Is Inflation Always And Everywhere a Monetary Phenomenon?

Yesterday, I asked:

It is true that the equation I am referring to — MV=PQ, where M is the money supply, V is velocity, P is the price level and Q is output — is not exactly Friedman’s equation. It was initially theorised by John Stuart Mill, and formulated algebraically by Irving Fisher, but adopted by Friedman and his monetarist followers to the extent that Milton Friedman had it as his car number plate:

268621-127539779936939-Erwan-Mahe_origin

MV=PQ itself is a tautology that ties together three disparate variables — the money supply (M), the price level (P) and the output (Q) — by creating a quantity — velocity (V) — that is not observed directly, but is instead computed retrospectively from the three other variables. But, nonetheless, so long as we can overlook the fact that V is not directly observed (which ultimately we should not, but that is another story) it is true that MV=PQ accurately describes monetary reality.

Friedman’s famous quote seems to contradict his beloved equation:

Inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon, in the sense that it cannot occur without a more rapid increase in the quantity of money than in output.

Within the parameters of the equation, an increase in P can come from any of the other three variables in the equation — all else being equal a decrease in Q, or an increase in M, or an increase in V.

The only way that Friedman’s statement could be true is if V and Q were stable. Friedman did actually claim that V was largely stable, but empirical data rules this out. Here’s velocity:

velocity

And here’s output:

dGDP

Neither of these are constant, or even particularly stable, meaning that it is impossible within the parameters of Friedman’s own equation for inflation (changes in P) to solely be a monetary phenomenon. Inflation by Friedman’s own mathematical definition is a result of a combination of factors. And in the real world, it is far, far, far more complicated — a price index generalises a staggering array of human actions, each one the outcome of an equally vast array of psychological, social and economic influences.

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Not Rational Utility Maximisers

One cornerstone of neoclassical economic thought is the assumption in microeconomics (and microfounded macroeconomics) that humans behave as “rational utility maximisers”.

Yet this assumption is increasingly outdated. Empirical findings in behavioural economics show that the neoclassical assumption of utility maximisation has very little basis in reality.

First, it is crucial to define what we mean by utility maximisation. Paul Samuelson, one of the grandfathers of the neoclassical New Keynesian school defined consumer rationality as follows:

• Completeness — Given any 2 bundles of commodities A & B , the consumer can decide whether he prefers A to B (A≻B), B to A (B≻A), or is indifferent between them (B≈A).

• Transitivity — If (A≻B) and (B≻C) then (A≻C).

• Non-satiation — More is preferred to less.

• Convexity — Marginal utility falls as consumption of any good rises.

This definition remains dominant in neoclassical economics today.

Sippel (1997) tested whether consumers really adhered to these four rules. He gave his student test subjects a budget, and a set of eight priced commodities to spend their budget on:

UtilityMaximisation

This was repeated ten times, with ten different budget and price combinations. Sippel found that 11 out of 12 of his test subjects’ behaviour failed to meet Samuelson’s criteria for rational utility maximisation. Sippel repeated the experiment later with thirty test subjects, finding that 22 out of 30 did not meet Samuelson’s criteria. Sippel concluded:

We conclude that the evidence for the utility maximisation hypothesis is at best mixed. While there are subjects who appear to be optimising, the majority of them do not.

It is interesting that some individuals obey the rules set out by Samuelson, and that some don’t. Human behaviour is highly variable from individual to individual. If the hypothesis of utility maximisation is right about a subset of individuals, but wrong about much of the general population, then this underlines the variability of human behaviour. And different circumstances call for different decision-making frameworks — some individuals may act like rational utility maximisers under some sets of circumstances and not others. This is really an area that deserves much, much more empirical study.

The evidence so far suggests that humans are complex animals whose decisions are multi-dimensional. This could be because our brains have evolved to use different neuro-circuitry for different decisions. According to the behavioural economist Daniel McFadden:

Our brains seem to operate like committees, assigning some tasks to the limbic system, others to the frontal system. The “switchboard” does not seem to achieve complete, consistent communication between different parts of the brain. Pleasure and pain are experienced in the limbic system, but not on one fixed “utility” or “self-interest” scale. Pleasure and pain have distinct neural pathways, and these pathways adapt quickly to homeostasis, with sensation coming from changes rather than levels. Overall, presumably as a product of evolution, our brains are organized well enough to keep us alive, fed, reproducing, and responsive to but not overwhelmed by sensation, but they are not hedonometers.

All of this points to the idea that microeconomics needs a new framework based on neurological and behavioural evidence, not decades-old assumptions that are unsupported by empirical evidence.

Why Modern Monetary Theory is Wrong About Government Debt

I’ve taken some criticism — particularly from advocates of modern monetary theory and sectoral balances and all that — for using total debt rather than just private debt in my work.

The modern monetary theory line (in one sentence, and also in video form) is that government debt levels are nothing to worry about, because governments are the issuer of the currency, and can always print more.

This evokes the words of Alan Greenspan:

The United States can pay any debt it has because we can always print money to do that. So there is zero probability of default.

Of course, the point I am trying to make in worrying about total debt levels is not the danger of mass default (although certainly default cascades a la Lehman are a concern in any interconnective financial system), but that large debt loads can lead to painful spells of deleveraging and economic depression as has occurred in Japan for most of the last twenty years:

Japan-Debt-Hoisington-27

Of course, before the crisis in America (as was the case in Japan at the beginning of their crisis) government debt was not really a great contributor to the total debt level, meaning that the total debt graph looks far more similar to the private debt line than the public debt line, which means that when I talk about the dangers of growing total debt I am talking much more about private debt than public debt:

010212_2140_TheDebtwatc1

But what Japan empirically illustrates is the fact that all debt matters. Japan’s private debt levels have reset to below the pre-crisis norm, yet the economy remains depressed while public debt continues to climb (both in absolute terms, and as a percentage of GDP). If excessive private debt was the sole factor in Japan’s depression, Japan would have recovered long ago. What we have seen in Japan has been the transfer of the debt load from the private sector to the public, with only a relative small level of net deleveraging.

And high and growing public sector deficits often lead to contractionary tax hikes and spending cuts. This happened time and again during Japan’s lost decades. Peter Tasker of the Financial Times writes:

When Japan’s bubble economy imploded in the early 1990s, public finances were in surplus and government debt was a mere 20 per cent of gross domestic product. Twenty years on, the government is running a yawning deficit and gross public debt has swollen to a sumo-sized 200 per cent of GDP.

How did it get from there to here? Not by lavish public spending, as is sometimes assumed. Japan’s experiment with Keynesian-style public works programmes ended in 1997. True, they had failed to trigger durable economic recovery. But the alternative hypothesis – that fiscal and monetary virtue would be enough – proved woefully mistaken. Economic growth had been positive in the first half of the “lost decade”, but after the government raised consumption tax in 1998 any momentum vanished. Today Japan’s nominal GDP is lower than in 1992.

The real cause of fiscal deterioration was the damage done to tax revenues by this protracted slump. Central government outlays as a percentage of GDP are no higher now than in the early 1980s, but the tax take has fallen by 5 per cent of GDP since 1989, the year that consumption taxes were introduced.

A rise in debt relative to income has historically tended to lead to contractionary deleveraging irrespective of whether the debt is public or private.

The notion at the heart of modern monetary theory that governments that control their own currency do not have to engage in contractionary deleveraging remains largely ignored. Just because nations can (in a worst case scenario) always print money to pay their debt, doesn’t mean that they will always print money to pay their debt. They will often choose to adopt an austerity program (as is often mandated by the IMF), or default outright instead (as happened in Russia in the 1990s).

And what governments cannot guarantee is that the money they print will have value. This is determined by market participants. In the real economy people in general and creditors (and Germans) in particular are very afraid of inflation and increases in the money supply. History is littered with currency collapses, where citizens have lost confidence in the currency (although in truth most hyperinflations have occurred after some great shock to the real economy like a war or famine, and not solely as a result of excessive money printing).

And there has always been a significant danger of currency, trade and political retaliations by creditors and creditor nations, as a result of the perception of “money printing”. Many, many wars have been fought over national debts, and over currencies and their devaluation. One only has to look at China’s frustrated rhetoric regarding America’s various monetary expansions, the fact that many Eurasian creditor nations are moving away from the dollar as a reserve currency, as well as the growth of American-Chinese trade measures and retaliations, to see how policy of a far lesser order than the sort of thing advocated in modern monetary theory can exacerbate frictions in the global currency system (although nothing bad has come to pass yet).

Governments controlling their own currencies are likely to continue to defy the prescriptions of the modern monetary theorists for years to come. And that means that expansionary increases in government debt relative to the underlying economy will continue to be a prelude to contractionary deleveraging, just as is the case with the private sector. All debt matters.

Negative Nominal Interest Rates?

A number of economists and economics writers have considered the possibility of allowing the Federal Reserve to drop interest rates below zero in order to make holding onto money costlier and encouraging individuals and firms to spend, spend, spend.

Miles Kimball details one such plan:

The US Federal Reserve’s new determination to keep buying mortgage-backed securities until the economy gets better, better known as quantitative easing, is controversial. Although a few commentators don’t think the economy needs any more stimulus, many others are unnerved because the Fed is using untested tools. (For example, see Michael Snyder’s collection of “10 Shocking Quotes About What QE3 Is Going To Do To America.”) Normally the Fed simply lowers short-term interest rates (and in particular the federal funds rate at which banks lend to each other overnight) by purchasing three-month Treasury bills. But it has basically hit the floor on the federal funds rate. If the Fed could lower the federal funds rate as far as chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues wanted, it would be much less controversial. The monetary policy cognoscenti would be comfortable with a tool they know well, and those who don’t understand monetary policy as well would be more likely to trust that the Fed knew what it was doing. By contrast, buying large quantities of long-term government bonds or mortgage-backed securities is seen as exotic and threatening by monetary policy outsiders; and it gives monetary policy insiders the uneasy feeling that they don’t know their footing and could fall into some unexpected crevasse at any time.

So why can’t the Fed just lower the federal funds rate further? The problem may surprise you: it is those green pieces of paper in your wallet. Because they earn an interest rate of zero, no one is willing to lend at an interest rate more than a hair below zero. In Denmark, the central bank actually set the interest rate to negative -.2 % per year toward the end of August this year, which people might be willing to accept for the convenience of a certificate of deposit instead of a pile of currency, but it would be hard to go much lower before people did prefer a pile of currency. Let me make this concrete. In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.) That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory.  But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.  The fact that people could store paper money and get an interest rate of zero, minus storage costs, has deterred the Fed from bothering to lower the interest rate a bit more and forcing them to store paper money to get the best rate (as Denmark’s central bank may cause people to do).

The bottom line is that all we have to do to give the Fed (and other central banks) unlimited power to lower short-term interest rates is to demote paper currency from its role as a yardstick for prices and other economic values—what economists call the “unit of account” function of money. Paper currency could still continue to exist, but prices would be set in terms of electronic dollars (or abroad, electronic euros or yen), with paper dollars potentially being exchanged at a discount compared to electronic dollars. More and more, people use some form of electronic payment already, with debit cards and credit cards, so this wouldn’t be such a big change. It would be a little less convenient for those who insisted on continuing to use currency, but even there, it would just be a matter of figuring out with a pocket calculator how many extra paper dollars it would take to make up for the fact that each one was worth less than an electronic dollar. That’s it, and we wouldn’t have to worry about the Fed or any other central bank ever again seeming relatively powerless in the face of a long slump.

First of all, I question the feasibility of even producing a negative rate of interest, even via electronic currency. Electronic currency has practically zero storage costs. What is to stop offshore or black market banking entities offering a non-negative interest rate? After all, it is not hard to offer a higher-than-negative rate of interest for the privilege of holding (and leveraging) currency. A true negative interest rate environment may prove as unattainable as division by zero.

But assuming that such a thing is achievable, I think that a negative rate of interest will completely undermine the entire economic system in clear and visible ways that I shall discuss below (“white swans”), and probably also — because such a system has never been tried, and it is a radical departure from the present norms — in unpredictable and emergent ways (“black swans”).

Money has historically had multiple functions; a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of purchasing power. To institute a zero interest rate policy is to disable money’s role as a store of purchasing power. But to institute a negative interest rate policy is to reverse money’s role as a store of purchasing power, and turn money into a drain on purchasing power.

Money evolved organically to possess all three of these characteristics, because all three characteristics have been economically important and useful. To try to strip currency of one of its essential functions is to risk the rejection of that currency.

How would I react in the case of negative nominal interest rates? I’d convert into a liquid medium that was not subject to a negative rate of interest. That could be a nonmonetary asset, a foreign currency, a digital currency or a precious metal. I would actively seek ways to opt out of using the negative-yielding currency at all — if I could get by using alternative currencies, digital currencies, barter, then I would.  I would only ever possess a negative-yielding currency for transactions (e.g. taxes) in which the other party insisted upon the negative-yielding currency, and would then only hold it for a minimal period of time. It seems only reasonable that other individuals — seeking to avoid a draining asset — would maximise their utility by rejecting the draining currency whenever and wherever possible.

In Kimball’s theory, this unwillingness to hold currency is supposed to stimulate the economy by encouraging productive economic activity and investment. But is that necessarily true? I don’t think so. So long as there are alternative stores of purchasing power, there is no guarantee that this policy would result in a higher rate of  economic activity.

And it will drive economic activity underground. While governments may relish the prospect of higher tax revenues (due to more economic activity becoming electronic, and therefore trackable and traceable), in the present depressionary environment recorded and taxable economic activity could even fall as more economic activity goes underground to avoid negative rates. Increasingly authoritarian measures might be taken — probably at great cost — to encourage citizens into using the negative-yielding legal tender.

Banking would be turned upside down. Lending at a negative rate of interest — and suffering from the likely reality that negative rates discourages deposits — banks would be forced to look to riskier or offshore or black market activities to achieve profits. Even if banks continued to lend at low positive rates, the negative rates of interest offered to depositors would surely lead to a mass depositor exodus (perhaps to offshore or black market banks offering higher rates), probably leading to liquidity crises and banking panics.

As Izabella Kaminska wrote in July:

The simple fact of the matter is that in a negative carry world – or a flat yield environment for that matter  there is no role or purpose for banks because banks are forced into economically destructive practices in order to stay profitable.

Additionally, a negative-yielding environment will result in reduced income for those on a fixed income. One interesting effect of the present zero-interest rate environment is that more elderly people — presumably starved of sufficient retirement income — are returning to the labour force, which is in turn crowding out younger inexperienced workers, who are suffering from very high rates of unemployment and underemployment. A negative-yielding environment would probably exacerbate this effect.

So on the surface, the possibility of negative nominal rates seems deeply problematic.

Japan has spent almost twenty years at the zero bound, in spite of multiple rounds of quantitative easing and stimulus. Yet Japan remains mired in depression. The fact remains that both conventional and unconventional monetary policy has proven ineffective in resuscitating Japanese growth. My hypothesis remains that the real issue is the weight of excessive total debt (Japan’s total debt load remains as precipitously high as ever) and that no amount of rate cuts, quantitative easing or unconventional monetary intervention will prove effective. I hypothesise that a return to growth for a depressionary post-bubble economy requires a substantial chunk of the debt load (and thus future debt service costs) being either liquidated, forgiven or (often very difficult and slow) paid down.

Explaining Hyperinflation

This is a post in three sections. First I want to outline my conception of the price level phenomena inflation and deflation. Second, I want to outline my conception of the specific inflationary case of hyperinflation. And third, I want to consider the predictive implications of this.

Inflation & Deflation

What is inflation? There is a vast debate on the matter. Neoclassicists and Keynesians tend to define inflation as a rise in the general level of prices of goods and services in an economy over a period of time.

Prices are reached by voluntary agreement between individuals engaged in exchange. Every transaction is unique, because the circumstance of each transaction is unique. Humans choose to engage in exchange based on the desire to fulfil their own subjective needs and wants. Each individual’s supply of, and demand for goods is different, and continuously changing based on their continuously varying circumstances. This means that the measured phenomena of price level changes are ripples on the pond of human needs and wants. Nonetheless price levels convey extremely significant information — the level at which individuals are prepared to exchange the goods in question. When price levels change, it conveys that the underlying economic fundamentals encoded in human action have changed.

Economists today generally measure inflation in terms of price indices, consisting of the measured price of levels of various goods throughout the economy. Price indices are useful, but as I have demonstrated before they can often leave out important avenues like housing or equities. Any price index that does not take into account prices across the entire economy is not representing the fuller price structure.

Austrians tend to define inflation as any growth in the money supply. This is a useful measure too, but money supply growth tells us about money supply growth; it does not relate that growth in money supply to underlying productivity (or indeed to price level, which is what price indices purport and often fail to do). Each transaction is two-way, meaning that two goods are exchanged. Money is merely one of two goods involved in a transaction. If the money supply increases, but the level of productivity (and thus, supply) increases faster than the money supply, this would place a downward pressure on prices. This effect is visible in many sectors today — for instance in housing where a glut in supply has kept prices lower than their pre-2008 peak, even in spite of huge money supply growth.

So my definition of inflation is a little different to current schools. I define inflation (and deflation) as growth (or shrinkage) in the money supply disproportionate to the economy’s productivity. If money grows faster than productivity, there is inflation. If productivity grows faster than money there is deflation. If money shrinks faster than productivity, there is deflation. If productivity shrinks faster than money, there is inflation.

This is given by the following equation where R is relative inflation, ΔQ is change in productivity, and ΔM is change in the money supply:

R= ΔM-ΔQ

This chart shows relative inflation over the past fifty years. I am using M2 to denote the money supply, and GDP to denote productivity (GDP and M2 are imperfect estimations of both the true money supply, and the true level of productivity. It is possible to use MZM
for the money supply and industrial output for productivity to produce different estimates of the true level of relative inflation):

Inflation and deflation are in my view a multivariate phenomenon with four variables: supply and demand for money, and supply and demand for other goods. This is an important distinction, because it means that I am rejecting Milton Friedman’s definition that inflation is always and only a monetary phenomenon.

Friedman’s definition is based on Irving Fisher’s equation MV=PQ where M is the money supply, P is the price level, Q is the level of production and V is the velocity of money. To me, this is a tenuous relationship, because V is not directly observed but instead inferred from the other three variables. Yet to Friedman, this equation stipulates that changes in the money supply will necessarily lead to changes in the price level, because Friedman assumes the relative stability of velocity and of productivity. Yet the instability of the money velocity in recent years demonstrates empirically that velocity is not a stable figure:

And additionally, changes in the money supply can lead to changes in productivity — and that is true even under a gold or silver standard where a new discovery of gold can lead to a mining-driven boom. MV=PQ is a four-variable equation, and using a four-variable equation to establish causal linear relationships between two variables is tenuous at best.

Through the multivariate lens of relative inflation, we can grasp the underlying dynamics of hyperinflation more fully.

Hyperinflation

I define hyperinflation as an increase in relative inflation of above 50% month-on-month. This can theoretically arise from either a dramatic fall in ΔQ or a dramatic rise in ΔM.

There are zero cases of gold-denominated hyperinflation in history; gold is naturally scarce. Yet there have been plenty of cases of fiat-denominated hyperinflation:

This disparity between naturally-scarce gold which has never been hyperinflated and artificially-scarce fiat currencies which have been hyperinflated multiple times suggests very strongly that the hyperinflation is a function of governments running printing presses. Of course, no government is in the business of intentionally destroying its own credibility. So why would a government end up running the printing presses (ΔM) to oblivion?

Well, the majority of these hyperinflationary episodes were associated with the end of World War II or the breakup of the Soviet Union. Every single case in the list was a time of severe physical shocks, where countries were not producing enough food, or where manufacturing and energy generation were shut down out of political and social turmoil, or where countries were denied access to import markets as in the present Iranian hyperinflation. Increases in money supply occurred without a corresponding increase in productivity — leading to astronomical relative inflation as productivity fell off a cliff, and the money supply simultaneously soared.

Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus of the Cato Institute note:

Hyperinflation is an economic malady that arises under extreme conditions: war, political mismanagement, and the transition from a command to market-based economy—to name a few.

So in many cases, the reason may be political expediency. It may seem easier to pay workers, and lenders, and clients of the welfare state in heavily devalued currency than it would be to default on such liabilities — as was the case in the Weimar Republic. Declining to engage in money printing does not make the underlying problems — like a collapse of agriculture, or the loss of a war, or a natural disaster — disappear, so avoiding hyperinflation may be no panacea. Money printing may be a last roll of the dice, the last failed attempt at stabilising a fundamentally rotten situation.

The fact that naturally scarce currencies like gold do not hyperinflate — even in times of extreme economic stress — suggests that the underlying mechanism here is of an extreme exogenous event causing a severe drop in productivity. Governments then run the printing presses attempting to smooth over such problems — for instance in the Weimar Republic when workers in the occupied Ruhr region went on a general strike and the Weimar government continued to print money in order to pay them. While hyperinflation can in theory arise either out of either ΔQ or ΔM, government has no reason to inject a hyper-inflationary volume of money into an economy that still has access to global exports, that still produces sufficient levels of energy and agriculture to support its population, and that still has a functional infrastructure.

This means that the indicators for imminent hyperinflation are not economic so much as they are geopolitical — wars, trade breakdowns, energy crises, socio-political collapse, collapse in production, collapse in agriculture. While all such catastrophes have preexisting economic causes, a bad economic situation will not deteriorate into full-collapse and hyperinflation without a severe intervening physical breakdown.

Predicting Hyperinflation

Hyperinflation is notoriously difficult to predict, because physical breakdowns like an invasion, or the breakup of a currency union, or a trade breakdown are political in nature, and human action is anything but timely or predictable.

However, it is possible to provide a list of factors which can make a nation or community fragile to unexpected collapses in productivity:

  1. Rising Public and-or Private Debt — risks currency crisis, especially if denominated in foreign currency.
  2. Import Dependency — supplies can be cut off, leading to bottlenecks and shortages.
  3. Energy Dependency — supplies can be cut off, leading to transport and power issues.
  4. Fragile Transport Infrastructure — transport can be disrupted by war, terrorism, shortages or natural disasters.
  5. Overstretched Military — high cost, harder to respond to unexpected disasters.
  6. Natural Disaster-Prone — e.g. volcanoes, hurricanes, tornadoes, drought, floods.
  7. Civil Disorder— may cause severe civil and economic disruption.

Readers are free to speculate as to which nation is currently most fragile to hyperinflation.

However none of these factors alone or together — however severe — are guaranteed to precipitate a shock that leads to the collapse of production or imports.

But if an incident or series of incidents leads to a severe and prolonged drop in productivity, and so long as government accelerates the printing of money to paper over the cracks, hyperinflation is a mathematical inevitability.

Debt is Not Wealth

Here’s the status quo:


These figures are staggering; the advanced nations typically have between three and ten times as much total debt as they have economic activity. In the United Kingdom — the worst example — if one year’s economic activity was devoted entirely to paying down debt (impossible — people need to eat and drink and pay rent, and of course the United Kingdom continues to add debt) it would take ten years for the debt to be wiped clean.

But the real question is why? Why are both debtors and creditors willing to build a status quo of massive unprecedented debt?


From the side of the creditors, I think the answer is the misconception that debt is wealth. Debt can be used as collateral, or can be securitised and traded on exchanges (which itself can become a form of shadow intermediation, allowing for a form banking outside the accepted regulatory norms). To keep the value of debt high, and thus keep the debt illusion rolling along (treasury yields keep falling) central banks have been willing to swap out bad debt for good money. But debt is not wealth; it is just a promise, and in today’s world carries huge counter-party risk. Until you convert your debt-based promissory assets into real-world tangible assets they are not wealth.

From the side of the debtors, I think the answer is that debt is easy. Why work for your consumption when instead you can take out a home equity loan or get a credit card? Why buy the one car that you can afford when instead you can buy two with debt?

But there is another side in this world: the side of the central planners. Since the time of Keynes and Fisher there has been an economic revolution:

Deflation has effectively been abolished by central banking.  And so we get to where we are today: the huge and historically unprecedented outgrowth of debt. Deleveraging necessitates economic contraction, which produces the old Keynesian-Fisherian bugbear of debt-deflation, which the central planners abhor. So they print. Where once deflation often made debts unrepayable, and resulted in mass defaults, liquidation and structural transformation, today — thanks to money printing — debtors get their easy lunch of cheap debt, and creditors get their pound of flesh, albeit devalued by the inflation of the monetary base. It has been a superficially good compromise for both creditors and debtors. Everyone has got some of what they want. But is it sustainable?

The endless post-Keynesian outgrowth of debt suggests not. In fact, what is ultimately suggested is that the abolition of small-scale deflationary liquidations has just primed the system for a much, much larger liquidation later on. Bad companies, business models and practices that might otherwise not have survived under previous economic systems today live thanks to bailouts and money-printing. This moral hazard has grown legs and evolved into a kind of systemic hazard. Unhealthy levels of leverage and interconnection that once might have necessitated failure (e.g. Martingale trading strategies) flourish today under this new regime and its role as counter-party-of-last-resort. With every rogue-trader, every derivatives or shadow banking blowup, every Corzine, every Adoboli, every Iksil, comes more confirmation that the entire financial system is being zombified as foolish and dangerous practices are saved and sanctified by bailouts.

With every zombie blowup comes the necessity of more money-printing, and with more money-printing to save broken industries seems to come more moral hazard and zombification. Is that sustainable?

Already, central bankers are having to be clever with their money printing, colluding with financiers and sovereign governments to hide newly-printed money in excess reserves and FX reserves, and colluding with government statisticians to hide inflation beneath a forest of statistical manipulation. It is no surprise that by the BLS’ previous inflation-measuring methodology inflation is running at a much higher rate than the new:

Worse, in the modern financial world, we see an unprecedented level of interconnection. The impending Euro-implosion will have ramifications to everyone with exposure to it, and everyone with exposure to those with exposure to it. Not only will the inflation-averse Europeans have to print up a huge quantity of new money to bail out their financial system (the European financial system is roughly three times the size of the American one bailed out in 2008), but should they fail to do so central banks around the globe will have to print huge quantities of money to bail out systemically-important financial institutions with exposure to falling masonry. This is shaping up to be a true test of their prowess in hiding monetary inflation, and a true test of the “wisdom” behind endless-monetary-growth fiat economics.

Central bankers have shirked the historical growth cycle consisting both of periods of growth and expansion, as well as periods of contraction and liquidation. They have certainly had a good run. Those warning of impending hyperinflation following 2008 were proven wrong; deflationary forces offset the inflationary impact of bailouts and monetary expansion, even as food prices hit records, and revolutions spread throughout emerging markets. And Japan — the prototypical unliquidated zombie economy — has been stuck in a depressive rut for most of the last twenty years. These interventions, it seems, have pernicious negative side-effects.

Those twin delusions central bankers have sought to cater to — for creditors, that debt is wealth and should never be liquidated, and for debtors that debt is an easy or free lunch — have been smashed by the juggernaut of history many times before. While we cannot know exactly when, or exactly how — and in spite of the best efforts of central bankers — I think they will soon be smashed again.

Stiglitz vs Krugman

A very interesting front is opening up regarding the current state of America.

Some economists believe that the main problem in America is a lack of demand, defined as the desire to buy, the willingness to buy, and the ability to pay for it

From Paul Krugman:

There is nothing — nothing — in what we see suggesting that this current depression is more than a problem of inadequate demand. This could be turned around in months with the right policies. Our problem isn’t, ultimately, economic; it’s political, brought on by an elite that would rather cling to its prejudices than turn the nation around.

The implication here is that people just don’t have the money in their pockets to spend at the levels they were five years ago, and the solution is (through whatever means) giving them that money.

As well as the obvious (and accurate) Austrian retort that demand in 2006 was being pushed skyward as part of a ridiculous and entirely artificial debt-financed bubble, other economists believe that a lack of demand is just a symptom of other underlying symptoms. I myself believe that the three main problems are a lack of confidence stemming from high systemic residual debt, deindustrialisation in the name of globalisation (& its corollary, financialisation and that sprawling web of debt and counter-party risk), and fragility and side-effects (e.g. lost internal productivity due to role as world policeman) coming from America’s petroleum addiction.

Now Joe Stiglitz has weighed in in a lengthy and essential Vanity Fair piece:

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery. Under the best of conditions, we will endure a Long Slump. If we respond incorrectly, as we have been, the Long Slump will last even longer, and the parallel with the Depression will take on a tragic new dimension.

Many have argued that the Depression was caused primarily by excessive tightening of the money supply on the part of the Federal Reserve Board. Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Depression, has stated publicly that this was the lesson he took away, and the reason he opened the monetary spigots. He opened them very wide. Beginning in 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed doubled and then rose to three times its earlier level. Today it is $2.8 trillion. While the Fed, by doing this, may have succeeded in saving the banks, it didn’t succeed in saving the economy.

Reality has not only discredited the Fed but also raised questions about one of the conventional interpretations of the origins of the Depression. The argument has been made that the Fed caused the Depression by tightening money, and if only the Fed back then had increased the money supply—in other words, had done what the Fed has done today—a full-blown Depression would likely have been averted. In economics, it’s difficult to test hypotheses with controlled experiments of the kind the hard sciences can conduct. But the inability of the monetary expansion to counteract this current recession should forever lay to rest the idea that monetary policy was the prime culprit in the 1930s. The problem today, as it was then, is something else. The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.

At the beginning of the Depression, more than a fifth of all Americans worked on farms. Between 1929 and 1932, these people saw their incomes cut by somewhere between one-third and two-thirds, compounding problems that farmers had faced for years. Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the century—better seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.

What this transition meant, however, is that jobs and livelihoods on the farm were being destroyed. Because of accelerating productivity, output was increasing faster than demand, and prices fell sharply. It was this, more than anything else, that led to rapidly declining incomes. Farmers then (like workers now) borrowed heavily to sustain living standards and production. Because neither the farmers nor their bankers anticipated the steepness of the price declines, a credit crunch quickly ensued. Farmers simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. The financial sector was swept into the vortex of declining farm incomes.

The cities weren’t spared—far from it. As rural incomes fell, farmers had less and less money to buy goods produced in factories. Manufacturers had to lay off workers, which further diminished demand for agricultural produce, driving down prices even more. Before long, this vicious circle affected the entire national economy.

The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity — the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

The consequences for consumer spending, and for the fundamental health of the economy — not to mention the appalling human cost—are obvious, though we were able to ignore them for a while. For a time, the bubbles in the housing and lending markets concealed the problem by creating artificial demand, which in turn created jobs in the financial sector and in construction and elsewhere. The bubble even made workers forget that their incomes were declining. They savored the possibility of wealth beyond their dreams, as the value of their houses soared and the value of their pensions, invested in the stock market, seemed to be doing likewise. But the jobs were temporary, fueled on vapor.

So far, so excellent. Stiglitz first shovels shit over the view of Fisherian debt-deflation as the main cause of the slump in demand — debt-deflation is a symptom, and a very nasty one, but not really a cause. Second, Stiglitz also correctly notes that today’s ailments are the result of social, infrastructural and productive upheaval in the real economy. He correctly identifies the leading trend here — manufacturing (and, it should be added, primary industry) has been ripped out of America by the forces of globalisation, and the powerful pull of cheaper wages. This is a strong explanation of why Krugman’s view — that the only thing missing is demand, and that government can fix that in an instant — is nonsense.

As I wrote earlier this month:

The point here is that economic health — and real industrial output, measured in joules, or in “needs met” — and money circulation are in reality almost totally decoupled. Getting out of a depression requires debt erasure, and new organic activity, and there is absolutely no guarantee that monetary easing will do the trick on either count. Most often, depressions and liquidity traps are a reflection of underlying structural and sociological problems, and broken economic and trade systems. Easing kicks the can down the road a little, and gives some time and breathing room for those problems to be fixed, but very often that just doesn’t happen. Ultimately, societies only take the steps necessary (e.g. a debt jubilee) when their very existence seems threatened.

Stiglitz continues:

What we need to do instead is embark on a massive investment program—as we did, virtually by accident, 80 years ago—that will increase our productivity for years to come, and will also increase employment now. This public investment, and the resultant restoration in G.D.P., increases the returns to private investment. Public investments could be directed at improving the quality of life and real productivity—unlike the private-sector investments in financial innovations, which turned out to be more akin to financial weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I don’t really have a problem with the idea that government can do some good. If people in a democracy choose to solve problems via public spending, well, that’s part of the bargain in a democratic state. Even Adam Smith noted that government should fund “certain great institutions” beyond the reach of private enterprise.

But here we reach the great problem with Stiglitz’s view:

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want — into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality.

The United States spent the last decade (arguably longer) and trillions of dollars embroiled in wars aimed at keeping oil cheap, and maintaining the flow of global goods precisely because America is dependent upon those things. America does not play global policeman out of nicety or vanity — she does it out of economic necessity. That is precisely because America let globalisation take away all of her industry, making her dependent not only on the continued value of her paper dollar, but on the flow of global trade in energy and goods.

Investing more money in services will leave America dependent on these contingencies. And dependency is fragility — and the more fragile America becomes, the more aggressive she becomes in maintaining and controlling the flow of global goods.

Any stimulus package ought to instead be focussed on making America energy independent, and encouraging innovative new forms of manufacturing (e.g. 3-D printing) that can undercut Chinese labour.

So while Stiglitz must be commended for seeing through the haze, it is rather puzzling that his alternative is services, rather than self-sufficiency.

While America is dependent on foreign goods and energy, she is prone to not only waste huge amounts of productive capital on war and weapons, but she also risks serious economic damage from events such as oil shocks, geopolitical shocks, regional wars, and — well — anything that might slow down or endanger global trade. Her need to police the world makes her even hungrier for oil, which means she spends more money on the world, which makes her hungrier for oil.

The Abolition of Deflation

Modern economics has been a great experiment:

Economic history can be broadly divided into two eras: before Keynes, and after Keynes. Before Keynes (with precious metals as the monetary base) prices experienced wide swings in both directions. After Keynes’ Depression-era tract (The General Theory) prices went in one direction: mildly upward. Call that a victory for modern economics, central planning, and modern civilisation: deflation was effectively abolished. The resultant increase in defaults due to the proportionate rise in the value of debt as described by Irving Fisher, and much later Ben Bernanke, doesn’t happen today. And this means that creditors get their pound of flesh, albeit one that is slightly devalued (by money printing), as opposed to totally destroyed (by mass defaults).

But (of course) there’s a catch. Periods of deflation were painful, but they had one very beneficial effect that we today sorely need: the erasure of debt via mass default (contraction of credit means smaller money supply, means less money available to pay down debt). With the debt erased, new organic growth is much easier (because businesses, individuals and governments aren’t busy setting capital aside to pay down debt, and therefore can invest more in doing, making and innovating). Modern economics might have prevented deflation (and resultant mass defaults), but it has left many nations, companies and individuals carrying a great millstone of debt (that’s the price of “stability”):

The aggregate effect of the Great Depression was the erasure of private debt by the end of World War 2. This set the stage for the phenomenal new economic growth of the 50s and 60s. But since then, there’s been no erasure: only vast, vast debt/credit creation.

As I have long noted, in the end the debt load will have to be erased, either by direct default (or debt jubilee), or by indirect default (hyperinflation). Deleveraging in a credit-based economy, is very, very difficult to achieve, without massive damage to GDP (due to productive capital being lost to debt repayment). The irony is that the more central banks print, and the more the Krugmanites advocate for stimulus, the tetchier creditors (i.e., China) become about their holdings being debased, when the reality is that the only hope that they have to see any return on their debt holdings is for governments to print, print, print.

How long can America and the world kick the can? As long as the productive parts of the world — oil exporters, and goods manufacturers — allow the unproductive parts of the world — consumers and “knowledge economies” — to keep getting a free lunch. Keynesian economics didn’t abolish defaults in the long run — it just succeeded at making mass defaults much less frequent. My hypothesis is that it also made these moments of default much more catastrophic.

This is akin to the effects of dropping rocks on humans: drop a hundred 1-pound-rocks on a man over the course of 50 years  (at the rate of two per year) and he will most likely be alive after those years. Drop one hundred-pound-rock on him after fifty years and he will more likely be dead aged 50. Perhaps in reality it is not as extreme as that, but that is the principle: frequent small defaults, small depressions, and small contractions have been abolished, in favour of occasional very, very big depressions, contractions and defaults.

Where does that leave Keynesian economics?

Well Keynes was right that intervention can save lives, families and businesses. What Keynes and Fisher were wrong about is that stabilising credit markets and prices (resulting in the abolition of deflation) is completely the wrong kind of intervention. Government’s role during depressions is to preserve and stabilise the productive (i.e. physical) economy, to prevent the needy from starving, to prevent homelessness, and create enough infrastructure for the nation to function (and eventually, to thrive). The financial economy (and all the debt) should go the way nature intends — erasure, and resurrection (in a new form).