This Time It’s Different 2013 Edition

A small note on the frankly hilarious news that the Dow Jones Industrial Average smashed through to all-time-highs.

First of all, while stock prices are soaring, household income and household confidence are slumping to all-time lows. Employment remains depressed, energy remains expensive, housing remains depressed, wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP keep falling, and the economy remains in a deleveraging cycle. Essentially, these are not the conditions for strong organic business growth, for a sustainable boom. We’re going through a structural economic adjustment, and suffering the consequences of a huge 40-year debt-fuelled boom. While the fundamentals remain weak, it can only be expected that equity markets should remain weak. But that is patently not what has happened.

In fact, it has been engineered that way. Bernanke has been explicitly targeting equities, hoping to trigger a beneficent spiral that he calls “the wealth effect” — stock prices go up, people feel richer and spend, and the economy recovers. But with fundamentals still depressed, this boom cannot be sustained.

There are several popular memes doing the rounds to suggest, of course, that this time is different and that the boom times are here to stay, including the utterly hilarious notion that the Dow Jones is now a “safe haven”. They are all variations on one theme — that Bernanke is supporting the recovery, and will do whatever it takes to continue to support it. Markets seem to be taking this as a sign that the recovery is real and here to stay. But this is obviously false, and it is this delusion that — as Hyman Minsky clearly explained last century — is so dangerous.

There are many events and eventualities under which throwing more money at the market will make no difference. Central banks cannot reverse a war, or a negative trade shock, or a negative production shock, or a negative energy shock simply by throwing money at it. And there are severe limits to their power to counteract financial contractions outside their jurisdiction (although in all fairness the Federal Reserve has expanded these limits in extending liquidity lines to foreign banks). Sooner or later the engineered recovery will be broken by an event outside the control of central bankers and politicians. In creating a false stability, the Federal Reserve has actually destabilised the economy, by distorting investors’ perceptions.

But, of course, some analysts think that this time really is different. Here’s a chart from Goldman showing the S&P500 by sectoral composition:

screen shot 2013-03-06 at 4.50.16 am

The implication here is clear — with no obvious sectoral bulge like that of the late 1970s, the tech bubble, and the financial bubble — there is no bubble. But what if the bubble is spread evenly over multiple sectors? After all, the Federal Reserve has been reinflating Wall Street in general rather than any one sector in particular.

Wall Street leverage is, unsurprisingly, approaching 2007 levels:

2005

Is this the final blowout top? I’m not sure. But I would be shocked to see this bubble live beyond 2013, or 2014 at the latest. I don’t know which straw will break the illusion. Middle eastern war? Hostility between China and Japan? North Korea? Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown? Student debt? Eurozone? Natural disasters? Who knows…

The wider implications may not be as bad as 2008. The debt bubble has already burst, and the deleveraging cycle has already begun. Total debt is slowly shrinking. It is plausible that we will only see a steep correction in stocks, rather than some kind of wider economic calamity. On the other hand, it is also plausible that this bursting bubble may herald a deeper, darker new phase of the depression.

With every day that the DJIA climbs to new all-time highs, more suckers will be drawn into the market. But it won’t last. Insiders have already gone aggressively bearish. This time isn’t different.

thistimeisdifferent

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Of Krugman & Minsky

Paul Krugman just did something mind-bending.

KrugMan-625x416

In a recent column, he cited Minsky ostensibly to defend Alan Greenspan’s loose monetary policies:

Business Insider reports on a Bloomberg TV interview with hedge fund legend Stan Druckenmiller that helped crystallize in my mind what, exactly, I find so appalling about people who say that we must tighten monetary policy to avoid bubbles — even in the face of high unemployment and low inflation.

Druckenmiller blames Alan Greenspan’s loose-money policies for the whole disaster; that’s a highly dubious proposition, in fact rejected by all the serious studies I’ve seen. (Remember, the ECB was much less expansionary, but Europe had just as big a housing bubble; I vote for Minsky’s notion that financial systems run amok when people forget about risk, not because central bankers are a bit too liberal)

Krugman correctly identifies the mechanism here — prior to 2008, people forgot about risk. But why did people forget about risk, if not for the Greenspan put? Central bankers were perfectly happy to take credit for the prolonged growth and stability while the good times lasted.

Greenspan put the pedal to the metal each time the US hit a recession and flooded markets with liquidity. He was prepared to create bubbles to replace old bubbles, just as Krugman’s friend Paul McCulley once put it. Bernanke called it the Great Moderation; that through monetary policy, the Fed had effectively smoothed the business cycle to the extent that the old days of boom and bust were gone. It was boom and boom and boom.

So, people forgot about risk. Macroeconomic stability bred complacency. And the longer the perceived good times last, the more fragile the economy becomes, as more and more risky behaviour becomes the norm.

Stability is destabilising. The Great Moderation was intimately connected to markets becoming forgetful of risk. And bubbles formed. Not just housing, not just stocks. The truly unsustainable bubble underlying all the others was debt. This is the Federal Funds rate — rate cuts were Greenspan’s main tool — versus total debt as a percentage of GDP:

fredgraph (18)

More damningly, as Matthew C. Klein notes, the outgrowth in debt very clearly coincided with an outgrowth in risk taking:

To any competent central banker, it should have been obvious that the debt load was becoming unsustainable and that dropping interest rates while the debt load soared was irresponsible and dangerous. Unfortunately Greenspan didn’t see it. And now, we’re in the long, slow deleveraging part of the business cycle. We’re in a depression.

In endorsing Minsky’s view, Krugman is coming closer to the truth. But he is still one crucial step away. If stability is destabilising, we must embrace the business cycle. Smaller cyclical booms, and smaller cyclical busts. Not boom, boom, boom and then a grand mal seizure.

Bubble Economy

Noah Smith asks:

What is a “bubble”?

Well, it’s something that looks like this:

Prices go way up, then they crash back down. Look at any long-term plot of any asset price index (stocks, housing, etc.) and you’re likely to see some big peaks like this. That’s what I call a “bubble.” It’s also the definition used by Charles Kindleberger in his book Manias, Panics, and Crashes.

That sounds about right. We see these patterns everywhere — from Bitcoins, NFLX, and copper today, to the DJIA, NASDAQ and many commodities and stocks during the last century. Smith continues:

But the real question is why we care about bubbles. Some people believe that bubbles are merely responses to changes in expected fundamental value of an asset (the “fundamental value” is the expected present value of  the income you get from owning an asset). According to this view, the NASDAQ bubble happened because people thought that internet companies were going to make lots and lots of profit, and when those expectations didn’t materialize, prices went down again. This view is held by many eminent financial economists, including Eugene Fama, the most cited financial economist in the world.

If bubbles represent the best available estimate of fundamental values, then they aren’t something we should try to stop. But many other people think that bubbles are something more sinister – large-scale departures of prices from the best available estimate of fundamentals. If bubbles really represent market inefficiencies on a vast scale, then there’s a chance we could prevent or halt them, either through better design of financial markets, or by direct government intervention.

Smith goes on to quite elegantly show that a lot of evidence suggests that bubbles are probably an entirely natural phenomenon.

As an Englishman, there is an example much closer to home:


Gordon Brown claimed that his government had abolished boom and bust; there would be no more foundering capitalist bluster, no slump after the boom, just slow, steady centrally-planned growth.

Then 2008 happened, his claims were made to look infantile, and he was shunted from office by a man who at the very least has some backbone.

Bubbles are expressions of human exuberance. That is because value is subjective (and as such, the notion of incorrect “fundamentals” is extremely fuzzy — how can any subjective value be “fundamental”?) Humans are herd animals — we move where the money is. If an asset value is rising, speculators will want a piece of the action. And why not? Money made speculating is money made with little or no effort. Sometimes there is some underlying reason as to why an asset value is rising: expectations of rising earnings, or a prospective takeover. Sometimes it is just hot air and animal spirits.

A simple heuristic: bubbles happen. Even when central planners have explicitly gone out of their way to prevent bubbles, they still seem to happen.

On the other hand, it is possible to make societies more robust to bubbles. For a start, if a bubble is built on debt-acquisition (e.g. 1929) its collapse will be more painful than otherwise due to counter-party risk, because of the resultant default cascade. So, basing the banking system around debt is by default quite fragile. So too is allowing a humungous scheme of credit creation via securitisation and rehypothecation. And so is allowing the unregulated trading of huge quantities  of exotic derivatives and swaps.

Andrew Haldane, writing in Nature, describes the bubble that emerged:

In the run-up to the recent financial crisis, an increasingly elaborate set of financial instruments emerged, intended to optimize returns to individual institutions with seemingly minimal risk. Essentially no attention was given to their possible effects on the stability of the system as a whole. Drawing analogies with the dynamics of ecological food webs and with networks within which infectious diseases spread, we explore the interplay between complexity and stability in deliberately simplified models of financial networks. We suggest some policy lessons that can be drawn from such models, with the explicit aim of minimizing systemic risk.

Regulators overlooked huge systemic fragility because they had no concept of its existence. That is the very definition of a black swan. And the nature of reality suggests that no matter how good we get at modelling reality and behaviour, those black swans will keep clusterflocking.

Bubbles happen: what matters is how resilient we are to them. And  — with gross derivatives exposure as high as ever before, with government and private debt as high as ever before, and with unemployment still perilously high — it would be quite hard to say we look very resilient.

Stiglitz vs Krugman

A very interesting front is opening up regarding the current state of America.

Some economists believe that the main problem in America is a lack of demand, defined as the desire to buy, the willingness to buy, and the ability to pay for it

From Paul Krugman:

There is nothing — nothing — in what we see suggesting that this current depression is more than a problem of inadequate demand. This could be turned around in months with the right policies. Our problem isn’t, ultimately, economic; it’s political, brought on by an elite that would rather cling to its prejudices than turn the nation around.

The implication here is that people just don’t have the money in their pockets to spend at the levels they were five years ago, and the solution is (through whatever means) giving them that money.

As well as the obvious (and accurate) Austrian retort that demand in 2006 was being pushed skyward as part of a ridiculous and entirely artificial debt-financed bubble, other economists believe that a lack of demand is just a symptom of other underlying symptoms. I myself believe that the three main problems are a lack of confidence stemming from high systemic residual debt, deindustrialisation in the name of globalisation (& its corollary, financialisation and that sprawling web of debt and counter-party risk), and fragility and side-effects (e.g. lost internal productivity due to role as world policeman) coming from America’s petroleum addiction.

Now Joe Stiglitz has weighed in in a lengthy and essential Vanity Fair piece:

The trauma we’re experiencing right now resembles the trauma we experienced 80 years ago, during the Great Depression, and it has been brought on by an analogous set of circumstances. Then, as now, we faced a breakdown of the banking system. But then, as now, the breakdown of the banking system was in part a consequence of deeper problems. Even if we correctly respond to the trauma—the failures of the financial sector—it will take a decade or more to achieve full recovery. Under the best of conditions, we will endure a Long Slump. If we respond incorrectly, as we have been, the Long Slump will last even longer, and the parallel with the Depression will take on a tragic new dimension.

Many have argued that the Depression was caused primarily by excessive tightening of the money supply on the part of the Federal Reserve Board. Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Depression, has stated publicly that this was the lesson he took away, and the reason he opened the monetary spigots. He opened them very wide. Beginning in 2008, the balance sheet of the Fed doubled and then rose to three times its earlier level. Today it is $2.8 trillion. While the Fed, by doing this, may have succeeded in saving the banks, it didn’t succeed in saving the economy.

Reality has not only discredited the Fed but also raised questions about one of the conventional interpretations of the origins of the Depression. The argument has been made that the Fed caused the Depression by tightening money, and if only the Fed back then had increased the money supply—in other words, had done what the Fed has done today—a full-blown Depression would likely have been averted. In economics, it’s difficult to test hypotheses with controlled experiments of the kind the hard sciences can conduct. But the inability of the monetary expansion to counteract this current recession should forever lay to rest the idea that monetary policy was the prime culprit in the 1930s. The problem today, as it was then, is something else. The problem today is the so-called real economy. It’s a problem rooted in the kinds of jobs we have, the kind we need, and the kind we’re losing, and rooted as well in the kind of workers we want and the kind we don’t know what to do with. The real economy has been in a state of wrenching transition for decades, and its dislocations have never been squarely faced. A crisis of the real economy lies behind the Long Slump, just as it lay behind the Great Depression.

At the beginning of the Depression, more than a fifth of all Americans worked on farms. Between 1929 and 1932, these people saw their incomes cut by somewhere between one-third and two-thirds, compounding problems that farmers had faced for years. Agriculture had been a victim of its own success. In 1900, it took a large portion of the U.S. population to produce enough food for the country as a whole. Then came a revolution in agriculture that would gain pace throughout the century—better seeds, better fertilizer, better farming practices, along with widespread mechanization. Today, 2 percent of Americans produce more food than we can consume.

What this transition meant, however, is that jobs and livelihoods on the farm were being destroyed. Because of accelerating productivity, output was increasing faster than demand, and prices fell sharply. It was this, more than anything else, that led to rapidly declining incomes. Farmers then (like workers now) borrowed heavily to sustain living standards and production. Because neither the farmers nor their bankers anticipated the steepness of the price declines, a credit crunch quickly ensued. Farmers simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. The financial sector was swept into the vortex of declining farm incomes.

The cities weren’t spared—far from it. As rural incomes fell, farmers had less and less money to buy goods produced in factories. Manufacturers had to lay off workers, which further diminished demand for agricultural produce, driving down prices even more. Before long, this vicious circle affected the entire national economy.

The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity — the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

The consequences for consumer spending, and for the fundamental health of the economy — not to mention the appalling human cost—are obvious, though we were able to ignore them for a while. For a time, the bubbles in the housing and lending markets concealed the problem by creating artificial demand, which in turn created jobs in the financial sector and in construction and elsewhere. The bubble even made workers forget that their incomes were declining. They savored the possibility of wealth beyond their dreams, as the value of their houses soared and the value of their pensions, invested in the stock market, seemed to be doing likewise. But the jobs were temporary, fueled on vapor.

So far, so excellent. Stiglitz first shovels shit over the view of Fisherian debt-deflation as the main cause of the slump in demand — debt-deflation is a symptom, and a very nasty one, but not really a cause. Second, Stiglitz also correctly notes that today’s ailments are the result of social, infrastructural and productive upheaval in the real economy. He correctly identifies the leading trend here — manufacturing (and, it should be added, primary industry) has been ripped out of America by the forces of globalisation, and the powerful pull of cheaper wages. This is a strong explanation of why Krugman’s view — that the only thing missing is demand, and that government can fix that in an instant — is nonsense.

As I wrote earlier this month:

The point here is that economic health — and real industrial output, measured in joules, or in “needs met” — and money circulation are in reality almost totally decoupled. Getting out of a depression requires debt erasure, and new organic activity, and there is absolutely no guarantee that monetary easing will do the trick on either count. Most often, depressions and liquidity traps are a reflection of underlying structural and sociological problems, and broken economic and trade systems. Easing kicks the can down the road a little, and gives some time and breathing room for those problems to be fixed, but very often that just doesn’t happen. Ultimately, societies only take the steps necessary (e.g. a debt jubilee) when their very existence seems threatened.

Stiglitz continues:

What we need to do instead is embark on a massive investment program—as we did, virtually by accident, 80 years ago—that will increase our productivity for years to come, and will also increase employment now. This public investment, and the resultant restoration in G.D.P., increases the returns to private investment. Public investments could be directed at improving the quality of life and real productivity—unlike the private-sector investments in financial innovations, which turned out to be more akin to financial weapons of mass destruction.

Now, I don’t really have a problem with the idea that government can do some good. If people in a democracy choose to solve problems via public spending, well, that’s part of the bargain in a democratic state. Even Adam Smith noted that government should fund “certain great institutions” beyond the reach of private enterprise.

But here we reach the great problem with Stiglitz’s view:

The private sector by itself won’t, and can’t, undertake structural transformation of the magnitude needed—even if the Fed were to keep interest rates at zero for years to come. The only way it will happen is through a government stimulus designed not to preserve the old economy but to focus instead on creating a new one. We have to transition out of manufacturing and into services that people want — into productive activities that increase living standards, not those that increase risk and inequality.

The United States spent the last decade (arguably longer) and trillions of dollars embroiled in wars aimed at keeping oil cheap, and maintaining the flow of global goods precisely because America is dependent upon those things. America does not play global policeman out of nicety or vanity — she does it out of economic necessity. That is precisely because America let globalisation take away all of her industry, making her dependent not only on the continued value of her paper dollar, but on the flow of global trade in energy and goods.

Investing more money in services will leave America dependent on these contingencies. And dependency is fragility — and the more fragile America becomes, the more aggressive she becomes in maintaining and controlling the flow of global goods.

Any stimulus package ought to instead be focussed on making America energy independent, and encouraging innovative new forms of manufacturing (e.g. 3-D printing) that can undercut Chinese labour.

So while Stiglitz must be commended for seeing through the haze, it is rather puzzling that his alternative is services, rather than self-sufficiency.

While America is dependent on foreign goods and energy, she is prone to not only waste huge amounts of productive capital on war and weapons, but she also risks serious economic damage from events such as oil shocks, geopolitical shocks, regional wars, and — well — anything that might slow down or endanger global trade. Her need to police the world makes her even hungrier for oil, which means she spends more money on the world, which makes her hungrier for oil.

The Biggest Bubble in History

Regular readers will be aware that I believe that American government debt (and by extension, cash) is in a once-in-a-century bubble.

A recent article from Bloomberg typified this ongoing (and quite hilarious) insanity:

The biggest bond gains in almost a decade have pushed returns on Treasuries above stocks over the past 30 years, the first time that’s happened since before the Civil War.
Fixed-income investments advanced 6.25 percent this year, almost triple the 2.18 percent rise in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index through last week, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes. Debt markets are on track to return 7.63 percent this year, the most since 2002, the data show. Long-term government bonds have gained 11.5 percent a year on average over the past three decades, beating the 10.8 percent increase in the S&P 500, said Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research in Chicago.

The combination of a core U.S. inflation rate that has averaged 1.5 percent this year, the Federal Reserve’s decision to keep its target interest rate for overnight loans between banks near zero through 2013, slower economic growth and the highest savings rate since the global credit crisis have made bonds the best assets to own this year. Not only have bonds knocked stocks from their perch as the dominant long-term investment, their returns proved everyone from Bill Gross to Meredith Whitney and Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrong.

"I CAN'T SEE A WOOD?! ALL I SEE ARE TREES!"

When will the bond bubble end? It will end when the people and governments of the world tire of giving their pound of flesh to creditors. Creditors and debtors have fundamentally hostile interests — debtors want to take money without paying it back, and creditors want to take value without getting their hands dirty. A history of the world (the decline of Rome, the decline of Britain, the decline of America) is in some ways a history of hostility between creditors and debtors.

This hostility has been tempered (and conflict delayed) since the Keynesian revolution, by mass money printing. Everyone (except savers) wins — creditors get their pound of flesh (devalued by money printing), and debtors get the value of their debt cut by persistent inflation.

But there is an unwanted side-effect. Debt mounts & mounts:

And eventually, debt repayment means that “kicking the can” becomes “kicking a giant mountain of debt” — a very painful experience that necessitates either painful austerity, or huge money printing — neither of which encourage savings, or investment.

Europe, on the other hand, has decided to skip the can-kicking (“price stability, ja?“) and jump straight to the cataclysm of crushing austerity for debtor nations. Unsurprisingly, Greeks don’t like being told what they can and cannot spend money on. Surprisingly, the Greek establishment have decided to give the Greek people (debtors) a referendum on that pound of flesh Greece’s creditors (the global banking system) are so hungry for. Default — and systemic collapse — seems inevitable.

(UPDATE: Greece, of course, has undergone a Euro-coup and is now firmly under the control of pro-European technocrats — creditors will get their pound of flesh, and Greece will get austerity)

Some would say Europe has forgotten the lessons of Keynes — print money, kick the can, hope for the best. But really, the Europeans have just hastened the inevitable endgame every debtor nation faces. With a mountain of external debt crushing organic growth the fundamental choice is default, or default-by-debasement. That’s it.

And that is why, however elegantly America massages its problems, American government bonds are in a humungous bubble.

Reinflating the Housing Bubble…

From my favourite arch-Keynesian provocateur (and fellow sci-fi fan):

The basic point is that the recession of 2001 wasn’t a typical postwar slump, brought on when an inflation-fighting Fed raises interest rates and easily ended by a snapback in housing and consumer spending when the Fed brings rates back down again. This was a prewar-style recession, a morning after brought on by irrational exuberance. To fight this recession the Fed needs more than a snapback; it needs soaring household spending to offset moribund business investment. And to do that, as Paul McCulley of Pimco put it, Alan Greenspan needs to create a housing bubble to replace the Nasdaq bubble.

He got his wish, and it ended in 2008 with the great crunching, squelching sound of death by delinquency (via securitisation).

But now the housing bubble is coming back — on steroids (or methamphetamine, whichever analogy is more appropriate).

Via the newly-extended HARP (HAARP?) program, for $100 down, under-water homeowners can pick up a $200,000 government-insured loan for “repairs” and “renovations”. That’s 2000:1 leverage — steep even for Wall Street.

A covert stimulus package by any other name — but more importantly, it’s another bailout to creditors who lent huge quantities of money to people who couldn’t afford to repay it.

From Of Two Minds:

President Obama is taking credit for a new government plan to “save homeowners.” That is of course pure propaganda to mask the plan’s true goal: the perfection of debt-serfdom. The basic thrust of the plan is straightforward: encourage “underwater” homeowners whose mortgages exceed the value of their homes to re-finance at lower rates.

The stated incentive (i.e. the PR pitch) is to lower homeowners’ monthly payments via lower interest rates.

This is the Federal Reserve’s entire game plan in a nutshell: don’t write off any debt, as that would reveal the banking sector’s insolvency, but play extend-and-pretend with crushing debtloads by lowering the cost of servicing the debt.

The key purpose of this “plan” is to leave the principle owed to banks on their books at full value while ensnaring the hapless debt-serf (the “homeowner”) into permanent servitude to the banks.

Moreover, all that easy capital will go toward (re-)inflating more bubbles beyond just housing. Bubbles replacing bubbles — just like Krugman envisioned.

Is that the model for sustainable economic development? Or is that the model for the disastrous crisis-bailout-crisis-bailout-crisis cycle that we see today in so many nations?

The problem is that with every cycle of government-driven malinvestment, productive capital gets diverted to bullshit that society doesn’t really need. Housing inventories are already overstocked — that’s why prices are weak. Blowing more money at the housing market might shore up too-big-to-fail balance sheets, but it’s not going to make housing any less overstocked. And all of those materials, time, energy and resources going into reinflating the housing bubble could go to things America actually needs — like better infrastructure, and a market-driven alternative energy strategy (sorry Solyndra) to reduce oil dependency.

But — with a financial system filled with junkies who only think about tomorrow — can anyone really be surprised that the Obama administration is employing such a short-sighted vision of economic development? Obama is just giving into the braying mob who live on speculative bubbles at the cost of America’s future.