When Is Austerity Necessary At The Treasury?

I have made clear in the past that I believe that the time for austerity at the Treasury is the boom, not the slump.

However this is a very general and non-specific definition. I want to be a little clearer and more specific.

First, I think it is important to define austerity. Government is a two-way street. It sucks in money through taxation, and it pushes out money into incomes through spending. Net government spending is the net of these two figures. Austerity in a technical sense happens when the change in net government spending turns negative either through spending cuts, or through tax hikes, or a combination of the two.

Second, I think it is important to specify that this is not a debate about the ideal size of government. This is a debate about the short-term government spending and taxation trajectory, which is a very different subject to one’s ideal size of government. It is possible to favour very small government in principle, but at times oppose austerity. It is also possible to favour large and expansive government, and at times support austerity.

Now, to be very clear: the time for austerity at the treasury is the time when government activity is crowding out the private sector. When does this occur? Well, the clearest example that I can think of are World War I and World War II. It is easy to imagine how government can smother the private sector in times of war; resources are centrally controlled and directed to the war effort, labour and capital are directed away from productive activities and toward fighting, toward building bombs and weapons to destroy things. There is little slack in the economy, as in total war the state commandeers as much of society as it possibly can toward the war effort. Notably, austerity programs that massively reduced the size of government following the two world wars were successful, and did not have a long-term downward impact on growth.

In peacetime, it is also possible for the government to crowd the private sector out of the economy, in a similar way. By commandeering large quantities of resources, labour and capital, governments can leave little for the private sector to use to create, build and invent.

The two most important parameters to determine whether a government is crowding out the private sector are labour markets and capital markets. In the broadest sense, the specific parameters are interest rates and the unemployment level. When the private sector is being crowded out in labour markets, unemployment falls to a low level, as the government is utilising all the slack. When the private sector is being crowded out in capital markets, interest rates rise to a high level, as the government is utilising all the slack.

Today, both in Britain and the United States unemployment is elevated (meaning labour is freely and readily available) and interest rates are very low (meaning capital is freely and readily available). First, Britain:


Second, the United States:


What this means is that in a technical sense — and irrespective of one’s preconceived notions of the ideal size of government — government is not crowding out the private sector. There is plenty of slack in the economy in both labour and capital markets.

Yet in another sense — unrelated to spending — governments may be slowing private activity. By imposing high legal and regulatory barriers to entry, governments can slow business investment and prevent new businesses from forming, and the unemployed from becoming self-employed. Given the massive growth of legal and regulatory burdens in certain industries favouring only large and old competitors who can hire lots and lots of expensive lawyers, it is extremely likely the case that there are some negative effects. The OECD noted in 2006 that “administrative simplification and reducing administrative burdens are a very high priority for OECD member countries”, and red tape levels have grown in both sides of the Atlantic since then. I have repeatedly suggested that in the current economic environment governments ease the regulatory and legal burden for small and new businesses in particular to foster competition and lower unemployment.

However cutting back on red tape is a totally separate matter to fiscal austerity, which in the current environment by definition takes an economy with significant capital and labour slack, and creates even more slack.

The time for fiscal austerity at the treasury is a time of high or rising interest rates and low or falling unemployment, and especially when interest rates are higher than the unemployment rate. The reality is that most of the Western world has the opposite of that right now.

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Too Big To Understand

One thing that has undergone hyperinflation in recent years is the length of financial regulations:

Too Big To Understand

The Dodd-Frank regulatory hyperinflation crowds out those who cannot afford teams of legal counsel, compliance officers, and expansive litigation. Dodd-Frank creates new overheads which are no challenge for large hedge funds and megabanks armed with Fed liquidity, but a massive challenge for startups and smaller players with more limited resources.

As BusinessWeek noted in October:

The law requires Hedge Funds to register with the Securities and Exchange Commission, supply reams of sensitive data on trading positions, carefully screen potential investors, and hire compliance officer after compliance officer.

So, is this expansion in volume likely to improve financial stability? No — the big banks are bigger and more interconnected than ever, which was precisely the problem before 2008, and they are still speculating and arbitraging with very fragile strategies that can incur massive losses as MF Global’s breakdown and more recently the London Whale episode proves.

Andy Haldane laid out the problem perfectly in his recent paper The Dog and the Frisbee:

Catching a frisbee is difficult. Doing so successfully requires the catcher to weigh a complex array of physical and atmospheric factors, among them wind speed and frisbee rotation. Were a physicist to write down frisbee-catching as an optimal control problem, they would need to understand and apply Newton’s Law of Gravity.

Yet despite this complexity, catching a frisbee is remarkably common. Casual empiricism reveals that it is not an activity only undertaken by those with a Doctorate in physics. It is a task that an average dog can master. Indeed some, such as border collies, are better at frisbee-catching than humans.

So what is the secret of the dog’s success? The answer, as in many other areas of complex decision-making, is simple. Or rather, it is to keep it simple. For studies have shown that the
frisbee-catching dog follows the simplest of rules of thumb: run at a speed so that the angle of gaze to the frisbee remains roughly constant. Humans follow an identical rule of thumb.

Catching a crisis, like catching a frisbee, is difficult. Doing so requires the regulator to weigh a complex array of financial and psychological factors, among them innovation and risk appetite. Were an economist to write down crisis-catching as an optimal control problem, they would probably have to ask a physicist for help.

Yet despite this complexity, efforts to catch the crisis frisbee have continued to escalate. Casual empiricism reveals an ever-growing number of regulators, some with a Doctorate in physics. Ever-larger litters have not, however, obviously improved watchdogs’ frisbee-catching abilities. No regulator had the foresight to predict the financial crisis, although some have since exhibited supernatural powers of hindsight.

So what is the secret of the watchdogs’ failure? The answer is simple. Or rather, it is complexity.

Big, messy legislation leaves legal loopholes that clever and highly-paid lawyers and (non-) compliance officers can cut through. Bigger and more extensive regulation can make a system less well-regulated. I propose that this is what the big banks will use Dodd-Frank to accomplish.

I predict that the regulatory hyperinflation will make the financial industry and the wider economy much more fragile.

Can Banking Regulation Prevent Stupidity?

In the wake of J.P. Morgan’s epic speculatory fail a whole lot of commentators are talking about regulation. And yes — this was speculation — if Dimon gets to call these activities “hedging portfolio risk“, then I have the right to go to Vegas, play the Martingale roulette system, and happily call it “hedging portfolio risk” too, because hey — the Martingale system always wins in theory.

From Bloomberg:

The Volcker rule, part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, was inspired by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. It’s supposed to stop federally insured banks from making speculative bets for their own profit — leaving taxpayers to bail them out when things go wrong.

As we have said, banks have both explicit and implicit federal guarantees, so the market doesn’t impose the same discipline on them as, say, hedge funds. For this reason, the Volcker rule should be as airtight as possible.

Proponents of regulation point to the period of relative financial stability between the enactment of Glass-Steagall and its repeal. But let’s not confuse Glass-Steagall with what’s on the table today. It’s a totally different ball game.

To be honest, I think the Volcker rule is extremely unlikely to be effective, mostly because megabanks can bullshit their way around the definitional divide between proprietary trading and hedging. If anything, I think the last few days have proven the ineffectiveness, as opposed to the necessity of the Volcker rule. Definitions are fuzzy enough for this to continue. And whatever is put in place will be loopholed through by teams of Ivy League lawyers. What is the difference between hedging and speculation, for example? In my mind it’s very clear — hedging is betting to counterbalance specific and explicit risks, for example buying puts on a held equity. In the mind of Jamie Dimon, hedging is a fuzzy form of speculative betting to guard against more general externalities. I know that I am technically right, and Dimon is technically wrong, but I am also fairly certain that Dimon and his ilk can bend regulators into accepting his definition.

What we really need is a system that enforced the Volcker principle:

As Matt Yglesias notes:

Once bank lawyers finish finding loopholes in the detailed provisions, whatever they prove to be, the rule will probably have little meaningful impact.

The problem with principles-based regulation in this context is that you might fear that banks will use their political influence to get regulators to engage in a lot of forebearance. The problem with rules-based regulation in this context is that it’s really hard to turn a principle into a rule.

And I fear that nothing short of a return to Glass-Steagall — the explicit and categorical separation of investment and retail banking — will even come close to enforcing the Volcker principle.

Going even further, I am not even sure that Glass-Steagall will assure an end to this kind of hyper-risky activities that lead to crashes and bailouts.

The benefits of the Glass-Steagall era (particularly the high-growth 1950s and 1960s) were not solely derived from banking regulation. America was a very different place. There was a gold exchange standard that limited credit creation beyond the economy’s productive capacity (which as a Bank of England study recently found is correlated with financial and banking stability). But beyond that, America was creditor to the world, and an industrial powerhouse. And I’m sure Paul Krugman would hastily point out that tax revenues on the richest were as high as 90% (although it must be noted that this made no difference whatever for tax revenues). And we should not forget that it was that world that give birth to this one.

Anyone who worked in finance in the decade before Glass-Steagall was repealed knows that prior to Gramm-Leach-Bliley the megabanks just took their hyper-leveraged activities offshore (primarily to London where no such regulations existed). The big problem (at least in my mind) with Glass-Steagall is that it didn’t prevent the financial-industrial complex from gaining the power to loophole and lobby Glass-Steagall out of existence, and incorporate a new regime of hyper-leverage, convoluted shadow banking intermediation, and a multi-quadrillion-dollar derivatives web (and more importantly a taxpayer-funded safety net for when it all goes wrong: heads I win, tails you lose).

I fear that the only answer to the dastardly combination of hyper-risk and huge bailouts is to let the junkies eat dirt the next time the system comes crashing down. You can’t keep bailing out hyper-fragile systems and expect them to just fix themselves. The answer to stupidity is not the moral hazard of bailouts, it is the educational lesson of failure. You screw up, you take more care next time. If you’re bailed out, you just don’t care. Corzine affirms it; Iksil affrims it; Adoboli affirms it. And there will be more names. Which chump is next? If you’re trading for a TBTF bank right now — especially if your trading pattern involves making large bets for small profits (picking up nickels in front of steamrollers) — it could be you. 

I fear that the only effective regulation was that advocated way back before Gramm-Leach-Blilely by Warren G and Nate Dogg:

We regulate any stealing off this property. And we’re damn good too. But you can’t be any geek off [Wall] street, gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean, earn your keep.

In other words, the next time the fragilista algos and arbitrageurs come clawing to the taxpayer looking for a bailout, the taxpayer must kick them off the teat.


Some commenters on Zero Hedge have made the point that this is not a matter of stupidity so much as it is one of systemic and purposeful looting. Although I see lots of evidence of real stupidity (as I described yesterday), even if I am wrong, I know that to get access to the bailout stream banks have to blow up and put themselves into a liquidity crisis, and even if they think that is an easy way to free cash it’s still pretty stupid because eventually — if not this time then next time — they will end up in bankruptcy court. It would be like someone with diabetes stopping their medication to get attention…

More Evidence That Austerity During Depressions Works

Sorry, no. I am being sarcastic.

From Bloomberg:

The U.K. economy shrank in the first quarter as construction output slumped, pushing Britain into its first double-dip recession since the 1970s and raising pressure on officials to salvage the recovery.

Gross domestic product contracted 0.2 percent from the fourth quarter of 2011, when it shrank 0.3 percent, the Office for National Statistics said today in London.

Last month I described Britain’s problems: GDP levels have never recovered to pre-crisis levels, the unemployment rate continues to climb from post-crisis levels, government debt level continue to climb, inflation levels are elevated, and all of these metrics are somehow worse than the situation in America. 

And now Britain is back in recession.

The bottom line here is that trying to conduct an austerity program during the depths of a recession is dangerous. Less government spending and higher taxation translates into falling incomes for many, which often translates into falling tax revenues (as is the case here), which means that “deficit reduction” just produces larger deficits. Greece is the extreme example.

Nations in the Eurozone that have seen the most growth have conducted the least austerity:

So what would a successful conservative economic program look like today?

Well, until the nation is out of the slump and consistently growing, it should begin and end with slashing regulation and barriers to entry so that more unemployed people can become self-employed. It could include some form of program to encourage taxpayer-funded banks to lend to people who want to start businesses, for the same reason.

While not throwing around stimulus slush money (for that tends to end up in the pockets of well-connected corporations) it would maintain spending levels, and look to redirect some spending toward more productive endeavours for instance giving small businesses tax breaks for every job they create, or every factory they open.

The welfare cuts must wait until there is a strong and self-sustaining recovery, for when the economy is creating lots of jobs, for when there is a demand for labour. Slashing welfare when there are no jobs to go to is totally self-defeating.

The deficit reduction must wait until tax revenues are consistently rising due to a strong and self-sustaining recovery.

It frightens me that conservative voices have gotten this so hideously wrong. We had a decade of fiscally reckless government, where governments, consumers and businesses totally forgot the imperative to save in the fat times to spend in the lean, and joined the leverage mania and the derivatives casino. That was dangerous and foolish. And now policymakers have chosen to focus on deficits at precisely the wrong time. It is absolutely the worst of both worlds.

Can I Have a Bailout?

Am I about to get regulated?

From Zero Hedge:

SocGen’s Todd Martin, who is the bank’s Asia equity strategist, appeared on Bloomberg earlier today to discuss the Volcker Rule and prop trading, against which the anonymous blogosphere had some very “strong views” back in 2009. Sure enough, prop trading ended a few months later with the adoption of the Volcker Rule. Somehow, the topic of the Volcker rule shifted to the topic of whether or not Morgan Stanley is exposed to France, and its insolvent banks, and who is to blame: “For example one blog just a week ago, had a very, very strong view against Morgan Stanley. They quoted Sanford Bernstein who actually was telling people to buy the stock. And then they were quoting Gross Exposures not Net, and then concluding that Morgan Stanley had to go down and be dismembered [sic]. Now I have a serious problem with this. If I get regulated why isn’t this place regulated. It’s also very dangerous because they are using psudonames [sic] and we don’t know who they are. They could be the guy on the street. They could be a hedge fund dangling out information. It could be the head of a prop desk. Thing is it is supposed to be regulated. And they get their revenues from trading platforms on US soil. And I don’t think it’s fair. And I think the US should go and take a look and regulate the blogosphere. I think it’s really, really out of control.” In other words: it is all the blogosphere’s fault.

Of course, it is a simple fact that while the promise of bailout money hangs over markets, some traders and executives will take huge risks with other people’s money (shareholders, taxpayers, anyone with a loose chequebook). This agency problem creates huge fragility — especially in a system like modern international finance which is prone to the default cascade, where one bank failure can potentially bring the system down. And it is also true that Dexia — a bank that only recently passed the regulators’ stress tests with flying colours — just failed (ouch) and had to be bailed out.

The reality is that the only way to create a system based on responsible behaviour is to enforce the idea in capitalism that actions have consequences —  no bailouts for screw-ups, no free lunch, remove the money from politics, etc.

The real issue here, though, is just how “regulated” I might end up being.

From Wikipedia (surely this needs to be regulated, too?):

Censorship in Nazi Germany was implemented by the Minister of PropagandaJoseph Goebbels. All media — literaturemusicnewspapers, and public events — were censored. Attempts were also made to censor private communications, such as mail and even private conversation, with mixed results.

The aim of censorship under the Nazi regime was simple: to reinforce Nazi power and to suppress opposing viewpoints and information. Punishments ranged from banning of presentation and publishing of works to deportation, imprisonment, or even execution in a concentration camp.

Hitler outlined his theory of propaganda and censorship in Mein Kampf:

The chief function of propaganda is to convince the masses, whose slowness of understanding needs to be given time so they may absorb information; and only constant repetition will finally succeed in imprinting an idea on their mind.

Right — citizens need to have the right ideas imprinted on their minds.

Repeat after me:

The Euro is not failing.
The Euro is not failing.
The Euro is not failing.
The Euro is not failing.

Let’s try another one:

Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.
Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.
Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.
Goldman Sachs is doing God’s work.

Feels good, doesn’t it?

More importantly, now that I am doing God’s work (by proxy), can I get a no-haircut bailout if I leverage myself 100:1 selling out of the money S&P calls and lose all my capital?

Gibson Guitars: A Great American Company

Is over-regulation killing American industry? From NPR:

In the hottest part of an August Tennessee day last Thursday, Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz stood out in the full sun for 30 minutes and vented to the press about the events of the day before.

“We had a raid,” he said, “with federal marshals that were armed, that came in, evacuated our factory, shut down production, sent our employees home and confiscated wood.”

The raids at two Nashville facilities and one in Memphis recalled a similar raid in Nashville in November 2009, when agents seized a shipment of ebony from Madagascar. They were enforcing the Lacey Act, a century-old endangered species law that was amended in 2008 to include plants as well as animals. But Juszkiewicz says the government won’t tell him exactly how — or if — his company has violated that law.

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