The Economy is in Liquidation Mode

If you’re an American over a certain age, you remember roller skating rinks (I have no idea if it caught on in other countries). This industry boomed in the 1970’s disco era. However, by the mid 1980’s, the fad was fading. Imagine running a rink company at the end of the craze. You know it is not going to survive for long. How do you operate your business?

You milk it.

You spend nothing on capital improvements, slash maintenance, and reduce operating expenses. There’s no return on investment, so you cut to the bone and wring out as much cash as possible. When a business has no future, you operate in liquidation mode.

Your rink generates cash flow, but this is no profit. It’s simply the conversion of accumulated capital into present income. You are consuming capital, almost literally eating the business.

I have used a family farm as an example to paint a clear picture of capital consumption. Imagine using your farm, not to grow food, but to swap for it. You tear down the barn to sell the oak beams for flooring, auction off the back 40 (acres), put the tractor on Craigslist, then finally sell the farm and house. All to buy the produce you can no longer harvest.

Let this sink in. The farm’s falling crop yield can’t feed you any longer, but you still need to eat. You’re liquidating the farm merely to buy groceries.

The conventional view encourages you to be grateful that the purchasing power of the farm is high, that it trades for a big stash of food. While it may be true that you can eat for years on the proceeds, it’s small consolation for the loss of what had been an evergreen income.

Roller skating was just a minor entertainment trend. Only rink owners were harmed when it ended. By contrast, we would all be in big trouble if the same phenomenon happened to farming. And unfortunately it did. Not to farms—but across the whole economy, a decent return on capital is disappearing. Interest has gone the way of big hair and disco music.

Businesses borrow to expand production. The additional production increases profits. A portion of this profit is what pays interest. The problem is that fewer and fewer businesses can find decent opportunities to expand. If they could, they would be borrowing aggressively at today’s dirt-cheap interest rate. Their borrowing would push interest up. They’re not, and the proof is the fact that interest has been falling for three-decades.

The Federal Reserve is now pumping mass quantities of credit into the market, while productive demand for credit is lethargic. Borrowing—much of it for financial purposes such as share buybacks and acquisitions—now depends on the Fed and its artificially low administered interest rate.

The Fed operates on the theory that lowering interest stimulates the economy, at the cost of causing prices to rise. This is dubious, at best. However, so long as purchasing power holds steady, the Fed feels it has latitude to keep doing it. In its vain attempt to stimulate the economy, the Fed is actually suffocating it.

For centuries, people living in Western Civilization have been accumulating capital. They have not simply subsisted, and left the world the same as when they entered it. They have been creating more than they consume, passing on new wealth to their children.

The Fed’s falling interest rate has slammed this process into reverse. It has put the entire economy into liquidation mode. It has forced people to consume their capital.


This article is from Keith Weiner’s weekly column, called The Gold Standard, at the Swiss National Bank and Swiss Franc Blog

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3 replies on “The Economy is in Liquidation Mode”
  1. The problem is that Central banks AND economists really really do not understand the problem.

    They do not understand the important role that correct QE can play and should play. Economies need a balance between printed money and credit money. They have not had that for so long that no one even remembers.

    They do not understand the problems of gearing of housing finance and how that creates bubbles and bursts in the sector as they reduce interest rates – well they are only learning that now. They have no idea how to overcome that problem yet it is starting them in the face on my website.

    They understand that fixed Interest bonds have unsafe and unstable values but seem to have no clue about what can be done about that.

    They do not even try to create a balanced stimulus when they do try one.

    Let me enlighten readers:

    Central banks are charged with creating financial stability. They do the opposite.automatically stable through pricing adjustments. Bond prices and costs cannot adjust. Hence they are an unstable part of the framework. Housing finance costs are highly geared, hence they inflate and deflate propriety values an they create massive banking failures and huge capital reserve requirements.

    Financial stability comes from having a financial framework which is itself financially stable. A financially stable framework adjusts to changes in the level of demand per person / per consumer / spending per person.

    If everything did that then all prices, costs, and values would rise at least to some extent proportionately to any such index that you care to invent.

    For example, housing finance costs would, at least at the entry level, rise slowly much like rentals do and house prices would follow suit.

    Bond maturity values would also adjust more or less proportionately. Pension funds, reserves and savings, likewise. In practice housing finance costs are far too low when interest rates are low and far too high when interest rates are high. I hear the sound of crashing banks and evicted home owners. In practice Bond maturity values are fixed and cannot adjust at all. The result is total chaos in that market which is what we are expecting now as interest rates are set to rise.

    For another example, central banks manage interest rates. Interest rates get distorted by central banks. They are using the wrong instrument.and targeting prices instead of demand per person per consumer. If they allowed all prices, costs, and values to adjust properly by creating the right financial framework then prices, costs, and values would do the adjusting for them, keeping everything balanced…and that is just some of their wrong-doings. Hence we, my research group, are now having some interesting discussions with some central bank seniors.

  2. Apologies for some copying errors:

    I wrote:

    “Central banks are charged with creating financial stability. They do the opposite.automatically stable through pricing adjustments. Bond prices and costs cannot adjust. …”

    This should read:
    “Central banks are charged with creating financial stability. They do the opposite. A financially stable framework should.automatically create financial stability through enabling correct pricing adjustments. Bond prices and costs cannot adjust….”

  3. says: MrVeryAngry

    I am at the front end of this. I own a retail financial advice business. All, and I mean all, of our older clients trying to live off their savings are suffering this, and I explain it them time and time again. You’d think they’d get really angry wouldn’t you, but no. Fatalistic is how I would describe their attitude. And powerless.

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