It was something of an irony last week when the idiots savants who constitute the upper ranks of the ineffable current incarnation of the IMF decided briefly to forgo their penchant for the politics of the Montagnard – more inflation, higher wages, death to the speculators, les aristocrats à la lanterne, that sort of thing – in favour of those of the ancien régime. Specifically, this took the form of updated proposals for a ‘Visa’ of the kind twice instituted in early 18th century France; the first to try to clear up the fiscal mess which was the principle legacy of the military vainglory of the just departed Sun King and a second time to mop up after that QE disaster of its time, John Law’s infamous ‘System’.
Sorting the participants into five classes whose activities were deemed to have been increasingly speculative – and hence liable to more swingeing penalties – those in charge of the Visa saw to it that the bigger players (or at least those bigger players unable to use their royal connections to secure themselves an indemnity) suffered haircuts, retrospective tax assessments, forcible debt extensions, property confiscation – and, in one or two cases, a salutary trip to the Bastille.
Jump forward three centuries and in its latest position paper on sovereign debt ‘resolution’ the IMF is drooling about dipping, in a not wholly dissimilar fashion, into people’s pension funds and insurance policies – since these are seen to be easy targets – as well as about imposing arbitrary prolongations of tenor on outstanding securities should the state’s chronic mismanagement end up rendering it temporarily unable to entice sufficient new or repeat suckers into enabling the maintenance of its naked fiscal Ponzi scheme.
As the reader may be aware, we are all for adopting a stance of unsentimental realism when it comes to facing problems of over-indebtedness and, further, that we have long bemoaned the readiness of governments to swell their own commitments in the aftermath of financial crises, not just because of the inherent cronyism and inequity which riddles most TBTF assistance packages, but because sovereign debt is intractable in a way that private sector obligations generally are not. We are, therefore, more than happy to see all breaches of contract – which is what the unpayability of a debt involves – dealt with in as clinical and judicial way as possible, no matter whether these failures are misjudgements, examples of malfeasance, of ‘acts of god’. Moreover, we are exceedingly happy to see anything which reminds people that, despite the modern fiction of the ‘risk-free’ rate which attaches to them, Leviathan’s IOUs have always been among the least trustworthy of all pledges to pay.
However, that principal is not what is at issue here, but what does gall is the IMF’s glib reliance on the sneaky, archly legalistic, announce-it-once-the-banks-are-closed repudiation of existing agreements by a borrower which has not only promoted itself as the one true guardian of the people’s well-being, but which has frequently given its subjects precious little choice but to trust a goodly part of the surplus they have wrung from their already sorely-taxed income to those same instruments whose terms the state is now unilaterally amending in its favour.
As yet one more example of the sinister creed of ‘Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz’, this betrays the classic statist proclivity to view all notionally private property as really belonging to the Collective, even if this is rarely expressed so clearly today as it was when last elevated into a central tenet of axe-and-bundle political theory in the 1920s and 30s.
‘What’s yours is only truly so to the extent that we, the functionaries of the Hive, do not decide that we have a better use for it and so do not exercise what we insist is our prior claim to it, ‘ they imply, though a little more disingenuously than heretofore. Having ignited an all too short-lived burst of outrage at last year’s more overt Visa proposal to go for a straight confiscation of 10% of ‘wealth’, this latest business of simply denying people an exit route has the poisonous virtue of being more subtle in its operation and therefore of being more likely to pass into effect all unremarked, even if the effect upon those being locked in would be broadly equivalent in many respects.
Moreover, for all the weasel words uttered in the Fund’s blueprint about limiting moral hazard, the plan explicitly endorses what it archly terms the ‘reprofiling’ measure on the grounds that it serves to deliver a ‘larger creditor base’ into the meat-grinder and hence helps limit damage to ‘longer-term creditors who would have otherwise had to shoulder the full burden of the debt reduction’ As an added bonus, stiffing one’s existing creditors in place of begging a payday loan from Uncle IMF ‘…increases the chances of a more rapid return to the market, as the debt stock will be less burdened by senior claims’ – i.e., those emanating from the IMF itself. A third, tacit advantage would be that since the IMF would not be not committing an actual monies, there need be no debate among its members about the implementation of such a programme, while the softening of the criteria calling for its use from one where the state’s finances are categorically ‘unsustainable’ to one where there is a mere inability to rule out the arrival of such a contingency drastically lowers the nuclear threshold.
One might object that the very knowledge that such steps could be taken would be enough to destroy any residual element of ‘sustainability’ with which a given sovereign’s budget might otherwise be imbued. If people became aware that in buying a 3-month T-bill (and buying it at vanishingly small rates of interest at that) they were also selling their overlords a 30-year put, or that the YTW calculation of their security really ought to include the chance of a 10% principal reduction, would they not try to incorporate this in its price, thereby pushing up yields and so aggravating any incipient funding difficulties? Might they, indeed, not halt their discretionary purchases altogether and so advance rather than retard the onset of the crisis?
Given that they are each, in their own way, subject to the compulsions of so-called ‘prudential’ regulations with regard to the assets they must hold to ensure their solvency and liquidity, would such ‘captives’ as the banks, pension funds, and insurers thus be left the only buyers outside of the ever-eager to oblige central bank? A moment’s consideration of what could happen to the most fragile of these – the already–impaired banks – if their assets were suddenly to suffer another sizeable mark down as a result of state defalcation shows why the IMF wants the universe of the afflicted to be as all-inclusive as possible. That way, however large the absolute loss might be, the percentage loss to each holder could be conveniently minimized as the poor individual innocent was once again mulcted to provide a subsidy for the rich, corporate players whose fate is so closely entwined with that of their overlords.
Thus, under the terms of this new wheeze, we might imagine a day when the following missive drops onto the doormat of the Forgotten Men and Women up and down the country
“Dear Grandma and Grandad, thank you for making the valiant effort over these past decades to achieve a measure of self-reliance in your dotage and for allowing us jacks-in-office full use of your savings in the meanwhile as both a means to fulfil our political ambitions and as a way to act out our own economically-illiterate and usually illiberal prejudices at the expense of you and yours.”
“Sadly, it transpires that we have not only wasted a goodly part of your savings, but we have greatly added to the host of irredeemable promises which we made to you, in the form of a mountain of even more pressing pledges issued to the Biggest of Big Fish in the financial markets. So that we do not entirely dissuade these latter sophisticates from again indulging our follies at the earliest opportunity, we shall now have to ask you to share – and thereby greatly to reduce – their pain.”
“Be assured, however, that the loss for which you have my heartfelt sympathy will patriotically ensure that we can continue to live well beyond our means. In this way your sacrifice will see to it that the least possible harm will come to any of us in the political classes (a.k.a. the agents of your misfortune), to our army of placemen, patronage-seekers, and dole-gatherers, or to our plutocratic enablers for – as the IMF puts it – ‘…resources that would otherwise have been paid out to creditors will have been retained [to] reduce [our] overall financing needs.’ Nor will we have to suffer the indignity of modifying our existing approach overmuch by actually only spending money on the things for which you, in true democratic fashion, have openly voted the taxes since – here let me cite those marvellous chaps in Washington, once again – ‘resources could be efficiently employed to allow for a less constraining adjustment path.’, i.e., to allow one demanding as little fundamental ‘adjustment’ as possible.”
“I feel confident you will join me in looking forward with some enthusiasm to the next, inevitable ‘reprofiling’, just as soon as we can arrange to overspend enough to make one necessary once again. Should I have already laid down the heavy burden of selfless public service by the time this comes about and gone instead to my just reward as a highly-paid ‘consultant’ to a global investment bank, I would urge you to give your full support to my successor, of whatever political stripe he or she may be. In such an event, there will, of course, be precious little different in the treatment you receive at the hands of any of the mainstream parties as currently constituted”
Yours Insincerely, The Minister of Finance.
It is all too easy at present to make fun of the IMF, though in so doing we should bear in mind that such ridicule is perhaps the only weapon we have in our fight to prevent it from lending a spurious air of rationality to the worst predilections of our national nomenklatura.
A case in point is that, at the conclusion of its periodic, Article IV review of the economic condition of the homeland of so many of those in the upper reaches of the Fund, the website prominently carried the triumphant banner, “France: Policies on the Right Track.”!
Truly, you could not make this up. For a slightly less self-justificatory assessment, one only has to trawl briefly through the Bloomberg series or consult the most recent verdict of the official ‘auditor’ of the nation, the Cours de Comptes.
There it becomes readily apparent that while the two decades prior to the first oil shock saw Real GDP, ex-government trend upward at a 5.5% annualized rate, and the next three decades managed 2.3% compound, the last seven years have seen no progress made whatsoever. Similarly, real capital formation by non-financial business has decelerated from 7.5% to 2.9% to zero over those same divisions of time. Exports stand at close to a 6 ½ year low and two-way trade at the weakest in more than three years. Industrial output – a whisker off the worst since the rebound from the GFC – lies 13% below its peak and hence no higher than it first reached in 1988
Government expenditures, meanwhile, have swollen to a record 58% of overall GDP, 80% of private, with taxes some 4-5% behind. These are levels only exceeded in the EU by Finland, Denmark, Greece, and Slovenia. The EU-calibrated debt:GDP ratio has risen by 30% of GDP since the Crash and by 12% since 2010 alone (that latter a slippage of 15% compared to the German pathway from an almost identical starting point). Here, fast approaching €2 trillion outright, it stands at 94% of overall GDP and therefore at 120% of that of the private component out of whose income that debt must be ultimately serviced.
Yes, policies are indeed on the right track, assuming that track itself is an economic highway to hell.
Given the foregoing, it was of note that the Governor of the Banque de France, Christian Noyer, insisted over the weekend that it might be highly counter-productive to speculate publicly about any programme of even partial debt repudiation.
“This all corresponds to a somewhat contrived definition of sustainability and ignores the highly disruptive effects… besides, it relies on a very pessimistic growth outlook,” he argued. “Once one starts not to pay ones debts, borrowing becomes very expensive and the impact on growth greatly exceeds that of managing a gentle reduction in debt.”
The only problem with such a judgement is that M. Noyer’s preferred – if sometimes implicit – remedy is for a reinforcement of the policies which have so signally failed France over the past several years – viz., further extreme monetization of assets (to include equities, if need be) and a weaker currency.
As a result, we find ourselves ensnared in nest of Keynesian paradoxes and economic canards. We need more investment, we are told, but the only means we can imagine to stimulate it is to lower interest rates. We understand that debt levels are too high, but we are so terrified that they might actually begin to be reduced that we subsidize profligacy as the default option of policy. We fret that prices of assets are rising as a result, not the price of labour (which we implicitly want to increase so we can reduce debt ratios, rather than debt itself) and in order to offset a form of inequality we ourselves have engendered, we stultify an economy already overburdened with rules and regulations with that en vogue form of top-down, baby-with-the-bathwater interference we style ‘macroprudential’ policy.
We want to see more people in work, on the one hand we work manfully to introduce ingenious tax and benefit ‘wedges’ which act to discourage marginal job seekers and, on the other, we call for the cost of labour to be raised through higher minimum wage rates (and or plain-old monetary inflation). We decry the fact that businesses will not hire while lowering the prospective economic returns to such hiring by seeking to tax profits more heavily.
The reality is that it does not have to be like this. The curse of macroeconomics is that it takes what should be a crude metalanguage which merely attempts the convenient shorthand of describing an impossibly complex but largely self-organising whole using a few, hopefully representative general features and attempts to elevate it into a rigorous, cybernetic control system to be twiddled and fiddled by the fingers of Philosopher Kings. Given this assertion, let us try instead to work from the other – the microeconomic – end and see if we can shed a little light on this dark and dismal scene.
If Robinson Crusoe wishes to survive his enforced sojourn on his remote island, he must only engage in such activities as provide him with a flow of the needs – at their most elementary, sustenance and shelter – that is at minimum no smaller than their accomplishment costs him in the expenditure of time and effort. The more astute he is in doing this, the more alert and adaptable he is in going about it, the wider will be the margin of success he enjoys, the more rapidly his most essential requirements will be satisfied, and the sooner he can move on to meeting a broader range of desires and to building up a precautionary reserve against misfortune.
It should then be obvious that, when Friday washes up over the reef, Crusoe – unless driven by an inexhaustible fund of potentially-self-endangering altruism – will not be able to offer his new companion an ongoing share in his accomplishments, free access to his stock of implements, or the instant ability to draw upon his, Crusoe’s, hard-won skill and understanding if Friday does not at the very least act in a manner which exacts no net toll of Crusoe (including the unseen one of foregoing better opportunities for gain in their use elsewhere). In fact, he would be unlikely to take the risk of depleting his own scarce resources and of squandering his finite energies if Friday does not contribute something beyond such a bare material parity, the which surplus he, Crusoe, will be able to use to increase the future possibilities open for the two of them to exploit.
If we stop to think about it clearly, Crusoe’s surplus income – and let us not be shy to call this his profit – is what enables him firstly to improve his own standard of living (to invest) and eventually to afford Friday the means with which to leapfrog away from the perils and privation of shipwrecked destitution to the more secure and less impoverished existence he may lead if he contracts to work under the guidance of Crusoe’s entrepreneurial instincts while utilising some of Crusoe’s already-produced stock of capital. For this, Friday earns himself the right to avail himself of an agreed proportion of the goods (the income) they generate through their mutual collaboration. Once more, it is Crusoe who rightly accedes to and disposes of any subsequent excess which he by his craft, and they two by their sweat, can conjure out of the unforgiving surroundings of their savage little world.
Assuming Crusoe to be as diligent in his way as Friday is in his, the generation of each successive surplus will allow Crusoe progressively to improve the quality, quantity, and variety of means they each can employ, so that Friday, as well as he, can enjoy those better returns on his effort which accrue from the fact that his capital endowment has risen, those better returns being what we call a higher real wage.
It is all very well to bewail the fact that, in the modern world, the admirably rugged individual, Crusoe, has been transformed into that bête noire of the scribbling and scriptwriting classes – the faceless and vaguely sinister Crusoe Incorporated – and it may equally be a matter of unthinking dogma that ‘profit’ like ‘property’ is theft, but the truth remains that what applied to our pairing of Lost-prequel cast members still applies in the disembodied world of distributed shareholding and managerial agency: profit is both the sign of entrepreneurial success and the seedcorn of capital provision; labour will only be – can only be – hired if the value of its product exceeds the cost of its retention; and the more capital each worker has at his disposal (including the kind contained between his ears), the greater will be the likely worth of his product and hence the more lavish his reward.
There are no short cuts on offer. Or perhaps none which bear up to the test of self-sustainability. Thus, the would-be macro-puppeteers of the kind characterised by Deputy BOE Governor Jon Cunliffe when he waxed metaphorical in a recent speech about how the Old Lady’s duty was to ‘steer’ the economy ‘at the highest speed that can be achieved… down a winding road’ can be seen both to seriously overate their powers to do good and to vastly underestimate their proclivity to do harm.
Allow a man the scope both to make and keep a profit (to win receipts greater than costs, adjusted for the passage of time); place no restrictions on the terms of the mutually-beneficial, freely-contracted co-operation into which he enters with less adventurous, but no less assiduous, persons as he seeks to do so; do as little as possible to add to the costs of any such contract (monetary manipulation herein included) and thus to dissuade either party from entering into it; subject our man to no deterrent to ploughing the fruits of this cycle’s endeavours back into the attempt to make those of the next more succulent and more plentiful and, by and large, though failures will occur and frauds will not be unknown, all those involved will flourish – even if they happen to live in a France where, the last we heard, the laws of economics still applied and where it was not the people who were failing but those who ruled over them.
But let us not to be too unfair to the worthies who reside among the splendours of the Elysée, the Matignon, or Bercy: as the Cours de Comptes points out, the performance of their counterparts on the other side of the Channel has in many ways been just as unimpressive.
The UK, after all, still runs a deficit of around ₤100 billion a year, 6% of total and 8% of private sector GDP. Net debt of more than ₤1.4 trillion amounts to 85% of overall and 110% of private GDP (even without counting in the obligations pertaining to the bailed-out banks) and has doubled in five years, tripled in nine. Total spending has risen by a half since 2005, climbing 5% of pGDP in that time to reach a very lofty 52.5% – and this despite all the bleating about swingeing ‘austerity’. The ₤650 billion which comprises that churn amounts to around ₤200, or more than 31 hours of minimum wage pay, per week for every man, woman, and child in the country. Not entirely unrelated is the fact that the current account gap yawns as wide as ₤75 billion a year, equivalent to what is fast approaching a post-war record of 4.5% of total, 6% of private GDP.
Here, too, the optimists have been somewhat deceived by their hopes of undergoing a true economic revival. Though the series is bumpy, manufacturing output in May appears to have stalled, suffering its largest drop since the harsh winter of 2013 and leaving overall industrial production barely 3.5% off 2012’s 27-year lows and still having 80% of its GFC losses to make up.
Despite the glaringly obvious construction that the UK is once more undergoing a lax money, too-low interest rate, classic, Tory Chancellor pre-election boom – all about non-tradables, a housing mania, an excess of imports, and plagued with soft-budget government incontinence – the myopically GDP-fixated macromancers cannot resist becoming ecstatic at the results.
Jack Meaning, a research fellow at the highly-regarded National Institute of Economic and Social Research, for example, was quoted this week in the broadsheets in full Trumpet Voluntary mode:-
“The outlook is very positive,” he exulted. “Growth now is very much entrenched, and given all the positive data that has come out, it looks like growth is here to stay.”
Hmmmm! While it is true that the Carney-Osborne duumvirate will do nothing to restrict access to the punch bowl (a) before the Scottish Independence referendum; (b) before the UK General Election next spring ; and (c) if it can be managed, before our beloved Governor quits (in 2017?) to leave his palm print on the pavement of Grauman’s Chinese Theater en route to what is rumoured to be his apotheosis at the pinnacle of the Canadian Liberal Party hierarchy, the longer this particular locomotive of ‘growth’ progresses along its current track, the more certain we can be that it will terminate in the same, drear Vale of Tears where all its predecessors have hit the buffers.
As for the US – where policy has retrogressed through some sort of Phillips Curve warping of the space-time continuum to make un(der)employment the only real matter of concern – well, let’s not get too bogged down in the to and fro about Birth:Death adjustments, the household versus the establishment survey, competing explanations for a falling participation rate, part-time versus full-time job issues and all the rest of the minutiae.
Taking the data at face value, private sector jobs (adding agriculture and self-employed to the establishment total) seem to have risen over the whole of the last four years by a remarkably steady 180k a month, 1.8% a year, for a cumulative 870k gain which is pretty much in tune with the simultaneous official estimate of 910k in population growth. While similar to the pace mapped out in the 2003/07 expansion (then 210k and 1.6% off a higher base), this is one of the slower episodes in the last half century. If we calculate the real wage fund (2.1% outright and 1.4% per capita) or real private GDP (3.0% outright and 2.3% per capita) we get similar results: the US private sector has been expanding reasonably, if a little tardily, in real terms though it has also been more obviously lagging in nominal ones.
Why no faster rebound? Certainly not because interest rates are too high, or government outlays too parsimonious, or because the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of human progress has been well and truly plucked to leave us the unpalatable choice between ‘secular stagnation’ and an invigorating burst of warfare.
Read the Crusoe paragraphs again: incentives matter, especially at the margin. And among the many perverse incentives to limit hiring we have, just as in the 1930s, a whole host of programmatic and regulatory barriers to take into account – extended benefits, changes to health care, access to classification as ‘disabled’, unemployment insurance rules, and so on.
Though America is not as sorely afflicted with these hindrances as are many Western nations, it is not hard to see that the sort of work done by Richard Vedder and Lowell Galloway, by Lee Ohanian, by Robert Higgs, and lately by Casey Mulligan all come back to the same basic conclusion: that for the micro-economics of job-creation to take hold, the legal and institutional framework must not only be conducive to fostering the hope of gain among those seeking to employ both capital and labour (including their own), but it must be straightforward to negotiate and stable in its composition. Neither constant bureaucratic tampering, nor wrenching shifts in fiscal or monetary policy – with all the wilder swings they transmit via the financial markets through which they act – can contribute much that is positive, for all the arrogance of the Colossi who never cease to promulgate them.