2008 Again?

The so-called recovery is built on sand, and as stock markets climb and climb, and more traders and investors turn bullish, we come ever-closer to a new 2008-style collapse.

Markets have already gone far, far higher than many expected on a drift of reinflationary central bank liquidity. Yesterday the DJIA hit a new post-2007 high:

fredgraph (14)

The same day, it was revealed that the big Wall Street banks are gambling again with billions and billions of dollars of clients’ funds. Goldman Sachs are back to pre-crisis-style profits. Again and again — from the LIBOR scandal, to MF Global, to the London Whale, to Kweku Adoboli — the financial sector has illustrated that it has learned very little from 2008, and is still practising many of the same hyper-fragile ponzi finance practices that led to the subprime bubble and the 2008 collapse.

Soaring markets, and soaring speculation. Big finance using loopholes to speculate bigger and harder. Mainstream financial journalists becoming more and more complacent about the “recovery”.

We’ve been here before. Isn’t repeating the same behaviour and hoping for different results the very definition of insanity? 

I don’t know exactly how the next crash will occur — although there are many potential ignition spots including a severe trade or energy shock, or a Chinese real estate and subprime meltdown, or a natural disaster, or a new Western financial crisis.  I don’t know when the next crash will occur, or how high the markets will climb before it does (DJIA 36,000 maybe? That would be hilarious).

But I know that if markets and regulators continue to repeat the mistakes that led to 2008, we will be back in a similar or worse hole soon.


The Cantillon Effect

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

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

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

Here’s GDP expressed in terms of M2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Keen notes:

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

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

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

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

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

Debt is Not Wealth

Here’s the status quo:

These figures are staggering; the advanced nations typically have between three and ten times as much total debt as they have economic activity. In the United Kingdom — the worst example — if one year’s economic activity was devoted entirely to paying down debt (impossible — people need to eat and drink and pay rent, and of course the United Kingdom continues to add debt) it would take ten years for the debt to be wiped clean.

But the real question is why? Why are both debtors and creditors willing to build a status quo of massive unprecedented debt?

From the side of the creditors, I think the answer is the misconception that debt is wealth. Debt can be used as collateral, or can be securitised and traded on exchanges (which itself can become a form of shadow intermediation, allowing for a form banking outside the accepted regulatory norms). To keep the value of debt high, and thus keep the debt illusion rolling along (treasury yields keep falling) central banks have been willing to swap out bad debt for good money. But debt is not wealth; it is just a promise, and in today’s world carries huge counter-party risk. Until you convert your debt-based promissory assets into real-world tangible assets they are not wealth.

From the side of the debtors, I think the answer is that debt is easy. Why work for your consumption when instead you can take out a home equity loan or get a credit card? Why buy the one car that you can afford when instead you can buy two with debt?

But there is another side in this world: the side of the central planners. Since the time of Keynes and Fisher there has been an economic revolution:

Deflation has effectively been abolished by central banking.  And so we get to where we are today: the huge and historically unprecedented outgrowth of debt. Deleveraging necessitates economic contraction, which produces the old Keynesian-Fisherian bugbear of debt-deflation, which the central planners abhor. So they print. Where once deflation often made debts unrepayable, and resulted in mass defaults, liquidation and structural transformation, today — thanks to money printing — debtors get their easy lunch of cheap debt, and creditors get their pound of flesh, albeit devalued by the inflation of the monetary base. It has been a superficially good compromise for both creditors and debtors. Everyone has got some of what they want. But is it sustainable?

The endless post-Keynesian outgrowth of debt suggests not. In fact, what is ultimately suggested is that the abolition of small-scale deflationary liquidations has just primed the system for a much, much larger liquidation later on. Bad companies, business models and practices that might otherwise not have survived under previous economic systems today live thanks to bailouts and money-printing. This moral hazard has grown legs and evolved into a kind of systemic hazard. Unhealthy levels of leverage and interconnection that once might have necessitated failure (e.g. Martingale trading strategies) flourish today under this new regime and its role as counter-party-of-last-resort. With every rogue-trader, every derivatives or shadow banking blowup, every Corzine, every Adoboli, every Iksil, comes more confirmation that the entire financial system is being zombified as foolish and dangerous practices are saved and sanctified by bailouts.

With every zombie blowup comes the necessity of more money-printing, and with more money-printing to save broken industries seems to come more moral hazard and zombification. Is that sustainable?

Already, central bankers are having to be clever with their money printing, colluding with financiers and sovereign governments to hide newly-printed money in excess reserves and FX reserves, and colluding with government statisticians to hide inflation beneath a forest of statistical manipulation. It is no surprise that by the BLS’ previous inflation-measuring methodology inflation is running at a much higher rate than the new:

Worse, in the modern financial world, we see an unprecedented level of interconnection. The impending Euro-implosion will have ramifications to everyone with exposure to it, and everyone with exposure to those with exposure to it. Not only will the inflation-averse Europeans have to print up a huge quantity of new money to bail out their financial system (the European financial system is roughly three times the size of the American one bailed out in 2008), but should they fail to do so central banks around the globe will have to print huge quantities of money to bail out systemically-important financial institutions with exposure to falling masonry. This is shaping up to be a true test of their prowess in hiding monetary inflation, and a true test of the “wisdom” behind endless-monetary-growth fiat economics.

Central bankers have shirked the historical growth cycle consisting both of periods of growth and expansion, as well as periods of contraction and liquidation. They have certainly had a good run. Those warning of impending hyperinflation following 2008 were proven wrong; deflationary forces offset the inflationary impact of bailouts and monetary expansion, even as food prices hit records, and revolutions spread throughout emerging markets. And Japan — the prototypical unliquidated zombie economy — has been stuck in a depressive rut for most of the last twenty years. These interventions, it seems, have pernicious negative side-effects.

Those twin delusions central bankers have sought to cater to — for creditors, that debt is wealth and should never be liquidated, and for debtors that debt is an easy or free lunch — have been smashed by the juggernaut of history many times before. While we cannot know exactly when, or exactly how — and in spite of the best efforts of central bankers — I think they will soon be smashed again.