Helicopters Grounded?

Having recently uncovered in its own research that quantitative easing is enriching the richest 5%, and the British economy still mired in the doldrums even in spite of hundreds of billions of easing,  the Bank of England announced last week that it was grounding its fleet of helicopters dropping cash onto the big banks and suspending the quantitative easing program.

Yet, this may not be the end for British monetary activism.

Anatole Kaletsky wrote last month:

This week an even more radical debate burst  into the open in Britain. Sir Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, found himself fighting a rearguard action against a groundswell of support for “dropping money from helicopters” – something proposed by Milton Friedman in 1969 as the ultimate cure for intractable economic depressions and recently described in this column as “Quantitative Easing for the People.”

King had to speak out because the sort of calculations presented here last summer started to catch on in Britain. The BoE has spent £50 billion over the past six months to support bond prices. That could instead have financed a cash handout of £830 for every man, woman and child in Britain, or £3,300 for a typical family of four. In the United States, the $40 billion the Fed has promised to transfer monthly, with no time limit, to banks and bond funds, could instead finance a monthly cash payment of $500 per family – to be continued indefinitely until full employment is restored.

Has the Bank of England stopped one program in anticipation of beginning another? Will be the Bank of England begin to inject cash directly to the public, bypassing the banks?

It is more than possible.

Could this mean some kind of debt jubilee? That is less likely — policymakers seem to remain fixated on demand and consumption, when the greatest obstacle to economic activity is the total level of debt.

The Data That Won It For Obama

I wondered during the final debate whether Mitt Romney might steal a phrase from Ronald Reagan and ask Americans if they were better off than they were four years ago. It has worked for the Republicans before, and all the polling data pointed to the idea that voters were looking at the economy as the top issue.

Yet Romney did no such thing. Perhaps that was because by a number of significant measures, many Americans are better off than they were three or four years ago when America was mired in the epicentre of a global economic crisis. While America is in many cases just catching up to ground lost in the 2008 crash, and while many significant and real doubts remain about the underlying fundamentals of the American and global economies, the American economy has reinflated since early 2009.

Real GDP growth has been sustained:

The S&P500 has gone upward:

So has industrial production:

And total wages and salaries:

And here’s corporate profits:

And although total employment remains significantly depressed, headline unemployment has fallen (and those who have dropped out of the labour force have been entitled to expanded welfare programs):

It seems — although this was a very divided election — that these data provided enough juice to give just enough Americans the sense that although they may not be better off than they were at the turn of the millennium, under Obama things are improving just enough.

Certainly, some groups who have not fared well due to low interest rates such as seniors rejected Obama, too. Other groups, like women, deserted the Republicans on social issues. Yet Republicans looking for reasons why Romney ultimately lost probably need look no further than slow but steady reinflation.

Beneath the surface, this tepid reinflation is very much akin to the economy that got Bush re-elected in 2004. That recovery ended in mania and a bubble and finally a crash when subprime imploded in 2008. It is more than possible that this recovery is equally unsustainable and will end the same way, in crushing disappointment and grinding deflation.

Debt — the fuel of bubbles — is slowly growing again, from a perilously high starting point:

Deleveraging in the new quantitatively-eased environment has been very, very slow. This is a delicate and dangerous balancing act. Total debt levels as a percentage of the economy remain humungous and are a grinding weight on the underlying economy:

The Obama-Bernanke reinflation may well be an illusion built on the shakiest of foundations. And it may end more painfully than even the disastrous Bush-Greenspan reinflation. Yet it was enough to guarantee Obama re-election.

What is Profit?

In neoclassical macroeconomic models that assume perfect competition, there can in the long run be no such thing as profit — defined as revenue left over after all costs have been subtracted.

Clearly, in the real world where many businesses have lived and died profitably there is no such thing as perfect competition, and therefore the neoclassical models that treat profit as a short-run anomaly are working from an unrealistic assumption.

My definition of profit is that profit is what happens when a business’s input transactions are priced less than its output transactions. That is, the sum of the cost of a business’s inputs from those it buys is transacted for a lower price than the sum of those it sells its goods and services to. Because transactions are assumed to be voluntary — and when they are not voluntary, any residual gain is theft, not profit — and businesses are assumed to try to negotiate the best price in both inputs and outputs, any profit is due to those who purchase the business’s output valuing the output higher than those who sold the business its inputs. That an output or input transactor would accept a profit-creating price could be for any number of perceived reasons: convenience, or expertise, or prestige, or necessity, or even outright trickery. Their decision to accept the price is subject to their own subjective valuation, and it is the difference between prices that creates the profit.

Marx and Lenin represented this idea as surplus value; that businesses make a profit by extracting uncompensated labour value out of their workers. But why not the other transactors? In my view, profit is derived from the sum of the business’s transactions with all of its transactors: consumers, supplies, labour (etc). Workers (etc) cannot extract a greater share of the firm’s revenue than they can negotiate, and at various points in history (including the present day) the working class seems to have had little real leverage for negotiation.

In my view, any model that attempts to represent real world markets should begin from the historical fact of profit and loss, and the historical fact of a disequilibrium between input transactions and output transactions.

Gina Rinehart is a Bubble

Last week she said:

If you’re jealous of those with more money, don’t just sit there and complain. Do something to make more money yourself — spend less time drinking, or smoking and socializing and more time working.

Today she claimed that Australians should be willing to work for less than $2 a day:

Australian mining magnate Gina Rinehart has criticised her country’s economic performance and said Africans willing to work for $2 a day should be an inspiration.

Ms Rinehart is said to make nearly A$600 (£393) a second.

The richest woman in the world is making an increasing number of public appearances, and speaking of increasingly controversial topics.

I wonder why.

It couldn’t be that she is becoming increasingly aggressive and controversial because her core business is in trouble, could it?

Marc Faber suggests so:

There have been four mega bubbles in the past 40 years. In the 1970s it was gold; in the 1980s it was the Nikkei, and in the 1990s it was the Nasdaq. Bigger than all of them, though, has been the iron ore bubble, a tenfold increase in prices in less than a decade.

Here’s iron ore priced in dollars:

Julia Gillard’s denial seems to confirm the inevitable:

Australia’s mining boom is not over and its ‘death’ has been exaggerated.

That is her “subprime is contained” moment.

Larry Elliott explodes the myth that this time is different:

Commodity-rich countries, like Australia, have never had it so good. China takes 25% of Australia’s exports and iron ore accounts for 60% of all the goods Australia sells to China. One reason Australia avoided recession during the global downturn of 2008-09 was that it had a well-run banking system. A much bigger reason was that the country had become a giant pit from which China could extract the minerals it needed for its industrial expansion. Money flooded into the country from sovereign wealth funds and hedge funds looking for AAA investments. The Australian dollar has soared, as have property prices.

China’s economy is now slowing, and although the economic data is not particularly reliable, it seems to be slowing fast. The country has two million unsold homes, with another 30 million under construction. There is a glut of iron ore and the price is falling. Where does that leave Australia? Horribly exposed, quite obviously. It has an over-valued currency, an over-valued property market, and its major customer is now desperately pulling every available policy lever in the hope of avoiding a hard landing. Whatever happens, the Australian dollar is a sell. Just how big a sell will depend on how successful Beijing is in reflating the Chinese economy.

Perhaps Gina Rinehart should spend less time drinking, socialising and writing awful poetry and more time preparing her business for the inevitable iron ore bust?

A Critique of the Methodology of Mises & Rothbard

I find myself in the middle of a huge blowup between Max Keiser and Tom Woods over Mises, Menger and Austrian economics and feel that this is an opportune moment to express some doubts I have regarding contemporary Austrian methodology.

I am to some extent an Austrian, on three counts.

First, I subscribe to the notion that value is subjective; that goods’ and services’ values differ according to different individuals because they serve various uses to various users, and that value is entirely in the eye of the beholder.

Second, I subscribe to the notion that free markets succeed because of the sensitive price feedback mechanism that allocates resources according to the real underlying shape of supply and demand and conversely the successful long-term allocation of labour, capital and resources by a central planner is impossible (or extremely unlikely), because of the lack of a market feedback mechanism.

Third, I subscribe to the notion that human thought is neither linear nor rational, and the sphere of human behaviour is complicated and multi-dimensional, and that attempts to model it using linear, mechanistic methods will in the long run tend to fail.

It is not, then, the overall drift of Misesean-Rothbardian economics that I find problematic — indeed, I often find myself drawing similar conclusions by different means — but rather the methodology.

I reached my views — some of which new evidence will eventually wash away — through a lot of theorising mixed with much careful observation and consideration of case studies, historical examples and all sorts of real world data. I love data; and one of the things that attracted me toward thinking and writing about economics is the beautiful superabundant growth of new data opened up to the world by computers and the internet. No, it is not universal or complete, and therefore building a perfect predictive model is not possible, but that is not the point. If I want to know how the corn price in the USA moved during the first half of the twentieth century, the data is accessible. If I want to know the rate of GDP growth in Ghana in 2009, the data is accessible. If I want to know the crime rate in France, the data is accessible.

Miseseans choose to reach their conclusions not from data, but instead from praxeology; pure deduction and logic.

This is quite unlike the early Austrians like Menger who mainly used a mixture of deductionism and data.

According to Rothbard:

Praxeology rests on the fundamental axiom that individual human beings act, that is, on the primordial fact that individuals engage in conscious actions toward chosen goals. This concept of action contrasts to purely reflexive, or knee-jerk, behavior, which is not directed toward goals. The praxeological method spins out by verbal deduction the logical implications of that primordial fact. In short, praxeological economics is the structure of logical implications of the fact that individuals act.

And Mises:

Our statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts.

This is completely wrongheaded. All human thought and action is derived from experience; Mises’ ideas were filtered from his life, filtered from his experience. That is an empirical fact for Mises lived, Mises breathed, Mises experienced, Mises thought. Nothing Mises or his fellow praxeologists have written can be independent of that — it was all ultimately derived from human experience. And considering the Austrian focus on subjectivity it is bizarre that Mises and his followers’ economic paradigm is wrapped around the elimination of experience and subjectivity from economic thought.

If, as I often do, I produce a deductive hypothesis — for instance, that the end of Bretton Woods might produce soaring income inequality — it is essential that I refer to data to show whether or not my hypothesis is accurate. If I make a deductive prediction about the future, it is essential that I refer to data to determine whether or not my prediction has been correct.

Exposing a hypothesis to the light of evidence augments its strong parts and washes away its weaker ones. When the evidence changes, I change my opinion irrespective of what my deductions led me to believe or what axioms those deductions were based upon. Why reach the conclusion that central planning can induce civilisational failure through pure logic when the historical examples of Mao’s China and Stalin’s Russia and Diocletian’s Rome illustrate this in gory detail?

This is elementary stuff. Deduction is important — indeed, it is a critical part of forming a hypothesis — but deductions are confirmed and denied not by logic, but by the shape of the evidence. In rejecting modelling — which has produced fallacious work like DSGE and RBCTbut also some relatively successful models like those of Minsky and Keen — praxeologists have made the mistake of rejecting empiricism entirely. This has confined their methods to a grainier simulation; that of their own verbal logic.

It is not necessary to define a framework through mathematical models in order to practice empirical economics. Keynes was cited by Rothbard in support of the notion that economics should not be fixated on mathematical models:

It is a great fault of symbolic pseudo-mathematical methods of formalizing a system of economic analysis, that they expressly assume strict independence between the factors involved and lose
all their cogency and authority if this hypothesis is disallowed: whereas, in ordinary discourse, where we are not blindly manipulating but know all the time what we are doing and what the words mean, we can keep “at the back of our heads” the necessary reserves and qualifications and the adjustments which we have to make later on, in a way in which we cannot keep complicated partial differentials “at the back” of several pages of algebra which assume that they all vanish. Too large a proportion of recent “mathematical” economics are mere concoctions, as
imprecise as the initial assumptions they rest on, which allow the author to lose sight of the complexities and interdependencies of the real world in a maze of pretentious and unhelpful symbols.

And I agree. But nowhere did any of the figures cited by Rothbard; not Keynes, nor Wild, nor Frola, nor Menger endorse a wholly deductionist framework. All of these theorists wanted to work with reality, not play with logic. Create a theory; test; refine; test; refine; etc.

Praxeologists claim that praxeology does not make predictions about the future, and that any predictions made by praxeologists are not praxeological predictions, but instead are being made in a praxeologist’s capacity as an economic historian. But this is a moot point; all predictions about the future are deductive. Unless predictions are being made using an alien framework (e.g. a neoclassical or Keynesian model) what else is the praxeologist using but the verbal and deductive methodology of praxeology?

It has been the predictive success of contemporary Austrian economists — at least in identifying general trends often ignored by the mainstream — that has drawn young minds toward Misesean-Rothbardian economics.

Of those economists who predicted the 2008 crisis, a significant number were Austrians:

Yet Miseseans including Peter Schiff damaged their hard-earned credibility with a series of failed predictions of imminent interest rate spikes and hyperinflation of the dollar by 2010.

That is not to say that interest rate spikes and high inflation cannot emerge further down the line. But these predictive failures were symptomatic of deduction-oriented reasoning; Miseseans who forewarned of imminent hyperinflation over-focused on their deduction that a tripling of the monetary base would produce huge inflation, while ignoring the empirical reality of Japan, where a huge post-housing-bubble expansion of the monetary base produced no such huge inflation. Reality is often far, far, far more complex than either mathematical models or verbal logic anticipates.

Like all sciences, economics should be driven by data. For if we are not driven by data than we are just daydreaming.

As Menger — the Father of Austrianism, who favoured a mixture of deductive and empirical methods — noted:

The merits of a theory always depends on the extent to which it succeeds in determining the true factors (those that correspond to real life) constituting the economic phenomena and the laws according to which the complex phenomena of political economy result from the simple elements.

Praxeology is leading Austrian economics down a dead end.

Austrianism would do well to return to its root — Menger, not Mises.

Global Japan & the Problems with a Debt Jubilee

Bill Buckler critiques the notion of a debt jubilee:

The modern “debt jubilee” is characterised as “quantitative easing for the public”. It has been boiled down to a procedure where the central bank does not create new money by buying the sovereign debt of the government. Instead, it takes an arbitrary number, writes a check for that number, and deposits it in the bank account of every individual in the nation. Debtors must use the newly-created money to pay down or pay off debt. Those who are not in debt can use it as a free windfall to spend or “invest” as they see fit.

The major selling feature of this “method” is that it provides the only sure means out of what is called the global “deleveraging trap”. This is the trap which is said to have ensnared Japan more than two decades ago and which has now snapped shut on the whole world. And what is a “deleveraging trap”? It is simply the obligation assumed when one becomes a debtor. This is the necessity to repay the debt. There are only three ways in which a debt can be honestly repaid. It can be repaid with new wealth which the proceeds of the debt made it possible to create. It can be repaid by an excess of production over consumption on the part of the debtor. Or it can be repaid from already existing savings. If none of those methods are feasible, the debt cannot be repaid. It can be defaulted upon or the means of “payment” can be created out of thin air, but that does not “solve” the problem, it merely makes it worse.

The “deleveraging trap”, so called, is merely a rebellion against the fact that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. So is the genesis of the entire GFC. Debt can always be extinguished by means of an arbitrarily created means of payment. But calling that process QE or a Debt Jubilee doesn’t (or shouldn’t) mask its essence, which is simple and straightforward debt repudiation.

A “debt jubilee” is the latest attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It is the latest pretense that we CAN print our way to prosperity, but only if we do it in the “right” way.

Well, he’s right  — it is the latest attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt. I’ve always said I would have preferred it if markets had been allowed to clear in 2008, if prices had fallen of their own accord to a sustainable level, and if all the junk and bad debt had been liquidated. Painful — but then there would have been no deleveraging trap at all.  In a truly free market debts that can’t be repaid, aren’t.

Yet that’s not the world we have; we have a world where central bankers are prepared to engage in unlimited liquidity injections, quantitative easing, and twisting — pumping new money into the financial system to keep the debt serviceable.

It’s like central banks’ efforts to stabilise markets and the financial system put the wider economy into an induced coma following 2008 in order to prop up the financial sector and the huge and exotic variety of credit assets created in the boom years. With the debt load sustained by the efforts of central bankers, the wider economy is left in a deleveraging trap paying down debt that in a free market would have been repudiated long ago.

This process not only enriches the financial sector by propping up bad debt that would otherwise be liquidated, but also transfers purchasing power from the productive sectors to the financial sector via the Cantillon effect. Meanwhile unemployment remains elevated, industrial production remains subdued, the West remains fragile to trade and resource shocks, wages and salaries are at an all-time low, and total economic activity remains depressed.

So this is a painful and unsustainable juncture — truly a sow’s ear of a situation. The deleveraging trap is a catch-22; while debt remains excessive, economic activity remains subdued, and while economic activity remains subdued, generating more production than consumption to pay down debt is extremely difficult. As we have seen in Japan — where the total debt load remains above where it was 1991 — fundamentals can remain depressed for years or even generations.

Certainly, the modern debt jubilee isn’t going to cure the culture that led to the excessive debt. Certainly, it won’t wash away the vampiristic TBTF megabanks which caused the GFC and live today on bailouts and ZIRP. Certainly, it won’t fix our broken political or financial systems where whistleblowers like Assange are locked away and fraudsters like Corzine roam free to start hedge funds. And certainly it won’t wash away the huge mountain of derivatives or shadow intermediation that interconnect the economy in a way that amplifies small shocks into greater crises.

We are, I think, passing through a strange phase of history where a myriad of ill-designed and heavily-leveraged economic planning experiments are failing.

The modern debt jubilee would at least provide some temporary relief for the debt-ridden wider economy, instead of the financial sector. Instead of pumping money solely to the megabanks — and the costs of deleveraging such a huge debt bubble means that more easing is inevitable, eventually — pumping to the public would also negate the problem of transferring purchasing power to the banks via the Cantillon effect.

It’s not going to save us from the wider problems — imperial overstretch, bailout culture, deindustrialisation, job migration, financial and political corruption, etc, etc, etc — but it would still be much better than the status quo.

The biggest problem with the modern debt jubilee, though, is that Wall Street and the financial sector are greedy and will likely fiercely resist any such efforts. And the financial sector holds lots of political leverage.

The cost of the status quo is a perpetually depressed economy and global Japan. That will be painful.

But on a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everything — even reinflated debt bubbles — drops to zero. 

Could be a long wait, though.

The Shape of the Debt Reset

I was asked recently by Max Keiser who benefits in the case of a debt reset, and when we should expect such an event to occur.

I don’t think I answered it as comprehensively as I should have. I talked a little about the fact that events leading up to such an event could be extremely messy and its impact unpredictable, and so it is hard to say who will benefit, although we can expect the powers-that-be  — and particularly the Wall Street TBTF banks — to try and leverage events for political and financial gain. And of course, all three kinds of debt reset — heavy inflation, liquidation or an orderly debt jubilee — would look very different.

Here’s the problem:

The crisis in 2008 was one fuelled by excessive total debt. As society became more and more indebted the costs of servicing debt became proportionally higher, which has made it harder for countries to grow. Instead of individuals and businesses investing their income or growing their business, a higher and higher proportion of income becomes taken up by the costs of paying down debt.

Historically in a free market system, these kinds of credit bubbles have ended in liquidation of the entire bubble and all the bad debt. However the Fed’s money printing since 2008 (much like the Bank of Japan’s money printing in the 90s) has done just enough to keep the debt load serviceable.

The worrying thing is that Japan — which experienced a very similar series of events in the 1990s — remains in a high-debt, low-growth deleveraging trap. While the USA has managed a small decrease in indebtedness since 2008, it could take a very, very long time — Steve Keen estimates up to 15 or 20 years — for the debt level to fall to a level where strong organic GDP and employment growth is possible again. In my view, it is more likely (especially considering the Japanese example) that (with continued central bank assistance) there may be no long-run deleveraging at all, and that we may have entered a zombie cycle of reinflationary QE followed by market decline and deflation, followed by more reinflationary QE, etc. 

The point that I didn’t really emphasise to Max Keiser is just how beneficial a debt reset — so long as society comes out of it in one piece — will be in the long run. As both Friedrich Hayek and Hyman Minsky saw it, with the weight of excessive debt and the costs of deleveraging either reduced or removed, long-depressed-economies would be able to grow organically again. Yet after years of stagnation, a disorderly liquidation or inflation would surely be accompanied by financial, social and political chaos. And the cost of kicking the can and remaining in a deleveraging trap — as Japan has done (and as the US is now doing) — can have serious social consequences, such as elevated long-term unemployment, a deterioration in skills, diminished innovation and decreased entrepreneurialism.

I think this underlines the importance of trying to achieve the effects of a debt reset in an orderly way before nature forces it upon us again, and before we have spent a long time stuck in the deleveraging trap with a huge debt load relative to GDP, elevated unemployment, and very low growth. The least unfair way of doing this would seem to be the modern debt jubilee advocated by Steve Keen — print money, and instead of pumping it into the financial system as per QE, use it to write down a portion (say, $6,000) of each person’s debt load, and send out cheques up to an equal amount to those who are not indebted. Unlike with quantitative easing, because everyone gets the same quantity of new money, nobody receives a disproportionate transfer of purchasing power via the Cantillon effect, as happens not only with quantitative easing but also with more traditional monetary policy operations such as interest rate cuts, which are strongly correlated with disproportionately strong growth in the financial sector and bank assets. And the inflationary impact of the new money would be shared equally by everyone — rather than screwing pensioners or savers — because everyone would receive the same amount.

This is obviously not ideal, but it is surely better than remaining in a Japanese-style deleveraging trap.

Yet while most of the economic establishment remain convinced that the real problem is one of aggregate demand, and not excessive total debt, such a prospect still remains distant. The most likely pathway continues to be one of stagnation, with central banks printing just enough money to keep the debt serviceable (and handing it to the financial sector, which will surely continue to enrich itself at the expense of everyone else). This is a painful and unsustainable status quo and the debt reset — and without an economic miracle, it will eventually arrive — will in the long run likely prove a welcome development for the vast majority of people and businesses.