Who Should Be Giving Thanks This Thanksgiving?

Not the wider public.

Our financial system is broken. Our political system is broken. Oligarchs and their cronies reap easy rewards — bailouts, crony capitalism, corporate handouts, liquidity injections, favourable “regulation” (that puts oligarchs’ competition out of a business) — while taxpayers pay the bill.

But no such thing lasts forever.

Thanksgiving is very much the day of the black swan. Nassim Taleb used the example of a turkey fattened up for Thanksgiving as an example of a black swan phenomenon. The turkey sees itself being fed every day by the turkey farmer and assumes based on past behaviour that this will continued indefinitely until the day comes when the farmer kills the turkey. Nothing in the turkey’s limited experiential dataset suggested such an event.

But Thanksgiving also commemorates the end of pre-Columbian America, a huge earth-shattering black swan for the people of the Americas. The day before the first European immigrants landed in North America, very little in the Native Americans’ dataset suggested what was to come.

In a globalised and hyper-connected world, drastic systemic change can occur faster than ever before.

All it takes is the first spark.

Another Planet

The losers in elections often take the loss badly. Just as some Gore supporters in 2000 shouted about moving to Canada, some Romney supporters have taken the loss particularly badly too:

And perhaps the most poignant:

All the Republican rage made me think about the origins of America. So much emigration out of Europe to America came out of political and religious or ethnic friction and disagreement with the regimes in Europe (and later, the rest of the world). Many, many Americans are the descendants of Europeans who came to America to practise religion or politics the way they wanted to, and not the way that their nation, or the Catholic church, or a Feudal lord wanted them to.

That same independent-mindedness and the hunger for self-governance was the force that gave the Founding Fathers the chutzpah to finally sever ties with the British Empire in 1776 and strike out on their own as an independent nation.

For those who want to strike out into the unknown in the pursuit of self-governance, such options don’t exist anymore. There is no great sparsely inhabited continent spread out (except perhaps Antarctica which is already claimed-for) for those who want to strike out on their own. Those of a libertarian temperament and with a hunger for self-governance used to come to America. But in the modern, globalised world, where can they go?

Where is the next America? Where is the next land that people seeking self-governance can emigrate to?

One prospective answer has been seasteading — moving out onto floating cities in international waters. Perhaps that will satisfy the desires of a few in the coming years, but not everyone wants to live at sea. It is another frontier, but there are many challenges to overcome. For one thing, governments have navies, and may lay claim to successful floating cities near their waters, seeking new tax revenues. Pirates may pose a similar challenge.

In the much longer term, the answer will almost certainly be leaving the planet. The only uncolonised great new continents left are the ones up in space, on other planets.  There is no more effective or complete way to depart. So it is rather poetic that in the past couple of days a new Earthlike planet in a star’s habitable zone has been discovered.

Via the BBC:

Astronomers have spotted another candidate for a potentially habitable planet — and it is not too far away.

The star HD 40307 was known to host three planets, all of them too near to support liquid water.

But research to appear in Astronomy and Astrophysics has found three more – among them a “super-Earth” seven times our planet’s mass, in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist.

Many more observations will be needed to confirm any other similarities.

But the find joins an ever-larger catalogue of more than 800 known exoplanets, and it seems only a matter of time before astronomers spot an “Earth 2.0″ — a rocky planet with an atmosphere circling a Sun-like star in the habitable zone.

The hunger for self-governance led to the birth of America. It seems highly likely, in the very long run, that the hunger for self-governance will be the force that leads not only to local space colonisation (near-earth asteroids, Mars, asteroid belt, the moons of the gas giants) but ultimately deep space colonisation. The private space industry today is already driven by libertarian-leaning individuals like Bert Rutan, Robert Zubrin and Peter Thiel.

Powerful central government drives nonconformists to find ways to escape it. If the only road to self-governance left is up into space, then that is the road that will be taken. In the end, fury over a lost election may be the thing that drives humanity to the stars.

The Data That Won It For Obama

I wondered during the final debate whether Mitt Romney might steal a phrase from Ronald Reagan and ask Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago. It has worked for the Republicans before, and all the polling data pointed to the idea that voters were looking at the economy as the top issue.

Yet Romney did no such thing. Perhaps that was because by a number of significant measures, many Americans are better off than they were three or four years ago when America was mired in the epicentre of a global economic crisis. While America is in many cases just catching up to ground lost in the 2008 crash, and while many significant and real doubts remain about the underlying fundamentals of the American and global economies, the American economy has reinflated since early 2009.

Real GDP growth has been sustained:

The S&P500 has gone upward:

So has industrial production:

And total wages and salaries:

And here’s corporate profits:

And although total employment remains significantly depressed, headline unemployment has fallen (and those who have dropped out of the labour force have been entitled to expanded welfare programs):

It seems — although this was a very divided election — that these data provided enough juice to give just enough Americans the sense that although they may not be better off than they were at the turn of the millennium, under Obama things are improving just enough.

Certainly, some groups who have not fared well due to low interest rates such as seniors rejected Obama, too. Other groups, like women, deserted the Republicans on social issues. Yet Republicans looking for reasons why Romney ultimately lost probably need look no further than slow but steady reinflation.

Beneath the surface, this tepid reinflation is very much akin to the economy that got Bush re-elected in 2004. That recovery ended in mania and a bubble and finally a crash when subprime imploded in 2008. It is more than possible that this recovery is equally unsustainable and will end the same way, in crushing disappointment and grinding deflation.

Debt — the fuel of bubbles — is slowly growing again, from a perilously high starting point:

Deleveraging in the new quantitatively-eased environment has been very, very slow. This is a delicate and dangerous balancing act. Total debt levels as a percentage of the economy remain humungous and are a grinding weight on the underlying economy:

The Obama-Bernanke reinflation may well be an illusion built on the shakiest of foundations. And it may end more painfully than even the disastrous Bush-Greenspan reinflation. Yet it was enough to guarantee Obama re-election.

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.

This is Blowback

The YouTube video depicting Mohammed is nothing more than the straw that broke the camel’s back. This kind of violent uprising against American power and interests in the region has been a long time in the making. It is not just the continuation of drone strikes which often kill civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, either. Nor is it the American invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor is it the United States and the West’s support for various deeply unpopular regimes such as the monarchies in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (and formerly Iran). Nor is it that America has long favoured Israel over the Arab states, condemning, invading and fomenting revolution in Muslim nations for the pursuit of nuclear weapons while turning a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear weapons and its continued expansion into the West Bank.

Mark LeVine, Professor of Middle Eastern history at U.C. Irvine, writes:

Americans and Europeans are no doubt looking at the protests over the “film”, recalling the even more violent protests during the Danish cartoon affair, and shaking their heads one more at the seeming irrationality and backwardness of Muslims, who would let a work of “art”, particularly one as trivial as this, drive them to mass protests and violence.

Yet Muslims in Egypt, Libya and around the world equally look at American actions, from sanctions against and then an invasion of Iraq that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and sent the country back to the Stone Age, to unflinching support for Israel and all the Arab authoritarian regimes (secular and royal alike) and drone strikes that always seem to kill unintended civilians “by mistake”, and wonder with equal bewilderment how “we” can be so barbaric and uncivilised.

All of these things (and many more) have contributed to Muslim and Arab anger toward the United States and the West. Yet the underlying fact of all of these historical threads has been the United States’ oil-driven foreign policy. Very simply, the United States has for over half a century pursued a foreign policy in the region geared toward maintaining the flow of oil out of the region at any cost — even at the cost of inflaming the irrational and psychopathic religious elements that have long existed in the region.

This is not to defend the barbaric elements who resort to violence and aggression as a means of expressing their disappointment with U.S. foreign policy. It is merely to recognise that you do not stir the hornet’s nest and then expect not to get stung. 

And the sad thing is that stirring the hornet’s nest is totally avoidable. There is plenty of oil and energy capacity in the world beyond the middle east. The United States is misallocating capital by spending time, resources, energy and manpower on occupying the middle east and playing world policeman. Every dollar taken out of the economy by the IRS to be spent drone striking the middle east into the stone age is a dollar of lost productivity for the private market. It is a dollar of productivity that the market could have been spent increasing American energy capacity and energy infrastructure in the United States — whether that is in oil, natural gas, solar, wind or hydroelectric.

And this effect can spiral; every dollar spent on arming and training bin Laden and his allies to fight the Soviet Union begot many more thousands of dollars of military spending when bin Laden’s mercenaries turned their firepower onto the United States, and the United States chose to spend over ten years and counting occupying Afghanistan (rightly known as the graveyard of empires). It is likely that the current uprisings will trigger even more U.S. interventionism in the region (indeed it already has as marines have already been dispatched to Yemen) costing billions or even trillions of dollars more money (especially if an invasion of Iran is the ultimate outcome). This in turn is likely to trigger even fiercer resistance to America from the Islamist elements, and so the spiral continues on.

The only way out of this money-sucking, resource-sucking, life-sucking trap that is very literally obliterating the American empire is to swallow pride and get out of the middle east, to stop misallocating American resources and productivity on unwinnable wars.

But neither major Presidential candidate is interested in such a policy. Perhaps it is because war is a great profit source for the military-industrial complex, the force to which both the Democratic and Republican parties are beholden?

In any case, we should expect to see much more of this:

Source: Reuters

Junkie Recovery

A bad jobs report that left headline unemployment above 8% — and much worse when we dig under the surface and see that the real rate is at least 11.7%, if not 14.7% or an even higher figure when we take into account those who have given up looking and claimed disability — has made QE3 seem like an inevitability for many analysts.

Reuters:

U.S. Treasuries rallied on Friday after a weaker-than-expected August U.S. jobs report boosted hopes that the Federal Reserve would buy more bonds to help shift the economy into a gear that could create higher employment.

Goldman Sachs:

We now anticipate that the FOMC will announce a return to unsterilized asset purchases (QE3), mainly agency mortgage-backed securities but potentially including Treasury securities, at its September 12-13 FOMC meeting. We previously forecasted QE3 in December or early 2013. We continue to expect a lengthening of the FOMC’s forward guidance for the first hike in the funds rate from “late 2014” to mid-2015 or beyond.

Jim Rickards:

Fed easing on Sept 13th is a done deal.

Nouriel Roubini:

Quite dismal employment report confirming anemic US economic growth. QE3 is only a matter of when not whether, most likely in December.

Gold has shot up, too, the way it has done multiple times when the market has sensed further easing:

The thing I can’t get my head around, though, is why the Federal Reserve are even considering a continuation of quantitative easing. Here’s why:

If the point of the earlier rounds of quantitative easing was to ease lending conditions by giving the financial system a liquidity cushion, then quantitative easing failed because the financial system already has a huge and historically unprecedented liquidity cushion, and lending remains depressed. Why would even more easing ease lending conditions when the financial sector is already sitting on a massive cushion of liquidity?

If the point of the earlier rounds of quantitative easing was to discourage the holding of treasuries and other “safe” assets (I wouldn’t call treasuries a safe asset at all, but that’s another story for another day) and encourage risk taking, then quantitative easing failed because the financial sector is piling into treasuries (and anything else the Fed intends to buy at a price floor) in the hope of flipping assetsto the Fed balance sheet and eking out a profit.

If the point of quantitative easing was to provide enough  liquidity to keep the massive, earth-shatteringly large debt load serviceable, then quantitative easing succeeded — but the “success” of sustaining the crippling debt load is that it remains a huge burden weighing down on the economy like a tonne of bricks.  This “success” has turned markets into junkies, increasingly dependent on central bank liquidity injections. After QE3 will come more and more and more easing until the market has either successfully managed to deleverage to a sustainable level (and Japan’s total debt level as a percentage of GDP remains higher than it was in 1991, even after 20 years of painful deleveraging — so there is no guarantee whatever that this will occur any time soon), or until central banks give up and let markets liquidate. Quantitative easing’s “success” has been a junkie recovery and a zombie market.

As I see it, the West’s economic depression is being directly caused by an excessive total debt burden — just as Japan’s has been for twenty years; the bust occurred on the back of a huge outgrowth of debt and coincided with the beginning of a painful new era of deleveraging. And the central bank response has been to preserve the debt burden, thus perpetuating the problems rather than allowing them to clear in a short burst of deflationary liquidation as was the norm in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Central banks have been given ample opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of reflationism. And yet economic activity remains depressed both in the West and Japan.

How Badly Does Wall Street Want a Romney Presidency?

Apparently, this badly:

But this is chickenshit money — it doesn’t even add up to Lloyd Blankfein’s 2007 bonus.

Let’s see where the real money is going.

Markets couldn’t seem to care less:

The S&P is still well up during Obama’s presidency.

So does Wall Street really want a Romney Presidency? Or could Wall Street not care less, because they know that both sides will gladly do their bidding? After all it’s not like Obama has tried to jail corrupt bankers — Corzine, who after raiding segregated accounts is surely up there with the most corrupt guys on Wall Street, has been bundling for Obama as recently as April.

Ignore the chickenshit donations. If markets fall significantly between now and November — 1300, 1200, 1100, 1000 — the powers that be on Wall Street want a Romney presidency. After all, it’s not only possible but extremely easy to deliberately crash the market when you have at your disposal algorithmic trading programs that can buy the spike and sell the dip 40 times a second (that’s 2400 times a minutes, 144,000 times an hour). No market crash? They’re happy to stick with Obama.