Economists vs the Public

They don’t agree:

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My responses:

Question 1 — Agree

Economists in Sapienza and Zingales’ study resolutely agreed that it is hard to predict stock prices. A majority of the public agreed with the statement, but not so resolutely. Stock prices are the culmination of transactions between humans, and human behaviour is hard to predict because it is often irrational and informed by cognitive fallacies.

Question 2 — Agree, with a bitter taste in my mouth.

Economists were vastly more bullish on the stimulus’ effect on unemployment than the general public. And the data is actually quite unkind toward the economists’ view — the real unemployment path was far worse than the path projected by those in the Obama administration who promoted the stimulus. However, this is more of a symptom of the stimulus’ designers underestimating the depth of the economic contraction that the financial crisis caused. There is no doubt that the stimulus created jobs and lowered the unemployment rate in the immediate term. Whether the jobs created were really useful and beneficial — and to what extent the stimulus was a malinvestment of capital  — is another question entirely, and one which can only be answered in the long run.

Question 3 — Agree

Economists overwhelmingly agreed that market factors are the chief cause behind variation in petrol prices. The public agreed, but to a lesser extent. Presumably, the dissenting public and dissenting economists see government intervention as a more significant force? Certainly, the present global oil market is a precarious pyramid of supply chains balanced on the back of the petrodollar empire. But the market reflects these factors.  When governments start a war, that is reflected in the oil price. That’s a force that the market responds to. If a central planner was directly setting the oil price (rather than merely influencing it) — as is the case in communist countries — that would be a price determined by non-market forces.

Question 4 — Uncertain

Economists were broadly certain that a carbon tax is less costly than mileage standards. I think this is far too general a question. Without nuts-and-bolts policy proposals, it is not really possible to assess which would be more costly.

Question 5 — Uncertain, leaning toward Disagree.

This was the only question where economists and the public were largely agreeable — and economists were largely split. As I stated above, the “success” of the stimulus package can only really be assessed in the longer run, and even then there are difficulties with measurement. Generally, I suspect very much that the various interventions in 2008 onward have preserved and supported economically unsustainable and inefficient sectors and industries that ought to have been liquidated and rebuilt (especially the financial industry, but also other sectors, e.g. Detroit). Had the government in 2008 followed the liquidationary trend in the market, the slump would have been much deeper, unemployment would have risen much higher, but the eventual rebound may have been much quicker and stronger.

Question 6 — Agree

This is where economists and the public disagree the most. It is the point on which the public was the most bullish, and economists almost unanimously bearish. Economists in general seem to believe that what they define as free trade is best, even when it destroys domestic supply chains and drastically decreases manufacturing employment. To economists, this means that the American government should not discriminate against foreign products but buy for the best product and the best price. This ignores some important externalities. Buying American certainly supports American jobs, because money goes to American companies, and toward American salaries. This might foster inefficient and otherwise-unsustainable industries, but if the American public chooses to favour American products for their government, that is their right. And a strong domestic manufacturing base is no bad thing, either.

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Global Japan & the Problems with a Debt Jubilee

Bill Buckler critiques the notion of a debt jubilee:

The modern “debt jubilee” is characterised as “quantitative easing for the public”. It has been boiled down to a procedure where the central bank does not create new money by buying the sovereign debt of the government. Instead, it takes an arbitrary number, writes a check for that number, and deposits it in the bank account of every individual in the nation. Debtors must use the newly-created money to pay down or pay off debt. Those who are not in debt can use it as a free windfall to spend or “invest” as they see fit.

The major selling feature of this “method” is that it provides the only sure means out of what is called the global “deleveraging trap”. This is the trap which is said to have ensnared Japan more than two decades ago and which has now snapped shut on the whole world. And what is a “deleveraging trap”? It is simply the obligation assumed when one becomes a debtor. This is the necessity to repay the debt. There are only three ways in which a debt can be honestly repaid. It can be repaid with new wealth which the proceeds of the debt made it possible to create. It can be repaid by an excess of production over consumption on the part of the debtor. Or it can be repaid from already existing savings. If none of those methods are feasible, the debt cannot be repaid. It can be defaulted upon or the means of “payment” can be created out of thin air, but that does not “solve” the problem, it merely makes it worse.

The “deleveraging trap”, so called, is merely a rebellion against the fact that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. So is the genesis of the entire GFC. Debt can always be extinguished by means of an arbitrarily created means of payment. But calling that process QE or a Debt Jubilee doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mask its essence, which is simple and straightforward debt repudiation.

A “debt jubilee” is the latest attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It is the latest pretense that we CAN print our way to prosperity, but only if we do it in the “right” way.

Well, he’s right  — it is the latest attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. I’ve always said I would have preferred it if markets had been allowed to clear in 2008, if prices had fallen of their own accord to a sustainable level, and if all the junk and bad debt had been liquidated. Painful — but then there would have been no deleveraging trap at all.  In a truly free market debts that can’t be repaid, aren’t.

Yet that’s not the world we have; we have a world where central bankers are prepared to engage in unlimited liquidity injections, quantitative easing, and twisting — pumping new money into the financial system to keep the debt serviceable.

It’s like central banks’ efforts to stabilise markets and the financial system put the wider economy into an induced coma following 2008 in order to prop up the financial sector and the huge and exotic variety of credit assets created in the boom years. With the debt load sustained by the efforts of central bankers, the wider economy is left in a deleveraging trap paying down debt that in a free market would have been repudiated long ago.

This process not only enriches the financial sector by propping up bad debt that would otherwise be liquidated, but also transfers purchasing power from the productive sectors to the financial sector via the Cantillon effect. Meanwhile unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains subdued, the West remains fragile to trade and resource shocks, wages and salaries are at an all-time low, and total economic activity remains depressed.

So this is a painful and unsustainable juncture — truly a sow’s ear of a situation. The deleveraging trap is a catch-22; while debt remains excessive, economic activity remains subdued, and while economic activity remains subdued, generating more production than consumption to pay down debt is extremely difficult. As we have seen in Japan — where the total debt load remains above where it was 1991 — fundamentals can remain depressed for years or even generations.

Certainly, the modern debt jubilee isn’t going to cure the culture that led to the excessive debt. Certainly, it won’t wash away the vampiristic TBTF megabanks which caused the GFC and live today on bailouts and ZIRP. Certainly, it won’t fix our broken political or financial systems where whistleblowers like Assange are locked away and fraudsters like Corzine roam free to start hedge funds. And certainly it won’t wash away the huge mountain of derivatives or shadow intermediation that interconnect the economy in a way that amplifies small shocks into greater crises.

We are, I think, passing through a strange phase of history where a myriad of ill-designed and heavily-leveraged economic planning experiments are failing.

The modern debt jubilee would at least provide some temporary relief for the debt-ridden wider economy, instead of the financial sector. Instead of pumping money solely to the megabanks — and the costs of deleveraging such a huge debt bubble means that more easing is inevitable, eventually — pumping to the public would also negate the problem of transferring purchasing power to the banks via the Cantillon effect.

It’s not going to save us from the wider problems — imperial overstretch, bailout culture, deindustrialisation, job migration, financial and political corruption, etc, etc, etc — but it would still be much better than the status quo.

The biggest problem with the modern debt jubilee, though, is that Wall Street and the financial sector are greedy and will likely fiercely resist any such efforts. And the financial sector holds lots of political leverage.

The cost of the status quo is a perpetually depressed economy and global Japan. That will be painful.

But on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everything — even reinflated debt bubbles — drops to zero. 

Could be a long wait, though.

Liquidation is Vital

Many Keynesians really hate the concept of liquidationism. I’m trying to grasp why.

Paul Krugman wrote:

One discouraging feature of the current economic crisis is the way many economists and economic commentators — apparently ignorant of what went on over the last 75 years or so of macroeconomic debate — have been reinventing old fallacies, imagining that they were coming up with profound insights.

The Bank for International Settlements has decided to throw everything we’ve learned from 80 years of hard thought about macroeconomics out the window, and to embrace full-frontal liquidationism. The BIS is now advocating a position indistinguishable from that of Schumpeter in the 1930s, opposing any monetary expansion because that would leave “the work of depressions undone”.

Andrew Mellon summed up liquidationism as so:

The government must keep its hands off and let the slump liquidate itself. Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmes, liquidate real estate. When the people get an inflation brainstorm, the only way to get it out of their blood is to let it collapse. A panic is not altogether a bad thing. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.

In light of the zombification that now exists in Japan and also America (and coming soon to every single QE and bailout-heavy Western economy) — zombie companies, poorly managed, making all the same mistakes as before, rudderless, and yet still in business thanks to government intervention  — it is clear that the liquidationists grasped something that Keynesians are still missing. Markets are largely no longer trading fundamentals; they are just trading state intervention and money printing. Why debate earnings when instead you can debate the prospects of QE3? Why invest in profitable companies and ventures when instead you can pay yourself a fat bonus cheque out of monetary stimulus? Why exercise caution and consideration when you can just gamble and get a bailout?

Unfortunately, Mellon and his counterparts at the 30s Fed were the wrong kind of liquidationists — they could not heed their own advice and leave the market be. Ironically, the 30s Fed in raising interest rates and failing to act as lender-of-last resort drove the market into a deeper depression than was necessary (and certainly a deeper one than happened in 1907) and crushed any incipient recovery.

Liquidation is not merely some abstract policy directive, or government function. It is an organic function of the market. As the stunning bounce-back from the Panic of 1907 shows — especially when contrasted against the 1930s — a  market liquidation on the back of a panic avoids a depression. Prices fall as far as the market deems necessary, before market participants quickly come back in into the frame, setting the market on a new trail toward growth. For without a central bank, asset-holders who want to maintain a strong economy and growth (in 2008, that probably would have meant sovereigns like China and Arabia) have to come in and pick up falling masonry as lenders of last resort.

Under a central banking regime (especially a Bernankean or Krugmanite one committed to Rooseveltian Resolve) all expectations fall onto the central bank.

My own view is not just that liquidation is vital. It is that the market mechanism is vital. Without their own capital as skin in the game, central bankers are playing blind. The pace of the liquidation and the pace of the recovery should be dictated by market participants — in other words, by society at large — not by the whims of distant technocrats. Society has more skin in the game. The Great Depression was not a crisis of too little intervention — it was a crisis of too much well-intentioned intervention.

As we are learning in our own zombie depression, a central bank doing the opposite of the 1930s Fed and reinflating may solve the problem of debt-deflation, but it causes many of its own problems — zombie banks, zombie corporations, zombie markets, corporate welfarism, and the destruction of the market mechanism.