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.

Universal Basic Income Is Inevitable, Unavoidable, and Incoming

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The last time I saw universal basic income discussed on television, it was laughed away by a Conservative MP as an absurd idea. The government giving away wads of cash responsibility-free to the entire population sounds entirely fantastical in this austerity-bound age, where “we just don’t have the money” is repeated endlessly as a mantra. Money, they say, does not grow on trees. (Only as figures on the screen of a computer).

In this world, universal basic income seems like a rather distant prospect. Yes, there are some proposals, like Switzerland and Finland, both of which are holding a referendum on universal basic income. But I expect neither of them to pass. The current political climate is just too patriarchal. We live in a world where free choice is unfashionable. The mass media demonizes the poor as feckless and too lazy and ignorant to make good choices about how to spend their income. Better that the government spend huge chunks of GDP employing bureaucrats to administer tests, to moralize on the virtues of work, and sanction the profligate.

But this world is fast changing, and the more I study the basic facts of economic life in the early 21st century, the more inevitable universal basic income begins to seem.

And no, it’s not because of the robots that are coming to take our jobs, as Erik Brynjolfsson suggests in his excellent The Second Machine Age. While automation is a major economic disruptor that will transform our economy, assuming that robots will dissolve jobs entirely is just buying into the same Lump of Labour fallacy that the Luddites fell for. Automation frees humans from drudgery and opens up the economy to new opportunities. Where once vast swathes of the population toiled in the fields as subsistence farmers, mechanization allowed these people to become industrial workers, and their descendants to become information and creative workers. As today’s industries are decimated, and as the market price of media falls closer and closer toward zero, new avenues will be opened up. New industries will be born in a neverending cycle of creative destruction. Yes, perhaps universal basic income will help ease the current transition that we are going through, but the transition is not the reason why universal basic income is inevitable.

So why is it inevitable? Take a look at Japan, and now the eurozone: economies where consumer price deflation has become an ongoing and entrenched reality. This occurrence has been married to economic stagnation and continued dips into recession. In Japan — which has been in the trap for over two decades — debt levels in the economy have remained high. The debt isn’t being inflated away as it would under a more “normal” rate of growth and inflation. And even in the countries that have avoided outright deflationary spirals, like the UK and the United States, inflation has been very low.

The most major reason, I am coming to believe, is rising efficiency and the growing superabundance of stuff. Cars are becoming more fuel efficient. Homes are becoming more fuel efficient. Vast quantities of solar energy and fracked oil are coming online. China’s growing economy continues to pump out vast quantities of consumer goods. And it’s not just this: people are better educated than ever before, and equipped with incredibly powerful productivity resources like laptops, iPads and smartphones. Information and media has fallen to an essentially free price. If price inflation is a function of the growth of the money supply against growth in the total amount of goods and services produced, then it is very clear why deflation and lowflation have become a problem in the developed world, even with central banks struggling to push out money to reinflate the credit bubble that burst in 2008.

Much, much more is coming down the pipeline. At the core of this As the cost of superabundant and super-accessible solar continues to fall, and as battery efficiencies continue to increase the price of energy for heating, lighting, cooking and transportation (e.g. self-driving electric cars, delivery trucks, and ultimately planes) is being slowly but powerfully pushed toward zero. Heck, if the cost of renewables continue to fall, and advances in AI and automation continue, in thirty or forty years most housework and yardwork will be renewables-powered, and done by robot. Water crises can be alleviated by solar-powered desalination, and resource pressures by solar-powered robot miners.

And just as computers and the internet have made huge quantities of media (such as this blog) free for users, 3-D printers and disassemblers will push the production of stuff much closer to free. People will simply be able to download blueprints from the internet, put their trash into a disassembler and print out new items. Obviously, this won’t work anytime soon for complex objects like smartphones, but every technology company in the world is hustling and grinding for more efficiency in their manufacturing processes. Not to mention that as more and more stuff is manufactured, and as we become more environmentally conscious and efficient at recycling, this huge global stockpile of stuff acts as another deflationary pressure.

These deflationary pressures will gradually seep into services as more and more processes become automated and powered by efficiency increasing machines, drones and robots. This will gradually come to encompass the old inflationary bugbears of medical care, educational costs and construction and maintenance costs. Of course, I don’t expect this dislocation to result in permanent incurable unemployment. People will find stuff to do, and new fields will open up, many of which we are yet to imagine. But the price trend is clear to me: lots and lots of lowflation and deflation. This, ultimately, is at the heart of capitalism. The race for efficiency. The race to do more with less (including less productivity). The race for the lowest costs.

I’ve written about this before. I jokingly called it “hyperdeflation.”

And the obvious outcome, at the very least, is global Japan. This, of course, is not a complete disaster. Japan remains a relatively rich and stable country, even after twenty years of deflation. But Japan’s high level of debt — and particularly government debt — does pose a major concern.  Yes, as a sovereign currency issuer borrowing in its own currency the Japanese government runs no risk of actual default. But slow growth and deflation are stagnationary. And without growth and inflation, the government will have to raise taxes to cover the deficit, spiking the punchbowl and continuing the cycle of debt deflation. And of course, all of the Bank of Japan’s attempts at reigniting inflation and inflating away that debt through complicated monetary operations in financial markets have up until now proven pretty ineffectual.

This is where some form of universal basic income comes in: ultimately, the most direct stimulus for lifting inflation and triggering productive economic activity is putting cash in the people’s hands. What I am suggesting is that printing money and giving it away to people — as opposed to trying to push it out through the complicated and convoluted transmission mechanism of financial sector lending — will ultimately become governments’ major backstop against debt deflation, as well as the temporary joblessness and economic inequality created by technological acceleration. Everything else, thus far, has been pushing on a string. And the deflationary pressure is only going to become stronger as efficiency rises and rises.

Throw enough newly-created money into the economy, inject inflation, and nominal tax revenues can rise to cover the debt load. Similarly, if inflation gets too high, cut back on the money-creation or take money out of circulation and bring inflation into check, just as central banks have done for the last century.

The biggest obstacle to this, in my view, is the interests of those with lots of money, who like deflation because it increases their purchasing power. But in the end, rich people aren’t just sitting on hoards of cash. Most of them do have businesses that would benefit from their clients having higher incomes so as to increase spending, and thus their incomes. Indeed, in a debt-deflationary spiral with default cascades, many of these rentiers would face the same ruin as their clients, as their clients default on their obligations.

And yes, I know that there are legal obstacles to fully-blown helicopter money, chiefly the notion of central bank independence. But I am an advocate of central bank independence, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, I don’t think that universal basic income should be a function of fiscal spending at all, not least because I think that dispassionate and economically literate central bankers tend to be better managers of monetary expansion and contraction than politically motivated — and generally less economically literate — politicians. So everything I am describing can and should be envisioned as a function of monetary policy. Indeed, what I am advocating for is a new set of core monetary policy tools for the 21st century.

Correction or Crisis?

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After almost seven years of relative calm and stability, a stock market crash is finally upon us.

This is a very predictable crash stemming from a very widely known cause. Hundreds of analysts including myself — following the trail illuminated by Michael Pettis — have for a long time been banging on about a Chinese slowdown gathering an uncontrollable momentum, sending China into a panic, and infecting global markets.

What’s less clear yet is whether this is a correction or a crisis. My view is toward the latter, simply because confidence is fragile.  Once the animal spirits of the market turn negative, it takes a heck of a lot to soothe them. And the markets look increasingly spooked. The fear is rising. Last week I tweeted that I felt the risks of a new financial crisis are greater than ever.

The reasons why are simple: Western central banks have gone a bit nuts, and are trying to hike rates even though inflation is close to zero even after interest rates being at zero for seven years. And Western governments have gone a bit nuts (especially in the eurozone and Britain but also to a lesser extent in the United States) and are trying to encourage growth with austerity even though all the evidence illustrates that austerity is only a helpful policy in a booming economy, not in a slack one.

Those two factors weren’t too destructive in an economic situation where there was moderate economic growth. More like a minor brake on growth. Keep swimming forward, and sooner or later inflation will rear its head, and rates will have to be raised. But with a stock market crash and a growth downturn, and an unemployment spike, and deflation, things get very problematic very fast.

Let me explain how I think this plays out: interest rates are at zero. Inflation is almost at zero, and a stock market crash will only push that lower. Simply, this is the bottom falling out of the bottom. A crash here is like falling off the bicycle in spite of the Fed’s training wheels. Unconventional monetary policy has already been exhaustively tried, and central bank balance sheets are already heavily loaded with assets purchased in quantitative easing programs. Now the Fed’s balance sheet does not excessively concern me — central banks can print all the money they like to buy assets up to the point of excessive inflation. But will that be enough to reverse a new crash?

Personally, my doubts are growing. At the zero bound, I believe Keynes was right, and fiscal policy is the best answer. The post-2008 economic landscape has been defined by monetarists trying desperately to perfect new tools like quantitative easing to avoid outright debt-financed fiscal policy. But there have been problems upon problems with the transmission mechanisms. Central banks have succeeded at getting new money into the banking system. But the drip of that money into the real economy where it can do its good work and create growth, employment and prosperity has been slow and uneven. The recovery is real, but weak, even after all the trillions of QE. And it has left us vulnerable to a new downturn.

If the effects of the crash cannot be reversed with monetary policy, that leaves fiscal policy — that old, neglected, unpopular tool — to fight any breakouts of deflation or mass unemployment.

Or it leaves central banks to try really radical policies that emulate the directness of fiscal policy, like literally throwing money out of helicopters or OMFG.

The Subtle Tyranny of Interest Rates

Interest rates are the price of credit. They are the price of access to capital.

Now, it is obvious that pricing credit is not tyrannical in and of itself. Interest compensates a lender for default risk and the risk of inflation eroding the purchasing power of the money that they lend.

The tyranny I am getting at is subtle. It is the tyranny that Keynes pointed to when he proposed a euthanasia of the rentier. Keynes proposed that low interest rates would:

mean the euthanasia of the rentier, and, consequently, the euthanasia of the cumulative oppressive power of the capitalist to exploit the scarcity-value of capital.

Keynes pointed to an important feature of interest rates: the fact that capital has a cost is not just the result of default risk and the risk of inflation. It is also a result of the scarcity of capital.

Now, that is inevitable in a world where financial capital consists of metal that you dig up out of the ground.

But in our brave new state-backed fiat monetary system, why should capital be so scarce that those who have it can profit from its scarcity?

Obviously, central banks should not print money to the extent that it becomes worthless. But capital availability is absolutely critical to the advancement of society: the investment of capital is how societies become productive. It is how technology improves, and it is the key to wealth accumulation.

What Keynes didn’t specify was what exactly in the interest rate paid was the part that represented the “scarcity value” of capital.

Obviously, it doesn’t include the part that compensates for inflation, which is why we need to look at inflation-adjusted interest rates. And it isn’t the part that compensates for default risk. This is easily calculable too: it is the excess paid over lending to the monetary sovereign.

In the U.S. and Britain, that would be the American and British governments. In the eurozone — for complicated political reasons — there is no monetary sovereign exactly, but we might measure it by looking at it in terms of the spread against German government borrowing, because Germany seems to be the nation calling the lion’s share of the shots.

Here’s the real interest rate on U.S. 10-year government borrowing (I chose the 10-year because it is a benchmark, although I would have preferred to use a harmonized rate from across the yield curve.):

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So what are we really seeing? The general trend is that real interest rates on U.S. government borrowing are overwhelmingly positive, with a few periodical exceptions where real rates on borrowing went a bit negative. This bias toward positive real interest rates on lending to the monetary sovereign, I would argue, is the rentier’s profit resulting from the scarcity of financial capital.

Year over year, that is going to compound heavily. It is these rentiers, I would argue, who should be euthanized. Not because they should be resented for doing well out of the system.  No. They should be euthanized because of the opportunity cost of devoting resources to enriching rentiers, resources that could be deployed productively elsewhere.

And how to euthanize the rentiers? Because we have identified what the rentier’s share is, the answer is very simple: making a real interest rate of zero on lending to the monetary sovereign an objective of monetary policy.

Update: After much debate, I have decided that euthanizing rentiers is not a matter for monetary policy, but a matter for fiscal policy. I have written another post discussing this.

The taper is finally here: What the Fed’s move means for the economy


Ben Bernanke, in his final press conference as chairman of the Federal Reserve, announced today that the central bank would be tapering asset purchases to $75 billion a month, down from $85 billion, which has been widely seen as a modest first step toward reducing the Fed’s outsized role in financial markets and the economy.

The move caught many economists by surprise — USA Today survey found that most economists polled said the Fed would maintain its current levels of quantitative easing, as the policy is known, before trimming down in January.

After the financial crisis in 2008, spooked investors started piling into low-risk assets like Treasuries, driving prices dramatically higher. The Fed’s aim in buying these assets was to take safe investments like Treasuries off the market, in order to encourage investors to take more risk and invest in higher-yielding and more productive ventures like stocks, equipment, and new employees.

The ultimate objective was more jobs, and more economic activity.

Read More At TheWeek.com

Who should the SEC punish next for the Madoff scandal? Itself.


J.P. Morgan Chase is nearing a settlement with federal regulators over the bank’s ties to convicted fraudster Bernie Madoff, reports The New York Times. The deal would involve penalties of up to $2 billion dollars and a rare criminal action. The government intends to use the money to compensate Madoff’s victims.

For two decades before his arrest, Madoff had banked with J.P. Morgan — and apparently laundered up to $76 billion through the bank. Employees at the bank had raised concerns about Madoff’s business. In 2006, a J.P. Morgan employee wrote after studying some of Mr. Madoff’s trading records that “I do have a few concerns and questions,” and expressed worry that Madoff would not disclose exactly which trades he had made. Madoff’s company turned out to be an elaborate ponzi scheme that stole an estimated $18 billion from clients; it collapsed in 2008.

Is it fair to blame J.P. Morgan for the activities of Madoff? Do banks have a responsibility to know if their clients are involved in criminal activities? I think so — banks should have strong checks and balances to prevent fraud and money laundering, because if they don’t then criminals like Madoff can get away with it for years and years. According to Robert Lenzner of Forbes, “J.P. Morgan never reported to the Treasury or the Federal Reserve a huge cache of checks going back and forth for seven years between Madoff’s Investment Account 703 and Bank Customer Number One, belonging to real estate developer Norman Levy, who died in 2005.”

By agreeing to pay the fine and the government’s rebuke, J.P. Morgan is admitting a failure of oversight. But it’s not as if J.P. Morgan is the only one to blame. Others on Wall Street had expressed concern about Madoff’s business much earlier.

Read More At TheWeek.com

Why the Volcker Rule won’t solve the problem of Too Big To Fail

The Volcker Rule was originally proposed to end the problem of banks needing taxpayer bailouts. Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, proposed that commercial banks using customer deposits to trade — a practice known as proprietary trading — played a key role in the financial crisis that began in 2007.

Five former Secretaries of the Treasury — W. Michael Blumenthal, Nicholas Brady, Paul O’Neill, George Shultz, and John Snow — endorsed the Volcker Rule in an open letter to the Wall Street Journal, writing that banks “should not engage in essentially speculative activity unrelated to essential bank services.”

The Volcker Rule was signed into law as part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in July of 2010, but its implementation has been delayed until yesterday when it finally received approval from the five (!) regulatory agencies that will enforce it — the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC).

Read More At TheWeek.com