The Cantillon Effect

Expansionary monetary policy constitutes a transfer of purchasing power away from those who hold old money to whoever gets new money. This is known as the Cantillon Effect, after 18th Century economist Richard Cantillon who first proposed it. In the immediate term, as more dollars are created, each one translates to a smaller slice of all goods and services produced.

How we measure this phenomenon and its size depends how we define money. This is illustrated below.

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of the monetary base:

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of M2:

And here’s GDP expressed in terms of total debt:

What is clear is that the dramatic expansion of the monetary base that we saw after 2008 is merely catching up with the more gradual growth of debt that took place in the 90s and 00s.

While it is my hunch that overblown credit bubbles are better liquidated than reflated (not least because the reflation of a corrupt and dysfunctional financial sector entails huge moral hazard), it is true the Fed’s efforts to inflate the money supply have so far prevented a default cascade. We should expect that such initiatives will continue, not least because Bernanke has a deep intellectual investment in reflationism.

This focus on reflationary money supply expansion was fully expected by those familiar with Ben Bernanke’s academic record. What I find more surprising, though, is the Fed’s focus on banks and financial institutions rather than the wider population.

It’s not just the banks that are struggling to deleverage. The overwhelming majority of nongovernment debt is held by households and nonfinancials:

The nonfinancial sectors need debt relief much, much more than the financial sector. Yet the Fed shoots off new money solely into the financial system, to Wall Street and the TBTF banks. It is the financial institutions that have gained the most from these transfers of purchasing power, building up huge hoards of excess reserves:

There is a way to counteract the Cantillon Effect, and expand the money supply without transferring purchasing power to the financial sector (or any other sector). This is to directly distribute the new money uniformly to individuals for the purpose of debt relief; those with debt have to use the new money to pay it down (thus reducing the debt load), those without debt are free to invest it or spend it as they like.

Steve Keen notes:

While we delever, investment by American corporations will be timid, and economic growth will be faltering at best. The stimulus imparted by government deficits will attenuate the downturn — and the much larger scale of government spending now than in the 1930s explains why this far greater deleveraging process has not led to as severe a Depression — but deficits alone will not be enough. If America is to avoid two “lost decades”, the level of private debt has to be reduced by deliberate cancellation, as well as by the slow processes of deleveraging and bankruptcy.

In ancient times, this was done by a Jubilee, but the securitization of debt since the 1980s has complicated this enormously. Whereas only the moneylenders lost under an ancient Jubilee, debt cancellation today would bankrupt many pension funds, municipalities and the like who purchased securitized debt instruments from banks. I have therefore proposed that a “Modern Debt Jubilee” should take the form of “Quantitative Easing for the Public”: monetary injections by the Federal Reserve not into the reserve accounts of banks, but into the bank accounts of the public — but on condition that its first function must be to pay debts down. This would reduce debt directly, but not advantage debtors over savers, and would reduce the profitability of the financial sector while not affecting its solvency.

Without a policy of this nature, America is destined to spend up to two decades learning the truth of Michael Hudson’s simple aphorism that “Debts that can’t be repaid, won’t be repaid”.

The Fed’s singular focus on the financial sector is perplexing and frustrating, not least because growth remains stagnant, unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains weak and America’s financial sector remains a seething cesspit of corruption and moral hazard, where segregated accounts are routinely raided by corrupt CEOs, and where government-backstopped TBTF banks still routinely speculate with the taxpayers’ money.

The corrupt and overblown financial sector is the last sector that deserves a boost in purchasing power. It’s time this ended.

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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.

We Should All Love Fed Transparency

Ron Paul’s signature Audit the Fed legislation finally passed the House; on July 25, the House bill was passed 327 to 98. But the chances of a comprehensive audit of monetary policy — including the specifics of the 2008 bailouts — remain distant.

Why? Well, the Fed doesn’t seem to want the sunshine. Critics including the current Fed regime claim that monetary policy transparency would politicise the Fed and compromise its independence, and allow public sentiment to interfere with what they believe should be a process left to experts dispassionately interpreting the economic data. Although the St. Louis Fed makes economic data widely available, monetary policy is determined behind closed doors, and transactions are carried out in secret.

Bernanke:

We fully accept the need for transparency and accountability, but it is a well-established fact that an independent central bank will provide better outcomes.

Ron Paul:

When the Fed talks about independence, what they’re really talking about is secrecy. What the GAO cannot audit is monetary policy. It would not be able to look at agreements and operations with foreign central banks, and governments, and other banks, transactions made under the direction of the FOMC [Federal Open Market Committee], and discussions or communications between the board and the Federal Reserve system relating to all those items. And why this is important is because of what happened 4 years ago. It’s estimated that the amount of money that went in and out of the Fed overseas is $15 trillion. How did we get into this situation where Congress has nothing to say about bailing out all these banks?

What I am struggling to understand is why the Fed is so keen to not disclose the inner workings of monetary policy even in retrospect. How can we judge the success of monetary policy operations without the raw facts? How can we have an informed debate about what the Fed does unless we know exactly what the Fed does? Why should only insiders be privy to this information? Surely the more we know, the better debate economists and the wider society will be able to have about Fed policy?

There are plenty of critics of Bernanke and the Fed, including both those who believe the Fed should do more, and those who believe the Fed should do less. But it seems very difficult to appraise the Fed’s monetary policy operations unless we can look at every aspect of its policy. If Bernanke and the FOMC are confident that their decisions have been the right ones, why can they not at least disclose the full extent of monetary policy and explain their decisions? If they are making the right decisions, they should at least have the confidence to try and explain them.

All that the current state of secrecy does is encourage conspiracy theories. What is the FOMC trying to hide? Are they making decisions that they think would prove unpopular or inexplicable? Are they ashamed of their previous decisions or decision-making frameworks? Are they concerned the decision making process will make them look bad? Are they bailing out well-connected insiders at the expense of the wider society?

We can’t have a real debate about policy unless we have access to all the data about decisions. Those who believe the Fed’s monetary policy has worked should welcome transparency just as much as those who believe the Fed’s monetary policy has not worked. If the Fed’s actions have been beneficial, then transparency will shine kindly on it. If not, then transparency will help us have a better debate about the road forward.

Whitewashing the Economic Establishment

Brad DeLong makes an odd claim:

So the big lesson is simple: trust those who work in the tradition of Walter Bagehot, Hyman Minsky, and Charles Kindleberger. That means trusting economists like Paul Krugman, Paul Romer, Gary Gorton, Carmen Reinhart, Ken Rogoff, Raghuram Rajan, Larry Summers, Barry Eichengreen, Olivier Blanchard, and their peers. Just as they got the recent past right, so they are the ones most likely to get the distribution of possible futures right.

Larry Summers? If we’re going to base our economic policy on trusting in Larry Summers, should we not reappoint Greenspan as Fed Chairman? Or — better yet — appoint Charles Ponzi as head of the SEC? Or a fox to guard the henhouse? Or a tax cheat as Treasury Secretary? Or a war criminal as a peace ambassador? (Yes — reality is more surreal than anything I could imagine).

The bigger point though, as Steve Keen and Randall Wray have alluded to, is that DeLong’s list is the left-wing of the neoclassical school of economics — all the same people who (to a greater or lesser extent) believed that we were in a Great Moderation, and that thanks to the wonders of modernity we had escaped the old world of depressions and mass unemployment. People to whom this depression — judging by their pre-2008 output — was something of a surprise.

Now the left-wing neoclassicists may have done less badly than the right-wing neoclassicists Fama, Cochrane and Greenspan, but that’s not saying much. Steve Keen pointed out:

People like Wynne Godley, Ann Pettifors, Randall Wray, Nouriel Roubini, Dean Baker, Peter Schiff and I had spent years warning that a huge crisis was coming, and had a variety of debt-based explanations as to why it was inevitable. By then, Godley, Wray and I and many other Post Keynesian economists had spent decades imbibing and developing the work of Hyman Minsky.

To my knowledge, of Delong’s motley crew, only Raghuram Rajan was in print with any warnings of an imminent crisis before it began.

DeLong is, in my view, trying to whitewash his contemporaries who did not see the crisis coming, and inaccurately trying to associate them with Hyman Minsky whose theory of debt deflation anticipated many dimensions of the crisis. Adding insult to injury, DeLong seems unwilling to credit those like Schiff and Keen (not to mention Ron Paul) who saw the housing bubble and the excessive debt mountain for what it was — a disaster waiting to happen.

The most disturbing thing about his thesis is that all of the left-neoclassicists he is trying to whitewash have not really been very right about the last four years at all, as DeLong freely admits:

But we – or at least I – have got significant components of the last four years wrong. Three things surprised me (and still do). The first is the failure of central banks to adopt a rule like nominal GDP targeting or its equivalent. Second, I expected wage inflation in the North Atlantic to fall even farther than it has – towards, even if not to, zero. Finally, the yield curve did not steepen sharply for the United States: federal funds rates at zero I expected, but 30-year US Treasury bonds at a nominal rate of 2.7% I did not.

Yet we are supposed to take seriously the widely proposed solution? Throw money at the problem, and assume that just by raising aggregate demand all the other problems will just go away?

As I wrote back in August 2011:

These troubles are non-monetary: military overspending, political and financial corruption, public indebtedness, withering infrastructure, oil dependence, deindustrialisation, the withered remains of multiple bubbles, bailout culture, systemic fragility, and so forth.

These problems won’t just go away — throwing money around may boost figures in the short term, but the underlying problems will remain.

I believe that the only real way out is to unleash the free market and the spirit of entrepreneurialism. And the only way to do that is to end corporate welfare, end the bailouts (let failed institutions fail), end American imperialism, and slash barriers to entry. Certainly, cleaning up the profligate financial sector would help too (perhaps mandatory gladiatorial sentences for financial crimes would help? No more paying £200 million for manipulating a $350 trillion market — fight a lion in the arena instead!), as would incentives to create the infrastructure people need, and move toward energy independence, green energy and reindustrialisation.

Then again, I suppose there is a silver lining to this cloud. The wronger the establishment are in the long run, the more people will look for new economic horizons.

Inflationeering

As BusinessWeek asked way back in 2005 before the bubble burst:

Wondering why inflation figures are so tame when real estate prices are soaring? There is a simple explanation: the Consumer Price Index factors in rising rents, not rising home prices.

Are we really getting a true reading on inflation when home price appreciation isn’t added into the mix? I think not.

I find the idea that house price appreciation and depreciation is not factored into inflation figures stunning. For most people it’s their single biggest lifetime expenditure, and for many today mortgage payments are their single biggest monthly expenditure. And rental prices (which are substituted for house prices) are a bad proxy. While house prices have fallen far from their mid-00s peak, rents have continued to increase:

Statisticians in Britain are looking to plug the hole. From the BBC:

A new measure of inflation is being proposed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

It wants to create a version of the Consumer Prices Index that includes housing costs, to be called CPIH.

The ONS wants to counteract criticisms that the main weakness of the CPI is that it does not reflect many costs of being a house owner, which make up 10% of people’s average spending.

While a welcome development (and probably even more welcome on the other side of the Atlantic) it doesn’t make up for the fact that the explosive price increases during the boom years were never included. And it isn’t just real estate — equities was another market that massively inflated without being counted in official inflation statistics. It would have been simple at the time to calculate the effective inflation rate with these components included. A wiser economist than Greenspan might have at least paid attention to such information and tightened monetary policy to prevent the incipient bubbles from overheating.

Of course, with inflation statistics calculated in the way they are (price changes to an overall basket of retail goods) there will always be a fight over what to include and what not to include.

A better approach is to include everything. Murray Rothbard defined inflation simply as any increase to the money supply; if the money is printed, it is inflation. This is a very interesting idea, because it can reflect things like bubble reinflation that are often obscured in official data. The Fed has tripled the monetary base since 2008, but this increase in the monetary base has been offset against the various effects of the 2008 crash, which triggered huge price falls in housing and equities which were only stanched when the money printing started.

Critics of the Austrian approach might say that it does not take into account how money is used, but simply how much money there is. An alternative approach which takes into account all economic activity is nominal GDP targeting, whereby monetary policy either tightens or loosens to achieve a nominal GDP target. If the nominal target is 1%, and GDP is growing at 7%, monetary policy will tighten toward 1% nominal growth. If GDP is growing at a negative rate (say -2%), then the Fed will print and buy assets ’til nominal GDP is growing at 1%. While most of the proponents of this approach today tend to be disgruntled Keynesians like Charles Evans who advocate a consistent growth rate of around 5% (which right now would of course necessitate the Fed to print big and buy a lot of assets, probably starting with equities and REITs), a lower nominal GDP target — of say, 1% or 2% — would certainly be a better approach to the Fed’s supposed price stability mandate than the frankly absurd and disturbing status quo of using CPI, which will always be bent and distorted by what is included or not included. And for the last 40 years monetary policy would have been much, much tighter even if the Fed had been pursuing the widely-cited 5% nominal GDP target.

I don’t think CPI can be fixed. It is just too easy to mismeasure inflation that way. Do statisticians really have the expertise to determine which inflations to count and which to ignore? No; I don’t think they do. Statisticians will try, and by including things like house prices it is certainly an improvement. But if we want to be realistic, we must use a measure that reflects the entire economy.

The Fabled Greek Mega-Bailout

In a truly eyebrow-raising CNBC interview, Matthew Lynn alleges that Europe shall be saved! (As if by the grace of God!).

With Europe on the brink yet again Germany will act.

The Greeks can’t carry on with the austerity being imposed on them. No country can be expected to endure annualized falls in GDP  of 7 percent or more,” he said, “and 50 percent youth unemployment for years on end.

On Tuesday we learned that the Greek economy shrank by another 6.2 percent in the latest quarter. It simply isn’t acceptable” Lynn said.

But Germany and the rest of the EU could come up with a Marshall Aid-style package for Greece. Very little of the bail-out money so far has gone to the Greeks. It has all gone to the bankers.

Forget talk of a ‘Grexit’. There will be a mega-bail-out—a ‘Grashall Plan’—instead.

And when it happens, the markets will rally on the news.

At various stages in the last two years everyone from China, to Germany, to the Fed to the IMF, to Martians, to the Imperial Death Star has been fingered as the latest saviour of the status quo. And so far — in spite of a few multi-billion-dollar half-hearted efforts like the €440 billion EFSF —  nobody has really shown up.

Perhaps that’s because nobody thus far fancies funnelling the money down a black hole. After Greece comes Portugal, and Spain and Ireland and Italy, all of whom together have on the face of things at least €780 billion outstanding (which of course has been securitised and hypothecated up throughout the European financial system into a far larger amount of shadow liabilities, for a critical figure of at least €3 trillion) and no real viable route (other than perhaps fire sales of state property? Sell the Parthenon to Goldman Sachs?) to paying this back (austerity has just led to falling tax revenues, meaning even more money has had to be borrowed), not to mention the trillions owed by the now-jobless citizens of these countries, which is now also imperilled. What’s the incentive in throwing more time, effort, energy and resources into a solution that will likely ultimately prove as futile as the EFSF?

The trouble is that this is playing chicken with an eighteen-wheeler. While Draghi might be making noises about “continuing to comply with the mandate of keeping price stability over the medium term in line with treaty provisions and preserving the integrity of our balance sheet” (in other words, not proceeding with the fabled “mega-bailout” even if it fractures the Euro), we may well see a full-blown financial meltdown (and of course, the ramifications of that on anyone who is exposed to the European banking system) unless someone — whether it is the ECB, or the Fed, or the IMF — prints the money to keep the system liquid.

There are really two layers to bailing out the insolvent nations: the real bailout is of the banks who bought the debt, and the insolvent nations are just an intermediary. Should the insolvent nations become highly uncooperative, it seems more likely that the insolvent nations will just be cut out of the loop (throwing their citizens into experiencing a forced currency redenomination, bank runs, and even more chaos) while policymakers continue to channel money into “stabilising” the totally broken global financial system — because we know for sure that a big disorderly default will likely cause some kind of default cascade, and that is something I am sure that (based on past form) policymakers will seek to avoid.

How close to the collapse we will come before the money gets printed is another matter.

Given that it is predominantly Germans who are in charge of Europe for the moment — with their unusual post-Weimar distaste for monetary expansion —  it seems to me like just as we have seen so far, the money will come at the last minute, and will just keep things ticking over rather than actually solving anything.

And ultimately, I think it is the social conditions — particularly unemployment levels — that matter more than whether or not the financial system survives. If the attendant cost of ad hoc bailouts (in the name of pretending to stick to the ECB mandate) is a continued depression, and continued massive unemployment and youth unemployment then politicians are focusing on the wrong thing.

The problem is that as conditions continue to fester and as solutions seem distant and improbable that Europe’s problems may become increasingly political. As the established (dis)order in Europe continues to leave huge swathes of people jobless and angry, their rage and discomfort will be channelled toward dislodging the establishment. As we have seen in Greece and France, that has already produced big lifts for both the Far Left and Far Right.

We already know, I think, that in Greece’s upcoming election the outsider parties will crush the establishment, with SYRIZA most likely emerging on top. A key metric for me in the next few weeks will be Golden Dawn‘s proportion of the vote.

Let’s not forget history:

Double or Nothing: How Wall Street is Destroying Itself

There’s nothing controversial about the claim— reported on by Slate, Bloomberg and Harvard Magazine — that in the last 20 years Wall Street has moved away from an investment-led model, to a gambling-led model.

This was exemplified by the failure of LTCM which blew up unsuccessfully making huge interest rate bets for tiny profits, or “picking up nickels in front of a streamroller”, and by Jon Corzine’s MF Global doing practically the same thing with European debt (while at the same time stealing from clients).

As Nassim Taleb described in The Black Swan this strategy — betting large amounts for small frequent profits — is extremely fragile because eventually (and probably sooner in the real world than in a model) losses will happen (and, of course, if you are betting big, losses will be big). If you are running your business on the basis of leverage, this is especially dangerous, because facing a margin call or a downgrade you may be left in a fire sale to raise collateral.

This fragile business model is in fact descended from the Martingale roulette betting system. Martingale is the perfect example of the failure of theory, because in theory, Martingale is a system of guaranteed profit, which I think is probably what makes these kinds of practices so attractive to the arbitrageurs of Wall Street (and of course Wall Street often selects for this by recruiting and promoting the most wild-eyed and risk-hungry). Martingale works by betting, and then doubling your bet until you win. This — in theory, and given enough capital — delivers a profit of your initial stake every time. Historically, the problem has been that bettors run out of capital eventually, simply because they don’t have an infinite stock (of course, thanks to Ben Bernanke, that is no longer a problem). The key feature of this system— and the attribute which many institutions have copied — is that it delivers frequent small-to-moderate profits, and occasional huge losses (when the bettor runs out of money).

The key difference between modern business models, and the traditional roulette betting system is that today the focus is on betting multiple times on a single outcome. By this method (and given enough capital) it is in theory possible to win whichever way an event goes. If things are going your way, it is possible to insure your position by betting against your initial bet, and so produce a position that profits no matter what the eventual outcome. If things are not going your way, it is possible to throw larger and larger chunks of capital into a position or counter-position again and again and again —mirroring the Martingale strategy — to try to compensate for earlier bets that have gone awry (this, of course, is so often the downfall of rogue traders like Nick Leeson and Kweku Adoboli).

This brings up a key issue: there is a second problem with the Martingale strategy in the real world beyond the obvious problem of running out of capital. You can have all the capital in the world (and thanks to the Fed, the TBTF banks now have a printing-press backstop) but if you do not have a counter-party to take your bets  (and as your bets and counter-bets get bigger and bigger it by definition becomes harder and harder to find suitable counter-parties) then you are Corzined, and you will be left sitting on top of a very large load of pain (sound familiar, Bruno Iksil?)

The obvious real world example takes us back to the casino table — if you are trying to execute a Martingale strategy starting at $100, and have lost 10 times in a row, your 11th bet would have to be for $204,800 to win back your initial stake of $100. That might well exceed the casino table limits — in other words you have lost your counter-party, and are left facing a loss far huger than any expected gains.

Similarly (as Jamie Dimon and Bruno Iksil have now learned to their discredit) if you have built up a whale-sized market-dominating gross position of bets and counter-bets on the CDX IG9 index (or any such market) which turns heavily negative, it is exceedingly difficult to find a counter-party to continue increasing your bets against, and your Martingale game will probably be over, and you will be forced to face up to the (now exceedingly huge) loss. (And this recklessness is what Dimon refers to as “hedging portfolio risk“?)

The really sickening thing is that I know that these kinds of activities are going on far more than is widely recognised; every time a Wall Street bank announces a perfect trading quarter it sets off an alarm bell ringing in my head, because it means that the arbitrageurs are chasing losses and picking up nickels in front of streamrollers again, and emboldened by confidence will eventually will get crushed under the wheel, and our hyper-connected hyper-leveraged system will be thrown into shock once again by downgrades, margin calls and fire sales.

The obvious conclusion is that if the loss-chasing Martingale traders cannot resist blowing up even with the zero-interest rate policy and an unfettered fiat liquidity backstop, then perhaps this system is fundamentally weak. Alas, no. I think that the conclusion that the clueless schmucks at the Fed have reached is that poor Wall Street needs not only a lender-of-last-resort, but a counter-party-of-last-resort. If you broke your trading book doubling or quadrupling down on horseshit and are sitting on top of a colossal mark-to-market loss, why not have the Fed step in and take it off your hands at a price floor in exchange for newly “printed” digital currency? That’s what the 2008 bailouts did.

Only one problem: eventually, this approach will destroy the currency. Would you want your wealth stored in dollars that Bernanke can just duplicate and pony up to the latest TBTF Martingale catastrophe artist? I thought not: that’s one reason why Eurasian creditor nations are all quickly and purposefully going about ditching the dollar for bilateral trade.

The bottom line for Wall Street is that either the bailouts will stop and anyone practising this crazy behaviour will end up bust — ending the moral hazard of adrenaline junkie coke-and-hookers traders and 21-year-old PhD-wielding quants playing the Martingale game risk free thanks to the Fed — or the Fed will destroy the currency. I don’t know how long that will take, but the fact that the dollar is effectively no longer the global reserve currency says everything I need to know about where we are going.

The bigger point here is whatever happened to banking as banking, instead of banking as a game of roulette? You know, where investment banks make the majority of their profits and spend the majority of their efforts lending to people who need the money to create products and make ideas reality?