The Gig Economy (sic)

The Gig Economy has merely exposed the lie that our labor is the most valuable asset we own. Rather, our man-hours have been depreciated drastically in the last 50 years. Much of this has been due to the explosion in capital credit after the abandonment by Nixon in 1971 of the gold peg under the Bretton Woods international monetary regime. This has led to capital-labor substitution, technological innovation, and productivity increases that have reduced the demand for labor, both skilled and unskilled. It’s made some of us richer.

The second contributing factor has been capital mobility under globalization and the liberalization of the populations of the developing world. This has led to a vast increase in the supply of both skilled and unskilled labor. China and India, for the past 30 years, but we still have Africa and South America in the pipeline. 

The combined effect of these policies and geopolitical trends has driven the marginal price of labor down towards the subsistence level. We need to think outside this shrinking box. Btw, union organization will do nothing to reverse these trends unless the focus is not on controlling the supply of labor and artificially raising wages. Asset ownership, risk sharing, and personal data ownership are key.

(Note: We can’t really expect Vanity Fair to tackle these issues.)

“What Have We Done?”: Silicon Valley Engineers Fear They’ve Created a Monster

Vanity Fair

In the heart of San Francisco, the gig economy reigns supreme. Walk into a grocery store, and a large number of shoppers you see are independent contractors for grocery-delivery start-up Instacart. Step outside, and cars with black-and-white Uber stickers or flashing Lyft dashboard lights are sitting, hazards on, blocking the bike lane as they wait for passengers. Cyclists zigzag around the cars, many hauling bags branded with various logos—Caviar, Postmates, Uber Eats—as they deliver food to customers around the city. You can stand on a street corner and count the number of gig-economy workers walking by, as I often do; sometimes it’s 2 out of every 10. On some corners, like the one near the Whole Foods on 4th and Harrison, I’ve counted 8 out of every 10.

The gig-economy ecosystem was supposed to represent the promised land, striking a harmonious egalitarian balance between supply and demand: consumers could off-load the drudgery of commuting or grocery shopping, while workers were set free from the Man. “Set your own schedule,” touts the Uber-driver Web site; “Be your own boss,” tempts Lyft; “Make an impact on people’s lives,” lures Instacart. These companies have been wildly successful: Uber, perhaps the most notorious, is also the most valuable start-up in the U.S., reportedly worth $72 billion. Lyft is valued at $11 billion, and grocery delivery start-up Instacart is valued at just over $4 billion. In recent months, however, a spate of lawsuits has highlighted an alarming by-product of the gig economy—a class of workers who aren’t protected by labor laws, or eligible for benefits provided to the rest of the nation’s workforce—evident even to those outside the bubble of Silicon Valley. A July report commissioned by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission found that 85 percent of New York City’s Uber, Lyft, Juno, and Via drivers earn less than $17.22 an hour. When the California Supreme Court ruled in May that delivery company Dynamex must treat its gig workers like full-time employees, Eve Wagner, an attorney who specializes in employment litigation, predicted to Wired, “The number of employment lawsuits is going to explode.”

Of course, the threads of this disillusionment are woven into the very structure that has made these start-ups so successful. A few weeks into my tenure at Uber, where I started as a software developer just a year after graduating from college, still blindly convinced I could make the world a better place, a co-worker sat down next to my desk. “There’s something you need to know,” she said in a low voice, “and I don’t want you to forget it. When you’re writing code, you need to think of the drivers. Never forget that these are real people who have no benefits, who have to live in this city, who depend on us to write responsible code. Remember that.”

I didn’t understand what she meant until several weeks later, when I overheard two other engineers in the cafeteria discussing driver bonuses—specifically, ways to manipulate bonuses so that drivers could be “tricked” into working longer hours. Laughing, they compared the drivers to animals: “You need to dangle the carrot right in front of their face.” Shortly thereafter, a wave of price cuts hit drivers in the Bay Area. When I talked to the drivers, they described how Uber kept fares in a perfectly engineered sweet spot: just high enough for them to justify driving, but just low enough that not much more than their gas and maintenance expenses were covered.

Those of us on the front lines of the gig economy were the first to spot and expose its flaws—two months after leaving Uber, I wrote a highly publicized account of my time there, describing the company’s toxic work environment in detail. Now, as Silicon Valley struggles to come to terms with its corrosive underpinnings, a new vein of disquiet has wormed its way into the Slack chats and happy-hour outings of low-level rank-and-file engineers, spurred by a question that seems to drown out everything else: What have we done? It’s a question that I, too, have been forced to grapple with as I notice how my job as a software engineer has changed the nature of work in general—and not necessarily for the better.

The risk, we agreed, is that the gig economy will become the only economy.

Gig-economy “platforms,” as they’re called, take their inspiration from software engineering, where the goal is to create modular, scalable software applications. To do this, engineers build small pieces of code that run concurrently, dividing a task into ever smaller pieces to conquer it more efficiently. Start-ups function in a similar way; tasks that used to make up a single job are broken down into the smallest possible code pieces, then partitioned so those pieces can be accomplished in parallel. It’s been a successful approach for start-ups for the same reason it’s a successful approach to writing code: it is perfectly, beautifully efficient. Across so-called platforms, there are no individuals—no bosses delegating tasks. Instead, various algorithms run on the platform, matching consumers with workers, riders with the nearest driver, and hungry customers with delivery people, telling them where to go, what to do, and how to do it. Constant needs and their quick solutions all hummingly, perpetually aligned.

By now it’s clear that these companies represent more than a trend. Though it’s difficult to accurately determine the size of the gig economy—estimates range from 0.7 to 34 percent of the national workforce—the number grows with each new start-up that figures out how to break down another basic task. There’s a relatively low risk associated with launching gig-economy companies, start-ups that can engage in “a kind of contract arbitrage” because they “aren’t bearing the corporate or societal cost, even as they reap fractional or full-time value from workers,” explains Seattle-based tech journalist Glenn Fleishman. Thanks to this buffer, they’re almost guaranteed to multiply. As the gig economy grows, so too does the danger that engineers, in attempting to build the most efficient systems, will chop and dice jobs into pieces so dehumanized that our legal system will no longer recognize them. [Note: yes, labor contracts will be obsolete and meaningless, which means asset ownership is the only defensible right.] And along with this comes an even more sinister possibility: jobs that would and should be recognizable—especially supervisory and management positions—will disappear altogether. If a software engineer can write a set of programs that breaks a job into smaller increments, and can follow it up with an algorithm that fills in as the supervisor, then the position itself can be programmed to redundancy.

A few months ago, a lunchtime conversation with several friends turned to the subject of the gig economy. We began to enumerate the potential causes of worker isplacement—things like artificial intelligence and robots, which are fast becoming a reality, expanding the purview of companies such as Google and Amazon. “The displacement is happening right under our noses,” said a woman sitting next to me, another former engineer. “Not in the future—it’s happening now.

“What can we do about it?” someone asked. Another woman replied that the only way forward was for gig-economy workers to unionize, and the table broke out into serious debate [Labor contracts, union or otherwise, will be legally ill-defined and indefensible]. Yet even as we roundly condemned the tech world’s treatment of a vulnerable new class of worker, we knew the stakes were much higher: high enough to alter the future of work itself, to the detriment of all but a select few. “Most people,” I said, interrupting the hubbub, “don’t even see the problem unless they’re on the inside.” Everyone nodded. The risk, we agreed, is that the gig economy will become the only economy, swallowing up entire groups of employees who hold full-time jobs, and that it will, eventually, displace us all. The bigger risk, however, is that the only people who understand the looming threat are the ones enabling it. 

QE Pains and Gains

Reprinted from Bloomberg.

The Unintended Consequences of Quantitative Easing

Asset inflation doesn’t have to be bad. Flush governments could invest in education and infrastructure.
August 21, 2017, 11:00 PM PDT

Quantitative easing, which saw major central banks buying government bonds outright and quadrupling their balance sheets since 2008 to $15 trillion, has boosted asset prices across the board. That was the aim: to counter a severe economic downturn and to save a financial system close to the brink. Little thought, however, was put into the longer-term consequences of these actions.

From 2008 to 2015, the nominal value of the global stock of investable assets has increased by about 40 percent, to over $500 trillion from over $350 trillion. Yet the real assets behind these numbers changed little, reflecting, in effect, the asset-inflationary nature of quantitative easing. The effects of asset inflation are as profound as those of the better-known consumer inflation.

Consumer price inflation erodes savings and the value of fixed earnings as prices rise. Aside from the pain consumers feel, the economy’s pricing signals get mixed up. Companies may unknowingly sell at a loss, while workers repeatedly have to ask for wage increases just to keep up with prices. The true losers though are people with savings, which see their value in real purchasing power severely diminished.

John Maynard Keynes famously said that inflation is a way for governments to “confiscate, secretly and unobserved, an important part of the wealth of their citizens.” Critically, inflation creates much social tension: “While the process impoverishes many, it actually enriches some. The sight of this arbitrary rearrangement of riches strikes not only at security, but at the confidence in the equity of the existing distribution of wealth.”

Asset inflation, it turns out, is remarkably similar. First, it impedes creative destruction by setting a negative long-term real interest rate. This allows companies that no longer generate enough income to pay a positive return on capital to continue as usual rather than being restructured. Thus the much-noted growth of zombie companies is one consequence of asset price inflation. Thus also the unreasonable leverage and price observed in real estate, with the credit risks it entails for the future.

Second, it also generates artificial winners and losers. The losers are most found among the aging middle class, who, in order to maintain future consumption levels, will now have to increase their savings. Indeed, the savings made by working people on stagnant wages effectively generates less future income because investable assets are now more expensive. The older the demographics, the more pronounced this effect. Germany, for instance, had a contraction of nearly 4 percent of gross domestic product in consumer spending from 2009 to 2016.

The winners are the wealthy, people with savings at the beginning of the process, who saw the nominal value of their assets skyrocket. But, as with consumer inflation, the biggest winner is the state, which now owns through its monetary authority, a large part of its own debt, effectively paying interest to itself, and a much lower one at that. For when all is accounted for, asset inflation is a monetary tax.

The most striking similarity between consumer price inflation and asset inflation is its potential to cause social disruption. In the 1970s workers resorted to industrial action to bargain for wage increases in line with price increases.

Today, the weakened middle class, whose wages have declined for decades, is increasingly angry at society’s wealthiest members. It perceives much of their recent wealth to be ill-gotten, not resulting from true economic wealth creation [and they are correct], and seeks social justice through populist movements outside of the traditional left-right debate. The QE monetary disruption almost certainly contributed to the protest votes that have been observed in the Western world.

The central banks now bear a large responsibility. If they ignore the political impact of the measures they took, they will exacerbate a politically volatile situation. If, on the other hand, the gains made by the state from QE can be channeled to true economic wealth creation and redistribution, they will have saved the day.

This is entirely possible. Rather than debating how and how fast to end quantitative easing, the central bank assets generated by this program should be put into a huge fund for education and infrastructure. The interest earned on these assets could finance real public investment, like research, education and retraining. [That’s fine, but it does little to compensate for the massive transfer of existing wealth that is causing the political and social dislocations, such as unsustainable urban housing costs.]

If the proceeds of QE are invested in growth-expanding policies, the gain will help finance tomorrow’s retirements, and the government-induced asset inflation can be an investment, not simply a tax.

Economic Inequality??

One can easily misrepresent or exaggerate reality with a few select statistics and come to conveniently chosen conclusions. This doesn’t really help the conversation.

The distribution of wealth and income has become a social, economic, and political problem in recent decades. And not only in the US. But the question is why and what to do about it.

First, we should notice the timeframe of the comparison: 1980 vs. 2014. During these years there has been a massive credit bubble with low to zero interest rates and low inflation, especially over the past 16 years. This has disproportionately rewarded asset holders and debt-driven consumption and the income shares in industries associated with that, like FIRE.

The cheap credit has also led to massive investments in technology and biotech, where income levels have far exceeded those in other industries. This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially for aggregate growth, but it does have distributional consequences for wealth and income. Globalization, through outsourcing, trade and labor migration, has also served to keep labor costs low in developed nations.

So, what to make of this? I would have differences with the suggestions of the author as stated here:

Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation. 

First, the problem with the tax code is that it creates barriers for asset accumulation for those without assets. In other words, it favors the haves over the wannabes, even if the wannabes are more deserving. So we need to reduce those barriers. Not by making it harder to get rich, but by making it harder to stay rich and idle sitting on assets that have ballooned in value through no effort on the owners of those assets. Thus, we should look more toward wealth taxes as opposed to income or capital taxes. We should also make capital taxes more progressive so that the have-nots are not doomed to remain so. Have you seen your interest on savings lately?

Second, a better functioning education system is always a deserved policy priority, but it won’t fix this income distribution problem. The cost of education is becoming prohibitive and elitism is turning top universities, where costs are in the stratosphere, into branding agents rather than educating institutions. In other words, the Ivy League degree is more valuable as a signalling device than anything a student may or may not have learned there. Thus we are biasing favoritism over meritocracy.

Third, the focus on wages and organized labor is completely misguided.  Most workers in growth industries in the 21st century eschew labor unions in favor of equity participation and risk-taking entrepreneurship. Does that mean manufacturing labor has no future? Not at all. But it should be bargaining for equity in addition to a base wage. Competing solely on wages means workers are competing with the global supply of labor, which is a losing proposition for developed countries’ workers.

The inability of policymakers to see clearly how the world has changed and how ownership and control structures must adapt to the information economy leads them towards the rabbit hole of universal basic incomes, which fundamentally is a universal welfare program to support consumption. One thing we’ve learned over the past 60 years is that nobody wants welfare, but many become addicted to it. It’s not a solution or even a short-term fix.

Refer to the NYT website link to view the graphs…

Many Americans can’t remember anything other than an economy with skyrocketing inequality, in which living standards for most Americans are stagnating and the rich are pulling away. It feels inevitable.

But it’s not.

 

A well-known team of inequality researchers — Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman — has been getting some attention recently for a chart it produced. It shows the change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution, and it neatly summarizes the recent soaring of inequality.

 

The line on the chart (which we have recreated as the red line above) resembles a classic hockey-stick graph. It’s mostly flat and close to zero, before spiking upward at the end. That spike shows that the very affluent, and only the very affluent, have received significant raises in recent decades.

 

This line captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen. So I went to the economists with a request: Could they produce versions of their chart for years before 1980, to capture the income trends following World War II. You are looking at the result here.

The message is straightforward. Only a few decades ago, the middle class and the poor weren’t just receiving healthy raises. Their take-home pay was rising even more rapidly, in percentage terms, than the pay of the rich.

 

The post-inflation, after-tax raises that were typical for the middle class during the pre-1980 period — about 2 percent a year — translate into rapid gains in living standards. At that rate, a household’s income almost doubles every 34 years. (The economists used 34-year windows to stay consistent with their original chart, which covered 1980 through 2014.)

 

In recent decades, by contrast, only very affluent families — those in roughly the top 1/40th of the income distribution — have received such large raises. Yes, the upper-middle class has done better than the middle class or the poor, but the huge gaps are between the super-rich and everyone else.

 

The basic problem is that most families used to receive something approaching their fair share of economic growth, and they don’t anymore.

 

It’s true that the country can’t magically return to the 1950s and 1960s (nor would we want to, all things considered). Economic growth was faster in those decades than we can reasonably expect today. Yet there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population.

 

Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation.

 

Remarkably, President Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress are trying to go in the other direction. They spent months trying to take away health insurance from millions of middle-class and poor families. Their initial tax-reform planswould reduce taxes for the rich much more than for everyone else. And they want to cut spending on schools, even though education is the single best way to improve middle-class living standards over the long term.

 

Most Americans would look at these charts and conclude that inequality is out of control. The president, on the other hand, seems to think that inequality isn’t big enough.

UBI, or Something Better?

What’s odd about this discussion on Universal Basic Income below is that nobody successful in Silicon Valley participates in a UBI scheme, nor would they. They rely on risk-taking, equity, and reward. Not sure why they don’t advocate this for everybody – after all, because of the way risk is assigned to asset ownership, labor ends up taking all kinds of risk, yet almost never participates in the rewards to that risk. Instead they get a one-time bonus or profit-sharing.

But Zuckerberg would never accept those terms, either now or before he made his first dollar. It looks to me that Silicon valley tech supports redistribution in order to make their outsized gains from network effects more politically palatable.

Unfortunately, this critic of Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley in general wants to double down on failed tax and redistribution schemes instead of empowering people to participate in the risks and rewards of capitalist entrepreneurial success.

“He (or She) who is without capital in a capitalist society is little more than a wage slave and a captive consumer.” 

Another truism about the future: In a world run by robots, he who owns and controls the robots is king. Make sure you own your robot!

Original article here.

What Mark Zuckerberg Gets Wrong About UBI

New Republic, July 7, 2017

By Clio Chang

It’s no secret that tech bros love universal basic income. Sam Altman of Y Combinator is funding a UBI pilot program in Oakland, California, in part because he was inspired by Star Trek. Tesla’s Elon Musk supports the policy because he realizes that the aggressive automation caused by the tech industry will make UBI “necessary.” This week, as part of his “I’m-not-running-for-president” tour around the country, Mark Zuckerberg visited Homer, Alaska, which resulted in him writing a Facebook post lauding the merits of the state’s Permanent Fund as a model for a national form of basic income.

UBI, a concept that dates back centuries, is the idea that every person should receive some amount of money so that no one dips beneath a basic standard of living. For those on the left, it’s seen as an alternative to our country’s woefully limited cash welfare system. For libertarians, a basic income is lauded as a slimmer, less intrusive way to deliver government benefits. It is the rare utopian idea that people of different political stripes can agree on—Zuckerberg himself made sure to note the “bipartisan” appeal of the policy in his post.

But Zuckerberg reveals exactly why the left should be alarmed that Silicon Valley is taking the lead on this issue.

First, the idea that UBI has bipartisan appeal is disingenuous. The left would have a policy that redistributes wealth by funding UBI through a more progressive tax scheme or the diverting of capital income. But libertarians like Charles Murray argue for a UBI that completely scraps our existing welfare state, including programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. This would be extremely regressive, since money currently directed towards the poor would instead be spread out for a basic income for all. And certain benefits like health insurance can’t effectively be replaced with cash.

Second, Zuckerberg asserts that Alaska’s Permanent Fund—which uses the state’s oil resources to pay a dividend to each Alaskan and is seen as one of the few examples of an actual UBI-like policy—is advantageous because it “comes from conservative principles of smaller government, rather than progressive principles of a larger safety net.” But a UBI policy can only reflect small government principles if one envisions it eating into the country’s existing welfare state, rather than coming on top of it. In this respect, Zuckerberg’s advocacy of UBI “bipartisanship” starts to look more like a veiled libertarian agenda.

This attitude echoes other pro-UBI tech lords like Altman, who sees basic income as providing a “floor” but not a ceiling. In his ideal scheme, no one will be very poor, but people like Altman will still be free to get “as rich as they fucking want.” The tech vision of the world is one where it can wash its hands of the rising joblessness it will generate through automation, but where those at the top can still wallow in extreme wealth. As Altman told Business Insider, “We need to be ready for a world with trillionaires in it, and that’s always going to feel deeply unfair. It feels unfair to me. But to drive society forward, you’ve got to let that happen.”

This is deeply telling of the tech UBI mentality: driving society forward doesn’t mean reducing inequality, but rather fostering more entrepreneurship. The former is viewed as unnecessary and the latter as an inherent good.

Zuckerberg also compares Alaska’s Permanent Fund to running a business—a very specific one:

Seeing how Alaska put this dividend in place reminded me of a lesson I learned early at Facebook: organizations think profoundly differently when they’re profitable than when they’re in debt. When you’re losing money, your mentality is largely about survival. But when you’re profitable, you’re confident about your future and you look for opportunities to invest and grow further. Alaska’s economy has historically created this winning mentality, which has led to this basic income. That may be a lesson for the rest of the country as well.

The idea that a “winning mentality” is what is going to lead to a basic income in the United States reveals how little Zuckerberg understands about politics. This is a pervasive ideology among tech leaders, who believe the lessons that they have gleaned from their own industry are applicable to all of the country’s problems. But remember the last time a disrupter said he was going to step into the political arena and run our country like a business?

For moguls like Zuckerberg, there is never any deep consideration of, say, the fact that racism, sexism, and classism are deeply intertwined with our country’s policies and are some of the biggest obstacles to implementing a highly redistributive policy like a UBI. Nor is there any attempt to consult with lifelong organizers and activists on the issue.

At the end of his post, Zuckerberg states that the “most effective safety net programs create an incentive or need to work rather than just giving a handout.” This echoes the “personal responsibility” rhetoric that drove workfare policies in the 1990s, which ended up kicking millions of people off of welfare rolls, leaving them in extreme poverty. The line also directly undermines the push for a UBI, which is quite literally a handout that can help liberate people from the “need to work.”

It would appear that Silicon Valley’s support for a basic income comes from self-interest. As Jathan Sadowski writes in the Guardian, “the trouble comes when UBI is used as a way of merely making techno-capitalism more tolerable for people, when it is administered like a painkiller that numbs the pain and masks the symptoms of economic injustice without addressing the root causes of exploitation and inequality.”

Tech moguls may seem like tempting allies for UBI advocates, but their vision of an ideal social safety net does not look anything like the left’s. If it did, they wouldn’t be pushing just for a basic income, but also for things like universal health care, free public education (not just for engineers!), and strong labor unions. For Silicon Valley, UBI is a sleek technological means to a very different end.

It’s the Fed, Stupid!

A Messaging Tip For The Donald: It’s The Fed, Stupid!

The Fed’s core policies of 2% inflation and 0% interest rates are kicking the economic stuffings out of Flyover AmericaThey are based on the specious academic theory that financial gambling fuels economic growth and that all economic classes prosper from inflation and march in lockstep together as prices and wages ascend on the Fed’s appointed path.

Read more

The Guardian view on central bankers: growing power and limited success

I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment.

– John Maynard Keynes

This editorial by The Guardian points out the futilities of current central banking policy around the world. Unfortunately, they only get it half right: the prescience of Keynes’s first sentence is only matched by the absurdity of his second sentence. Calculate the marginal efficiency of capital? Directing investment? Solyndra anyone? The captured State is the primary problem of politicized credit…

Reprinted from The Guardian, Thursday 25 August 2016

To find the true centre of power in today’s politics, ignore the sweaty press releases from select committees, look past the upcoming party conferences – and, for all our sakes, pay no mind to the seat allocations on the 11am Virgin train to Newcastle. Look instead to the mountains of Wyoming, and the fly-fishers’ paradise of Jackson Hole.

Over the next couple of days, the people who set interest rates for the world’s major economies will meet here to discuss the global outlook – but it’s no mere talking shop. What’s said here matters: when the head of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, speaks on Friday, the folk who manage our pension funds will take a break from the beach reads to check their smartphones for instant takes.

This year the scrutiny will be more widespread and particularly intense. Since the 2008 crash, what central bankers say and do has moved from the City pages to the front page. That is logical, given that the Bank of England created £375bn of new money through quantitative easing in the four years after 2009 and has just begun buying £70bn of IOUs from the government and big business. But the power and prominence of central banks today is also deeply worrying. For one, their multibillion-pound interventions have had only limited success – and it is doubtful that throwing more billions around will work much better. For another, politicians are compelling them to play a central role in our politics, even though they are far less accountable to voters. This is politics in the garb of technocracy.

Next month is the eighth anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Since then the US central bank has bought $3.7tn (£2.8tn) of bonds. [Note: We’re going on $4 trillion of free money pumped into the financial sector, folks] All the major central banks have cut rates; according to the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, global interest rates are at their lowest in 5,000 years. Despite this, the world economy is, in his description, “stuck”. This government boasts of the UK’s recovery, but workers have seen a 10% drop in real wages since the end of 2007 – matched among developed economies only by Greece. Fuelling the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is the fact that the US is suffering one of the slowest and weakest recoveries in recent history. In April, the IMF described the state of the global economy as “Too Slow for Too Long”.

Having thrown everything they had at the world economy, all central bankers have to show is the most mediocre of score sheets. When it comes to monetary policy, the old cliche almost fits: you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it avail itself of super-low interest rates to kickstart a sustainable recovery. Two forces appear to be at work. First, monetary policy has been used by politicians as a replacement for fiscal policy on spending and taxes, when it should really be complementary. Second, major economies – such as Britain after Thatcher’s revolution – have become so unequal and lopsided that vast wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few who use it for speculation rather than productive investment. QE has pushed up the price of Mayfair flats and art by Damien Hirst. It has done next to nothing for graphene in Manchester. [Does it take a rocket scientist to figure this out?]

All this was foreseen by Keynes in his General Theory: “I am now somewhat sceptical of the success of a merely monetary policy directed towards influencing the rate of interest. I expect to see the State, which is in a position to calculate the marginal efficiency of capital-goods on long views and on the basis of the general social advantage, taking an ever greater responsibility for directly organising investment.”

Eighty years on, it is time those words were heeded by policymakers. In Britain, that means using state-owned banks such as RBS and Lloyds to direct loans to those industries and parts of the country that elected and accountable politicians see as being in need. Couple that with a tax system that rewards companies on how much value they add to the British economy, and the UK might finally be back in business.

The State, run by the political class and their technocrats? Yikes!!! Will we ever learn?

Helicopter Money

Central bank “Helicopter Money” is to the economy what helicopter parents are to their unfortunate children. This from Bloomberg View:

`Helicopter Money’ Is Coming to the U.S.

Aug 5, 2016 5:41 AM EDT

Several years of rock-bottom interest rates around the world haven’t been all bad. They’ve helped reduce government borrowing costs, for sure. Central banks also send back to their governments most of the interest received on assets purchased through quantitative-easing programs. Governments essentially are paying interest to themselves.

What is Helicopter Money? 

Since the beginning of their quantitative-easing activities, the Federal Reserve has returned $596 billion to the U.S. Treasury and the Bank of England has given back $47 billion. This cozy relationship between central banks and their governments resembles “helicopter money,” the unconventional form of stimulus that some central banks may be considering as a way to spur economic growth.

I’m looking for more such helicopter money — fiscal stimulus applied directly to the U.S. economy and financed by the Fed –no matter who wins the Presidential election in November.

It’s called helicopter money because of the illusion of dumping currency from the sky to people who will rapidly spend it, thereby creating demand, jobs and economic growth. Central banks can raise and lower interest rates and buy and sell securities, but that’s it. They can thereby make credit cheap and readily available, yet they can’t force banks to lend and consumers and businesses to borrow, spend and invest. That undermines the effectiveness of QE; as the proverb says, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Furthermore, developed-country central banks purchase government securities on open markets, not from governments directly. You might ask: “What’s the difference between the Treasury issuing debt in the market and the Fed buying it, versus the Fed buying securities directly from the Treasury?” The difference is that the open market determines the prices of Treasuries, not the government or the central bank. The market intervenes between the two, which keeps the government from shoving huge quantities of debt directly onto the central bank without a market-intervening test. This enforces central bank discipline and maintains credibility.

In contrast, direct sales to central banks have been the normal course of government finance in places like Zimbabwe and Argentina. It often leads to hyperinflation and financial disaster. (I keep a 100-trillion Zimbabwe dollar bank note, issued in 2008, which was worth only a few U.S. cents as inflation rates there accelerated to the hundreds-of-million-percent level. Now it sells for several U.S. dollars as a collector’s item, after the long-entrenched and corrupt Zimbabwean government switched to U.S. dollars and stopped issuing its own currency.)

Argentina was excluded from borrowing abroad after defaulting in 2001. Little domestic funding was available and the Argentine government was unwilling to reduce spending to cut the deficit. So it turned to the central bank, which printed 4 billion pesos in 2007 (then worth about $1.3 billion). That increased to 159 billion pesos in 2015, equal to 3 percent of gross domestic product. Not surprisingly, inflation skyrocketed to about 25 percent last year, up from 6 percent in 2009.

To be sure, the independence of most central banks from their governments is rarely clear cut. It’s become the norm in peacetime, but not during times of war, when government spending shoots up and the resulting debt requires considerable central-bank assistance. That was certainly true during World War II, when the U.S. money supply increased by 25 percent a year. The Federal Reserve was the handmaiden of the U.S. government in financing spending that far exceeded revenue.

Today, developed countries are engaged not in shooting wars but wars against chronically slow economic growth. So the belief in close coordination between governments and central banks in spurring economic activity is back in vogue — thus helicopter money.

All of the QE activity over the past several years by the Fed, the Bank of England, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and others has failed to significantly revive economic growth. U.S. economic growth in this recovery has been the weakest of any post-war recovery. Growth in Japan has been minimal, and economies in the U.K. and the euro area remain under pressure.

The U.K.’s exit from the European Union may well lead to a recession in Britain and the EU as slow growth turns negative. A downturn could spread globally if financial disruptions are severe. This would no doubt ensure a drop in crude oil prices to the $10 to $20 a barrel level that I forecast in February 2015. This, too, would generate considerable financial distress, given the highly leveraged condition of the energy sector.

Both U.S. political parties seem to agree that funding for infrastructure projects is needed, given the poor state of American highways, ports, bridges and the like. And a boost in defense spending may also be in the works, especially if Republicans retain control of Congress and win the White House.

Given the “mad as hell” attitude of many voters in Europe and the U.S., on the left and the right, don’t be surprised to see a new round of fiscal stimulus financed by helicopter money, whether Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton is the next president.

Major central bank helicopter money is a fact of life in war time — and that includes the current global war on slower growth. Conventional monetary policy is impotent and voters in Europe and North America are screaming for government stimulus. I just hope it doesn’t set a precedent and continue after rapid growth resumes — otherwise, the fragile independence of major central banks could go the way of those in banana republics.

Disconnects

…between central bank policies, economic growth and unemployment. Stockman distinctly and colorfully explains why we are experiencing 1-2% growth these days. I’m not sure any of the candidates for POTUS have a good answer for this…It’s a sad commentary on our intellectual and political leaders.

Losing Ground In Flyover America, Part 2

In fact, the combination of pumping-up inflation toward 2% and hammering-down interest rates to the so-called zero bound is economically lethal. The former destroys the purchasing power of main street wages while the latter strip mines capital from business and channels it into Wall Street financial engineering and the inflation of stock prices.

In the case of the 2% inflation target, even if it was good for the general economy, which it most assuredly is not, it’s a horrible curse on flyover America. That’s because its nominal pay levels are set on the margin by labor costs in the export factories of China and the EM and the service sector outsourcing shops in India and its imitators.

Accordingly, wage earners actually need zero or even negative CPI’s to maximize the value of pay envelopes constrained by global competition. Indeed, in a world where the global labor market is deflating wage levels, the last thing main street needs is a central bank fanatically seeking to pump up the cost of living.

So why do the geniuses domiciled in the Eccles Building not see something that obvious?

The short answer is they are trapped in a 50-year old intellectual time warp that presumes that the US economy is more or less a closed system. Call it the Keynesian bathtub theory of macroeconomics and you have succinctly described the primitive architecture of the thing.

According to this fossilized worldview, monetary policy must drive interest rates ever lower in order to elicit more borrowing and aggregate spending. And then authorities must rinse and repeat this monetary “stimulus” until the bathtub of “potential GDP” is filled up to the brim.

Moreover, as the economy moves close to the economic bathtub’s brim or full employment GDP, labor allegedly becomes scarcer, thereby causing employers to bid up wage rates. Indeed, at full employment and 2% inflation wages will purportedly rise much faster than consumer prices, permitting real wage rates to rise and living standards to increase.

Except it doesn’t remotely work that way because the US economy is blessed with a decent measure of free trade in goods and services and virtually no restrictions on the flow of capital and short-term financial assets. That is, the Fed can’t fill up the economic bathtub with aggregate demand because it functions in a radically open system where incremental demand is as likely to be satisfied by off-shore goods and services as by domestic production.

This leakage through the bathtub’s side portals into the global economy, in turn, means that the Fed’s 2% inflation and full employment quest can’t cause domestic wage rates to rev-up, either. Incremental demands for labor hours, on the margin, are as likely to be met from the rice paddies of China as the purportedly diminishing cue of idle domestic workers.

Indeed, there has never been a theory so wrong-headed. And yet the financial commentariat, which embraces the Fed’s misbegotten bathtub economics model hook, line and sinker, disdains Donald Trump because his economic ideas are allegedly so primitive!

The irony of the matter is especially ripe. Even as the Fed leans harder into its misbegotten inflation campaign it is drastically mis-measuring its target, meaning that flyover American is getting  an extra dose of punishment.

On the one hand, real inflation where main street households live has been clocking in at over 3% for most of this century. At the same time, the Fed’s faulty measuring stick has led it to keep interest pinned to the zero bound for 89 straight months, thereby fueling the gambling spree in the Wall Street casino. The baleful consequence is that more and more capital has been diverted to financial engineering rather than equipping main street workers with productive capital equipment.

As we indicated in Part 1, even the Fed’s preferred inflation measuring stick——the PCE deflator less food and energy—has risen at a 1.7% rate for the last 16 years and 1.5% during the 6 years. Yet while it obsesses about a trivial miss that can not be meaningful in the context of an open economy, it fails to note that actual main street inflation—led by the four horseman of food, energy, medical and housing—–has been running at 3.1% per annum since the turn of the century.

After 16 years the annual gap, of course, has ballooned into a chasm. As shown in the graph, the consumer price level faced by flyover America is now actually 35% higher than what the Fed’s yardstick shows to the case.

Flyover CPI vs PCE Since 1999

Stated differently, main street households are not whooping up the spending storm that our monetary central planners have ordained because they don’t have the loot. Their real purchasing power has been tapped out.

To be sure, real growth and prosperity stems from the supply-side ingredients of labor, enterprise, capital and production, not the hoary myth that consumer spending is the fount of wealth. Still, the Fed has been consistently and almost comically wrong in its GDP growth projections because the expected surge in wages and consumer spending hasn’t happened.

growth chart

Share the Wealth?

The Third Way? No, the Only Way forward. It’s called peoples’ capitalism, the Ownership Society, employee ownership, inclusive capitalism, etc. (Ironic how Reich has embraced a concept introduced in national politics by George W. Bush.)
Reprinted from the Huff Post. Comment below…

The Third Way: Share-the-Gains Capitalism

by Robert Reich

Marissa Mayer tells us a lot about why Americans are so angry, and why anti-establishment fury has become the biggest single force in American politics today.

Mayer is CEO of Yahoo. Yahoo’s stock lost about a third of its value last year, as the company went from making $7.5 billion in 2014 to losing $4.4 billion in 2015. Yet Mayer raked in $36 million in compensation.

Even if Yahoo’s board fires her, her contract stipulates she gets $54.9 million in severance. The severance package was disclosed in a regulatory filing last Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In other words, Mayer can’t lose.

It’s another example of no-lose socialism for the rich — winning big regardless of what you do.

Why do Yahoo’s shareholders put up with it? Mostly because they don’t know about it.

Most of their shares are held by big pension funds, mutual funds, and insurance funds whose managers don’t want to rock the boat because they skim the cream regardless of what happens to Yahoo.

In other words, more no-lose socialism for the rich.

I don’t want to pick on Ms. Mayer or the managers of the funds that invest in Yahoo. They’re typical of the no-lose system in which America’s corporate and financial elite now operate.

But the rest of America works in a different system.

Theirs is cutthroat hyper-capitalism — in which wages are shrinking, median household income continues to drop, workers are fired without warning, two-thirds are living paycheck to paycheck, and employees are being classified as “independent contractors” without any labor protections at all.

Why is there no-lose socialism for the rich and cutthroat hyper-capitalism for everyone else?

Because the rules of the game — including labor laws, pension laws, corporate laws, and tax laws — have been crafted by those at the top, and the lawyers and lobbyists who work for them.

Does that mean we have to await Bernie Sanders’s “political revolution” (or, perish the thought, Donald Trump’s authoritarian populism) before any of this is likely to change?

Before we go to the barricades, you should know about another CEO named Hamdi Ulukaya, who’s developing a third model — neither no-lose socialism for the rich nor hyper-capitalism for everyone else.

Ulukaya is the Turkish-born founder and CEO of Chobani, the upstart Greek yogurt maker recently valued at as much as $5 billion.

Last Tuesday Ulukaya announced he’s giving all his 2,000 full-time workers shares of stock worth up to 10 percent of the privately held company’s value when it’s sold or goes public, based on each employee’s tenure and role at the company.

If the company ends up being valued at $3 billion, for example, the average employee payout could be $150,000. Some long-tenured employees will get more than $1 million.

Ulukaya’s announcement raised eyebrows all over corporate America. Many are viewing it as an act of charity (Forbes Magazine calls it one of “the most selfless corporate acts of the year”).

In reality, Mr. Ulukaya’s decision is just good business. Employees who are partners become even more dedicated to increasing a company’s value.

Which is why research shows that employee-owned companies — even those with workers holding only a minority stake — tend to out-perform the competition.

Mr. Ulukaya just increased the odds that Chobani will be valued at more than $5 billion when it’s sold or its shares of stock are available to the public. Which will make him, as well as his employees, far wealthier.

As Ulukaya wrote to his workers, the award isn’t a gift but “a mutual promise to work together with a shared purpose and responsibility.”

A handful of other companies are inching their way in a similar direction.

Apple decided last October it would award shares not just to executives or engineers but to hourly paid workers as well. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey is giving a third of his Twitter stock (about 1 percent of the company) “to our employee equity pool to reinvest directly in our people.“

Employee stock ownership plans, which have been around for years, are lately seeing a bit of a comeback.

But the vast majority of American companies are still locked in the old hyper-capitalist model that views workers as costs to be cut rather than as partners to share in success.

That’s largely because Wall Street still looks unfavorably on such collaboration (remember, Chobani is still privately held).

The Street remains obsessed with short-term stock performance, and its analysts don’t believe hourly workers have much to contribute to the bottom line.

But they’re prepared to lavish unprecedented rewards on CEOs who don’t deserve squat.

Let them compare Yahoo with Chobani in a few years, and see which model works best.

If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Greek yoghurt.

And I’d bet on a model of capitalism that’s neither no-lose socialism for the rich nor cruel hyper-capitalism for the rest, but share-the-gains capitalism for everyone.

 ——————
My comment:
Reich’s argument for inclusive “ownership” capital is certainly a welcome improvement over artificially raising labor costs through wage mandates or union restrictions. Kudos to Mr. Ulukaya, but a more widely adopted model can’t rely solely on enlightened capitalists. Mr. Reich glosses over the important issue of who bears the risks of capitalist enterprise before success. Sharing the gains unfortunately also means sharing the financial risks, or the direct relationship between human loss aversion and risk-taking enterprise collapses. In other words, nobody gets to receive gains without taking risks and nobody take risks without expected gains. If that truth escapes you, you’re probably not a casino gambler.
Mr. Ulukaya bore these risks and now wisely seeks to share the risks and rewards going forward. But these ownership rights should be negotiated by employees across the economy and can’t rely on the benevolence of successful entrepreneurs. Labor organizations could play a collective action role here on securing and enforcing ownership rights. The public sector also should address how economic risks can be better managed through a functioning private insurance market complemented by social insurance where private markets are incomplete.
The current desire to centralize risk and control in big government, big business, and big labor is sorely misguided and it would be helpful if both left and right could come together on that fact. Ideology be damned.
———-
I include this cartoon below for its comic irony. So many people reading this article mistake Reich’s argument for Bernie Sanders-style socialism when it is the exact opposite. It’s about extending capital ownership to labor, whereas socialism is about abolishing capital ownership in favor of some altruistic notion of communalism.
share-the-candy

Has the Fed Been Feeding the Zombies?

There’s little that is technically wrong with this exposition of Fed policies that puts it pretty much between a rock and a hard place. But why not question whether the Fed is really the problem rather than the solution? How did we arrive at a zombie economy? Was it excess credit and debt that ended up being unproductive? Perhaps costlier credit would have prevented unproductive investments (like new cars financed with home re-fis? Or stock/housing prices that had a tenuous relationship to income and earnings?). I suspect that by propping up prices the Fed has merely been feeding the zombies instead of letting them die off…

Reprinted from Barrons:

How the Fed Fights the Zombie Economy With Easy Money

Reinvesting the principal and interest from bonds purchased in the quantitative-easing program gives the Fed more leverage over the economy.

April 16, 2016

[IllustratIon: Martin Kozlowski]

The rabbi and philosopher Shimon Green, founder of the Bircas Hatorah center in Jerusalem for the study of ancient wisdom, has observed that the fear of zombies is cross-cultural: “The fear stems from our own fear of living hopeless lives…a fear that our lives are nonproductive, and that we are the walking dead.”

Many fear that the U.S. economy is “the walking dead”—that the economy is a charade produced by an elixir of low interest rates administered by the Federal Reserve. In an effort partly intended to dispel that fear, the Fed raised the federal-funds rate in December.

With inflation languishing below its 2% target, the Fed began a process of interest-rate normalization, thereby demonstrating confidence in the economy. Raising the fed-funds rate was supposed to encourage expectations of higher growth, which resulted, in part, from the Fed’s recognition of considerable improvements in labor markets.

When the Fed raised rates, it said it was reasonably confident that inflation would rise to meet its objective, describing the impact of energy prices as transitory and predicting that they would pick up in 2016.

While 2016 got off to a rocky start with oil and stock prices declining, both have rebounded and are now trading at levels comparable to December. The Fed continues to project confidence, and the Federal Open Market Committee recently announced that it is on course to continue to raise rates.

The official dot plot of members’ expectations shows that they expect two rate hikes in 2016 and a fed-funds rate of 3% by mid-2018. This contradicts market expectations for a more muted path forward.

While the Fed sends a message of confidence, pointing to decreases in unemployment, a pickup in average hourly earnings, and core consumer-price-index inflation exceeding 2%, it is aware that inflation continues to run below its longer-run objective.

The Fed is also mindful of the potential for adverse shocks that could derail the economy. The International Monetary Fund last week lowered its global growth forecast, saying that the sluggish pace of growth leaves the world economy more exposed to risks.

The Fed needs to remain accommodative while continuing to raise the fed-funds rate. While that rate is a short-term one charged between banks for overnight money, longer rates have the greatest impact on asset purchases (like buying a home).

Thus, the Fed pursued quantitative easing, purchasing longer-term securities to directly lower long-term yields. It intended to encourage growth more directly.

The QE program effectively ended in 2014, but longer-term rates have continued to decline. Since the Fed raised fed-funds rates in December, 30-year yields have gone down from 3% to 2.5%.

THUS THE END OF QE and a rising fed-funds rate do not necessarily spell the end of easy money. The Fed continues to buy long bonds by reinvesting principal and interest from its maturing securities. Its balance sheet is about $4.5 trillion, of which approximately $1.5 trillion matures in fewer than seven years.

An oft-overlooked paragraph in FOMC statements promises to continue the reinvesting until the normalization of federal funds is “well under way.”

It is no surprise that the Fed’s balance sheet grew for over a year after QE ended. Reinvestment can keep pressure on longer-term rates as the Fed deploys its reinvestment across the curve. Its role in monetary policy will grow as short-dated bonds mature.

The Fed’s reinvestment policy is vital, considering the impact of rising rates and a shrinking balance sheet on fiscal policy. In 2007, the government paid $430 billion in interest on $9 trillion of debt. In 2015, the total interest paid on $19 trillion was about $402 billion. Like many Americans, Treasury has more debt and pays less interest.

If that is not enough to encourage the Fed to keep interest rates low, consider that Treasury effectively pays zero interest on T-bonds that the Fed keeps on its balance sheet (most of the interest Treasury pays to the Fed is given back to Treasury as profit). Higher rates and a shrinking balance would certainly create new burdens that might not be offset by economic growth.

Fiscal realities and the fear of adverse economic shocks drive the Fed to keep long rates lower. Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer recently said a larger balance sheet is accommodative and reduces risks to the economy. This would explain why the yield curve has flattened since December, as the market digested the distinction between higher fed-funds rates and an easy long-rate policy.

Raising the fed-funds rate demonstrates confidence in the economy; lowering long-term rates may be what is necessary to make that perception a reality. Former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke recently described longer-term “rate targeting” as a possible tool that the Fed could use to stimulate growth. With rate targeting, the Fed would peg long-term interest rates while creating a ceiling for long-term Treasury debt. Though he declared that such an “exotic” approach is not likely in the foreseeable future, he pointed out that “public beliefs about these tools may influence expectations.”

If the Fed continues to emphasize that it will be reinvesting in long bonds for some time, it can change public perception of rising short rates to navigate long rates lower without using exotic tools. On the path to normalization, the Fed then would maintain the flexibility to raise the fed-funds rate while keeping long rates low. [So we move into an inverted yield curve? That is supposed to signal tightening credit.] 

Such an accommodative stance would help our economy grow while relieving some of the fiscal pressure. This is how the Fed’s balance sheet can buy time until we arrive at a point where the inflation data confirm that we are not zombies after all. [So, inflation is going to save us? Why, instead, does a little deflation scare the Fed so much? Because we are over-leveraged with cheap credit?]

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