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.

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Skewering Muppets

Jan Hatzius of Goldman Sachs is calling a major recovery after 2013:

What can we expect in coming years? If our estimates and assumptions are correct, 2013 is likely to be a more extreme version of 2010-2012, with a bigger positive private sector impulse that is offset by a bigger negative public sector impulse but still leaves growth around trend. But we expect the net impulse to turn positive in subsequent years, assuming that 2013 marks the peak rate of fiscal contraction. By 2014-2015, the decline in the ex ante private sector balance should be contributing around 11⁄2 percentage points to the overall growth impulse, but we currently assume that fiscal policy will subtract only 1⁄2- 1 percentage point, for a net impulse of 1⁄2-1 point. This ought to be a recipe for clearly above-trend growth.

His forecast looks like this:

Impulses

His model is one of sectoral balances.

financial-balances

He writes:

…an update of our financial balances model suggests that growth is likely to improve starting in the second half of 2013. Homebuilding looks set to recover strongly, the corporate sector should start to spend a larger share of its cash flow, and the personal saving rate will probably edge down a little further.

In very simple language, Hatzius is forecasting a recovery because he believes that the current trend is away from private sector deleveraging toward releveraging.

This approach is deeply, deeply flawed. Why? Total debt as a percentage of GDP is still ridiculously elevated. There has been very little deleveraging in total:

TCMDO/GDP

How can the private sector releverage from here? The costs of a high debt load make growth very difficult, as Irving Fisher and later Hyman Minsky showed. This huge outgrowth of debt is totally unsustainable. It has taken trillions of quantitative easing and bailouts to just sustain the present bloated debt load. And Hatzius’ model is predicting that we will soon be growing from taking on more?

This is transparent bullshit (unless you’re either a sucker or a shill), and I am sure Goldman’s traders will reap great reward betting against this advice just as they reaped great reward betting against worthless subprime junk last time round (another reason why banks that trade should never be in the business of advising clients, but that absurd conflict of interest is another story for another day). Win on the way up, win on the way down, and take a bailout if you lose.

The economy is stuck in a Catch-22. The high debt load is strangling growth, but growth is the one thing that can significantly reduce the size of the debt load. Right now, we are experiencing a slow deleveraging of a fragile economy as opposed to the quick and brutal deleveraging we would have seen had the market been allowed to clear in 2008.

There will be no return to the kind of debt-driven growth Hatzius is forecasting before the unsustainable debt is either liquidated, forgiven or (hyper-)inflated away. Until then, it is Japan all the way for America.

Deleveraging?

Paul Krugman says that America — with its lukewarm stimulus — is doing better at deleveraging than more austerity-prone nations.

That is broadly correct. Austerity post-bubble is a cure for nothing. But America is still doing very badly. In the deleveraging horse race, America is “doing better” than horses that ditched their riders into the mud.

From the Economist:

And — given that I know that the UK’s total-debt-to-GDP is more like 1000% — these figures might understate the problem.

Of course, progress in deleveraging is a slow process, as the example of the British Empire teaches.

But I fear that every single case presented is probably closer to Japan in the 1990s than Britain in the 1950s. Central banks and governments the world over have concentrated on sustaining broken systems and zombie banks, thereby sustaining the bubble-level prices, a process that Nassim Taleb described in the Bed of Procrustes as “amputating limbs to fit clothes”.

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.