Can The Fed Taper?

The Taper Tapir

Back in June, I correctly noted that it was severely unlikely that the Federal Reserve would taper its asset buying programs in September. I based this projection on the macroeconomic indicators on which the Federal Reserve bases its decisions — unemployment, and inflation. The Federal Reserve has a mandate from Congress to delivery a monetary policy that results in full employment, and low and stable inflation. With consumer price inflation significantly below the Fed’s self-imposed 2% goal, and with the rate of unemployment relatively high — currently well over 7% — I saw very little chance of the Fed effectively tightening by reducing his asset purchases.

There exists another school of thought that also correctly noted that the Fed would not taper. This other school, however, believes that the Fed cannot ever taper and that the Fed will destroy the dollar before it ceases its monetary activism. This view is summarised by the Misesian economist Pater Tanebrarum:

While it is true that the liquidation of malinvested capital would resume if the monetary heroin doses were to be reduced, the only alternative is to try to engender an ‘eternal boom’ by printing ever more money. This can only lead to an even worse ultimate outcome, in the very worst case a crack-up boom that destroys the entire monetary system.

So the Misesian view appears to be that the Fed won’t stop buying because doing so would result in a mass liquidation, and so the Fed will print all the way to hyperinflation.

Since talk of a taper began, rates certainly spiked as the market began to price in a taper. How far would an actual taper have pushed rates up? Well, it’s hard to say. But given that banks now have massive capital buffers in the form of excess reserves — as well as a guaranteed lender-of-last-resort resource at the Fed — it is hard to believe that an end to quantitative easing now would push us back into the depths of post-Lehman liquidation. Certainly, in the year preceding the announcement of QE Infinity — when unemployment was higher, and bank balance sheets frailer — there was no such fall back into liquidation. What a taper certainly would have amounted to is a relative tightening in monetary policy at a time when inflation is relatively low (sorry Shadowstats) and when unemployment is still relatively and stickily high. Whether or not we believe that monetary policy is effective in bringing down unemployment or igniting inflation, it is very clear that doing such a thing would be completely inconsistent with the Federal Reserve’s mandate and stated goals.

Generally, I find monetary policy as a means to control unemployment as rather Rube Goldberg-ish. Unemployment is much easier reduced through direct spending rather than trusting in the animal spirits of a depressed market to deliver such a thing, especially in the context of widespread deleveraging. But that does not mean that the Fed can never tighten again. While the depression ploughs on, the Fed will continue with or expand its current monetary policy measures. Whether or not these are effective, as Keynes noted, in the long run when the storm is over the ocean is flat. If by some luck — a technology shock, perhaps — there was an ignition of stronger growth, and unemployment began to fall significantly, the Fed would not just be able to tighten, it would have to to quell incipient inflationary pressure. Without luck and while the recovery remains feeble, it is true that it is hard to see the Fed tightening any time soon. Janet Yellen certainly believes that the Fed can do more to fight unemployment. This could certainly mean an increase in monetary activism. If she succeeds and the recovery strengthens and unemployment moves significantly downward, then Yellen will come under pressure to tighten sooner. 

In the current depressionary environment, the hyperinflation that the Misesians yearn for and see the Fed pushing toward is incredibly unlikely. The deflationary forces in the economy are stunningly huge. Huge quantities of pseudo-money were created in the shadow banking system before 2008, which are now being extinguished. The Fed would have had to double its monetary stimulus simply to push the money supply up to its long-term trend line. Wage growth throughout the economy is very stagnant, and the flow of cheap consumer goods from the East continues. So Yellen has the scope to expand without fearing inflationary pressure. The main concerns for inflation in my view are entirely non-monetary — geopolitical shocks, and energy shocks. Yet with ongoing deleveraging, any such inflationary shocks may actually prove helpful by decreasing the real burden of the nominal debt. Tightening or tapering in response to such shocks would be quite futile.

Sooner or later, the Fed will feel that the unemployment picture has significantly improved. That could be at 5% or even 6% so long as the job creation rate is strongly growing. At that point — perhaps by 2015  — tapering can begin. Tapering may slow the recovery to some extent not least through expectations. And that may be a good thing, guarding against the outgrowth of bubbles.

Yet if another shock pushes unemployment up much further, then tapering will be off the table for a long time. Although Yellen will surely try, with the Fed already highly extended under such circumstances, the only effective option left for job creation will be fiscal policy.

Why I Was Wrong About Inflation

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Back in 2007, I was much more interested in finance and trading than I was in macroeconomics. When the crisis — and the government’s macroeconomic response to the crisis — began in 2008 what was really needed to get a strong grasp of the situation was an understanding of macroeconomics, which I did not have as it was a topic I only really began studying in depth at that time. This led to some misconceptions, particularly about inflation. I mistakenly assumed — as did many at the time, and as do many today — that the huge expansion of the monetary base would lead to stronger inflation than the timid and low inflation we have seen in years since the programs began. While I strongly doubted the claims of individuals like Peter Schiff that hyperinflation might be nigh — as I understood that most historical hyperinflations occurred due to a collapse in production, not solely due to money printing — I thought a strong inflationary snapback was likely, Why? A mixture of real effects and expectations. If central banks are printing money at a higher rate, people will fear that money is becoming less scarce. If having more money in circulation does not begin to bid prices upward, producers will soon begin to raise prices to anticipate any such rise. Simply, I thought that central banks couldn’t print their way out of disaster without some iatrogenic side-effects. I assumed the oncoming pain was unavoidable, and that the onset of inflation was the price that would be paid. As Ludwig von Mises put it: “There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved.”

So why did that not occur? After all, plenty of internet goldbugs — and very serious people following the advice of people like John Taylor, Eugene Fama, and Niall Ferguson — were talking about the potential for a strong inflationary shock. The gold price was soaring — hitting a peak above $1900 an ounce in September 2011 — as people anticipating inflation sought to buy insurance against it. Well, for a start it seems like the public did not really buy into the notion of an oncoming inflationary shock. Expected inflation as measured by the University of Michigan has remained very close to the post-1980 norm since the crisis:

MICH_Max_630_378

But above and beyond this, the real monetary effects were not the ones I first assumed them to be. The total money supply — most of which is generated not by the Fed but in the private sector through lending — has been stagnant, even while the Federal Reserve is expanding the monetary base. So while the financial sector is flush with cash and has bid the stock market up above its pre-recession nominal peak, other goods in other sectors just have not had enough of a bid behind them to send inflation strongly upward because other areas of the economy (for instance housing, consumer electronics and real wages) have continued to deflate in the context of continued deleveraging, accelerating offshoring driving down wages and the receding effects of the 2008 oil shock.

Yet even more importantly the supply of goods in the West — flowing as it does from East to West, from the factories of the Orient to the consumers of the West — has remained strong and stable. There has been no destabilising, chaotic Chinese crash or revolution, even though many wished there would be in the wake of the Arab spring. And for all the talk by the Chinese and Russians of bond vigilantism, starting a new global reserve currency and dumping the dollar, that has not happened either. And why would it? Certainly, the Asian bond-buyers might have suffered a few years of negative real interest rates. This might have pissed them off. But undermining the Western recoveries further (which have been quite pathetic thus far) when such a high proportion of their assets — dollars and treasuries and increasingly real assets like land and industrials — are related to the economic performance of the West would be to cut off their nose to spite their face, while simultaneously risking conflict with the American military, whose capabilities remain unmatched. The Chinese and Russian talk of de-Americanisation and a post-American world is all bluff and bluster, all sound and fury signifying very little. In the long run, America will have to accept a world where it is no longer the sole global superpower, but there is no incentive for America’s competitors to hasten that way with the kind of aggressive economic warfare that might cause an economic shock.

On the other hand, it is certainly true that much of the new money entering the system is sitting as excess reserves. Is that a symptom of the inflation simply being delayed? Until the middle of last year I thought so. Now I very strongly doubt it. The existence of excess reserves in the system is not a symptom of stored-up future inflation, but a symptom of the weakness of the transmission mechanism for quantitative easing. Simply, the system is in a depression. The banking system is infected with a deep paranoia, and would prefer to sit on risk-free cash instead of lending money to businesses. If the money was lent out, there would be an increased level of economic and business activity. Therefore there is no guarantee of any additional inflation as the money is loaned out.

So I was wrong to worry that inflation could become an imminent problem. But I was wronger than this. The entire paradigm that I was basing these fears upon was flawed. Simply, I was ignoring real and present economic problems to worry about something that could theoretically become a problem in the future. Specifically, I was ignoring the real and present problem of involuntary unemployment to worry about non-existent inflation and non-existent Asian bond vigilantes. The involuntariness of unemployment is a very simple fact — there are not enough jobs for the number of jobseekers that exist, and there hasn’t been enough jobs since the crisis began. Currently there are just over three job seekers for every job. So unemployment and underemployment are not simply things that can be dismissed as a matter of workers becoming lazy, or preferring leisure to work. Mass unemployment has insidious and damaging social effects for individuals and communities — people who are out of work for a long time lose skills. For communities, crime rises, and health problems emerge. And there are 25 million Americans today who are either unemployed or underemployed as a practical matter it is not simply a case of sitting back and allowing the structure of production to adjust to the new economy. And worse, with unemployment high, spending and confidence remain depressed as the effects of high unemployment create a social malaise. This is a mass sickness — and in the past it has led to the rise of warmongering political figures like Hitler. So while it may be preferable for the private sector to be the leading job creator under ordinary conditions, while the private sector is engaging in heavy deleveraging this is impractical. Under such an eventuality the state is the only institution that can break the depressionary trend by creating paying jobs and fighting back against the depressionary tendency toward mass unemployment. Certainly, centralised bureaucracy can be a troublesome and distortionary thing. But there are many things — like mass unemployment and underemployment, and the social problems that that can bring — worse than centralised bureaucracy. And no — this kind of Keynesianism was not the problem in the 1970s.

By worrying over the potential for future inflation or future bond vigilantism due to monetary and fiscal stimulus, I was contributing to the problem of mass unemployment, first of all by not acknowledging the problem, and second by encouraging governments and individuals to worry about potential future problems instead of real-world problems today. As it happened, a tidal wave of evidence has washed these worries away. It is clear from the economic data that inflation is not a concern in a depressionary economy, just as Keynesian-Hicksians heuristics like IS/LM suggested.

Of course, if the depression ends of its own accord then inflation could become a problem again.  If the United States were to experience a strong unexpected spurt of growth sustained over a year or so, pushing unemployment significantly down and growth significantly up, inflation could rise appreciably. The Federal Reserve would have to quickly taper both its unconventional policies and probably begin to raise rates. Of course, that is rather unlikely in the present depressionary environment. But certainly, it is a small possibility. That would be the time for the Federal Reserve to start to worry about inflation. A strong negative energy shock — like the one experienced by the UK in 2010 and 2011 — could push inflation higher too, yet that would be a transitory factor in the context of the wider depressionary environment, and would most likely fall back of its own accord.

If the Fed was engaging in actual helicopter drops — the most direct transmission mechanism possible — there would likely be a stronger inflationary response than that which we have seen thus far. Yet ultimately, this might prove desirable. After all, if the private sectors of the entire Western world have a very large nominal debt load which they are struggling to deleverage, some stronger inflation would certainly begin to minimise that. Yes, that is redistribution from lender to borrower. No, creditors will not be happy about this. But in the end, creditors may find it easier to take an inflationary haircut than face twenty years of depressionary deleveraging as Japan has done. Although the West certainly does not have the same demographic troubles as Japan, such an outcome is possible unless people — governments, entrepreneurs, individuals, society — decide that unemployment and a lack of demand in the economy must be tackled, and do something about it. Then can we confidently expect to climb out of the lip of the deleveraging trap.

Will Gold Be a Medium of Exchange Again?

While gold is widely held as a store of purchasing power, and while it is possible to use gold as a unit of account (by converting its floating value to denominate anything in gold terms), gold is no longer widely used as a medium of exchange.

Noah Smith says that gold will never be a widespread medium of exchange again:

In the days when people carried around gold doubloons and whatnot as money, you had a global political system characterized by pockets of stability (the Spanish Empire, or the Chinese Empire, or whatever) scattered among large areas of anarchy. Those stable centers minted and gave out the gold coins. But in the event of a massive modern global catastrophe that brought widespread anarchy, the gold bars buried in your backyard would not be swappable for eggs or butter at the corner store. You’d need some big organization to turn the gold bars into coins of standard weights and purity. And that big organization is not going to do that for you as a free service. More likely, that big organization will simply kill you and take your gold bars, Dungeons and Dragons style.

In other words, I think gold is never coming back as a medium of exchange, under any circumstances. It is no more likely than a return of the Holy Roman Empire. Say goodbye forever to gold money.

Well, forever is a very long time. Human history stretches back just six million years. Recorded history suggests that gold has only been used as a medium of exchange for five or six thousand years. But for that tiny sliver of human history, gold became for many cultures entirely synonymous with money, and largely synonymous with wealth. So I think Noah is over egging his case by using the word forever. Societies have drastically changed in the last six thousand years, let alone the last one hundred. We don’t know how human culture and technology and societies will progress in the future. As humans colonise space, we may see a great deal of cultural and social fragmentation; deeper into the future, believers in gold as money may set up their own planetary colonies or space stations.

But what about the near future? Well, central banks are still using gold as a reserve. In the medium term, it is a hedge against the counter-party risks of a global fiat reserve system in flux. But central banks buying and acquiring gold is not the same thing as gold being used as a medium of exchange. Gold as a reserve never went away, and even in the most Keynesian of futures may not fully die for a long time yet.

And what about this great hypothetical scenario that many are obsessed with where the fragile interconnective structure of modern society — including electronics — briefly or not-so-briefly collapses? Such an event could result from a natural disaster like a megatsunami, or extreme climate change, or a solar flare, or from a global war. Well, again, we can’t really say what will or won’t be useful as a medium of exchange under such circumstances. My intuition is that we would experience massive decentralisation, and trade would be conducted predominantly either in terms of barter and theft. If you have gold coins or bars, and want to engage in trade using them — and have a means to protect yourself from theft, like guns and ammunition — then it is foreseeable that these could be bartered. But so too could whiskey, cigarettes, beer, canned food, fuel, water, IOUs and indeed state fiat currencies. If any dominant media of exchange emerges, it is likely to be localised and ad hoc. In the longer run, if modern civilisation does not return swiftly but instead has to be rebuilt from the ground up over generations then it is foreseeable that physical gold (and other precious metals, including silver) could emerge as the de facto medium of exchange, simply because such things are nonperishable, fungible, and relatively difficult to fake. On the other hand, if modern civilisation is swiftly rebuilt, then it is much more foreseeable that precious metal-based media of exchange will not have the time to get off the ground on anything more than the most localised and ad hoc of bases.

Noah concludes:

So when does gold actually pay off? Well, remember that stories do not have to be true for people to believe them. Lots and lots of people believe that gold or gold-backed money in the event of a global social disruption. And so when this story becomes more popular (possibly with the launching of websites like Zero Hedge?), or when large-scale social disruption seems more likely while holding the popularity of the story constant, gold pays off. Gold is like a credit default swap backed by an insolvent counterparty – it has no hope of actually being redeemed, but you can keep it around forever, and it goes up in price whenever people get scared.

In other words, gold pays off when there is an outbreak of goldbug-ism. Gold is a bet that there will be more goldbugs in the future than there are now. And since the “gold will be money again” story is very deep and powerful, based as it is on thousands of years of (no longer applicable) historical experience, it is highly likely that goldbug-ism will break out again someday. So if you’re the gambling type, or if you plan to start the next Zero Hedge, or if your income for some reason goes down when goldbug-ism breaks out, well, go ahead and place a one-way bet on gold.

Noah, of course, is right that gold is valuable when other people are willing to pay for it. The reason why gold became money in the first place was because people chose to use it as a medium of exchange. They liked it, and they used it, and that created demand for it. If that happens again, then gold will be an in-demand medium of exchange again. But for many reasons — including that governments want monetary flexibility — most of the world today has rejected gold as a medium of exchange.

But there is another pathway for gold to pay off. Noah is overlooking the small possibility that gold may at some point become more than a speculative investment based on the future possibility that gold may at some point return as a monetary media. In 2010, scientists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island, using their Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) collided some gold nuclei, traveling at 99.999% of the speed of light. The plasma that resulted was so energetic that a tiny cube of it with sides measuring about a quarter of the width of a human hair would contain enough energy to power the entire United States for a year. So there exists a possibility that gold could be used at some date in the future as an energy source — completely obliterating any possibility of gold becoming a medium of exchange again. Of course, capturing and storing that energy is another matter entirely, and may prove impossible. In that case — if gold does not become a valuable energy source — it is almost inevitable that some society somewhere at some stage will experiment again with gold as a medium of exchange.

What Are Interest Rates And Can They Be Artificially Low Or High?

Many economic commentators believe that interest rates in America and around the world are “artificially low”. Indeed, I too have used the term in the past to refer to the condition in Europe that saw interest rates across the member states converge to a uniformly low level at the introduction of the Euro, only to diverge and soar in the periphery during the ongoing crisis.

So what is an interest rate? An interest rate is the cost of money now. As Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk noted, interest rates result from people valuing money in the present more highly than money in the future. If a business is starting out, and has insufficient capital to carry out its plans it will seek investment, either through selling equity in the ownership of the business, or through credit from lenders. For a lender, an interest rate is their profit for giving up the spending power of their capital to another who desires it now, attached to the risk that the borrower will default.

In monetary economies, money tends to be distributed relatively scarcely. In a commodity-based monetary system, the level of scarcity is determined by the physical limits of how much of a commodity can be pulled out of the ground. In a fiat-based monetary system, there is no such natural scarcity, but money’s relative scarcity is controlled by the banking system and central bank that lends it into the economy. If money was distributed infinitely widely and freely, there would be no such thing as an interest rate as there would be no cost to obtaining money now, just as there is no cost to obtaining a widely-distributed and freely-available commodity like air (at least on the face of the Earth!). Without scarcity money would lose its usability as a currency, as there is no incentive to trade for a substance which is uniformly and effectively infinitely available to everyone. So an interest rate is not only the cost of money, but also a symptom of its scarcity (and, as Keynes pointed out, a key mechanism through which rentiers profit).

So, where does the idea that interest rates can be made artificially low or artificially high arise from?

The notion of an artificially low or high interest rate implies the existence of a natural interest rate, from which the market rate diverges. It is a widely-held notion, and indeed, Ron Paul made reference to the notion of a natural rate of interest in his debate with Paul Krugman last year. A widely-used definition of the “natural rate of interest” appears in Wicksell (1898):

There is a certain rate of interest on loans which is neutral in respect to commodity prices, and tends neither to raise nor to lower them.

This is easy to define and hard to calculate. It is whatever interest rate yields a zero-percent inflationary level. Because interest rates have a nonlinear relationship with inflation, it is difficult to say precisely what the natural interest rate is at any given time, but Wicksell’s definition specifies that a positive inflation rate means the market rate is above the natural rate, and a negative inflation rate means the market is below the natural rate. (Interestingly, it should be noted that the historical Federal Funds Rate comes pretty close to loosely approximating the historical difference between 0 and the CPI rate, despite questions of whether the CPI really reflects the true price level due to not including housing and equity markets which often record much greater gains or greater losses than consumer prices).

The notion of a natural rate of interest is interesting and helpful — certainly, high levels of inflation can be challenged through decreasing interest rates (or more generally increasing credit-availability), and deflation can be challenged by decreasing interest rates (or more generally increasing credit availability). If the goal of monetary policy is price stability, then the notion of a “natural interest rate” as a guide for monetary policy is useful.

But policies of macrostabilisation have been strongly questioned by the work of Hyman Minsky, which posited the idea that stability is itself destabilising, because it leads to overconfidence which itself results in malinvestment and credit and price bubbles.

Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) developed by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, most influentially in Mises’ 1912 work The Theory of Money and Credit, theorises that the business cycle is caused by credit expansion (often fuelled by excessively low interest rates) which pours into unsustainable projects. The end of this credit expansion (as a result of a collapse resulting from excessive leverage, or from the failure of unsustainable projects, or from general overproduction, or for some other reason) results in a panic and bust. According to ABCT, the underlying issue is that the banking system made money cheaply available, and the market rate of interest falls beneath the natural rate of interest, manifesting as price inflation.

I do not dispute the idea that bubbles tend to coincide with credit expansion and easy lending. But it is tough to say whether credit expansion is a consequence or a cause of the bubble. What is the necessary precursor of an unsustainable credit expansion? Overconfidence, and the idea that prices will just keep going up when sooner or later the credit expansion will run out steam. This could be the overconfidence of central bankers, who believe that macrostabilisation policies have produced a “Great Moderation”, or the overconfidence of traders who hope to get rich quick, or the overconfidence of homeowners who see rising home prices as an easy opportunity to remortgage and consume more, or the overconfidence of private banks who hope to make bumper gains on loans or loan-related securities (Carl Menger noted that fractional reserve banking and credit-fuelled bubbles originated in economies with no central bank, in contradiction of those ABCT-advocates who go so far as to say that without central banking there would be no business cycle at all).

And is price stability really “natural”? Wicksell (and other advocates of a “natural rate of interest” like RBCT and certain Austrians) seem to imply so. But why should it be the norm that prices are stable? In competitive markets — like modern day high-tech markets — the tendency may be toward deflation rather than stability, as improving technology lowers manufacturing costs, and firms lower prices to stay competitive with each other. Or in markets for scarce goods — like commodities of which there exists a limited quantity — the tendency may be toward inflation, as producers may have to spend more to extract difficult-to-extract resources form the ground. Ultimately, human action in market activity is unpredictable and determined by the subjective preferences of all market participants, and this applies as much to the market for money as it does for any market. There is no reason to believe that prices tend toward stability, and the empirical record shows a significant level of variation in price levels under both the gold standard and the modern fiat system.

Ultimately, if interest rates are the cost of money, and in a fiat monetary system the quantity and availability of money is determined by lending institutions and the central bank, how can any interest rate not be artificial (i.e. an expression of the subjective opinions, forecasts and plans of those involved in determining the availability of credit and money including governments and central bankers)? Even under a commodity-money system, the availability of money is still determined by the lending system, as well as the miners who pull the monetary commodity or commodities out of the ground (and any legal tender laws that define money, for example monetising gold and demonetising silver).

And if all interest rates in contemporary markets are to some degree artificial this raises some difficult questions, because it means that the availability of capital, and thus the profitability (or unprofitability) of rentiers are effectively policy choices of the state (or the central bank).

Are Markets Informationally Efficient?

A key assumption in many mainstream macroeconomic models (both formal and informal) is the Efficient Market Hypothesis. Very simply, this is the belief that markets are informationally efficient — that they reflect information with little (or no) delay, leaving few (or no) arbitrage opportunities.

So the real question here is what information do markets (and by markets, I mean free markets where market participants are free to pay and receive any negotiated value for an asset) really reflect? When we see the price of an asset or asset class fluctuating, what does this movement signify? Is it fluctuation in the fundamental value of the asset? Is it just a fluctuation in the market’s perception of an asset? Is it some combination of these two factors? Or is it just random noise? Fundamentally, markets are composed of a series of transactions, each between a bidder and a seller. Each transaction in itself reflects a discrete set of information — specifically, what the bidder and the seller are willing to pay for, and take for that specific asset. This in turn is typically (although not always!) influenced by a some or all of the following: what others are willing to pay and accept for an asset presently, the use-value of an asset, notions of fundamental value (price-over-earnings, stock-to-flow, EBITDA, cashflow, etc), notions of momentum and what others may be willing to pay and accept for an asset in the future (trendlines, gut feelings, “hot stock tips”, etc).

An intriguing addendum to this is that the automation of trading (high-frequency trading) has created bidders and sellers who are acting on the instructions of algorithms. As these instructions are programmed by humans — usually automating some form of technical analysis — the only real difference is that of (extreme) speed. The beliefs reflected in high-frequency trading reflect the underlying algorithmic instructions programmed by the humans who created the algorithm.

Ultimately, whenever we purchase an asset for the purpose of speculation or investment (and even use-value — prices can change, and the price we paid last week or last year could end up looking very expensive, or very cheap) we are taking a guess as to whether the current bid or sell value is worth it. Each agent makes their guess based on a different set of data and expectations. What the prices in markets signify is the operation of this mechanism — different agents evaluating information and making guesses about the future.

Let’s consider the example of Bitcoin, the price of which is currently soaring. Some choose to buy Bitcoins based on momentum, or their liking of the cryptography, or Bitcoin’s inherent deflationary bias or some other positive belief. This is a speculation that the price may continue to climb. Some may choose to buy bitcoins based on their use-value, as an anonymous, decentralised currency that can be used to buy a wide array of things. Holders of Bitcoins may be motivated to sell by the fact that the price has risen since they bought or mined their coins, or by the belief that bitcoin is “in a bubble”, or some other negative belief.

What the market reflects is the net weight of different opinions and resultant human actions. If those who are motivated to buy outweigh those who are motivated to sell, the price  rises and vice versa. This means that the beliefs of big players in a particular market can have strange and disproportionate effects. Consider the effect of the Hunt Brothers’ attempts to coin the silver market in 1980. The price of silver rose from $11 an ounce in September 1979 to almost $50 an ounce in January 1980, as the Hunt Brothers bought more and more. The market was very efficient at reflecting the fact that the Hunt brothers were willing to buy more than the market could supply at lower prices. And once the Hunt Brothers faced margin calls, the market quickly adjusted to reflect the fact that they were now selling instead of buying, and prices fell.

That’s what (transparent) markets are guaranteed to reflect — bidders and sellers, supply and demand. This information is still useful to firms trying to gauge what, and how much to produce.  Everything else — the information that bidders and sellers are acting upon — is not necessarily reflected in market activity. Very often, bidders and sellers are brought to the market by new information regarding a large number of things — price changes, earnings, business decisions, technologies and inventions, macroeconomic data, etc — but there is no systematic or reliable way to predict what humans will respond to, or how they will respond. Human psychology and human action in this sense is totally unstable and nonlinear — consider the recent contrast in market reaction to earnings data from Apple and Google. This instability is an alternative explanation for why consistently beating the market is indeed very difficult, as the Efficient Market Hypothesis implies.

And prices do not even reflect an aggregation of sentiment toward an asset or asset class — they only reflect the sentiment of those who are involved in the market, in proportion to their level of buying and selling activity. This means that the opinions of big players who buy or sell a lot, are reflected many times more than those of small players who buy or sell a little. And irrationality can create a feedback loop — if stock prices are rising, and macroeconomic fundamentals are weak, many market participants may initially be sceptical. Yet as more participants pile into the stock market purely for reasons of sustained upward momentum, more and more participants may begin to suspend their disbelief, if only to not miss out on a profit opportunity. This is one mechanism (of infinitely many) through which price bubbles can form.

Yet accurately reflecting supply and demand is not the same thing as informational efficiency. Empirical data show that arbitrage opportunities are widely exploitable and exploited even in modern marketsOne of the largest forms of high frequency trading is of course statistical arbitrage. This reality should probably be a final nail in the coffin of the idea that markets reflect anything more than the actions of bidders and sellers. Unfortunately, very many models rest on the assumption of informational efficiency in markets, meaning that this approach is very unlikely to die out any time soon.

The Trouble With the Minimum Wage…

Opponents of the minimum wage tend to focus their attacks on the idea that it causes unemployment by forcing employers to discriminate against employees whose working abilities justify a wage less than the legal minimum:

Whether or not increases in the minimum wage (or minimum wage laws more generally) actually increase unemployment is a hotly-debated subject. Krueger and Card (1992) found that to not be the case; more recent meta-analyses of the academic literature such as Neumark and Wascher (2006) have found it to be true, but only to a small extent.

I want to come at this from a different angle. My intuition is that the minimum wage — even if it does not lead to decreased employment — is not an effective means to a fair wage level. This is because it is a price control set by the government, and as Hayek and Kirzner noted, the government has no scientific way to determine what an appropriate price level is for a good or service. Only a negotiation process between the employer and employees can organically determine such a thing. Moreover, as government is often bought out by large corporate interests, it is often in no position to fight for a fair share for workers. The notion that government dominated by corporate interests should set the minimum wage puts the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The empirical evidence seems to tally with my intuitions. Defenders of the minimum wage must confront the basic failure of minimum wage laws to secure the working class a fair share of the pie. Since the Federal minimum wage laws were introduced in the 1930s, wages and salaries as a percentage of GDP have gone on a general downward trend:

WASCUR:GDP

And the minimum wage has stagnated, even as productivity has risen:

min-wage1-fig2-2012-03

If the minimum wage is not meeting its aims, why do we continue to persist with it? There are other possible approaches.

Repealing minimum wage laws may be a better bet. Let the market negotiation process deal with wage levels. Accept that government has no scientific means to determine an appropriate wage level throughout the economy. Then treat any overhanging issues of poverty and living costs entirely separately, perhaps with a basic income guarantee as proposed by Milton Friedman and embraced by economists from across the political spectrum from Friedrich Hayek on the libertarian right to Lord Skidelsky on the Keynesian left. Such a scheme combined with a repeal of minimum wage laws would free labour markets from unnecessary price fixing, while still addressing the issues of poverty and unequal access to capital by providing citizens with a basic income to spend or invest.

Securitisation and Risk

João Santos of the New York Fed notes what forward-thinking financial writers have been thinking for a long, long time:

There’s ample evidence that securitization led mortgage lenders to take more risk, thereby contributing to a large increase in mortgage delinquencies during the financial crisis. In this post, I discuss evidence from a recent research study I undertook with Vitaly Bord suggesting that securitization also led to riskier corporate lending. We show that during the boom years of securitization, corporate loans that banks securitized at loan origination underperformed similar, unsecuritized loans originated by the same banks. Additionally, we report evidence suggesting that the performance gap reflects looser underwriting standards applied by banks to loans they securitize.

Historically, banks kept on their books the loans they originated. However, over time they increasingly replaced this originate-to-hold model with the originate-to-distribute model, by syndicating the loans they originated or by selling them in the secondary loan market. The growth of securitization provided banks with yet another opportunity to expand the originate-to-distribute model of lending. The securitization of corporate loans grew spectacularly in the years leading up to the financial crisis. Prior to 2003, the annual volume of new collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) issued in the United States rarely surpassed $20 billion. Since then, this activity grew rapidly, eclipsing $180 billion in 2007. 

Corporate loan securitization appealed to banks because it gave them an opportunity to sell loans off their balance sheets—particularly riskier loans, which have been traditionally more difficult to syndicate. By securitizing loans, banks could lower the risk on their balance sheets and free up capital for other business while continuing to earn origination fees. As with the securitization of other securities, the securitization of corporate loans, however, may lead to looser underwriting standards. For example, if banks anticipate that they won’t retain in their balance sheets the loans they originate, their incentives to screen loan applicants at origination will be reduced. Further, once a bank securitizes a loan, its incentives to monitor the borrower during the life of the loan will also be reduced.

Santos’ study found that the dual phenomena of lax lending standards and securitisation existed as much for corporate debt as it did for housing debt:

To investigate whether securitization affected the riskiness of banks’ corporate lending, my paper with Bord compared the performance of corporate loans originated between 2004 and 2008 and securitized at the time of loan origination with other loans that banks originated but didn’t securitize. We found that the loans banks securitize are more than twice as likely to default or become nonaccrual in the three years after origination. While only 6 percent of the syndicated loans that banks don’t securitize default or become nonaccrual in those three years, 13 percent of the loans they do securitize wind up in default or nonaccrual. This difference in performance persists, even when we compared loans originated by the same bank and even when we compared loans that are “similar” and we controlled for loan- and borrower-specific variables that proxy for loan risk.

This is an important study, because it emphasises that this is a universal financial phenomenon, and not one merely confined to mortgage lenders that were encouraged by the Federal government into lending to risky mortgagees. The ability to securitise lending and so move the risk off your balance sheet leads to riskier lending, period.

This exemplifies the problem with shadow finance. Without the incentive of failure for lenders who lend to those who cannot repay, standards become laxer, and the system begins to accrue junk loans that are shipped off the lenders’ balance sheets and onto someone else’s. This seems like no problem to the originating lender, who can amass profits quickly by throwing liquidity at dubious debtors who may not be able to repay without having to worry about whether the loan will be repaid. The trouble is that as the junk debt amasses, the entire system becomes endangered, as more and more counterparties’ balance sheets become clogged up with toxic junk lent by lenders with lax standards and rubber-stamped as Triple-A by corrupt or incompetent ratings agencies. As more laxly-vetted debtors default on their obligations, financial firms — and the wider financial system, including those issuers who first issued the junk debt and sold it to other counterparties  — come under pressure. If enough debtors default, financial firms may become bankrupt, defaulting on their own obligations, and throwing the entire system into mass bankruptcy and meltdown. This “risk management” — that lowers lending standards, and spreads toxic debt throughout the system — actually concentrates and systematises risk. Daron Acemoglu produced a mathematical model consistent with this phenomenon.

In a bailout-free environment, these kinds of practices would become severely discouraged by the fact that firms that practiced them and firms that engaged with those firms as counterparties would be bankrupted. The practice of making lax loans, and shipping the risk onto someone else’s balance sheet would be ended, either by severely tightened lending standards, or by the fact that the market for securitisation would be killed off. However, the Federal Reserve has stepped into the shadow securities market, acting as a buyer-of-last-resort. While this has certainly stabilised a financial system that post-2008 was undergoing the severest liquidity panic the world has probably ever seen, it has also created a huge moral hazard, backstopping a fundamentally perverse and unsustainable practice.

Shadow finance is still deleveraging (although not as fast as it once was):

But so long as the Federal Reserve continues to act as a buyer-of-last-resort for toxic junk securities produced by lax lending, the fundamentally risk-magnifying practices of lax lending and securitisation won’t go away. Having the Federal Reserve absorb the losses created by moral hazard is no cure for moral hazard, because it creates more moral hazard. This issue soon enough will rise to the surface again with predictably awful consequences, whether in another jurisdiction (China?), or another market (securitised corporate debt? securitised student loan debt?).