Is the rent really too damn high?

new study from Harvard University shows that in the last thirty years, rents have risen and the income of renters has fallen:

[America’s Rental Housing]

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Permanent Employment Stagnation?

Paul Krugman says that we may have reached a “depressed equilibrium” that unemployment may remain elevated for a long, long time to come:

We had what felt like an epic intellectual debate over austerity economics, which ended, insofar as such debates ever end, with a stunning victory for the anti-austerity side — and hardly anything changed in the real world. Meanwhile, the pain caucus has found a new target, inventing dubious reasons for monetary tightening. And mass unemployment goes on.

So how does this end? Here’s a depressing thought: maybe it doesn’t.

True, something could come along — a new technology that induces lots of investment, a war, or maybe just a sufficient accumulation of “use, decay, and obsolescence”, as Keynes put it. But at this point I have real doubts about whether there will be events that force policy action.

First of all, I think many of us used to believe that sustained high unemployment would lead to substantial, perhaps accelerating deflation — and that this would push policymakers into doing something forceful. It’s now clear, however, that the relationship between inflation and unemployment flattens out at low inflation rates.

Last week, I wrote a piece arguing much the same thing:

It is also possible that we have reached what John Maynard Keynes called a “depressed equilibrium” where capital continues to be hoarded and not used to raise employment levels back to the pre-crash norm, and grow the economy out of the slump. With a private sector awash in debt and refusing to take on more to act as a source of growth, the only other agency with the ability to borrow and spend the economy back to growth is the government.

As the rate of technological growth accelerates, the chances of a technology shock that greatly increases investment seems to rise. New technologies coming onto the market in the coming years — lower-cost photovoltaic solar, 3-D printing, synthetic fossil fuels and more exotic things like asteroid mining — have a lot of potential to create a lot of demand. Yet, just as advanced manufacturing technologies have done in the past, they may end up destroying more jobs than they create. This could further accelerate the big post-2008 redistribution trend — falling wage and salary incomes and rising corporate profits as a percentage of GDP:

This general trend toward the obsolescence of labour is worrying. With less and less demand for labour in the economy due to things like robots, computerisation and job migration we could see more and more people sitting around doing nothing and collecting unemployment cheques. Perhaps this is the accidental fulfilment of the leisure society that Keynes envisaged. As humanity has gotten better at fulfilling our material needs, it takes less labour to do so. The unemployed are caught between a rock and a hard place; social and governmental expectations that able-bodied people should work, up against the economic reality that the demand for labour just doesn’t exist.

Without a technology shock or other exogenous shock, there may be another route out of the depressed equilibrium, and mass unemployment. I am not entirely convinced by Krugman’s argument that high unemployment won’t produce systemic price deflation. With core inflation at its lowest point in history in the United States and falling it does appear possible that the deflationary trend is beginning to accelerate even as headline unemployment gradually creeps down. This has after all been the norm in Japan for the last twenty years. With accelerating deflation, it seems much likelier that we will see both monetary and fiscal policy throwing money at lowering unemployment. But in the long run, if the trend toward the obsolescence of labour continues, this may only buy some temporary respite for the unemployed. In the long run, individuals, governments and society may have to adjust attitudes toward work and employment and adapt to a new normal encompassing less work, and more leisure.

The “Unemployment Is Voluntary” Myth

Loyd S. Pettegrew and Carol A. Vance of the Ludwig von Mises Institute ask and answer a question:

Why does a large portion of the population choose not to work when there are many jobs available? The answer is simple. If you can receive 2-3 times as much money from unemployment, disability, and/or welfare benefits (subsidized housing, food stamps, free cellphones, etc.) as you can from a temporary or part-time job, and live a life of leisure, why work? In 2011, the U.S. government spent over $800 billion on this “welfare,” exceeding expenditures on Social Security or Medicare.

So, is it true? Is the reason why unemployment is elevated that millions of Americans are choosing not to work because of cushy government welfare provisions?

After all, welfare payments as a percentage of GDP and unemployment have risen in tandem:

U6vswelfare

However, in this case it is clear that correlation is not causation. Why?

Well, if labour was truly slacking off then we would expect to see a shortage of labour. But instead we see an elevated level of applicants per job openings:

dr-7-people-in-pool-job-ope

This means that there are not enough job openings in the economy even for the number of current jobseekers, let alone the discouraged workers and disabled individuals who are claiming welfare. If the Federal government were to throw them all off welfare, the number of jobseekers per opening — already elevated — would soar. This means that the issue causing unemployment is not individuals dropping out of the labour force, but an economy that isn’t creating jobs very rapidly. So welfare is not acting as a disincentive to work, in this case. It is acting as supplementary income for those who cannot otherwise find an opening in the economy due to factors like job migration and automation reducing the level of labour desired by employers.

Under other conditions, it is possible that welfare payments could act as a disincentive to work. If there were a low number of applicants per opening, then welfare that paid better than the lowest-paid jobs available could be seen as a disincentive to work. But now, with job openings at a very low level? Don’t be ridiculous.

Chinese Treasury Contradictions…

One mistake I may have made in the two years I have been writing publicly is taking the rhetoric of the Chinese and Russian governments a little too seriously, particularly over their relationship with the United States and the dollar.

Back in 2011, both China and Russia made a lot of noise about dumping US debt, or at least investing a lot less in it. Vladimir Putin said:

They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy. They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar. If [in America] there is a systemic malfunction, this will affect everyone. Countries like Russia and China hold a significant part of their reserves in American securities. There should be other reserve currencies.

And China were vocally critical too:

China, the largest foreign investor in US government securities, joined Russia in criticising American policymakers for failing to ensure borrowing is reined in after a stopgap deal to raise the nation’s debt limit.

People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan said China‘s central bank would monitor US efforts to tackle its debt, and state-run Xinhua News Agency blasted what it called the “madcap” brinkmanship of American lawmakers.

But just this month — almost two years after China blasted America for failing to cut debt levels — China’s Treasury holdings hit a record level of  $1.223 trillion.  And Russian treasury holdings are $20 billion higher than they were in 2012. So all of those protestations, it seems, were a lot of hot air. While it is true that various growing industrial powers are setting up alternative reserve currency systems, China and Russia aren’t ready to dump the dollar system anytime soon.

Now, the Federal Reserve has to some degree further enticed China into buying treasuries by giving them direct access to the Treasury auctions, allowing them to cut out the Wall Street middlemen. Maybe if that hadn’t happened, Chinese Treasury ownership would be lower.

But ultimately, the present system is very favourable for the BRICs, who have been able to build up massive manufacturing and infrastructural bases as a means to satisfy American and Western demand. In that sense, the post-Bretton Woods globalisation has been as much a free lunch for the developing world as it has been for anyone else. And why would China and Russia want to rock the boat by engaging in things like mass Treasury dumpings, trade war or proxy wars? They are slowly and gradually gaining on the West, without having to engage in war or trade war. As I noted in 2011:

I believe that the current world order suits China very much — their manufacturing exporters (and resource importers) get the stability of the mega-importing Americans spending mega-dollars on a military budget that maintains global stability. Global instability would mean everyone would pay more for imports, due to heightened insurance costs and other overheads.

Of course, a panic in the Chinese mainland — maybe a financial crash, or the bursting of the Chinese property bubble — might result in China’s government doing something rash.

But until then it is unlikely we will see the Eurasian holders of Treasuries engaging in much liquidation anytime soon — however much their leaders complain about American fiscal and monetary policy. Actions speak louder than words.

Is Bitcoin A Bubble?

One key hallmark of Bitcoin’s price rise from the beginning of 2013 to now, where it has just crept above $240 a coin — up $100 a coin from the last time I wrote about Bitcoin — has been the oft-repeated mantra that Bitcoin is in a speculative bubble, and its price may be due to imminently collapse. This has spawned article after article after article after article — people were calling Bitcoin a bubble at $30 a coin, at $60 a coin — yet the price keeps climbing (and those who were discouraged from investing at lower prices missed out on spectacular gains). It is certain that at some stage the sellers will outnumber the bidders and the price will fall or crash. But when?

I ended my last article on Bitcoin joking that Bitcoin had a much better chance of being part of the monetary future than Groupon did being part of the future of commerce, and that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bitcoin at some stage trading at Groupon’s record market cap — enough to price Bitcoin at $2,000 a coin. But this was a joke. Bitcoin and Groupon are fundamentally different investments; Bitcoin is an experimental deflationary crypto-currency instrument and anonymous payments system, while Groupon is the equity in an experimental company. That means Bitcoin is a whole new asset class. And not a fantasy asset class, but one that is rapidly permeating the spheres of human consciousness, an idea that is replicating and multiplying at a rate far beyond its original audience of crypto-anarchists, heterodox monetary theorists, and black marketeers.

I don’t really see Bitcoin (and its crypto-currency siblings) facilitating trade a great deal in the future (although, its deflationary-nature might make it attractive to merchants who wish to hoard it). During Bitcoin’s recent run (or more accurately, hyper-deflation) Bitcoin’s velocity has actually fallen sharply as its rising value has encouraged hoarding. Gresham’s Law implies that whenever possible Bitcoin’s deflationary nature will subordinate it to fiat currency for transactions. State-backed currencies tend to depreciate year-on-year, encouraging spending and discouraging saving. That is treated by central bankers as an imperative of monetary policy. Yet Bitcoin’s deflationary nature encourages the opposite, implying that Bitcoin is not a threat to state-backed fiat but a complementary currency, an intangible, anonymous, global and infinitely mobile counterpart to tangibles like gold.

Gold remains a part of the global financial system, a savings instrument alongside its tiny role as an industrial metal and its larger role as jewellery. Credit-Suisse estimated that total global financial assets in 2012 were $223 trillion, of which gold makes up 0.6%, translating to a $1.338 trillion market cap for gold as a financial asset, (although a larger amount of gold — around $8 trillion total at current prices — exists in other forms like jewellery).

There are no fundamental ways to estimate the value of assets like gold or bitcoin, and their values are entirely in the eye of the beholder. But we know Bitcoin is presently vastly outperforming gold as a speculative savings vehicle, and in spite of the fundamental differences (particularly that one is tangible, and one is not) this may drive more and more investors — including institutional investors and funds looking to diversify into something slightly futuristic — into Bitcoin. If Bitcoin’s market cap were to rise to equal that of gold’s as a percentage of global GDP today, that would imply a price of $160,650 per Bitcoin, far, far higher than any price target I have yet seen. Even if Bitcoin were only to rise to 10% of gold’s market cap, that would imply a Bitcoin price of $16,065, still far higher than any price target I have seen. Even at 1% of gold’s market cap, Bitcoin would still fetch $1607 per coin, an almost-sevenfold increase over today’s price.

And gold is by no means a widely-held asset in today’s global financial system. If Bitcoin grew to 1% of the global financial system today each each coin would reach $267,600 in price.

These are, of course, fantasy figures based on back-of-an-envelope calculations, and should not be taken seriously. But what they show is that if the idea of Bitcoin continues to flourish — and if fund managers, and institutional investors begin to hunger for a slice of yield — then there is more than enough liquidity out there today to drive Bitcoin far, far higher.

On the other hand, if Bitcoin is outlawed worldwide by governments (perhaps due to concerns over money laundering and tax evasion) then of course any chance of it beginning to attract any such levels of interest are nil.  But the current government approach to Bitcoin so far appears to be one of attempted regulation rather than outright warfare.

At some stage Bitcoin may be supplanted by competitor crypto-currencies, but so far it is by far the most widely-adopted, and cryptography experts agree that its cryptography is sound, so there is no reason to assume that this may occur anytime soon. But judging by the birthrate and deathrate of social networks in recent years, a fast birthrate and deathrate for crypto-currencies is by no means out of the question. Technology is a fast-paced world where yesterday’s prize-pig is today’s turkey, and already there exist currencies built on similar technology to Bitcoin trading at much lower levels — Litecoin, Namecoin, Freicoin, PPCoin, Novacoin, etc. Whether these act as supplements or competitors remains to be seen, but it may be helpful to remember that while social networking sites today remain hugely popular, the early leaders in that field like MySpace and Friendster are nowhere to be seen. Is it possible that Bitcoin is the MySpace of decentralised crypto-currencies, and that the Facebook and Twitter are just around the corner? Yes — perhaps a platform with a more consumer-friendly interface than Bitcoin will come to dominate the field, making up a sizeable chunk of global financial assets, and Bitcoin itself will dwindle.  Certainly, the source code is available to larger organisations (Facebook? Google? Amazon? Banks?) who may wish to experiment with their own decentralised crypto-currency systems.

It is really hard to say what ultimately will occur, but Bitcoin does demonstrate the principle that anonymous, deflationary crypto-currency can be an attractive complementary proposition in a world where inflationary state-backed fiat currency has become the norm. I would caution that holders of Bitcoins — particularly those sitting on large long-term profits — should seek to diversify both into real-world assets like real estate, productive assets like farmland and factories, and index funds, as well as into new crypto-currencies as they emerge, particularly ones built with more consumer-friendly interfaces that may come to dominate the market. Bitcoin could easily end the year below its current price, but as Bitcoin grows in the public awareness this is decreasingly likely. In the long-term, a market cap target of 1% of gold’s market cap (currently, that would yield a price of $1607 per coin) seems viable, especially if larger players including institutions begin to experiment in the strange new world of crypto-currency.

Abenomics & Rooseveltian Resolve

The new Bank of Japan chief Haruhiko Kuroda today unveiled an aggressive new round of monetary easing, the latest step in the policy of recently-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As part of a promise to do “whatever it takes” to return Japan to growth, Kuroda promised a level of quantitative easing unseen before in Japan, intended to discourage saving and encourage spending. Kuroda promised to print 50 trillion yen ($520bn; £350bn) per year.That is the equivalent of almost 10% of Japan’s annual gross domestic product, and over double the level of what the Federal Reserve is currently experimenting with.

Many are hailing this as an attempt to put into practice the advice of Ben Bernanke to Japan in the 1990s — what Bernanke called “Rooseveltian resolve“. In fact, Ben Bernanke has provided a practical as well as a theoretical template through the unconventional policies adopted in the last five years by the Federal Reserve. Although some economic commentators believe that Shinzo Abe was more interested in reviving Japanese mercantilism and drive exports through a cheap currency, it is fairly clear that even if that is Abe’s ultimate intent, Abe is certainly harnessing Bernankean monetary policies (as well as Keynesian fiscal stimulus policies) in that pursuit.

So, will Abe’s policies return Japan to growth, as Bernanke might have intended?

Well, this diagnostic pathway sees deflation as the great central ill. The rising value of a currency acts as a disincentive to economic action and the encouragement of hoarding, because economic participants may tend to offset projects and purchases to get a greater bang for their buck. (This, of course, would be the great problem with Bitcoin becoming the sole currency as its inherent deflationary nature encourages inactivity and not activity, but that is a topic for another day). During deflation, delayed projects and subdued consumer spending are reflected in weak or nonexistent growth. More expected inflation encourages businesses and individuals to consume and start projects rather than save. At least, that’s the theory.

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. So in practice, what other effects are at play here?

First of all, the Japanese in general (or a substantial and influential proportion of them) seem to really dislike inflation. Why? Well, since the initial housing and stocks bubble burst in the 1990s, they have become a nation of capital accumulators with a low private debt level. This is at least partially a demographic phenomenon. Older people tend to have a much higher net worth than younger people who have had less time to amass capital, and they need places to park it — places like government and corporate debt. This has driven Japanese interest rates to the lowest in the world:

bernanke-exhibit-20130301a1

The other side of the coin here is that this has made it very easy, almost inevitable, for the government to run massive budget deficits and run up huge levels of debt (which has to be rolled). Higher inflation would mean that those elderly creditors (who have up until now voted-in politicians who have kept the deflationary status quo) will very likely experience a negative real interest rate. Many may find this a painful experience, having grown used to deflation (which ensures a positive real interest rate even at a very low nominal interest rate, as has been the case in Japan since the 1990s):

JapanRealInterestRate

Every time Japan’s real interest rate has touched zero, it has shot back up. Japan has an aversion to negative real interest rates, it seems. And this is in stark contrast to countries like the UK and USA which have experienced much lower real interest rates since the 2008 crisis. A negative real interest rate in Japan would be a shock to the system, and a huge change for Japan’s capital-rich elderly who have happily ridden out the deflationary years in Japanese government bonds. (Of course, if reversing deflation revived real GDP growth then they would have more places to park their capital — like lending to or purchasing equity in growing business — but the question is whether or not the Japanese people at large have an appetite for such a shift).

Another challenge to growth is the existence of Japan’s zombie corporations and banks — inefficient, uncompetitive entities kept alive by government subsidies. Although some zombie banks left on life-support from the 1990s were terminated during the Koizumi years, it is fairly clear from total factor productivity figures of both Japanese manufacturing productivity and non-manufacturing productivity are still very uncompetitive. How can a burst of spending as a result of inflation turn that around? Without removing the subsidies — something that Abe, as a leader of the establishment Liberal Democratic Party, the party that has ruled Japan for the overwhelming majority of the postwar years, and is deeply interwoven with the crony industries is very unlikely to do — it may prove very difficult to return Japan to growth. And of course, these industries own the bulk of Japanese debt, so attempts to reduce the real interest rate is likely to prove deeply unpopular with them, too. (On the other hand, Japanese banks will profit from these open-market operations through flipping bonds at a profit, so the new policies may have their supporters as well as opposers among Japan’s zombie financiers).

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bank of Japan’s new programs are doomed to fail, or that they are likely to trigger severely adverse outcomes, but if serious attempts are not made to tackle the systemic challenges and entrenched interests, then it is hard to see how much can come out of this other than a transitory inflationary and devaluationary blip followed by a retreat to more of what Japan has become used to, and what much of Japanese society seems to like — low growth, a strong yen, and low inflation or deflation. And if Abe’s gameplan is really to grow by boosting the exports of the crony industries, then hope of desubsidisation of the crony industries seems almost entirely lost.

Certainly, more fiscal stimulus will eat up slack capital resources. And certainly, this is an interesting experiment on the fringes of Monetarism and monetary policy in general. If Japan goes through with this experiment, hits its inflation target and triggers sustained nominal GDP growth this will be a decent empirical test of whether or not such policies can lead to sustained real GDP growth. But there is no guarantee that Japan has the Rooseveltian resolve to follow through with these policies, and even if it does there is no guarantee that they will lead to a significantly higher trend in real GDP growth. The underlying system is deeply entrenched.

As Soon As The First Nation Leaves, A Trickle Will Turn To A Cascade…

If enacting a levy on Cypriot depositors was a call for a bank run, then saying that the actions in Cyprus are a “template” for future recapitalisations in other Eurozone countries — as the Dutch Euro Group President Jeroen Djisselbloem did yesterday —  was screaming it from the rooftops awash in a demented stupour, drunk on bullshitty Smets-Wouters DSGE and the ridiculous notion that the Euro is sustainable.

Dijsselbloem

This question, I think, needs answering:

Dijsselbloem is yet to respond to the question, other than to say that his claim that it was a “template” did not in fact mean that he meant that it was a template. 

Tyler Durden jokes that the only conceivable reason for this could be an insane pseudo-Keynesian conspiracy to trick people and businesses holding cash to go out and spend or invest it, thus raising aggregate demand and generating recovery:

Last week, when we commented on the absolutely idiotic Eurogroup proposal (now voted down and replaced by an equally idiotic “bank resolution” proposal which will see uninsured deposits virtually wiped out) to tax uninsured and insured deposits, we jokingly suggested that this may be merely the latest ploy by the legacy status quo to achieve one simple thing: force depositors across the continent (and soon, world) to pull their money out of a malevolent, hostile banking system and push that money into stocks, or simply to spend it.

Given the utter folly of the levy itself and the subsequent comments, this might as well be as good an explanation as any. The easiest and quickest way to destroy the fractional financial system is to convince depositors around Europe or the world that their deposits are under threat. The European policy elite has displayed a slavish tendency to protect bondholders from losses, but not depositors upon whom the banking system is utterly dependent. If bondholders do not buy bonds, then it becomes harder for governments to finance themselves (although it must be noted that around the world, interest rates are at all-time-lows in every developed country with its own currency, suggesting a run on bonds by bond vigilantes is a relatively small possibility). But if depositors withdraw their money en mass, the banking system collapses.

I believe that this slavish devotion to preventing losses is fundamentally unhealthy, as capitalism without the potential for loss is robbed of any internal stabilisation mechanism. If bondholders or depositors cannot lose their money, they have no incentive to be prudent with it. But with the danger of a Eurozone bank run looming putting bondholders ahead of depositors is unhealthier still. Protecting government borrowing at the expense of confidence in the banking system is a dire error.

And it is not like there is really a hard choice between the interests of bondholders and depositors. If the European policy elite would deal with the huge social upheaval that the Euro system has created — namely, very high unemployment, youth unemployment and slack resources following the burst housing bubble in the periphery — then both depositors and bondholders could sleep easier at night. All this would take is a firm, long-term commitment from domestic and supernational governments to lending, tax incentives and spending to support business growth. A Europe that is growing, producing additional goods, services, energy and resources that people want and need will be far more stable than one that is shrinking and weakened (in both supply and demand) by forced and centrally-planned fiscal consolidation imposed by the policy elite. People want jobs, contrary to the assumptions of certain neoclassical economists who believe that all unemployment is voluntary. People want business, not to be subject to humiliation and subjugation to meet an arbitrary debt target set by delusional central planners actively weakening economic activity. And, the only way for peripheral nations to get this is through leaving the Euro, which may very well soon start to happen. And once it does, a trickle will turn to a cascade as the leavers begin to quickly recover from their Merkel-inflicted wounds.

In the long run, 25% unemployment in Spain and Greece (as well as elevated unemployment throughout the periphery) will come back to hurt the core, whether that is through weak demand for core-produced goods and services, social unrest, Eurozone-rupture, etc. And Dijsellbloem may yet see how foolish his template was.