Can The Fed Taper?

The Taper Tapir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why We Should Build The Death Star

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In January 2012, Zero Hedge made a sarcastic proposal to boost US GDP by $852 quadrillion — building the Death Star, a fictional moon-sized space station from the Star Wars film series:

Building a massive space weapon is all very well, but you have to find the materials to build it with. It’s easy to say that “sure, the Death Star would be expensive” but is there actually enough iron in the Earth to make the first Death Star? Centives decided to find out.

We began by loo king at how big the Death Star is. The first one is reported to be 140km in diameter and it sure looks like it’s made of steel. But how much steel? We decided to model the Death Star as having a similar density in steel as a modern warship. After all, they’re both essentially floating weapons platforms so that seems reasonable.

Scaling up to the Death Star, this is about 1.08×1015 tonnes of steel. 1 with fifteen zeros.

Which seems like a colossal mass but we’ve calculated that from the iron in the earth, you could make just over 2 billion Death Stars. You see the Earth’s crust may have a limited amount of iron, but the core is mostly our favourite metal and is both very big and very dense, and it’s from here that most of our death-star iron would come.

But, before you go off to start building your apocalyptic weapon, do bear in mind two things. Firstly, the two billion death stars is mostly from the Earth’s core which we would all really rather you didn’t remove. And secondly, at today’s rate of steel production (1.3 billion tonnes annually), it would take 833,315 years to produce enough steel to begin work. So once someone notices what you’re up to, you have to fend them off for 800 millennia before you have a chance to fight back. In context, it takes under an hour to get the steel for HMS Illustrious.

Oh, and the cost of the steel alone? At 2012 prices, about $852,000,000,000,000,000. Or roughly 13,000 times the world’s GDP.

The point was one against fiscal stimulus — while it may be possible to boost GDP by any amount through government spending, there is no guarantee whatever that that government spending will do anything productive. After all the toil and effort of building a Death Star what is an economy left with? On the surface of things, a giant metallic orb in space and very little else. In Misesian terms, this would be seen as a massive misallocation of capital, resources, labour and technology, building something that nobody in the market demanded and which could be ostensibly used to oppress people (“do what we say or we’ll fire our laser cannon at you!”).

Yet, I am going to try to defend it. I think that building the Death Star, or something similar is a very good idea and would have massive beneficial economic effects for employment, output, science, technology and so forth. And furthermore, I think it is possible in the very, very long run for a government to build the Death Star or something similar of a smaller scale without misallocating any capital, labour, technology or resources whatever.

First, I think that right now humanity is sitting in dangerous territory. There are over seven billion of us, yet we are all concentrated on one ecosystem — the Earth, with one tiny totally-dependent off-planet colony (the International Space Station) that houses less than ten people at a time. Simply, in our current predicament we are incredibly exposed. A single mass viral pandemic, asteroid strike or other cataclysm could completely wipe our species out. With humanity spread throughout the solar system (and preferably, the galaxy and the universe) our species is far less fragile to random extinction events. The Death Star itself — a giant space weapon — would be a safeguard against a particular kind of cataclysmic risk, that of hostile alien attack. If there are other advanced lifeforms populating our universe, they may see life on Earth and especially humans as an existential threat. Having a large, powerful weapon like a Death Star could be a strong safeguard against our own destruction by other species.

Zero Hedge’s mock proposal is actually quite thin, only taking into account the resource cost of the steel, and not the cost of getting the steel into space, building a moon-sized steel satellite in space, presumably including the development of laser cannon technology, some kind of propulsion system, the feeding and housing of a large permanent crew including oxygen and water recycling facilities, hydroponics and artificial food technologies, a transport system to get people and things between the Earth and the Death Star, etc. Nor does it take into account the cost of the labour in employing scientists and technologists to develop and prototype the technologies, employing engineers to deploy the technology, and employing labourers or automated robots to produce components and parts and to assemble the finished article. Simply, the cost would far exceed even what Zero Hedge projects, possibly by many times over.

So why the hell would I think that committing to spend vastly more than global GDP on a single project that nobody in the market is demanding is a good idea? Have I completely lost my mind, and any concept of sound economics that I once had? Well, on a potentially infinite timeline, such a huge figure (let’s say the necessary figure is ten times what Zero Hedge estimated, which could still be rather low in my honest opinion) pales into insignificance as we go further along the timeline. Building the Death Star is not currently a short term project that could be done to boost GDP in a single year to make up an output gap, deploy idle capital or reduce unemployment. In fact even if we committed to building the Death Star today, it is highly unlikely that we would actually even begin work on it in the next 100 or even 200 years. There would be vast technological, social and organisational challenges ahead before we could even begin to think seriously about commencing production. What we would begin work on are challenges far more modest and far closer to our present capabilities — sending a human to Mars, setting up a permanent base on the moon, setting up a permanent base on Mars, and developing technologies for those purposes — specifically multi-use lifters, a space elevator, improved solar energy collection and storage, improved nuclear batteries, improved 3-D printing technologies, higher energy particle accelerators, space mining technologies, robots, machine learning, computing, life support systems and things as mundane as increased science and science education spending.

Those kinds of tasks are much, much, much lower cost than actually committing to building the Death Star in one go, and can relatively easily be funded from presently idle resources (thus not misallocating any resources) as measured by the output gap which currently sits at around $856 billion (5.8% of potential GDP). The United States (alongside like-minded countries with similarly large output gaps) could fund a manned mission to Mars ($6 billion), build a new high energy particle accelerator ($12 billion), give ten-thousand million-dollar basic research grants ($10 billion), build a base on the Moon ($35 billion) and invest $20 billion more in science education for less than 10% of the current output gap. Better still, NASA and space-related spending historically has a relatively high multiplier of at least $2 (and possibly as much as $14 for certain projects, as well as a multiplier of 2.8 jobs for every job directly created) of extra economic activity generated per dollar spent. Given that space-spending yields new technologies like global positioning systems, satellite broadcasting, 3-D printers and memory foam that lead to new products, this is unsurprising. It also means that such spending is likely to get the economy back to full employment more quickly. Once this round of projects is completed, we will have a better idea of where we need to go technologically to be able to build a Death Star. The next time the economy has a negative output gap and unemployment, a new series of large-scale projects can commence. Eventually, with the growth of technology, automation and knowledge, a project on the scale of the Death Star may become not only economically viable but a valuable contribution to human capacity.

Many free market purists will wonder what the point of all of this is. Didn’t the Soviet economy collapse under the weight of huge misallocation of capital to large-scale grandiose projects that nobody wanted? What about all the projects that could have been undertaken by the free market in the absence of such a grandiose project?  My answer to this is twofold — first of all, I am only proposing deploying idle resources that the market has chosen to allow to sit idle and unproductive for a long time. Second, there are some projects that are actually important but which are not currently viable in the market. Space technology is probably the most obvious example. While I greatly admire the new generation of space entrepreneurs, and while I concede that long-term space colonisation will be undertaken be private individuals and groups (in the manner of the Pilgrim Fathers who colonised America — people seeking the ability to live by their own rules, instead of those of established Earth-based jurisdictions) the private space industry is still a long way behind where states were forty or fifty years ago. The Apollo program that put human beings on the Moon has still not been matched by private enterprise.

Ultimately, the Death Star itself is far beyond current human capacities, and far beyond the capacity of the idle capital, labour and resources that we have the option of using up through public initiatives. This I must concede. But, as a super-long-term goal, the capacity to build such things is what our civilisation ought to aspire to. And getting to such super-long-term objectives requires investment and investigation today.

Can Tightening Fight the Collateral Shortage?

Tyler Durden of Zero Hedge claims that any taper in QE will be a response to the collateral shortage — the fact that quantitative easing has stripped an important part of the market’s collateral base for rehypothecation out of the market. With less collateral in the market, there is less of a base for credit creation. The implication here is that quantitative easing is tightening rather than easing credit conditions. The evidence? Breakdown in the Treasuries market resulting in soaring fails-to-deliver and fails-to-receive:

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Tyler notes:

Simply put, the main reason the Fed is tapering has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with the TBAC presentation (rehypothecation and collateral shortages) and that the US is now running smaller deficits!!!

I don’t disagree with this. The ultra-low rate environment (that is still an ultra-low rate environment in spite of the small spike in Treasuries since murmurs of the taper began) on everything from Treasuries to junk bonds is symptomatic of a collateral shortage. Quantitative easing may ease the base money supply (as an anti-deflationary response to the ongoing deflation of the shadow money supply since 2008), but it tightens the supply of collateral.

The evidence on this is clear — expanding government deficits post-2008 did not bridge the gap in securities issuance that the financial crisis and central bank interventions created:

assets

The obvious point, at least to me, is that it seems easier and certainly less Rube Goldberg-esque to fight the collateral shortage by running bigger Federal deficits until private market securities issuance can take its place. Unfortunately quantitative easing itself is something of a Rube Goldberg machine with an extremely convoluted transmission mechanism, and fiscal policy is not part of the Fed’s mandate.

But I am not sure that tightening can fight the collateral shortage at all. The money supply is still shrunken from the pre-crisis peak (much less the pre-crisis trend) even after all the quantitative easing. Yes, many have talked of the Federal Reserve inflating the money supply, but the broadest measures of the money supply are smaller than they were before the quantitative easing even started. This deflation is starting to show up in price trends, with core PCE falling below 1% — its lowest level in history. Simply, without the meagre inflation of the money supply that quantitative easing is providing, steep deflation seems highly likely. I don’t think the Fed can stop.

Securitisation and Risk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Real Testosterone Junkies

I especially enjoy reading things that I disagree with, and that challenge my own beliefs. Strong ideas are made stronger, and weak ideas dissolve in the spotlight of scrutiny. People who are unhappy to read criticisms of their own ideas are opening the floodgates to ignorance and dogmatism. Yet sometimes my own open-minded contrarianism leads me to something unbelievably shitty.

According to Noah Smith:

Zero Hedge is a financial news website. The writers all write under the pseudonym of “Tyler Durden”, Brad Pitt’s character from Fight Club. Each post comes with a little black and white icon of Brad Pitt’s head. On Zero Hedge you can read news, rumors, facts, figures, off-the-cuff analysis, and political screeds (usually anti-Obama, anti-government, and pro-hard money). On the sidebars, you can click on ads for online brokerages, gold collectibles, and The Economist.

The site is a big fat hoax. And if you read it for anything other than amusement, you’re almost certainly a big fat sucker.

That’s a bold claim! Why do I make this claim? Well, in one sense, all financial news is a hoax. Financial news, by definition, is public information — if you’ve read it, you can bet that thousands of other people have too. That means that if the market is anywhere close to being efficient, any information in any article you read will already have been incorporated into the price of financial assets. Reading or watching public information should not, in theory, give you any “alpha”.

If the writers of Zero Hedge really knew some information that could allow them to beat the market,why in God’s name would they tell it to you? If they had half a brain, they’d just keep the info to themselves, trade on it, and make a profit! Maybe then, after they had made their profit, they’d release the news to the public (and collect ad revenue), but by then the news would be worthless. Financial news sites, you should realize, are not in the business of giving you insider tips out of the goodness of their hearts.

As you might expect, it’s not hard to look back at Zero Hedge’s predictions and see that a large number of them are junk. For example, here’s a bunch of posts from 2009 predicting imminent hyperinflation. Hope you didn’t make any trades based on that bit of wisdom!

So how does Zero Hedge get away with this hoax? Barber & Odean (2001) give a big hint. Tyler Durden, whose name and image grace every Zero Hedge Post, is a symbol of masculinity. More specifically, he is a nerd’s imagined vision of what a really masculine nerd would be like. In Fight Club, Durden says: “All the ways you wish you could be, that’s me. I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”

In other words, you are a young smart (i.e. nerdy) guy sitting at your computer with rivers of testosterone coursing through your veins. And now here comes Tyler Durden, your generation’s Platonic ideal of pure masculinity, telling you that Real Men Take Risks. At the top of the site, there is a Tyler Durden quote: “On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” In other words, gamble. Bet that you’re the smart guy and not the sucker. Because hey, you’re going to die anyway, so there’s no use hedging your bets. Zero hedge, right?

I wouldn’t be surprised if “Tyler Durden” were actually a bunch of behavioral finance grad students, snickering behind their hands at everyone who takes their site seriously.

This is what passes for financial analysis today? Let’s ignore the obvious fact that Zero Hedge has never pretended to offer investment advice. We should take all financial news with a large grain of salt (anyone who has read the latest uber-bailout rumours out of Europe should know that). Anyone who bases their trading activity on blindly following the pronouncements of one site, or one trader deserves to lose their coat. Blindly following a messiah-figure or (even worse) the herd is a surefire recipe for disaster.

But Smith has got his facts wrong. While there has been no hyperinflation, those who traded their hunch and bought gold — pretty much the archetypal Zero Hedge trade — have not done badly. Here’s the price of gold — contrasted against the S&P500 — since Zero Hedge was born in January 2009:

Drawing a meaty profit and significantly outperforming the S&P500 is hardly what you’d expect from a “big fat hoax”. Certainly, you’d have made a loss, not a meaty profit, from betting with Bernanke’s pronouncement that subprime was “contained”.

Smith is spinning loose psychoanalysis spiced with conspiracy theories and schoolboy misunderstandings in order to generate pageviews. He obviously hasn’t read Zero Hedge enough to realise that “on a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” reflects the reality that calamities and resets happen, and that — given the level of mess, corruption and perversity in finance today — a systemic reset could be just around the corner. And the last thing i would want to do in the face of a systemic reset — or any kind of large-scale financial calamity (a la 2008) — is gamble. The smart thing is to hunker down and robustify, by minimising exposures to all forms of connective risk and financial fragility . Zero Hedge is not about having no hedges and gambling as recklessly as possible; it is about having hedges against the system going to zero. 

Ironically, Smith is accusing entirely the wrong segment of the financial world of wild recklessness. While there are surely many day traders who lose their coats on the pronouncements of analysts (especially the Crameresque stock-picker — something which Zero Hedge has never done), the real danger is surely the testosterone-Red Bull-and-cocaine-fuelled TBTF trader or 21-year old PhD-wielding quant working for a bailed-out bank with an implicit taxpayer backstop on zero-interest government money. The level of moral and financial hazard is simply staggering, and of course this has bred much reckless behaviour; from the evident criminality of manipulating LIBOR, to Corzine’s destruction of MF Global (and theft of customer funds),  to the absurd market-cornering London Whale’s speculation using customer deposits, to the off-balance-sheet activities of Kweku Adoboli, to Goldman’s quote stuffing. And — I am sure, much much more — these are just some of the scams and scandals that are known; there is much more darkness beneath. Zero Hedge has been a powerful journalistic force and clearinghouse in bringing the light-of-day onto these corruptions and criminalities, something that Smith seems entirely ignorant of.

No day trader or goldbug stacking gold eagles has ever blown up the nation’s pension fund, but the protected TBTF banks funded by earth-shattering leverage and taxpayer guarantees have again and again endangered retirement funds, and lost their clients’ fortunes.

It is not unusual on Wall Street to see massively leveraged double or nothing Martingale trading strategies where traders take a position and push leverage and counter-leverage to create a favourable outcome. In theory — with unlimited funds — such an approach always wins, but in reality this approach usually ends in traders running out of counter-parties or running out of leverage, and ending up with a massive loss. It’s picking up nickels in front of a steamroller, and is of course made much easier thanks to the new and manipulable world of high-frequency trading.

It’s ironic (and jaw-dropping) that Smith castigates Zero Hedge as the home of testosterone junkie traders when in fact the vast majority of Zero Hedge writers and readers are angling for better regulation of high-frequency trading to prevent market manipulation, an end to nickels-in-front-of-steamrollers strategies (the best way is to end the taxpayer guarantees so that traders who blow up the system will reap the consequences), and the return of Glass Steagall (or similar) to keep depositors’ funds out of hyper-fragile shadow intermediation chains and the derivative casino.

The financial system is being regulated by clueless schmucks — many of whom would also castigate Zero Hedge as a “big fat hoax”, while ignoring grift and degeneracy within the financial establishment and the TBTF banks. In the face of such grotesque incompetence who can blame market participants for wanting a hedge against zero?

Krugman, Diocletian & Neofeudalism

The entire economics world is abuzz about the intriguing smackdown between Paul Krugman and Ron Paul on Bloomberg. The Guardian summarises:

  • Ron Paul said it’s pretentious for anyone to think they know what inflation should be and what the ideal level for the money supply is.
  • Paul Krugman replied that it’s not pretentious, it’s necessary. He accused Paul of living in a fantasy world, of wanting to turn back the clock 150 years. He said the advent of modern currencies and nation-states made an unmanaged economy an impracticable idea.
  • Paul accused the Fed of perpetrating “fraud,” in part by screwing with the value of the dollar, so people who save get hurt. He stopped short of calling for an immediate end to the Fed, saying that for now, competition of currencies – and banking structures – should be allowed in the US.
  • Krugman brought up Milton Friedman, who traversed the ideological spectrum to criticize the Fed for not doing enough during the Great Depression. It’s the same criticism Krugman is leveling at the Fed now. “It’s really telling that in America right now, Milton Friedman would count as being on the far left in monetary policy,” Krugman said.
  • Paul’s central point, that the Fed hurts Main Street by focusing on the welfare of Wall Street, is well taken. Krugman’s point that the Fed is needed to steer the economy and has done a better job overall than Congress, in any case, is also well taken.

I find it quite disappointing that there has not been more discussion in the media of the idea — something Ron Paul alluded to — that most of the problems we face today are extensions of the market’s failure to liquidate in 2008. Bailouts and interventionism has left the system (and many of the companies within it) a zombified wreck. Why are we talking about residual debt overhang? Most of it would have been razed in 2008 had the market been allowed to liquidate. Worse, when you bail out economic failures — and as far as I’m concerned, everyone who would have been wiped out by the shadow banking collapse is an economic failure — you obliterate the market mechanism. Should it really be any surprise that money isn’t flowing to where it’s needed?

A whole host of previously illiquid zombie banks, corporations and shadow banks are holding onto trillions of dollars as a liquidity buffer. So instead of being used to finance useful and productive endeavours, the money is just sitting there. This is reflected in the levels of excess reserves banks are holding (presently at an all-time high), as well as the velocity of money, which is at a postwar low:

Krugman’s view that introducing more money into the economy and scaring hoarders into spending more is not guaranteed to achieve any boost in productivity.

As I wrote last month:

The fundamental problem at the heart of this is that the Fed is trying to encourage risk taking by making it difficult to allow small-scale market participants from amassing the capital necessary to take risk. That’s why we’re seeing domestic equity outflows. And so the only people with the apparatus to invest and create jobs are large institutions, banks and corporations, which they are patently not doing.

Would more easing convince them to do that? Probably not. If you’re a multinational corporation with access to foreign markets where input costs are significantly cheaper, why would you invest in the expensive, over-regulated American market other than to offload the products you’ve manufactured abroad?

So will (even deeper) negative real rates cause money to start flowing? Probably — but probably mostly abroad — so probably without the benefits of domestic investment and job creation.

Nor is it guaranteed to achieve any great boost in debt relief.

As Dan Kervick wrote for Naked Capitalism last month:

Inflation only reduces debt overhang in a significant way for households who are fortunate enough to see their nominal wages rise along with the general rise in prices. In today’s economy, workers are frequently not so fortunate.

Again, I have to bring this back to why we are even talking about debt relief. The 2008 crash was a natural form of debt-relief; the 2008 bailouts, and ongoing QE and Twist programs (which contrary to Professor Krugman’s apologetics really do transfer wealth from the middle classes to Wall Street) crystallised the debt burden born from a bubble created by Greenspan’s easy money policies. There would be no need for a debt jubilee (either an absolute one, or a Krugmanite (hyper)inflationary one) if we had simply let the market do its work. A legitimate function for government would have at most been to bail out account holders, provide a welfare net for poor people (never poor corporations) and let bankruptcy courts and markets do the rest. Instead, the central planners in Washington decided they knew best.

The key moment in the debate?

I am not a defender of the economic policies of the emperor Diocletian. So let’s just make that clear.

Paul Krugman

Actually you are.

Ron Paul

Ron Paul is dead right. Krugman and the bailout-happy regime for which he stands are absolutely following in the spirit of Diocletian.

From Dennis Gartman:

Rome had its socialist interlude under Diocletian. Faced with increasing poverty and restlessness among the masses, and with the imminent danger of barbarian invasion, he issued in A.D. 301 an edictum de pretiis, which denounced monopolists for keeping goods from the market to raise prices, and set maximum prices and wages for all important articles and services. Extensive public works were undertaken to put the unemployed to work, and food was distributed gratis, or at reduced prices, to the poor. The government – which already owned most mines, quarries, and salt deposits – brought nearly all major industries and guilds under detailed control.

Diocletian explained that the barbarians were at the gate, and that individual liberty had to be shelved until collective liberty could be made secure. The socialism of Diocletian was a war economy, made possible by fear of foreign attack. Other factors equal, internal liberty varies inversely with external danger.

While Krugman does not by any means endorse the level of centralism that Diocletian introduced, his defence of bailouts, his insistence on the planning of interest rates and inflation, and (most frighteningly) his insistence that war can be an economic stimulus (in reality, war is a capital destroyer) all put him firmly in Diocletian’s economic planning camp.

So how did Diocletian’s economic program work out?

Well, I think it is fair to say even without modern data that — just as Krugman desires — Diocletian’s measures boosted aggregate demand through public works and — just as Krugman desires — it introduced inflation.

Diocletian’s mass minting of coins of low metallic value continued to increase inflation, and the maximum prices in the Edict were apparently too low.

Merchants either stopped producing goods, sold their goods illegally, or used barter. The Edict tended to disrupt trade and commerce, especially among merchants. It is safe to assume that a gray market economy evolved out of the edict at least between merchants.

And certainly Rome lived for almost 150 years after Diocletian. However the long term effects of Diocletian’s economic program were dire:

Thousands of Romans, to escape the tax gatherer, fled over the frontiers to seek refuge among the barbarians. Seeking to check this elusive mobility and to facilitate regulation and taxation, the government issued decrees binding the peasant to his field and the worker to his shop until all their debts and taxes had been paid. In this and other ways medieval serfdom began.

Have the 2008 bailouts done the same thing, cementing a new feudal aristocracy of bankers, financiers and too-big-to-fail zombies, alongside a serf class that exists to fund the excesses of the financial and corporate elite?

Only time will tell.