Austerity & Extremism

I noted yesterday that anything the government gives you, the government can take away, and that dependency on government services — which might be withdrawn — leaves citizens weak and unfree.

One cause for the withdrawal of government that I neglected to mention (intentionally, as I hoped someone would pick it up in comments) was the matter of austerity. While the example I was bouncing my ideas off — of denying treatment to smokers or the obese — remains theoretical, the withdrawal of government services and spending as a result of austerity is very much a reality, especially in Europe.

To wit:

That more austerity produces less GDP (and very often bigger deficits due to falling tax revenues — as exemplified by Portugal) is self-evident. That society is — for lack of a better word — pissed with this outcome is the clear reality on the ground. Made dependent upon government largesse, society now finds the crutch of services, spending and government jobs withdrawn. And of course, this has political blowback.

As Tyler recently put it “nationalism is back with a bang”. But it’s not just the nationalists who are doing well, so too are the far left. Just as in the 1930s many people who have been failed by the mainstream parties are angry, and their instinctual reaction is to reject the political mainstream and look to the fringes.

Let’s look at Greece.

From the WSJ:

Two political mavericks—one a soft-spoken former Communist, the other a firebrand nationalist—are tapping into public anger at incumbents and the harsh austerity measures Greece must adopt to stay in the euro, as support for mainstream parties withers ahead of May 6 elections.

Right-wing economist Panos Kammenos and left-wing lawyer Fotis Kouvelis are poles apart ideologically. But they are currently among the most popular party leaders in Greece, and their parties have sprung from nowhere to challenge Greece’s political establishment and the austerity policies that many Greeks blame for deepening their country’s economic crisis.

Between them, Mr. Kammenos’s Independent Greeks and Mr. Kouvelis’s Democratic Left could win around 20% of the vote. Their rise is cutting deeply into support for Greece’s two mainstream parties — the conservative New Democracy party and the center-left Socialists, known as Pasok — that share power in a fractious coalition government.

Given the utter train wreck that the Greek economy is, it is shocking that these figures are not significantly higher. In the recent first round of the French Presidential election, the far left and far right polled over 30%, a post-WW2 high.

All over Europe, the unemployed and dispossessed are becoming increasingly frustrated with the status quo.

From Bloomberg:

Europe’s front against austerity has expanded in recent weeks after Spain struggled to meet European Union-imposed deficit targets, election campaigns in Greece faced anti- austerity rumblings and a revolt against extra spending cuts in the traditionally budget-conscious Netherlands propelled Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s coalition toward an early breakup.

Europe has been here before. Hitler came to power, lest we forget, on the back of a devastating period of German austerity.

As I noted in November:

After just two years of “austerity” measures, Germany’s economy had completely collapsed: unemployment doubled from 15 percent in 1930 to 30 percent in 1932, protests spread, and Bruning was finally forced out. Just two years of austerity, and Germany was willing to be ruled by anyone or anything except for the kinds of democratic politicians that administered “austerity” pain. In Germany’s 1932 elections, the Nazis and the Communists came out on top — and by early 1933, with Hitler in charge, Germany’s fledgling democracy was shut down for good.

It’s the same story; more austerity means more misery, means more political and social rumbling, means a greater support for radical political parties. We haven’t gotten anywhere near the scope or magnitude of the 1930s (yet), but the present European contraction has not dampened the technocratic fervour for deeper and faster cuts and tax hikes (which, quite obviously lead to bigger deficits, which trigger more austerity, ad infinitum). Could this at some point mean revolutions that put radicals into power? It becomes increasingly plausible.

And the initial problem in my view is excessive dependency on the state and centralisation. If the state makes up 50% of GDP, cutting spending in the interests of paying down debt will cause a severe contraction throughout the entire economy. If the state makes up 15% of GDP, less so. If the state is only a small fragment, austerity in the interests of paying down debt — even during a recession or depression — is feasible. If the state is a goliath, it will lead to a crippling economic contraction (and of course, the attendant realities of public fury and politcal extremism).

Centralised systems are always and by definition fragile to shocks and mismanagement, because the activities at the centre are transmitted throughout the entire system; poor decisions at the centre metastasise throughout the system. In a robust decentralised system, mismanagement only hurts at the local level, because there is less of a mechanism for the transmission of shocks.

The lesson sticks: anything the government gives you, the government can take away (sometimes deliberately, sometimes not). That could be healthcare, that could be security, that could be economic growth. If it’s delivered by central fiat, it’s fragile.

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Get Bullish, Muppets!

Sounds like Goldman has some equities (AAPL?) to dump on its muppet clients.

From Business Insider:

Goldman portfolio strategists Peter Oppenheimer and Matthieu Walterspiler are out with a doozy of report, basically presenting a big bullish case for stocks, relative to bonds.

From Goldman:

In 1956, George Ross Goobey, the general manager of the Imperial Tobacco pension fund in the UK made a controversial speech to the Association of Superannuation and Pension Funds (ASPF) arguing the merits of investing in equities to generate inflation linked growth for pension funds.  He became famous for allocating the entirety of the funds investments to equities, a move that is often associated with the start of the so-called ‘cult of the equity’.

Prior to this, equities were largely seen as volatile assets that achieved lower risk adjusted returns than government bonds and, consequently, required a higher yield. As more institutions warmed to the idea of shifting funds into equities, partly as a hedge against inflation, the yield on equities declined and the so-called ‘reverse yield gap’ was born. This refers to the fall in dividend yields to below government bond yields; a pattern that has continued, in most developed economies, until recently.

In his speech to the ASPF, Ross Goobey talked about the long-run historical evidence that the ex-post equity risk premium was positive and that investors ignored this at their own peril.

The long-run performance of equities was much greater than for bonds having adjusted for inflation. As he said: ‘I know that people will say: ‘Well, things are never going to be the same again’, but … it has happened again, and again. I say to you that my views are that it is still going to happen yet again even though it may not be the steep rises which we have had in the past.’ Over the 50 years that followed Mr. Ross Goobey’s pitch, his predictions proved very successful. The annualized real return to US equities (as a proxy)  between 1956 and 2000 were 7.4%.

But things have changed since the start of this century and the collapse of equity markets following the bursting of the technology bubble. In this post bubble world valuations fell from unrealistically high levels. But the decline of equity markets continued well after most equity markets returned to more ‘normal’ valuations. The onset of the credit crunch, and the deleveraging of balance sheets in many developed economies that followed this have punctured the confidence that once surrounded equities, and the pre-1960s skepticism about equity returns has returned. Dividend yields are once again above bond yields and both historical, and expected future returns have collapsed.

That’s right muppets, time to get bullish and hoover up all the equities we want to offload! This is a once in a generation opportunity to own equities!

Or not. Let’s just say that prices aren’t exactly being supported by a surge in manufacturing:

That’s right: manufacturing is just about where it was at the turn of the millennium, and unsurprisingly so is the S&P.

However there is a sliver of a superficial hint that the muppet masters may be right.

Here’s the S&P500 priced in gold:


Looks cheap next to where we were ten years ago. But in the long run I don’t really think where we were ten years ago tells us much about the fundamentals; it tells us more about Greenspan’s propensity to grease markets with shitloads of liquidity and watch stocks soar. The deeper I dig into the data, the more I tend to conclude that we really need to throw all recent historical trends out of the window.

Here’s a choice data set:


Does that look like a normal recovery? It looks like a complete paradigm shift to me. I’ve already covered my underlying reasons for believing that we live in unprecedented times. But this chart from Zero Hedge speaks as much as anything else:


So, if you have money to burn and a gullible nature go ahead and throw your money at the muppet masters. In the long run, equities and other productive assets have proven themselves superior to any other asset class, because they tend to produce a tangible return.

But right now? The real problem is that the global economic system is a mesh of interconnected fragility where one failed party can take the entire system down. Well run companies can be dragged down by badly-run counter-parties, and badly run companies can just be bailed out, totally obliterating the market mechanism. This is not an environment conducive to organic growth. It’s a cancerous environment, juiced up on (priced in) central bank interventions. It is the very definition of iatrogenesis: when “medicine” causes deeper and worse sickness.

Global Trade Fragility

Yesterday I got my new iPad.

Yeah, I bought one like millions of other suckers. Apple can take my dollars and recycle them buying treasury bills and so partially fund, at least for a short while, America’s debt.

But really, I bought one to enjoy the twilight of the miraculous system of global trade. An iPad is the cumulative culmination of millions of hours of work, as well as resources and manufacturing processes across the globe. It incorporates tellurium, indium, cobalt, gallium, and manganese mined in Africa. Neodymium mined in China. Plastics forged out of Saudi Crude. Aluminium mined in Brazil. Memory manufactured in Korea, semiconductors forged in Germany, glass made in the United States. And gallons and gallons of oil to ship all the resources and components around the world, ’til they are finally assembled in China, and shipped once again around the world to the consumer. And of course, that manufacturing process stands upon the shoulders of centuries of scientific research, and years of product development, testing, and marketing. It is a huge mesh of processes.

The iPad is an extreme example of the miracle of civilisation. There are less extreme ones. Take, for example, the hamburger. Hamburgers did not exist until the age of regional trade, and refrigeration. The ingredients in a hamburger were not in season at the same time. Cows were not slaughtered at the time when lettuce was harvested. Lettuce was not harvested at the same time tomatoes or onions were typically harvested. For thousands of years previous to this we ate seasonal concoctions, like turkey, yams and cranberries at thanksgiving, as well as smoked and cured foods all year round. In modernity, we have been able to use modern technology to bring about any combination of produce: from greenhouses, to air freighting, to refrigeration, and so on.

I look at the global trade system — which we here in the West rely upon for goods, resources, consumption, etc — and I see something akin to the problem with the financial system in 2006. We abandoned robust and aged local systems, local knowledge, artisanship, etc, in favour of a huge interconnected mesh of trade where all counter-parties are interdependent, and where one failure can break the entire system.

This is a beautiful age. We have truly allowed our imaginations to run wild.

But is it sustainable?

Paul Krugman notes:

The world economy was, to an extent never seen before, truly global. It was linked together by new technologies that made it possible to ship products cheaply from one side of the globe to the other, to communicate virtually instantaneously over huge distances. But it was also, more importantly, linked together by the almost universal, if sometimes grudging, acceptance of a common economic ideology: the belief that free markets, with secure property rights, were the only way to achieve economic progress; and in particular that a nation hoping to make its way forward needed to welcome foreign trade and foreign investors with open arms. And this shared ideology did indeed lead to unprecedented transfers of Western capital and technology to emerging economies – transfers facilitated by the fact that everyone knew that any country that strayed from the path would be punished by financial crisis, and would soon be obliged to accept the harsh austerity prescribed by teams of Western technocrats.

The year, of course, was 1913.

So a truly global trade system has come crashing down before, and we bounced back pretty well from that. But it was a painful time. That particular collapse seems to have arisen from the complex and internecine system of warfare pacts binding great powers to the whims of smaller ones. When small powers went to war, the great powers were dragged in alongside. It was a hyper-fragile system where one small breakdown could trigger a much larger one, just like the problem that led to the present system of financial derivatives. If one counter-party fails, the whole system can be brought down.

Great powers are once again aligning themselves around smaller allies. China and Pakistan and perhaps Russia seem willing to back Iran, while the United States is reluctantly backing Israel.

But there is a new factor at play today: the service economy. While nations in 1913 were freely trading, and while the concept of comparative was widely known, no nation took interdependence to quite the extreme that so many nations have today. And many nations have taken this idea so far that without imported goods and energy, their internal economies might completely collapse, or at very best struggle with the adjustment from supranational back to local.

Here’s the situation in the United States:


And for the United States, this hasn’t been a two-way street. America is importing a lot more than she is exporting. In other words, America is now dependent on international trade.

Here’s the United States’ current account balance as a percentage of GDP, (in other words exports – imports as a percentage of GDP):

Simply international trade has become too big to fail.

The problem is, we know from history that the system of international trade can fail, and as we move deeper into the ’10s, there are a number of obvious threats emerging. The boneheaded answer from certain tenured professors and high-flying MBAs might be that the incentives to keeping the international trade system wide open (and cheap) are enough to force countries to co-operate. Tell that to Binyamin Netanyahu, who seems increasingly fixated on striking Iran, and forcing Iran to retaliate with a closure of the Strait of Hormuz. Tell that to Mitt Romney who seems ever-more intent on starting a trade war with China. Tell that to Barack Obama who — instead of pushing for the United States to mine its own deposits of rare earth minerals has run squealing to the WTO complaining of Chinese price manipulation.

This post is not a prediction. I am not necessarily predicting a breakdown in the global trade system, although there are surely many obvious dangers as well as hidden black swans. I am merely forecasting that the world is extremely fragile to one, and that the consequences to certain countries with a negative current account balance could be, shall we say, painful.

Governments are advised to go out of their way to make sure that back-up systems in terms of medium-to-long-term food supply, fuel supply and medicine supply are in place so that the consequences of a breakdown in the system of global trade can be minimised.

This is an example of a process that the philosopher Nassim Taleb has called robustification.

Unfortunately, governments seem very busy doing other things, which are far less relevant to national security.

Nations ignore figures like Taleb — surely the Nietzsche of our homogenised and manufactured age — at their peril.