Global Depression or Persistent Stagflation?

Dr. Doom and Gloom lays out the downside global economic scenario. Worth reading and factoring into our economic posturing…[Comments bracketed in red].

Published in NY Magazine

Why Our Economy May Be Headed for a Decade of Depression

Eric Levitz May 22, 2020

The worst is yet to come?

In September 2006, Nouriel Roubini told the International Monetary Fund what it didn’t want to hear. Standing before an audience of economists at the organization’s headquarters, the New York University professor warned that the U.S. housing market would soon collapse — and, quite possibly, bring the global financial system down with it. Real-estate values had been propped up by unsustainably shady lending practices, Roubini explained. Once those prices came back to earth, millions of underwater homeowners would default on their mortgages, trillions of dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities would unravel, and hedge funds, investment banks, and lenders like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac could sink into insolvency.

At the time, the global economy had just recorded its fastest half-decade of growth in 30 years. And Nouriel Roubini was just some obscure academic. Thus, in the IMF’s cozy confines, his remarks roused less alarm over America’s housing bubble than concern for the professor’s psychological well-being.

Of course, the ensuing two years turned Roubini’s prophecy into history, and the little-known scholar of emerging markets into a Wall Street celebrity.

A decade later, “Dr. Doom” is a bear once again. While many investors bet on a “V-shaped recovery,” Roubini is staking his reputation on an L-shaped depression. The economist (and host of a biweekly economic news broadcastdoes expect things to get better before they get worse: He foresees a slow, lackluster (i.e., “U-shaped”) economic rebound in the pandemic’s immediate aftermath. But he insists that this recovery will quickly collapse beneath the weight of the global economy’s accumulated debts. Specifically, Roubini argues that the massive private debts accrued during both the 2008 crash and COVID-19 crisis will durably depress consumption and weaken the short-lived recovery. Meanwhile, the aging of populations across the West will further undermine growth while increasing the fiscal burdens of states already saddled with hazardous debt loads. Although deficit spending is necessary in the present crisis, and will appear benign at the onset of recovery, it is laying the kindling for an inflationary conflagration by mid-decade. As the deepening geopolitical rift between the United States and China triggers a wave of deglobalization, negative supply shocks akin those of the 1970s are going to raise the cost of real resources, even as hyperexploited workers suffer perpetual wage and benefit declines. Prices will rise, but growth will peter out, since ordinary people will be forced to pare back their consumption more and more. Stagflation will beget depression. And through it all, humanity will be beset by unnatural disasters, from extreme weather events wrought by man-made climate change to pandemics induced by our disruption of natural ecosystems.

Roubini allows that, after a decade of misery, we may get around to developing a “more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order.” But, he hastens to add, “any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive” the hard times to come.

Intelligencer recently spoke with Roubini about our impending doom.

You predict that the coronavirus recession will be followed by a lackluster recovery and global depression. The financial markets ostensibly see a much brighter future. What are they missing and why?

Well, first of all, my prediction is not for 2020. It’s a prediction that these ten major forces will, by the middle of the coming decade, lead us into a “Greater Depression.” Markets, of course, have a shorter horizon. In the short run, I expect a U-shaped recovery while the markets seem to be pricing in a V-shape recovery.

Of course the markets are going higher because there’s a massive monetary stimulus, there’s a massive fiscal stimulus. People expect that the news about the contagion will improve, and that there’s going to be a vaccine at some point down the line. And there is an element “FOMO” [fear of missing out]; there are millions of new online accounts — unemployed people sitting at home doing day-trading — and they’re essentially playing the market based on pure sentiment. My view is that there’s going to be a meaningful correction once people realize this is going to be a U-shaped recovery. If you listen carefully to what Fed officials are saying — or even what JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs are saying — initially they were all in the V camp, but now they’re all saying, well, maybe it’s going to be more of a U. The consensus is moving in a different direction.

Your prediction of a weak recovery seems predicated on there being a persistent shortfall in consumer demand due to income lost during the pandemic. A bullish investor might counter that the Cares Act has left the bulk of laid-off workers with as much — if not more — income than they had been earning at their former jobs. Meanwhile, white-collar workers who’ve remained employed are typically earning as much as they used to, but spending far less. Together, this might augur a surge in post-pandemic spending that powers a V-shaped recovery. What does the bullish story get wrong?

Yes, there are unemployment benefits. And some unemployed people may be making more money than when they were working. But those unemployment benefits are going to run out in July. The consensus says the unemployment rate is headed to 25 percent. Maybe we get lucky. Maybe there’s an early recovery, and it only goes to 16 percent. Either way, tons of people are going to lose unemployment benefits in July. And if they’re rehired, it’s not going to be like before — formal employment, full benefits. You want to come back to work at my restaurant? Tough luck. I can hire you only on an hourly basis with no benefits and a low wage. That’s what every business is going to be offering. Meanwhile, many, many people are going to be without jobs of any kind. It took us ten years — between 2009 and 2019 — to create 22 million jobs. And we’ve lost 30 million jobs in two months. [This begins to show why employment is the wrong focus for the Information Age.]

So when unemployment benefits expire, lots of people aren’t going to have any income. Those who do get jobs are going to work under more miserable conditions than before. And people, even middle-income people, given the shock that has just occurred — which could happen again in the summer, could happen again in the winter — you are going to want more precautionary savings. You are going to cut back on discretionary spending. Your credit score is going to be worse. Are you going to go buy a home? Are you gonna buy a car? Are you going to dine out? In Germany and China, they already reopened all the stores a month ago. You look at any survey, the restaurants are totally empty. Almost nobody’s buying anything. Everybody’s worried and cautious. And this is in Germany, where unemployment is up by only one percent. Forty percent of Americans have less than $400 in liquid cash saved for an emergency. [This is a major policy failure that citizens of other countries do not share. Our tax policies have discouraged savings but encouraged borrowing.] You think they are going to spend?

Graphic: Financial Times
Graphic: Financial Times

You’re going to start having food riots soon enough. [I don’t see that happening, at least not in the US. People on state welfare support are going to need more of it and the welfare roles will rise.] Look at the luxury stores in New York. They’ve either boarded them up or emptied their shelves,  because they’re worried people are going to steal the Chanel bags. [Yes, because luxury goods are a form of currency. Luxury stores are also a focus of resentment.] The few stores that are open, like my Whole Foods, have security guards both inside and outside. We are one step away from food riots. There are lines three miles long at food banks. [This not a riot, it’s an overload on govt provided welfare.] That’s what’s happening in America. You’re telling me everything’s going to become normal in three months? That’s lunacy.

Your projection of a “Greater Depression” is premised on deglobalization sparking negative supply shocks. And that prediction of deglobalization is itself rooted in the notion that the U.S. and China are locked in a so-called Thucydides trap, in which the geopolitical tensions between a dominant and rising power will overwhelm mutual financial self-interest. But given the deep interconnections between the American and Chinese economies — and warm relations between much of the U.S. and Chinese financial elite — isn’t it possible that class solidarity will take precedence over Great Power rivalry? In other words, don’t the most powerful people in both countries understand they have a lot to lose financially and economically from decoupling? And if so, why shouldn’t we see the uptick in jingoistic rhetoric on both sides as mere posturing for a domestic audience?

First of all, my argument for why inflation will eventually come back is not just based on U.S.-China relations. I actually have 14 separate arguments for why this will happen. That said, everybody agrees that there is the beginning of a Cold War between the U.S. and China. I was in Beijing in November of 2015, with a delegation that met with Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People. And he spent the first 15 minutes of his remarks speaking, unprompted, about why the U.S. and China will not get caught in a Thucydides trap, and why there will actually be a peaceful rise of China.

Since then, Trump got elected. Now, we have a full-scale trade war, technology war, financial war, monetary war, technology, information, data, investment, pretty much anything across the board. Look at tech — there is complete decoupling. They just decided Huawei isn’t going to have any access to U.S. semiconductors and technology. We’re imposing total restrictions on the transfer of technology from the U.S. to China and China to the U.S. And if the United States argues that 5G or Huawei is a backdoor to the Chinese government, the tech war will become a trade war. Because tomorrow, every piece of consumer electronics, even your lowly coffee machine or microwave or toaster, is going to have a 5G chip. That’s what the internet of things is about. If the Chinese can listen to you through your smartphone, they can listen to you through your toaster. Once we declare that 5G is going to allow China to listen to our communication, we will also have to ban all household electronics made in China. So, the decoupling is happening. We’re going to have a “splinternet.” It’s only a matter of how much and how fast.

And there is going to be a cold war between the U.S. and China. Even the foreign policy Establishment — Democrats and Republicans — that had been in favor of better relations with China has become skeptical in the last few years. They say, “You know, we thought that China was going to become more open if we let them into the WTO. We thought they’d become less authoritarian.” Instead, under Xi Jinping, China has become more state capitalist, more authoritarian, and instead of biding its time and hiding its strength, like Deng Xiaoping wanted it to do, it’s flexing its geopolitical muscle. And the U.S., rightly or wrongly, feels threatened. I’m not making a normative statement. I’m just saying, as a matter of fact, we are in a Thucydides trap. The only debate is about whether there will be a cold war or a hot one. Historically, these things have led to a hot war in 12 out of 16 episodes in 2,000 years of history. So we’ll be lucky if we just get a cold war.

Some Trumpian nationalists and labor-aligned progressives might see an upside in your prediction that America is going to bring manufacturing back “onshore.” But you insist that ordinary Americans will suffer from the downsides of reshoring (higher consumer prices) without enjoying the ostensible benefits (more job opportunities and higher wages). In your telling, onshoring won’t actually bring back jobs, only accelerate automation. And then, again with automation, you insist that Americans will suffer from the downside (unemployment, lower wages from competition with robots) but enjoy none of the upside from the productivity gains that robotization will ostensibly produce. So, what do you say to someone who looks at your forecast and decides that you are indeed “Dr. Doom” — not a realist, as you claim to be, but a pessimist, who ignores the bright side of every subject?

When you reshore, you are moving production from regions of the world like China, and other parts of Asia, that have low labor costs, to parts of the world like the U.S. and Europe that have higher labor costs. That is a fact. How is the corporate sector going respond to that? It’s going to respond by replacing labor with robots, automation, and AI.

I was recently in South Korea. I met the head of Hyundai, the third-largest automaker in the world. He told me that tomorrow, they could convert their factories to run with all robots and no workers. Why don’t they do it? Because they have unions that are powerful. In Korea, you cannot fire these workers, they have lifetime employment. [There is a serious cost to raising labor rates in a world with price competition. Raising input costs means pricing power rules and most producers lack that pricing power. If Hyundai cars become more expensive, then Hyundai loses sales and Hyundai requires state subsidies paid for by Korean taxpayers. If Hyundai reduces costs, Hyundai workers face dimmer income prospects and more state welfare. The only way out of this conundrum is to share the economic costs across all stakeholders. That’s best done through equity rights than through state directives. This is especially true in the US under the corporate legal structure.]

But suppose you take production from a labor-intensive factory in China — in any industry — and move it into a brand-new factory in the United States. You don’t have any legacy workers, any entrenched union. You are going to design that factory to use as few workers as you can. Any new factory in the U.S. is going to be capital-intensive and labor-saving. It’s been happening for the last ten years and it’s going to happen more when we reshore. So reshoring means increasing production in the United States but not increasing employment. Yes, there will be productivity increases. And the profits of those firms that relocate production may be slightly higher than they were in China (though that isn’t certain since automation requires a lot of expensive capital investment).

But you’re not going to get many jobs. The factory of the future is going to be one person manning 1,000 robots and a second person cleaning the floor. And eventually the guy cleaning the floor is going to be replaced by a Roomba because a Roomba doesn’t ask for benefits or bathroom breaks or get sick and can work 24-7. [I’ve written many times in the past, what matters is who owns and controls the robots.]

The fundamental problem today is that people think there is a correlation between what’s good for Wall Street and what’s good for Main Street. [Yes, but conceptually we can close this conflict of interest by turning more of Main St. into entrepreneurial risk takers through the sharing of diversified equity risks.] That wasn’t even true during the global financial crisis when we were saying, “We’ve got to bail out Wall Street because if we don’t, Main Street is going to collapse.” How did Wall Street react to the crisis? They fired workers. And when they rehired them, they were all gig workers, contractors, freelancers, and so on. That’s what happened last time. This time is going to be more of the same. Thirty-five to 40 million people have already been fired. When they start slowly rehiring some of them (not all of them), those workers are going to get part-time jobs, without benefits, without high wages. That’s the only way for the corporates to survive. Because they’re so highly leveraged today, they’re going to need to cut costs, and the first cost you cut is labor. But of course, your labor cost is my consumption. So in an equilibrium where everyone’s slashing labor costs, households are going to have less income. [Again, this is why using wage labor as the dominant distributional mechanism for the success of capitalism is no longer viable. It only was during the industrial age.] And they’re going to save more to protect themselves from another coronavirus crisis. And so consumption is going to be weak. That’s why you get the U-shaped recovery.

There’s a conflict between workers and capital. [Only in the short-run.] For a decade, workers have been screwed. Now, they’re going to be screwed more. There’s a conflict between small business and large business.

Millions of these small businesses are going to go bankrupt. Half of the restaurants in New York are never going to reopen. How can they survive? They have such tiny margins. Who’s going to survive? The big chains. Retailers. Fast food. The small businesses are going to disappear in the post-coronavirus economy. So there is a fundamental conflict between Wall Street (big banks and big firms) and Main Street (workers and small businesses). And Wall Street is going to win. [We all win by participating in the financing and risk sharing of capitalism. We all need to be invested in Wall St., and finance – both ownership and control – must be transparent. Someday we will have blockchain smart contracts distribute corporate profits to shareholders in a transparent manner under the shareholders’ control, reducing the agency costs and conflicts of interest.]

Clearly, you’re bearish on the potential of existing governments intervening in that conflict on Main Street’s behalf. But if we made you dictator of the United States tomorrow, what policies would you enact to strengthen labor, and avert (or at least mitigate) the Greater Depression? 

The market, as currently ordered, is going to make capital stronger and labor weaker. So, to change this, you need to invest in your workers. [Yes, but that does not mean wage or labor supply controls – intervention on the cost side of production will only backfire.] Give them education, a social safety net — so if they lose their jobs to an economic or technological shock, they get job training, unemployment benefits, social welfare, health care for free. [These policies all lead to productive investment in human capital, but it is not enough. Workers need financial capital that generates diversified streams of income.]  Otherwise, the trends of the market are going to imply more income and wealth inequality. [The Fed has been no help here.] There’s a lot we can do to rebalance it. But I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. If Bernie Sanders had become president, maybe we could’ve had policies of that sort. [No, Bernie is completely focused on intervening into labor markets. Workers look like they’re gaining in the short-run and lose big time in the long-run.] Of course, Bernie Sanders is to the right of the CDU party in Germany. I mean, Angela Merkel is to the left of Bernie Sanders. Boris Johnson is to the left of Bernie Sanders, in terms of social democratic politics. Only by U.S. standards does Bernie Sanders look like a Bolshevik.

In Germany, the unemployment rate has gone up by one percent. In the U.S., the unemployment rate has gone from 4 percent to 20 percent (correctly measured) in two months. We lost 30 million jobs. Germany lost 200,000. Why is that the case? You have different economic institutions. Workers sit on the boards of German companies. So you share the costs of the shock between the workers, the firms, and the government. [Yes, this is how it should be, but in US society and business, equity is the cleanest way to achieve this representation. Stakeholders should have board representation through their equity ownership claims.]

In 2009, you argued that if deficit spending to combat high unemployment continued indefinitely, “it will fuel persistent, large budget deficits and lead to inflation.” You were right on the first count obviously. And yet, a decade of fiscal expansion not only failed to produce high inflation, but was insufficient to reach the Fed’s 2 percent inflation goal. Is it fair to say that you underestimated America’s fiscal capacity back then? And if you overestimated the harms of America’s large public debts in the past, what makes you confident you aren’t doing so in the present?

First of all, in 2009, I was in favor of a bigger stimulus than the one that we got. I was not in favor of fiscal consolidation. There’s a huge difference between the global financial crisis and the coronavirus crisis because the former was a crisis of aggregate demand, given the housing bust. And so monetary policy alone was insufficient and you needed fiscal stimulus. And the fiscal stimulus that Obama passed was smaller than justified. So stimulus was the right response, at least for a while. And then you do consolidation.

What I have argued this time around is that in the short run, this is both a supply shock and a demand shock. And, of course, in the short run, if you want to avoid a depression, you need to do monetary and fiscal stimulus. What I’m saying is that once you run a budget deficit of not 3, not 5, not 8, but 15 or 20 percent of GDP — and you’re going to fully monetize it (because that’s what the Fed has been doing) — you still won’t have inflation in the short run, not this year or next year, because you have slack in goods markets, slack in labor markets, slack in commodities markets, etc. But there will be inflation in the post-coronavirus world. [We will have asset price inflation in the immediate and longer-term – this greatly aggravates inequality.] This is because we’re going to see two big negative supply shocks. For the last decade, prices have been constrained by two positive supply shocks — globalization and technology. Well, globalization is going to become deglobalization thanks to decoupling, protectionism, fragmentation, and so on. So that’s going to be a negative supply shock. And technology is not going to be the same as before. The 5G of Erickson and Nokia costs 30 percent more than the one of Huawei, and is 20 percent less productive. So to install non-Chinese 5G networks, we’re going to pay 50 percent more. So technology is going to gradually become a negative supply shock. So you have two major forces that had been exerting downward pressure on prices moving in the opposite direction, and you have a massive monetization of fiscal deficits. Remember the 1970s? You had two negative supply shocks — ’73 and ’79, the Yom Kippur War and the Iranian Revolution. What did you get? Stagflation.

Now, I’m not talking about hyperinflation — not Zimbabwe or Argentina. I’m not even talking about 10 percent inflation. It’s enough for inflation to go from one to 4 percent. Then, ten-year Treasury bonds — which today have interest rates close to zero percent — will need to have an inflation premium. So, think about a ten-year Treasury, five years from now, going from one percent to 5 percent, while inflation goes from near zero to 4 percent. And ask yourself, what’s going to happen to the real economy? Well, in the fourth quarter of 2018, when the Federal Reserve tried to raise rates above 2 percent, the market couldn’t take it. So we don’t need hyperinflation to have a disaster. [So we seesaw between heeling one way or the other –  inflationary or deflationary pressures with volatile financial policy. Sounds like a great policy scenario.]

In other words, you’re saying that because of structural weaknesses in the economy, even modest inflation would be crisis-inducing because key economic actors are dependent on near-zero interest rates?

For the last decade, debt-to-GDP ratios in the U.S. and globally have been rising. And debts were rising for corporations and households as well. But we survived this, because, while debt ratios were high, debt-servicing ratios were low, since we had zero percent policy rates and long rates close to zero — or, in Europe and Japan, negative. But the second the Fed started to hike rates, there was panic.

In December 2018, Jay Powell said, “You know what. I’m at 2.5 percent. I’m going to go to 3.25. And I’m going to continue running down my balance sheet.” And the market totally crashed. And then, literally on January 2, 2019, Powell comes back and says, “Sorry, I was kidding. I’m not going to do quantitative tightening. I’m not going to raise rates.” So the economy couldn’t take a Fed funds rate of 2.5 percent. In the strongest economy in the world. There is so much debt, if long-term rates go from zero to 3 percent, the economy is going to crash.

You’ve written a lot about negative supply shocks from deglobalization. Another potential source of such shocks is climate change. Many scientists believe that rising temperatures threaten the supply of our most precious commodities — food and water. How does climate figure into your analysis?

I am not an expert on global climate change. But one of the ten forces that I believe will bring a Greater Depression is man-made disasters. And global climate change, which is producing more extreme weather phenomena — on one side, hurricanes, typhoons, and floods; on the other side, fires, desertification, and agricultural collapse — is not a natural disaster. The science says these extreme events are becoming more frequent, are coming farther inland, and are doing more damage. And they are doing this now, not 30 years from now. 

So there is climate change. And its economic costs are becoming quite extreme. In Indonesia, they’ve decided to move the capital out of Jakarta to somewhere inland because they know that their capital is going to be fully flooded. In New York, there are plans to build a wall all around Manhattan at the cost of $120 billion. And then they said, “Oh no, that wall is going to be so ugly, it’s going to feel like we’re in a prison.” So they want to do something near the Verrazzano Bridge that’s going to cost another $120 billion. And it’s not even going to work.

The Paris Accord said 1.5 degrees. Then they say two. Now, every scientist says, “Look, this is a voluntary agreement, we’ll be lucky if we get three — and more likely, it will be four — degree Celsius increases by the end of the century.” How are we going to live in a world where temperatures are four degrees higher? And we’re not doing anything about it. The Paris Accord is just a joke. And it’s not just the U.S. and Trump. China’s not doing anything. The Europeans aren’t doing anything. It’s only talk.

And then there’s the pandemics. These are also man-made disasters. You’re destroying the ecosystems of animals. You are putting them into cages — the bats and pangolins and all the other wildlife — and they interact and create viruses and then spread to humans. First, we had HIV. Then we had SARS. Then MERS, then swine flu, then Zika, then Ebola, now this one. And there’s a connection between global climate change and pandemics. Suppose the permafrost in Siberia melts. There are probably viruses that have been in there since the Stone Age. We don’t know what kind of nasty stuff is going to get out. We don’t even know what’s coming. [Climate change and environmental degradation need to be managed, probably in a decentralized manner using market signals to change behavior. But a society needs resilience, slack, and insurance to manage the vagaries and risks of uncertain change. We’ve reduced our ability to adapt through misguided policies for about 50 years now, greatly increasing systemic risk. That’s what man-made disasters are made of.]

Bank Bailout 3.0

I’d have to agree with this. As we’ve said all along, saving the banking system was necessary, saving the bankers was not. Now we’re set up for the next bailout of the financial elite. What a great casino this is: heads they win, tails we lose.

The bank bailout of 2008 was unnecessary. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke scared Congress into it

By Dean Baker

This week marked 10 years since the harrowing descent into the financial crisis — when the huge investment bank Lehman Bros. went into bankruptcy, with the country’s largest insurer, AIG, about to follow. No one was sure which financial institution might be next to fall.

 

The banking system started to freeze up. Banks typically extend short-term credit to one another for a few hundredths of a percentage point more than the cost of borrowing from the federal government. This gap exploded to 4 or 5 percentage points after Lehman collapsed. Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke — along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Bank of New York President Timothy Geithner — rushed to Congress to get $700 billion to bail out the banks. “If we don’t do this today we won’t have an economy on Monday,” is the line famously attributed to Bernanke.

The trio argued to lawmakers that without the bailout, the United States faced a catastrophic collapse of the financial system and a second Great Depression.

Neither part of that story was true.

Still, news reports on the crisis raised the prospect of empty ATMs and checks uncashed. There were stories in major media outlets about the bank runs of 1929.

No such scenario was in the cards in 2008.

Unlike 1929, we have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The FDIC was created precisely to prevent the sort of bank runs that were common during the Great Depression and earlier financial panics. The FDIC is very good at taking over a failed bank to ensure that checks are honored and ATMs keep working. In fact, the FDIC took over several major banks and many minor ones during the Great Recession. Business carried on as normal and most customers — unless they were following the news closely — remained unaware.

 

The prospect of Great Depression-style joblessness and bread lines was just a scare tactic used by Bernanke, Paulson and other proponents of the bailout.

Had bank collapses been more widespread, stretching the FDIC staff thin, it is certainly possible that there would be glitches. This could have led to some inability to access bank accounts immediately, but that inconvenience would most likely have lasted days, not weeks or months.

 

Following the collapse of Lehman Bros., however, the trio promoting the bank bailout pointed to a specific panic point: the commercial paper market. Commercial paper is short-term debt (30 to 90 days) that companies typically use to finance their operations. Without being able to borrow in this market even healthy companies not directly affected by the financial crisis such as Boeing or Verizon would have been unable to meet their payroll or pay their suppliers. That really would have been a disaster for the economy.

However, a $700-billion bank bailout wasn’t required to restore the commercial paper market. The country discovered this fact the weekend after Congress approved the bailout when the Fed announced a special lending facility to buy commercial paper ensuring the availability of credit for businesses.

 

bailout-cartoon-2

Without the bailout, yes, bank failures would have been more widespread and the initial downturn in 2008 and 2009 would have been worse. We were losing 700,000 jobs a month following the collapse of Lehman. Perhaps this would have been 800,000 or 900,000 a month. That is a very bad story, but still not the makings of an unavoidable depression with a decade of double-digit unemployment.

 

The Great Depression ended because of the massive government spending needed to fight World War II. But we don’t need a war to spend money. If the private sector is not creating enough demand for workers, the government can fill the gap by spending money on infrastructure, education, healthcare, childcare or many other needs.

There is no plausible story where a series of bank collapses in 2008-2009 would have prevented the federal government from spending the money needed to restore full employment. The prospect of Great Depression-style joblessness and bread lines was just a scare tactic used by Bernanke, Paulson and other proponents of the bailout to get the political support needed to save the Wall Street banks.

 

This kept the bloated financial structure that had developed over the last three decades in place. And it allowed the bankers who got rich off of the risky financial practices that led to the crisis to avoid the consequences of their actions.

 

While an orderly transition would have been best, if the market had been allowed to work its magic, we could have quickly eliminated bloat in the financial sector and sent the unscrupulous Wall Street banks into the dustbin of history. Instead, millions of Americans still suffered through the Great Recession, losing homes and jobs, and the big banks are bigger than ever. Saving the banks became the priority of the president and Congress. Saving people’s homes and jobs mattered much less or not at all.

 

Dean Baker is senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the author of “Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer.”

bailout-toon2

Health Care Fantasies

A couple of articles today outlining how far apart from reality are the pro and con arguments for different possible reforms. This is going to matter at some point soon, if not now.

Socialized Medicine Has Won the Health Care Debate

The first article, by Sarah Jaffe published in The New Republic, suggests that “socialized” healthcare has won the policy debate. Citing opinion polls (for which all questions display a certain bias), the author claims that the American public favors government-run socialized medicine. (Here’s a good example of survey bias: “Do you favor free healthcare for all?” – How many No’s do you think that question elicits?)

Ms. Jaffe explains away Obamacare’s unpopularity with this, “What people don’t like are the inequities that still prevail in our health care system, not the fact that “government is too involved. …The law didn’t go too far for Americans to get behind. It didn’t go far enough. And while single-payer opponents continue to evoke rationed care, long lines and wait times, and other problems that supposedly plague England or Canada, the public seems well aware that the reality for many Americans is far worse.”

Really?

What’s more, what makes her think that government control removes inequalities rather than make them worse according to different selection criteria?

Finally, she proclaims, “This is now an American consensus. And if socialism is the medicine our system needs, the country is ready to embrace it—even by name.”

At no point does Ms. Jaffe discuss the associated costs, who is going to pay them, and what kind of trade-offs this will impose on citizens and taxpayers. This is an argument motivated by political ideology, not reality.

***

This brings us to the second article, by Sally Pipes in Investor’s Business Daily (this should give us a clue that Pipes actually plans to address money issues).

Sanders’ Single-Payer Fairy Tale

Ms. Pipes first gives us an indication of polling bias: “The idea is … enchanting ordinary Americans. Fifty-three percent support single payer, according to a June 2017 poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. But this supposed support is a mirage. According to the same Kaiser poll, 62% would oppose single-payer if it gave the government too much power over health care. Sixty percent would reject it if it increased taxes.”

Sen. Sanders estimates that “Medicare for all” would cost an extra $14 trillion over 10 years, while the Urban Institute’s analysis of the plan puts the figure at $32 trillion. Our current annual health spending is $3.2 trillion, so Medicare at minimum would double that spending level, with no viable way to pay for it, with taxes or otherwise.

Medicare for the 65+ crowd is already a deficit buster, so the nation will not be affording such care for the entire population and promises to do so are a dangerous fantasy. We do know what will happen – the “free” care we expect will never be delivered and the politicians who sell such snake oil will be long gone.

The real problem with our health care debates is that they focus solely on distribution and not on the real problem, which is adequate supply. If no one is producing health care goods, what is there to distribute?

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 New Old World Order

I cite this article because it is quite insightful of the failed political culture in the modern democratic West and particularly the failures of US party elites. It also exposes the larger historical forces at work that suggest the road forward may be rather rocky.

For me this 2016 moment resonates with historical analogies such as the Savonarolan episode in Renaissance Florence that I wrote about in The City of Man, the dissolution of the Weimar Republic in 1930s Germany, and the Iranian Fundamentalist Revolution in 1979. We haven’t reached those precipices yet, but all arrows point in that direction unless we come to grips with our current failures of both modern liberalism and neo-conservatism.

Donald Trump Does Have Ideas—and We’d Better Pay Attention to Them

The post-1989 world order is unraveling. Here are 6 ideas Trump has to replace it.

Politico, September 15, 2016

Ideas really don’t come along that often. Already in 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville observed that in America, “ideas are a sort of mental dust,” that float about us but seldom cohere or hold our attention. For ideas to take hold, they need to be comprehensive and organizing; they need to order people’s experience of themselves and of their world. In 20th-century America, there were only a few ideas: the Progressivism of Wilson; Roosevelt’s New Deal; the Containment Doctrine of Truman; Johnson’s War on Poverty; Reagan’s audacious claim that the Cold War could be won; and finally, the post-1989 order rooted in “globalization” and “identity politics,” which seems to be unraveling before our ey.es.

Yes, Donald Trump is implicated in that unraveling, cavalierly undermining decades worth of social and political certainties with his rapid-fire Twitter account and persona that only the borough of Queens can produce. But so is Bernie Sanders. And so is Brexit. And so are the growing rumblings in Europe, which are all the more dangerous because there is no exit strategy if the European Union proves unsustainable. It is not so much that there are no new ideas for us to consider in 2016; it is more that the old ones are being taken apart without a clear understanding of what comes next. 2016 is the year of mental dust, where notions that stand apart from the post-1989 order don’t fully cohere. The 2016 election will be the first—but not last—test of whether they can.
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If you listen closely to Trump, you’ll hear a direct repudiation of the system of globalization and identity politics that has defined the world order since the Cold War. There are, in fact, six specific ideas that he has either blurted out or thinly buried in his rhetoric: (1) borders matter; (2) immigration policy matters; (3) national interests, not so-called universal interests, matter; (4) entrepreneurship matters; (5) decentralization matters; (6) PC speech—without which identity politics is inconceivable—must be repudiated.

These six ideas together point to an end to the unstable experiment with supra- and sub-national sovereignty that many of our elites have guided us toward, siren-like, since 1989. That is what the Trump campaign, ghastly though it may at times be, leads us toward: A future where states matter. A future where people are citizens, working together toward (bourgeois) improvement of their lot. His ideas do not yet fully cohere. They are a bit too much like mental dust that has yet to come together. But they can come together. And Trump is the first American candidate to bring some coherence to them, however raucous his formulations have been.

***

(Blog Note: It’s Not about Trump.)

Most of the commentary about Trump has treated him as if he is a one-off, as someone who has emerged because of the peculiar coincidence of his larger-than-life self-absorption and the advent of social media platforms that encourage it. When the world becomes a theater for soliloquy and self-aggrandizement, what else are we to expect?
But the Trump-as-one-off argument begins to fall apart when we think about what else happened in politics this year. First of all, Trump is not alone. If he alone had emerged—if there were no Bernie Sanders, no Brexit, no crisis in the EU—it would be justifiable to pay attention only to his peculiarities and to the oddities of the moment. But with these other uprisings occurring this year, it’s harder to dismiss Trump as a historical quirk.

Furthermore, if he had been just a one-off, surely the Republican Party would have been able to contain him, even co-opt him for its own purposes. After all, doesn’t the party decide? The Republican Party is not a one, however, it is a many. William F. Buckley Jr. and others invented the cultural conservatism portion of the party in the 1950s, with the turn to the traditionalism of Edmund Burke; the other big portion of the party adheres to the free-market conservatism of Friedrich Hayek. The third leg of the Republican Party stool, added during the Reagan years, includes evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics of the sort who were still unsure of the implications of Vatican II. To Burke and Hayek, then, add the names John Calvin and Aristotle/Thomas Aquinas. Anyone who really reads these figures knows that the tension between them is palpable. For a time, the three GOP factions were able to form an alliance against Communism abroad and against Progressivism at home. But after the Cold War ended, Communism withered and the culture wars were lost, there has been very little to keep the partnership together. And if it hadn’t been Trump, sooner or later someone else was going to come along and reveal the Republican Party’s inner fault lines. Trump alone might have been the catalyst, but the different factions of the GOP who quickly split over him were more than happy to oblige.

There is another reason why the Republican Party could not contain Trump, a perhaps deeper reason. Michael Oakeshott, an under-read political thinker in the mid-20th century, remarked in his exquisite essay, “Rationalism in Politics,” that one of the more pathological notions of our age is that political life can be understood in terms of “principles” that must be applied to circumstances. Politics-as-engineering, if you will. Republicans themselves succumbed to this notion, and members of the rank and file have noticed. Republicans stood for “the principles of the constitution,” for “the principles of the free market,” etc. The problem with standing for principles is that it allows you to remain unsullied by the political fray, to stand back and wait until yet another presidential election cycle when “our principles” can perhaps be applied. And if we lose, it’s OK, because we still have “our principles.” What Trump has been able to seize upon is growing dissatisfaction with this endless deferral, the sociological arrangement for which looks like comfortable Inside-the-Beltway Republicans defending “principles” and rank-and-file Republicans far from Washington-Babylon watching in horror and disgust.

Any number of commentators (and prominent Republican Party members) have said that Trump is an anti-ideas candidate. If we are serious about understanding our political moment, we have to be very clear about what this can mean. It can mean Trump’s administration will involve the-politics-of-will, so to speak; that the only thing that will matter in government will be what Trump demands. Or, it can mean that Trump is not a candidate who believes in “principles” at all. This is probably the more accurate usage. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he is unprincipled; it means rather that he doesn’t believe that yet another policy paper based on conservative “principles” is going to save either America or the Republican Party. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville was clear that the spirit of democracy is not made possible by great ideas (and certainly not by policy papers), but rather by practical, hands-on experience with self-governance. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s mystical musings in his essay, “Experience,” corroborate this. American democracy will not be rejuvenated by yet another policy paper from the Inside-the-Beltway gang. What I am not saying here is that Trump has the wisdom of an Oakeshott, a Tocqueville or an Emerson. What I am saying is that Trump is that quintessentially American figure, hated by intellectuals on both sides of the aisle and on the other side of the Atlantic, who doesn’t start with a “plan,” but rather gets himself in the thick of things and then moves outward to a workable idea—not a “principled” one—that can address the problem at hand, but which goes no further. That’s what American businessmen and women do. (And, if popular culture is a reliable guide to America, it is what Han Solo always does in Star Wars movies.) We would do well not to forget that the only school of philosophy developed in America has been Pragmatism. This second meaning of being an anti-ideas candidate is consonant with it.

If, as some have said, Trump’s only idea is, “I can solve it,” then we are in real trouble. The difficulty, of course, is that in this new, Trumpean moment when politics is unabashed rhetoric, it is very difficult to discern the direction a Trump administration will take us. Will he be the tyrant some fear, or the pragmatist that is needed?

It’s not unreasonable to think the latter. This is because, against the backdrop of post-1989 ideas, the Trump campaign does indeed have a nascent coherence. “Globalization” and “identity politics” are a remarkable configuration of ideas, which have sustained America, and much of the rest of the world, since 1989. With a historical eye—dating back to the formal acceptance of the state-system with the treaty of Westphalia in 1648—we see what is so remarkable about this configuration: It presumes that sovereignty rests not with the state, but with supra-national organizations—NAFTA, WTO, the U.N., the EU, the IMF, etc.—and with subnational sovereign sites that we name with the term “identity.” So inscribed in our post-1989 vernacular is the idea of “identity” that we can scarcely imagine ourselves without reference to our racial, gender, ethnic, national, religious and/or tribal “identity.” Once, we aspired to be citizens who abided by the rule of law prescribed within a territory; now we have sovereign “identities,” and wander aimlessly in a world without borders, with our gadgets in hand to distract us, and our polemics in mind to repudiate the disbelievers.

What, exactly, is the flaw with this remarkable post-1989 configuration of ideas? When you start thinking in terms of management by global elites at the trans-state level and homeless selves at the substate level that seek, but never really find, comfort in their “identities,” the consequences are significant: Slow growth rates (propped up by debt-financing) and isolated citizens who lose interest in building a world together. Then of course, there’s the rampant crony-capitalism that arises when, in the name of eliminating “global risk” and providing various forms of “security,” the collusion between ever-growing state bureaucracies and behemoth global corporations creates a permanent class of winners and losers. Hence, the huge disparities of wealth we see in the world today.

The post-1989 order of things fails to recognize that the state matters, and engaged citizens matter. The state is the largest possible unit of organization that allows for the political liberty and economic improvement of its citizens, in the long term. This arrangement entails competition, risk, success and failure. But it does lead to growth, citizen-involvement, and if not a full measure of happiness, then at least the satisfactions that competence and merit matter.

Trump, then, with his promise of a future in which the integrity of the state matters, and where citizens identify with the state because they have a stake in it rather than with identity-driven subgroups, proposes a satisfying alternative.

This is also why it would be a big mistake to underestimate Trump and the ideas he represents during this election. In the pages of the current issue of POLITICO Magazine, one author writes: “The Trump phenomenon is about cultural resentment, anger and most of all Trump. It’s primal-scream politics, a middle finger pointed at The Other, a nostalgia for a man-cave America where white dudes didn’t have to be so politically correct.”
I have no doubt that right now, somewhere in America (outside the Beltway), there are self-congratulatory men, probably white, huddled together in some smoky man-cave, with “Make America Great Again” placards on their John-Deere-tractor-mowed lawns.
But do not mistake the part for the whole. What is going on is that “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” is being boldly challenged. Inside the Beltway, along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, there is scarcely any evidence of this challenge. There are people in those places who will vote for Trump, but they dare not say it, for fear of ostracism. They think that identity politics has gone too far, or that if it hasn’t yet gone too far, there is no principled place where it must stop. They believe that the state can’t be our only large-scale political unit, but they see that on the post-1989 model, there will, finally, be no place for the state. Out beyond this hermetically sealed bicoastal consensus, there are Trump placards everywhere, not because citizens are racists or homophobes or some other vermin that needs to be eradicated, but because there is little evidence in their own lives that this vast post-1989 experiment with “globalization” and identity politics has done them much good.

The opposition to the post-1989 order is not just happening here in America; it is happening nearly everywhere. The Brexit vote stunned only those who believe in their bones that the very arc of history ends with “globalization” and identity politics.
The worry is that this powerful, growing disaffection with the status quo—both within Europe and elsewhere—will devolve into nefarious nationalism based on race, ethnicity or religion. To combat this, we are going to have to find constructive ways to build a new set of ideas around a very old set of ideas about sovereignty—namely, that the state and the citizens inside it matter. If we don’t find a way to base nationalism on a healthy understanding of what a liberal state is and what it does and expects from citizens to make it work well, dark nationalism, based on blood and religion, will prevail—again.
Nothing lasts forever. Is that not the mantra of the left? Why, then, would the ideas of globalization and identity politics not share the fate of all ideas that have their day then get tossed into the dust-bin of history?

***
Of course, when new ideas take hold, old institutional arrangements face upheaval or implosion. There is no post-election scenario in which the Republican Party as we knew it prior to Trump remains intact. The Republicans who vote for Hillary Clinton will not be forgotten by those who think Trump is the one chance Republicans have to stop “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak” cold in its tracks. And neither will Inside-the-Beltway Republicans forget those in their party who are about to pull the lever for Trump. One can say that Trump has revealed what can be called The Aristotle Problem in the Republican Party. Almost every cultural conservative with whom I have spoken recently loves Aristotle and hates Trump. That is because on Aristotelian grounds, Trump lacks character, moderation, propriety and magnanimity. He is, as they put it, “unfit to serve.” The sublime paradox is that Republican heirs of Aristotle refuse to vote for Trump, but will vote for Clinton and her politically left-ish ideas that, while very much adopted to the American political landscape, trace their roots to Marx and to Nietzsche. Amazingly, cultural conservatives who have long blamed Marx and Nietzsche (and German philosophy as a whole) for the decay of the modern world would now rather not vote for an American who expressly opposes Marx and Nietzsche’s ideas! In the battle between Athens, Berlin and, well, the borough of Queens, they prefer Athens first, Berlin second and Queens not at all. The Aristotle Problem shows why these two groups—the #NeverTrumpers and the current Republicans who will vote for Trump—will never be reconciled.

There are, then, two developments we are likely to see going forward. First, cultural conservatives will seriously consider a political “Benedict Option,” dropping out of the Republican Party and forming a like-minded Book Group, unconcerned with winning elections and very concerned with maintaining their “principles.” Their fidelity is to Aristotle rather than to winning the battle for the political soul of America. The economic conservatives, meanwhile, will be urged to stay within the party—provided they focus on the problem of increasing the wealth of citizens within the state.

The other development, barely talked about, is very interesting and already underway, inside the Trump campaign. It involves the effort to convince Americans as a whole that they are not well-served by thinking of themselves as members of different “identity groups” who are owed a debt that—surprise!—Very White Progressives on the left will pay them if they loyally vote for the Democratic Party. The Maginot Line the Democratic Party has drawn purports to include on its side, African-Americans, Hispanics, gays, Muslims and women. (Thus, the lack of embarrassment, really, about the “basket of deplorables” reference to Trump supporters.) To its credit, the Democratic Party has made the convincing case, really since the Progressive Era in the early part of the 20th century, that the strong state is needed to rearrange the economy and society, so that citizens may have justice. Those who vote for the Democratic Party today are not just offered government program assistance, they are offered political protections and encouragements for social arrangements of one sort or another that might not otherwise emerge.

But where does this use of political power to rearrange the economy and society end? Continue using political power in the service of “identity politics” to reshape the economy and society and eventually both of them will become so enfeebled that they no longer work at all. The result will not be greater liberty for the oppressed, it will be the tyranny of the state over all. Trump does have sympathies for a strong state; but correctly or incorrectly, he has managed to convince his supporters that a more independent economy and society matters. In such an arrangement, citizens see their first support as the institutions of society (the family, religion, civic associations), their second support as a relatively free market, and their third support as the state, whose real job is to defend the country from foreign threats. Under these arrangements, citizens do not look upward to the state to confirm, fortify and support their “identities.” Rather, they look outward to their neighbor, who they must trust to build a world together. Only when the spell of identity politics is broken can this older, properly liberal, understanding take hold. That is why Trump is suggesting to these so-called identity groups that there is an alternative to the post-1989 worldview that Clinton and the Democratic Party are still pushing.

Now that Trump has disrupted the Republican Party beyond repair, the success of the future Republican Party will hang on whether Americans come to see themselves as American citizens before they see themselves as bearers of this or that “identity.” The Very White Progressives who run the Democratic Party have an abiding interest in the latter narrative, because holding on to support of entire identity groups helps them win elections. But I do not think it can be successful much longer, in part because it is predicated on the continual growth of government, which only the debt-financing can support. Our debt-financed binge is over, or it will be soon. The canary in the coal mine—now starting to sing—is the African-American community, which has, as a whole, been betrayed by a Democratic Party that promises through government largesse that its burden shall be eased. Over the past half-century nothing has been further from the truth, especially in high-density inner-city regions. While it receives little media attention, there are African-Americans who are dubious about the arrangement by which the Democratic Party expects them to abide. A simultaneously serious and humorous example of this is the long train of videos posted on YouTube by “Diamond and Silk.” To be sure, the current polls show that Trump has abysmal ratings among minorities. If he wins the election, he will have to succeed in convincing them that he offers an alternative to permanent government assistance and identity politics consciousness-raising that, in the end, does them little good; and that through the alternative he offers there is a hope of assimilation into the middle class. A tall order, to be sure.

These observations are not to be confused as a ringing endorsement for a Republican Party that does not yet exist, and perhaps never will exist. But they are warning, of sorts, about impending changes that cannot be laughed off. The Republicans have at least been given a gift, in the disruption caused by Trump. The old alliances within it were held together by a geopolitical fact-on-the-ground that no longer exists: the Cold War. Now long behind us, a new geopolitical moment, where states once again matter, demands new alliances and new ideas. With the defeat of Bernie Sanders in the primaries, Democrats have been denied their gift, and will lumber on, this 2016, with “globalization-and-identity-politics-speak,” hoping to defend the world order that is predicated on it. If Sanders had won, the Democrats would have put down their identity politics narrative and returned to claims about “class” and class consciousness; they would have put down the banner of Nietzsche and taken up the banner of Marx, again. And that would have been interesting! Alas, here we are, with, on the one hand, tired old post-1989 ideas in the Democratic Party searching for one more chance to prove that they remain vibrant and adequate to the problems at hand; and on the other, seemingly strange, ideas that swirl around us like mental dust waiting to coalesce.

 

Book Review: Makers and Takers

Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar

Crown Business; 1st edition (May 17, 2016)

Ms. Foroohar does a fine job of journalistic reporting here. She identifies many of the failures of the current economic policy regime that has led to the dominance of the financial industry. She follows the logical progression of central bank credit policy to inflate the banking system, that in turn captures democratic politics and policymaking in a vicious cycle of anti-democratic cronyism.

However, her ability to follow the money and power is not matched by an ability to analyze the true cause and effect and thus misguides her proposed solutions. Typical of a journalistic narrative, she identifies certain “culprits” in this story: the bankers and policymakers who favor them. But the true cause of this failed paradigm of easy credit and debt is found in the central bank and monetary policy.

Since 1971 the Western democracies have operated under a global fiat currency regime, where the value of the currencies are based solely on the full faith and credit of the various governments. In the case of the US$, that represents the taxing power of our Federal government in D.C.

The unfortunate reality, based on polling the American people (and Europeans) on trust in government, is that trust in our governmental institutions has plunged from almost 80% in 1964 to less than 20% today. Our 2016 POTUS campaign reflects this deep mistrust in the status quo and the political direction of the country. For good reason. So, what is the value of a dollar if nobody trusts the government to defend it? How does one invest under that uncertainty? You don’t.

One would hope Ms. Foroohar would ask, how did we get here? The essential cause is cheap excess credit, as has been experienced in financial crises all through history. The collapse of Bretton Woods in 1971, when the US repudiated the dollar gold conversion, called the gold peg, has allowed central banks to fund excessive government spending on cheap credit – exploding our debt obligations to the tune of $19 trillion. There seems to be no end in sight as the Federal Reserve promises to write checks without end.

Why has this caused the complete financialization of the economy? Because real economic growth depends on technology and demographics and cannot keep up with 4-6% per year. So the excess credit goes into asset speculation, mostly currency, commodity, and securities trading. This explosion of trading has amped incentives to develop new financial technologies and instruments to trade. Thus, we have the explosion of derivatives trading, which essentially is trading on trading, ad infinitum. Thus, Wall Street finance has come to be dominated by trading and socialized risk-taking rather than investing and private risk management.

After 2001 the central bank decided housing as an asset class was ripe for a boom, and that’s what we got: a debt-fueled bubble that we’ve merely re-inflated since 2008. There is a fundamental value to a house, and in most regions we have far departed from it.

So much money floating through so few hands naturally ends up in the political arena to influence policy going forward. Thus, not only is democratic politics corrupted, but so are any legal regulatory restraints on banking and finance. The simplistic cure of “More regulation!” is belied by the ease with which the bureaucratic regulatory system is captured by powerful interests.

The true problem is the policy paradigm pushed by the consortium of central banks in Europe, Japan, China, and the US. (The Swiss have resisted, but not out of altruism for the poor savers of the world.) Until monetary/credit policy in the free world becomes tethered and disciplined by something more than the promises of politicians and central bankers, we will continue full-speed off the eventual cliff. But our financial masters see this eventuality as a great buying opportunity.

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.

The FED That Rules the World

Financial markets exhibit centripetal forces, sucking in all the capital from the periphery to the center. That’s why our financial centers have become the repository of capital wealth. As NYC is to Peori or Decatur; the US$ economy is to the rest of the world. As the FED screws up the world’s monetary system, dollar holders will be the least hurt. A very unneighborly result that usually leads to military conflicts.

From the WSJ:

The Dollar—and the Fed—Still Rule

Americans may think the U.S. is in hock to China, but Beijing’s economic fate lies in Washington’s hands.

By Ruchir Sharma
July 28, 2016 7:20 p.m. ET

When Donald Trump recently declared that “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” he was expressing the kind of sentiment that animates not only his new Republican coalition, but nationalists everywhere. From the leaders of Russia and China to the rising European parties hostile to an open Europe, these nationalists are linked by a belief that in all matters of policy, their nation should come first.

This world-wide turning inward, however, comes in a period when countries are more beholden than ever to one institution, the U.S. Federal Reserve. Every hint of a shift in Washington’s monetary policy is met with a sharp response by global markets, which in turn affect the U.S. economy more dramatically than ever.

The Fed has been forced to recognize that it can no longer focus on America alone. When the Federal Open Market Committee voted in January 2015 to hold interest rates steady, its official statement explicitly noted, for the first time, that it was factoring “international developments” into its decisions. Since then the Fed, including this week, has frequently cited international threats, from Brexit to China, as reason to continue with hyper-accommodative monetary policy.

Though Mr. Trump argues that America must tend to its own affairs because it is weak, the Fed’s evolving role shows the limits of this argument. The U.S. may have slipped as an economic superpower, falling to 23% of global GDP from 40% in 1960. But as a financial superpower Washington has never been more influential. Forecasts of the dollar’s downfall have completely missed the mark.

Since the 15th century the world has had six unofficial reserve currencies, starting with the Portuguese real. On average they have maintained their leading position for 94 years. The dollar succeeded the British pound 96 years ago, and it has no serious rival in sight.

In the past 15 years, total foreign currency reserves world-wide rose from under $3 trillion to $11 trillion. Nearly two thirds of those reserves are held in dollars, a share that has barely changed in decades. Nearly 90% of global trade transactions involve dollars, even in deals without an American party. A Korean company selling TVs in Brazil, for instance, will generally ask for payment in dollars.

Because the Fed controls the supply of dollars, it reigns supreme. Its influence has only grown since the financial crisis of 2008. As the Fed began experimenting with quantitative easing to inject dollars into the system, tens of billions flowed out of the country every month. The amount of dollar loans extended to borrowers outside the U.S. has doubled since 2009 to $9 trillion—a record 75% of global nonresidential lending. Many of those are in the form of bonds, and bond investors are highly sensitive to U.S. interest rates.

That helps explain why any sign of Fed tightening, which reduces the supply of dollars, sends global markets into a tizzy. Earlier this year, for example, Chinese investors were shipping billions abroad every month, searching for higher yields. The Fed had been expected to raise short-term interest rates later this year, but it backed off that commitment in February, when China appeared headed toward a financial crisis.

Had the Fed tightened, China’s central bank would have been pressured to follow, crippling the flow of credit that is keeping the Chinese economy afloat. So instead the Fed held steady, effectively bailing out Beijing. Though many Americans still see the U.S. as deeply in hock to China, the fact is that China is even more reliant on easy money to fuel growth—putting the country’s economic fate in Washington’s hands.

The Fed is thus caught in a trap. Every time the U.S. economy starts to perk up, the Fed signals its intent to start returning interest rates to normal. But that signal sends shock waves through a heavily indebted global economy and back to American shores. So the Fed delays rate increases, as it did in June and again this week.

The rest of the world recognizes the Fed’s power as well. As soon as quantitative easing began, finance ministers from Brazil to Taiwan warned about the risks of unleashing torrents of dollars. They said it would drive up the value of currencies in the emerging world, destabilize local financial markets, undermine exports and economic growth.

The Fed was initially skeptical. Its then-chief Ben Bernanke argued that the central bank’s policies were a boost for every country. Other officials stated bluntly that the rest of the world wasn’t their problem. “We only have a mandate to concern ourselves with the interest of the United States,” Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed, said in 2013. “Other countries simply have to take that as a reality and adjust to us if that’s something important for their economies.”

The Fed has since discovered the world, which matters more than ever to the American economy. In the past 15 years the share of U.S. corporate revenues that come from foreign markets has risen from a quarter to a third. The more interconnected global markets become, the more rapidly financial instability in the rest of the world ricochets to hurt the U.S.

In the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis, the Fed’s loose policies may have temporarily stimulated growth world-wide. But those policies have come back to haunt it. Fed officials ignored the resulting excesses, including the credit and asset bubbles building around the world. Now every time the Fed tries to tighten, the dollar starts to strengthen and global markets seize up, forcing the Fed to retreat. It’s unclear how to end this cycle, but this much is apparent: The financial hegemony of the U.S. has never been greater, making the Fed the central bank of the world.

Blog Note: the world is screwed and we’re part of it.

ZIRP Perps: Fed

 

Bill Gross Says a $10 Trillion Economic Supernova is Waiting to Explode

With massive losses for bondholders.

“Bond king” Bill Gross did not mince words Thursday when he called out a problem in the credit markets that could have catastrophic consequences.

In a tweet though his firm, Janus Capital JNS 2.59% , Gross asserted that the spread of negative interest rate policy though central banks around the world will cause the record-breaking $10.4 trillion of negative-interest-rate sovereign bonds on the market to “explode one day.” 

Gross has often noted that negative interest rates could lead to a credit bubble with massive damages to bondholders. Here’s at least part of the reason why:

Negative interest rates have been adopted by stunted economies in Japan and parts of the eurozone in a bid to promote spending where more conventional policies have failed. The policy effectively causes bondholders to pay the issuer if they hold it to maturity. But demand for the bonds is still growing. That’s because there are positives to buying bonds with negative interest rates—they generally promise lower risk. Banks in the euro currency bloc are also piling in as a result of higher capital requirements. And since yields have an inverse relationship to price, demand has helped push down yields.

“Unconventional monetary policies, regulatory risk mitigation by banks, and a flight to safety in global financial markets have all contributed to the ongoing rise in the amount of sovereign debt trading with a negative yield,” head of macro credit at Fitch, Robert Grossman, wrote in a note earlier this month.

While some investors are trudging through lower yields, others investors have been driven to riskier and/or higher yielding areas—such as U.S. treasuries and longer maturity bonds. But should yields rise, investors holding such bonds could also face massive losses.

Goldman Sachs released a note to clients earlier this month, estimating if U.S. interest rates rise by 1% (noting that the rate is currently 0.25%), bondholders could lose $1 trillion as the value of the underlying bond falls and yields rise, hitting securities with longer maturities the hardest. That exceeds the losses from mortgage-backed bonds during the financial crisis.

Gross, who runs the $1.4 billion Janus Global Unconstrained Bond Fund, is not the only major investor to decry negative interest rates. DoubleLine’s Jeff Gundlach called the policy “the stupidest idea I have ever experienced,” Reuters reported, while BlackRock’s Larry Fink wrote in his most recent letter to investors: “Not nearly enough attention has been paid to the toll these low rates—and now negative rates—are taking on the ability of investors to save and plan for the future.”

bond bubble

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