Chinese Treasury Contradictions…

One mistake I may have made in the two years I have been writing publicly is taking the rhetoric of the Chinese and Russian governments a little too seriously, particularly over their relationship with the United States and the dollar.

Back in 2011, both China and Russia made a lot of noise about dumping US debt, or at least investing a lot less in it. Vladimir Putin said:

They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy. They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar. If [in America] there is a systemic malfunction, this will affect everyone. Countries like Russia and China hold a significant part of their reserves in American securities. There should be other reserve currencies.

And China were vocally critical too:

China, the largest foreign investor in US government securities, joined Russia in criticising American policymakers for failing to ensure borrowing is reined in after a stopgap deal to raise the nation’s debt limit.

People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan said China‘s central bank would monitor US efforts to tackle its debt, and state-run Xinhua News Agency blasted what it called the “madcap” brinkmanship of American lawmakers.

But just this month — almost two years after China blasted America for failing to cut debt levels — China’s Treasury holdings hit a record level of  $1.223 trillion.  And Russian treasury holdings are $20 billion higher than they were in 2012. So all of those protestations, it seems, were a lot of hot air. While it is true that various growing industrial powers are setting up alternative reserve currency systems, China and Russia aren’t ready to dump the dollar system anytime soon.

Now, the Federal Reserve has to some degree further enticed China into buying treasuries by giving them direct access to the Treasury auctions, allowing them to cut out the Wall Street middlemen. Maybe if that hadn’t happened, Chinese Treasury ownership would be lower.

But ultimately, the present system is very favourable for the BRICs, who have been able to build up massive manufacturing and infrastructural bases as a means to satisfy American and Western demand. In that sense, the post-Bretton Woods globalisation has been as much a free lunch for the developing world as it has been for anyone else. And why would China and Russia want to rock the boat by engaging in things like mass Treasury dumpings, trade war or proxy wars? They are slowly and gradually gaining on the West, without having to engage in war or trade war. As I noted in 2011:

I believe that the current world order suits China very much — their manufacturing exporters (and resource importers) get the stability of the mega-importing Americans spending mega-dollars on a military budget that maintains global stability. Global instability would mean everyone would pay more for imports, due to heightened insurance costs and other overheads.

Of course, a panic in the Chinese mainland — maybe a financial crash, or the bursting of the Chinese property bubble — might result in China’s government doing something rash.

But until then it is unlikely we will see the Eurasian holders of Treasuries engaging in much liquidation anytime soon — however much their leaders complain about American fiscal and monetary policy. Actions speak louder than words.

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On the Relationship Between the Size of the Monetary Base and the Price of Gold

The strong correlation between the gold price, and the size of the US monetary base that has existed during the era of quantitative easing appears to be in breakdown:

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To emphasise that, look at the correlation over the last year:

inversecorrelation

Of course, in the past the two haven’t always been correlated. Here’s the relationship up to 2000:

2000

So there’s no hard and fast rule that the two should line up.

My belief is that the gold price has been driven by a lot of moderately interconnected factors related to distrust of government, central banks and the financial system — fear of inflation, fear of counterparty risk, fear of financial crashes and panics, fear of banker greed and regulatory incompetence, fear of fiat currency and central banking, belief that only gold (and silver) can be real money and that fiat currencies are destined to fail. The growth in the monetary base is intimately interconnected to some of these — the idea that the Fed is debasing the currency, and that high or hyperinflation or the failure of the global financial system are just around the corner. These are historically-founded fears — after all, financial systems and fiat currencies have failed in the past. Hyperinflation has been a real phenomenon in the past on multiple occasions.

But in this case, five years after 2008 these fears haven’t materialised. The high inflation that was expected hasn’t materialised (at least by the most accurate measure). And in my view this has sharpened the teeth of the anti-gold speculators, who have made increasingly large short sales, as well as the fears of some gold buyers who bought a hedge against something that hasn’t materialised. The global financial system still possesses a great deal of systemic corruption, banker greed and regulatory incompetence, and the potential for future financial crashes and blowups, so many gold bulls will remain undeterred. But with inflation low, and the trend arguably toward deflation (especially considering the shrinkage in M4 — all of that money the Fed printed is just a substitute for shrinkage in the money supply from the deflation of shadow finance!) gold is facing some strong headwinds.

And so a breakdown in the relationship between the monetary base has already occurred. Can it last? Well, that depends very much on individual and market psychology. If inflation stays low and inflation expectations stay low, then it is hard to see the market becoming significantly more bullish in the short or medium term, even in the context of high demand from China and India and BRIC central banks. The last time gold had a downturn like this, the market was depressed for twenty years. Of course, those years were marked by large-scale growth and great technological innovation. If new technologies — particularly in energy, for example if solar energy becomes cheaper than coal — enable a new period of spectacular growth like that which occurred during the last gold bear market, then gold is poised to fall dramatically relative to output.

But even if technology and innovation does not produce new organic growth, gold may not be poised for a return to gains. A new financial crisis would in the short term prove bearish for gold as funds and banks liquidate saleable assets like gold. Only high inflation and very negative real interest rates may prove capable of generating a significant upturn in gold. Some may say that individual, institutional and governmental debt loads are now so high that they can only be inflated away, but the possibility of restructuring also exists even in the absence of organic growth. A combination of strong organic growth and restructuring would likely prove deadly to gold.

Even After All The QE, The Money Supply Is Still Shrunken

Here are the broadest measures of the US money supply, M3 and M4 as estimated by the Center for Fiscal Stability:

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With the total money supply still at an absolute level lower than its 2008 peak, it is obvious that the Federal Reserve in tripling the monetary base — an expansion by what is in comparison to other components of M4 a relatively small amount — has been battling staggering deflationary forces. And with the money supply still lower than the 2008 peak and far-below its pre-2008 trend, the Fed is arguably struggling in this battle (even though by the most widely-recognised measure, the CPI-U the Fed has kept the US economy out of deflation). 

Those who have pointed to massively inflationary forces in the American economy based on a tripling of the monetary base, or even expansion of M2 clearly do not understand that the Fed does not control the money supply. It controls the monetary base, which influences the money supply but the big money in the US economy is created endogenously through credit-creation by traditional banks and shadow banks. The Fed can lead the horse to water by expanding the monetary base, but in such depressionary economic conditions it cannot make the horse drink.

What does this imply? Well, either the monetary transmission mechanism is broken, or monetary policy at the zero bound is ineffectual.

What it also implies is that hyperinflation (and even high inflation) remains the remotest of remote possibilities in the short and medium terms. The overwhelming trend remains deflationary following the bursting of the shadow intermediation bubble in 2008, and to offset this powerful deflationary trend the Fed is highly likely to have to continue to prime the monetary pump Abenomics-style into the foreseeable future.

The Magazine Cover Top?

John Hussman makes an entirely unscientific but still very interesting point about market euphoria — as epitomised by a recent Barron’s professional survey leading a magazine cover triumphantly proclaiming “Dow 16000” — as a contrarian indicator:

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I have no idea whether or not the Dow Jones Industrial Average will hit 16,000 anytime soon. A P/E ratio of 15.84 seems relatively modest even in the context of some weakish macro data (weak employment numbers, weak business confidence, high energy input costs) and that priced in real GDP they look considerably more expensive, but it’s healthy to keep in mind the fact that euphoria and uber-bullishness very often gives way to profit-taking, stagnating prices, margin calls, shorting, panic and steep price falls. That same scenario has taken place in both gold and Bitcoin in the past couple of weeks. Leverage has been soaring the past couple of months, implying a certain fragility, a weakness to profit-taking and margin calls.

Psychologically, there seems to be a bubble in the notion that the Fed can levitate the DJIA to any level it likes. I grew up watching people flip houses in the mid-00s housing bubble, and there was a consensus among bubble-deniers like Ben Stein that if the housing market slumped, central banks would be able to levitate the market. Anyone who has seen the deep bottom in US housing best-exemplified by a proliferation of $500 foreclosed houses knows that even with massive new Fed liquidity, the housing market hasn’t been prevented from bottoming out. True, Bernanke has been explicit about using stock markets as a transmission mechanism for the wealth effect. But huge-scale Federal support could not stop the housing bubble bursting. In fact, a Minskian or Austrian analysis suggests that by making the reinflation of stock indexes a policy tool and implying that it will not let indexes fall, the Fed itself has intrinsically created a bubble in confidence. Euphoria is always unsustainable, and the rebirth of the Dow 36,000 meme is a pretty deranged kind of market euphoria.

Nonetheless, without some kind of wide and deep shock to inject some volatility — like war in the middle east or the Korean peninsula, or a heavy energy shock, a natural disaster, a large-scale Chinese crash, a subprime-scale financial blowup, or a Eurozone bank run  — there is a real possibility that markets will continue to levitate. 16,000, 18,000 and 20,000 are not out of the question. The gamble may pay off for those smart or lucky enough to sell at the very top. But the dimensions of uncertainty make it is a very, very risky gamble.

Abenomics & Rooseveltian Resolve

The new Bank of Japan chief Haruhiko Kuroda today unveiled an aggressive new round of monetary easing, the latest step in the policy of recently-elected Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As part of a promise to do “whatever it takes” to return Japan to growth, Kuroda promised a level of quantitative easing unseen before in Japan, intended to discourage saving and encourage spending. Kuroda promised to print 50 trillion yen ($520bn; £350bn) per year.That is the equivalent of almost 10% of Japan’s annual gross domestic product, and over double the level of what the Federal Reserve is currently experimenting with.

Many are hailing this as an attempt to put into practice the advice of Ben Bernanke to Japan in the 1990s — what Bernanke called “Rooseveltian resolve“. In fact, Ben Bernanke has provided a practical as well as a theoretical template through the unconventional policies adopted in the last five years by the Federal Reserve. Although some economic commentators believe that Shinzo Abe was more interested in reviving Japanese mercantilism and drive exports through a cheap currency, it is fairly clear that even if that is Abe’s ultimate intent, Abe is certainly harnessing Bernankean monetary policies (as well as Keynesian fiscal stimulus policies) in that pursuit.

So, will Abe’s policies return Japan to growth, as Bernanke might have intended?

Well, this diagnostic pathway sees deflation as the great central ill. The rising value of a currency acts as a disincentive to economic action and the encouragement of hoarding, because economic participants may tend to offset projects and purchases to get a greater bang for their buck. (This, of course, would be the great problem with Bitcoin becoming the sole currency as its inherent deflationary nature encourages inactivity and not activity, but that is a topic for another day). During deflation, delayed projects and subdued consumer spending are reflected in weak or nonexistent growth. More expected inflation encourages businesses and individuals to consume and start projects rather than save. At least, that’s the theory.

In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is. So in practice, what other effects are at play here?

First of all, the Japanese in general (or a substantial and influential proportion of them) seem to really dislike inflation. Why? Well, since the initial housing and stocks bubble burst in the 1990s, they have become a nation of capital accumulators with a low private debt level. This is at least partially a demographic phenomenon. Older people tend to have a much higher net worth than younger people who have had less time to amass capital, and they need places to park it — places like government and corporate debt. This has driven Japanese interest rates to the lowest in the world:

bernanke-exhibit-20130301a1

The other side of the coin here is that this has made it very easy, almost inevitable, for the government to run massive budget deficits and run up huge levels of debt (which has to be rolled). Higher inflation would mean that those elderly creditors (who have up until now voted-in politicians who have kept the deflationary status quo) will very likely experience a negative real interest rate. Many may find this a painful experience, having grown used to deflation (which ensures a positive real interest rate even at a very low nominal interest rate, as has been the case in Japan since the 1990s):

JapanRealInterestRate

Every time Japan’s real interest rate has touched zero, it has shot back up. Japan has an aversion to negative real interest rates, it seems. And this is in stark contrast to countries like the UK and USA which have experienced much lower real interest rates since the 2008 crisis. A negative real interest rate in Japan would be a shock to the system, and a huge change for Japan’s capital-rich elderly who have happily ridden out the deflationary years in Japanese government bonds. (Of course, if reversing deflation revived real GDP growth then they would have more places to park their capital — like lending to or purchasing equity in growing business — but the question is whether or not the Japanese people at large have an appetite for such a shift).

Another challenge to growth is the existence of Japan’s zombie corporations and banks — inefficient, uncompetitive entities kept alive by government subsidies. Although some zombie banks left on life-support from the 1990s were terminated during the Koizumi years, it is fairly clear from total factor productivity figures of both Japanese manufacturing productivity and non-manufacturing productivity are still very uncompetitive. How can a burst of spending as a result of inflation turn that around? Without removing the subsidies — something that Abe, as a leader of the establishment Liberal Democratic Party, the party that has ruled Japan for the overwhelming majority of the postwar years, and is deeply interwoven with the crony industries is very unlikely to do — it may prove very difficult to return Japan to growth. And of course, these industries own the bulk of Japanese debt, so attempts to reduce the real interest rate is likely to prove deeply unpopular with them, too. (On the other hand, Japanese banks will profit from these open-market operations through flipping bonds at a profit, so the new policies may have their supporters as well as opposers among Japan’s zombie financiers).

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the Bank of Japan’s new programs are doomed to fail, or that they are likely to trigger severely adverse outcomes, but if serious attempts are not made to tackle the systemic challenges and entrenched interests, then it is hard to see how much can come out of this other than a transitory inflationary and devaluationary blip followed by a retreat to more of what Japan has become used to, and what much of Japanese society seems to like — low growth, a strong yen, and low inflation or deflation. And if Abe’s gameplan is really to grow by boosting the exports of the crony industries, then hope of desubsidisation of the crony industries seems almost entirely lost.

Certainly, more fiscal stimulus will eat up slack capital resources. And certainly, this is an interesting experiment on the fringes of Monetarism and monetary policy in general. If Japan goes through with this experiment, hits its inflation target and triggers sustained nominal GDP growth this will be a decent empirical test of whether or not such policies can lead to sustained real GDP growth. But there is no guarantee that Japan has the Rooseveltian resolve to follow through with these policies, and even if it does there is no guarantee that they will lead to a significantly higher trend in real GDP growth. The underlying system is deeply entrenched.

Ben Bernanke Must Be Hoping Rational Expectations Doesn’t Hold…

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In the theory of rational expectations, human predictions are not systematically wrong. This means that in a rational expectations model, people’s subjective beliefs about the probability of future events are equal to the actual probabilities of those future events.

Now, I think that rational expectations is one of the worst ideas in economic theory. It’s based on a germ of a good idea — that self-fulfilling prophesies are possible. Almost certainly, they are. But expressed probabilities are really just guesses, just expressions of a perception. Or, as it is put in Bayesian probability theory: “probability is an abstract concept, a quantity that we assign theoretically, for the purpose of representing a state of knowledge, or that we calculate from previously assigned probabilities.”

Sometimes widely-held or universally-held beliefs turn out to be entirely irrational and at-odds with reality (this is especially true in the investment industry, and particularly the stock market where going against the prevailing trend is very often the best strategy). Whether a belief will lead to a reality is something that can only be analysed on a case-by-case basis. Humans are at best semi-rational creatures, and expectations effects are nonlinear, and poorly understood from an empirical standpoint.

Mainstream economic models often assume rational expectations, however. And if rational expectations holds, we could be in for a rough ride in the near future. Because an awful lot of Americans believe that a new financial crisis is coming soon.

According to a recent YouGov/Huffington Post survey:

75 percent of respondents said that it’s either very or somewhat likely that the country could have another financial crisis in the near future. Only 12 percent said it was not very likely, and only 2 percent said it was not at all likely.

From a rational expectations perspective, that’s a pretty ugly number. From a general economic perspective it’s a pretty ugly number too — not because it is expressing a truth  (it might be — although I’d personally say a 75% estimate is rather on the low side), but because it reflects that society doesn’t have much confidence in the recovery, in the markets, or in the banks.

Why? My guess is that the still-high unemployment and underemployment numbers are a key factor here, reinforcing the idea that the economy is still very much in the doldrums. The stock market is soaring, but only a minority of people own stocks directly and unemployed and underemployed people generally can’t afford to invest in the stock market or financial markets. So a recovery based around reinflating the S&P500, Russell 3000 and DJIA indices doesn’t cut it when it comes to instilling confidence in the wider population.

Another factor is the continued and ongoing stories of scandal in the financial world — whether it’s LIBOR rigging, the London Whale, or the raiding of segregated accounts at MF Global. A corrupt and rapacious financial system run by the same people who screwed up in 2008 probably isn’t going to instill much confidence in the wider population, either.

So in the context of high unemployment, and rampant financial corruption, the possibility of a future financial crisis seems like a pretty rational expectation to me.

Horsemeat Economics

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The British (and now Europe-wide) scandal of corporations selling horse meat as beef is emblematic of many of the problems with big, unwieldy systems.

The similarity between horse meat and subprime has already been noted in a Financial Times editorial:

The food industry has long known that processed meat is susceptible to fraud. While it is relatively easy to verify whole cuts of meat taken from a carcass, this is not the case for the bits left behind. These are gathered up and shipped out to thousands of outlets for processing into lower-value products. In Britain, monitoring this industry is left to local authorities and the retailers themselves.

Yet this surveillance has become virtually impossible in the modern world of food production. Consumers want ever lower prices. But food margins are already wafer thin. The drive to cut costs has sent retailers scouting for cheaper suppliers in far-flung parts of the world. Supply chains have become vast and unwieldy. And internet tenders drive prices down even further.

This has brought big benefits to consumers who until recently enjoyed consistently falling prices. But in a disturbing parallel to the financial sector’s subprime crisis, the growing distance between supermarkets and their suppliers has also opened the door to fraud on a scale that as yet can only be guessed at. The meat used in these products now travels across multiple borders and through myriad companies. Regulators do not have the resources to keep up. Only those who buy the processed products and sell them under their own brands can apply the pressure that will limit chances for fraud.

Just as with subprime, complicated, impersonal systems have bred fraud. Once upon a time, banks were impelled to lend responsibly, because if they did not their balance sheets would become filled with trash, and they would face bankruptcy. Then they discovered that they could pull a ruse — lend irresponsibly, and pass off the risk to someone else. Purchasers of subprime mortgage-backed securities thought they were buying a AAA grade product, as that is what ratings agencies passed them off as being. But it turns out they were just buying unsustainable trash. It is, of course, possible that the subprime crisis could have been avoided had the price of oil and other commodities not risen so steeply and precipitously, squeezing consumers’ budgets.

crisis-economy-commodity-instability-will-hit-china-and-india-who-remain-import-dependent

But sooner or later, the banks’ irresponsibility would have come home to roost, and the ruse would have collapsed. If it hadn’t been ballooning commodities prices, it would have been something else.

Similarly, in an equally sprawling and disconnected system — the global food supply chain — anonymity has bred irresponsibility once again. Retailers claim to have been misled. Meat processors and food manufacturers claim to have been misled too. But somewhere along the line, someone is lying. Someone, at some point decided that horse was a cheaper alternative to beef, someone tested it for taste, to affirm that it would be taken as an acceptable substitute. And someone decided that horse would enter the food chain, and that consumers could be fooled into thinking that it was beef. Would that be possible with a local butcher? Would it be possible for unwanted substances to penetrate the food chain if the supply chain was much shorter?

Maybe, but there are strong disincentives. With a shorter supply chain, it is not so easy to pass off the blame to someone else. If a local British butcher decides to substitute horse for beef, it would be more easily discoverable than if a sprawling multinational — whose abattoirs are located in Romania or Cyprus, but its customers in Britain, Spain, France and Italy — decided to do so. British abattoir workers would know, and might dissent. Butchers would be able to tell the difference, and most would have a serious problem with deceiving customers who they see face to face. A supermarket that sells meals packaged in plastic containers by other companies, has no such problem with deception. Customers don’t ever get to meet the person who butchered or cooked or shipped their ready meal. This provides a barrier of anonymity. There is no immediate embarrassment in deception carried out at distance. Simply, anonymity makes deception easier, and big, complex systems create anonymity.

In 2010, The Telegraph reported on some empirical research supporting this idea:

There is a growing body of research to support the logically obvious idea that humans become increasingly dishonest as cheating becomes easier:

From finding a £50 note on the floor to being accidentally given the answers to test questions, even normally honest people can suddenly become dishonest, it found.

But they will only cheat if it does not involve any work, said the academic study for the journal Psychological and Personality Science.

In an experiment on 84 students, researchers set up a trial involving a maths test on a computer, without telling them the reasons why they were doing it.

Half the students were warned the system was not working properly. If they pressed the space bar on the keyboard the answers would come up.

The other half were told that if they did not press the enter key immediately after seeing the question, then the answer would come up.

Overall, few cheated at all. But those who did not have to press a key to cheat were almost TEN times as likely to do so, said the researchers from the University of Toronto.

They said it was because pressing a key was like ‘intentionally’ trying to cheat while those who didn’t acted as if they were cheating by accident, so they did not feel they were making an immoral choice.

In a second test, the volunteers were tested on their willingness to help a fellow student with a disability complete an exam paper.

Half were told the way to volunteer was to follow an online link, the other half simply had to click ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the screen.

Those who had to follow the link were five times less likely to volunteer to help, because it was easier for them to get out of it than the others who had a clear choice to make.

Study author Rimma Teper said: “People are more likely to cheat and make immoral decisions when their transgressions don’t involve an explicit action.”

I am coming to believe very strongly that as this century continues, and as systemic interconnectivity and complexity increases, we will see many more horse meat and subprime style scandals exploiting the anonymity of big systems.

Meanwhile, those who do not wish to be exposed to such counterparty risk will avoid such complexity like the plague.