Gold, Price Stability & Credit Bubbles

John Cochrane thinks that central banks can attain the price-stability of the gold standard without actually having a gold standard:

While many people believe the United States should adopt a gold standard to guard against inflation or deflation, and stabilize the economy, there are several reasons why this reform would not work. However, there is a modern adaptation of the gold standard that could achieve a stable price level and avoid the many disruptions brought upon the economy by monetary instability.

The solution is pretty simple. A gold standard is ultimately a commitment to exchange each dollar for something real. An inflation-indexed bond also has a constant, real value. If the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rises to 120 from 100, the bond pays 20% more, so your real purchasing power is protected. CPI futures work in much the same way. In place of gold, the Fed or the Treasury could freely buy and sell such inflation-linked securities at fixed prices. This policy would protect against deflation as well as inflation, automatically providing more money when there is a true demand for it, as in the financial crisis.

The obvious point is that the CPI is a relatively poor indicator of inflation and bubbles. During Greenspan’s tenure in charge of the Federal Reserve, huge quantities of new liquidity were created, much of which poured into housing and stock bubbles. CPI doesn’t include stock prices, and it doesn’t include housing prices; a monetary policy that is fixed to CPI wouldn’t be able to respond to growing bubbles in either sector. Cochrane is not really advocating for anything like the gold standard, just another form of Greenspanesque (mis)management.

Historically, what the gold standard meant was longer-term price stability, punctuated by frequent and wild short-term swings in purchasing power:

In its simplest form (the gold coin standard), gold constrains the monetary base to the amount of gold above ground. The aim is to prevent bubble-formation (in other words, monetary growth beyond the economy’s inherent productivity) because monetary growth would be limited to the amount of gold dug out of the ground, and the amount of gold dug out of the ground is limited to the amount of productivity society can afford to spend on mining gold.

Unfortunately, although gold levels are fixed, levels of credit creation are potentially infinite (and even where levels of credit creation are fixed by reserve requirements, shadow credit creation can still allow for explosive credit growth as happened after the repeal of Glass-Steagall). For example, the 1920s — a period with a gold standard — experienced huge asset bubble formation via huge levels of credit creation.

In any case, I don’t think that the current monetary regimes (or governments — who love to have the power to monetise debt) will ever change their minds. The overwhelming consensus of academic economists is that the gold standard is bad and dangerous.

In a recent survey of academic economists, 93% disagreed or strongly disagreed with this statement:

If the US replaced its discretionary monetary policy regime with a gold standard, defining a “dollar” as a specific number of ounces of gold, the price-stability and employment outcomes would be better for the average American.

That question is skewed. A gold standard can also be a discretionary regime; gold can be devalued, it can be supplemented with silver, and it can be multiplied by credit. And the concept of “price-stability” is hugely subjective; the Fed today defines “price stability” as a consistent 2% inflation (which on an infinite timeline correlates to an infinite level of inflation — the only stable thing being the rate at which the purchasing power of a dollar decreases).

If anything, the events of 2008 — which I interpret as a predictable and preventable housing, securitisation, and debt bubble stemming very much from central bank mismanagement of the money supply under Greenspan — secured the reputation of central banking among academic economists, because the bailouts, low rates and quantitative easing have prevented the feared debt-deflation that Milton Friedman and Ben Bernanke postulated as the thing that prolonged and worsened the Great Depression.

The Japanese example shows that crashed modern economies with excessive debt loads can remain stagnant for long periods of time. My view is that such nations are in a deleveraging trap; Japan (and more recently the Western nations) hit an excessive level of debt relative to GDP and industry at the peak of the bubble. As debt rises, debt servicing costs rise, leaving less income for investment, consumption, etc.

Throughout Japan’s lost decade, and indeed the years that followed, total debt levels (measured in GDP) have remained consistently high. Simply, the central bank did not devalue by anywhere near enough to decrease the real debt load, but nor have they devalued too little to result in a large-scale liquidation episode. They have just kept the economy in stasis, with enough liquidity to keep the debt serviceable, and not enough to really allow for severe reduction. The main change has been a transfer of debt from the private sector, to the public sector (a phenomenon which is also occurring in the United States and United Kingdom).

Eventually — because the costs of the deleveraging trap makes organically growth very difficult — the debt will either be forgiven, inflated or defaulted away. Endless rounds of tepid QE (which is debt additive, and so adds to the debt problem) just postpone that difficult decision. The deleveraging trap preserves the value of past debts at the cost of future growth.

Under the harsh discipline of a gold standard, such prevarication is not possible. Without the ability to inflate, overleveraged banks, individuals and governments would default on their debt. Income would rapidly fall, and economies would likely deflate and become severely depressed.

Yet liquidation is not all bad.  The example of 1907 — prior to the era of central banking — illustrates this.

As the WSJ noted:

The largest economic crisis of the 20th century was the Great Depression, but the second most significant economic upheaval was the panic of 1907. It was from beginning to end a banking and financial crisis. With the failure of the Knickerbocker Trust Company, the stock market collapsed, loan supply vanished and a scramble for liquidity ensued. Banks defaulted on their obligations to redeem deposits in currency or gold.

Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz, in their classic “A Monetary History of the United States,” found “much similarity in its early phases” between the Panic of 1907 and the Great Depression. So traumatic was the crisis that it gave rise to the National Monetary Commission and the recommendations that led to the creation of the Federal Reserve. The May panic triggered a massive recession that saw real gross national product shrink in the second half of 1907 and plummet by an extraordinary 8.2% in 1908. Yet the economy came roaring back and, in two short years, was 7% bigger than when the panic started.

Although liquidation episodes are painful, the clear benefit is that a big crash and depression clears out old debt. Under the present regimes, the weight of old debt remains a burden to the economy.

But Cochrane talking about imposing a CPI-standard (or Greenspan talking about returning to the gold standard) is irrelevant; the bubble has happened, it burst, and now central banks must try to deal with the fallout. Even after trillions of dollars of reflation, economies remain depressed, unemployment remains elevated and total debt (relative to GDP) remains huge. The Fed — almost 100 years old — is in a fight for its life. Trying to balance the competing interests of creditors — particularly those productive foreign nations like China that produce much of America’s consumption and finance her deficits — against future growth is a hugely challenging task. The dangers to Western economies from creditor nations engaging in punitive trade measures as  a retaliatory measure to central bank debasement remain large (and the rhetoric is growing fiercer). Bernanke is walking a tightrope over alligators.

In any case even if a gold standard were to be reimposed in the future, history shows that it is unlikely to be an effective stop against credit bubbles. Credit bubbles happen because value is subjective and humans are excitable, and no regime has proven itself capable of fully guarding against that. Once a credit bubble forms, the possibilities are the same — liquidation, inflation or debt forgiveness. Todaycentral banks must eventually make a choice, or the forces of history will decide instead.

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The Welfare Kings of Europe

In spite of the fact that 85% of Greeks want to stay in the Eurozone, I was reasonably confident that Greeks would support Syriza to a first-place finish, and elect a new government willing to play chicken with the Germans. However Greeks — predominantly the elderly — rejected change (and possible imminent Drachmatization) in favour of the fundamentally broken status quo.

But although Syriza finished second, the anti-bailout parties still commanded a majority of the votes.

And New Democracy may still face a lot of trouble building a coalition to try to keep Greece in the bailout, and in the Euro . There has long been a rumour that Tsipras wanted to lose, so as to (rightly) blame the coming crush on the status quo parties. What fewer of us counted on was that the status quo parties wouldn’t want to win the election either. The pro-bailout socialists Pasok have thrown a monkey wrench into coalition-building by claiming they won’t take part in any coalition that doesn’t also include Syriza. This seems rational; when the tsunami hits, all parties in government will surely take a lot of long-term political damage. Pasok have already been marginalised by the younger and fierier Syriza, and Pasok presiding over an economic collapse (for that is undoubtedly what Greece now faces) would surely have driven Pasok into an abyss. The economy is such a poisoned chalice that parties seem willing to fight to keep themselves out of power.

And with more austerity, it’s only going to get worse. Once a society is hooked on large-scale debt-fuelled state spending, austerity in the name of government deleveraging is tough enough when the economy is booming, but during a depression as spending falls, tax revenues fall, very often producing (as has been the case in Greece, Spain, Portugal and the UK) even bigger deficits.

So let us not forget who the most welfare-dependent nations (i.e. the ones who would be hurt the most by attempting an austerity program during an economic depression) are in Europe (clue — it’s not Greece):

International economics is a fast game. It’s only sixty years since America was exporter and creditor to the world. It’s only fifteen years since the now-booming German economy was described as the “sick man of Europe”.

The same Euro system that is slamming Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy today — in the aftermath of bubbles caused by easy money flowing into these countries as a result of the introduction of the Euro — could (if it were to somehow survive)  do the same thing to Germany in ten or twenty or thirty years.

A monetary union without a fiscal union is a fundamentally unworkable system and Westerwelle, Schauble and Merkel insisting that Greece play by the rules of their game is just asking for trouble. And trying to introduce a fiscal union over a heterogeneous, tense and disagreeable land as Europe is just asking for political trouble.

No matter how many nations are browbeaten by fear into committing to the status quo, it still won’t be sustainable. Greeks (and the other peripheral populations) can commit to austerity from here to eternity, but it won’t stop those policies resulting in deeper contraction, and more economic catastrophe.

But the collapse of the Euro would at most-recent estimates cost the core and particularly Germany a lot more than handing over the money to the PIGS. Eventually they will hand over the money to shield themselves from falling masonry. The real question is whether or not the entire system will spiral into pandemonium before Germany blinks.

George W. Bush’s “Growth” Strategy

George W. Bush is back. And he’s got a plan!

From the NYT:

Two months from now, he plans to publish a book outlining strategies for economic growth. And on Tuesday, he made a rare return to Washington to promote freedom overseas.

Freedom overseas? Yes — it would be nice to be free of George W. Bush’s destructive and costly neocon agenda (and I know many people overseas agree) but sadly the current White House occupant seems to be following the same authoritarian script; Bush hit Iraq and Afghanistan, and Obama seems intent to continue expanding the wars into Pakistan and Yemen.

On the economy, let’s judge him on his record:

That doesn’t suggest that Bush has anything much to add to the conversation. But that doesn’t mean I think he should shut up and go away.

Here are a few prominent questions that George W. Bush might want to consider answering before slinking off back to Crawford:

  1. Why did you ignore the CIA’s warnings in the summer of 2001 that al-Qaeda could strike “imminently”?
  2. Why did you pledge in the 2000 election debates that you were against nation-building, and then embark on not one but two nation-building programs in Iraq and Afghanistan?
  3. You increased the Federal debt by 86%; to what extent do you accept the blame for America’s debt troubles?
  4. You reappointed Alan Greenspan as the Fed Chairman;  to what extent do you accept that his easy money policies caused the bubble that burst in 2008?
  5. Were the 2008 bailouts of well-connected banks and financial corporations engineered by your administration compatible with a supposedly “free-market” “capitalist” system? Doesn’t bailing out banks create dangerous moral hazard?
  6. How can a nation simultaneously claim to be a liberator while also practising torture?
  7. You swore to uphold the Constitution, yet passed the PATRIOT Act that authorised warrantless wiretapping, and mass surveillance in contravention of the Fourth Amendment. Do you realise that you violated your oath of office?

That would be a great start. There are, of course, swathes of other questions (including much, much darker ones) that many wish George W. Bush could be made to answer. But there is no real accountability in America today. He can go back to his ranch and his presidential library and act like a carpetbagging good old boy, while kids in the middle east continue to have their limbs blown off, and while the nation remains smothered under a mountain of debt and authoritarian creep.

The Emperor is Wearing No Clothes

As I’ve covered in pretty excruciating depth these past few weeks, the Euro in its current form is sliding unrelentingly into the grave.

Some traders seem pretty excited about that eventuality.

Why? There’s plenty of money to be made killing the Euro, (just like there was plenty of money to be made in naked-shorting Lehman brothers to death):

Markets are ruled right now by fear. Investors: the big money, the smart money, the big funds, the hedge funds, the institutions, they don’t buy this rescue plan. They know the market is toast. They know the stock market is finished, the euro, as far as the Euro is concerned they don’t really care. They’re moving their money away to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.

I would say this to everybody who’s watching this. This economic crisis is like a cancer. If you just wait and wait thinking this is going to go away, just like a cancer it’s going to grow and it’s going to be too late.

This is not a time to wishfully think the governments are going to sort this out. The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.

A few points:

“They’re moving their money to safer assets like Treasury bonds, 30-year bonds and the US dollar.”

Safer assets like the US dollar? Sure, that’s what the textbooks tell you has been the safest asset in the post-war era. But are they really safe assets? On dollars, interest rates are next to zero. This means that any inflation results in negative real rates, killing purchasing power. Let’s have a look at the yields on those “super-safe” 30-year bonds:

At 2.87%, and with inflation sitting above 3.5% these are experiencing a net loss in purchasing power, too. Yes, it’s better than losing (at least) half your purchasing power on Greek sovereign debt, or watching as equities tank. But with the virtual guarantee that stagnant stock markets will usher in a new tsunami of QE cash (or better still, excess reserves) expect inflation, further crushing purchasing power.” 

“The governments don’t rule the world. Goldman Sachs rules the world. Goldman Sachs does not care about this rescue package, neither do the big funds.” 

Well Goldman Sachs are the ones who convinced half the market to price in QE3. And they’re also making big noise demanding action in the Eurozone. I’m not denying Goldman don’t have massive power — or that they are ready and willing to book massive profits on Eurozone collapse. But — like everything in this crooked and corrupt system — they are vulnerable to liquidity crises triggered by the cascade of defaults that both myself and Tim Geithner (of all people) have talked about over the past week.

Of course, we all know that as soon as that tidal wave of defaults start, global “financial stabilisation” packages will flood the market to save Goldman and J.P. Morgan, and anything else deemed to be “infrastructurally important”, and survivors will take their pick of M&A from the collateral damage.

And kicking the can down the road using the same policy tools that Bernanke has been using for the past three years (i.e., forcing rates lower and-or forcing inflation higher) will result in harsher negative real rates — making treasuries into an even worse investment. Eventually (i.e., soon) the institutional investors — and more importantly (because their holdings are larger) the sovereign investors — will realise that their capital is rotting and panic. In fact, there is a great deal of evidence that China in particular is quietly panicking now. The only weapon Bernanke has is devaluation (in its many forms) — which is why he has been so vocal in asking for stimulus from the fiscal side.  

And — in spite of the last week’s gold liquidation, as China realised long ago — the last haven standing will be gold. Why? Because unlike treasuries and cash it maintains its purchasing power in the long run.

The Emperor is wearing no clothes.

Empiricism in Economics

It has long been held that there are two kinds of economics:

  1. Rationalist economics: starting out with theses about philosophy, money and reality (etc) and using logic and reason to reach conclusions about the present and predictions about the future.
  2. Empiricist economics: starting out with data and creating mathematical models representing these data, and using these models to reach conclusions about the present, and predictions about the future.

In traditional circles, the first class tends to include the various schools of Austrian and Marxian economics, and the second class tends to include the various schools of Keynesian and Monetarist economics.

Today, I want to put an entirely new spin on empiricism in economics, by focussing away from modelling. The process of mathematical modelling is just as rationalist as using logic and reason.

Why?

Economies are nonlinear systems.

From Wikipedia:

In mathematics, a nonlinear system is a system which is not linear, that is, a system which does not satisfy the superposition principle, or whose output is not directly proportional to its input. 

Effectively, a nonlinear system is one in which mathematical modelling mostly does not work. This, in a nutshell, is the reason why professional economists within the academic system, at the Federal Reserve, and within the IMF and the World Bank are often so desperately incorrect with their predictions, as we have seen so many times in the last few years. 

This is because nonlinearity is a direct result of incomplete information. Any map or model built will not be an exact replica of reality, and as Benoit Mandelbrot showed tiny divergences in an unmodelled (or unknown) variable can result in a humungous variation in the output of the system (i.e., the economy).

So in dealing with nonlinearity the model always fails — sometimes by a fraction, and sometimes by a huge amount.  The notion of accurate modelling was famously taken to a logical conclusion by the writer Jorge Luis Borges in On Exactitude in Science:

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coin- cided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

So if accurate modelling in complex dynamical systems such as economies is effectively impossible without mapping every input what hope can there be for empiricism in economics?

We have to approach it from another angle: if it is impossible to model economies in a laboratory, through equations, or in a supercomputer, the real world must be the testing-ground for ideas.

Actors in economies should be free to experiment. Good ideas should be free to succeed, and bad ones to fail. The role of the government should be to provide a level playing field for experimentalism (and enough of a safety net for when experiments go wrong) — not pick winners or “manage the economy”. People with ideas must be able to access capital so that those ideas can be tested in the market place. If experiments go badly, that is no bad thing: it just means that another idea, or system, or structure needs to be tested. People should be free to go bankrupt and start all over again with a different mindset and different idea.

The corporatist model that most nations around the world have adopted, or fallen into (i.e. “capitalism” led by governments and large corporations) is nothing like this. Small businesses struggle to access capital. Young men and women are thrown onto the scrapheap of unemployment without a chance to develop skills, or entrepreneurial ideas, or even sell their labour, and pushed into leeching off the wealth of the nation through welfare. Large banks and corporations whose business models have failed are routinely declared “infrastructurally important” or “too big to fail” and bailed out to leech off the nation.

This is not empiricism. This is a disaster. To restore society, we must restore empiricism into economies.

Can Bernanke Print Gold?

This week, I looked at America priced in gold — and noted that America is experiencing gold-denominated deflation. This means that when assets are priced in gold they have consistently fallen in price. Lets re-cap. Here’s the Dow Jones Industrial Average:

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Stagnation Nation?

It has long been my view that most of the seeds of the West’s ills were sown in the 1970s: that was the decade when Western consumerism began to be sated by Chinese imports, and Arab oil, and the decade when America cut the link between the dollar and gold sparked the first flames of the great Keynesian debasement bonfire. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were the chief architects, of all three of these innovations, and the internationalisation of the dollar as the global reserve currency.

In the 80’s, the United States’ trade balance flipped over and the U.S. became a net debtor, sending more and more dollars and debt out to the world as the free lunch got bigger and bigger. But something odd happened from the 70s onwards, as demonstrated by our graphic of the day:

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