(The Illusion of) The Perpetual Money Machine


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This is an excerpt from an excellent paper by Didier Sornette and Peter Cauwels on the state of our world financial economy. Your can download a pdf of the entire paper here. It’s worth a read. The layman’s version can be found here.

There is no use trying,” said Alice. “One can’t believe impossible things.”

“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
 – Lewis Carroll

Chasing fantasies is not the exclusive pastime of little girls in fairy tales. History is speckled with colorful stories of distinguished scientists and highly motivated inventors pursuing the holy grail of technology: the construction of a perpetual motion machine. These are stories of eccentric boys with flashy toys, dreaming of the fame and wealth that would reward the invention of the ultimate gizmo, a machine that can operate without depleting any power source, thereby solving forever our energy problems. In the mid-1800s, thermodynamics provided the formal basis on what common sense informs us: it is not possible to create energy out of nothing. It can be extracted from wood, gas, oil or even human work as was done for most of human history, but there are no inexhaustible sources.

What about wealth? Can it be created out of thin air? Surely, a central bank can print crispy banknotes and, by means of the modern electronic equivalent, easily add another zero to its balance sheet. But what is the deeper meaning of this money creation? Does it create real value? Common sense and Austrian economists in particular would argue that money creation outpacing real demand is a recipe for inflation. In this piece, we show that the question is much more subtle and interesting, especially for understanding the extraordinary developments since 2007. While it is true that, like energy, wealth cannot be created out of thin air, there is a fundamental difference: whereas the belief of some marginal scientists in a perpetual motion machine had essentially no impact, its financial equivalent has been the hidden cause behind the current economic impasse.

The Czech economist Tomáš Sedlácek argues that, while we can understand old economic thinking from ancient myths, we can also learn a lot about contemporary myths from modern economic thinking. A case in point is the myth, developed in the last thirty years, of an eternal economic growth, based in financial innovations, rather than on real productivity gains strongly rooted in better management, improved design, and fueled by innovation and creativity. This has created an illusion that value can be extracted out of nothing; the mythical story of the perpetual money machine, dreamed up before breakfast.

To put things in perspective, we have to go back to the post-WWII era. It was characterized by 25 years of reconstruction and a third industrial revolution, which introduced computers, robots and the Internet. New infrastructure, innovation and technology led to a continuous increase in productivity. In that period, the financial sphere grew in balance with the real economy. In the 1970s, when the Bretton Woods system was terminated and the oil and inflation shocks hit the markets, business productivity stalled and economic growth became essentially dependent on consumption. Since the 1980s, consumption became increasingly funded by smaller savings, booming financial profits, wealth extracted from house prices appreciation and explosive debt. This was further supported by a climate of deregulation and a massive growth in financial derivatives designed to spread and diversify the risks globally.

The result was a succession of bubbles and crashes: the worldwide stock market bubble and great crash of 19 October 1987, the savings and loans crisis of the 1980s, the burst in 1991 of the enormous Japanese real estate and stock market bubbles and its ensuing “lost decades”, the emerging markets bubbles and crashes in 1994 and 1997, the LTCM crisis of 1998, the dotcom bubble bursting in 2000, the recent house price bubble, the financialization bubble via special investment vehicles, speckled with acronyms like CDO, RMBS,  CDS, … the stock market bubble, the commodity and oil bubbles and the debt bubbles, all developing jointly and feeding on each other, until the climax of 2008, which brought our financial system close to collapse.

Each excess was felt to be “solved” by measures that in fact fueled following excesses; each crash was fought by an accommodative monetary policy, sowing the seeds for new bubbles and future crashes. Not only are crashes not any more mysterious, but the present crisis and stalling economy, also called the Great Recession, have clear origins, namely in the delusionary belief in the merits of policies based on a “perpetual money machine” type of thinking.

“The problems that we have created cannot be solved at the level of thinking we were at when we created them.” This quote attributed to Albert Einstein resonates with the universally accepted solution of paradoxes encountered in the field of mathematical logic, when the framework has to be enlarged to get out of undecidable statements or fallacies. But, the policies implemented since 2008, with ultra-low interest rates, quantitative easing and other financial alchemical gesticulations, are essentially following the pattern of the last thirty years, namely the financialization of real problems plaguing the real economy. Rather than still hoping that real wealth will come out of money creation, an illusion also found in the current management of the on-going European sovereign and banking crises, we need fundamentally new ways of thinking.

A graph of the Perpetual Money Machine can be viewed here. Some of those new ways of thinking can be found here.

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