How saving endangers the economy — and what to do about it

An impressive video featuring former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers has been making the rounds.

Summers makes the case that the United States and other Western nations may have reached a state of permanent stagnation in growth and employment. In Japan, per capita incomes grew strongly until the 1990s, and since then they have been growing very weakly and intermittently. Summers cites Japan as an early example of what might occur elsewhere.

Japan’s stagnation is shocking — today, the Japanese economy is only half the size economists in the 1990s predicted it would be if it had continued on its pre-1990s growth trend. As Summers notes, in the U.S., growth is also well below its pre-crisis trend, and unemployment remains persistently high. More than 12 million people who want work and are actively looking cannot find it. That’s a very ugly situation.

Under normal conditions, central banks can lower interest rates on lending to banks as a way to encourage activity and fight unemployment. Lower rates make business projects easier to afford, and more business projects should mean more jobs. If an economic shock pushes the unemployment rate up, central banks can lower lending rates to ease conditions. And conversely, if economic conditions are overheating and inflation is pushing up above the Federal Reserve’s target of 2 percent, interest rates can be hiked to encourage saving and discourage spending.

Yet in the current slump, unemployment has remained elevated even while interest rates have been at close to zero for four years while inflation has remained contained. This suggests that the interest rate level required to bring employment down significantly is actually below zero. Summers agrees:

Suppose that the short-term real interest rate that was consistent with full employment had fallen to negative 2 percent or negative 3 percent sometime in the middle of the last decade.

But central banks can’t lower interest rates below zero percent because people can just hold cash instead. Why invest if you’re going to lose money doing so?

Read More At TheWeek.com

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Sparkassen — A De Facto Glass-Steagall?

Ed Miliband has a very good idea to break the British lending freeze:

Ed Miliband is to make his firmest commitment to a regional-based economic policy when he proposes a network of banks around the country responsible for providing capital to businesses in their locality.

The proposals, due to be unveiled in a speech to the British chambers of commerce, mark a further attempt to map out a different industrial policy, some of which has echoes of plans for a revival of city regions set out by the coalition adviser Lord Heseltine.

Miliband will say it is time to stop tinkering with the banks and recognise a wholly new system is needed.

He will say: “We do not just need a single investment serving the country. We need a regional banking system serving each and every region of the country. Regional banks with a mission to serve that region and that region alone, not banks that are likely to say no but banks that know your region and your business; not banks that you mistrust, but banks you can come to trust.”

I would not support politicians interfering with the financial sector if the British financial sector was a successful model. But the country is still hurting from its utter failure in 2008. Back then, Ed Miliband’s predecessor Gordon chose to bail out the banking system. Had the financial sector been allowed to fail, then a new model would have been forced to emerge. But that wasn’t the case. Now, politicians must take responsibility for putting the banking system on a life support system. The current government’s attempts at reform have not succeeded in revitalising the economy.

Miliband’s idea approximates the German model of Sparkassen — publicly owned regional banks:

Supporters of the local banks claim that in 2011 total loans by the Sparkassen stood at €322bn (£280bn), whereas the total loan stock of Germany’s large commercial banks was only €177bn (£153.5bn). Like Britain’s large banks, Germany’s large commercial banks cut credit during the financial crisis; lending fell by 10% between 2006 and the middle of 2011. In contrast, the Sparkassen increased lending by 17%.

On the surface, regionalisation may be helpful in that British banks have become over-centralised and disconnected from the interests of their local customers. This may be one factor that can explain why local, small and new businesses are struggling to get credit.

But this is an even better idea than Miliband may realise. Why? Because so long as the regional banks behave solely as depository and business investment institutions, and not as investment banks, insurance brokers, hedge funds, shadow banks, or proprietary traders, or any of the other highly interconnective and risky activities favoured by today’s supermarket banks — then such a system acts as de facto Glass-Steagall-style separation between the riskier privately-owned national and international-level commercial banks, and the regional level business investment and savings banks.

Such a system also echoes the recommendation made by Nassim Taleb, to nationalise the parts of the banking system that act as a public utility, and deregulate the rest so it is free to gamble, speculate, succeed and fail without significantly destabilising business lending, public savings, and the wider economy.

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:

WASCUR_Max_630_378

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:

farmjobs

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:

EMRATIO_Max_630_378

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.

Weapons of Mass Destruction Redux

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

That’s what I’d say to the Western governments currently planning an invasion of Syria under the pretense that Bashar al-Assad is readying the use of chemical weapons in the Syrian Civil War.

The Telegraph reports:

NBC News quoted an unnamed US official as saying there was evidence that the bombs, loaded with the chemical weapon, could be dropped on the Syrian people from fighter planes once president Basah al-Assad gives the order.

If it proves to be true, the move would be a dramatic escalation in the conflict in Syria, which could lead to US involvement.

Earlier this week, US officials said the regime had begun mixing the chemicals to make the deadly sarin gas.

Sarin, used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in the 1990s, is a man-made nerve agent which can cause convulsions, respiratory failure and death.

The Syrian regime has never overtly admitted having chemical weapons, though it is believed by western analysts to have the biggest stocks in the Middle East. It has also denied it would ever use chemical weapons against its own people.

Western intelligence agencies never had to publicly display their evidence for the invasion or Iraq — their wrong claims that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed against Western countries at 45 minutes notice.

And now they expect us to take it at face value that they have evidence that Syria is ready to use chemical weapons? Talk about the boy that cried wolf.

Want to commit blood and treasure to fight another middle eastern war? (Even though the most recent interventions have all ended in Islamists and even groups affiliated with al-Qaeda coming to power)

To be taken seriously, Western intelligence agencies need to prove these claims with hard evidence open to public scrutiny. If the claims are based on second-hand reports, circumstantial evidence and bad guesswork (as was the case in Iraq) then Western taxpayers deserve to know the truth.

But they won’t. Governments are already massing armies to intervene. The politicians and bureaucrats making these decisions won’t have to pay for it. They will leave that up to taxpayers.

CostofWar

Where Gold is Going

Many will argue that — more or less — this reflects the U.S. government’s attempts to deal with broad and deep social and financial problems through monetary policy. The higher the price of gold goes, the more the market believes that monetary policy just isn’t working, and that the big problems in American and Western society — oil dependency, deindustrialisation, unemployment, regulatory capture and debt saturation — are just not being effectively addressed.

As I wrote last month:

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.

The simple expansionary recipe for getting out of depressions is a sad smile, a false promise of an easy route out of complex and multi-dimensional problems.

If these problems are fixed, then the correlation between the debt ceiling and the price of gold will go away. Gold is not necessarily going to the moon, and the gold speculators will be forced to give up the ghost as real broad-based economic growth returns. The trouble is, I don’t see any evidence that these problems are going away. Japan is still — more or less — in the same place it was twenty years ago. Now the whole world may be moving to the Japanese model. Readers are welcome to try and convince me otherwise.

Out of the Liquidity Trap?

Professor Krugman has produced an interesting graph that — according to his calculation — suggests that while we’re not quite out of the liquidity trap, we are getting closer:

It’s a useful contribution, that shows just what the Federal Reserve does in terms of trying to match interest rates to the broader inflationary outlook. The liquidity trap at the zero bound is clearly visible — the Fed cannot cut rates below the zero bound, which renders traditionally monetary policy essentially useless. (Austrians will of course interject here that traditional monetary policy is worse than useless, but that is another story for another day).

If the liquidity trap is ended, we should eventually see higher demand (Krugman’s point is broadly that stimulus would fight off the problem of the liquidity trap and solve the problem sooner). The Krugmanites think that demand is the only problem, and higher demand (even if that is down the line and later than Krugman would like it) will cure our economic woes.

I completely disagree and believe that depressed demand is not the main problem, but merely a symptom. I believe that the credit contraction that occurred in 2008 was a direct product of various non-monetary challenges that America faces, almost none of which have been solved, or will be solved by an end to the liquidity trap:

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.

In the months and years to come we will see who is right.

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.