Correction or Crisis?

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After almost seven years of relative calm and stability, a stock market crash is finally upon us.

This is a very predictable crash stemming from a very widely known cause. Hundreds of analysts including myself — following the trail illuminated by Michael Pettis — have for a long time been banging on about a Chinese slowdown gathering an uncontrollable momentum, sending China into a panic, and infecting global markets.

What’s less clear yet is whether this is a correction or a crisis. My view is toward the latter, simply because confidence is fragile.  Once the animal spirits of the market turn negative, it takes a heck of a lot to soothe them. And the markets look increasingly spooked. The fear is rising. Last week I tweeted that I felt the risks of a new financial crisis are greater than ever.

The reasons why are simple: Western central banks have gone a bit nuts, and are trying to hike rates even though inflation is close to zero even after interest rates being at zero for seven years. And Western governments have gone a bit nuts (especially in the eurozone and Britain but also to a lesser extent in the United States) and are trying to encourage growth with austerity even though all the evidence illustrates that austerity is only a helpful policy in a booming economy, not in a slack one.

Those two factors weren’t too destructive in an economic situation where there was moderate economic growth. More like a minor brake on growth. Keep swimming forward, and sooner or later inflation will rear its head, and rates will have to be raised. But with a stock market crash and a growth downturn, and an unemployment spike, and deflation, things get very problematic very fast.

Let me explain how I think this plays out: interest rates are at zero. Inflation is almost at zero, and a stock market crash will only push that lower. Simply, this is the bottom falling out of the bottom. A crash here is like falling off the bicycle in spite of the Fed’s training wheels. Unconventional monetary policy has already been exhaustively tried, and central bank balance sheets are already heavily loaded with assets purchased in quantitative easing programs. Now the Fed’s balance sheet does not excessively concern me — central banks can print all the money they like to buy assets up to the point of excessive inflation. But will that be enough to reverse a new crash?

Personally, my doubts are growing. At the zero bound, I believe Keynes was right, and fiscal policy is the best answer. The post-2008 economic landscape has been defined by monetarists trying desperately to perfect new tools like quantitative easing to avoid outright debt-financed fiscal policy. But there have been problems upon problems with the transmission mechanisms. Central banks have succeeded at getting new money into the banking system. But the drip of that money into the real economy where it can do its good work and create growth, employment and prosperity has been slow and uneven. The recovery is real, but weak, even after all the trillions of QE. And it has left us vulnerable to a new downturn.

If the effects of the crash cannot be reversed with monetary policy, that leaves fiscal policy — that old, neglected, unpopular tool — to fight any breakouts of deflation or mass unemployment.

Or it leaves central banks to try really radical policies that emulate the directness of fiscal policy, like literally throwing money out of helicopters or OMFG.

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Deflation is Here — And The Government is Poised to Make it Worse

Consumer prices may not be deflating as quickly as Labour’s electoral chances did earlier this month, but — even after £300 billion of quantitative easing — price deflation for the first time in more than half a century is finally here. The Bank of England continues to throw everything at keeping prices rising at close to their 2 percent target. Yet it’s not working. And this is not just about cheaper oil. Core inflation has also been dropping like a rock.

I argued that “deflation was looming” for Britain last year, and feel a little vindicated that it has come to pass. But I don’t feel at all gratified about the thing itself.

In a highly indebted economy such as Britain’s — where private debt dwarfs government debt — deflation is a dangerous thing. Past debts — and the interest rates paid on those debts — are nominally rigid. Unless specifically stipulated as being inflation-adjusted (like TIPS) they don’t scale to price changes in the broader economy.

Under positive rates of inflation, inflation assists in keeping debt under control, by shrinking the present amount of goods and services and labour that equate to a nominal amount of currency. Under deflation, the opposite process occurs, and the nominal value of currency — as well as that of historical debt — rises, making the debt harder to service and pay down, especially with the ongoing accumulation of interest.

On the face of it, that is good news for net savers and bad news for net debtors. But raising the difficulty of deleveraging and debt service can often be bad for both, because debtors who cannot pay default, bankrupting themselves and injuring their creditors. It can also depress the economy, as individuals and firms are forced to stop spending and investing and start devoting more and more of their income to the rising real cost of deleveraging.

With growth last quarter dropping to 0.3 percent from 0.6 percent, this process might very well already be under way. This raises the prospect of the nightmarish debt-deflationary spiral above.

The last thing that the economy needs under that circumstance is more money being sucked out of it through slashing public spending. Sucking money out of the economy will make deleveraging even more difficult for debtors, and slow growth further as individuals and firms adjust their spending plans to lower levels of national and individual income. Yet that is the manifesto that the country elected to power in the election earlier this month. And although Osborne and Cameron can get out of it — via offsetting cuts in spending with tax cuts — if they go through with their election promises, the prospect of recession, continued deflation and rising levels of unemployment loom clearly.

What the economy really needed in 2010 was a deep and long commitment to public stimulus to provide the economic growth needed to let the private sector deleverage. Unlike the public sector, which is a sovereign creditor borrowing in its own currency — the private sector is far from a secure debtor. Private borrowers can — unlike the central government — “become the next Greece” and run out of money.

With interest rates in the last parliament having sunk down to new historic lows, such a thing was affordable and achievable. Instead, by trying to do public deleveraging at the same time as the private sector was deleveraging Osborne, Cameron and Clegg chose a much rockier path, one in which private deleveraging and public deleveraging are slow and grinding. With private debt levels still very high, the country remains vulnerable to another deleveraging-driven recession.

To build the Death Star, we’ll need this space elevator

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Last year, I wrote about why we should make massive-scale space projects like Star Wars’ Death Star a serious long-term goal for humanity. I wasn’t joking.

OK, I was kind of joking — I chose the Death Star as my example because it was the biggest and most absurd-sounding space technology project that I thought readers would generally be aware of. But I could just as easily have chosen a Dyson sphere, or a ringworld, or a topopolis, or a faster-than-light spacecraft. Whether the project resulted in an energy source in space or a planet-destroying battle station didn’t really matter for the purposes of my argument: The idea was that by reaching for the stars we could employ hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people during economic slumps and we’d accumulate a huge number of helpful technologies for use on Earth.

The good news is that we don’t have to wait for super laser or tractor beam technology before we begin work. The first steps should be comparatively small R&D projects, such as sending a manned mission to Mars or building a permanent base on the Moon, which are well within reach. Or, as a new report from the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) shows, we could begin by building a space elevator.

Read More At TheWeek.com

On Policy Uncertainty…

Paul Krugman says that the notion that the weak economy is due to policy uncertainty has been thoroughly debunked. The Stanford/Chicago uncertainty index has considerably fallen:

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Without any considerable boost to job growth:

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While policy uncertainty is concerned with policy in general, and not executive policy in particular, Krugman’s analysis is that “policy uncertainty” is a thinly-veiled attempt to blame Obama for the sluggishness of the recovery:

One of the remarkable things about the ongoing economic crisis is the endless search for explanations of something that’s actually quite simple — the sluggish pace of recovery. You have a large overhang of private debt; you have a still-depressed housing sector; and you have contractionary fiscal policy. Add to this the well-established fact that recovery tends to be slow after recessions caused not by tight money but by private-sector overreach, and there’s just no mystery that needs explaining.

Yet we’ve seen an endless series of analyses declaring that there is indeed a deep mystery, and it must be Obama’s Fault. Probably the most influential of these analyses was the claim that Obama was creating “uncertainty”, and this was holding everything back.

This crude notion of policy uncertainty is often attached to the notion of the Confidence Fairy; the idea that by running large deficits, government is crowding out private investment due to fears of future tax increases. The corollary of the Confidence Fairy view is that the only way to bring back private investment is to have large-scale austerity, to solidify expectations of lower future taxes. This view has been the basis for David Cameron’s economic policy in the UK, which can only be soberly judged as a large-scale failure.

Krugman is right to trash the Confidence Fairy — austerity at this point in the business cycle is a catastrophic error, because it sucks money out of the real economy. And he’s also right to trash those who view the sluggishness of the recovery as solely Obama’s fault. But he’s wrong, I think, to throw policy uncertainty out of the window entirely as a proximate cause of some of the problem’s we’re now facing.

Broadly, policy uncertainty goes both ways. That is simply because not all entrepreneurs in the private sector are looking for or worrying about tax cuts. People are heterogeneous. While there are some entrepreneurs worried about the future trajectory of taxes, many other entrepreneurs may be hoping for fiscal stimulus either because they would expect to receive orders from the government (for example, construction firms, defence contractors, universities, energy companies) or because they would be hoping that with stimulus, more people would have money in their pockets and they would be spending it.

While this, of course, cannot explain the crisis itself, nor the long and slow deleveraging since, having a deadlocked Congress erring on the side of austerity could be a major headache for many private enterprises. The fact that the more severe austerity experienced in Europe and Britain has actually led to bigger budget deficits there could result in even deeper and greater uncertainty for businesses. Put more simply, many businessmen could be reading Paul Krugman and others like him, agreeing with their interpretations, and worrying about the confused and deadlocked approach that the Federal government has taken to the post-2007 economy, and the dangers of austerity. This could contribute to the uptick in policy uncertainty measured by the Stanford/Chicago Index experienced since 2007 just as much as Wall Street Journal-reading Republicans worrying about the Confidence Fairy and taxes.

The Long Run

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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.

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:

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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.

Free Market Ecology

These gargantuan global conferences where the emissaries of governments meet in hallowed halls to thrash out a global planning agenda — dressed in the clothes of ecology, or sustainable development, or whatever the buzzword of the day — are a waste of time.

They are a waste of time for the taxpayer, who has to stump up to pay for such efforts. They are a waste of time for the protestors who swarm to such events holding placards and shouting slogans. They are a waste of time for the ecologists who — whether right or wrong — believe that the present shape of human civilisation is unsustainable. Possibly the only group that really benefits are the self-perpetuating bureaucratic classes, who often take home huge salaries they could never earn in the private sector.

And the Malthusian targets of the bureaucracy have a history of missing.

The Guardian notes:

Rio+20 was intended as a follow up on the 1992 Earth Summit, which put in place landmark conventions on climate change and biodiversity, as well as commitments on poverty eradication and social justice. Since then, however, global emissions have risen by 48%, 300m hectares of forest have been cleared and the population has increased by 1.6bn people. Despite a reduction in poverty, one in six people are malnourished.

If these bureaucratic classes knew the first thing about economics or markets, they would begin to question whether such conferences — and all the promises, intergovernmental commissions, and regulatory pledges they spawn — are necessary. The more I question, the more I come to believe that all that is needed to halt any man-made ecological crises are free markets and free speech.

The history of human civilisation has been one of triumph over the limits of nature. While we have had our ups and downs, recent projections of imminent ecological ruin — such as those in the 1970s produced by Ehrlich and Holdren and the Club of Rome, or earlier by Keynes, Malthus and Galton (etc) — have all failed to materialise. But the trend goes back much further, into the distant past. Throughout our history our species has done what has been necessary to survive. Humanity has lived on this planet for upwards of 500,000 years, and through that time, we have survived a myriad of climate changes — solar variation, atmospheric variation, cycles of glaciation, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts, and a host of other phenomena.

It will be no different this time. We are dependent on our environment for our life and for our future. That is widespread knowledge, and so as the capable and creative species that we are, we have already developed a wide array of technological solutions to potential future environmental problems. This is a natural impulse; humanity as individuals and as a species hungers for survival, for opportunities to pass on our genes.

As I wrote last month:

If we are emitting excessive quantities of CO2 we don’t have to resort to authoritarian centralist solutions. It’s far easier to develop and market technologies (that already exist today) like carbon scrubbing trees that can literally strip CO2 out of the air than it is to try and develop and enforce top-down controlling rules and regulations on individual carbon output. Or (even more simply), plant lots of trees and other such foliage (e.g. algae).

If the dangers of non-biodegradable plastic threaten our oceans, then develop and market processes (that already exist today) to clean up these plastics.

Worried about resource depletion? Asteroid mining can give us access to thousands of tonnes of metals, water, and even hydrocarbons (methane, etc). For more bountiful energy, synthetic oil technology exists today. And of course, more capturable solar energy hits the Earth in sunlight in a single day than we use in a year.

The only reason why these technologies are not widespread is that at present the older technologies are more economically viable. Is that market failure? Are markets failing to reflect our real needs and wants?

No; those who so quickly cry “market failure!” fail to grasp markets. Certainly, I think GDP is a bad measure of economic growth. But throwing out the concept of money altogether as a measure of society’s needs and wants is completely foolish. Markets are merely an aggregation of society’s preferences. Capital and labour is allocated as the market — in other words, as society — sees fit. As Hayek showed in the 1930s, the market gives society the ability to decide how a good or service should be distributed based on individuals willingness to give money for it. The market gives feedback to producers and consumers through the price mechanism about the allocation of resources and capital, which in turn allows on the basis of individual consensual decisions corrections that prevent shortages and surpluses. Under a planned system there is no such mechanism.

The fact that greener technologies have not yet been widely adopted by the market is merely a symptom of the fact that society itself is not yet ready to make a widespread transition. But the fact that research and development and investment continues to pour into green technologies shows that the market is developing toward such an end.

Solar consumption has gone parabolic:

And so it will continue; as society evolves and progresses, the free market — so long as there is a free market — will naturally reallocate resources and labour based on society’s preferences. Without a free market — and since 2008 when the banks were bailed out and markets became junkiefied intervention-loving zombies, it is highly dubious that there is such a thing as a free market in the West — planners will just end up guessing at how to allocate resources, labour and capital, and producing monstrous misallocations of capital.

The political nature of such reallocation is irrelevant; whether the centralists call themselves communists or socialists or environmentalists, their modus operandi is always the same: ignore society’s true economic preferences, and reallocate resources based on their own ideological imperatives (often for their own enrichment).

My view is that the greatest threat to the planet’s ecology is from the centralists who wish to remove or pervert the market mechanism in order to achieve ideological goals. It is not just true that removing the market mechanism retard society’s ability to evolve into new forms of production, resource-allocation, and capital-allocation based on society’s true preferences. The command economies of the 20th Century — particularly Maoist China and Soviet Russia — produced much greater pollution than the free markets. Under a free market, polluters who damage citizens or their property can be held to account in the market place, and through the court system.There is no such mechanism through the kind of command of economy that the centralists seem to wish to implement.

The answer is not central planning and government control. The answer is the free market.