“Sir, So Ed Miliband “forgot” to mention the deficit. This from a man who was a key member of the team that ran up a massive structural debt pile when the UK should have been enjoying a cyclical surplus. He was part of a Labour administration that took the UK economy to the brink of effective bankruptcy. Yet less than five years on, as we still struggle to deal with the toxic mess that he and his colleagues left behind, he “forgot” to mention it. This surely ranks alongside “the dog ate my homework” for feeble and unbelievable excuses for non-performance of basic required tasks.”
“Politicians and diapers have one thing in common. They should both be changed regularly, and for the same reason.”
It should be striking that government bonds, in nominal terms, have never been this expensive in history, even as there have never been so many of them. The laws of supply and demand would seem to have been repealed. How could this state of affairs have come about ? We think the answer is three-fold:
The bond market is clearly not perfectly efficient.
Bond yields are being manipulated by central banks through a deliberate policy of financial repression (and QE, of course).
Many bond fund managers may be unaware, or unconcerned, that the benchmarks against which they choose to be assessed are illogical and irrational.
What might substantiate our third claim ? It would be the festering intellectual plague that bedevils the fund management world known as indexation. Bond indices allocate their largest weights to the most indebted issuers. This is the precise opposite of what any rational bond investor would do – namely, to overweight their portfolio according to those issuers with the highest credit quality (or perhaps, all things being equal, with the highest yields). But bond indices do exactly the opposite. They force any manager witless enough to have fallen victim to them to load up on the most heavily indebted issuers, which currently also happen to offer amongst the puniest nominal yields. As evidence for the prosecution we cite the US Treasury bond market, the world’s largest. The US national debt currently stands at $17.7 trillion. With a ‘T’. Benchmark 10 year Treasuries currently offer a yield to maturity of 2.5%. US consumer price inflation currently stands at 1.7%. (We offer no opinion as to whether US CPI is a fair reflection of US inflation.) On the basis that US “inflation” doesn’t change meaningfully over the next 10 years, US bond investors are going to earn an annualised return just a smidgen above zero percent.
How do US Treasury yields stack up against the longer term trend in interest rates ? The following data are from @Macro_Tourist:
10 year US Treasury yields since 1791
The chart shows the direction of travel for US market rates since independence, given that the Continental Congress defaulted on its debts.
Now it may well be that US Treasury yields have further to fall. As SocGen’s Albert Edwards puts it,
“Our ‘Ice Age’ thesis has long called for sub-1% bond yields and I see this extending to the US and UK in due course.”
As things stand, the trend is with the polar bears. The German bond market has already broken down through the 1% level (10 year Bunds at the time of writing currently trade at 0.98%).
Deutsche Bank Research – specifically Jim Reid, Nick Burns and Seb Barker – recently published an extensive examination of global debt markets (“Bonds: the final bubble frontier ?” – hat tip to Arnaud Gandon of Heptagon Capital). Deutsche’s strategists ask whether bonds constitute the culminating financial bubble after almost two decades of them:
“After the Asian / Russian / LTCM crises of the late 1990s we entered a supercycle of very aggressive policy responses to major global problems. In turn this helped encourage the 2000 equity bubble, the 2007 housing / financial / debt bubble, the 2010-2012 Euro Sovereign crisis and arguably some recent signs of a China credit bubble (a theme we discussed in our 2014 Default Study). At no point have the imbalances been allowed a full free market conclusion. Aggressive intervention has merely pushed the bubble elsewhere. With no obvious areas left to inflate in the private sector, these bubbles have now arguably moved into government and central bank balance sheets with unparalleled intervention and low growth allowing it to coincide with ultra-low bond yields.” [Emphasis ours.]
The French statesman George Clemenceau once commented that war is too important to be left to generals. At this stage in the game one might be tempted to add that monetary policy is far too important to be left to politicians and central bankers. We get by with free markets in all other walks of economic and financial life – why let the price of money itself be dictated by a handful of State-appointed bureaucrats ? We were once told by a fund manager (a Japanese equity manager, to be precise – rare breed that that is now), around the turn of the millennium, that Japan would be the dress rehearsal, and that the rest of the world would be the main event. Again, the volume of the mood music is rising in SocGen’s favour.
We nurse no particular view in relation to how the government bond bubble (for it surely is) plays out – whether yields grind relentlessly lower for some time yet, or whether they burst spectacularly on the back of the overdue return of bond market vigilantes or some other mystical manifestation of long-delayed economic common sense. But Warren Buffett himself once said that,
“If you’ve been playing poker for half an hour and you still don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
The central bank bond market poker game has been in train for a good deal longer than half an hour, and the stakes have never been higher. Sometimes, if you simply can’t fathom the new rules of the game, it’s surely better not to play. So we’re not in the business of chasing US Treasury yields, or Gilt yields, or Bund yields, ever lower – we’ll keep our bond exposure limited to only the highest quality credits yielding the highest possible return. Even then, if Fed tapering does finally dissipate in favour of Fed hiking – stranger things have happened, though we can’t think of any off the top of our head – it will make sense at the appropriate time to eliminate conventional debt instruments from client portfolios almost entirely.
But indexation madness is not limited to the world of bonds. Its malign, unthinking mental slavery has fixed itself upon the equity markets, too. Equity indices, as is widely acknowledged, allocate their largest weights to the largest and most expensive stocks. What’s extraordinary is that even as stock markets have powered ahead, index trackers have enjoyed their highest ever inflows. The latest IMA data show that more UK retail money was put into tracker funds in July than in any other month since records began. We accept the ‘low cost’ aspect of tracker funds and ETFs; we take serious issue with the idea of buying stock markets close to or at their all-time high and being in for any downside ride on a 1:1 basis.
But there is a middle way between the Scylla of bonds at all-time low yields and the Charybdis of stocks at all-time high prices. Value. Seth Klarman of the Baupost Group once wrote as follows:
“Stock market efficiency is an elegant hypothesis that bears quite limited resemblance to the real world. For over half a century, disciples of Benjamin Graham, the intellectual father of value investing, have prospered buying bargains that efficient market theory says should not exist. They take advantage of the short-term, relative performance orientation of other investors. They employ an absolute (not relative) valuation compass, patiently exploiting mispricings while avoiding overpaying for what is popular and trendy. Many are willing to concentrate their exposures, knowing that their few best ideas are better than their hundredth best, and confident in their ability to tell which is which.
“Value investors thrive not by incurring high risk (as financial theory would suggest), but by deliberately avoiding or hedging the risks they identify. While efficient market theorists tell you to calculate the beta of a stock to determine its riskiness, most value investors have never calculated a beta. Efficient market theory advocates moving a portfolio of holdings closer to the efficient frontier. Most value investors have no idea what this is or how they might accomplish such a move. This is because financial market theory may be elegant, but it is not particularly useful in formulating a successful investment strategy.
“If academics espousing the efficient market theory had no influence, their flawed views would make little difference. But, in fact, their thinking is mainstream and millions of investors make their decisions based on the supposition that owning stocks, regardless of valuation and analysis, is safe and reasonable. Academics train hundreds of thousands of students each year, many of whom go to Wall Street and corporate suites espousing these beliefs. Because so many have been taught that outperforming the market is impossible and that stocks are always fairly and efficiently priced, investors have increasingly adopted strategies that eventually will prove both riskier and far less rewarding than they are currently able to comprehend.”
That sounds about right to us. Conventional investing, both in stocks and bonds on an indexed or benchmarked basis, “will prove both riskier and far less rewarding” than many investors are currently able to comprehend.
Last year markets behaved nervously on rumours that QE3 would be tapered; this year we have lived with the fact. It turned out that there has been little or no damage to markets, with bond yields at historic lows and equity markets hitting new highs.
This contrasts with the ending of QE1 and QE2, which were marked by falls in the S&P 500 Index of 9% and 11.6% respectively. Presumably the introduction of twist followed by QE3 was designed at least in part to return financial assets to a rising price trend, and tapering has been consistent with this strategy.
From a monetary point of view there is only a loose correlation between the growth of fiat money as measured by the Fiat Money Quantity, and monthly bond-buying by the Fed. FMQ is unique in that it specifically seeks to measure the quantity of fiat money created on the back of gold originally given to the commercial banks by our forebears in return for money substitutes and deposit guarantees. This gold, in the case of Americans’ forebears, was then handed to the Fed by these commercial banks after the Federal Reserve System was created. Subsequently gold has always been acquired by the Fed in return for fiat dollars. FMQ is therefore the sum of cash plus instant access bank accounts and commercial bank assets held at the Fed.
The chart below shows monthly increases in the Fed’s asset purchases and of changes in FMQ.
The reason I take twice the monthly Fed purchases is that they are recorded twice in FMQ. The chart shows that the creation of fiat money continues without QE. That being the case, QE has less to do with stimulating the economy (which it has failed to do) and is more about funding government borrowing.
Thanks to the Fed’s monetary policies, which have encouraged an increase in demand for US Treasuries, the Federal government no longer has a problem funding its deficit. QE is therefore redundant, and has been since tapering was first mooted. This does not mean that QE is going to be abandoned forever: its re-introduction will depend on the relationship between the government’s borrowing needs and market demand for its debt.
This analysis is confirmed by Japan’s current situation. There, QE coincides with an economy that is deteriorating by the day. One cannot argue that QE has been good for the Japanese economy. The reality behind “abenomics” is that Japan’s government is funding a massive deficit at the same time as savers are drawing down capital to cover their day-to-day living requirements. In short, the funding gap is being covered by printing money. And now the collapsing yen, which is the inevitable consequence of monetary inflation, threatens to expose this folly.
On a final note, there appears to be complacency in capital markets about government deficits. A correction in bond markets will inevitably occur at some point and severely disrupt government fund-raising. If and when this occurs, and given that it is now obvious to everyone that QE does nothing for economic growth, it will be hard to re-introduce it as a disguised funding mechanism for governments without undermining market confidence.
[Editor’s note: this piece, by Richard M. Ebeling, was originally published at EpicTimes]
We live at a time when politicians and bureaucrats only know one public policy: more and bigger government. Yet, there was a time when even those who served in government defended limited and smaller government. One of the greatest of these died one hundred years ago on August 27, 1914, the Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk.
Böhm-Bawerk is most famous as one of the leading critics of Marxism and socialism in the years before the First World War. He is equally famous as one of the developers of “marginal utility” theory as the basis of showing the logic and workings of the competitive market price system.
But he also served three times as the finance minister of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, during which he staunchly fought for lower government spending and taxing, balanced budgets, and a sound monetary system based on the gold standard.
Danger of Out-of-Control Government Spending
Even after Böhm-Bawerk had left public office he continued to warn of the dangers of uncontrolled government spending and borrowing as the road to ruin in his native Austria-Hungary, and in words that ring as true today as when he wrote them a century ago.
In January 1914, just a little more than a half a year before the start of the First World War, Böhm-Bawerk said in a series of articles in one of the most prominent Vienna newspapers that the Austrian government was following a policy of fiscal irresponsibility. During the preceding three years, government expenditures had increased by 60 percent, and for each of these years the government’s deficit had equaled approximately 15 percent of total spending.
The reason, Böhm-Bawerk said, was that the Austrian parliament and government were enveloped in a spider’s web of special-interest politics. Made up of a large number of different linguistic and national groups, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was being corrupted through abuse of the democratic process, with each interest group using the political system to gain privileges and favors at the expense of others.
We have seen innumerable variations of the vexing game of trying to generate political contentment through material concessions. If formerly the Parliaments were the guardians of thrift, they are today far more like its sworn enemies.
Nowadays the political and nationalist parties … are in the habit of cultivating a greed of all kinds of benefits for their co-nationals or constituencies that they regard as a veritable duty, and should the political situation be correspondingly favorable, that is to say correspondingly unfavorable for the Government, then political pressure will produce what is wanted. Often enough, though, because of the carefully calculated rivalry and jealousy between parties, what has been granted to one [group] has also to be conceded to others — from a single costly concession springs a whole bundle of costly concessions.
He accused the Austrian government of having “squandered amidst our good fortune [of economic prosperity] everything, but everything, down to the last penny, that could be grabbed by tightening the tax-screw and anticipating future sources of income to the upper limit” by borrowing in the present at the expense of the future.
For some time, he said, “a very large number of our public authorities have been living beyond their means.” Such a fiscal policy, Böhm-Bawerk feared, was threatening the long-run financial stability and soundness of the entire country.
Eight months later, in August 1914, Austria-Hungary and the rest of Europe stumbled into the cataclysm that became World War I. And far more than merely the finances of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were in ruins when that war ended four years later, since the Empire itself disappeared from the map of Europe.
A Man of Honesty and Integrity
Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk was born on February 12, 1851 in Brno, capital of the Austrian province of Moravia (now the eastern portion of the Czech Republic). He died on August 27, 1914, at the age of 63, just as the First World War was beginning.
Ten years after Böhm-Bawerk’s death, one of his students, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, wrote a memorial essay about his teacher. Mises said:
Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk will remain unforgettable to all who have known him. The students who were fortunate enough to be members of his seminar [at the University of Vienna] will never lose what they have gained from the contact with this great mind. To the politicians who have come into contact with the statesman, his extreme honesty, selflessness and dedication to duty will forever remain a shining example.
And no citizen of this country [Austria] should ever forget the last Austrian minister offinance who, in spite of all obstacles, was seriously trying to maintain order of the public finances and to prevent the approaching financial catastrophe. Even when all those who have been personally close to Böhm-Bawerk will have left this life, his scientific work will continue to live and bear fruit.
Another of Böhm-Bawerk’s students, Joseph A. Schumpeter, spoke in the same glowing terms of his teacher, saying, “he was not only one of the most brilliant figures in the scientific life of his time, but also an example of that rarest of statesmen, a great minister of finance. … As a public servant, he stood up to the most difficult and thankless task of politics, the task of defending sound financial principles.”
The scientific contributions to which both Mises and Schumpeter referred were Böhm-Bawerk’s writings on what has become known as the Austrian theory of capital and interest, and his equally insightful formulation of the Austrian theory of value and price.
The Austrian Theory of Subjective Value
The Austrian school of economics began 1871 with the publication of Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics. In this work, Menger challenged the fundamental premises of the classical economists, from Adam Smith through David Ricardo to John Stuart Mill. Menger argued that the labor theory of value was flawed in presuming that the value of goods was determined by the relative quantities of labor that had been expended in their manufacture.
Instead, Menger formulated a subjective theory of value, reasoning that value originates in the mind of an evaluator. The value of means reflects the value of the ends they might enable the evaluator to obtain. Labor, therefore, like raw materials and other resources, derives value from the value of the goods it can produce. From this starting point Menger outlined a theory of the value of goods and factors of production, and a theory of the limits of exchange and the formation of prices.
Böhm-Bawerk and his future brother-in-law and also later-to-be-famous contributor to the Austrian school, Friedrich von Wieser, came across Menger’s book shortly after its publication. Both immediately saw the significance of the new subjective approach for the development of economic theory.
In the mid-1870s, Böhm-Bawerk entered the Austrian civil service, soon rising in rank in the Ministry of Finance working on reforming the Austrian tax system. But in 1880, with Menger’s assistance, Böhm-Bawerk was appointed a professor at the University of Innsbruck, a position he held until 1889.
Böhm-Bawerk’s Writings on Value and Price
During this period he wrote the two books that were to establish his reputation as one of the leading economists of his time, Capital and Interest , Vol. I: History and Critique of Interest Theories (1884) and Vol. II: Positive Theory of Capital(1889). A third volume, Further Essays on Capital and Interest, appeared in 1914 shortly before his death.
In the first volume of Capital and Interest, Böhm-Bawerk presented a wide and detailed critical study of theories of the origin of and basis for interest from the ancient world to his own time. But it was in the second work, in which he offered a Positive Theory of Capital, that Böhm-Bawerk’s major contribution to the body of Austrian economics may be found. In the middle of the volume is a 135-page digression in which he presents a refined statement of the Austrian subjective theory of value and price. He develops in meticulous detail the theory of marginal utility, showing the logic of how individuals come to evaluate and weigh alternatives among which they may choose and the process that leads to decisions to select certain preferred combinations guided by the marginal principle. And he shows how the same concept of marginal utility explains the origin and significance of cost and the assigned valuations to the factors of production.
In the section on price formation, Böhm-Bawerk develops a theory of how the subjective valuations of buyers and sellers create incentives for the parties on both sides of the market to initiate pricing bids and offers. He explains how the logic of price creation by the market participants also determines the range in which any market-clearing, or equilibrium, price must finally settle, given the maximum demand prices and the minimum supply prices, respectively, of the competing buyers and sellers.
Capital and Time Investment as the Sources of Prosperity
It is impossible to do full justice to Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of capital and interest. But in the barest of outlines, he argued that for man to attain his various desired ends he must discover the causal processes through which labor and resources at his disposal may be used for his purposes. Central to this discovery process is the insight that often the most effective path to a desired goal is through “roundabout” methods of production. A man will be able to catch more fish in a shorter amount of time if he first devotes the time to constructing a fishing net out of vines, hollowing out a tree trunk as a canoe, and carving a tree branch into a paddle.
Greater productivity will often be forthcoming in the future if the individual is willing to undertake, therefore, a certain “period of production,” during which resources and labor are set to work to manufacture the capital — the fishing net, canoe, and paddle — that is then employed to paddle out into the lagoon where larger and more fish may be available.
But the time involved to undertake and implement these more roundabout methods of production involve a cost. The individual must be willing to forgo (often less productive) production activities in the more immediate future (wading into the lagoon using a tree branch as a spear) because that labor and those resources are tied up in a more time-consuming method of production, the more productive results from which will only be forthcoming later.
Interest on a Loan Reflects the Value of Time
This led Böhm-Bawerk to his theory of interest. Obviously, individuals evaluating the production possibilities just discussed must weigh ends available sooner versus other (perhaps more productive) ends that might be obtainable later. As a rule, Böhm-Bawerk argued, individuals prefer goods sooner rather than later.
Each individual places a premium on goods available in the present and discounts to some degree goods that can only be achieved further in the future. Since individuals have different premiums and discounts (time-preferences), there are potential mutual gains from trade. That is the source of the rate of interest: it is the price of trading consumption and production goods across time.
Böhm-Bawerk Refutes Marx’s Critique of Capitalism
One of Böhm-Bawerk’s most important applications of his theory was the refutation of the Marxian exploitation theory that employers make profits by depriving workers of the full value of what their labor produces. He presented his critique of Marx’s theory in the first volume of Capital and Interest and in a long essay originally published in 1896 on the “Unresolved Contradictions in the Marxian Economic System.” In essence, Böhm-Bawerk argued that Marx had confused interest with profit. In the long run no profits can continue to be earned in a competitive market because entrepreneurs will bid up the prices of factors of production and compete down the prices of consumer goods.
But all production takes time. If that period is of any significant length, the workers must be able to sustain themselves until the product is ready for sale. If they are unwilling or unable to sustain themselves, someone else must advance the money (wages) to enable them to consume in the meantime.
This, Böhm-Bawerk explained, is what the capitalist does. He saves, forgoing consumption or other uses of his wealth, and those savings are the source of the workers’ wages during the production process. What Marx called the capitalists’ “exploitative profits” Böhm-Bawerk showed to be the implicit interest payment for advancing money to workers during the time-consuming, roundabout processes of production.
Defending Fiscal Restraint in the Austrian Finance Ministry
In 1889, Böhm-Bawerk was called back from the academic world to the Austrian Ministry of Finance, where he worked on reforming the systems of direct and indirect taxation. He was promoted to head of the tax department in 1891. A year later he was vice president of the national commission that proposed putting Austria-Hungary on a gold standard as a means of establishing a sound monetary system free from direct government manipulation of the monetary printing press.
Three times he served as minister of finance, briefly in 1895, again in 1896–1897, and then from 1900 to 1904. During the last four-year term Böhm-Bawerk demonstrated his commitment to fiscal conservatism, with government spending and taxing kept strictly under control.
However, Ernest von Koerber, the Austrian prime minister in whose government Böhm-Bawerk served, devised a grandiose and vastly expensive public works scheme in the name of economic development. An extensive network of railway lines and canals were to be constructed to connect various parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire — subsidizing in the process a wide variety of special-interest groups in what today would be described as a “stimulus” program for supposed “jobs-creation.”
Böhm-Bawerk tirelessly fought against what he considered fiscal extravagance that would require higher taxes and greater debt when there was no persuasive evidence that the industrial benefits would justify the expense. At Council of Ministers meetings Böhm-Bawerk even boldly argued against spending proposals presented by the Austrian Emperor, Franz Josef, who presided over the sessions.
When finally he resigned from the Ministry of Finance in October 1904, Böhm-Bawerk had succeeded in preventing most of Prime Minister Koerber’s giant spending project. But he chose to step down because of what he considered to be corrupt financial “irregularities” in the defense budget of the Austrian military.
However, Böhm-Bawerk’s 1914 articles on government finance indicate that the wave of government spending he had battled so hard against broke through once he was no longer there to fight it.
Political Control or Economic Law
A few months after his passing, in December 1914, his last essay appeared in print, a lengthy piece on “Control or Economic Law?” He explained that various interest groups in society, most especially trade unions, suffer from a false conception that through their use or the threat of force, they are able to raise wages permanently above the market’s estimate of the value of various types of labor.
Arbitrarily setting wages and prices higher than what employers and buyers think labor and goods are worth — such as with a government-mandated minimum wage law — merely prices some labor and goods out of the market.
Furthermore, when unions impose high nonmarket wages on the employers in an industry, the unions succeed only in temporarily eating into the employers’ profit margins and creating the incentive for those employers to leave that sector of the economy and take with them those workers’ jobs.
What makes the real wages of workers rise in the long run, Böhm-Bawerk argued, was capital formation and investment in those more roundabout methods of production that increase the productivity of workers and therefore make their labor services more valuable in the long run, while also increasing the quantity of goods and services they can buy with their market wages.
To his last, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk defended reason and the logic of the market against the emotional appeals and faulty reasoning of those who wished to use power and the government to acquire from others what they could not obtain through free competition. His contributions to economic theory and economic policy show him as one of the greatest economists of all time, as well as his example as a principled man of uncompromising integrity who in the political arena unswervingly fought for the free market and limited government.
What is Super Mario up to?
First, he gave an unexpectedly dovish speech at the Jackson Hole conference, rather ungallantly upstaging the host, Ms Yellen, who was widely anticipated to be the most noteworthy speaker at the gathering (talking about the labor market, her favorite subject). Having thus single-handedly and without apparent provocation raised expectations for more “stimulus” at last week’s ECB meeting, he then even exceeded those expectations with another round of rate-cuts and confirmation of QE in form of central bank purchases of asset-backed securities.
These events are significant not because they are going to finally kick-start the Eurozone economy (they won’t) but because 1) they look rushed, and panicky, and 2) they must clearly alienate the Germans. The ideological rift that runs through the European Union is wide and deep, and increasingly rips the central bank apart. And the Germans are losing that battle.
As to 1), it was just three months ago that the ECB cut rates and made headlines by being the first major central bank to take a policy rate below zero. Whatever your view is on the unfolding new Eurozone recession and the apparent need for more action (more about this in a minute), the additional 0.1 percent rate reduction will hardly make a massive difference. Yet, implementing such minor rate cuts in fairly short succession looks nervous and anxious, or even headless. This hardly instils confidence.
And regarding the “unconventional” measures so vehemently requested by the economic commentariat, well, the “targeted liquidity injections” that are supposed to direct freshly printed ECB-money to cash-starved corporations, and that were announced in June as well, have not even been implemented yet. Apparently, and not entirely unreasonably, the ECB wanted to wait for the outcome of their “bank asset quality review”. So now, before these measures are even started, let alone their impact could even be assessed, additional measures are being announced. The asset purchases do not come as a complete surprise either. It was known that asset management giant BlackRock had already been hired to help the ECB prepare such a program. Maybe the process has now been accelerated.
This is Eurozone QE
This is, of course, quantitative easing (QE). Many commentators stated that the ECB shied away from full-fledged QE. This view implies that only buying sovereign debt can properly be called QE. This does not make sense. The Fed, as part of its first round of QE in 2008, also bought mortgage-backed securities only. There were no sovereign bonds in its first QE program, and everybody still called it QE. Mortgage-backed securities are, of course, a form of asset-backed security, and the ECB announced purchases of asset-backed securities at the meeting. This is QE, period. The simple fact is that the ECB expands its balance sheet by purchasing selected assets and creating additional bank reserves (for which banks will now pay the ECB a 0.2 percent p.a. “fee”).
As to 2), not only will the ECB decisions have upset the Germans (the Bundesbank’s Mr. Weidmann duly objected but was outvoted) but so will have Mr. Draghi’s new rhetoric. In Jackson Hole he used the F-word, as in “flexibility”, meaning fiscal flexibility, or more fiscal leeway for the big deficit countries. By doing so he adopted the language of the Italian and French governments, whenever they demand to be given more time for structural reform and fiscal consolidation. The German government does not like to hear this (apparently, Merkel and Schäuble both phoned Draghi after Jackson Hole and complained.)
The German strategy has been to keep the pressure on reform-resistant deficit-countries, and on France and Italy in particular, and to not allow them to shift the burden of adjustment to the ECB. Draghi has now undermined the German strategy.
The Germans fear, not quite unjustifiably, that some countries always want more time and will never implement reform. In contrast to those countries that had their backs to the wall in the crisis and had little choice but to change course in some respect, such as Greece, Ireland, and Spain, France and Italy have so far done zilch on the structural reform front. France’s competitiveness has declined ever since it adopted the 35-hour workweek in 2000 but the policy remains pretty much untouchable. In Italy, Renzi wants to loosen the country’s notoriously strict labour regulations but faces stiff opposition from the trade unions and the Left, not least in his own party. He now wants to give his government three years to implement reform, as he announced last week.
Draghi turns away from the Germans
German influence on the ECB is waning. It was this influence that kept alive the prospect of a somewhat different approach to economic challenges than the one adopted in the US, the UK and, interestingly, Japan. Of course, the differences should not be overstated. In the Eurozone, like elsewhere, we observed interest rate suppression, asset price manipulations, and massive liquidity-injections, and worse, even capital controls and arbitrary bans on short-selling. But we also saw a greater willingness to rely on restructuring, belt-tightening, liquidation, and, yes, even default, to rid the system of the deformations and imbalances that are the ultimate root causes of recessions and the impediments to healthy, sustainable growth. In the Eurozone it was not all about “stimulus” and “boosting aggregate demand”. But increasingly, the ECB looks like any other major central bank with a mandate to keep asset prices up, government borrowing costs down, and a generous stream of liquidity flowing to cover the cracks in the system, to sustain a mirage of solvency and sustainability, and to generate some artificial and short-lived headline growth. QE will not only come to the Eurozone, it will become a conventional tool, just like elsewhere.
I believe it is these two points, Draghi’s sudden hyperactivity (1) and his clear rift with the Germans and his departure from the German strategy (2) that may explain why the euro is finally weakening, and why the minor announcements of last Thursday had a more meaningful impact on markets than the similarly minor announcements in June. With German influence on the ECB waning, trashing your currency becomes official strategy more easily, and this is already official policy in Japan and in the US.
Is Draghi scared by the weak growth numbers and the prospect of deflation?
Maybe, but things should be put in perspective.
Europe has a structural growth problem as mentioned above. If the structural impediments to growth are not removed, Europe won’t grow, and no amount of central bank pump priming can fix it.
Nobody should be surprised if parts of Europe fall into technical recessions every now and then. If “no growth” is your default mode then experiencing “negative growth” occasionally, or even regularly, should not surprise anyone. Excited talk about Italy’s shocking “triple-dip” recession is hyperbole. It is simply what one should expect. Having said this, I do suspect that we are already in another broader cyclical downturn, not only in Europe but also in Asia (China, Japan) and the UK.
The deflation debate in the newspapers is bordering on the ridiculous. Here, the impression is conveyed that a drop in official inflation readings from 0.5 to 0.3 has substantial information content, and that if we drop below zero we would suddenly be caught in some dreadful deflation-death-trap, from which we may not escape for many years. This is complete hogwash. There is nothing in economic theory or in economic history that would support this. And, no, this is not what happened in Japan.
The margin of error around these numbers is substantial. For all we know, we may already have a -1 percent inflation rate in the Eurozone. Or still plus 1 percent. Either way, for any real-life economy this is broadly price-stability. To assume that modest reductions in any given price average suddenly mean economic disaster is simply a fairy tale. Many economies have experienced extended periods of deflation (moderately rising purchasing power of money on trend) in excess of what Japan has experienced over the past 20 years and have grown nicely, thank you very much.
As former Bank of Japan governor Masaaki Shirakawa has explained recently, Japan’s deflation has been “very mild” indeed, and may have had many positive effects as well. In a rapidly aging society with many savers and with slow headline growth it helped maintain consumer purchasing power and thus living standards. Japan has an official unemployment rate of below 4 percent. Japan has many problems but deflation may not be one of them.
Furthermore, the absence of inflation in the Eurozone is no surprise either. There has been no money and credit growth in aggregate in recent years as banks are still repairing their balance sheets, as the “asset quality review” is pending, and as other regulations kick in. Banks are reluctant to lend, and the private sector is careful to borrow, and neither are acting unreasonably.
Expecting Eurozone inflation to clock in at the arbitrarily chosen 2 percent is simply unrealistic.
Draghi’s new activism moves the ECB more in the direction of the US Fed and the Bank of Japan. This alienates the Germans and marginally strengthens the position of the Eurozone’s Southern periphery. This monetary policy will not reinvigorate European growth. Only proper structural reform can do this but much of Europe appears unable to reform, at least without another major crisis. Fiscal deficits will grow.
Monetary policy is not about “stimulus” but about maintaining the status quo. Super-low interest rates are meant to sustain structures that would otherwise be revealed to be obsolete, and that would, in a proper free market, be replaced. The European establishment is interested in maintaining the status quo at all cost, and ultra-easy monetary policy and QE are essentially doing just that.
Under the new scheme of buying asset-backed securities, the ECB’s balance sheet will become a dumping ground for unwanted bank assets (the Eurozone’s new “bad” bank). Like almost everything about the Euro-project, this is about shifting responsibility, obscuring accountability, and socializing the costs of bad decisions. Monetary socialism is coming. The market gets corrupted further.
At the end of July global equity bull markets had a moment of doubt, falling three or four per cent. In the seven trading days up to 1st August the S&P500 fell 3.8%, and we are not out of the woods yet. At the same time the Russell 2000, an index of small-cap US companies fell an exceptional 9%, and more worryingly it looks like it has lost bullish momentum as shown in the chart below. This indicates a possible double-top formation in the making.
Meanwhile yield-spreads on junk bonds widened significantly, sending a signal that markets were reconsidering appropriate yields on risky bonds.
This is conventional analysis and the common backbone of most brokers’ reports. Put simply, investment is now all about the trend and little else. You never have to value anything properly any more: just measure confidence. This approach to investing resonates with post-Keynesian economics and government planning. The expectations of the crowd, or its animal spirits, are now there to be managed. No longer is there the seemingly irrational behaviour of unfettered markets dominated by independent thinkers. Forward guidance is just the latest manifestation of this policy. It represents the triumph of economic management over the markets.
Central banks have for a long time subscribed to management of expectations. Initially it was setting interest rates to accelerate the growth of money and credit. Investors and market traders soon learned that interest rate policy is the most important factor in pricing everything. Out of credit cycles technical analysis evolved, which sought to identify trends and turning points for investment purposes.
Today this control goes much further because of two precedents: in 2001-02 the Fed under Alan Greenspan’s chairmanship cut interest rates specifically to rescue the stock market out of its slump, and secondly the Fed’s rescue of the banking system in the wake of the Lehman crisis extended direct intervention into all financial markets.
Both of these actions succeeded in their objectives. Ubiquitous intervention continues to this day, and is copied elsewhere. It is no accident that Spanish bond yields for example are priced as if Spain’s sovereign debt is amongst the safest on the planet; and as if France’s bond yields reflect a credible plan to repay its debt.
We have known for years that through intervention central banks have managed to control the prices of currencies, precious metals and government bonds; but there is increasing evidence of direct buying of other financial assets, including equities. The means for continual price management are there: there are central banks, exchange stabilisation funds, sovereign wealth funds and government-controlled pension funds, which between them have limitless buying-power.
Doubtless there is a growing band of central bankers who believe that with this control they have finally discovered Keynes’s Holy Grail: the euthanasia of the rentier and his replacement by the state as the primary source of business capital. This being the case, last month’s dip in the markets will turn out to be just that, because intervention will simply continue and if necessary be ramped up.
But in the process, all market risk is being transferred from bonds, equities and all other financial assets into currencies themselves; and it is the outcome of their purchasing power that will prove to be the final judgement in the debate of markets versus economic planning.
[Editor’s note: this piece first appeared on mises.org]
At the time of this writing, Argentina is a few days away from formally defaulting on its debts.How could this happen three times in just twenty-eight years?
Following the 2001 default, Argentina offered a debt swap (a restructuring of debt) to its creditors in 2005. Many bondholders accepted the Argentine offer, but some of them did not. Those who did not accept the debt swap are called the “holdouts.” When Argentina started to pay the new bonds to those who entered the debt swap (the “holdins”), the holdouts took Argentina to court under New York law, the jurisdiction under which the Argentine debt has been issued. After the US Supreme Court refused to hear the Argentine case a few weeks ago, Judge Griesa’s ruling became final.
The ruling requires Argentina to pay 100 percent of its debt to the holdouts at the same time Argentina pays the restructured bonds to the “holdins.” Argentina is not allowed, under Griesa’s ruling, to pay some creditors but not others. The payment date was June 30. Because Argentina missed its payment, it is now under a 30-day grace period. If Argentina does not pay by the end of July it will, again, be formally in default.
This is a complex case that has produced different, if not opposite, interpretations by analysts and policy makers. Some of these interpretations, however, are not well-founded.
How Argentina Became a Bad Debtor
An understanding of the Argentine situation requires historical context.
At the beginning of the 1990s, Argentina implemented the Convertibility Law as a measure to restrain the central bank and put an end to the hyperinflation that took place in the late 1980s. This law set the exchange rate at one peso per US dollar and stated that the central bank could only issue pesos in fixed relation to the amount of US dollars that entered the country. The Convertibility Law was, then, more than just a fixed-exchange rate scheme. It was legislation that made the central bank a currency board where pesos were convertible to dollars at a “one to one” ratio. However, because the central bank had some flexibility to issue pesos with respect to the inflow of US dollars, it is better described as a “heterodox” rather than “orthodox,” currency board.
Still, under this scheme, Argentina could not monetize its deficit as it did in the 1980s under the government of Ricardo Alfonsín. It was the monetization of debt that produced the high inflation that ended in hyperinflation. Due to the Convertibility Law during the 1990s, Carlos Menem’s government could not finance the fiscal deficit with newly created money. So, rather than reduce the deficit, Menem changed the way it was financed from a money-issuance scheme to a foreign-debt scheme. The foreign debt was in US dollars and this allowed the central bank to issue the corresponding pesos.
The debt issued during the 1990s took place in an Argentina that had already defaulted on its debt six times since its independence from Spain in 1816 (arguably, one-third of Argentine history has taken place in a state of default), while Argentina also exhibited questionable institutional protection of contracts and property rights. With domestic savings destroyed after years of high inflation in the 1980s (and previous decades), Argentina had to turn to international funds to finance its deficit. And because of the lack of creditworthiness, Argentina had to “import” legal credibility by issuing its bonds under New York jurisdiction. Should there be a dispute with creditors, Argentina stated it would accept the ruling of New York courts.
Many opponents of the ruling today claim that Argentina’s creditors have conspired to take away Argentine sovereignty, but the responsibility lies with the Argentine government itself, which has established a long record of unreliability in paying its debts.
The Road to the Latest Default
These New York-issued bonds of the 1990s had two other important features besides being issued under New York legal jurisdiction. The incorporation of theparipassu clause and the absence of the collective action clause. The paripassuclause holds that Argentina agrees to treat all creditors on equal terms (especially regarding payments of coupons and capital). The collective action clause states that in the case of a debt restructuring, if a certain percentage of creditors accept the debt swap, then creditors who turn down the offer (the “holdouts”) automatically must accept the new bonds. However, when Argentina defaulted on its bonds at the end of 2001, it did so with bonds that included theparipassu clause but which did not require collective action by creditors.
Under the contract that Argentina itself offered to its creditors, which did not include the collective action clause, any creditor is entitled to receive 100 percent of the bonus even if 99.9 percent of the creditors decided to enter a debt swap. And this is precisely what happened with the 2001 default. When Argentina offered new bonds to its creditors following the default, the “holdouts” let Argentina know that under the contract of Argentine bonds, they still have the right to receive 100 percent of the bonds under “equality of conditions” (paripassu) with those who accepted the restructuring. That is, Argentina cannot pay the “holdins” without paying the “holdouts” according to the terms of the debt.
The governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner, however, in another sign of their contempt for institutions, decided to ignore the holdouts to the point of erasing them as creditors in their official reports (one of the reasons for which the level of debt on GDP looks lower in official statistics than is truly the case).
It could be said that Judge Griesa had to do little more than read the contract that Argentina offered its creditors. In spite of this, much has been said in Argentina (and abroad) about how Judge Griesa’s ruling damages the legal security of sovereign bonds and debt restructuring.
The problem is not Judge Griesa’s ruling. The problem is that Argentina had decided to once again prefer deficits and unrestrained government spending to paying its obligations. Griesa’s ruling suggests that a default cannot be used as a political tool to ignore contracts at politician’s convenience. In fact, countries with emerging economies should thank Judge Griesa’s ruling since this allows them to borrow at lower rates given that many of these countries are either unable or unwilling to offer credible legal protection to their own creditors. A ruling favorable to Argentina’s government would have allowed a government to violate its own contracts, making it even harder for poor countries to access capital.
We can simplify the case to an analogy on a smaller scale. Try to explain to your bank that since it was you who squandered your earnings for more than a decade,you have the right to not pay the mortgage with which you purchased your home. When the bank takes you to court for not paying your mortgage, explain to the judge that you are a poor victim of evil money vultures and that you have the right to ignore creditors because you couldn’t be bothered with changing your unsustainable spending habits. When the judge rules against you, try to explain to the world in international newspapers how the decision of the judge is an injustice that endangers the international banking market (as the Argentine government has been doing recently). Try now to justify the position of the Argentine government.
Professor Paul Krugman is leaving Princeton. Is he leaving in disgrace?
Not long, as these things go, before his departure was announced Krugman thoroughly was indicted and publicly eviscerated for intellectual dishonesty by Harvard’s Niall Ferguson in a hard-hitting three-part series in the Huffington Post, beginning here, and with a coda in Project Syndicate, all summarized at Forbes.com. Ferguson, on Krugman:
Where I come from … we do not fear bullies. We despise them. And we do so because we understand that what motivates their bullying is a deep sense of insecurity. Unfortunately for Krugtron the Invincible, his ultimate nightmare has just become a reality. By applying the methods of the historian – by quoting and contextualizing his own published words – I believe I have now made him what he richly deserves to be: a figure of fun, whose predictions (and proscriptions) no one should ever again take seriously.
Princeton, according to Bloomberg News, acknowledged Krugman’s departure with an extraordinarily tepid comment by a spokesperson. “He’s been a valued member of our faculty and we appreciate his 14 years at Princeton.”
Shortly after Krugman’s departure was announced no less than the revered Paul Volcker, himself a Princeton alum, made a comment — subject unnamed — sounding as if directed at Prof. Krugman. It sounded like “Don’t let the saloon doors hit you on the way out. Bub.”
To the Daily Princetonian (later reprised by the Wall Street Journal, Volcker stated with refreshing bluntness:
The responsibility of any central bank is price stability. … They ought to make sure that they are making policies that are convincing to the public and to the markets that they’re not going to tolerate inflation.
This was followed by a show-stopping statement: “This kind of stuff that you’re being taught at Princeton disturbs me.”
Taught at Princeton by … whom?
Paul Krugman, perhaps? Krugman, last year, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled Not Enough Inflation. It betrayed an extremely louche, at best, attitude toward inflation’s insidious dangers. Smoking gun?
Volcker’s comment, in full context:
The responsibility of the government is to have a stable currency. This kind of stuff that you’re being taught at Princeton disturbs me. Your teachers must be telling you that if you’ve got expected inflation, then everybody adjusts and then it’s OK. Is that what they’re telling you? Where did the question come from?
Is Krugman leaving in disgrace? Krugman really is a disgrace … both to Princeton and to the principle of monetary integrity. Eighteenth century Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey)president John Witherspoon, wrote, in his Essay on Money:
Let us next consider the evil that is done by paper. This is what I would particularly request the reader to pay attention to, as it was what this essay was chiefly intended to show, and what the public seems but little aware of. The evil is this: All paper introduced into circulation, and obtaining credit as gold and silver, adds to the quantity of the medium, and thereby, as has been shown above, increases the price of industry and its fruits.
“Increases the price of industry and its fruits?” That’s what today is called “inflation.”
Inflation is a bad thing. Period. Most of all it cheats working people and those on fixed incomes who Krugman pretends to champion. Volcker comes down squarely, with Witherspoon, on the side of monetary integrity. Krugman, cloaked in undignified sanctimony, comes down, again and again, on the side of … monetary finagling.
Krugman consistently misrepresents his opponents’ positions, constructs fictive straw men, addresses marginal figures, and ignores inconvenient truths set forward by figures of probity such as the Bank of England and theBundesbank, thoughtful work such as that by Member of Parliament (with a Cambridge Ph.D. in economic history) Kwasi Kwarteng, and, right here at home, respected thought leaders such as Steve Forbes and Lewis E. Lehrman (with whose Institute this writer has a professional affiliation).
Professor Krugman, on July 7, 2014, undertook to issue yet another of his fatwas on proponents of the classical gold standard. His New York Times op-ed, Beliefs, Facts and Money, Conservative Delusions About Inflation, was brim full of outright falsehoods and misleading statements. Krugman:
In 2010 a virtual Who’s Who of conservative economists and pundits sent an open letter to Ben Bernanke warning that his policies risked “currency debasement and inflation.” Prominent politicians like Representative Paul Ryan joined the chorus.
Reality, however, declined to cooperate. Although the Fed continued on its expansionary course — its balance sheet has grown to more than $4 trillion, up fivefold since the start of the crisis — inflation stayed low.
Many on the right are hostile to any kind of government activism, seeing it as the thin edge of the wedge — if you concede that the Fed can sometimes help the economy by creating “fiat money,” the next thing you know liberals will confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent. Also, let’s not forget that quite a few influential conservatives, including Mr. Ryan, draw their inspiration from Ayn Rand novels in which the gold standard takes on essentially sacred status.
And if you look at the internal dynamics of the Republican Party, it’s obvious that the currency-debasement, return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength even as its predictions keep failing.
Krugman is, of course, quite correct that the “return-to-gold faction has been gaining strength.” Speculating beyond the data thereafter Krugman goes beyond studied ignorance. He traffics in shamefully deceptive statements.
Lewis E. Lehrman, protege of French monetary policy giant Jacques Rueff, Reagan Gold Commissioner, and founder and chairman of the Lehrman Institute, arguably is the most prominent contemporary advocate for the classical gold standard. Lehrman never rendered a prediction of imminent “runaway inflation.” Only a minority of classical gold standard proponents are on record with “dire” warnings, certainly not this columnist. So… who is Krugman talking about?
Of the nearly two-dozen signers of (a fairly mildly stated concern) open letter to Bernanke which Krugman cites as prime evidence, only one or two are really notable members of the “return-to-gold faction.” Perhaps a few other signers might have shown some themselves in sympathy the gold prescription. Most, however, were, and are, agnostic about, or even opposed to, the gold standard.
Indicting gold standard proponents for a claim made by gold’s agnostics and opponents is a wrong, cheap, bad faith, argument. More bad faith followed immediately. Whatever inspiration Rep. Paul Ryan draws from novelist Ayn Rand, Ryan is by no means a gold standard advocate. And very few “influential conservatives” (unnamed) “draw their inspiration” from Ayn Rand.
Nor are most proponents of the classical gold standard motivated by a fear that paper money is an entering wedge for liberals to “confiscate your wealth and give it to the 47 percent.” A commitment to gold is rooted, for most, in the correlation between the gold standard and equitable prosperity. Income inequality demonstrably has grown far more virulent under the fiduciary Federal Reserve Note regime — put in place by President Nixon — than it was, for instance, under the Bretton Woods gold+gold-convertible-dollar system.
Krugman goes wrong through and through. No wonder Ferguson wrote: “I agree with Raghuram Rajan, one of the few economists who authentically anticipated the financial crisis: Krugman’s is “the paranoid style in economics.” Krugman, perversely standing with Nixon, takes a reactionary, not progressive, position. The readers of the New York Times really deserve better.
Volcker is right. “The responsibility of any central bank is price stability.” Krugman is wrong.
Prof. Krugman was indicted and flogged publicly by Niall Ferguson. Krugman thereafter announced his departure from Princeton. On his way out Krugman, it appears, was reprimanded by Paul Volcker. Krugman has been a disgrace to Princeton. Is he leaving Princeton in quiet disgrace?
Originating at Forbes.com: http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2014/07/14/is-paul-krugm
It is common knowledge that Japan is in extreme financial difficulties, and that the currency is most likely to sink and sink. After all, Government debt to GDP is over 250%, and the rate of increase of retirees has exceeded the birth rate for some time. A combination of population demographics, escalating welfare costs, high government debt and the government’s inability in finding a solution to Japan’s ongoing crisis ensures for international speculators that going short of the yen is a no-brainer.
Almost without being noticed, the Japanese yen has already lost about 30% against the US dollar and nearly 40% against the euro over the last two years. The beneficiaries of this trend unsurprisingly are speculators borrowing yen at negligible interest rates to speculate in other markets, expecting to add the yen’s depreciation to their profits. Thank you Mr Abe for allowing us to borrow yen at 1.06 euro-cents two years ago to invest in Spanish 10-year government bonds at 7.5%. Today the bonds yield 2.65% and we can buy back yen at 0.72 euro-cents. Gearing up ten times on an original stake of $10,000,000 has made a clear profit of some $300,000,000 in just two years.
Shorting the yen has not been profitable this year so far, with the US dollar falling against the Japanese yen from 105.3 on December 31st to 101.5 at the half-year, an annualised loss of 7.2%. This gave a negative financing return on all bond carry trades, which in the case of Spanish government debt deal cited above resulted in annualised losses of over 5%, or 50% on a ten times geared position. The trader can either take the view it’s time the yen had another fall, or it’s time to cut the position.
These returns, though dependant on market timing, are by no means unique. Consequently nearly everyone in the hedge fund and investment banking communities has been playing this lucrative carry game at one time or another.
Not only has a weak yen been instrumental in lowering bond yields around the world, it has also been a vehicle for other purchases. On the sale or short side, another commonly agreed certainty has been the imminent collapse of the credit-driven Chinese economy, which will ensure metal prices continue to fall. In this case, gearing is normally obtained through derivatives.
However, things don’t seem to be going according to plan for many investment banks and hedge funds, which might presage a change of strategy. Copper, which started off as a profitable short by falling 12.5% to a low of $2.93 per pound, has recovered sharply this week to $3.26 in a sudden short-squeeze. Zinc is up 6.4% over the last six months, and aluminium up 6%. Gold is up 11%, and silver 8.5%. So anyone shorting a portfolio of metal futures is making significant losses, particularly when the position is highly geared.
It may be just coincidence, but stories about multiple rehypothecations of physical metal in China’s warehouses have emanated from sources involved with trading in these metals. These traders have had to take significant losses on the chin on a failed strategy, and may now be moving towards a more bullish stance, because China’s warehouse scandal has not played out as they expected.
So two certainties, the collapse of both the yen and of Chinese economic demand don’t seem to be happening, or at least not happening quickly enough. The pressure is building for a change of investment strategies which is likely to drive markets in new directions in the coming months.
The following text is from the notes I made of a talk that I gave to the “End of The World Club” at the Institute of Economic Affairs on 18 April 2014.
If there is one feature of human society that makes it successful, it is the capacity that human beings have of choosing to satisfy short-term appetites or to defer gratification. This ability to distinguish between short term and long term interests is at the heart of economics.
But why defer consumption? Why save at all?
One reason is the transmission of wealth from one generation to the next. Another is to ensure security in hard times.
A complaint of American academics about French savings in the 19th century is that they were too conservative. Easy for them to say.
The population of France grew more slowly than any other industrialising nation in the 19th century (0.2% per year from 1870 to 1913, compared with 1.1% for Germany and 0.9% for Great Britain). The figures would be even worse if emigration from the British Isles were added to the headcount.
This slower rate of population growth would tend to mean a slower rate of economic growth: smaller local markets, fewer opportunities for mass production. This was well known to be a problem in France. In fact Jean-Baptiste Say was sent to England in 1815 to study the growth of English cities such as Birmingham and its effect on the economy (here in French).
The causes of low investment must surely include political and social instability.
Here are the changes of regime in France during the 19th century:
1800-1804: The Consulate
1804-1814: The Empire
1814: The First Restoration
1814-1815: The Return of Napoleon
1815-1830: The Return of the Restoration
1830-1848: The British Experiment
1848-1851: The Second Republic
1851-1852: The military coup-d’état
1852-1859: The Empire Strikes Back
1860-1870: The Free Trade Experiment (supported by Richard Cobden)
1870-1871: Three sieges of Paris, two civil wars, one foreign occupation
1870-1879: The State Which Dare Not Speak Its Name (retrospectively declared to be a republic)
1879-1914: La Belle Epoque (including the anarchist bombings 1892-1894 and the Dreyfus Affair 1894-1906)
If instability discourages savings, it is remarkable how much there actually was.
Five billion francs in gold, raised by public subscription to pay for the German army of occupation to leave France after the Franco-Prussian War. The amount was supposed to be impossible to pay and designed to provide an excuse for a prolonged German occupation. It was paid in full in two years. 80% of the money (equivalent to over two and half times the national government’s total annual spending, was raised in one day).
What the modern academics decried was that these sorts of sums weren’t invested in industry or agricultural technology. In 1880, French private investments amounted to 7.3 billion Francs, but this was less than half of all investments (48%), versus 52% for government bonds.
You can’t pick up your factory machines and run away from the Uhlans, or the Communards.
Gold was one preferred wealth storage option. It still is in France.
Government bonds were generally considered a good deal: backed by the power of taxation, and, unlike gold, they earned interest.
One constant concern of French governments in the 19th century was the diplomatic isolation enforced by the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Various attempts were made to break this, some successful like the split of Belgium from the Netherlands in 1830, the Crimean War (co-operation with the British), others failed (Napoleon III’s Mexican adventure, the Franco-Prussian War).
By 1882, Germany looked like getting economic and military supremacy in Europe, with an Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Italy. With the British playing neutral, the best bet was to build up Russia.
The first Russian bonds sold in France were in 1867 to finance a railroad. Others followed, notably in 1888. At this point the French government decided on a policy of alliance with Russia and the encouragement of French savers to invest in Russian infrastructure. From 1887 to 1913, 3.5% of the French Gross National Product is invested in Russia alone. This amounted to a quarter of all foreign investment by French private citizens. That’s a savings ratio (14% in external investment alone) we wouldn’t mind seeing in the UK today!
A massive media campaign promoting Russia as a future economic giant (a bit like China in recent years) was pushed by politicians. Meanwhile French banks found they could make enormous amounts of commission from Russian bonds: in this period, the Credit Lyonnais makes 30% of its profits from it’s commission for selling the bonds.
In 1897, the ruble is linked to gold. The French government guarantees its citizens against any default. The Paris Stock Exchange takes listings for, among others: Banque russo-asiatique, la Banque de commerce de Sibérie, les usines Stoll, les Wagons de Petrograd.
The first signs of trouble come in 1905, with the post-Russo-Japanese War revolution. A provisional government announced a default of foreign bonds, but this isn’t reported in the French mainstream media or the French banks that continue to sell (mis-sell?).
During the First World War, the French government issued zero interest bonds to cover the Russian government’s loan repayment, with an agreement to sort out the problem after the war. However, in December 1917, Lenin announced the repudiation of Tsarist debts.
The gold standard was abolished, allowing the debasement of the currency, private citizens were required to turn over their gold for government bonds.
Income tax was introduced (with a top rate of 2%) after the assassination in Sarajevo of the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife.
In 1923, a French parliamentary commission established that 9 billion Francs had effectively been stolen from French savers in the Russian bonds affair. Bribes had been paid to bankers and news outlets to promote the impression of massive economic growth in Russia. Many of the later bonds were merely issued to repay the interest on earlier debt.
For the next 70 years, protest groups attempted to obtain compensation, either from the Russian government or from the French government that had provided “guarantees”. You won’t be surprised to know that some banks managed to sell their bonds to private investors after 1917, having spread false rumours that the Soviets would honour the bonds.
Successive French governments found themselves caught between the requirements of “normal” relations with the USSR and the clamour of dispossessed savers and their relatives.
In November 1996, the post-Soviet Yelstin government agreed a deal to settle the Russian bonds for $400 million. The deal covered less than 10% of the families demanding compensation. Despite this, 316,000 people are thought to have received some compensation, suggesting that over 3 million families were affected by the Russian bonds scandal.
There are similarities with the present day but also significant differences.
First, the role of government guarantees and links with favoured banks, ensuring savers were complacent.
Second the manipulation of economic data by the Russian government, which looks a lot like what’s been happening in China.
Third the fragility of the situation: war can break out. All sorts of assumptions we can make about safe investments go out of the window.
One specifically French response to all this is something I would like to see an academic study of. What changes to consumption and savings would follow from growing up in a family where savings have been wiped out by government action (Russian or one’s own)? If three million people were directly involved, most French people would have known someone who had deferred consumption and been robbed. To what extent does the post-1945 explosion in mass consumption in France reflect a view that deferring consumption is foolish when savings can be stolen with the connivance or lack of concern of one’s own government?
Still unnoticed by a large part of the population is that we have been living through a period of relative impoverishment. Money has been squandered in welfare spending, bailing out banks or even — as in Europe — of fellow governments. But many people still do not feel the pain.
However, malinvestments have destroyed an immense amount of real wealth. Government spending for welfare programs and military ventures has caused increasing public debts and deficits in the Western world. These debts will never be paid back in real terms.
The welfare-warfare state is the biggest malinvestment today. It does not satisfy the preferences of freely interacting individuals and would be liquidated immediately if it were not continuously propped up by taxpayer money collected under the threat of violence.
Another source of malinvestment has been the business cycle triggered by the credit expansion of the semi-public fractional reserve banking system. After the financial crisis of 2008, malinvestments were only partially liquidated. The investors that had financed the malinvestments such as overextended car producers and mortgage lenders were bailed out by governments; be it directly through capital infusions or indirectly through subsidies and public works. The bursting of the housing bubble caused losses for the banking system, but the banking system did not assume these losses in full because it was bailed out by governments worldwide. Consequently, bad debts were shifted from the private to the public sector, but they did not disappear. In time, new bad debts were created through an increase in public welfare spending such as unemployment benefits and a myriad of “stimulus” programs. Government debt exploded.
In other words, the losses resulting from the malinvestments of the past cycle have been shifted to an important degree onto the balance sheets of governments and their central banks. Neither the original investors, nor bank shareholders, nor bank creditors, nor holders of public debt have assumed these losses. Shifting bad debts around cannot recreate the lost wealth, however, and the debt remains.
To illustrate, let us consider Robinson Crusoe and the younger Friday on their island. Robinson works hard for decades and saves for retirement. He invests in bonds issued by Friday. Friday invests in a project. He starts constructing a fishing boat that will produce enough fish to feed both of them when Robinson retires and stops working.
At retirement Robinson wants to start consuming his capital. He wants to sell his bonds and buy goods (the fish) that Friday produces. But the plan will not work if the capital has been squandered in malinvestments. Friday may be unable to pay back the bonds in real terms, because he simply has consumed Robinson’s savings without working or because the investment project financed with Robinson’s savings has failed.
For instance, imagine that the boat is constructed badly and sinks; or that Friday never builds the boat because he prefers partying. The wealth that Robinson thought to own is simply not there. Of course, for some time Robinson may maintain the illusion that he is wealthy. In fact, he still owns the bonds.
Let us imagine that there is a government with its central bank on the island. To “fix” the situation, the island’s government buys and nationalizes Friday’s failed company (and the sunken boat). Or the government could bail Friday out by transferring money to him through the issuance of new government debt that is bought by the central bank. Friday may then pay back Robinson with newly printed money. Alternatively the central banks may also just print paper money to buy the bonds directly from Robinson. The bad assets (represented by the bonds) are shifted onto the balance sheet of the central bank or the government.
As a consequence, Robinson Crusoe may have the illusion that he is still rich because he owns government bonds, paper money, or the bonds issued by a nationalized or subsidized company. In a similar way, people feel rich today because they own savings accounts, government bonds, mutual funds, or a life insurance policy (with the banks, the funds, and the life insurance companies being heavily invested in government bonds). However, the wealth destruction (the sinking of the boat) cannot be undone. At the end of the day, Robinson cannot eat the bonds, paper, or other entitlements he owns. There is simply no real wealth backing them. No one is actually catching fish, so there will simply not be enough fishes to feed both Robinson and Friday.
Something similar is true today. Many people believe they own real wealth that does not exist. Their capital has been squandered by government malinvestments directly and indirectly. Governments have spent resources in welfare programs and have issued promises for public pension schemes; they have bailed out companies by creating artificial markets, through subsidies or capital injections. Government debt has exploded.
Many people believe the paper wealth they own in the form of government bonds, investment funds, insurance policies, bank deposits, and entitlements will provide them with nice sunset years. However, at retirement they will only be able to consume what is produced by the real economy. But the economy’s real production capacity has been severely distorted and reduced by government intervention. The paper wealth is backed to a great extent by hot air. The ongoing transfer of bad debts onto the balance sheets of governments and central banks cannot undo the destruction of wealth. Savers and pensioners will at some point find out that the real value of their wealth is much less than they expected. In which way, exactly, the illusion will be destroyed remains to be seen.
This article was previously published at Mises.org.