Zombification & Gold

From Bloomberg:

Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi will be rewarding investors who buy more than 10 million yen ($129,000) in reconstruction bonds with gold in the government’s latest attempt to bolster demand for the debt.

Individual investors who hold the bonds for three years will be eligible for a gold commemorative coin valued at 10,000 yen, the Finance Ministry said in Tokyo today. At 15.6 grams, (0.55 ounces), it would be worth about $948 based on prices for the precious metal. Only a limited number of coins will be issued, the Finance Ministry said in a statement.

Azumi, whose hometown was devastated by the March 11 disaster, said today he bought 1 million yen of the debt to support rebuilding efforts from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Offering gold bolsters the value of the return on the debt, which will be at 0.05 percent for the first three years.

Japan — the prototypical case of zombification — has kicked the can all the way to the end of the road. How easy is it for an investor or an institution to accept a near-zero bond yield when they could buy a piece of gold that has averaged a 17% yield this decade? Not easy at all. That is why — if governments want to kick the can and avoid liquidation at all costs  — governments will have to find a way to limit gold yields. I outlined a fairly outlandish (but undoubtedly Keynesian) method a couple of months ago — a new stimulus package to mine gold. Of course, there is a more devastating alternative with a historical precedent, which is confiscation, but whatever they do they need to address the fact that a form of economic activity that produces nothing — buying gold —  is far more attractive than investing in stocks or bonds or (any fiat-denominated instruments).

Now I don’t expect America to get to the stage Japan is at — America is at its core a free-spirited, libertarian nation, and years of austerity, unemployment and zero growth will foment revolution. Japan, by contrast, is a very conservative, and conformistic nation. Jobless Japanese kids — unlike their British and American contemporaries — do not seem to riot. So I never expect the American or British Treasuries to get to the stage where they sweeten the deal on their crummy debt by throwing in gold coins.

But the lesson here is all the same — without some kind of miracle, bailing out zombie institutions and financial systems kills creative destruction (the heart of capitalism), which kills growth, and makes gold an extremely attractive investment. That’s because it doesn’t lose any intrinsic value, while stocks and bonds are blighted by systemic dereliction, monetary mismanagement, and weak demand.

Frankly, I’d rather live in an economy where gold is not such an attractive investment, where stocks and bonds trade on fundamentals rather than the latest interventionist hyperbole from Benny at the Fed, where products and firms succeed and fail based on their inherent characteristics, rather than on whether the Euro will fail or not. But until capitalism is restored, until firms are free to succeed and fail on their own merits, gold — the true symbol of capitalism in a perverted system of corporatism — will keep going up and up.

Zombie Economics

The True Cost of Zombification

Hank Paulson, George W. Bush & Ben Bernanke killed Western capitalism. During the 2008 crash, when the banking system was failing (as is entirely predictable and natural in a hyper-levered house-of-cards economy) they decided to end market-led creative destruction, and institute a system of government-led bailouts, bailouts and bailouts — or, more accurately, uncreative stagnation.

Uncreative stagnation deserves its name for a number of reasons:

  1. As Steve Jobs put it: “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.That is just as true for businesses, markets and governments as it is for organisms. When businesses, systems and markets fail, they open holes to be filled by new businesses, systems and markets.  Without allowing for the natural death of failed systems and businesses, governments close the door to new — and often necessary — innovation.
  2. Without the market (i.e. the preferences of people in the economy spending their money) determining what businesses and systems work, those decisions are transferred to central planners and bureaucrats — in this case those who decide who gets bailed out (and who gets state subsidies) and who doesn’t. This means that capital will be allocated to things that people out in the market don’t want or need.
  3. The high debt-acquisition levels necessary to “save the system” necessitate higher taxation, which means that significant quantities of capital — instead of being reinvested into new businesses and ideas — go toward paying down interest on debt. Broadly, because American and Western debt is often owned by Eastern manufacturing nations, this means that productive capital that could be used by Western businesses is being siphoned eastward. So the capital will still get invested, but in businesses in the East.
  4. The money-printing necessary to “save the system” necessitates inflation, which discourages saving and investment and encourages spending on consumption, transferring more capital from Western consumers to Eastern producers.

Just how much debt and money-printing was necessary to “save the system”?

Here’s a chart Nomi Prins produced in 2009. The spending levels (and therefore debt levels) are truly staggering:

So not only did the bailouts disable creative destruction (the engine of innovation and social progress), they also created so much debt that they have already damaged the ability of future generations to save, invest and innovate.

Worse, they did nothing to address the fundamental fragility of the system. All of that interconnected debt means the system is still fragile to a default cascade, which means that if the system is to be “saved” again, it will require more bailouts and more debt-acquisition, further eroding the ability of taxpayers to save and invest, as governments tax and inflate the currency to pay down the debt.

I expect future generations to look back on this episode as a bizarre aberration. America — surely the greatest producer and innovator in the history of human civilisation — forgot how markets work and the notion of creative destruction, forgot that an empire dependent on hostile partners (i.e. China and the Arab world) is hugely fragile, and then forgot the fact that America emerged as a superpower as a direct result of its status as a great creditor and manufacturer, and that the old European empires lost their superpower status through loss of productivity and massive debt acquisition.

Future historians in the post-American epoch may attribute this bizarre lapse of concentration to a desperate desire for stability, in the wake of the world-shattering events of 9/11. The public and the establishment simply could not face radical change. America got too old, too stubborn, too rich and too established to face the kind of creative destruction that had historically shaped American politics and civilisation. America traded the liberty of creative destruction for the “security” of bailouts, the security-state, and governmental paternalism. As we shall see in the next decade (and contrary to Japan’s experience thus far) this is a totally false security.