But the gains aren’t trickling down to the majority of Americans.
Brower claims his actions are a product of his frustration over the existence of homelessness in his district, telling Hawaii News Now, “I got tired of telling people I’m trying to pass laws. I want to do something practical that will really clean up the streets.”
Brower also wakes those he finds sleeping and tell them to sleep somewhere else. “If someone is sleeping at night on the bus stop, I don’t do anything, but if they are sleeping during the day, I’ll walk up and say, ‘Get your ass moving,’” he said.
In October, London real estate asking prices jumped 10%. In my view is kind of parabolic-looking jump has developed out of quite a silly situation, and one I think is a good exhibit of just how irrational and weird markets can sometimes be. London real estate prices have been rising strongly for a long while, and a large quantity — over half for houses above £1 million — of the demand for London real estate is coming from overseas buyers most of whom are buying for investment purposes. It is comprehensible that London is a desirable place to live, and that demand for housing in London might be higher than elsewhere in the UK. It is a diverse and rich place culturally and socially, boasting a huge variety of shopping, parks, art galleries, creative communities, restaurants, monuments and landmarks, theatres and venues, financial service providers, lawyers, think tanks, technology startups, universities, scientific institutions, sports clubs and infrastructure. Britain’s legal framework and its straightforward tax structure for wealthy foreign residents has proven highly attractive to the global super rich. With London real estate proving perennially popular, and with the global low-interest rate environment that has made borrowing for speculation cheap and easy, it is highly unsurprising that prices and rents have pushed upward and upward as the global super rich — alongside pension funds and hedge funds — sitting on large piles of cash have sought to achieve higher yields than cash or bonds by speculating in real estate. In some senses, London real estate (and real estate in other globally-desirable cities) has become a new reserve currency. And while this has occurred, price rises have proven increasingly cyclical as both London residents and speculators have sought to buy. The higher prices go, the more London residents become desperate to get their feet on the property ladder in fear they won’t ever be able to do so, and the more speculators are drawn in, seeing London real estate as an asset that just keeps going up and up.
Yet the bigger the bubble, the bigger the bust. And I think what we are seeing in London is a large psychological bubble, a mass delusion built on other delusions. Chief among these delusions is that real estate should be seen as a productive investment, as an implicit pension fund, or as a guaranteed source of real yield. While investors can look at real estate however they like, there is no getting away from the fact that real estate is a deteriorating asset. Sitting on a deteriorating asset and hoping for a real price gain — or even to preserve your purchasing power — is a speculation, not a productive investment. For commercial enterprises buying as a premises for business, or for residents buying as a place to live this is not in itself problematic. But as an investment this can be hugely problematic. It is just gambling on a deteriorating asset under the guise of buying a “safe” asset.
Of course, in the UK where housing has been treated by many successive governments as an investment, and as a haven for savings and pensions, real estate owners have done particularly well. Governments have been willing to prop up the market with liquidity via schemes like Help To Buy and via restrictive planning laws to rig the market to restrict supply. This may make investors feel particularly secure, but governments can be forced — not least by demographics — to swing in another direction. An important side-effect of continually rising prices and a restricted supply of housing is that many people will not be able to afford to buy a home. With the house prices-to-wages ratio sitting far above the long-term average, the next UK government will come under severe pressure within the next few years to allow — and probably subsidise — much more housebuilding to bring down housing costs for the population. The past-trend of government-protected gains may have inspired a false sense of security in investors.
But such a reversal of policy would not in itself crash the London real estate market. After all, London is a unique place in Britain, and the majority of the new housebuilding may take place away from London. More likely, the bubble will simply collapse under the weight of its own growth. Sooner or later, even with liquidity cheap and plentiful, the number of speculators seeking to cash out will exceed the number of speculators seeking to cash in, and confidence will dip. Sometimes, this simply equates to a small correction in the context of a large upward trend, but sometimes — especially when it can be negatively rationalised — it manifests into a deeper malaise.
When this occurs, one probable rationalisation is as follows. Domestically, many of the relatively low-income artists, designers, technologists, musicians, students, artisans, academics, service workers and professionals (etc) who make London London are priced out, then they will go and contribute to communities elsewhere where rents and housing costs are lower — Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Paris, Berlin, out into the sprawl of the home counties, and deeper into the English countryside, to places where a four bedroom house costs the same as a studio apartment in central London. Where once this would have been culturally, professionally and socially prohibitive, fast, ubiquitous internet allows for people to live a culturally and socially connected life without necessarily living in a big city like London. Internationally, other cheaper cities and jurisdictions will simply catch up with London in terms of amenities and desirability to the global super class. Competition for global capital is huge, and while London as an Old World metropolis has done well since 2008, it may suffer in the wake of renewed competition from newer, cheaper, faster-growing Eastern metropolises.
When the bubble begins to burst — something that I think could occur endogenously within the next five years, especially if the fast increases continue — speculators, and especially speculators who are heavily leveraged may face severe problems, resulting in a worsened liquidation and contraction, and possibly threatening the liquidity of heavily-invested lenders. As many people at the table are sitting on big gains, they may prove desperate to cash out. Just as many presently feel pressured to get in to avoid being priced out of London forever, a downward turn could be severely worsened as many who are heavily invested in the bubble and scared of losing gains on which they hoped to fund retirements (etc) feel pressured to get out. Such an accelerated liquidation could easily lead to another recession. While I doubt that London prices will fall below the UK average, prices may see a very sharp correction. The psychological bubble is composed of multiple fallacies — that housing is a safe place to put savings and not a speculation, that deteriorating real estate should yield higher returns than productive business investments, that the UK government will continue to protect real estate speculators, that large flows of capital from overseas speculators will continue into London. A bursting of any of these fallacies could begin to bring the whole thing into question, even in the context of continued provision of liquidity from the Bank of England.
Back in June, I correctly noted that it was severely unlikely that the Federal Reserve would taper its asset buying programs in September. I based this projection on the macroeconomic indicators on which the Federal Reserve bases its decisions — unemployment, and inflation. The Federal Reserve has a mandate from Congress to delivery a monetary policy that results in full employment, and low and stable inflation. With consumer price inflation significantly below the Fed’s self-imposed 2% goal, and with the rate of unemployment relatively high — currently well over 7% — I saw very little chance of the Fed effectively tightening by reducing his asset purchases.
There exists another school of thought that also correctly noted that the Fed would not taper. This other school, however, believes that the Fed cannot ever taper and that the Fed will destroy the dollar before it ceases its monetary activism. This view is summarised by the Misesian economist Pater Tanebrarum:
While it is true that the liquidation of malinvested capital would resume if the monetary heroin doses were to be reduced, the only alternative is to try to engender an ‘eternal boom’ by printing ever more money. This can only lead to an even worse ultimate outcome, in the very worst case a crack-up boom that destroys the entire monetary system.
So the Misesian view appears to be that the Fed won’t stop buying because doing so would result in a mass liquidation, and so the Fed will print all the way to hyperinflation.
Since talk of a taper began, rates certainly spiked as the market began to price in a taper. How far would an actual taper have pushed rates up? Well, it’s hard to say. But given that banks now have massive capital buffers in the form of excess reserves — as well as a guaranteed lender-of-last-resort resource at the Fed — it is hard to believe that an end to quantitative easing now would push us back into the depths of post-Lehman liquidation. Certainly, in the year preceding the announcement of QE Infinity — when unemployment was higher, and bank balance sheets frailer — there was no such fall back into liquidation. What a taper certainly would have amounted to is a relative tightening in monetary policy at a time when inflation is relatively low (sorry Shadowstats) and when unemployment is still relatively and stickily high. Whether or not we believe that monetary policy is effective in bringing down unemployment or igniting inflation, it is very clear that doing such a thing would be completely inconsistent with the Federal Reserve’s mandate and stated goals.
Generally, I find monetary policy as a means to control unemployment as rather Rube Goldberg-ish. Unemployment is much easier reduced through direct spending rather than trusting in the animal spirits of a depressed market to deliver such a thing, especially in the context of widespread deleveraging. But that does not mean that the Fed can never tighten again. While the depression ploughs on, the Fed will continue with or expand its current monetary policy measures. Whether or not these are effective, as Keynes noted, in the long run when the storm is over the ocean is flat. If by some luck — a technology shock, perhaps — there was an ignition of stronger growth, and unemployment began to fall significantly, the Fed would not just be able to tighten, it would have to to quell incipient inflationary pressure. Without luck and while the recovery remains feeble, it is true that it is hard to see the Fed tightening any time soon. Janet Yellen certainly believes that the Fed can do more to fight unemployment. This could certainly mean an increase in monetary activism. If she succeeds and the recovery strengthens and unemployment moves significantly downward, then Yellen will come under pressure to tighten sooner.
In the current depressionary environment, the hyperinflation that the Misesians yearn for and see the Fed pushing toward is incredibly unlikely. The deflationary forces in the economy are stunningly huge. Huge quantities of pseudo-money were created in the shadow banking system before 2008, which are now being extinguished. The Fed would have had to double its monetary stimulus simply to push the money supply up to its long-term trend line. Wage growth throughout the economy is very stagnant, and the flow of cheap consumer goods from the East continues. So Yellen has the scope to expand without fearing inflationary pressure. The main concerns for inflation in my view are entirely non-monetary — geopolitical shocks, and energy shocks. Yet with ongoing deleveraging, any such inflationary shocks may actually prove helpful by decreasing the real burden of the nominal debt. Tightening or tapering in response to such shocks would be quite futile.
Sooner or later, the Fed will feel that the unemployment picture has significantly improved. That could be at 5% or even 6% so long as the job creation rate is strongly growing. At that point — perhaps by 2015 — tapering can begin. Tapering may slow the recovery to some extent not least through expectations. And that may be a good thing, guarding against the outgrowth of bubbles.
Yet if another shock pushes unemployment up much further, then tapering will be off the table for a long time. Although Yellen will surely try, with the Fed already highly extended under such circumstances, the only effective option left for job creation will be fiscal policy.
In this post, I am not going to argue that the USA should not default because it will cause havoc in global financial markets. This — if the debt limit is not raised or abolished via a trillion dollar coin or other means by October the 17th — is a distinct possibility, but much has been said of this already. Nor am I going to argue that the United States Treasury will somehow manage to skirt defaulting via emergency austerity measures. This is possible too, though has also been discussed elsewhere.
I am going to argue that in the long run, whether the United States raises the debt ceiling or not, it is technically impossible for the United States to default. This simple fact is encoded in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution:
Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.
While bondholders may not get their money including interest immediately, the courts will rule in their favour when the matter comes to court. The Fourteenth Amendment is absolutely clear on that. Some credit default swaps may trigger (this depends, I think, on the wording of individual credit default swap contracts, which in itself may cause further confusion) but in the end bondholders will absolutely and assuredly get their money. This means that United States Treasuries remain low-risk assets. And that — even in the event of default — should keep interest rates on Treasury debt relatively low. There will be no crushing exit of the bond vigilantes — after all, why would they choose to crash a market they are already deeply invested in if they will sooner-or-later get paid? People, generally, who buy large quantities of US Treasuries are not sitting around and reading libertarian blogs pondering the issues of dollar debasement and the end of the dollar as the global reserve currency. The latter may be a real longer term issue, and I think in the next 50 years, perhaps even the next 20 years we will see more alternative reserve currencies emerge. But that is another story for another day.
In the medium term and the short term the thing that is keeping bond buyers buying bonds is the search for yield over cash. If you have billions of dollars in cash at your disposal as many investment managers and countries do, and your imperative is low-risk yield, government debt beats cash that yields nothing, it beats commodities speculation and stock market speculation, and it beats corporate bonds as corporations are not sovereigns. A guaranteed dollar-denominated yield, even a very low one is still very attractive to treasury buyers, even if some large treasury buyers like the Chinese government have made some bond-vigilante-like noises in the past few years. These have thus far proven to be hot air, even if I have in the past made the mistake of paying too much attention to such noises.
Personally, I wish to see the debt ceiling abolished entirely, either through the absurdity of trillion dollar coins (my original objection, that authorising a trillion dollar coin would look silly has been made entirely moot by the fact that the United States Congress already looks extremely silly due to the ongoing standoff) or otherwise. At the very least, the debt ceiling should be denominated in real economic activity, not an arbitrary number of dollars, and in setting such a ceiling it should be remembered that Great Britain successfully sustained and paid down a sovereign debt of over 250%. Higher sovereign debt levels for a rich, powerful country like the United States are not dangerous. It is — as we are seeing — destructive both to markets and to society that a sovereign can be reduced to gridlock and turmoil and confusion over such a simple thing as a spending or borrowing authorisation. The real dangers here are not overspending or running out money, but unnecessary forcible austerity imposed by lawmakers, sucking money and economic activity out of the economy, and creating chaos and confusion in markets. There are already many real problems in the US economy — millions of people unemployed, weak growth, lack of job creation, private debt overhang and slow, painful deleveraging. The last thing the US economy needs is an unnecessary crisis of uncertainty and confusion created by economic illiterates in Congress.
George Osborne just came out in favour of counter-cyclical policy — saving more in the boom, and spending more during a “rainy day”. This is consistent with John Maynard Keynes’ notion that “the time for austerity at the Treasury is the boom, not the slump”.
The thing is, George Osborne seems to believe that right now we are moving toward a boom and need to adopt the policies of the boom:
Chancellor George Osborne has said he wants the government to be running a surplus in the next Parliament and can get there without raising taxes.
He told the Conservative conference the public finances should be in the black when the economy was strong as insurance against a “rainy day”.
His comments were taken as suggesting more years of spending restraint.
Business welcomed the goal but Labour said Mr Osborne had missed targets before and could not be trusted.
The BBC News Channel’s chief political correspondent Norman Smith said Mr Osborne’s underlying message was that austerity would continue after the next election despite the return to growth.
If 7.8% unemployment and a smaller real economy than 5 years ago doesn’t constitute a rainy day, I’d like to know what does. To me, and to many economists this kind of thing doesn’t just constitute a rainy day, it constitutes a full blown great depression. Eventually, sooner or later, someday the economy will return to growth and full employment. With the right luck — technology breakthroughs and other exogenous shocks etc — that could be two or five years from now. The experience of Japan, however, who have endured a 20 year depression suggests that it could be much later rather than sooner.
The safer alternative is to use fiscal policy — as Osborne himself implies — during the rainy day to directly bring back full employment sooner, rather than later by engaging in infrastructure projects and the like. Even if a government hasn’t saved money during the boom, interest rates are so low during the slump that it is cheap to do so, even in the context of soaring national debt levels as is the case in Japan today.
Getting the economy to a point where the government can run a budget surplus, of course, is still a noble ambition. But Osborne has shown no awareness whatever of the steps that need to be taken to get to that position. Infrastructure and housing investment and a jobs program would be a start. So too would liberalising planning laws and lending to and deregulating business startups so that more houses can get built and more businesses can get started. For now, Osborne is preaching responsibility while doing something deeply irresponsible — prolonging a depression with unnecessary demand-sucking job-killing austerity. The boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity at the Treasury and this (for the love of God) is not the boom.
The mainstream coverage of the debt ceiling standoff and the prospect of government shutdown and how that thing is seen by the people who might precipitate it is predicated upon a fundamental misunderstanding. To the Tea Partiers and Grover Norquist-Ted Cruz-Rand Paul wing of the Republican Party, a government shutdown is seen less as a potential disaster in which markets and society are sent into turmoil, and more as a potential wonderland of enforced austerity where with the government handcuffed, the creative forces of the free market are finally unleashed.
Looking for a reason to support a government shutdown? If so, please consider Obama Stripped to Skeleton Staff in a Government Shutdown.
Mish points to the austerity measures the government would be put under:
A U.S. government shutdown means President Barack Obama will have fewer people to cook meals, do the laundry, clean the floors or change the light bulbs, according to a White House contingency plan.
About three-fourths of president’s 1,701-person staff would be sent home. The national security team would be cut back, fewer economists would be tracking the economy and there wouldn’t be as many budget officials to track spending.
Of the total, 438 people work directly for the president. Under a shutdown, 129 could continue working, according to the contingency plan.
Biden, who has a staff of 24, would have had to make do with 12.
Obama’s national security staff of 66 would be cut to 42. Similar staff cuts would be imposed at the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Council on Environmental Quality, the Council of Economic Advisers and the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which are all part of the president’s executive office.
If you think that a government shutdown is a fantastic idea (I sure do), then please contact your elected representatives and let them know.
But there are at least two other factors beyond simply wanting less government that may make a government shutdown and debt default attractive to the Tea Party wing.
The first of which is that the austerian worldview exemplified by the Wall Street Journal editorial page — in which large-scale deficit spending was expected to precipitate soaring interest rates and inflation — has largely been proven wrong by events. Interest rates and inflation have remained low. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party now has an opportunity to try to make their initially wrong predictions come true by throwing the United States into default on its debt, and sending a message to markets and international investors that the US government and US Treasury debt is not a safe asset. Whether or not a government shutdown would actually result in a debt default (the Treasury would under such an eventuality likely prioritise debt service), and whether this would actually lift interest rates significantly are other matters, but shutting down the government and defaulting on the debt would certainly enforce austerity which is what the Republicans and especially the Tea Party wing want.
The second — and perhaps the greater factor — is the desire to prevent Obamacare taking effect. Now, I am not convinced that Obamacare can bring down healthcare costs as much as a Canadian-style or European-style system. Obamacare is certainly not an ideal system, although its earlier implementation in Massachusetts does appear to be fairly successful . But it does bring the United States much closer to something approaching universal coverage. With the message of the last Republican election campaign being that 47% of the population (the “takers”) is mooching off 53% of the population (the “makers”), Obamacare is seen by the Tea Party wing and probably the Republicans in general as the last turning point on the road to socialism. And avoiding the implementation of Obamacare is something that, I think, the Republican Party and especially the Tea Party wing will go all out to do.
Now, how far the Republicans are willing to go down this road remains to be seen. The more moderate wing may be willing to settle for a deal that avoids government shutdown in return for increasing the pace of austerity. But the impending implementation of Obamacare, and the general attraction of a government shutdown will strengthen the will of the Tea Party wing to not negotiate.
Personally, while I do think we are in the long run headed toward a world of increased decentralisation and a lesser state role (primarily as the result of technology), I don’t think a government shutdown will do anything to advance the cause of human liberty. In fact, I think a longer-term shutdown would probably end in civil unrest — a lot of people are dependent on government spending for income — and market turmoil (not least because markets seem to have priced in an easy resolution to the standoff). So the standoff will almost certainly end in a deal permitting a debt ceiling increase. How much carnage will occur before then remains to be seen.
The UK economy is “turning a corner”, Chancellor George Osborne has said in a speech in London.
Mr Osborne cited “tentative signs of a balanced, broad based and sustainable recovery”, but stressed it was still the “early stages” and “plenty of risks” remained.
Mr Osborne said that recent months – which have seen more upbeat reports on the economy – had “decisively ended” questions about his economic policy.
At this point, I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about. He appears to be inhabiting a parallel universe, one entirely separated from the reality which has seen sustained unemployment about 8% for the last 5 years — that’s 2.51 million people out of work who are looking for work — and a slump worse than the one Britain experienced in the Great Depression:
A tiny uptick after a huge and long depression is barely anything to celebrate. It is a probabilistic certainty that after falling off a cliff and lying prone on the ground awhile, things will one day sooner or later tick upward. Five years later is much later than sooner, and we’re not even back to the level of activity that existed in 2008. It could be eight or ten years at current growth levels after the initial events of 2008 that we make it back to that level of activity. And there is no sign that unemployment will begin coming down any time soon. In the long run, the sea will once again be calm and flat but no-one knows how long away the long run will be.
You cannot cut your way to growth. You do not stimulate growth by taking money and economic activity out of the economy. That is the manner in which you instigate depression. Supplies of capital and labour are both extremely slack — this is illustrated by the extremely low level of interest rates, and the high level of unemployment. Eventually the excesses of capital and labour will be used up, and the economy will return to full-employment and growth. But eventually could be a very long time. Waiting around when capital is available at the lowest interest rates in history and while unemployment continues to number in the millions is extremely dangerous and fragilising. Maybe the uptick will continue, and we will return to 2008 levels of activity by 2016 or 2018. Yet we would still have had a lost decade, one that probably could have been avoided had we not embarked on austerity in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it is possible that things may get worse, not better.
If I had been the politician who presided over this disaster, I would have resigned and hid myself away behind a rock. And it’s not just Osborne’s failure. The British media and other political parties have mostly failed to hold Osborne’s disastrous austerity policies to account. The fact that this depression has been a greater slump than the Great Depression is not the talking point that it ought to be. Perhaps that is because all the major political parties bear some responsibility, as Labour oversaw the start of the slump from 2008 to 2010, and the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have overseen the continuation of the slump from 2010 to 2013. Whatever the reason, it is dreadful, and individuals from all sections of society continue to suffer for this disastrous mismanagement.
I don’t know which side of the Syrian Civil War used chemical weapons most recently. Both sides have access to them, to different degrees, as the rebels have taken over a number of former Syrian army bases. There have been accusations that the rebels have used them in the past. Certainly, if Bashar al-Assad’s regime is to survive, the last thing he would do is try to bring the United States and Britain into the war, and the first thing that would do that is the use of chemical weapons. On the other hand, the first thing the rebels — who have been largely outgunned recently by the Syrian government — want is Libyan-style direct US and British assistance. Is it possible that the rebels hit a target with chemical weapons and blamed it on the Syrian government? I’d say it is possible — especially given the history of some rebel groups trying to kill foreign media with the same aim — but really there is no clear evidence for precisely who is responsible.
And I don’t know which side of the Syrian Civil War shot at the UN inspectors who visited the chemical weapons attack site. It could conceivably have been the government, or the rebels, or a crazed individual. Again, the rebels have an incentive to inflame the situation to draw in the United States and Britain, but there is no clear evidence.
Yet it seems that the United States is ready to go to war to remove Assad from power. I don’t think this is a good idea. In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, well, Syria has already experienced a massive and deadly civil war. Huge amounts of damage has been done to Syria’s infrastructure, economy and human population. Could a US-led intervention reduce future, greater damage? I have no idea; there is little scientific basis to make such a judgment. But going by the past examples of US occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, I sincerely doubt it. Having US forces on the ground simply unifies and radicalises the opposition like al-Qaeda and deposed elements of the government. The US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan was correlated with more destruction and upheaval than under the prior regimes. While a ground-based or mostly air-based US intervention might bring the civil war to a swifter close, it might lead to greater turbulence and upheaval and terrorism after the war ends. And on the other hand, if things go wrong — like if Iran or Russia and even greater concentrations of radical Muslim fighters are also sucked into the conflict — the outcome could be far longer and deadlier than if the Syrian civil war ran its own course.
The best hope, in my view, remains that the international community devote the resources they might otherwise devote to bombing the Assad regime to helping the millions of refugees who have been displaced and harmed in the course of the war, and to brokering negotiations between the Syrian government and the rebels without preconditions. In these respects, the international community can be an undoubted help to the Syrian people.
But in reality, it seems that the old doctrines of so-called liberal intervention have returned, reborn in the rhetoric and policies of Barack Obama and David Cameron — two individuals who have both at times expressed scepticism toward notions of liberal interventionism in word, but not so much in deed. In my view, killing for peace is an impossible contradiction except in self-defense. While liberal interventionists like Samantha Power are right to believe that the West dramatically failed the people of Rwanda during the genocide, it was not sufficient military interventionism that was missing but sufficient humanitarian intervention. With 1.5 million refugees already displaced in the civil war — a figure that is sure to increase with US-led military intervention and regime change — Syria is shaping up to be a humanitarian disaster too.
President Barack Obama, who took office amid the collapse of the last financial bubble, wants to make sure his economic recovery doesn’t generate the next one.
Obama this month spoke four times in five days of the need to avoid what he called “artificial bubbles,” even in an economy that’s growing at just a 1.7 percent rate and where employment and factory usage remain below pre-recession highs.
“We have to turn the page on the bubble-and-bust mentality that created this mess,” he said in his Aug. 10 weekly radio address.
In the long run, this goal — of avoiding inflating economic bubbles that change the structure of production both as they inflate and deflate — is laudable. The best manner in which to achieve it is through the teaching and discussion of history. A key qualitative factor in most bubbles seems to be the forgetting of history, the sense that this time is different, the sense that we may have reached a new stable plateau upon which asset prices can only rise. With the rise and popularisation of notions like the Great Moderation or the end of speculation, investors put down their guard and increasingly engage in riskier behaviours, like flipping condominiums, or buying stocks with leverage. The bubble is a mentality — risks will remain at bay, sentiment will remain high, externalities won’t disrupt activity. This is fine if the risks that investors have begun to ignore never materialise, so not every asset that soars in price is a bubble. Many asset classes including treasuries and junk bonds today are at record high prices, but the Fed is determined to do whatever it takes, and so sentiment has held in spite of naysayers like Marc Faber and Peter Schiff talking of the inevitability of a crash since the recovery began in 2009. The risks have so far remained at bay. But very often the risks that are assumed to have gone away reappear, and all it takes for the market to go into freefall is for sentiment to turn and investors to start selling. Asset valuation is not a question of fundamentals. It is a question of abstractions away from fundamentals. As John Maynard Keynes noted:
[Investing] is not a case of choosing those [faces] that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.
What this means, as Minsky noted, is that avoiding the possibility of economic bubbles is really, really difficult (if not impossible by definition). Each stabiliser leaned upon to stabilise markets becomes another assumption lulling investors into assuming that this time is different and thus into riskier behaviours. Keynes and Minsky both recommended fiscal policy as the stabilisation lever, but fiscalism has become unfashionable and politically challenging.
Obama’s chosen mechanism for avoiding bubbles is decreasing income inequality. In fact he sees income inequality and economic bubbles as being intimately connected:
Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits, nearly all the income gains of the past 10 years have continued to flow to the top 1 percent. The average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40 percent since 2009. The average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. … This growing inequality not just of result, inequality of opportunity – this growing inequality is not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics.
Because when middle-class families have less to spend, guess what, businesses have fewer consumers. When wealth concentrates at the very top, it can inflate unstable bubbles that threaten the economy. When the rungs on the ladder of opportunity grow farther and farther apart, it undermines the very essence of America – that idea that if you work hard you can make it here.
It’s not sustainable to have an economy where the incomes of the top 1 percent has skyrocketed while the typical working household has seen their incomes decline by nearly $2,000. That’s just not a sustainable model for long-term prosperity.
This is all true. But it’s also all rhetoric. In his nearly five years in office, Obama has totally failed to get income inequality under control. According to Pew Research, since Obama came to office:
Mean net worth of households in the upper 7% of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%
Research from the Bank of England shows that the main transmission mechanism used by central banks — specifically, reinflating asset prices — disproportionately favours the richest in society; those who already have assets whose prices can be lifted. The policies that Obama and Bernanke have pursued for the past 5 years have been tilted toward assisting the wealthy. The recovery has been a recovery from and for the top, while the poor have continued to experience greater social fragmentation, weakened social programs, and long-term unemployment. This has all been cemented by Obama’s own policies.
So while avoiding asset bubbles and reducing income inequality are laudable goals it is highly questionable that Obama — who has embraced an austerity agenda — will come close to achieving either.
UPDATE: Miles Kimball on Twitter points me toward Anat Admati’s suggestion of implementing bank capital requirements to make bubbles less damaging. This is a very fair suggestion, because it is a stabiliser that does not lean on the idea of eliminating bubbles, but the idea of limiting their impact. Obviously, rules can be gamed, but if implemented properly it could systematically limit the size of bubbles, by cutting off the fuel of leverage.