Trump’s Election Win Shows That The Bank Bailouts And Quantitative Easing Have Failed

The bigger picture of the early 21st century follows: Western nations experienced a massive blowout bubble of leverage, irrational exuberance, and Hayekian pseudo-money creation.

Yet this money was not going to overwhelmingly productive causes. The real output of the Western world did not follow anything close to the ebullience of the financial markets. Without the growth and jobs needed to service the debt load, many of the debtors—including most famously subprime mortgage borrowers—defaulted.  And thus the securitized debt bubble burst when—in the midst of two large and expensive American wars—the animal spirits of the market turned to panic over debt defaults.

What followed was not, it turns out, enough to right the ship. In theory, when markets are frightened of the future and productive human and financial capital lies idle, government borrowing can re-employ these resources until the animal spirits of the market emerge from their slump. In my view, there are two key measures of this: unemployment, and interest rates on government borrowing. High unemployment rates signify idle human capital. Low interest rates signify idle financial capital.

But this balancing did not occur. Even as the Brown and Obama governments engaged in a degree of fiscal stimulus, voters were not won over by the logic of this, and austerian conservatives came to parliamentary power in both the United States and United Kingdom. Government purse strings tightened. Instead, stimulus came down to central banks, who kept interest rates super low, and used quantitative easing as a form of simulated rate cut to cut interest rates beyond the lower bound of zero.

In my view, the political collapse we have seen since in the last year in both the United Kingdom and United States illustrates that this was not enough. Moreover—and more importantly— the continuation of the low interest rate environment illustrates that this was not enough. If quantitative easing had been worked as intended, interest rates would surely have bounced back by now, rather than remaining depressed? Certainly you can make an argument that we are now in an era of depressed interest rates as a result of our ageing society, where rising numbers of retirees mean that demand for savings is outpacing demand for productive investment opportunities. There is certainly some truth in that view. But ultimately, that is just one of many facts that governments and central banks had to weigh in getting the economy back to normal after 2008.

And maybe more quantitative easing would have allowed the market to bounce back and renormalize faster. Somehow, I doubt it. Why? Because quantitative easing is a Rube Goldbergian form of stimulus. It is a matter of pushing on a string. It is leading the horse to water. But there is no guarantee that the horse will drink. And the horse—in this case, the market—has not drunk. Demand for productive investment has not recovered, in spite the fact that that the central banks have made it super cheap. So the banks that got access to the cheap financing just sat on the money, instead of using it productively.

There is a bigger picture here, and it is something that I referred to in 2011 as Japanization. To wit:

Essentially, in both the United States and Japan, credit bubbles fuelling a bubble in the housing market collapsed, leading to a stock market crash, and asset price slides, triggering deflation throughout the respective economies—much like after the 1929 crash. Policy makers in both countries—at the Bank of Japan, and Federal Reserve — set about reflating the bubble by helicopter dropping yen and dollars. Fundamental structural problems in the banking system that contributed to the initial credit bubbles—in both Japan and the United States—have not really ever been addressed. Bad businesses were never liquidated, which is why there has not been aggressive new growth. So Japan’s zombie banks, and America’s too big to fail monoliths blunder on.

They have now blundered on into full on systemic contagion. Unhappy voters have lashed out and thrown out incumbents—the European Union and David Cameron in Britain, and the Bush-Clinton dynasties in America.

Unhappiness with the economy is at the very core of this. There has already been a quite voluminous debate about whether or not Trumpism and Brexitism were fuelled by economic anxiety or whether they are a traditionalist cultural backlash against minorities. Such debates present a false dichotomy. If Trumpism and Brexitism were not about the state of the economy, why did they not occur when the economy was strong? Why did they suddenly start rising after a financial crisis in the presence of a depressed economy—just as they did in the 1930s during the Great Depression? Hitler did not come to power when Germany was economically strong. Mussolini did not come to power when Italy was economically strong. The reality is that economic weakness and economic anxiety open the door to cultural backlash, to anti-immigrant sentiments, and ultimately to white supremacy. People who feel that the economy is bad are primed to listen to scapegoating. Immigrants, rising foreign powers, and establishment politicians like David Cameron and Hillary Clinton provide easy targets.

However, even within the false dichotomy of anxiety vs backlash, there is substantial evidence that the Trumpist communities that were falling behind. A Gallup analysis in August of this year found that: “communities with worse health outcomes, lower social mobility, less social capital, greater reliance on social security income, and less reliance on capital income, predicts higher levels of Trump support”. Indeed, as Max Ehrenfreund and Jeff Guo of The Washington Post—who took the “it’s not economic anxiety” position—noted, “there does seem to be a relationship between economic anxiety and Trump’s appeal”, even if that relationship is not as simple as unemployed and poor people diving into Trump’s camp.

The same is true for the Brexiteers. As Ben Chu of The Independent notes: ” new research by the labour market economists Brian Bell and Stephen Machin… suggests the Leave vote tended to be bigger in areas of the country where wage growth has been weakest since 1997″.

The financial crisis of 2008 provided politicians with an opportunity to re-engineer the economic system to prevent these groups from falling behind so dramatically. The system failed, completely and utterly. Policy makers were in a position to re-design it. The financial system could have at very least been re-engineered to provide financing, training, and education to people in areas which lost out on manufacturing jobs thanks to automation and globalization.

Instead politicians capitulated utterly to Wall Street, and bailed out a fragile zombie system, as Japan did in the 1990s. The machine keeps blundering on, sitting on vast quantities of productive capital instead of setting it to work. Later, they set in place reforms like Dodd-Frank to shore up some of the fragilities in the banking system. These—in combination with the ongoing quantitative easing—may have prevented a financial crisis since 2008 (and Trump repealing such things may make the system much more fragile again). But that did not address the underlying problems. The fragility in the financial system was absorbed by the political system, and thus transferred into the political system. And now we reap the whirlwind of those choices, in the shape of a new nationalist populism that blames globalization, trade policies, and migration for the failures of Western politicians.

Trump already is setting his stand out as a builder and an investor in infrastructure, just as Hitler did.

As Keynes wrote in his introduction to The General Theory:

The theory of aggregated production, which is the point of the following book, nevertheless can be much easier adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state than the theory of production and distribution of a given production put forth under conditions of free competition and a large degree of laissez-faire.

The laissez-faire West failed to implement his ideas and avoid an economic depression (albeit a relatively mild one compared to the 1930s) following 2008. Now proto-totalitarians like Trump will get their chance, instead.

Are teen pregnancies good for the economy?

At Pew Research Center, Eileen Patten points out that “[t]he teen birth rate in the U.S. is at a record low, dropping below 30 births per 1,000 teen females for the first time since the government began collecting consistent data on births to teens ages 15-19”:

[Pew]

What’s changed? “The short answer is that it is a combination of less sex and more contraception. Teenagers have a greater number of methods of contraceptives to choose from,” Bill Albert, the chief program officer of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, told TIME. He added, “The menu of contraceptive methods has never been longer.”

Reducing teenage pregnancy has long been a matter of policy for the federal government, and the latest trends represent a policy victory for successive administrations who have tried to achieve that goal. While liberals and conservatives manage to find ways to disagree on issue after issue, teen pregnancy is one point on which they largely agree. Though they diverge on the means — many conservatives advocate abstinence while liberals tend to favor contraception — both sides happily shake hands on the common goal of reducing teen pregnancy.

Read More At TheWeek.com

The London Real Estate Bubble

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In October, London real estate asking prices jumped 10%. In my view is kind of parabolic-looking jump has developed out of quite a silly situation, and one I think is a good exhibit of just how irrational and weird markets can sometimes be.  London real estate prices have been rising strongly for a long while, and a large quantity — over half for houses above £1 million — of the demand for London real estate is coming from overseas buyers most of whom are buying for investment purposes. It is comprehensible that London is a desirable place to live, and that demand for housing in London might be higher than elsewhere in the UK. It is a diverse and rich place culturally and socially, boasting a huge variety of shopping, parks, art galleries, creative communities, restaurants, monuments and landmarks, theatres and venues, financial service providers, lawyers, think tanks, technology startups, universities, scientific institutions, sports clubs and infrastructure. Britain’s legal framework and its straightforward tax structure for wealthy foreign residents has proven highly attractive to the global super rich. With London real estate proving perennially popular, and with the global low-interest rate environment that has made borrowing for speculation cheap and easy, it is highly unsurprising that prices and rents have pushed upward and upward as the global super rich — alongside pension funds and hedge funds — sitting on large piles of cash have sought to achieve higher yields than cash or bonds by speculating in real estate. In some senses, London real estate (and real estate in other globally-desirable cities) has become a new reserve currency. And while this has occurred, price rises have proven increasingly cyclical as both London residents and speculators have sought to buy. The higher prices go, the more London residents become desperate to get their feet on the property ladder in fear they won’t ever be able to do so, and the more speculators are drawn in, seeing London real estate as an asset that just keeps going up and up.

Yet the bigger the bubble, the bigger the bust. And I think what we are seeing in London is a large psychological bubble, a mass delusion built on other delusions. Chief among these delusions is that real estate should be seen as a productive investment, as an implicit pension fund, or as a guaranteed source of real yield. While investors can look at real estate however they like, there is no getting away from the fact that real estate is a deteriorating asset. Sitting on a deteriorating asset and hoping for a real price gain — or even to preserve your purchasing power — is a speculation, not a productive investment. For commercial enterprises buying as a premises for business, or for residents buying as a place to live this is not in itself problematic. But as an investment this can be hugely problematic. It is just gambling on a deteriorating asset under the guise of buying a “safe” asset.

Of course, in the UK where housing has been treated by many successive governments as an investment, and as a haven for savings and pensions, real estate owners have done particularly well. Governments have been willing to prop up the market with liquidity via schemes like Help To Buy and via restrictive planning laws to rig the market to restrict supply. This may make investors feel particularly secure, but governments can be forced — not least by demographics — to swing in another direction. An important side-effect of continually rising prices and a restricted supply of housing is that many people will not be able to afford to buy a home. With the house prices-to-wages ratio sitting far above the long-term average, the next UK government will come under severe pressure within the next few years to allow — and probably subsidise — much more housebuilding to bring down housing costs for the population. The past-trend of government-protected gains may have inspired a false sense of security in investors.

But such a reversal of policy would not in itself crash the London real estate market. After all, London is a unique place in Britain, and the majority of the new housebuilding may take place away from London. More likely, the bubble will simply collapse under the weight of its own growth. Sooner or later, even with liquidity cheap and plentiful, the number of speculators seeking to cash out will exceed the number of speculators seeking to cash in, and confidence will dip. Sometimes, this simply equates to a small correction in the context of a large upward trend, but sometimes — especially when it can be negatively rationalised — it manifests into a deeper malaise.

When this occurs, one probable rationalisation is as follows.  Domestically, many of the relatively low-income artists, designers, technologists, musicians, students, artisans, academics, service workers and professionals (etc) who make London London are priced out, then they will go and contribute to communities elsewhere where rents and housing costs are lower — Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow, Paris, Berlin, out into the sprawl of the home counties, and deeper into the English countryside, to places where a four bedroom house costs the same as a studio apartment in central London. Where once this would have been culturally, professionally and socially prohibitive, fast, ubiquitous internet allows for people to live a culturally and socially connected life without necessarily living in a big city like London. Internationally, other cheaper cities and jurisdictions will simply catch up with London in terms of amenities and desirability to the global super class. Competition for global capital  is huge, and while London as an Old World metropolis has done well since 2008, it may suffer in the wake of renewed competition from newer, cheaper, faster-growing Eastern metropolises.

When the bubble begins to burst — something that I think could occur endogenously within the next five years, especially if the fast increases continue — speculators, and especially speculators who are heavily leveraged may face severe problems, resulting in a worsened liquidation and contraction, and possibly threatening the liquidity of heavily-invested lenders. As many people at the table are sitting on big gains, they may prove desperate to cash out. Just as many presently feel pressured to get in to avoid being priced out of London forever, a downward turn could be severely worsened as many who are heavily invested in the bubble and scared of losing gains on which they hoped to fund retirements (etc) feel pressured to get out. Such an accelerated liquidation could easily lead to another recession. While I doubt that London prices will fall below the UK average, prices may see a very sharp correction. The psychological bubble is composed of multiple fallacies — that housing is a safe place to put savings and not a speculation, that deteriorating real estate should yield higher returns than productive business investments, that the UK government will continue to protect real estate speculators, that large flows of capital from overseas speculators will continue into London. A bursting of any of these fallacies could begin to bring the whole thing into question, even in the context of continued provision of liquidity from the Bank of England.

George Osborne’s Misconceptions About Countercyclical Fiscal Policy

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne attends the Lord Mayor's Dinner For The Bankers And Merchants Of The City of London

George Osborne just came out in favour of counter-cyclical policy — saving more in the boom, and spending more during a “rainy day”. This is consistent with John Maynard Keynes’ notion that “the time for austerity at the Treasury is the boom, not the slump”.

The thing is, George Osborne seems to believe that right now we are moving toward a boom and need to adopt the policies of the boom:

Chancellor George Osborne has said he wants the government to be running a surplus in the next Parliament and can get there without raising taxes.

He told the Conservative conference the public finances should be in the black when the economy was strong as insurance against a “rainy day”.

His comments were taken as suggesting more years of spending restraint.

Business welcomed the goal but Labour said Mr Osborne had missed targets before and could not be trusted.

The BBC News Channel’s chief political correspondent Norman Smith said Mr Osborne’s underlying message was that austerity would continue after the next election despite the return to growth.

If 7.8% unemployment and a smaller real economy than 5 years ago doesn’t constitute a rainy day, I’d like to know what does. To me, and to many economists this kind of thing doesn’t just constitute a rainy day, it constitutes a full blown great depression. Eventually, sooner or later, someday the economy will return to growth and full employment. With the right luck — technology breakthroughs and other exogenous shocks etc — that could be two or five years from now. The experience of Japan, however, who have endured a 20 year depression suggests that it could be much later rather than sooner.

The safer alternative is to use fiscal policy — as Osborne himself implies — during the rainy day to directly bring back full employment sooner, rather than later by engaging in infrastructure projects and the like. Even if a government hasn’t saved money during the boom, interest rates are so low during the slump that it is cheap to do so, even in the context of soaring national debt levels as is the case in Japan today.

Getting the economy to a point where the government can run a budget surplus, of course, is still a noble ambition. But Osborne has shown no awareness whatever of the steps that need to be taken to get to that position. Infrastructure and housing investment and a jobs program would be a start. So too would liberalising planning laws and lending to and deregulating business startups so that more houses can get built and more businesses can get started. For now, Osborne is preaching responsibility while doing something deeply irresponsible — prolonging a depression with unnecessary demand-sucking job-killing austerity. The boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity at the Treasury and this (for the love of God) is not the boom.

Does Shelf Stacking Beat Geology?

The British Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith reacted angrily to the victorious legal challenge made by an unemployed geography graduate who was forced to do unpaid work stacking shelves at Poundland, a British discount chain.

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The BBC reports:

Miss Reilly, a University of Birmingham geology graduate, and 40-year-old unemployed HGV driver Jamie Wilson, from Nottingham, both succeeded in their claims that the unpaid schemes were legally flawed.

This was because the regulations behind the schemes did not comply with the Act of Parliament that gave the DWP the power to introduce the programme.

Miss Reilly said that in November 2011 she had to leave her voluntary work at a local museum and work unpaid at the Poundland store in Kings Heath, Birmingham, under a scheme known as the “sector-based work academy”.

“Those two weeks were a complete waste of my time, as the experience did not help me get a job,” she said, after the court ruling on 12 February.

“I was not given any training and I was left with no time to do my voluntary work or search for other jobs.

“The only beneficiary was Poundland, a multi-million pound company. Later I found out that I should never have been told the placement was compulsory.

“I don’t think I am above working in shops like Poundland. I now work part-time in a supermarket. It is just that I expect to get paid for working.”

Now, I don’t think that people should be paid for doing nothing, and I want to see a reduction in the welfare bill through employment growth as much as anyone else. But the idea that people with skills and qualifications should be forced into subsidised menial labour is absurd, and an absolute misallocation of capital and labour.

It is important to emphasise that this was not a paid job, because that has important economic implications. If this were a paid job, offered by the market, then there would be no reason for the unemployed person to refuse it. In a market economy, there will always be a degree of economic mismatch, and people who are trained in one thing may well have to take a job in another temporarily or even permanently. That is undisputed. But that is not the issue at stake here.

If the company in question cannot or will not pay a wage for a worker’s labour, then the position is unsustainable and untenable. Effectively, the government is engaging in subsidisation — providing labour free of cost to corporations to support otherwise unsustainable activities. So in this case the government is choosing to subsidise shelf-stacking over geology.

Iain Duncan-Smith’s words actually make this very clear:

Shelf-stacking is more important than geology.

This is an outstandingly unwise decision, made by a government that has spent the last three years making profoundly unwise decisions that has led to a severe stagnation in growth worse than the Great Depression.

The state should not prioritise one sector over another. The state should certainly not subsidise work in one industry, when an unemployed person has skills and qualifications to work in another industry where there are vacancies. It is a waste of taxpayer’s money to place unemployed people in an irrelevant sector. In fact, the energy and mining industries are a key growth sector today in Britain and around the world, so the notion that someone trained in geology should be subsidised into stacking shelves is eye-poppingly absurd, and reminiscent of the kinds of grotesque capital misallocations in the Soviet Union and North Korea where skilled workers and intellectuals were (and are) often forced to work in demeaning jobs.

The real point of these programs appears to be to provide corporations with a source of free labour, and to engage in demeaning moral paternalism. As Iain Duncan-Smith himself puts it:

I’m sorry, but there is a group of people out there who think they’re too good for this kind of stuff.

Duncan-Smith seems keener to teach young unemployed people a moralising, paternalistic lesson than he is to pursue sound economic policies. In fact that is very much the trajectory of this entire government and its self-defeating “age of austerity” project.

Why China is Holding All That Debt

What does it mean that China are making a lot of noise about the Federal Reserve’s loose monetary policy?

 Via Reuters:

A senior Chinese official said on Friday that the United States should cut back on printing money to stimulate its economy if the world is to have confidence in the dollar.

Asked whether he was worried about the dollar, the chairman of China’s sovereign wealth fund, the China Investment Corporation, Jin Liqun, told the World Economic Forum in Davos: “I am a little bit worried.”

“There will be no winners in currency wars. But it is important for a central bank that the money goes to the right place,” Li said.

At first glance, this seems like pretty absurd stuff. Are we really expected to believe that China didn’t know that the Federal Reserve could just print up a shit-tonne of money for whatever reason it likes? Are we really expected to believe that China didn’t know that given a severe economic recession that Ben Bernanke would throw trillions and trillions of dollars new money at the problem? On the surface, it would seem like the Chinese government has shot itself in the foot by holding trillions and trillions of dollars and debt instruments denominated in a currency that can be easily depreciated. If they wanted hard assets, they should have bought hard assets.

As John Maynard Keynes famously said:

The old saying holds. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed.

But I think Keynes is wrong. I don’t think China’s goal in the international currency game was ever to accumulate a Scrooge McDuck-style hoard of American currency. I think that that was a side-effect of their bigger Mercantilist geopolitical strategy. So China’s big pile of cash is not really the issue.

Scrooge-McDuck

It is often said that China is a currency manipulator. But it is too often assumed that China’s sole goal in its currency operations is to create growth and employment for China’s huge population. There is a greater phenomenon — by becoming the key global manufacturing hub for a huge array of resources, components and finished goods, China has really rendered the rest of the world that dependent on the flow of goods out of China. If for any reason any nation decided to attack China, they would in effect be attacking themselves, as they would be cutting off the free flow of goods and components essential to the function of a modern economy. China as a global trade hub — now producing 20% of global manufacturing output, and having a monopoly in key resources and components — has become, in a way, too big to fail. This means that at least in the near future China has a lot of leverage.

So we must correct Keynes’ statement. Owe your banker £1000 and you are at his mercy; owe him £1 million and the position is reversed; owe him £1 trillion, and become dependent on his manufacturing output, and the position is reversed again.

The currency war, of course, started a long time ago, and the trajectory for the Asian economies and particularly China is now diversifying out of holding predominantly dollar-denominated assets. The BRICs and particularly China have gone to great length to set up the basis of a new reserve currency system.

But getting out of the old reserve currency system and setting up a new one is really a side story to China’s real goal, which appears to have always been that of becoming a global trade hub, and gaining a monopoly on critical resources and components.

Whether China can successfully consolidate its newfound power base, or whether the Chinese system will soon collapse due to overcentralisation and mismanagement remains to be seen.

The Icelandic Success Story

Emotionally, I love Iceland’s financial policies since the crash of 2008:

Iceland

Iceland went after the people who caused the crisis — the bankers who created and sold the junk products — and tried to shield the general population.

But what Iceland did is not just emotionally satisfying. Iceland is recovering, while the rest of the Western world — which bailed out the bankers and left the general population to pay for the bankers’ excess — is not.

Bloomberg reports:

Few countries blew up more spectacularly than Iceland in the 2008 financial crisis. The local stock market plunged 90 percent; unemployment rose ninefold; inflation shot to more than 18 percent; the country’s biggest banks all failed.

This was no post-Lehman Brothers recession: It was a depression.

Since then, Iceland has turned in a pretty impressive performance. It has repaid International Monetary Fund rescue loans ahead of schedule. Growth this year will be about 2.5 percent, better than most developed economies. Unemployment has fallen by half. In February, Fitch Ratings restored the country’s investment-grade status, approvingly citing its “unorthodox crisis policy response.”

So what exactly did Iceland do?

First, they create an aid package for homeowners:

To homeowners with negative equity, the country offered write-offs that would wipe out debt above 110 percent of the property value. The government also provided means-tested subsidies to reduce mortgage-interest expenses: Those with lower earnings, less home equity and children were granted the most generous support.

Then, they redenominated foreign currency debt into devalued krone, effectively giving creditors a big haircut:

In June 2010, the nation’s Supreme Court gave debtors another break: Bank loans that were indexed to foreign currencies were declared illegal. Because the Icelandic krona plunged 80 percent during the crisis, the cost of repaying foreign debt more than doubled. The ruling let consumers repay the banks as if the loans were in krona.

These policies helped consumers erase debt equal to 13 percent of Iceland’s $14 billion economy. Now, consumers have money to spend on other things. It is no accident that the IMF, which granted Iceland loans without imposing its usual austerity strictures, says the recovery is driven by domestic demand.

What this meant is that unsustainable junk was liquidated. While I am no fan of nationalised banks and believe that eventually they should be sold off, there were no quick and easy bailouts that allowed the financial sector to continue with the same unsustainable bubble-based folly they practiced before the crisis (as has happened throughout the rest of the Western world).  

And best of all, Iceland prosecuted the people who caused the crisis, providing a real disincentive (as opposed to more bailouts and bonuses):

Iceland’s special prosecutor has said it may indict as many as 90 people, while more than 200, including the former chief executives at the three biggest banks, face criminal charges.

Larus Welding, the former CEO of Glitnir Bank hf, once Iceland’s second biggest, was indicted in December for granting illegal loans and is now waiting to stand trial. The former CEO of Landsbanki Islands hf, Sigurjon Arnason, has endured stints of solitary confinement as his criminal investigation continues.

That compares with the U.S., where no top bank executives have faced criminal prosecution for their roles in the subprime mortgage meltdown. The Securities and Exchange Commission said last year it had sanctioned 39 senior officers for conduct related to the housing market meltdown.

Iceland’s approach is very much akin to what I have been advocating — write down the unsustainable debt, liquidate the junk corporations and banks that failed, disincentivise the behaviour that caused the crisis, and provide help to the ordinary individuals in the real economy (as opposed to phoney “stimulus” cash to campaign donors and big finance).

And Iceland has snapped out of its depression. The rest of the West, where banks continue to behave exactly as they did prior to the crisis, not so much.