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:


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.


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.

The Real Fiscal Cliff

It’s that time of year again — time to kick the can.

No prizes for guessing what investors expect Congress to do:

And 2013 seems likely to give way to can-kicking in 2014, and 2015 and 2016 and 2017 and on — the GAO estimates that by 2080 the US public could hold 8 times as much government debt as the US generates GDP. Just as Japan has never truly dealt with its debt complex — and instead chose the path of cycles of deflation, an endless liquidity trap, a soaring debt-to-GDP ratio, and mandating financial institutions into buying treasuries — so America will continue to kick the can as long as rates and nominal inflation can be kept low, and goods and energy (the real underlying economy) kept flowing. Which — going by the Japanese example — could be a very long time.

Yet America is not Japan. The key difference? The balance of trade, and the flow of goods and services. While Japan’s debt is overwhelmingly domestically held, and while Japan has long been a net-exporter, the USA imports more goods and services than any nation in history:

And more and more US debt and currency is in the hands of the nations that export the goods and services on which America’s economy functions. Here’s the total debt held by foreigners:

And here’s the dollar reserves of various Asian exporter nations:

So when the can is kicked, the Asians — and especially the Chinese — feel they are getting screwed.

As Xinhua noted the last time America faced the fiscal cliff:

The U.S. has long been facing the same problem: living beyond its means. At present, the country has debts as high as 55 trillion U.S. dollars, including more than 14 trillion U.S. dollars of treasury bonds.

And last October:

Economists agree that as the United States’ largest foreign creditor, China should contemplate ways to pull itself out of the “dollar trap,” as the U.S. economy is faltering with its debt piling up and its currency on the brink to depreciate.

China must make fuller use of the non-financial assets in its foreign reserves, as well as speed up the diversification of investing channels to resist a possible long-term weakening of the dollar, said Xia Bing, director of the Finance Research Institutes of the Development Research Center under the State Council.

Zheng Xinli, permanent vice chairman of China Center for International Economic Exchanges, has suggested that Chinese companies boost overseas investment as a way to absorb trade surpluses and fend off the dollar risk.

Now to some degree the Asians knew the bargain they were getting into in buying US treasuries. They were never buying a claim on the US economy, or on the US gold reserves. They were buying a claim on reproducible Federal Reserve notes, and since 1971 the bargain has been that this is a purely fiat currency. Ultimately, if they do not feel like the US will be solvent in the long run, they should not have started lending to it. But now they are the largest real creditor, they have no choice but to keep on buying and keep on stabilising, simply because a functional US economy and a solvent US treasury is about the only way they will see any return at all.

Yet if they don’t exert leverage on the US, then the US seems unlikely to do much at all. Without a little turmoil, legislators have very little incentive to act. If the exporter nations feel as if they are getting screwed, they are only more likely to escalate via the only real means they have — trade war. And having a monopoly on various resources including rare earth minerals (as well as various components and types of finished goods) gives them considerable leverage.

More and more Asian nations — led by China and Russia — have ditched the dollar for bilateral trade (out of fear of dollar instability). Tension rises between the United States and Asia over Syria and Iran. The Asian nations throw more and more abrasive rhetoric around — including war rhetoric.

And on the other hand, both Obama and Romney — as well as Hillary Clinton — seem dead-set on ramping up the tense rhetoric. Romney seems extremely keen to brand China a currency manipulator.

In truth, both sides have a mutual interest in sitting down and engaging in a frank discussion, and then coming out with a serious long-term plan of co-operation on trade and fiscal issues where both sides accept compromises — perhaps Asia could agree to reinvest some of its dollar hoard in the United States to create American jobs and rebuild American infrastructure in exchange for a long-term American deficit-reduction and technology-sharing agreement?

But such co-operation would require real trust and respect — and I just don’t see it. China’s leaders deeply resent the West for the opium war years, and the humiliation that came with the end of the Chinese empire — and they see America as profligate, and culturally degenerate. And America’s leaders see China as an unstable anti-democratic dictatorship, not a prospective partner.

So the future, I think, will more likely involve both sides jumping off the cliff into the uncertain seas of trade war, currency war, default-by-debasement, tariffs, proxy war and regional and global political and economic instability.