Why I Was Wrong About Inflation

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Back in 2007, I was much more interested in finance and trading than I was in macroeconomics. When the crisis — and the government’s macroeconomic response to the crisis — began in 2008 what was really needed to get a strong grasp of the situation was an understanding of macroeconomics, which I did not have as it was a topic I only really began studying in depth at that time. This led to some misconceptions, particularly about inflation. I mistakenly assumed — as did many at the time, and as do many today — that the huge expansion of the monetary base would lead to stronger inflation than the timid and low inflation we have seen in years since the programs began. While I strongly doubted the claims of individuals like Peter Schiff that hyperinflation might be nigh — as I understood that most historical hyperinflations occurred due to a collapse in production, not solely due to money printing — I thought a strong inflationary snapback was likely, Why? A mixture of real effects and expectations. If central banks are printing money at a higher rate, people will fear that money is becoming less scarce. If having more money in circulation does not begin to bid prices upward, producers will soon begin to raise prices to anticipate any such rise. Simply, I thought that central banks couldn’t print their way out of disaster without some iatrogenic side-effects. I assumed the oncoming pain was unavoidable, and that the onset of inflation was the price that would be paid. As Ludwig von Mises put it: “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”

So why did that not occur? After all, plenty of internet goldbugs — and very serious people following the advice of people like John Taylor, Eugene Fama, and Niall Ferguson — were talking about the potential for a strong inflationary shock. The gold price was soaring — hitting a peak above $1900 an ounce in September 2011 — as people anticipating inflation sought to buy insurance against it. Well, for a start it seems like the public did not really buy into the notion of an oncoming inflationary shock. Expected inflation as measured by the University of Michigan has remained very close to the post-1980 norm since the crisis:

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But above and beyond this, the real monetary effects were not the ones I first assumed them to be. The total money supply — most of which is generated not by the Fed but in the private sector through lending — has been stagnant, even while the Federal Reserve is expanding the monetary base. So while the financial sector is flush with cash and has bid the stock market up above its pre-recession nominal peak, other goods in other sectors just have not had enough of a bid behind them to send inflation strongly upward because other areas of the economy (for instance housing, consumer electronics and real wages) have continued to deflate in the context of continued deleveraging, accelerating offshoring driving down wages and the receding effects of the 2008 oil shock.

Yet even more importantly the supply of goods in the West — flowing as it does from East to West, from the factories of the Orient to the consumers of the West — has remained strong and stable. There has been no destabilising, chaotic Chinese crash or revolution, even though many wished there would be in the wake of the Arab spring. And for all the talk by the Chinese and Russians of bond vigilantism, starting a new global reserve currency and dumping the dollar, that has not happened either. And why would it? Certainly, the Asian bond-buyers might have suffered a few years of negative real interest rates. This might have pissed them off. But undermining the Western recoveries further (which have been quite pathetic thus far) when such a high proportion of their assets — dollars and treasuries and increasingly real assets like land and industrials — are related to the economic performance of the West would be to cut off their nose to spite their face, while simultaneously risking conflict with the American military, whose capabilities remain unmatched. The Chinese and Russian talk of de-Americanisation and a post-American world is all bluff and bluster, all sound and fury signifying very little. In the long run, America will have to accept a world where it is no longer the sole global superpower, but there is no incentive for America’s competitors to hasten that way with the kind of aggressive economic warfare that might cause an economic shock.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that much of the new money entering the system is sitting as excess reserves. Is that a symptom of the inflation simply being delayed? Until the middle of last year I thought so. Now I very strongly doubt it. The existence of excess reserves in the system is not a symptom of stored-up future inflation, but a symptom of the weakness of the transmission mechanism for quantitative easing. Simply, the system is in a depression. The banking system is infected with a deep paranoia, and would prefer to sit on risk-free cash instead of lending money to businesses. If the money was lent out, there would be an increased level of economic and business activity. Therefore there is no guarantee of any additional inflation as the money is loaned out.

So I was wrong to worry that inflation could become an imminent problem. But I was wronger than this. The entire paradigm that I was basing these fears upon was flawed. Simply, I was ignoring real and present economic problems to worry about something that could theoretically become a problem in the future. Specifically, I was ignoring the real and present problem of involuntary unemployment to worry about non-existent inflation and non-existent Asian bond vigilantes. The involuntariness of unemployment is a very simple fact — there are not enough jobs for the number of jobseekers that exist, and there hasn’t been enough jobs since the crisis began. Currently there are just over three job seekers for every job. So unemployment and underemployment are not simply things that can be dismissed as a matter of workers becoming lazy, or preferring leisure to work. Mass unemployment has insidious and damaging social effects for individuals and communities — people who are out of work for a long time lose skills. For communities, crime rises, and health problems emerge. And there are 25 million Americans today who are either unemployed or underemployed as a practical matter it is not simply a case of sitting back and allowing the structure of production to adjust to the new economy. And worse, with unemployment high, spending and confidence remain depressed as the effects of high unemployment create a social malaise. This is a mass sickness — and in the past it has led to the rise of warmongering political figures like Hitler. So while it may be preferable for the private sector to be the leading job creator under ordinary conditions, while the private sector is engaging in heavy deleveraging this is impractical. Under such an eventuality the state is the only institution that can break the depressionary trend by creating paying jobs and fighting back against the depressionary tendency toward mass unemployment. Certainly, centralised bureaucracy can be a troublesome and distortionary thing. But there are many things — like mass unemployment and underemployment, and the social problems that that can bring — worse than centralised bureaucracy. And no — this kind of Keynesianism was not the problem in the 1970s.

By worrying over the potential for future inflation or future bond vigilantism due to monetary and fiscal stimulus, I was contributing to the problem of mass unemployment, first of all by not acknowledging the problem, and second by encouraging governments and individuals to worry about potential future problems instead of real-world problems today. As it happened, a tidal wave of evidence has washed these worries away. It is clear from the economic data that inflation is not a concern in a depressionary economy, just as Keynesian-Hicksians heuristics like IS/LM suggested.

Of course, if the depression ends of its own accord then inflation could become a problem again.  If the United States were to experience a strong unexpected spurt of growth sustained over a year or so, pushing unemployment significantly down and growth significantly up, inflation could rise appreciably. The Federal Reserve would have to quickly taper both its unconventional policies and probably begin to raise rates. Of course, that is rather unlikely in the present depressionary environment. But certainly, it is a small possibility. That would be the time for the Federal Reserve to start to worry about inflation. A strong negative energy shock — like the one experienced by the UK in 2010 and 2011 — could push inflation higher too, yet that would be a transitory factor in the context of the wider depressionary environment, and would most likely fall back of its own accord.

If the Fed was engaging in actual helicopter drops — the most direct transmission mechanism possible — there would likely be a stronger inflationary response than that which we have seen thus far. Yet ultimately, this might prove desirable. After all, if the private sectors of the entire Western world have a very large nominal debt load which they are struggling to deleverage, some stronger inflation would certainly begin to minimise that. Yes, that is redistribution from lender to borrower. No, creditors will not be happy about this. But in the end, creditors may find it easier to take an inflationary haircut than face twenty years of depressionary deleveraging as Japan has done. Although the West certainly does not have the same demographic troubles as Japan, such an outcome is possible unless people — governments, entrepreneurs, individuals, society — decide that unemployment and a lack of demand in the economy must be tackled, and do something about it. Then can we confidently expect to climb out of the lip of the deleveraging trap.

Why the United States Cannot Default

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In this post, I am not going to argue that the USA should not default because it will cause havoc in global financial markets. This — if the debt limit is not raised or abolished via a trillion dollar coin or other means by October the 17th — is a distinct possibility, but much has been said of this already. Nor am I going to argue that the United States Treasury will somehow manage to skirt defaulting via emergency austerity measures. This is possible too, though has also been discussed elsewhere.

I am going to argue that in the long run, whether the United States raises the debt ceiling or not, it is technically impossible for the United States to default. This simple fact is encoded in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution:

Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

While bondholders may not get their money including interest immediately, the courts will rule in their favour when the matter comes to court. The Fourteenth Amendment is absolutely clear on that. Some credit default swaps may trigger (this depends, I think, on the wording of individual credit default swap contracts, which in itself may cause further confusion) but in the end bondholders will absolutely and assuredly get their money. This means that United States Treasuries remain low-risk assets. And that — even in the event of default — should keep interest rates on Treasury debt relatively low. There will be no crushing exit of the bond vigilantes — after all, why would they choose to crash a market they are already deeply invested in if they will sooner-or-later get paid? People, generally, who buy large quantities of US Treasuries are not sitting around and reading libertarian blogs pondering the issues of dollar debasement and the end of the dollar as the global reserve currency. The latter may be a real longer term issue, and I think in the next 50 years, perhaps even the next 20 years we will see more alternative reserve currencies emerge. But that is another story for another day.

In the medium term and the short term the thing that is keeping bond buyers buying bonds is the search for yield over cash. If you have billions of dollars in cash at your disposal as many investment managers and countries do, and your imperative is low-risk yield, government debt beats cash that yields nothing, it beats commodities speculation and stock market speculation, and it beats corporate bonds as corporations are not sovereigns. A guaranteed dollar-denominated yield, even a very low one is still very attractive to treasury buyers, even if some large treasury buyers like the Chinese government have made some bond-vigilante-like noises in the past few years. These have thus far proven to be hot air, even if I have in the past made the mistake of paying too much attention to such noises.

Personally, I wish to see the debt ceiling abolished entirely, either through the absurdity of trillion dollar coins (my original objection, that authorising a trillion dollar coin would look silly has been made entirely moot by the fact that the United States Congress already looks extremely silly due to the ongoing standoff) or otherwise. At the very least, the debt ceiling should be denominated in real economic activity, not an arbitrary number of dollars, and in setting such a ceiling it should be remembered that Great Britain successfully sustained and paid down a sovereign debt of over 250%. Higher sovereign debt levels for a rich, powerful country like the United States are not dangerous. It is — as we are seeing — destructive both to markets and to society that a sovereign can be reduced to gridlock and turmoil and confusion over such a simple thing as a spending or borrowing authorisation. The real dangers here are not overspending or running out money, but unnecessary forcible austerity imposed by lawmakers, sucking money and economic activity out of the economy, and creating chaos and confusion in markets. There are already many real problems in the US economy — millions of people unemployed, weak growth, lack of job creation, private debt overhang and slow, painful deleveraging. The last thing the US economy needs is an unnecessary crisis of uncertainty and confusion created by economic illiterates in Congress.

On Depressions, the Structure of Production & Fiscal Policy

I came into economics and finance blogging in 2011 a very different economic thinker than I am today. I was convinced (and remain convinced) that we were going through a once-in a generation economic transformation, or more accurately an industrial revolution the shape of which remained uncertain. These ongoing industrial revolutions, of course, cause great upheavals. As Joseph Stiglitz has noted, the Great Depression of the 1930s can be seen as a great displacement of labour in agriculture thanks to technological improvement. Stiglitz, like myself, sees a parallel between today’s slump and that of the 1930s; in the 1930s we were transitioning out of agriculture. We are also in a transitional period today. Since the advent of globalisation, and the growth in automation in the 1970s and 1980s society had begun suffering from falling real wages, and had had to lever up on debt in order to sustain lifestyles and spending habits. The financial sector had taken advantage of this, offering cheapish debt and — morally hazardously — securitising these debts and selling it a greater fool. This was a bomb waiting to explode — because lenders did not have to take responsibility for the fruits of their lending, they could lend to any NINJA, pay the credit rating agencies to grade highly speculative debt as AAA-grade, and sell it to another bank, or a pension fund, or a hedge fund. When the financial crisis blew up, I desired very, very strongly to see the entire corrupt market liquidated. This was an entirely Darwinian wish; financial firms had acted irresponsibly, creating a monstrous system that nobody really understood and they should pay the consequences for their irresponsibility. In liquidation, people would learn a harsh lesson and the economy would be forced to adapt to the new reality. In Hayekian terms, I thought that the structure of production ought to be left alone to adjust.

So I was furious to see the financial sector bailed out and rescued, and I strongly suspected that such medicine would have very harsh negative side effects as the speculators had been rescued instead of learning their lesson the hard way. Maybe the bankers and financiers who got bailed out — and the regulators who were found to be asleep at the wheel — have not learned a lesson. We shall see. Yet, when push came to shove, governments and central banks chose to save the system instead of watching it burn to the ground and given the complexity of the system, and the danger of good businesses being destroyed alongside the speculators and shysters, that is an entirely understandable decision. Certainly, it was also a morally questionable decision — after all, while bankers and financiers get bailed out in an emergency, help for the much poorer fringes of society is much less forthcoming. Yet this is the world in which we live in.

Of course, the world goes on. Banks may not have been disciplined, but the structure of production still must adjust to the new world, albeit in a less brutal and immediate fashion. This has been far from simple. Even though the financial system was saved, economies around the world remained in a depression. In fact, I would define an economic depression in these terms — a depression as opposed to a transitory recession, which relatively quickly self-corrects is a situation in which the structure of production cannot adjust itself back into a pattern of growth, and economic activity becomes permanently lowered. In Britain and the Eurozone we are so far behind our pre-crisis trend that we still as of October 2013 have not grown our way out of the trough yet, let alone caught up with the long term trend line:

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The causes of this are multiple and complex. We are in an the midst of an ongoing industrial revolution, a great whirling flourish of creative destruction in which both foreign labour and automation are displacing both manufacturing and increasingly service industries. This creates real ongoing instability. Furthermore there remains the fallout from the crisis — confidence in new job-creating and growth-creating business ventures may have become inherently depressed, as economic expectations drift lower and lower in the context of low growth. Then there is the ongoing trend of government austerity, taking money and jobs out of the economy. Energy prices remain relatively high by historical standards, as we rely on old and increasingly expensive oil-based infrastructure (although I expect energy costs to begin to fall as we transition to newer energy architectures). The private sectors in most Western countries remain in deleveraging mode from a very large private debt overhang from before the crisis, limiting their consumption and investment and paying down debt. These are just some of the possible causes of depressed growth and elevated unemployment that we see.

Governments particularly in Britain and the Eurozone have attempted to fight depressed growth using austerity policies (in the context of expansionary monetary policy). The proponents of austerity theorise that by promising to bring down taxes and spending, they will unleash private sector spending by reducing future expectations of taxes. To me, this has always seemed like a boneheaded and Rube Goldberg-style approach. Simply, the issue of depressed private economic activity is far more complex than future taxation expectations. And aggressive monetary policy has not succeeded in reversing the depression(even if it has probably made the depression less severe). So it has been entirely unsurprising to me to see this approach largely failing. I approach the problem in a far more direct manner. The solution to lowered growth and elevated (and involuntary) unemployment is relatively simple. Eventually someone will start using up the idle resources. This will either be the private sector once it independently gets over its slump in animal spirits, or it will be the government. With such huge volumes of idle capital, interest rates will remain very low until stronger appetite for credit re-emerges. In equilibrium theory, the low cost of credit will by itself start to re-energise borrowing appetite by making more projects potentially profitable. Of course, interest rates are far from the only factor that borrowers take into account when seeking credit, and so it is perfectly plausible that the economy — as it has done — can remain depressed even with very low rates due to deleveraging pressures, low expectations and low confidence, etc. So if the market is ill-suited to taking up the idle resources any time soon — lying as it is in a depressive, irrational strop — the only agent that can do so is the state. The fact of low interest rates allows this to kill two birds with one stone — the state can borrow money (utilising idle capital) to create jobs (utilising idle labour), raising interest rates and bringing down the unemployment rate. And this approach does not require anyone to make accurate predictions about the future. It simply requires a market economy, and a state willing to employ idle resources when they are idle, and to ease off using idle resources when unemployment becomes low and interest rates start to rise.

Many — including probably Hayek himself — would argue that using up idle resources in such a manner will not allow the structure of production to adjust to the new economic reality. The state, Hayek would argue is a poor allocator of capital because it lacks the informational efficiency of the market. I would mostly agree with Hayek’s objection, and note that I favour a predominantly market-based economy. Government interventions should be kept to a necessary minimum. Yet, in a depressionary environment, the structure of production deteriorates as resources lie idle. Unemployed workers lose skills, lose competitive edge and spend and invest less, further depressing the economy. Capital — factories, buildings, amenities, ideas, etc — deteriorates. Young workers may enter the labour force but never find a job. Crime rises, and shady fringe businesses like loan sharks thrive as the unemployed struggle to pay the bills. The social costs of mass unemployment are exceedingly high. The adjustment occurring in a depression is more like a rot. And it is absurd to rot your way to growth. Instead, by lowering unemployment and using up idle capital (preferably in a mix of state-run infrastructure and technology projects, and lending to new businesses) more businesses can be born into existence. Potentially successful new ideas can be tried out, and may find success in the marketplace. The formerly unemployed get to develop skills, habits and ideas, instead of sitting at home all day doing nothing, or hunting for jobs in a scarce and depressed marketplace. And money will go into people’s pockets, spurring investment and consumption, fomenting more new business growth. This, in my view, is the best shot at getting a depressed and rotten structure of production out of the doldrums and back toward strong organic growth. Sooner or later, of course, the private sector will come back and begin to use up resources. But that could be a very, very, very long way away. If we want the structure of production to adjust to the new world and to continue adjusting as the world continues to change, letting huge quantities of resources sitting idle seems like a bad way to do it. Targeted fiscal policy can change that.

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.

On the Breakdown in the Correlation Between Gold Price And The Federal Reserve’s Balance Sheet

Once upon a time there was a strong correlation. Then it broke:

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Of course, we know that correlation is not and does not imply causation. But I think there was an underlying causation to the relationship that we saw, but it was not a superficial relationship of more asset purchases, higher gold prices. I think the causation arose out of self-confirmation; people noticed that the Fed was printing money, and believed that expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet would lead to price inflation (in ignorance of the fact that the broadest measure of the money supply was still shrinking in spite of all the new money the Fed was injecting into the economy, and the fact that elevated unemployment, weak demand, and plentiful cheap goods make it very hard for strong inflation to emerge). Many others believed that in the wake of 2008 and the shadow banking collapse, the financial system was fundamentally broken, and that the world might have to return to the gold standard. I myself believed that at the very least the West was in a prolonged Japanese style deflationary depression that in the absence of a return to strong growth might only be broken by very high inflation or a liquidationary crash.

Neither of these predictions — of imminent elevated inflation (or hyperinflation), and of imminent catastrophic financial system breakdown — have come to pass. Core inflation is close to its lowest year-on-year rate in history, and further financial system failures have mostly been prevented. So expectations have been shaken and are adjusting. Gold doesn’t produce any yield other than speculative price gains, but when gold is going up in price by around 20% a year it is still an attractive thing to hold to many, especially in an environment where its year-on-year speculative yield vastly outstrips bond yields and rates on savings. Once gold stopped going up by such a margin, investors had to sell their gold to lock in any speculative gain they might be holding onto, resulting in selling. And once gold started to fall, investors faced negative yields on gold, further spurring selling. This has meant gold has faced strong headwinds, and that is why its price has dropped by over 30% since its all-time high in September 2011, even while the Federal Reserve balance sheet continued to soar. Correlation broken. And in a market where the only yields are speculative gains, lost momentum can spell long-term depression as we saw for almost 20 years between 1980 and 2000.

Where gold goes from here is an interesting question. The main spur that pushes gold as an asset is goldbug ideology — the notions that it is the only real money, that it has intrinsic value, that fiat financial systems — and even modern civilisation in general — are fundamentally unmanageable and unsustainable and prone to collapse. As the technologies of capitalism, energy and production improve and advance, these goldbug views have been allayed and pushed to the margins as occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. In my view, their resurgence in the early 21st century stems almost entirely from the fact that real energy prices were rising, and real incomes falling. These two phenomena and their causes are complex and interconnective but essentially the energy infrastructure that brought the world spectacular growth and pushed all boats higher on a rising tide from the early 20th century to the 1990s began to come under strain — cutting into firms’ incomes, and individuals’ living expenses — and it has taken a long while for the market to even begin to equilibriate away from the increasingly-expensive old energy infrastructure and toward new infrastructures (initially increased U.S. production of shale, but going forward renewables especially solar). And while through financialisation and utilising insider-advantage much of the economic and financial elite managed to keep growing their incomes strongly, the vast majority came under stronger financial pressures and were only capable of sustaining their standard of living through debt-acquisition, which itself became a strain due to debt service costs.

As energy prices begin to fall (in what future economists may call a series of technology shocks), as private deleveraging proceeds strongly (with or without higher inflation) and as new cost-cutting technologies such as 3-D printing become more widespread real incomes will probably begin to rise again for the masses indicating a new supercycle of growth and pushing goldbug and other scarcity-concerned views to the fringes once more. We are, I think, moving inexorably to a world of superabundance, whether we like it or not. (Of course, in such a world assets like gold may still have a popular following to some degree, but that is another story for another day).

So even while the Federal Reserve continues to expand its balance sheet into the future in an effort to keep the US financial system liquid and further lubricate private deleveraging (and simultaneously chasing the elusive unemployment-reducing properties of Okun’s Law), the broken gold-Fed correlation is likely to break down even more.

On Policy Uncertainty…

Paul Krugman says that the notion that the weak economy is due to policy uncertainty has been thoroughly debunked. The Stanford/Chicago uncertainty index has considerably fallen:

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Without any considerable boost to job growth:

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While policy uncertainty is concerned with policy in general, and not executive policy in particular, Krugman’s analysis is that “policy uncertainty” is a thinly-veiled attempt to blame Obama for the sluggishness of the recovery:

One of the remarkable things about the ongoing economic crisis is the endless search for explanations of something that’s actually quite simple — the sluggish pace of recovery. You have a large overhang of private debt; you have a still-depressed housing sector; and you have contractionary fiscal policy. Add to this the well-established fact that recovery tends to be slow after recessions caused not by tight money but by private-sector overreach, and there’s just no mystery that needs explaining.

Yet we’ve seen an endless series of analyses declaring that there is indeed a deep mystery, and it must be Obama’s Fault. Probably the most influential of these analyses was the claim that Obama was creating “uncertainty”, and this was holding everything back.

This crude notion of policy uncertainty is often attached to the notion of the Confidence Fairy; the idea that by running large deficits, government is crowding out private investment due to fears of future tax increases. The corollary of the Confidence Fairy view is that the only way to bring back private investment is to have large-scale austerity, to solidify expectations of lower future taxes. This view has been the basis for David Cameron’s economic policy in the UK, which can only be soberly judged as a large-scale failure.

Krugman is right to trash the Confidence Fairy — austerity at this point in the business cycle is a catastrophic error, because it sucks money out of the real economy. And he’s also right to trash those who view the sluggishness of the recovery as solely Obama’s fault. But he’s wrong, I think, to throw policy uncertainty out of the window entirely as a proximate cause of some of the problem’s we’re now facing.

Broadly, policy uncertainty goes both ways. That is simply because not all entrepreneurs in the private sector are looking for or worrying about tax cuts. People are heterogeneous. While there are some entrepreneurs worried about the future trajectory of taxes, many other entrepreneurs may be hoping for fiscal stimulus either because they would expect to receive orders from the government (for example, construction firms, defence contractors, universities, energy companies) or because they would be hoping that with stimulus, more people would have money in their pockets and they would be spending it.

While this, of course, cannot explain the crisis itself, nor the long and slow deleveraging since, having a deadlocked Congress erring on the side of austerity could be a major headache for many private enterprises. The fact that the more severe austerity experienced in Europe and Britain has actually led to bigger budget deficits there could result in even deeper and greater uncertainty for businesses. Put more simply, many businessmen could be reading Paul Krugman and others like him, agreeing with their interpretations, and worrying about the confused and deadlocked approach that the Federal government has taken to the post-2007 economy, and the dangers of austerity. This could contribute to the uptick in policy uncertainty measured by the Stanford/Chicago Index experienced since 2007 just as much as Wall Street Journal-reading Republicans worrying about the Confidence Fairy and taxes.

Can Tightening Fight the Collateral Shortage?

Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge claims that any taper in QE will be a response to the collateral shortage — the fact that quantitative easing has stripped an important part of the market’s collateral base for rehypothecation out of the market. With less collateral in the market, there is less of a base for credit creation. The implication here is that quantitative easing is tightening rather than easing credit conditions. The evidence? Breakdown in the Treasuries market resulting in soaring fails-to-deliver and fails-to-receive:

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Tyler notes:

Simply put, the main reason the Fed is tapering has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with the TBAC presentation (rehypothecation and collateral shortages) and that the US is now running smaller deficits!!!

I don’t disagree with this. The ultra-low rate environment (that is still an ultra-low rate environment in spite of the small spike in Treasuries since murmurs of the taper began) on everything from Treasuries to junk bonds is symptomatic of a collateral shortage. Quantitative easing may ease the base money supply (as an anti-deflationary response to the ongoing deflation of the shadow money supply since 2008), but it tightens the supply of collateral.

The evidence on this is clear — expanding government deficits post-2008 did not bridge the gap in securities issuance that the financial crisis and central bank interventions created:

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The obvious point, at least to me, is that it seems easier and certainly less Rube Goldberg-esque to fight the collateral shortage by running bigger Federal deficits until private market securities issuance can take its place. Unfortunately quantitative easing itself is something of a Rube Goldberg machine with an extremely convoluted transmission mechanism, and fiscal policy is not part of the Fed’s mandate.

But I am not sure that tightening can fight the collateral shortage at all. The money supply is still shrunken from the pre-crisis peak (much less the pre-crisis trend) even after all the quantitative easing. Yes, many have talked of the Federal Reserve inflating the money supply, but the broadest measures of the money supply are smaller than they were before the quantitative easing even started. This deflation is starting to show up in price trends, with core PCE falling below 1% — its lowest level in history. Simply, without the meagre inflation of the money supply that quantitative easing is providing, steep deflation seems highly likely. I don’t think the Fed can stop.

Have Financial Markets Gone Post-Human?

So, Thomson-Reuters pays the University of Michigan a million dollars a year to provide selected clients with the results of the latest survey of consumer sentiment 5 minutes before the rest of the world sees them — and to provide higher-paying clients with this information in a machine-readable format ready for algorithmic trading 2 seconds before the rest.

This was not first revealed by the issuers of the consumer confidence survey, or by Thomson-Reuters, but rather by Nanex:

On May 28, 2013, about 1/4 second before the expected release of the Consumer Confidence number, trading exploded in SPY, the e Mini and hundreds of other stocks. Even more interesting, activity exploded just 1 millisecond earlier in the futures (traded in Chicago) than stocks (traded in NYC). The speed of light separates information between Chicago and NYC by at least 4 or 5 milliseconds. Which means this was more likely the result of a timed trading in both futures and stocks, rather than a arbitrage reaction between the two.

We found no other instances of early trading in the 11 previous monthly releases of the same Consumer Confidence data.

Nanex’s data:

screen shot 2013-05-28 at 1.55.25 pm

So, is having a two second jump on the market “insider trading”? Well, yes — but it’s legal insider trading with consent, out in the open. And it likely provides a valuable income stream for the University of Michigan. With or without an early information premium, the algorithmic traders would still have the jump on the wider market. A two second delay in the high-frequency world is an eternity. This kind of early information premium is more like a financial tax on high-frequency traders. If we’re going to have high-frequency trading at all, it may be better for publicly-funded information providers to be able to recoup some or all of their costs by charging the high-frequency traders. In fact, while high-frequency trading continues states might want to look at rolling this out across other datasets, and putting the proceeds toward infrastructure spending or some other public good. After all, while banning high-frequency trading makes for attractive rhetoric, it would probably send an even greater amount of financial activity offshore into a jurisdiction that allowed it. That implies that it would probably be about as effective as prohibiting marijuana and alcohol.

And is this financial markets going post-human? These kinds of barriers to entry cannot be healthy for inclusive, open, transparent markets. If there was anything that might drive retail investors out of the markets — retail investors remain significantly under-invested on where they were before the advent of high-frequency trading, for example — it is massive information asymmetries that render the little guy entirely uncompetitive. Of course, retail investors can still be fundamental value investors, buying and holding. But trying to daytrade against the algorithms seems analogous to a human runner competing against a Ferrari. In fact, given the timeframes (microseconds, in some cases) this analogy is many orders of magnitude too small; it’s closer to a human runner competing against an Alcubierre warp drive. Not so much picking up nickels in front of a steamroller as picking up nickels in front of a Borg cube. If this continues, trading is going post-human.

But in the long run — given how badly traders tend to do against the market — perhaps driving daytraders out of daytrading where they tend to lose money against the market, and into holding diversified index funds is a cloud with a silver lining. Let the robots read the tape (i.e. use regression analyses) and do financial battle. Robots are fast, they don’t get bored or discouraged. Just as in other areas where human endeavour is threatened by robots, it is important to note that while robots can do many things, there are many spheres where humans still have a great advantage. Let humans act in the roles in which they have a natural advantage, and in which robots do not have any skill at all — abstract thought, creativity, social interaction. Robots are still largely confined to drudgery; the word itself is rooted in the Czech word for drudgery, after all. In finance, while robots may some day soon do the overwhelming majority of the trading, humans can still devise the trading strategy, still devise the marketing and sales strategies, and still devise the broader macro strategy.

So perhaps the beginning of the end for human traders is just the end of the beginning for global financial markets. Perhaps that is less of a death sentence, and more of a liberation, allowing talented human labour that in recent years has been channelled into unproductive and obscure projects in big finance to move into more productive domains.

Japan’s Deflation Persistence

It's deflating...

Is it all about the age of the population?

One in four people in Japan will be older than 65 in 2014, compared with 9.6 percent in China and 14.2 percent in the U.S., according to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Now, because they have had longer to accrue weal the older people tend to have more savings, or have retired and live in a fixed income, and therefore benefit from deflation But correlation is not causation. Certainly, Japan’s older population loves deflation. But the issue is the love of deflation, not the age of the population, per se. More than 80 percent of respondents in a Bank of Japan (8301) survey released this month who noticed rising prices last year said it was bad. Deflation-loving Japanese voters are the main stumbling block to Abe and Kuroda’s desire to reflate the Japanese economy back to inflation (to incentivise borrowing) and growth.

One of the peculiarities of state-backed fiat money is that it is a medium of exchange that the people of a state are expected to share. Clearly, individuals existing in a state will by definition have different motivations, different time preferences, and different conceptions of what constitutes good money. Different individuals have different preferences for inflation and deflation — while deflation helps savers, younger generations without savings are hit by stagnant wages and diminished incentives for borrowing. Inflation incentivises borrowing, and deflation incentivises saving, but these things are both to a great degree two sides of the same coin — deposited savings are lent out by banks. So when a population comes to love deflation and savings soar — and about 56 percent of household assets were in cash or bank deposits in 2012, according to a Bank of Japan report — the glut of savings depresses interests rates. With the value of savings rising, savers have little incentive to spend. This, ceteris paribus, constrains spending.

Abe and Kuroda are fighting to break Japan out of the liquidity trap. They have specific growth and inflation targets — 1% inflation, and 3% income growth and have a clear plan to hit those targets. But fighting against the widely-desired status quo — that is, deflation — in a democratic state is difficult. If Japanese people love deflation, they will vote for it at the polls. If Abe and Kuroda are to succeed in reigniting inflation, they need to convince Japanese savers to change their minds about inflation, and challenge the idea that saving in Yen is a desirable thing. After all, saving is not confined solely to the state-backed fiat currency. In a more inflationary environment, savers often choose to save through ownership of assets whose prices are increasing — land, real estate, commodities and currencies other than the state-backed fiat currency. In principle, there is no reason why Japan’s ageing population may not prove capable of moving its desire for savings into different media, and letting the Yen inflate. In practice, deflation and saving in Yen is cemented as a norm. That may prove extremely difficult to overcome.

The Gold Top & The Housing Bottom

In April, I noted that I thought the gold bull market is over. Since then, gold has fallen over 10% down to below $1400 today. That’s quite a severe correction.

Today, I found an interesting graphic showing that the gold price peaked out while housing bottomed out, and since then, the two have gone in opposite directions:

gold-125

Correlation, of course, is not causation, but this is an interesting association. Gold flourished on the back of a deep and severe correction in the housing market. Demand for gold as a countercyclical alternative asset proved very strong in the years when very few other assets and asset classes were performing, and prices soared.

So it stands to reason that a large number of individuals putting their money into gold in the boom years were putting their money there because of risks and losses in other markets and areas, and because of the belief that gold was a safe, antifragile asset for troubled times. In 2011, according to Gallup, a plurality of Americans considered gold to be the best asset class to own — something of a psychological bubble that has been burst as prices have fallen.

Indeed, in 2013, gold has been knocked off its perch by real estate — a sensational comeback given the depth of the real estate slump. Real estate, of course, was also ranked the safest in 2006 before the bubble burst. What this signifies is that money, credit and sentiment that once upon a time was flowing into gold and alternative investments is now flowing back into more traditional investments like real estate now that prices are rising again.

So long as investments like stocks and housing that produce a yield continue rising in price, the incentive driving this trend will continue to exist. Investments  once thought antifragile — gold, but also AAPL, guns and ammunition,  etc — may prove fragile to a different (and less apocalyptic) economic climate.

The last time a gold bull market ended (1980) the dollar-denominated price remained depressed for over 20 years! Perhaps this time is different, but maybe not…