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.

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.

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.

Why I Still Fear Inflation

Paul Krugman wonders why others worry about inflation when he sees no evidence of inflationary trends:

Joe Wiesenthal makes the well-known point that aside from certain euro area countries, yields on sovereign debt have plunged since 2007; investors are rushing to buy sovereign debt, not fleeing it. I was a bit surprised by his description of this insight as being non-”mainstream”; I guess it depends on your definition of mainstream. But surely the notion that what we have is largely a process of private-sector deleveraging, with government deficits the consequence of this process, and interest rates low because we have an excess of desired saving, is pretty widespread (and backed by a lot of empirical evidence).

And there’s also a lot of discussion, which I’m ambivalent about, concerning the supposed shortage of safe assets; this is coming from bank research departments as well as academics, it’s a frequent topic on FT Alphaville, and so on. So Joe didn’t seem to me to be saying anything radical.

But those comments! It’s not just that the commenters disagree; they seem to regard Joe as some kind of space alien (or, for those who had the misfortune to see me on Squawk Box, a unicorn); they consider it just crazy and laughable to suggest that we aren’t facing an immense crisis of public deficits with Zimbabwe-style inflation just around the corner.

Krugman, of course, thinks it crazy and laughable that in the face of years of decreasing interest rates that anyone would believe that inflation could still be a menace. In fact, Krugman has made the point multiple times that more inflation would be a good thing, by decreasing the value of debt and thus allowing the private sector to deleverage a little quicker.

I remain convinced — even having watched Peter Schiff and Gonzalo Lira make incorrect inflationary projections — that there is exists the potential of significant inflationary problems in the medium and long term. Indeed, I believe elevated inflation is one of three roads out of where we are right now — the deleveraging trap.

In my worldview, this depression — although a multi-dimensional thing — has one cause above all others: too much total debt. Debt-as-a-percentage of GDP has grown significantly faster than productivity:

The deleveraging trap begins with the boom years: credit is created above and beyond the economy’s productive capacity. Incomes rise and prices rise above the rate of underlying productivity. And as the total debt level increases, more and more income that was once used for investment and consumption goes toward paying down debt and interest. This means that inflated asset prices become less and less sustainable, making the economy more and more susceptible to a downturn — wherein asset prices deflate, and the value of debt (relative to income) increases further. Under a non-interventionist regime, once the downturn occurs, this would result in credit freeze, mass default and liquidation, as occurred in 1907.

However, under an interventionist regime — like the modern Federal Reserve, or the Bank of Japan — the central bank steps in to lower rates and print money to support asset prices and bail out failed companies. This prevents the credit freeze, mass default, drastic deflation and liquidation. Unfortunately, it also sustains the debt load — following 2008, total debt remains over 350% of GDP. The easy money leads to a short cycle of expansion and growth, but the continued existence of the debt load means that consumers and businesses will still have to set aside a large part of their incomes to pay down debt. This means that any expansion will be short lived, and once the easy money begins to dry up, asset prices will again begin to deflate. The downward pressure on prices, spending and investment from the excessive debt load is huge, and requires sustained and significant central bank intervention to support asset prices and credit availability. The economy is put on life-support. Debt-as-a percentage of GDP may gradually fall (although in the Japanese example, this has not been the case) but progress is slow, and the debt load remains unsustainable.

A fundamental mistake is identifying the problem as one of aggregate demand, and not debt. Lowered aggregate demand is a symptom of the deleveraging trap caused by excessive debt and unsustainable asset prices. The Fed — and advocates of greater Fed interventionism to support aggregate demand, like Krugman — are mostly advocating the treatment of symptoms, not causes. And the treatment in this case may make the underlying causes worse — quantitative easing and low-interest rates are debt-additive policies; while supporting assets prices and GDP, they encourage the addition of debt. 

There are three routes out of the deleveraging trap; liquidation (destroying the debt via mass default), debt forgiveness (destroying the debt via systematically cancelling it), and inflating the debt away. Liquidation in a managed economy with a central bank is politically impossible. Debt forgiveness is politically difficult, although perhaps the most realistic effective bet. And inflating the debt away at a moderate rate of inflation would seem to be a slow and laborious process — the widely-advocated suggestion of a 4% inflation target would only eat slowly (if at all) into the 350%+ total debt-as-a-percentage-of-GDP load.

All three exit routes seem blocked. So the reality that we are staring at — and have been staring at for the last four years — has been remaining in the deleveraging trap.

So why in a deflationary environment like the deleveraging trap would I fear high inflation? Surely this is an absurd and unfounded fear?

Well,  Japan shows that nations can remain stuck in a deleveraging trap for a long, long time — although Japan has had to take to increasingly authoritarian measures such as mandating the purchase of treasury debt to keep rates low and so to keep the debt rolling. But eventually nations stuck in a deleveraging trap will have to take one of the routes out. While central banks refuse to consider the possibility of a debt jubilee, and refuse to consider the possibility of allowing markets to liquidate, the only route out remains inflation. 

Yet the big inflation that would be required to eject the United States from the deleveraging trap makes creditors — the sovereign states from which the US imports huge quantities of resources, energy, components, and finished goods — increasingly jittery.

According to Xinhua:

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.

And it’s not like America’s Eurasian creditors are doing nothing about this. As I wrote earlier this month:

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.

The Fed is caught between a rock and a hard place. If they inflate, they risk the danger of initiating a damaging and deleterious trade war with creditors who do not want to take an inflationary haircut. If they don’t inflate, they remain stuck in a deleveraging trap resulting in weak fundamentals, and large increases in government debt, also rattling creditors. 

The likeliest route from here remains that the Fed will continue to baffle the Krugmanites by pursuing relatively restrained inflationism (i.e. Operation Twist, restrained QE, no NGDP targeting, no debt jubilee, etc) to keep the economy ticking along while minimising creditor irritation. The problem with this is that the economy remains caught in the deleveraging trap. And while the economy is depressed tax revenues remain depressed, meaning that deficits will grow, further irritating creditors (who unlike bond-flipping hedge funds must eat the very low yields instead of passing off treasuries to a greater fool for a profit) who may pursue trade war and currency war strategies and gradually (or suddenly) desert US treasuries and dollars.

Geopolitical tension would spike commodity prices. And as more dollars end up back in the United States (there are currently $5+ trillion floating around Asia), there will be more inflation still. The reduced global demand for dollar-denominated assets would put pressure on the Fed to print to buy more treasuries.

Amusingly, this kind of scenario was predicted in 2003 by Krugman himself!:

The crisis won’t come immediately. For a few years, America will still be able to borrow freely, simply because lenders assume that things will somehow work out.

But at a certain point we’ll have a Wile E. Coyote moment. For those not familiar with the Road Runner cartoons, Mr. Coyote had a habit of running off cliffs and taking several steps on thin air before noticing that there was nothing underneath his feet. Only then would he plunge.

What will that plunge look like? It will certainly involve a sharp fall in the dollar and a sharp rise in interest rates. In the worst-case scenario, the government’s access to borrowing will be cut off, creating a cash crisis that throws the nation into chaos.

This is not a Zimbabwe-style scenario, but it is a potentially unpleasant one involving a sharp depreciation of the dollar, and a significant change in the shape of the American economy (and geopolitical reality). It includes the risk of costly geopolitical escalation, including proxy war or war.

However, American primary and secondary industries would look significantly more competitive, and significant inflation — while penalising savers — would cut down the debt. Such a crisis would be painful and scary, but — so long as there is no escalation — largely beneficial.

The Deleveraging Trap

Hayekians and Minskians agree on one key thing: an increase in debt beyond the underlying productive economy is unsustainable.

In my view, the key figures in defining this are total debt as a percentage of GDP, and its relationship with industrial production. Debt as a percentage of GDP tracks how much debt there is relative to one measure of economic activity, GDP. Yet GDP is a very limited tool of measurement; all GDP really tracks is the circulation of money. To get a clearer sense of the true relationship with underlying productivity, it is useful to compare the ratio of debt-to-GDP with the level of industrial production.

Up ’til the ’70s, debt-to-GDP grew more slowly than industrial production. That is healthy and sustainable. While the total market debt may grow in tandem with GDP, and with industrial production — indeed, this can be the case even under a gold exchange standard (as the gold supply increases) — there is no sensible reason for the ratio of debt-to-GDP to grow faster than industrial production. Indeed, this is symptomatic of just one thing — consumption without income, enjoyment without effort, living beyond the means of productivity. This is just an unsustainable bubble.

As the ’90s turned to the ’00s and the United States gains in industrial production ceased to accumulate, while GDP and most concerningly (and hilariously) while the debt-to-GDP ratio continued to increase. This was classical bubble behaviour, and the end came very poetically; the recession and the industrial production collapse hit just as growth in the debt to GDP ratio (as indexed against 1953 levels) finally surpassed growth in industrial production. Indeed, I hypothesise that a very strong indicator of a Minsky moment — when excessive indebtedness forces systemic deleveraging, leading to price falls, leading to widespread economic contraction — is the point when long-term growth in the debt-to-GDP ratio exceeds long-term growth in industrial output.

The debt-to-GDP ratio is gradually falling, yet it is still at a far higher level than the historical average, and it is still proportionately higher than industrial output. And at the same time, consumers are re-leveraging, and government debt is soaring. And industrial production is barely above where it it was a decade ago, and far below its pre-2000 trend line. We have barely started, and already this has been a slow and grinding deleveraging; rather than the quick and brutal liquidation like that seen in 1907 where the banking system was effectively forced into bailing itself out, the stimulationist policies of low rates, quantitative easing and fiscal stimulus have kept in business zombie companies and institutions carrying absurd debt loads. Like Japan who experienced a similar debt-driven bubble in the late ’80s and early ’90s, we in the West appear to have embarked on a low-growth, high-unemployment period of deleveraging; and like Japan, we appear to be simply transferring the bulk of the debt load from the private sector to the public, without making any real impact in the total debt level, or any serious reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio. 

Cutting spending — for both the private sector and public sector — is problematic. My spending is your income; as spending falls, income falls, which leads to more consumers, producers and governments attempting to deleverage. This leads to more monetary easing, simply to keep the zombie system stable, and keep the zombie debt serviceable. More consumers and producers can take on debt, at least for a time, but the high residual debt level makes any great expansion of productivity or growth challenging, as consumers and producers remain focussed on paying down the pre-existing debt load. It is a vicious cycle.

Quantitative easing does not even tackle the main challenge: reducing the debt load. In fact, it is targeted at precisely the opposite — increasing the debt load, by encouraging lendingBut lending into a society that is already heavily indebted leads to no great uptick in productivity, because consumers and producers are already over-indebted to begin with, so few can afford new debt. And banks — flush with cash — have no real incentive to lend; the less they lend, the more deflationary conditions are prone to become, increasing the purchasing power of their excess reserves (on which the central bank already pays interest). The outcome is greater economic stagnation, ’til the next round of monetary easing which leads to a brief uptick, and then further stagnation.

To break out of the deleveraging trap, the debt load needs to be drastically reduced. In my mind there are three potential pathways there, each with various drawbacks and advantages:

  1. Liquidation; when a debt-driven crash happens, the central bank stands back and lets it happen, as happened in 1907. Prices will drastically fall, many companies and banks and debt will be liquidated, until the point at which prices have fallen to a sustainable level. But we may have missed the boat — the crash already happened, the system has already been bailed out, and the financial system today has already become zombified. And under a system where the central bank determines the availability of money and the level of interest rates this approach has in the past led to excessive central-bank-enforced liquidation, from which the economy may struggle to recover, as happened after 1929.
  2. (Hyper)inflation; the central bank prints money and injects it into the economy via the banking system. Prices rise, wages rise, and the nominal debt remains the same, thus reducing the debt burden. While most economists who advocate such an approach advocate a slightly elevated level of inflation, the higher the rate of inflation, the more the residual debt load will be devalued; under a Weimar-style regime, mortgages could be repaid in a week. Unfortunately inflation is nonuniform; whoever gets the money first (i.e. banks) can buy up assets on the cheap, and pass the cost of the inflation down the chain of transactions. As Keynes himself noted: “By a continuing process of inflation, governments can confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” Inflation discourages savings and capital formation, which are necessary for new growth. And most significantly — as the Fed’s experiment with QE shows — inflation unless it is very severe will not even necessarily have much bearing on reducing the debt-to-GDP load. The results of a severe (hyper)inflation could be very chaotic and dangerous.
  3. Debt Jubilee; the central bank prints money, and injects it into the economy via the citizens, with the explicit condition that they use it to clear their debts. This will have the desirable effect of directly reducing debt levels, and lifting over-indebted consumers and producers out of the deleveraging trap. Additionally, the inflation would be uniform and so not to the advantage of the banks or the financial elite. However introducing a large quantity of money to the system — even directly as a medium for debt-cancellation — does itself carry a high inflationary potential.

Certainly, the current status quo of high unemployment, low growth, sustained over-indebtedness and zombie banks and corporations surviving on government handouts is not sustainable in the long run. We shall see which route out of the deleveraging trap we take. Liquidationism seems unlikely, as central banks are afraid of the concept. Inflation (or its unintentional corollary, currency collapse) seems risky and dangerous. A debt jubilee would at least address the real problem of excessive debt, although it is in modern times uncharted territory, and would surely face much political opposition.

The Pseudoscience of Economics

Modern economics is obsessed with modelling. An overwhelming majority of academic papers on the subject work like so: they take data, and use data to construct formal mathematical models of economic processes. Models mostly describe a situation, and describe how that situation would be changed by a given set of events; a very simple example is that as the supply of a good diminishes, its price will increase. Another is that deficit spending increases the national income. A mathematical model is a predictive tool created to demonstrate the outcome of events in a massively simplified alternate universe.

As someone who rather enjoys voyages of the imagination, the use of mathematical models in economics is intriguing. The pretension that through using formal mathematical techniques and process  we can not only accurately understand, but accurately predict the result of changes in the economy is highly seductive. After all,we can accurately predict the future, right?

Wrong. The wonderful and terrible and confounding thing about our world is that it is a deeply unpredictable place, at least in the economic sphere where each number (for instance “aggregate demand” or “aggregate supply”) in an equation may loosely refer to millions of huge, complex and dynamic events. When you’re using huge simplifications to describe reality, those simplifications may miss the important details, and your projections may go askew.

Not all modelling is equal. Newton’s model of gravitation (since superseded by Einstein’s relativity) makes relatively accurate predictions about how gravitation works, and what would happen to an object dropped 500 metres above the Earth. NASA used Newton’s equations to fly to the Moon. Of course, even in physics there are occasionally divergences and oddities (which is why there are quite often unrepeatable or anomalous experimental results, for instance the recent experiment that seemed to show neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light). So economics — with its fixation on creating models of situations, and using these models to attempt to predict the future, mimics physics, chemistry and biology, where data is collected, and used to produce theories of physical processes which allow a modestly accurate representation of the future.

The key qualitative difference, though, is that mathematical economic theories don’t accurately predict the future. Ben Bernanke — the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and one of the most-cited academic economists in the world told the world that subprime housing was contained. That is the economic equivalent of Stephen Hawking telling the world that a meteorite is going to miss the Earth, when it is really going to hit. Physicists can very accurately model the trajectories of rocks in space. But economists cannot accurately model the trajectories of prices, employment and interest rates down on the rocky ground.

The thing that I believe modern economists are most useful for is pointing out the glaring flaws in everyone else’s theories. Steve Keen has made a public name for himself by publishing a book entitled Debunking Economics, in which he explains the glaring and various flaws in modern economic modelling (DSGE, New Classical, etc).

Economics is a complex and multi-faceted subjects. Economists must be in some measure, philosophers, historians, linguists, mathematicians, statisticians, political scientists, sociologists and psychologists, and many other things. The trouble is that at some stage in the last century the multi-faceted multi-dimensional economics (like that of Xenophon) was hijacked by mathematicians who tried to turn this huge and delicate subject into an equation. Yet economics — and economic decisions, from the macro to the micro level — is a human subject. It is subtle and psychological and sporadic. A human subject requires human language, human emotion, human intuition.

The grand theoretical-mathematical approach to economics is fundamentally flawed. Trying to smudge the human reality of economics and politics into cold mathematical shackles is degenerative.

So what to do if you want to understand the economy?

Follow the data, consider the history (similarities and differences between the past and the present) and explain your conclusions simply, as you would to a child. Consider philosophical definitions: what is money? What is demand? What is supply? What is value? How does demand affect supply? What are the global patterns of trade? Why have they emerged this way and not an alternative way? Consider possibilities. Admit the limitations of your knowledge and explore the boundaries. Stop forcing the construction of absolutes, grand frameworks, grand theories. No theory will ever be robust to everything nature will throw at it, but simple microeconomic heuristics (opportunity cost, cost-benefit analysis) combined with data-focussed historical analysis may be more robust than cold, dead mathematics.

As Heraclitus noted:

No man ever steps in the same river twice

No two situations are identical. And in this universe even tiny differences can have huge effects on the outcome of a situation. This is the butterfly effect, a term coined by Edward Lorenz, and derived from the theoretical example of a hurricane’s formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.

The pseudo-scientific school of mathematical economics hungers and craves for a perfect world, where each river is the same, where there is no butterfly effect, where human preferences are expressed in equation form, where there is no subtlety or ambiguity or uncertainty.

It is a dreamworld constructed by and for people with Asperger’s Syndrome.