Why I Was Wrong About Inflation

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Back in 2007, I was much more interested in finance and trading than I was in macroeconomics. When the crisis — and the government’s macroeconomic response to the crisis — began in 2008 what was really needed to get a strong grasp of the situation was an understanding of macroeconomics, which I did not have as it was a topic I only really began studying in depth at that time. This led to some misconceptions, particularly about inflation. I mistakenly assumed — as did many at the time, and as do many today — that the huge expansion of the monetary base would lead to stronger inflation than the timid and low inflation we have seen in years since the programs began. While I strongly doubted the claims of individuals like Peter Schiff that hyperinflation might be nigh — as I understood that most historical hyperinflations occurred due to a collapse in production, not solely due to money printing — I thought a strong inflationary snapback was likely, Why? A mixture of real effects and expectations. If central banks are printing money at a higher rate, people will fear that money is becoming less scarce. If having more money in circulation does not begin to bid prices upward, producers will soon begin to raise prices to anticipate any such rise. Simply, I thought that central banks couldn’t print their way out of disaster without some iatrogenic side-effects. I assumed the oncoming pain was unavoidable, and that the onset of inflation was the price that would be paid. As Ludwig von Mises put it: “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”

So why did that not occur? After all, plenty of internet goldbugs — and very serious people following the advice of people like John Taylor, Eugene Fama, and Niall Ferguson — were talking about the potential for a strong inflationary shock. The gold price was soaring — hitting a peak above $1900 an ounce in September 2011 — as people anticipating inflation sought to buy insurance against it. Well, for a start it seems like the public did not really buy into the notion of an oncoming inflationary shock. Expected inflation as measured by the University of Michigan has remained very close to the post-1980 norm since the crisis:

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But above and beyond this, the real monetary effects were not the ones I first assumed them to be. The total money supply — most of which is generated not by the Fed but in the private sector through lending — has been stagnant, even while the Federal Reserve is expanding the monetary base. So while the financial sector is flush with cash and has bid the stock market up above its pre-recession nominal peak, other goods in other sectors just have not had enough of a bid behind them to send inflation strongly upward because other areas of the economy (for instance housing, consumer electronics and real wages) have continued to deflate in the context of continued deleveraging, accelerating offshoring driving down wages and the receding effects of the 2008 oil shock.

Yet even more importantly the supply of goods in the West — flowing as it does from East to West, from the factories of the Orient to the consumers of the West — has remained strong and stable. There has been no destabilising, chaotic Chinese crash or revolution, even though many wished there would be in the wake of the Arab spring. And for all the talk by the Chinese and Russians of bond vigilantism, starting a new global reserve currency and dumping the dollar, that has not happened either. And why would it? Certainly, the Asian bond-buyers might have suffered a few years of negative real interest rates. This might have pissed them off. But undermining the Western recoveries further (which have been quite pathetic thus far) when such a high proportion of their assets — dollars and treasuries and increasingly real assets like land and industrials — are related to the economic performance of the West would be to cut off their nose to spite their face, while simultaneously risking conflict with the American military, whose capabilities remain unmatched. The Chinese and Russian talk of de-Americanisation and a post-American world is all bluff and bluster, all sound and fury signifying very little. In the long run, America will have to accept a world where it is no longer the sole global superpower, but there is no incentive for America’s competitors to hasten that way with the kind of aggressive economic warfare that might cause an economic shock.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that much of the new money entering the system is sitting as excess reserves. Is that a symptom of the inflation simply being delayed? Until the middle of last year I thought so. Now I very strongly doubt it. The existence of excess reserves in the system is not a symptom of stored-up future inflation, but a symptom of the weakness of the transmission mechanism for quantitative easing. Simply, the system is in a depression. The banking system is infected with a deep paranoia, and would prefer to sit on risk-free cash instead of lending money to businesses. If the money was lent out, there would be an increased level of economic and business activity. Therefore there is no guarantee of any additional inflation as the money is loaned out.

So I was wrong to worry that inflation could become an imminent problem. But I was wronger than this. The entire paradigm that I was basing these fears upon was flawed. Simply, I was ignoring real and present economic problems to worry about something that could theoretically become a problem in the future. Specifically, I was ignoring the real and present problem of involuntary unemployment to worry about non-existent inflation and non-existent Asian bond vigilantes. The involuntariness of unemployment is a very simple fact — there are not enough jobs for the number of jobseekers that exist, and there hasn’t been enough jobs since the crisis began. Currently there are just over three job seekers for every job. So unemployment and underemployment are not simply things that can be dismissed as a matter of workers becoming lazy, or preferring leisure to work. Mass unemployment has insidious and damaging social effects for individuals and communities — people who are out of work for a long time lose skills. For communities, crime rises, and health problems emerge. And there are 25 million Americans today who are either unemployed or underemployed as a practical matter it is not simply a case of sitting back and allowing the structure of production to adjust to the new economy. And worse, with unemployment high, spending and confidence remain depressed as the effects of high unemployment create a social malaise. This is a mass sickness — and in the past it has led to the rise of warmongering political figures like Hitler. So while it may be preferable for the private sector to be the leading job creator under ordinary conditions, while the private sector is engaging in heavy deleveraging this is impractical. Under such an eventuality the state is the only institution that can break the depressionary trend by creating paying jobs and fighting back against the depressionary tendency toward mass unemployment. Certainly, centralised bureaucracy can be a troublesome and distortionary thing. But there are many things — like mass unemployment and underemployment, and the social problems that that can bring — worse than centralised bureaucracy. And no — this kind of Keynesianism was not the problem in the 1970s.

By worrying over the potential for future inflation or future bond vigilantism due to monetary and fiscal stimulus, I was contributing to the problem of mass unemployment, first of all by not acknowledging the problem, and second by encouraging governments and individuals to worry about potential future problems instead of real-world problems today. As it happened, a tidal wave of evidence has washed these worries away. It is clear from the economic data that inflation is not a concern in a depressionary economy, just as Keynesian-Hicksians heuristics like IS/LM suggested.

Of course, if the depression ends of its own accord then inflation could become a problem again.  If the United States were to experience a strong unexpected spurt of growth sustained over a year or so, pushing unemployment significantly down and growth significantly up, inflation could rise appreciably. The Federal Reserve would have to quickly taper both its unconventional policies and probably begin to raise rates. Of course, that is rather unlikely in the present depressionary environment. But certainly, it is a small possibility. That would be the time for the Federal Reserve to start to worry about inflation. A strong negative energy shock — like the one experienced by the UK in 2010 and 2011 — could push inflation higher too, yet that would be a transitory factor in the context of the wider depressionary environment, and would most likely fall back of its own accord.

If the Fed was engaging in actual helicopter drops — the most direct transmission mechanism possible — there would likely be a stronger inflationary response than that which we have seen thus far. Yet ultimately, this might prove desirable. After all, if the private sectors of the entire Western world have a very large nominal debt load which they are struggling to deleverage, some stronger inflation would certainly begin to minimise that. Yes, that is redistribution from lender to borrower. No, creditors will not be happy about this. But in the end, creditors may find it easier to take an inflationary haircut than face twenty years of depressionary deleveraging as Japan has done. Although the West certainly does not have the same demographic troubles as Japan, such an outcome is possible unless people — governments, entrepreneurs, individuals, society — decide that unemployment and a lack of demand in the economy must be tackled, and do something about it. Then can we confidently expect to climb out of the lip of the deleveraging trap.

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2008 Again?

The so-called recovery is built on sand, and as stock markets climb and climb, and more traders and investors turn bullish, we come ever-closer to a new 2008-style collapse.

Markets have already gone far, far higher than many expected on a drift of reinflationary central bank liquidity. Yesterday the DJIA hit a new post-2007 high:

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The same day, it was revealed that the big Wall Street banks are gambling again with billions and billions of dollars of clients’ funds. Goldman Sachs are back to pre-crisis-style profits. Again and again — from the LIBOR scandal, to MF Global, to the London Whale, to Kweku Adoboli — the financial sector has illustrated that it has learned very little from 2008, and is still practising many of the same hyper-fragile ponzi finance practices that led to the subprime bubble and the 2008 collapse.

Soaring markets, and soaring speculation. Big finance using loopholes to speculate bigger and harder. Mainstream financial journalists becoming more and more complacent about the “recovery”.

We’ve been here before. Isn’t repeating the same behaviour and hoping for different results the very definition of insanity? 

I don’t know exactly how the next crash will occur — although there are many potential ignition spots including a severe trade or energy shock, or a Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown, or a natural disaster, or a new Western financial crisis.  I don’t know when the next crash will occur, or how high the markets will climb before it does (DJIA 36,000 maybe? That would be hilarious).

But I know that if markets and regulators continue to repeat the mistakes that led to 2008, we will be back in a similar or worse hole soon.

Of Wages and Robots

There is a popular meme going around, popularised by the likes of Tyler CowenPaul Krugman and Noah Smith that suggests that recent falls in worker compensation as a percentage of GDP is mostly due to the so-called “rise of the robots”:

For most of modern history, two-thirds of the income of most rich nations has gone to pay salaries and wages for people who work, while one-third has gone to pay dividends, capital gains, interest, rent, etc. to the people who own capital. This two-thirds/one-third division was so stable that people began to believe it would last forever. But in the past ten years, something has changed. Labor’s share of income has steadily declined, falling by several percentage points since 2000. It now sits at around 60% or lower. The fall of labor income, and the rise of capital income, has contributed to America’s growing inequality.

In past times, technological change always augmented the abilities of human beings. A worker with a machine saw was much more productive than a worker with a hand saw. The fears of “Luddites,” who tried to prevent the spread of technology out of fear of losing their jobs, proved unfounded. But that was then, and this is now. Recent technological advances in the area of computers and automation have begun to do some higher cognitive tasks – think of robots building cars, stocking groceries, doing your taxes.

Once human cognition is replaced, what else have we got? For the ultimate extreme example, imagine a robot that costs $5 to manufacture and can do everything you do, only better. You would be as obsolete as a horse.

Now, humans will never be completely replaced, like horses were. Horses have no property rights or reproductive rights, nor the intelligence to enter into contracts. There will always be something for humans to do for money. But it is quite possible that workers’ share of what society produces will continue to go down and down, as our economy becomes more and more capital-intensive.

So, does the rise of the robots really explain the stagnation of wages?

This is the picture for American workers, representing wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP:

WASCURGDP

It is certainly true that wages have fallen as a percentage of economic activity (and that corporate profits as a percentage of economic activity have risen — a favourite topic of mine).

But there are two variables to wages as a percentage of GDP. Nominal wages have actually risen, and continued to rise on a moderately steep trajectory:

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And average wages continue to climb nominally, too. What has actually happened to the wages-to-GDP ratio, is not that America’s wage bill has really fallen, but that wages have just not risen as fast as other sectors of GDP (rents, interest payments, capital gains, dividends, etc). It is not as if wages are collapsing as robots and automation (as well as other factors like job migration to the Far East) ravage the American workforce.

It is more accurate to say that there has been an outgrowth in economic activity that is not yielding wages beginning around the turn of the millennium, and coinciding with the new post-Gramm-Leach-Bliley landscape of mass financialisation and the derivatives and shadow banking megabubbles, as well the multi-trillion dollar military-industrial complex spending spree that coincided with the advent of the War on Terror. Perhaps, if we want to look at why the overwhelming majority of the new economic activity is not trickling down into wages, we should look less at robots, and more at the financial and regulatory landscape where Wall Street megabanks pay million-dollar fines for billion-dollar crimes? Perhaps we should look at a monetary policy that dumps new money solely into the financial sector and which has been shown empirically to enrich the richest few far faster than everyone else?

But let’s focus specifically on jobs. The problem with the view that this is mostly a technology shock is summed up beautifully in this tweet I received from Saifedean Ammous:

The Luddite notion that technology might render humans obsolete is as old as the wheel. And again and again, humans have found new ways to employ themselves in spite of the new technology making old professions obsolete. Agriculture was once the overwhelming mainstay of US employment. It is no more:

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This did not lead to a permanent depression and permanent and massive unemployment. True, it led to a difficult transition period, the Great Depression in the 1930s (similar in many ways, as Joe Stiglitz has pointed out, to the present day). But eventually (after a long and difficult depression) humans retrained and re-employed themselves in new avenues.

It is certainly possible that we are in a similar transition period today — manufacturing has largely been shipped overseas, and service jobs are being eliminated by improvements in efficiency and greater automation. Indeed, it may prove to be an even more difficult transition than that of the 1930s. Employment remains far below its pre-crisis peak:

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But that doesn’t mean that human beings (and their labour) are being rendered obsolete — they just need to find new employment niches in the economic landscape. As an early example, millions of people have begun to make a living online — creating content, writing code, building platforms, endorsing and advertising products, etc. As the information universe continues to grow and develop, such employment and business opportunities will probably continue to flower — just as new work opportunities (thankfully) replaced mass agriculture. Humans still have a vast array of useful attributes that cannot be automated — creativity, lateral thinking & innovation, interpersonal communication, opinions, emotions, and so on. Noah Smith’s example of a robot that “can do everything you can do” won’t exist in the foreseeable future (let alone at a cost of $5) — and any society that could master the level of technology necessary to produce such a thing would probably not need to work (at least in the sense we use the word today) at all. Until then, luckily, finding new niches is something that humans have proven very, very good at.

Wall Street vs Chimps

A friend sent me an interesting article debunking the widely-promulgated myth that traders are especially gifted creatures. Simply, other businesses make much more efficient returns on shareholder equity. Of the top ten DJIA stocks ranked by return-on-equity, only one — American Express — is in the sector of financial services:


But actually, the rabbit hole goes a little deeper.

From the Daily Mail:

They are paid a fortune for their ability to make complex decisions about where to invest millions of pounds every single day.

But perhaps the job of an investment banker is not quite as difficult as it might seem.

A chimpanzee in Russia has out-performed 94 per cent of the country’s investment funds with her portfolio growing by three times in the last year.

Moscow TV reported how circus chimp Lusha chose eight companies from a possible 30 to invest her one million roubles – around £21,000.

I think this brings us to a (rather obvious) hidden truth.

Human beings are generally very good — vastly better than any chimpanzee — at creating value, producing things, bringing ideas to life. That’s why the most efficient companies on the DJIA — even over long periods — are all industrials.

Human beings are generally very bad — no better than any random stochastic process, like a chimpanzee throwing darts — at predicting the future in non-linear domains like currency rates and stock prices.

The fact that our predictive industries keep requiring taxpayer bailouts seems to confirm this.