Why the Gold Crash? The Failure of Inflation to Take Off

One of the key features of the post-2008 gold boom was the notion that inflation was soon about to take off due to Bernanke’s money printing.

But so far — by the most-complete inflation measure, MIT’s Billion Prices Project — it hasn’t:

AnnualInflation

To me, this signifies that the deflationary forces in the economy have so far far outweighed the inflationary ones (specifically, tripling the monetary base), to such an extent that the Fed is struggling to even meet its 2% inflation target, much less trigger the kind of Weimar or Zimbabwe-style hyperinflation that some gold enthusiasts have projected.

The failure of inflation to take off (and thus lower real interest rates) is probably the greatest reason why gold’s price stagnated from 2011 and why gold has gone into liquidation the last week. With inflation low, investors became more cautious about holding gold. With the price stagnant, the huge gains that characterised gold’s rise from 1999 dried up, leaving more and more long-term investors and particularly institutional investors leaving the gold game to hunt elsewhere for yield.

I myself am an inflation agnostic, with deflationista tendencies. While I tend to lean toward the notion of deeply-depressed Japan-style price levels during a deleveraging trap, price levels are also a nonlinear phenomenon and could both accelerate or decelerate based on irrational psychological factors as much as the level of the money supply, or the total debt level, or the level of deleveraging. And high inflation could certainly take off as a result of an exogenous shock like a war, or series of natural disasters. But certainly, betting the farm on a trade tied to very high inflation expectations when the underlying trend is largely deflationary was a very bad idea, and those who did like John Paulson are being punished pretty brutally.

The extent to which this may continue is uncertain. Gold today fell beneath its 200-week moving average for the first time since 2001. How investors, and particularly institutional investors react to this is uncertain, but I tend to expect the pendulum to swing very far toward liquidation. After all, in 2011 most Americans named gold the safest investment, and now that psychological bubble is bursting. That means that for every goldbug buying the dip, many more may panic and sell their gold. This could easily turn to a rout, and gold may fall as low as the cost of production ($900), or even lower (especially considering gold’s high stock-to-flow ratio). Gold is a speculation in that it produces no return other than price rises. The last time gold got stuck in a rut, it was stuck there for almost 20 years.

However, my case for physical gold as a small part of a diverse portfolio to act as a hedge against systemic and counterparty risks (default cascades, Corzine-style vaporisation, etc) still stands, and lower prices are only good news in that regard. The financial system retains very many of its pre-2008 fragilities as the deregulated megabanks acting on margin continue to speculate in ways that systematise risk through balance sheet interconnectivity. Another financial crisis may initially lower the price of gold on margin calls, but in the long run may result in renewed inflows into gold and a price trend reversal. Gold is very much a barometer of distrust in the financial, governmental and corporate establishment, and as middle class incomes continue to stagnate and income inequality continues to soar there remain grave questions over these establishments’ abilities to foster systemic prosperity.

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Save Our Bonuses!

With the British economy in a worse depression than the 1930s , bank lending to businesses severely depressed, and unemployment still high, a sane finance minister’s main concern might be resuscitating growth.

Prime Minister David Cameron And Chancellor George Osborne Ahead Of A Critical Week At The Leveson Inquiry

George Osborne’s main concern, however, are the poor suffering bankers:

Chancellor George Osborne flies to Brussels later determined to water down the European Parliament’s proposals to curb bankers’ bonuses.

But EU finance minsters in the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (Ecofin) are expected to approve last week’s proposals.

They include limiting bonuses to 100% of a banker’s annual salary, or to 200% if shareholders approve.

The City of London fears the rules will drive away talent and restrict growth.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has dismissed the idea as “self-defeating”. London is the EU’s largest financial centre.

On Monday, a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: “We continue to have real concerns on the proposals. We are in discussions with other member states.”

But Mr Osborne’s bargaining power may be weakened further by Switzerland’s recent decision to cap bonuses paid to bankers and give shareholders binding powers over executive pay.

Now, I couldn’t care less about bonuses or pay in a free industry where success and failure are determined meritocratically. It is none of my business. If a successful business wants to pay its employees bonuses, then that is that business’s prerogative. If it wants to pay such huge bonuses that it puts itself out of business, then that is that business’s prerogative.

But the British financial sector is the diametrical opposite of a successful industry. It is a forlorn bowlegged blithering misshapen mess. The banks were bailed out by the taxpayer. They do not exist on the merits of their own behaviour. Two of the biggest are still owned by the taxpayer.  So I — as a taxpayer and as a British citizen — have an inherent personal interest in the behaviour of these banks and their employees.

In an ideal world, I would have let the banks go to the wall. The fact that the financial system is still on life support almost five years after the crisis began tells a great story. It’s not just that I don’t believe in bailing out failed and fragile corporations (although I do believe that this is immoral cronyism). The excessive interconnectivity built up over years prior to the crisis means that the pre-existing financial structure is extremely fragile. Sooner or later, without dismantling the fragilities (something that patently has not happened, as the global financial system today is as big and corrupt and interconnective as ever), the system will break again. (Obviously in a no-bank-bailout world, other action would have been required. Once the financial system had been allowed to fail, depositors would have to be bailed out, and a new financial system would have to be seeded and capitalised.)

But we do not live in an ideal world. We have inherited a broken system where the bankers (and not solely the ones whose banks are owned by the taxpayer — all banks benefit from the implicit liquidity guarantees of central banks) are living on taxpayer largesse. That gives the taxpayer the right to dictate terms to the banking sector.

Unfortunately, this measure (like many such measures dreamed up arbitrarily by bureaucrats) is rather pointless as it can be so very easily gamed by inflating salaries. And it will do nothing to address financial sustainability, as it does not address the problem that led to the 2008 liquidity panic — excessive balance sheet interconnectivity (much less the broader problems of moral hazard, ponzification, and the current weakened lending conditions).

But, if it is a step toward a Glass-Steagall-style separation of retail and investment banking — a solution which would actually address a real problem, and one advocated in the Vickers report — then perhaps that is a good thing. Certainly, it is not worth picking a fight over. The only priority Osborne should have right now is creating conditions in which the private sector can grow sustainably. Unlimiting the bonuses of the High Priests of High Finance has nothing whatever to do with that.

The Unsustainable US Financial Sector

According to Bloomberg, the vast majority of the Big Five banks’ profits consisted of a taxpayer subsidy — the Too Big To Fail guarantee. If the Too Big To Fail banks had to lend at the rates offered to their non-Too Big to Fail competitors, their profits would be severely shrunk (in some cases, to a net loss):

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What does that mean?

That means that the American financial sector is a zombie, existing on the teat of the taxpayer.

It means the huge swathes of liquidity spent on saving the financial sector are ultimately good money chasing after bad.

As Bloomberg notes:

The U.S. financial industry — with almost $9 trillion in assets, more than half the size of the U.S. economy — would just about break even in the absence of corporate welfare. In large part, the profits they report are essentially transfers from taxpayers to their shareholders.

Neither bank executives nor shareholders have much incentive to change the situation. On the contrary, the financial industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars every election cycle on campaign donations and lobbying, much of which is aimed at maintaining the subsidy. The result is a bloated financial sector and recurring credit gluts.

This is extremely prescient stuff. The Fed since 2008 has reinflated the old bubbles, while allowing the same loot-and-pillage disaster-corporatist financial model to continue.

It is insane to repeat the same methods and expect different results. This credit glut, this new boom that has seen stocks rise closer and closer to their pre-crisis high (which may soon be exceeded) will just lead to another big 2008-style slump, just as the Fed’s reinflation of the burst tech bubble led to 2008 itself. This time the spark won’t be housing, it will be something else like an energy shock, or a war. Something that the Federal Reserve cannot directly control or fix by throwing money at it.

America (and the Western world in general) post-2008 needed real organic domestic growth built on real economic activity, not a reinflated bubble that let the TBTF financial sector continue to gorge itself into oblivion. 

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.

The Fed Confronts Itself

From Matt Taibbi:

Wall Street is buzzing about the annual report just put out by the Dallas Federal Reserve. In the paper, Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s research department, bluntly calls for the breakup of Too-Big-To-Fail banks like Bank of America, Chase, and Citigroup.

The government’s bottomless sponsorship of these TBTF institutions, Rosenblum writes, has created a “residue of distrust for government, the banking system, the Fed and capitalism itself.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

First, this managerialism is nothing new for the Fed. The (ahem) “libertarian” Alan Greenspan once said: “If they’re too big to fail, they’re too big.”

Second, the Fed already had a number of fantastic opportunities to “break up” so-called TBTF institutions: right at the time when it was signing off on the $29 trillion of bailouts it has administered since 2008. If the political will existed at the Fed to forcibly end the phenomenon of TBTF, it could (and should) have done it when it had the banks over a barrel.

Third, capitalism (i.e. the market) seems to deal pretty well with the problem of TBTF: it destroys unmanageably large and badly run companies. Decisions have consequences; buying a truckload of derivatives from a soon-to-be-bust counter-party will destroy your balance sheet and render you illiquid. Who seems to blame? The Fed; for bailing out a load of shitty companies and a shitty system . Without the Fed’s misguided actions the problem of TBTF would be long gone. After a painful systemic breakdown, we could have created a new system without any of these residual overhanging problems. We wouldn’t be “taxing savers to pay for the recapitalization of banks whose dire problems led to the calamity.” There wouldn’t be “a two-tiered regulatory environment where the misdeeds of TBTF banks are routinely ignored and unpunished and a lower tier where small regional banks are increasingly forced to swim upstream against the law’s sheer length, breadth and complexity, leading to a “massive increase in compliance burdens.”

So the Fed is guilty of crystallising and perpetuating most of these problems with misguided interventionism. And what’s the Fed’s purported answer to these problems?

More interventionism: forcibly breaking up banks into chunks that are deemed not to be TBTF.

And what’s the problem with that?

Well for a start the entire concept of “too big to fail” is completely wrong. The bailout of AIG had nothing to do with AIG’s “size”. It was a result of systemic exposure to AIG’s failure. The problem is to do with interconnectivity. The truth is that AIG — and by extension, the entire system — was deemed too interconnected to fail. Many, many companies had AIG products on their balance sheets. If AIG had failed (and taken with it all of that paper, very generously known as “assets”) then all those companies would have had a hole blown in their balance sheets, and would have sustained losses which in turn may well have caused them to fail, bleeding out the entire system.

The value that seems to matter in determining systemic robustness is the amount of systemic interconnectivity, in other words the amount of assets on balance sheets that are subject to counter-party risk (i.e. which become worthless should their guarantor fail).

Derivatives are not the only such asset, but they make up by far the majority:


Global nominal exposure is growing again. And those derivatives sit on global balance sheets waiting for the next black swan to blow up a hyper-connected counter-party like AIG. And such a cascade of defaults will likely lead to another 2008-style systemic meltdown, probably ending in another goliath-sized bailout, and another few rounds of the QE slop-bucket.

The question the Fed must answer is this: what difference would it make in terms of systemic fragility if exposures are transferred from larger to companies to smaller ones?

Breaking up banks will make absolutely zero difference, because the problem is not the size but systemic interconnectivity. Losses sustained against a small counter-party can hurt just as much as losses sustained against a larger counter-party. In a hyper-connected system, it is possible for failed small players to quickly snowball into systemic catastrophe.

The Fed (as well as the ECB) would do well to remember that it is not size that matters, but how you use it.

Education is a Bubble

A couple of days ago, Zero Hedge reported that a lot of student loans are delinquent:

As many as 27% of all student loan borrowers are more than 30 days past due. In other words at least $270 billion in student loans are no longer current (extrapolating the delinquency rate into the total loans outstanding). That this is happening with interest rates at record lows is quite stunning and a loud wake up call that it is not rates that determine affordability and sustainability: it is general economic conditions, deplorable as they may be, which have made the popping of the student loan bubble inevitable.

The reality of this — like the housing bubble before it — is that a lot of people who borrowed a lot of money can’t repay. That could be down to weak economic conditions. As I wrote yesterday, an unprecedented number of young people are unemployed and underemployed. These circumstances will lead to delinquencies.

But I think that there is a key difference. Unlike housing — which will probably never be made obsolete — it feels like education is undergoing a generational shift, much like agriculture did prior to the Great Depression, and much like manufacturing did prior to the Great Recession.

Venture capitalist Peter Thiel suggests:

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

But earnings for graduates are stagnant, while costs continue to rise:

However, all this really shows is the (quite obvious) reality that colleges — subsidised by Federal student loans guarantees that act as a price floor — can keep raising tuition fees even while in the real world the economy is contracting.

But education is suffering from a much bigger problem: a lot of what it does is gradually (or quickly) being made obsolete by technology.

While college degrees for vocational subjects like medicine, law, architecture and so forth are still critically important (not least because access to such professions is restricted to those who have jumped through the proper hoops), non-vocational subjects have been cracked completely open by the internet.

Why would anyone realistically choose to pay huge amounts of money to go to university to learn mathematics, or English literature, or computer science or economics when course materials  — and much, much, much more including access to knowledgeable experts and professionals — is freely available online?

The answer is for a piece of paper to “qualify” the holder and “prove” their worth to prospective employers. But with earnings for degree holders at roughly 1997 levels, what’s the point? Plenty of people with good ideas, drive and perseverance are living fulfilling and successful lives without a college degree — including me. There are flashier examples like Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Gates, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

A real estate agent trying to rent me a flat once said:

Why would people want to go to university? All it shows is that you are lazy, and can’t be bothered to find a proper job, and want to spend three or four years getting up late and getting drunk.

A useful (though not universally true) heuristic. “Education” has been turned inside out. To some employers, a degree (particularly one with a weak or mediocre grade) can in fact be a disadvantage. People without a degree can get ahead with three or four years of experience in industry.

So while we wait to see whether or not a student loan meltdown will lead to a wider financial meltdown (a la Lehman), I think we should consider that this industry may well be on the brink of a systemic meltdown itself. With severely decreased demand for education, a lot of schools and courses may be wiped off the map leaving behind a skeleton of only the most prestigious universities, and vocational and professional courses.

Zombie Economics

Occupy Wall Street seem to oppose banker bailouts because bailouts are unfair. Bankers — by and large the most privileged class in society — got at the last count over $14 trillion of interest free money from central banks and governments to keep on doing the same thing — getting rich from speculation, on the backs of workers and the productive economy. The rest of society — teachers, nurses, factory workers, entrepreneurs, the unemployed, etc — have to “share the pain” of unemployment, austerity and a depressed economy.

This is particularly unfair, because it is the bankers and speculators who caused the crisis in the first place. But there is a much deeper economic reason to oppose bailouts than simple unfairness. Bailing out failed and failing financial institutions creates a zombie economy. Why?

In nature, ideas and schemes that work are rewarded — and ideas and schemes that don’t work are punished. Our ancestors who correctly judged the climate, soil and rainfall and planted crops that flourished were rewarded with a bumper harvest. Those who planted the wrong crops did not get a bailout — they got a lean harvest, and were forced to either learn from their mistakes, or perish.

These bailouts have tried to turn nature on its head — bailed out bankers have not been forced by failure to learn from their mistakes, because governments and regulators protected them from failure.

So it should be no surprise that financial institutions have continued making exactly the same mistakes that created the crisis in 2008. That crisis was caused by excessive financial debt. Wall Street banks do not just play with their own equity — they borrow huge sums of money, too. This debt is known as leverage — and many Wall Street banks in 2008 had forty or fifty times as much leverage as they had equity. The problem with leverage is that while successful bets can very quickly lead to massive profits, bad bets can very quickly lead to insolvency — a bank that leverages itself 50:1 only has to incur a 2% loss on its portfolio to have lost every penny they started with. Lehman Brothers was leveraged 30:1.

Following 2008, many on Wall Street promised they had learned their lesson, and that the days of excessive leverage and risk-taking with borrowed money were over. But, in October 2011, another Wall Street bank was taken down by bad bets financed by excessive leverage: MF Global. Their leverage ratio? 40:1.

So why was the banking system bailed out in the first place? Defenders of the bailouts have correctly pointed out that not bailing out certain banks would have caused the entire system to collapse. This is because the global financial system is an interconnected web of debt. Institutions owe huge sums of money to one another. If a particularly interconnected bank disappears from the system, and cannot repay its creditors, the creditors themselves become threatened with insolvency. If a bank is leveraged 10:1 on assets of $10 billion, then its creditors may incur losses of up to $90 billion. Without state intervention, a single massive bankruptcy can quickly snowball into systemic destruction.

Ultimately, the system is extremely fragile, and prone to collapse. Government life-support has given Wall Street failures the resources to continue their dangerous and risky business practices which caused the last crisis. Effectively, Wall Street and the international financial system has become a government-funded zombie — unable to sustain itself in times of crisis through its own means, and dependent on suckling the taxpayer’s teat.

The darkest side to this zombification is that it takes resources from the productive, the young, the creative, and the needy and channels them to the zombies. Vast sums spent on rescue packages to keep the zombie system alive might have been available to increase the intellectual capabilities of the youth, or to support basic research and development, or to build better physical infrastructure, or to create new and innovative companies and products.

Zombification kills competition, too: when companies fail, it leaves a gap in the market that has to be filled, either by an expanding competitor, or by a new business. With failures now being kept on life-support, gaps in the market are fewer.

The system needs to change.

As Professor George Selgin of the University of Georgia put it:

Our governments chose to keep bad banks going and that is why quantitative easing has proven a failure. Quantitative easing failed because almost all the new money the government created has gone to shore up the balance sheets of irresponsible bankers. Now those banks sit on piles of idle cash while other businesses starve or cannot get started for want of credit.

It’s the same scenario that Japan has experienced for twenty years. They experienced a housing and stock market crash in 1990, bailed out their banking system, and growth never really recovered:

Ever since then, unemployment has been elevated:

That is the fate that Britain, Europe and America face by going down the Japanese zombification route: weak growth and elevated unemployment over a prolonged period of time. They face having the life sucked out of them by the zombie banks and corporations, and the burden of an every-growing public debt to finance more and more bailouts:


Instead of bailouts, we need to allow failed banks and corporations to fail and liquidate so that new businesses can take their place. Nature works best through experimentation. Saving zombie banks and zombie corporations kills experimentation, by rewarding failure, and preventing bad ideas from failing. If bad ideas and schemes cannot fail, it is impossible for good ideas and schemes to truly succeed.

The role of the government should be to provide a level playing field for experimentalism (and enough of a safety net for when experiments go wrong) — not pick winners. If experiments go badly, that is no bad thing: it just means that another idea, or system, or structure needs to be tested. People should be free to go bankrupt and start all over again with a different mindset and a different idea.