Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I studied economics in my home country, Germany, and joined J.P. Morgan as a trader in Frankfurt in 1990. By 1996 I had become a portfolio manager in J.P. Morgan’s asset management division and moved to London, which I still call my home. I specialized in European and global bond portfolios. From 1998 to 2001 I worked at Merrill Lynch Investment Managers, which has since become part of BlackRock, and in 2001 I joined Western Asset Management, the Pasadena-based bond specialist. For Western I oversaw their London-based investment team and was lead portfolio-manager for all their global strategies. When I left Western in 2009 my team there oversaw roughly $65 billion in assets under management for institutional clients from around the world. I look back on my years in the business with many fond memories. I worked with some interesting people and had some fascinating clients. But by 2009 I had become very pessimistic on our financial system as a result of my study of Austrian School economics and my own experience after almost two decades in the business. The two perspectives combined to form a rather unpleasant outlook. I wanted to step outside the industry, think things through, and write a book about it.
What investing style do you subscribe to?
I am not sure I subscribe to any identifiable style, or that I even consider it particularly desirable to do so. Let me explain. I spent almost 20 years in the institutional asset management business. There is very limited room to develop your own style to begin with. These companies are asset-gathering companies. They need to constantly grow and attract new clients. In order to do that they not only try to establish a decent track record but also a specific house style and a clear and distinguishable process that they can market. They try to create a brand. As a portfolio manager you have to play along and do things in a way that fits the process. Incidentally, that was something I was actually quite good at. Now it so happens that certain styles work for some time and then stop working. Markets constantly change. In the industry, however, whenever somebody has good numbers for a while and a good story about how those numbers have been generated, he is usually in a sweet spot. New clients come rushing in. But I have become very cynical in this regard. That is usually the moment you should sell these firms or money mangers. I accept that my take on the style-question is unusual. But that is how I see it.
The truth is I tried many different things over the years. Only now, that I am out on my own, outside the mainstream industry, can I look at things with an entirely open mind, which is refreshing. I like Doug Casey’s distinction between traders, investors and speculators. Many people call themselves investors when what they really do is trading. This is certainly true of many ‘investors’ in the asset management industry. I would now call myself a speculator. Most of the time you do nothing. Until you spot a major dislocation, or a major event or an opportunity, something that you have a completely different view on from most other people. That’s when you go in and take risk. Example: I am convinced this crisis is misunderstood by most. We are witnessing the failure of our fiat money system. This will get much worse. I try to position myself for it.
What attracted you to the Austrian school of thought?
I came across some writings by F.A. Hayek by chance more than twenty years ago. I can honestly say that I felt immediately that I was reading something special, something that made sense, that was true. I found it exceptionally convincing, and it made a huge impression on me. For the next four years I read everything Hayek wrote. Then, I discovered the other Austrians, Mises, Rothbard, Menger. To sum it up, I would say that it is the methodology that makes the Austrian School so special. Ludwig von Mises, for me, is the unsurpassed master of the Austrian School. He understood better than anybody what economics is about, what it can do and what it cannot do, and how it should go about it. Austrian School Economics starts with the individual actor. Purposeful individual action and human cooperation on markets is the driving force behind all economic phenomena. From the starting point of the individual, the Austrians reconstruct and explain all institutions of the market – from the bottom up, so to speak. By contrast, most modern economists approach economics as if it was a natural science, where we must collect observations, statistical data, and look for patterns. This is the right approach for natural sciences because in nature we can’t perceive of purposeful action. But we do understand the actions of humans in the economy. The approach can be and has to be different. Furthermore, macroeconomists implicitly assume that the statistical aggregates and the large wholes that they work with in their models (consumption, investment, retail spending, aggregate demand, and so forth) are what really interact with one another in the real world. This is a tremendous intellectual error. The economy is ultimately driven by countless individual decision-makers. The Austrians do not lose sight of that.
It is no surprise to me that the Austrian School has such a strong appeal for real-life entrepreneurs and risk-takers. No other school of thought understands entrepreneurship, risk-taking, capital accumulation and capital maintenance, relative prices and the real-life elements of time and error, like the Austrian School does. Of course, politicians, central bankers and state bureaucrats are, by contrast, drawn towards mainstream macroeconomics. It gives them the illusion that the economy can be planned and manipulated from the top down.
What inspired you to write a book?
When you begin to understand Austrian monetary theory you realize that our financial system is built on quicksand – elastic, constantly expanding fiat money to be produced without limit and at full discretion by the central banks. I realized that the growing instabilities and dislocations that I observed in my work-life as a portfolio manager over the past two decades were the inevitable consequence of our monetary infrastructure. What amazed me was that nobody around me saw it that way. Whenever a credit boom threatened to turn into a credit bust – as it sooner or later must – everybody was calling for a monetary stimulus, for lower rates and for policy accommodation to extend the credit boom further. Such a policy may indeed prevent a correction now, but only at the cost of making an even bigger correction necessary in the future. But everybody in financial markets is so indoctrinated with a specific and narrow subset of modern macroeconomics – I would say the most toxic aspects of Keynesianism and Monetarism – that everybody believes any policy to be a good one if it only creates some near-term GDP boost. There is no perception of long-term dislocations and market imbalances, of what the consequences of such a policy of artificially cheap credit must ultimately be. I think a gigantic intellectual bubble exists in which most financial market participants operate. That bubble will probably only get pricked by real events, i.e. the massive crisis that is now unfolding. But I wanted to try and give people a different perspective, to debunk some of the erroneous common wisdom that is readily accepted by so many people in the business.
Can you explain to people what your definition of money is?
Money is the medium of exchange. It is the most fungible good in the economy and therefore most readily facilitates exchange of property. It is neither a consumption good nor an investment good. We hold it not to satisfy any of our consumption needs, nor to generate a return. We have demand for it because it gives us flexibility. To hold money balances means to hold purchasing power in its most readily tradable form.
Capitalism developed on the basis of inelastic, inflexible and apolitical commodity money, such as gold and silver – inelastic in its supply and outside political control. Today we live in a world of entirely elastic paper money under discretion of the state, and for the first time in history, such a system spans the entire globe. Remember also, that today’s fiat money system only came into full bloom on August 15, 1971.
Today, most mainstream economists maintain that the perfect elasticity of the money supply is a plus. My book argues that this is wrong. The relative inelasticity of gold makes gold a superior form of money. Elastic money systems must ultimately collapse. Throughout history they always have.
Can you tell us about the US system pre-Fed era?
I should stress first that I am not a monetary historian, although there is a short chapter on the history of paper money systems in my book – all of these systems collapsed by the way. Understanding monetary systems requires theory. History can illuminate concepts or raise new questions. Only theory can explain.
Prior to the founding of a central bank, the Federal Reserve, in 1913 and the subsequent abandonment of a gold anchor in 1933 (domestically) and 1971 (internationally), the US used, for the most part, commodity money. I say ‘for the most part’ as America conducted some interesting experiments with paper money as well, all of them complete disasters. In fact, one of the first historic examples of a paper money system outside Medieval China, was Massachusetts, which, in 1690 when still a British colony, issued paper money to fund military excursions into French Quebec. Then there were the famous continentals, a paper money issued by the Continental Congress in 1775 to fund the Revolutionary War. These early experiments with paper money ended like they always do – with worthless paper tickets. Then in the early part of the 19th century the dollar was defined as a specific amount of gold. This was proper commodity money, a gold standard. There was no central bank. Gold was money. Commercial banks had to redeem their banknotes in specie, which set tight limits on bank credit creation. But the government couldn’t stop interfering, in particular whenever it needed cheap credit, usually to fund wars. Requirements to redeem in physical gold were lifted on a couple of occasions, so in the wake of the War of 1812, when the US was fighting Britain again, and most famously during the Civil War, when the greenbacks were issued and soon inflated into worthlessness. In 1879, the US joined Britain, and in fact most of the then industrialized world, in what became known as the Classical Gold Standard. After the inflation of the greenback era, a corrective deflation was allowed to unfold (but strong economic growth continued nevertheless), and from 1879 to 1914 there was no meaningful deflation or inflation in the system at all. This was a time of hard, inflexible and stable money. This was a period– in the US and globally – of solid economic growth, rising living standards and growing international trade, and of harmonious economic relationships between countries. The Classical Gold Standard was not perfect but probably the best monetary system we have had so far.
Many people have proposed going back to the gold standard? We had many depressions and recessions while on the gold standard, do you think it would be a good idea?
Yes, we should definitely return to a gold standard — not one that is “managed” by the government, but a proper gold standard with no involvement of the state. I wouldn’t hold my breath, however. As we have seen, governments love fiat money. It gives them control over the economy. We will eventually return to some form of gold standard but only after the complete collapse of the present system in a major crisis.
The elasticity of money – which means periods of money expansion and credit booms followed by periods of monetary stagnation or contraction – is the main cause of business cycles. How did this occur under a gold standard? Answer: the spread of deposit banking and fractional-reserve banking, in particular in the late 19th century. These banking practices introduced an element of elasticity into the money supply. They can be profitable for the banks but they are risky and are destabilizing for the broader economy, even under gold standard conditions. That is why many Austrians argue for a 100-percent gold standard, for 100 percent reserve banking. I am not in that camp. I think fractional-reserve banking should not be banned, cannot be banned, and ultimately does not need to be banned. Many of these issues can be solved in a free market. We may have the occasional recession but the system can cope with that.
However, the Fed was founded in a joined effort by politicians and bankers in order not to restrict and contain fractional-reserve banking but, to the contrary, in order to encourage and subsidize it. Money has since not become less elastic but much more elastic. Of course, credit cycles still occur. They now only get much, much bigger. We had a thirty-year credit boom. We will now get a major credit bust. Compared to what we are facing now, the recessions of the gold standard era will look like a walk in the park.
Why do most policy makers seem to be in the Keynesian school and not the Austrian school of thought?
Please remember my answer to the question above about the appeal of the Austrian School. The methodology of the Austrians is superior, but the methodology of mainstream macroeconomics, and Keynesianism in particular, is appealing to politicians. These schools perceive the economy as an organism that sometimes performs below potential, which then provides a convenient excuse for the politicians to get involved. Keynesianism has popularized the concept of ‘aggregate demand’. A recession is now seen simply as a lack of aggregate demand. So politicians have a pseudo-scientific excuse to run deficits and spend money they don’t have. Strangely, the fact that “lack of aggregate demand” can at best be a symptom but hardly an explanation of the recession does not appear to bother too many people.
Truth is, the recession is the result of imbalances that the economy accumulated during the previous artificial credit boom. Once these dislocations (such as excessive levels of debt, overextended banks and inflated asset markets) exist, the cleansing of a recession is needed and unavoidable. That is not a popular message among politicians.
Greece was forced to implement austerity and the budget deficit as % of GDP went up and unemployment skyrocketed. What are your thoughts on the reason why this occurred?
That is not surprising at all. You have to remember that in today’s world GDP is a very poor measure of economic health. In the EU, 50 percent of recorded economic activity is conducted by the public sector. In my adopted home country, the UK, it is 53 percent. The public sector spends more money than all private individuals and corporations put together. This is more socialism than capitalism.
We don’t have to assume that everything the state does is pure waste. For some of these things there would be a proper demand even in a state-less free market. However, we – and in fact the state bureaucrats as well – have no means of telling what is truly demanded by the buying public and what is of marginal or of no productivity, and what is thus complete waste, because the public sector operates outside of market prices and without the guidance of profit and loss. But whatever the state does enters the GDP statistic just the same.
So whenever the state is being cut back – which hardly ever happens, only in cases of default, which is why I am a big advocate of government defaults – a lot of things drop out of the GDP statistics and unemployment goes up because public sector employees are laid off. This drop in GDP is not a lasting problem. We know that a lot of state activity was at least suboptimal to begin with. Now resources (including labor) are being redirected to the private sector, where they will eventually be employed again, and this will enhance wealth and prosperity in the long run. In my view, Greece should stop paying anything to her creditors, declare full default, and shrink the state drastically. For a short while, the statistics would look dreadful. Then Greece would have a massive and lasting recovery. With no debt, a small state and a free economy it could, after some time, outperform everybody else in Europe.
Taxes went up in the Clinton era and the economy still boomed, do you think slightly increasing taxes will be detrimental to the economy?
I object to taxes for moral and ethical reasons (which are subjective) and economic considerations (which are objective). Taxes are always detrimental to the economy. They were so, too, under Clinton. It so happened that other things outweighed their negative impact. Remember, the mega credit boom that started in the early 80s was still in full swing, the Greenspan put was still operable, the NASDAQ bubble was still being inflated. Some of the growth of those years was genuine, that is, based on entrepreneurship, capital creation and innovation, but a lot of it was also the result of easy money. Under these circumstances the tax hikes were not felt that much, that is all.
Today’s environment is very different. The credit boom has ended, and has ended for good. The state and the financial sector have benefitted most from decades of cheap credit and are now severely overstretched. The economy overall is much weaker. Higher taxes would be detrimental. Also, the idea that the gigantic government deficits could be closed with higher taxes is idiotic. To the US I would give the same advice as I just gave to Greece: default, shrink the state massively, go back to hard money. Alas, they won’t do it.
I am curious what you think about the major currencies; Dollar, Euro, Yen, some of the emerging countries?
They are all locked in a deadly race to the bottom. All these currency-areas face the same problems, which are the typical problems of a fiat money system reaching its endgame: massive public debt, uncontrollable deficits, weak banks, addiction to cheap credit and constant asset price inflation. None of these governments want to face up to the reality that they are broke and that what the economy needs is for the market to be allowed to liquidate unsustainable levels of debt and other economic imbalances. As that is deemed politically unacceptable, they will continue to try and buy time by producing ever more currency units and injecting them into financial markets. Inflation and currency destruction will be the endgame. I would stay away from paper money as much as I can. Buy gold and silver instead, and certain other real assets. To guess which of these paper currencies will hit the bottom first is a mug’s game, in my view.
Is inflation or deflation a bigger threat right now?
Inflation and deflation are both unpleasant but it is wrong to call them both an equal threat right now. Allowing deflation now would have a clear advantage, namely it would bring the economy back to a state of balance and toward more proportionate and sustainable structures. A deflationary correction that would allow the liquidation of market dislocations would be painful but it would ultimately restore the economy to health.
If all market interventions, including cheap money from the Fed, would cease now, we would indeed face a sharp economic contraction and most likely a period of deflation. But this is ultimately unavoidable anyway. Current economic structures are simply unsustainable, and the market has a way of dealing with what is unsustainable: liquidate it. The market is craving a cleansing recession, including drops in certain prices. As I said before, this is deemed politically unacceptable. That is why we will get ever more aggressive monetary policy and ever more money printing. This will not solve our problems but it will lead to inflation and most likely complete currency collapse. My outlook for the coming years is inflation, much higher inflation, not deflation. The reason for that is policy.
Hopefully you won’t consider the following analogy tasteless but to ask what is the bigger threat, inflation or deflation, is a bit like asking a cancer patient what is the bigger threat, death or chemotherapy. Nobody will readily embrace either. But it appears to me that in constantly telling us that we need to avoid deflation at all cost, today’s policy establishment is telling us that we should avoid chemotherapy and accept death by hyperinflation.
What are your opinions on Gold?
Gold is the essential self-defense asset. Whenever fiat money systems enter their endgame and are about to collapse, gold comes back. It is the eternal form of money. As Greenspan once said (and he said it when he was already the head the world’s foremost paper money central bank): In extremis, nobody accepts paper money. Gold will always be accepted.
At its current price of $1,720 an ounce I still consider it cheap. Much more fiat money will be created in coming months and years. You want to own something that is not simultaneously somebody else’s liability (such “money in the bank” on your deposit or savings account) and that cannot be created for political purposes at will and without limit, such as paper dollars.
Don’t trade gold, accumulate it.
QEII, Operation Twist, thoughts?
These operations get ever more extreme. It is just part of the logic of the system. We are in a mess because of the trillions that were created out of thin air in the past. To keep the system going a bit longer, the central banks now have to produce ever more money ever faster. Will it stimulate the economy? Yeah, right.
Like a little hamster in his wheel, Bernanke will have to run ever faster to keep the printing press humming and keep the system from correcting. We will get QE 3 and QE 4, no question. By the way, Operation Twist could already be QE3 in disguise. On the face of it, the Fed is just selling short duration Treasuries and buying long duration Treasuries. But the Fed also promised to keep interbank rates near zero for a long time (meaning: forever), and to achieve that they may be buying back short-term Treasuries pretty soon. Listen, there are no exit strategies. The Fed’s balance sheet will continue to grow. It is already bigger than M1. We will get more and more money……
Flashback to September 2008, what do you think the Government should have done?
Nothing. I like Jim Grant’s term: “constructive inaction”. If you believe that the Fed and the government saved us from another Great Depression with all their bailouts and quantitative easing, think again. All they did was postpone the depression – and to make the final disaster worse. All these imbalances are still with us, many of them are larger and have been moved to the state’s balance sheet. Nothing is fixed.
But if you think that this advice – do nothing – is unrealistic and that the government, after having actively supported the build-up of this credit edifice for decades, cannot simply walk away from it once the house of cards finally unravels, then I would suggest the following: Any actions by the government should have been directed toward sustaining the payment infrastructure and maybe to minimize the fallout for bank depositors, who for a long time have actively be lured into entrusting their savings to an increasingly leveraged, government-supported banking system, which has now checkmated itself. I am not suggesting a debt-funded bailout of the deposit base. But the US government allegedly sits on 260 million ounces of gold, some of it confiscated from its own population. Current market value: $450 billion. That could have been handed back to the banks as a backstop against their deposits. This could have been the first step towards abolishing the Fed and returning the country to a gold standard.
If you were Ben Bernanke what would you do now?
Abdicate. His mandate is contradictory and impossible. He is supposed to provide a stable medium of exchange for the American public, and at the same time provide an unlimited backstop for Wall Street and Washington. Well, it is one or the other. We already know which one he chose.
Same question, Barack Obama?
Abdicate is again a good option.
I am not an American so I am looking at this from a distance. It strikes me that the presidencies of George W. Bush and Barrack Obama were both unmitigated disasters for their country. I don’t even think the two as men are necessarily bad or evil. As individuals they may be decent and have good intentions. But the politics are just shockingly bad. The growth of the state, of government involvement in the economy and in all walks of life, the budget deficits, the ever-growing debt pile, the aggressive monetization of debt and the dependency on cheap credit and ongoing market manipulation – this is a complete shipwreck by any standard but, if I may say so, particularly shameful for a country that for freedom-loving people around the world was once a beacon of liberty, opportunity and capitalism. As a generally pro-American libertarian, I can’t tell you how much it hurts to see this once great country go to bits like this.
What needs to be done? Stop printing money, return the country to a gold standard, default on the debt (it will never be repaid anyway!), shrink the state aggressively, stop all foreign wars – the military is the government’s biggest single expenditure item at close to $1 trillion a year.
If you think this is unrealistic then let me tell you that I think all of this will ultimately happen – but not by choice but by necessity, as a result of a massive crisis.
If you were Angela Merkel or Jean-Claude Trichet?
I think that what I said about Bernanke and Obama broadly applies to Merkel and Trichet as well. At the core, the problems are the same. Europe’s problem is not that many different countries share the same currency. Many more and much more different countries did the same between 1879 and 1914 under the gold standard, and it worked very well. The problem is precisely that they do not share an international, apolitical and inelastic commodity money, but a fully elastic and politicized fiat money that comes with built-in expectations of government and bank bailouts. Stop printing money, return to hard and de-politicized money, preferably a gold standard, and shrink the state – the advice is the same.
Who are you endorsing for US President? Ron Paul?
I think the entire political process, not only in the US, but in all modern mass democracies, has become a most degrading and dispiriting spectacle. I agree with P.J. O’Rourke: Don’t vote. It only encourages the bastards. Politics needs to be thoroughly delegitimized as a problem-solving device. It creates more problems than it solves. So I am not endorsing anybody.
Having said this, Ron Paul is, of course, by far the best choice from my point of view. I don’t think that this will surprise you considering what I said above. He is right about ending the wars, abolishing the Fed, returning to a gold standard, shrinking the state. But I fear that he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to win the presidency. So the crisis will continue. Don’t bet on politics. Trust your own reason. Be prepared.