Correction or Crisis?


After almost seven years of relative calm and stability, a stock market crash is finally upon us.

This is a very predictable crash stemming from a very widely known cause. Hundreds of analysts including myself — following the trail illuminated by Michael Pettis — have for a long time been banging on about a Chinese slowdown gathering an uncontrollable momentum, sending China into a panic, and infecting global markets.

What’s less clear yet is whether this is a correction or a crisis. My view is toward the latter, simply because confidence is fragile.  Once the animal spirits of the market turn negative, it takes a heck of a lot to soothe them. And the markets look increasingly spooked. The fear is rising. Last week I tweeted that I felt the risks of a new financial crisis are greater than ever.

The reasons why are simple: Western central banks have gone a bit nuts, and are trying to hike rates even though inflation is close to zero even after interest rates being at zero for seven years. And Western governments have gone a bit nuts (especially in the eurozone and Britain but also to a lesser extent in the United States) and are trying to encourage growth with austerity even though all the evidence illustrates that austerity is only a helpful policy in a booming economy, not in a slack one.

Those two factors weren’t too destructive in an economic situation where there was moderate economic growth. More like a minor brake on growth. Keep swimming forward, and sooner or later inflation will rear its head, and rates will have to be raised. But with a stock market crash and a growth downturn, and an unemployment spike, and deflation, things get very problematic very fast.

Let me explain how I think this plays out: interest rates are at zero. Inflation is almost at zero, and a stock market crash will only push that lower. Simply, this is the bottom falling out of the bottom. A crash here is like falling off the bicycle in spite of the Fed’s training wheels. Unconventional monetary policy has already been exhaustively tried, and central bank balance sheets are already heavily loaded with assets purchased in quantitative easing programs. Now the Fed’s balance sheet does not excessively concern me — central banks can print all the money they like to buy assets up to the point of excessive inflation. But will that be enough to reverse a new crash?

Personally, my doubts are growing. At the zero bound, I believe Keynes was right, and fiscal policy is the best answer. The post-2008 economic landscape has been defined by monetarists trying desperately to perfect new tools like quantitative easing to avoid outright debt-financed fiscal policy. But there have been problems upon problems with the transmission mechanisms. Central banks have succeeded at getting new money into the banking system. But the drip of that money into the real economy where it can do its good work and create growth, employment and prosperity has been slow and uneven. The recovery is real, but weak, even after all the trillions of QE. And it has left us vulnerable to a new downturn.

If the effects of the crash cannot be reversed with monetary policy, that leaves fiscal policy — that old, neglected, unpopular tool — to fight any breakouts of deflation or mass unemployment.

Or it leaves central banks to try really radical policies that emulate the directness of fiscal policy, like literally throwing money out of helicopters or OMFG.

The New Swedish Model?


The advocates of “austerity now!” are talking about Sweden.

Last year Fraser Nelson wrote in The Spectator:

When Europe’s finance ministers meet for a group photo, it’s easy to spot the rebel — Anders Borg has a ponytail and earring. What actually marks him out, though, is how he responded to the crash. While most countries in Europe borrowed massively, Borg did not. Since becoming Sweden’s finance minister, his mission has been to pare back government. His ‘stimulus’ was a permanent tax cut. To critics, this was fiscal lunacy — the so-called ‘punk tax cutting’ agenda. Borg, on the other hand, thought lunacy meant repeating the economics of the 1970s and expecting a different result.

Three years on, it’s pretty clear who was right. ‘Look at Spain, Portugal or the UK, whose governments were arguing for large temporary stimulus,’ he says. ‘Well, we can see that very little of the stimulus went to the economy. But they are stuck with the debt.’ Tax-cutting Sweden, by contrast, had the fastest growth in Europe last year, when it also celebrated the abolition of its deficit. The recovery started just in time for the 2010 Swedish election, in which the Conservatives were re-elected for the first time in history.

So, how is the Swedish economy doing?

Well, the good thing about assessing the Swedish economy is that Sweden remains monetarily sovereign, meaning that its economy is not dependent upon the monetary policy of a foreign agency like the ECB. This means that it can be fairly assessed side-by-side with other Western monetary sovereigns like Britain, America and Japan.

The thing that austerians are so excited about is that Sweden currently has low debt and is running balanced budgets:


But that hasn’t meant that unemployment has been low. In fact, right now it’s worse than American, British and Japanese unemployment:


And while Sweden’s low debt and balanced budgets may have resulted in low rates, its rates are not significantly lower than Britain and America, and are higher than Japan who carry the highest debt load of all:


But to be fair real GDP growth in Sweden since the crisis has been relatively decent — although notably still below its pre-2008 trend — beating the other three countries who all performed poorly:


I think that Sweden is benefiting less from its actions during the slump and more from its actions during the boom.

In my view, Sweden’s focus on bringing down deficits in the years from 2004 until the crisis in 2008 was very responsible and prudent. Sweden had no wasteful expansionary spending in the mid 2000s on things like occupying Iraq. It was not enacting expensive legislation like No Child Left Behind, Medicare D and unfunded tax cuts that bloated government budgets.

Coming into the crisis with a low debt-to-GDP ratio is very healthy because it gives the government additional fiscal space to cut taxes, and spend money on infrastructure, public goods and tax rebates to bring down the unemployment rate, which is the one aspect of the Swedish macroeconomy with significant room for improvement. An unemployment rate approaching 9% is undeniably unhealthy, and it is disappointing that the Swedish treasury with so much wiggle room is not doing more to assist the private sector in bringing down unemployment. And even though Sweden has had more growth than other Western countries, it has still not caught up with its pre-2008 growth trend.

Sweden’s unemployment woe illustrates that Sweden is not a paradigm of the supposed virtues of austerity in all seasons. Austerity in the slump just frees up resources while the economy is already suffering from a high degree of slack in resources — capital (high savings, low interest rates) and labour (high unemployment). Sweden illustrates this just as much as other Western nations.

The lesson we should take from Sweden is that a countercylical spending policy — less spending in the boom, more spending in the slump — is preferable.

Ding Dong the Coin Is Dead

I laughed a lot when it was announced that Obama wasn’t going to mint a platinum coin and effectively render the debt ceiling obsolete. And not because I hope for or expect the USA to immediately and chaotically default. Not because I expect the Federal government to not raise the debt ceiling again.

I laughed a lot because the platinum coin was a very, very silly idea. I laughed a lot because there was no clue of any such event taking place. It was a pure myth talked into prominence by Business Insider for pageviews and advertising dollars, and by other bloggers who should have known better.

Bruce Krasting writes that the platinum coin was killed by foreign central banks who thought it would set a dangerous precedent, and ultimately by Ben Bernanke:

It was the Fed, in a message delivered by Bernanke, that caused Obama to back off on any consideration of the Coin. There might have been wiggle room in existing law to print a Coin, but there is nothing that says that the Fed had to take it. And Bernanke said, “No”. When Obama ditched the Coin, he did it because it was no longer an option. Bernanke took the option off the table. The WH statement makes it sound as it it was their decision, that’s just smoke and mirrors.

I don’t even think it got that far.

As I wrote last week:

I think all parties other than the pundits thought the idea was ridiculous and totally unpalatable. For both Obama and Boehner — and especially Bernanke — negotiating a settlement is far, far more attractive than the signals of fiscal disarray that would have been sent by minting the platinum coin. Not to mention that minting a platinum coin and depositing it at the Fed to avert the debt ceiling would have been open to serious legal challenge. Compromise was the order of the day in 2011, and on the fiscal cliff, and it will be the order of the day on the debt ceiling again.

The people who advocated for the platinum coin were mostly doing so because they don’t like compromise. They wanted their side to effectively steamroller the other side into total submission. Right or wrong, that’s not how politics works. A deal will be done. It may not be a deal that Krugman, or Weisenthal, or Boehner, or Obama or Ron Paul or the country in general really likes, though.

The Disaster of Youth Unemployment

This is a demographic disaster.

From the Guardian:

Unemployment among Europe‘s young people has soared by 50% since the financial crisis of 2008. It is rising faster than overall jobless rates, and almost half of young people in work across the EU do not have permanent jobs, according to the European commission.

There are 5.5 million 15- to 24-year-olds without a job in the EU, a rate of 22.4%, up from 15% in early 2008. But the overall figures mask huge national and regional disparities. While half of young people in Spain and Greece are out of work, in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands it is only one in 10. In a further six EU countries, youth unemployment is around 30%. Of those in work, 44% are on temporary contracts.

The same phenomenon exists in the United States:

And why is this such a staggering  problem?

Firstly, the psychological impact: a whole lot of young people have never become integrated with the workforce. Many will become angry and disillusioned, and more likely to riot and rob than they are to seek productive employment. There is a significant amount of evidence for this:

Thornberry and Christensen (1984) find evidence that a cycle develops whereby involvement in crime reduces subsequent employment prospects which then raises the likelihood of participating in crime. Fougere (2006) find that increases in youth unemployment causes increases in burglaries, thefts and drug offences. Hansen and Machin (2002) find a statistically significant negative relationship between the number of offences reported by the police over a two year period for property and vehicle crime and the proportion of workers paid beneath the minimum before its introduction. Hence, there are more crime reductions in areas that initially, had more low-wage workers. Carmichael and Ward (2001) found in Great Britain that youth unemployment and adult unemployment are both significantly and positively related to burglary, theft, fraud and forgery and total crime rates.

Additionally unemployment is correlated with higher rates of suicide and mental illnesses like depression. And of course, the longer the unemployment, the rustier workers become, and the more skills they lose. Frighteningly, the numbers of long-term unemployed are rising:

Second, the economic impact: people sitting at home doing nothing don’t contribute productivity to society. In a society faced with falling or stagnant productivity, that is frustrating; there are lots of people sitting there who could be contributing to a real organic recovery, but they are not, because nobody is hiring, and (perhaps more importantly) barriers to entry and the welfare trap are crowding out the young, and preventing the unemployed from becoming self-employed. It also means higher welfare costs:

That leads to higher deficits, and greater government debt.

So it is not just a demographic disaster; it is also a fiscal one.

Austerity & Taxation

One of the main conclusions of — on the one hand — Austrian economics, and on the other, Modern Monetary Theory is that it is bad and dangerous for government to take more out of the economy than it puts in, i.e. running a surplus. The two schools of thought take this idea to different conclusions; Austrian economics advocates for far less government in recessions, whereas MMT advocates for greater deficit spending in recessions.

Basing my conclusions on the disastrous austerity contractions of the Bruning Chancellery, as well as contemporary Ireland and Greece, I have already railed quite strongly against the concept of austerity during a recession. Readers have (understandably) been quite sceptical. The position I am taking puts me in line with Professor Krugman, and various other Keynesian characters. And I agree that every dollar spent by the government must be taken out of the economy in taxation. And, government spending is often (but not always) plagued with problems such as regulatory capture, mismanagement and malinvestment.

But the evidence is clear — heavily indebted nations that slash spending and (as in the case of Greece today) raise taxes to “pay down debt” actually tend to experience not just greater economic contraction, but also increased deficits as tax revenues dip.

This was the American experience during the Great Depression. A great deal of attention has been given to “monetary inflexibility” (i.e. keeping the gold standard) as a “cause” of the depression, but very little attention has been given to the fact that Hoover drastically raised taxes and cut spending in 1932, just as the depression really started to bite:

The onset of the Great Depression in 1929 led to a sharp decline in tax revenues, as the economy contracted. President Herbert Hoover’s response was to push for a major tax increase. The Revenue Act of 1932 raised tax rates across the board, with the top rate rising from 25 percent to 63 percent. That increase was justified on the grounds that the budget needed to be balanced to restore business confidence. Yet the $462 million deficit of 1931 jumped to $2.7 billion by 1932 despite the tax increase. Interestingly, the major cause of the deficit’s rise was a sharp decline in income tax revenue, which fell from $1.15 billion in 1930 to $834 million in 1931, $427 million in 1932, and just $353 million in 1933.

The bottom line here is that it cuts both ways: just as cutting spending in a recession can deepen the problems, so too can raising taxes. This is because both of these things can push the nation to a position where government is sucking in more than it is pushing out. When the economy is contracting, the last thing it needs is a bigger net drain.

So the problem here is residual debt. Governments have lots of it. When leaders like Cameron, Papandreou and Merkel propose austerity, what they are actually proposing is paying down debt, much of which is held off-shore. Very often their commitments to cut are attached to a promise to raise taxes. This means that governments are committing to suck in more (sometimes much, much more) than they are paying out, which is by definition contractionary. If governments were to default on their debt, this would be a different story — governments could then maintain any kind of regime, statist or non-statist, without the problem of sucking more money out of the economy than they are disbursing. But right now — even with Iceland’s positive example — default is considered to be politically unachievable, particularly in regard to the larger states such the U.S. and the U.K.

So it is very clear that governments embarking on austerity policies are making precisely the same mistakes as the Hoover administration 80 years ago. And, of course, as revenues drop due to the punishing austerity, the situation will only get worse.

Default will become increasingly attractive for the advanced economies.

From the Economist:

Perhaps the most provocative paper comes from Jeffrey Rogers Hummel who reasons that default is virtually inevitable because a) federal tax revenue will never consistently rise much above 20% of GDP, b) politicians have little incentive to come up with the requisite expenditure cuts in time and c) monetary expansion and its accompanying inflation will no more be able to close the fiscal gap than would an excise tax on chewing gum. Most controversially, he argues that ”the long-term consequences (of default), both economic and political, could be beneficial, and the more complete the repudiation, the greater the benefits.”

Why does he take this view? Allowing for the Treasuries owned by the Fed, the trust funds and foreigners, total default could cost the US private sector about $4 trillion. In contrast, the fall in the stockmarket from 2007 to 2008 cost around $10 trillion. In compensation, however, the US taxpayer would no longer have to service the debt; their future liabilities would be lower.

After all, it has worked well so far for Iceland