 

At a speech in London in 2006 Fynn Kydland surveyed ‘the’ three ways in which governments can achieve credible monetary policy: the gold standard, a currency board or independent central banks. After taking minimal time to dismiss the first two as either outdated or unsuitable for a modern, prosperous economy the majority of the speech was focused on the latter, and the issue of independence. However, the hegemony of this monetary system belies the relative novelty of its use. Indeed the UK presents an especially peculiar history, given the genesis of independence with the New Labour government of 1997. A decade is a short time and two large coincidences should not be ignored. First, independence has coincided with an unprecedented period of global growth, giving the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) a relatively easy ride. Second, the political system has been amazingly consistent with the same government in place throughout, and just two Chancellors of the Exchequer (Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling). These two conditions have meant that from its inception the UK system of central bank independence has not been properly tested.

Our main claim in this article is that monetary policy has converged into a blend of two theoretical approaches, despite there being three established schools of thought. We feel that there is room at the top table of policy debate for more explicit attention to Austrianideas, and will survey emerging and prevailing attention amongst policy commentary.

 

Troubling times to be a central banker

 

Current economic conditions are proving to be of almost universal concern. In the UK general price levels are rising (with the rise in the consumer price index (CPI) hitting 3.8% and in the retail price index reaching 4.6% in June 2008) whilst output growth is falling (with GDP growth slowing to 0.2% in quarter two 2008), raising the possibility of stagflation. This comes after a serious credit crunch that has led to the nationalisation of Northern Rock and an estimated £50 billion being used as a credit lifeline. Most of the prevailing winds are global and are related to two recent financial bubbles. From late 2000 to 2003 the NASDAQ composite index (of primarily US technology stocks) lost a fifth of its value. This was followed with a bubble in the housing market that burst in 2005/06 leading to a liquidity crisis concentrated on sub-prime mortgages. Although the UK has fewer sub-prime lendings, British banks were exposed through their US counterparts and it is now widely acknowledged that a house price bubble has occurred (the ratio of median house prices to median earnings rising steadily from 3.54 in 1997 to 7.26 in 2007) and that a fall in prices is still to come. Also worrying, we see signs that people are diverting their wealth from financial assets altogether and putting them into hard commodities such as gold or oil.

Although academic attention to developing new models is high, there seems to be a request on the part of central bankers for less formal theory building and more empirical evidence.

Alan Greenspan has ‘always argued that an up-to-date set of the most detailed estimates for the latest available quarter are far more useful for forecasting accuracy than a more sophisticated model structure’ (Greenspan, 2007), which N. Gregory Mankiw interprets to mean ‘better monetary policy . . . is more likely to follow from better data than from better models’. But despite the settled hegemony of theoretical frameworks, there is a genuine crisis in some of the fundamental principles of central bank independence. Indeed three points help to demonstrate that some of the key tenets of the independence doctrine are crumbling.

 

Monetary policy is not independent of political pressures

 

The UK government grants operational independence to the Bank of England, but sets the targets that are required to be hit. This has the potential to mask inflation by moving the goalposts, as Gordon Brown did in 1997 when he switched the target from the retail price index (RPIX) to the narrower CPI. Although the relatively harmonious macroeconomic conditions of the first decade of UK independence has created little room for conflict, the rarity of disagreement between the Bank of England and Treasury also hints at some operational alignment. On the other side of the Atlantic the distinction between de facto and de jure independence is even more evident, as Allan Meltzer says,

The Fed has done too much to prevent a possible recession and too little to prevent another round of inflation. Its mistake comes from responding to pressure from Congress and the financial markets. The Fed has sacrificed its independence by yielding to that pressure.’

 

Monetary policy is not merely a technical exercise

 

The point of removing monetary policy from the hands of politicians was to provide a degree of objectivity and technical competence. Whilst the Treasury is at the behest of vested interests, the Bank of England is deemed impartial and able to make purely technical decisions. In other words, the Treasury targets the destination but the Bank steers the car. But the aftermath of the Northern Rock bailout has demonstrated the failure of this philosophy. As Axel Leijonhufvud says,

monetary policy comes to involve choices of inflating or deflating, of favouring debtors or creditors, of selectively bailing out some and not others, of allowing or preventing banks to collude, no democratic country can leave these decisions to unelected technicians. The independence doctrine becomes impossible to uphold [italics in original].’

As these political judgments are made, there will be an increasing conflict between politicians and central bankers.

 

Inflation targeting is too simplistic

 

The key problem with the UK is that a monetary system of inflation targeting supposes that interest rates should rise to combat inflation, regardless of the source. Treating inflation as the primary target downplays conflicting signals from elsewhere in the economy. In an increasingly complex global economy it seems simplistic at best to assume such a degree of control. We have seen productivity gains and cheaper imports that should result in falling prices, but a commitment to 2% inflation forces an expansionary monetary policy. As Joseph Stiglitz has said, ‘today inflation targeting is being put to the test – and it will almost certainly fail’. He believes that rising commodity prices are importing inflation, and therefore domestic policy changes will be counterproductive. We would also point out the possibility of reverse causation, and instead of viewing rising oil prices as the cause of economic troubles, it might be a sign of capital flight from financial assets into hard commodities (Frankel, 2006). Underlying this point is a fundamental fallacy that treats aggregate demand as being the main cause of inflationary pressure. This emphasis on price inflation rather than monetary inflation neglects the overall size of the monetary footprint, which is ‘the stock of saved goods that allow entrepreneurs to invest in more roundabout production’ (Baxendale and Evans, 2008). It is actually the money supply that has generated inflationary pressures.

The current challenges have thus led to an increasingly unorthodox use of policy tools, with the British government making up the rules as it went along over Northern Rock, and the Fed going to the ‘very edge’ of its legal authority over Bear Stearns. Paul Volcker made the accusation that ‘out of perceived necessity, sweeping powers have been exercised in a manner that is neither natural nor comfortable for a central bank’, McCallum’s rule and Taylor’s rule fall by the wayside as the New York Times screams out, ‘It’s a Crisis, and Ideas Are Scarce’.

 

 

Economics

Time for change in the London bullion market

[Editor’s note: The Cobden Centre is happy to republish this commentary by Alasdair Macleod, the original can be found here.]

 

The London bullion market is an over-the-counter unregulated market and has had this status since the mid-1980s. The disadvantage of an OTC market being unregulated is that change often ends up being driven by a cartel of members promoting their own vested interests. Sadly, this has meant London has not kept pace with developments in market standards elsewhere.

 

The current row is focused on the twice-daily gold fix. The fix has been giving daily reference prices for gold since 1919, useful in the past when dealing was unrecorded and over-the-counter by telephone. The London gold fix could be described as an antiquated deal-based version of the LIBOR fix that has itself been discredited.

 

It was with this in mind that the House of Commons Treasury Committee called witnesses before it to give evidence on the matter on 2nd July. This dramatically exposed the inconsistences in the current situation, and was summed up by the Chairman Andrew Tyrie as follows: “Is there any reason we should not be treating this as an appalling story?”

 

These were strong words and his question remains hanging over the heads of all involved. It would be a mistake to think the Financial Conduct Authority which was given a rough ride by the Committee can ignore this “appalling story”. The FCA will almost certainly seek significant reforms, and reform means greater market transparency and no fix procedure that does not comply with IOSCO’s nineteen principles.

 

The current fix is thought to comply with only four of them, which is a measure of how things have moved on while the London bullion market has stood still. London effectively remains a cartel between bullion banks and the Bank of England (BoE). It has worked well for London in the past, because the BoE has used its position as the principal custodian of central bank gold to enhance liquidity. And when bailouts are required, the Bank has provided them behind closed doors.

 

The world has moved on. IOSCO has provided a standard for behaviour not just to cherry-pick, but as a minimum for credibility. China, which we routinely deride for the quality of official information, has a fully functioning gold bullion market which provides turnover and delivery statistics, as well as trade by the ten largest participants by both volume and bar sizes. China has also tied up mine output in Asia, Australia and Africa which now bypasses London completely. Dubai also has ambitions to become a major physical market, being in the centre of middle-eastern bullion stockpiles and with strong links into the Indian market.

 

Even Singapore sees itself servicing South East Asia and becoming a global centre. These realities are reflected in the 995 LBMA 400oz bar being outdated and being replaced by a new Asian 1kg 9999 standard, with refiners working overtime to affect the transition. London cannot possibly meet these global challenges without major reform.

 

Central banks are now net buyers of bullion, withdrawing liquidity from the London market instead of adding to it. With the FCA as one of its new responsibilities, the ability of the BoE to act as ringmaster in the LBMA is changing from an interventionist to a regulatory role. If it is to retain the physical gold business, London’s standards, on which users’ trust is ultimately based, must be of the highest order with the maximum levels of information disclosure.

Economics

Competition and Finance

[Editor's note: The Cato Institute will be publishing Cobden Senior Fellow Kevin Dowd's work "Competition and Finance" for free in ebook format. The following outlines the contributions of this important work.]

Originally published in 1996, Cato is proud to make available in digital format, Professor Kevin Dowd’s groundbreaking unification of financial and monetary economics, Competition and Finance: A Reinterpretation of Financial and Monetary Economics.

Dowd begins his analysis with a microeconomic examination of which financial contracts and instruments economic actors use, after which he extends this analysis to how these instruments impact a firm’s financial structure, as well as how firms manage that financial structure.  After bringing the reader from individual agent to the foundations of corporate financial policy, Dowd then builds a theory of financial intermediation, or a theory of “banking”, based upon these micro-foundations.  He uses these foundations to explain the role and existence of various forms of intermediaries found in financial markets, including brokers, mutual funds and of course, commercial banks.

Most scholarship in financial economics ends there, or rather examines in ever deeper detail the workings of financial intermediaries.  Dowd, after having developed a theory of financial intermediation from micro-foundations, derives a theory of monetary standards, based upon his developed media of exchange and its relation to the payments system.  While much of Competition and Finance breaks new theoretical ground, it is this bridge from micro-finance to macro-economics and monetary policy that constitutes the work’s most significant contribution.  In doing so, Dowd also lays the theoretical groundwork for a laissez-faire system of banking and money, demonstrating how such would improve consumer welfare and financial stability.

As Competition and Finance has been out-of-print in the United States, our hope is to make this important work available to a new generation of scholars working in the fields of financial and monetary economics.  If the recent financial crisis demonstrated anything, it is the need for a more unified treatment of financial and monetary economics.  Competition and Finance provides such a treatment.

Book Reviews

‘The system has spun out of control’

Book Review: The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System by James Rickards

The_Death_of_Money_Cover_ArtThe title will no doubt give Cobden Centre readers a feeling of déjà vu, but James Rickards’ new book (The Death of Money: The Coming Collapse of the International Monetary System) deals with more than just the fate of paper money – and in particular, the US dollar. Terrorism, financial warfare and world government are discussed, as is the future of the European Union.

Though he quotes F.A. Hayek a few times, the Austrian School gets only one mildly disparaging mention in the entire book. This seems odd for an author who devotes a whole chapter to the benefits of the gold standard. His first bestselling book, Currency Wars, argues that currency wars are not just an economic or monetary concern, but a national security concern for the USA.

Rickards relies on emerging Chaos theories of economics and markets (1) to buttress his arguments in favour of sound money and prudent – limited – government. He uses the same insights, twinned with years of Wall Street experience, to explain why the “coming collapse of the dollar and the international monetary system is entirely foreseeable.”

One of Rickards’ key arguments is that exponential increases in the total size of credit markets mean exponential increases in risk. The gross size of derivative markets is the problem, irrespective of false assurances about netting, he claims. Politicians and central bankers have by and large learnt nothing from recent crises, and are still “in thrall to bank political contributions.”

He makes the case for the US federal government to reinstate Depression-era restrictions on banking activities and for most derivatives to be banned. As a former Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, said in 2009, “the only useful thing banks have invented in 20 years is the ATM” – a sentiment Rickards would probably be sympathetic to.

The chapter dealing with the Fed’s hubris and what investment writer James Grant calls our “PhD Standard” of macroeconomic management will be familiar territory for readers of this site. The Fed is trapped between the rock of natural deflationary forces of excessive debt, an ageing population and cheap imports frustrating its efforts to generate a self-sustaining economic recovery and the hard place of annualised inflation of 2%. Rickards quotes extensively from eminent economist and Ben Bernanke mentor Frederic Mishkin, who noted in a 2013 paper titled Crunch Time: Fiscal Crises and the Role of Monetary Policy that “ultimately, the central bank is without power to avoid the consequences of an unsustainable fiscal policy.”

More interesting is the author’s attempt to map out what-happens-next scenarios. The chapter about the on-going transformation of the International Monetary Fund into the world’s central bank, and Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) into a global currency, is particularly insightful. Though Rickards doesn’t say it, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff (and current Mayor of Chicago) Rahm Emanuel’s dictum about never letting a crisis go to waste seems to apply here: hostile acts of financial warfare would lead to calls for more international regulation, and to more government intervention and monitoring of markets. Observers of the EU’s crab-like advance over the last half century will be familiar with the process.

Indeed, my only quibble with this book is Rickards’ starry-eyed take on the EU – soon to be “the world’s economic superpower” in his view. Though he makes a good argument – similar to Jesús Huerta de Soto’s – that relatively-tight European Central Bank monetary policy is forcing effective structural adjustments in the eurozone periphery, as well as in eastern states that wish to join the euro, his endorsement of other aspects of the EU seem too sweeping.

The author talks of the benefits of “efficiencies for the greater good” in supranational government, and how subsidiarity makes allowances for “local custom and practice”. But, as the regulatory débacle surrounding the Somerset floods has shown recently, EU rule frequently licenses bureaucratic idiocies that destroy effective, established national laws. Regulatory central planning for an entire continent is, I’d say, just as suspect as monetary central planning for one country.

The continent’s demographic problems are probably containable in the short-term, as Rickards says. But mass immigration is driving increasing numbers of white Europeans to far-right parties. And while there is consistently strong public support for the euro in the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), he’s silent on the broader question of the EU’s democratic legitimacy. No mention of those pesky ‘No’ votes in European Constitution, Maastricht and Lisbon Treaty referendums – or of the Commission’s own Eurobarometer polls, which show more and more Europeans losing faith in “the project”.

No matter I suppose: the eurocrats will rumble on regardless. But what was that quote about democracy being the worst form of government apart from all the others?

All in all though, this is a great book – even for someone like me who’s not exactly new to the economic doom ‘n’ gloom genre. As Rickards says at the end of his intro: “The system has spun out of control.”

References:
(1) For example Juárez, Fernando (2011). “Applying the theory of chaos and a complex model of health to establish relations among financial indicators”. Procedia Computer Science 3: 982–986.

Economics

Fed tightens control over banks activities

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.

Economics

The problem with regulation

It is seems to be universally agreed that regulation is a good thing, ensuring that people are treated fairly by unscrupulous businesses. Regulation is a vindication of state intervention and control. The alternative is seen as a free-market jungle full of hidden dangers and traps for the unwary and innocent.

It is less universally known that regulation was the method that the pre-war fascists used to pursue their political ends, contrasting with communism which sought instead to own the means of production. Post-war, regulation re-emerged in the 1980s when it was used to control newly-privatised state monopolies to make privatisation politically acceptable. And every country that followed the UK in their own privatisation programmes adopted regulation as the means of maintaining state control.

These privatised industries are still regulated today, with the addition of financial services and less obviously perhaps most other aspects of economic life. European socialists reinvented themselves by dropping their commitment to ownership of the means of production in favour of the fascist model. Thus, the policies of the right and left became joined at the hip.

The objective of regulation may be to protect the consumer but the weaknesses are multiple. In framing and operating the rules, Government gets to decide what people should have. Businesses use the seal of regulatory approval as a replacement for stand-alone reputation, and regulation eliminates both competition and innovation from unregulated businesses. It ensures that big business has a basis for partnership with government, and that government does big business’s bidding.

At its heart regulation is therefore anti-competitive. It is not based on consumer choice and the subjective values of goods and services that go with it. Instead it allows businesses to act as monopoly providers, where their costs determine prices. But fixing prices to the cost of production is only a first step: a regulated business can find many ways of placing regulation above the interests of the consumer by gaming the system.

This is most obvious in financial services. Under the cloak of regulation, the general public has become a source of profits not through being provided a benefit, but by simply acquiring its wealth. If the reader doubts this statement, he needs to explain how and why all large investment banks are able to declare trading profits every business day, when an independent professional trader reckons to do well with a 55-60% success rate.

There is nothing wrong with any business having conflicts of interest as such: after all, it is up to the consumer to judge whether or not to deal with it. The wrong is for the state to give business respectability through licencing and regulation, replacing genuine commercial reputation.

Defenders of regulation do not realise that it is primarily a means of state control. This is why all political parties with very few exceptions endorse it. And that is the insidious part of it: in an effort to correct the many wrongs of regulation, more and more regulations, always amounting to greater state control, are subsequently introduced.

Instead of protecting the unwary and innocent, regulation encourages businesses to manipulate the system with a view to enhancing their own protection and profit. As is so often the case with government interference in social and economic matters, regulation achieves the exact opposite of the stated objective.

This article was previously published at GoldMoney.com.

Economics

Collateral transformation: the latest, greatest financial weapon of mass destruction

Back in 2006, as the debate was raging whether or not the US had a mortgage credit and housing bubble, I had an ongoing, related exchange with the Chief US Economist of a large US investment bank. It had to do with what is now commonly referred to as the ‘shadow banking system’.

While the debate was somewhat arcane in its specifics, it boiled down to whether the additional financial market liquidity created through the use of securities repo and other forms of collateralised lending were destabilising the financial system.

The Chief US Economist had argued that, because US monetary aggregates were not growing at a historically elevated rate, the Fed was not adding liquidity fuel to the house price inflation fire and that monetary policy was, therefore, appropriate. (Indeed, he denied that the rapid house price inflation at the time was cause for serious concern in the first place.) I countered by arguing that these other forms of liquidity (eg. securities repo) should be included and that, if they were, then in fact the growth of broad liquidity was dangerously high and almost certainly was contributing to the credit+housing bubble.

We never resolved the debate. My parting shot was something along the lines of, “If the financial markets treat something as a money substitute—that is, if the incremental credit spread for the collateral providing the marginal liquidity approaches zero— then we should treat it as a form of de facto money.”

He dismissed this argument although I’m not sure he really understood it; at least not until there was a run on money-market funds in the wake of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in November 2008. It was at that point that economic officials at the Fed and elsewhere finally came to realise how the shadow banking system had grown so large that it was impossible to contain the incipient run on money-market funds and, by extension, the financial system generally without providing explicit government guarantees, which the authorities subsequently did.

This particular Chief US Economist had previously worked at the Fed. This was and remains true, in fact, of a majority of senior US bank economists. Indeed, in addition to a PhD from one of the premiere US economics departments, a tour of duty at the Fed, as it were, has traditionally been the most important qualification for this role.

Trained as most of them were, in the same economics departments and at the same institution, the Fed, it should perhaps be no surprise that neither the Fed, nor senior economists at the bulge-bracket banks, nor the US economic academic and policy mainstream generally predicted the global financial crisis. As the discussion above illuminates, this is because they failed to recognise the importance of the shadow banking system. But how could they? As neo-Keynesian economists, they didn’t—and still don’t—have a coherent theory of money and credit.[1]

FROM BLISSFUL IGNORANCE TO PARANOIA

Time marches on and with lessons learned harshly comes a fresh resolve to somehow get ahead of whatever might cause the next financial crisis. For all the complacent talk about how the “recovery is on track” and “there has been much economic deleveraging” and “the banks are again well-capitalised,” the truth behind the scenes is that central bankers and other economic officials the world over remain, in a word, terrified. Of what, you ask? Of the shadow banking system that, I believe, they still fail to properly understand.

Two examples are provided by a recent speech given by Fed Governor Jeremy Stein and a report produced by the Bank of International Settlements (BIS), the ‘central bank of central banks’ that plays an important role in determining and harmonising bank regulatory practices internationally.
The BIS report, “Asset encumberance, financial reform and the demand for collateral assets,” was prepared by a “Working Group established by the Committee on the Global Financial System,” which happens to be chaired by none other than NYFed President William Dudley, former Chief US Economist for Goldman Sachs. (No, he is not the Chief US Economist referred to earlier in this report, although as explained above these guys are all substitutes for one another in any case.) [2]

In the preface, Mr Dudley presents the report’s key findings, in particular “evidence of increased reliance by banks on collaterised funding markets,” and that we should expect “[t]emporary supply-demand imbalances,” which is central banker code for liquidity crises requiring action by central banks.

He also makes specific reference to ‘collateral transformation’: when banks swap collateral with each other. This practice, he notes, “will mitigate collateral scarcity.” But it will also “likely come at the cost of increased interconnectedness, procyclicality and financial system opacity as well as higher operational, funding and rollover risks.”

Why should this be so? Well, if interbank lending is increasingly collateralised by banks’ highest quality assets, then unsecured creditors, including depositors, are being de facto subordinated in the capital structure and are highly likely to ‘run’ at the first signs of trouble. And if banks are holding similar types of collateral that suddenly fall in value, then they can all become subject to a run at the same time, for the same reason.

Collateral transformation is thus a potentially powerful FWMD. But don’t worry, the BIS and other regulators are on the case and doing the worrying. As a belated response to the financial crisis that they all failed to foresee, the latest, greatest trend in financial system oversight is ‘liquidity regulation’. Fed Governor Jeremy Stein explains the need for it thus:

[A]s the financial crisis made painfully clear, the business of liquidity provision inevitably exposes financial intermediaries to various forms of run risk. That is, in response to adverse events, their fragile funding structures, together with the binding liquidity commitments they have made, can result in rapid outflows that, absent central bank intervention, lead banks to fire-sell illiquid assets or, in a more severe case, to fail altogether. And fire sales and bank failures–and the accompanying contractions in credit availability–can have spillover effects to other financial institutions and to the economy as a whole. Thus, while banks will naturally hold buffer stocks of liquid assets to handle unanticipated outflows, they may not hold enough because, although they bear all the costs of this buffer stocking, they do not capture all of the social benefits, in terms of enhanced financial stability and lower costs to taxpayers in the event of failure. It is this externality that creates a role for policy. [3]

Ah yes, wouldn’t you know it, that ubiquitous, iniquitous enigma: market failure. Regulators have never found a market that doesn’t fail in some way, hence the crucial need for regulators to prevent the next failure or, at a minimum, to sort out the subsequent mess. In the present instance, so the thinking behind liquidity regulation goes, prior to 2008 the regulators were overly focused on capital adequacy rather than liquidity and, therefore, missed the vastly expanded role played by securitised collateral in the international shadow banking system. In other words, the regulators now realise, as I was arguing back in the mid-2000s, that the vast growth in shadow banking liquidity placed the stability of the financial system at risk in the event that there was a drop in securitised collateral values.

In 2007, house prices began to decline, taking collateral values with them and sucking much of the additional, collateral-based liquidity right back out of the financial system, unleashing a de facto wave of monetary+credit deflation, resulting in the subsequent financial crisis. But none of this was caused by ‘market failure’, as Governor Stein contends. Rather, there is another, simpler explanation for why banks were insufficiently provisioned against the risk of declining collateral values, yet it is not one that the regulators much like to hear, namely, that their own policies were at fault.

In one of my first Amphora Reports back in 2010 I discussed in detail the modern history of financial crises, beginning with the 1980s and concluding with 2008. A pattern rapidly becomes apparent:

[Newton’s] third law of universal motion was that for each and every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. While applicable to the natural world, it does not hold with respect to the actions of financial markets and the subsequent reactions of central banks and other regulators. Indeed, the reactions of regulators are consistently disproportionate to the actions of financial markets. In sinister dialectical fashion, the powers assumed and mistakes made by policymakers tend to grow with each crisis, thereby ensuring that future crises become progressively more severe…

[W]as the Fed’s policy reaction to the 1987 crash proportionate or even appropriate? Was it “an equal but opposite reaction” which merely temporarily stabilised financial markets or did it, in fact, implicitly expand the Fed’s regulatory role to managing equity prices? Indeed, one could argue that this was merely the first of a series of progressively larger “Greenspan Puts” which the Fed would provide to the financial markets during the 18 years that the so-called “Maestro” was in charge of monetary policy and, let’s not forget, bank regulation…

By the late 1980s, a huge portion of the S&L industry was insolvent. The recession of 1990-91, made a bad situation worse. FSLIC funds were rapidly depleted. But a federal guarantee is supposed to be just that, a guarantee, so Congress put together a bailout package for the industry. A new federal agency, the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC), issued bonds fully backed by the US Treasury and used the proceeds to make insolvent S&L depositors whole…

In retrospect, the entire S&L debacle, from its origins in regulatory changes and government guarantees, through the risky lending boom, bust, credit crunch and fiscal and monetary bailout can be seen as a precursor to the far larger global credit bubble and bust of 2003-2008: Just replace the S&Ls with Fannie/Freddie and the international shadow banking system. But there is no need to change the massive moral hazard perpetrated by incompetent government regulators, including of course the Fed, and the reckless financial firms who played essentially the same role in both episodes.[4]

Notwithstanding this prominent pattern of market-distorting interest-rate manipulation, guarantees, subsidies and occasional bailouts, fostering the growth of reckless lending and other forms of moral hazard, the regulators continue their self-serving search for the ‘silver bullet’ to defend against the next ‘market failure’ which, if diagnosed correctly as I do so above is, in fact, regulatory failure.

Were there no moral hazard of guarantees, explicit or implicit, in the system all these years, the shadow banking system could never have grown into the regulatory nightmare it has now become and liquidity regulation would be a non-issue. Poorly capitalised banks would have failed from time to time but, absent the massive systemic linkages that such guarantees have enabled—encouraged even—these failures would have been contained within a more dispersed and better capitalised system.

As it stands, however, the regulators’ modus operandi remains unchanged. They continue to deal with the unintended consequences of ‘misregulation’ with more misregulation, thereby ensuring that yet more unintended consequences lurk in the future.

MIGHT COLLATERAL TRANSFORMATION BE THE CRUX OF THE NEXT CRISIS?

In his speech, Governor Stein also briefly mentions collateral transformation, when poor quality collateral is asset-swapped for high quality collateral. Naturally this is not done 1:1 but rather the low quality collateral must be valued commersurately higher. In certain respects these transactions are similar to traditional asset swaps that trade fixed for floating coupons and allow financial and non-financial businesses alike to manage interest rate and credit risk with greater flexibility. But in the case of collateral transformation, what is being swapped is the principal and the credit rating it represents, and one purpose of these swaps is to meet financial regulatory requirements for capital and, in future, liquidity.

An obvious consequence of such collateral transformation is that it increases rather than decreases the linkages in the financial system and thus in effect replaces firm-specific, idiosyncratic risk with systemic risk, exactly the opposite of what the regulators claim they are trying to do by increasing bank regulatory capital ratios. Liquidity regulation is an attempt to address this accelerating trend and the growing systemic risks it implies.

Those financial institutions engaging in the practice probably don’t see things this way. From the perspective of any one instution swapping collateral in order to meet changing regulatory requirements, they see it as necessary and prudent risk management. But within a closed system, if most actors are behaving in the same way, then the net risk is not, in fact, reduced. The perception that it is, however, can be dangerous and can also contribute to banks unwittingly underprovisioning liquidity and undercapitalising against risk.

Viewed system-wide, therefore, collateral transformation really just represents a form of financial alchemy rather than financial engineering. It adds no value in aggregate. It might even detract from such value by rendering opaque risks that would otherwise be more immediately apparent. So I do understand the regulators’ concerns with the practice. I don’t, however, subscribe to their proposed self-serving remedies for what they perceive as just another form of market failure.

PLAGARISED COPIES OF AN OLD PLAYBOOK

Already plagued by the ‘Too Big to Fail’ (TBTF) problem back in 2008, the regulators have now succeeded in creating a new, even more dangerous situation I characterise as MAFID, or ‘Mutual Assured FInancial Destruction.’ Because all banks are swapping and therefore holding essentially the same collateral, there is now zero diversification or dispersion of financial system risk. It is as if there is one massive global bank with thousands of branches around the world, with one capital base, one liquidity ratio and one risk-management department. If any one branch of this bank fails, the resulting margin call will cascade via collateral transformation through the other branches and into the holding company at the centre, taking down the entire global financial system.

Am I exaggerating here? Well, if Governor Stein and his central banking colleagues in the US, at the BIS and around the world are to be believed, we shouldn’t really worry because, while capital regulation didn’t prevent 2008, liquidity regulation will prevent the scenario described above. All that needs to happen is for the regulators to set the liquidity requirements at the right level and, voila, financial crises will be a thing of the past: never mind that setting interest rates and setting capital requirements didn’t work out so well. Setting liquidity requirements is the silver bullet that will do the trick.

Sarcasm aside, it should be clear that all that is happening here is that the regulators are expanding their role yet again, thereby further shrinking the role that the markets can play in allocating savings, capital and liquidity from where they are relatively inefficiently utilised to where they are relatively more so. This concept of free market allocation of capital is a key characteristic of a theoretical economic system known as ‘capitalism’. But capitalism cannot function properly where capital flows are severely distorted by regulators. Resources will be chronically misallocated, resulting in a low or possibly even negative potential rate of economic growth.

The regulators don’t see it that way of course. Everywhere they look they see market failure. And because Governor Stein and his fellow regulators take this market failure as a given, rather than seeking to understand properly how past regulatory actions have severely distorted perceptions of risk and encouraged moral hazard, they are naturally drawn to regulatory ‘solutions’ that are really just plagiarised copies of an old playbook. What is that definition of insanity again, about doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?


[1] Neo-Keynesians will deny this, claiming that their models take money and credit into account. But they do so only to a very limited extent, with financial crises relegated to mere aberrations in the data. The Austrian economic school of Menger, Mises, Hayek, etc, by contrast, has a comprehensive and consistent theory of money and credit that can explain and even predict financial crises.
[2] The entire paper can be found at the link here (PDF).
[3] This entire speech can be found at the link here.
[4] FINANCIAL CRISES AND NEWTON’S THIRD LAW, Amphora Report Vol. 1 (April 2010). The link is here.

 

This article was previously published in The Amphora Report, Vol 4, 10 June 2013.

Economics

Regulating banks the Austrian way

Most people — from young to old and from all ends of the political spectrum — are united by a common bond. The idea that banks are deserving of taxpayer support is viewed as morally repugnant to them. Business owners see bank bailouts as an unfair advantage that is not extended to all businesses. Those typically on the political left see it as support for the establishment, and a slap in the faces of the little people. Those more at home on the political right see it as just another form of welfare: a wealth redistribution from the hard working segment of the population to the reckless gambling class of banksters.

Despite this common disdain for bankers, there is considerable disagreement on how to deal with them. One group sees less regulation as the solution — letting market forces work will allow the virtues of prudence and industry to prevail. This formulation sees these same market forces as limiting firm size naturally to evade the “too big to fail” issue, through many of the same incentives that foment competitive economic advancement.

Another group sees the solution as more regulation. The natural tendency in business, according to this group, is for large monopolies to form. As companies grow in size, they gain political influence as well as an aura of indispensability. The consequence is that not only will a company come to be seen as too big to fail, but it will also be politically influential enough to seek such recourse if troubles surface.

Like most answers, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

The first group correctly notes that there are two specific drawbacks of increasing regulation. On the one hand, “one size fits all” regulatory policies (such as is commonly the case on the Federal level) are rarely capable of handling the intricacies and dynamics of business. They also have the effect of relaxing the attention individuals and businesses afford to their own behavior. Under the pretense that the state has enacted wise regulations, individuals see little need to actively monitor companies to make sure they behave in a responsible manner. Businesses too succumb to this mentality. By abiding by the existing regulatory regime, they take solace in knowing that any attack on their integrity can be brushed aside as an attack placed more appropriately on the failures of the regulating body.

On the other hand, increased regulation breeds the problem of what economists call “moral hazard.” An activity is morally hazardous when a party can reap the benefits of an action without incurring the costs. The financial industry is very obviously afflicted with moral hazard today.

Banks and other financial companies have largely abided by the law. I would venture a guess that there is no industry more heavily regulated than the financial services industry, and no industry that spends more time and resources making sure that it complies with this complex regulatory maze. Capital levels must be maintained, reporting must be prompt and transparent, and certain types of assets must be bought or not bought. Banks following these regulations get a sense that they will survive, if not flourish, provided they work within the confines of the law.

However, it is increasingly evident that the financial regulations put in place over the past decades are woefully inept at maintaining a healthy financial industry. In spite of (or perhaps because of) all these regulations, a great many companies are, shall we say, less than solvent. So, who is to blame? It would be easy to blame the companies themselves, except that they did everything that the regulators told them to do.

Why not at least consider relaxing regulations? Doing so would have a two-fold advantage.

On the one hand, businesses would be more obviously responsible for the instability they have now created. On the other hand, without regulations, more reckless or clumsily managed companies would have gone out of business already, lacking the benefit of a regulatory “parent” scolding them for their mistakes. The result would be fewer unstable businesses, and more attention to the dangers of one’s own actions.

I previously mentioned that both sides are correct to some degree, implying that those calling for more regulation had some merit to their arguments. And this is indeed true. However, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya, when they use the word “regulation,” I do not think it means what they think it means.

It is true that not all companies play on a level field. In the financial services industry, and particularly in the banking sector, this is especially apparent. Banks are granted a legal privilege of “fractional reserves.” The result is that banks behave in a way which is fundamentally different from any other type of business, and which is easy to misdiagnose as “inadequate regulation.”

A depositor places money in his bank. The result is a deposit, and the depositor has a claim to this sum of money at any moment. One would think that the bank would be obliged to keep the money on hand, much in the same way that other deposited goods — like grain in an elevator — must be kept on hand. The law begs to differ. Banks are obliged to keep only a portion, or fraction, of that deposit in their vaults and are free to use the remaining sum as they please. Canada and the United Kingdom are examples of countries where there is no legal requirement for a bank to hold any percentage of that original deposit in its vault. In the United States, if a bank has net transactions accounts (deposits and accounts receivable) of less than $12.4 million, the reserve ratio is also set at zero. This differs greatly from grain elevators, where the law strictly states that the elevator owner must keep 100 percent of the deposited grain in the silo.

There are two results of the practice of fractional reserve banking, neither of them positive for the average person.

First, banks grow larger because they have access to a funding source that would otherwise not be available if they conducted themselves by the same laws as other businesses. When commentators say “banks are different,” there is truth in the statement. They have a legal privilege that enables them to grow in scope beyond that which they could naturally. This also explains why many banks, and financial services companies, come to be viewed as too big to fail.

Second, banks become riskier. Every time a deposit is not backed 100 percent, the depositor is exposed to the possibility of not getting his deposit back in full. If a bank uses his deposit to fund a mortgage, and the borrower defaults and cannot repay the bank, there is a risk that the original depositor will lose some of his money. A more common case is a bank run, in which many depositors try to withdraw money at the same time. The result will be insufficient funds to simultaneously honor all redemption demands. This occurred with various banks in Iceland, Ireland, Britain, and Cyprus over the last four years.

Few people worry about this latter problem, however, because of the former one. Since banks have become too big to fail, we are assured that if one goes bankrupt, we as depositors do not stand to lose personally. The government has pledged implicitly, or even explicitly through deposit insurance, that it will step in and bail out the irresponsible actors.

The result is the confusing state of affairs that we have today with two sides both arguing for the same thing — banking stability — via two diametrically opposed means. The “more regulation” camp is pitted against the “less regulation” camp. 

A solution

These two camps are not mutually exclusive. We can solve the problems of moral hazard and “too big to fail” in one fell swoop by ending fractional reserve banking.

By ending this legal privilege, we eliminate the ability for banks to grow to such inordinate sizes. By abiding by the same legal principles (or “regulations,” if you will) as any other deposit-taking firm, banks are not unduly advantaged. If banks shrink in size, the “too big to fail” doctrine is eliminated, or at least greatly reduced. This means that depositors and bankers will realize that if a loss occurs to their bank, they personally stand to lose.

The risk of loss is a great force in removing moral hazard. Remember that it only arises when one person’s ability to gain is not constrained by the threat of a loss. Cognizant of ensuing losses, depositors will demand that their banks adhere to more prudent operating principles, and bankers will be forced to meet these demands.

The critics worried about “too big to fail” are right. We do need more “regulations,” in a sense. We need banks to be regulated by the same legal principles regarding fraud as every other business. The critics worried about moral hazard are also right. We need fewer of every other kind of regulation.

Repairing a broken financial system does not have to be hampered by irreconcilable political differences. Recognizing the true issues at stake — legal privilege and unconstrained risk taking — allows one to bring together advocates of widely differing solutions into one coherent group. Getting bankers to agree to all this is another story.

This article was previously published at Mises.org.