The Long Run

the-long-run-home

Niall Ferguson’s misunderstanding of Keynes led me to the question of how humans should balance the present against the long run?

It’s hard for us primates to have a real clue about the long run — the chain of events that may occur, the kind of world that will form. In the long run — the billions of years for which Earth has existed — modern human civilisation is a flash, a momentary pulsation of order imposed by primates on the face of the Earth — modern cities, roads, ports, oil wells, telecommunications and so forth built up over a little more than a century, a little more than two or three frail human lifespans.

Human projections of the direction of the future are notoriously unreliable. Professional futurists who devote careers to mapping the trajectory of human and earthly progress are often far wide of the mark. And in the realm of markets and economics, human projectional abilities are notoriously awful — only 0.4% of money managers beat the market over ten years.

As humans, our only window to the future is our imaginations. We cannot know the future, but we can imagine it as Ludwig Lachmann once noted. And in a world where everyone is working from unique internal models and expectations — for a very general example, Keynesians expecting zero rates and deflation, Austrians expecting rising rates and inflation — divergent human imaginations and expectations is an ingredient for chaos that renders assumptions of equilibrium hopelessly idealistic.

A tiny minority of fundamental investors can beat the market — Keynes himself trounced the market between 1926 and 1946, for example by following principles of value investing (like Benjamin Graham later advocated). But like in poker, while virtually everyone at the table believes they can beat the game in the long run — through, perhaps, virtues of good judgement, or good luck, or some combination of the two — the historical record shows that the vast majority of predictors are chumps. And for what it’s worth, markets are a harder game to win than games like poker. In poker, precise probabilities can be assigned to outcomes — there are no unknown unknowns in a deck of playing cards. In the market — and other fields of complex, messy human action — we cannot assign precise probabilities to anything. We are left with pure Bayesianism, with probabilities merely reflecting subjective human judgments about the future. And in valuing assets, as Keynes noted we are not even searching for the prettiest face, but for a prediction of what the market will deem to be the prettiest face.

This means that long run fears whether held by an individual or a minority or a majority are but ethereal whispers on the wind, far-fetched possibilities. It means that present crises like mass unemployment have a crushing weight of importance that potential imagined future crises do not have, and can never have until they are upon us. As the fighters of potential future demons — or in the European case, self-imposed present demons — suffer from high unemployment and weak growth in the present (which in turn create other problems — deterioration of skills, mass social and political disillusionment, etc) this becomes more and more dazzlingly apparent.

But in the long run, the historical record shows that crises certainly happen, even if they are not the ones that we might initially imagine (although they are very often something that someone imagined, however obscure). Human history is pockmarked by material crises — unemployment, displacement, failed crops, drought, marauders and vagabonds, volcanism, feudalism, slavery, invasion, a thousand terrors that might snuff out life, snuff out our unbroken genetic line back into the depths antiquity, prehistory and the saga of human and prehuman evolution. While we cannot predict the future, we can prepare and robustify during the boom so that we might have sufficient resources to deal with a crisis in the slump. Traditionally, this meant storing crops in granaries during good harvests to offset the potential damage by future famines and saving money in times of economic plenty to disburse when the economy turned downward.  In the modern context of globalisation and long, snaking supply chains it might also mean bolstering energy independence by developing wind and solar and nuclear energy resources as a decentralised replacement to fossil fuels. It might mean the decentralisation of production through widespread molecular manufacturing and disassembly technologies. In the most literal and brutal sense — that of human extinction — it might mean colonising space to spread and diversify the human genome throughout the cosmos.

Ultimately, we prepare for an uncertain future by acting in the present. The long run begins now, and now is all we have.

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A Visual Representation of the Zero Bound

I’ve been trying to understand the relationship between savings and interest rates in the economy. There are many theoretical models and constructs that purport to represent the relationship between savings and interest rates, but it is interesting to look at it from an empirical standpoint. This graph shows savings at depository institutions as a percentage of GDP against the Federal Funds Rate:

Mises

The actual cause of the desire to save rather than consume or invest is uncertain. Perhaps this is a demographic trend — with more people closing in on the retirement age, they seek to save more of their income for retirement. Perhaps it is a psychological trend — fear of investment in stock markets and bond markets, due to fear of corruption, or market crashes or a general distrust of corporations. Perhaps it is a shortage of “safe” assets — by engaging in quantitative easing, central banks are removing assets from markets and replacing them with base money, and deleveraging corporations are paying down rather than issuing new debt. Perhaps it is anticipation of deflation — people expecting that saved money will increase its purchasing power in future. Perhaps it is a combination of all these things and more. But whatever it is, we know that there is an extraordinary savings glut.

There have been a lot of assertions that interest rates at present are unnaturally or artificially low. Well, what can we expect in the context of such a glut of savings? Higher interest rates? Based on what?

There was a clear negative association between savings and interest rates up until interest rates fell to zero, while the savings rate continued to soar. Theoretically, lower interest rates ceteris paribus should inhibit the desire to save, by lowering the reward for doing so. But interest rates cannot fall below zero at least not within our current monetary system — there exist some theoretical proposals to break the zero bound using negative nominal interest rates, but these remain untested and controversial. Even tripling the monetary base — an act that Bernanke at least believes simulates an interest rate cut at the zero bound — has not discouraged the saving of greater and greater levels of the national income.

In the long run, the desire to save increasingly massive percentages of the national income will cool down. Sooner or later some externality will jolt the idle resources in the economy into action. But that is the long run. In the short run saving keeps soaring. Investors are not finding better investment opportunities for their savings and the structure of production does not appear to be adjusting very fast to open up new opportunities for all of that idle cash.

Are Cameron’s Economic Policies Working?

Britain has returned to growth:

But compared even to the USA — which has huge problems of its own — Britain is still mired in the depths of a depression:

An Olympic bounce does not constitute a recovery. As I noted in March, Britain is under-performing the United States — in GDP and in unemployment. Although Cameron and Osborne keep claiming that they are deficit hawks who want to cut the government deficit, the debt keeps climbing.

Defenders of Cameron’s policies might claim that we are going through a necessary structural adjustment, and that lowered GDP and elevated unemployment is necessary for a time. I agree that a structural adjustment was necessary after the financial crisis of 2008, but I see little evidence of such a thing. The over-leveraged and corrupt financial sector is still dominated by the same large players as it was before. True, many unsustainable high street firms have gone out of business, but the most unsustainable firms that had  to be bailed out — the banks and financial firms who have caused the financial crisis — have avoided liquidation. The real story here is not a structural adjustment but the slow bleeding out of the welfare state via deep and reaching cuts.

Britain has become welfare-dependent. Britain’s welfare expenditure is now over 25% of its total GDP. Multi-billion pound cuts in that figure are going to (and have) hurt GDP.

I believe countries are better with small governments and a larger private sector. The private sector consists of many, many individuals acting out their subjective economic preferences. This dynamic is largely experimental; businesses come and go, survive, thrive and die based upon their ability to stay liquid and retain a market, and this competition for demand forces innovation. The government sector is centrally directed. Governments do not have to behave like a business, they do not have to innovate or compete, as they have the power to tax and compel. (The exception to this is when governments become overrun by the representatives of private industries and corporations, who then leverage the machinations of the state to benefit corporations. When this occurs and markets become rigged in the favour of certain well-connected competitors, it matters little whether we call such industries “private sector” or “public sector”).

So I am sympathetic to the idea that Britain ought to have a smaller welfare state, and fewer transfer payments than it presently does. But the current and historical data shows very clearly that now is not the time to make such an adjustment. The time to reduce the size of the welfare state is when the economy is booming. This is the time that there is work for welfare claimants to go to. Cutting into a depressed economy might create a strong incentive for the jobless to work, but if there is little or no job creation for the jobless to go to, then what use are cuts? To reduce government deficits? If that’s the case, then why are British government deficits rising even though spending is being reduced? (The answer, of course, is falling tax revenues).

An alternative policy that would reduce unemployment and raise GDP without increasing the size of government is to force bailed-out banks sitting on huge hoards of cash to offer loans to the jobless to start their own private businesses. The money would be transferred to those who could be out working and creating wealth, but who cannot get credit through conventional channels, unlike the too-big-to-fail megabanks who are flush with credit but refuse to increase lending to the wider public. Even if the majority of these businesses were to fail, this would ensure a large boost in spending and incomes in the short run, and the few new businesses that succeed would provide employment and tax revenues for years to come. Once there is a real recovery and solid growth in GDP and in unemployment, then the government can act to decrease its size and slash its debt. Indeed, with growing tax revenues it is probable we would find that the deficit would end up decreasing itself.

The Origin of Money

Markets are true democracies. The allocation of resources, capital and labour is achieved through the mechanism of spending, and so based on spending preferences. As money flows through the economy the popular grows and the unpopular shrinks.  Producers receive a signal to produce more or less based on spending preferences. Markets distribute power according to demand and productivity; the more you earn, the more power you accumulate to allocate resources, capital and labour. As the power to allocate resources (i.e. money) is widely desired, markets encourage the development of skills, talents and ideas.

Planned economies have a track record of failure, in my view because they do not have this democratic dimension. The state may claim to be “scientific”, but as Hayek conclusively illustrated, the lack of any real feedback mechanism has always led planned economies into hideous misallocations of resources, the most egregious example being the collectivisation of agriculture in both Maoist China and Soviet Russia that led to mass starvation and millions of deaths. The market’s resource allocation system is a complex, multi-dimensional process that blends together the skills, knowledge, and ideas of society, and for which there is no substitute. Socialism might claim to represent the wider interests of society, but in adopting a system based on economic planning, the wider interests and desires of society and the democratic market process are ignored.

This complex process begins with the designation of money, which is why the choice of the monetary medium is critical.

Like all democracies, markets can be corrupted.

Whoever creates the money holds a position of great power — the choice of how to allocate resources is in their hands. They choose who gets the money, and for what, and when. And they do this again and again and again.

Who should create the monetary medium? Today, money is designated by a central bank and allocated through the financial system via credit creation. Historically, in the days of commodity-money, money was initially allocated by digging it up out of the ground. Anyone with a shovel or a gold pan could create money. In the days of barter, a monetary medium was created even more simply, through producing things others were happy to swap or credit.

While central banks might claim that they have the nation’s best democratic interests at heart, evidence shows that since the world exited the gold exchange standard in 1971 (thus giving banks a monopoly over the allocation of money and credit), bank assets as a percentage of GDP have exploded (this data is from the United Kingdom, but there is a similar pattern around the world).

Clearly, some pigs are more equal than others:

Giving banks a monopoly over the allocation of capital has dramatically enriched banking interests. It is also correlated with a dramatic fall in total factor productivity, and a dramatic increase in income inequality.

Very simply, I believe that the present system is inherently undemocratic. Giving banks a monopoly over the initial allocation of credit and money enriches the banks at the expense of society. Banks and bankers — who produce nothing — allocate resources to their interests. The rest of society — including all the productive sectors — get crumbs from the table. The market mechanism is perverted, and bent in favour of the financial system. The financial system can subsidise incompetence and ineptitude through bailouts and helicopter drops.

Such a system is unsustainable. The subsidisation of incompetence breeds more incompetence, and weakens the system, whether it is government handing off corporate welfare to inept corporations, or whether it is the central bank bailing out inept financial institutions. The financial system never learned the lessons of 2008; MF Global and the London Whale illustrate that. Printing money to save broken systems just makes these systems more fragile and prone to collapse. Ignoring the market mechanism, and the interests of the wider society to subsidise the financial sector and well-connected corporations just makes society angry and disaffected.

Our monopoly will eventually discredit itself through the subsidisation of graft and incompetence. It is just a matter of time.

Fiat Money Kills Productivity?

I have long suspected that a money supply based on nothing other than faith in government could be a productivity killer.

Last November I wrote:

During 1947-73 (for all but two of those years America had a gold standard where the unit of exchange was tied to gold at a fixed rate) average family income increased at a greater rate than that of the top 1%. From 1979-2007 (years without a gold standard) the top 1% did much, much better than the average family.

As we have seen with the quantitative easing program, the newly-printed money is directed to the rich. The Keynesian response to that might be that income growth inequality can be solved (or at least remedied) by making sure that helicopter drops of new money are done over the entire economy rather than directed solely to Wall Street megabanks.

But I think there is a deeper problem here. My hypothesis is that leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.

And now I have empirical evidence that my hypothesis may possibly have been true — total factor productivity.

In 2009 the Economist explained TFP as follows:

Productivity growth is perhaps the single most important gauge of an economy’s health. Nothing matters more for long-term living standards than improvements in the efficiency with which an economy combines capital and labour. Unfortunately, productivity growth is itself often inefficiently measured. Most analysts focus on labour productivity, which is usually calculated by dividing total output by the number of workers, or the number of hours worked.

A better gauge of an economy’s use of resources is “total factor productivity” (TFP), which tries to assess the efficiency with which both capital and labour are used.

Total factor productivity is calculated as the percentage increase in output that is not accounted for by changes in the volume of inputs of capital and labour. So if the capital stock and the workforce both rise by 2% and output rises by 3%, TFP goes up by 1%.

Here’s US total factor productivity:

As soon as the USA left the gold exchange standard,  total factor productivity began to dramatically stagnate. 

Random coincidence? I don’t think so — a fundamental change in the nature of the money supply coincided almost exactly with a fundamental change to the shape of the nation’s economy. Is the simultaneous outgrowth in income inequality a coincidence too?

Doubters may respond that correlation does not necessarily imply causation, and though we do not know the exact causation, there are a couple of strong possibilities that may have strangled productivity:

  1. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for policymakers: GDP growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency, or in infrastructure, but instead by just pumping money into the system.
  2. Leaving the gold exchange standard was a free lunch for businesses: revenue growth could be achieved without any real gains in productivity, or efficiency.
And it’s not just total factor productivity that has been lower than in the years when America was on the gold exchange standard — as a Bank of England report recently found, GDP growth has averaged lower in the pure fiat money era (2.8% vs 1.8%), and financial crises have been more frequent in the non-gold-standard years.

The authors of the report noted:

Overall the gold standard appeared to perform reasonably well against its financial stability and allocative efficiency objectives.

Still think it’s a barbarous relic?

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.

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.