Finite and Infinite Games: the Internet and Politics

About two decades ago James Carse, a religious scholar and historian, wrote a philosophical text titled Finite and Infinite Games. As he explained, there are two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

This simple distinction invites some profound thought. War is a finite game, as is the Superbowl. Peace is an infinite game, as is the game of love. Finite games end with a winner(s) and loser(s), while infinite games seek perpetual play. Politics is a finite game; democracy, liberty, and justice are infinite games.

Life itself, then, could be considered a finite or infinite game depending on which perspective one takes. If ‘he who dies with the most toys wins,’ one is living in a finite game that ends with death. If one chooses to create an entity that lives beyond the grave, a legacy that perpetuates through time, then one is playing an infinite game.

One can imagine that we often play a number of finite games within an infinite game. This supports the idea of waging war in order to attain peace (though I wouldn’t go so far as saying it validates destroying the village in order to save it). The taxonomy also relates to the time horizon of one’s perspective in engaging in the game. In other words, are we playing for the short term gain or the long term payoff?

I find Carse’s arguments compelling when I relate them to the new digital economy and how the digital world is transforming how we play certain games, especially those of social interaction and the monetization of value. That sounds a bit hard to follow, but what I’m referring to is the value of the information network (the Internet) as an infinite game.

I would value the internet according to its power to help people connect and share ideas. (I recently wrote a short book on this power called The Ultimate Killer App: The Power to Create and Connect.) The more an idea is shared, the more powerful and valuable it can be. In this sense, the internet is far more valuable than the sum of its various parts, and for it to end as the victim of a finite game would be a tragedy for all. So, I see playing on the information network as an infinite game.

The paradox is that most of the big players on the internet – the Googles, Facebooks, Amazons, etc – are playing finite games on and with the network. In fact, they are using the natural monopoly of network dynamics to win finite games for themselves, reaping enormous value in the process. But while they are winning, many others are losing. Yes, we do gain in certain ways, but the redistribution of information data power is leading to the redistribution of monetary gains and losses across the population of users. In many cases those gains and losses are redistributed quite arbitrarily.

For instance, let us take the disruption of the music industry, or the travel industry, or the publishing industry. One need not lament the fate of obsolete business models to recognize that for play to continue, players must have the possibility of adapting to change in order to keep the infinite game on course. Most musicians and authors believe their professions are DOA. What does that say for the future of culture?

Unfortunately, this disruption across the global economy wrought by digitization is being reflected in the chaotic politics of our times, mostly across previously stable developed democracies.

These economic and political developments don’t seem particularly farsighted and one can only speculate how the game plays out. But to relate it to current events, many of us are playing electoral politics in a finite game that has profound implications for the more important infinite game we should be playing.

 

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

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.

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.

Brexit: Failure of the Central State

This is the best article I’ve seen on Brexit. Basically we’re witnessing the failure of statism, politically and economically…and a desperate reassertion of the principles of democracy, sovereignty and freedom.

Brexit: A Very British Revolution

The vote to leave the EU began as a cry for liberty and ended as a rebuke to the establishment

By FRASER NELSON
The Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2016 4:33 p.m. ET

The world is looking at Britain and asking: What on Earth just happened? Those who run Britain are asking the same question.

Never has there been a greater coalition of the establishment than that assembled by Prime Minister David Cameron for his referendum campaign to keep the U.K. in the European Union. There was almost every Westminster party leader, most of their troops and almost every trade union and employers’ federation. There were retired spy chiefs, historians, football clubs, national treasures like Stephen Hawking and divinities like Keira Knightley. And some global glamour too: President Barack Obama flew to London to do his bit, and Goldman Sachs opened its checkbook.

And none of it worked. The opinion polls barely moved over the course of the campaign, and 52% of Britons voted to leave the EU. That slender majority was probably the biggest slap in the face ever delivered to the British establishment in the history of universal suffrage.

Mr. Cameron announced that he would resign because he felt the country has taken a new direction—one that he disagrees with. If everyone else did the same, the House of Commons would be almost empty. Britain’s exit from the EU, or Brexit, was backed by barely a quarter of his government members and by not even a tenth of Labour politicians. It was a very British revolution.

Donald Trump’s arrival in Scotland on Friday to visit one of his golf courses was precisely the metaphor that the Brexiteers didn’t want. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee cheerily declared that the British had just “taken back their country” in the same way that he’s inviting Americans to do—underscoring one of the biggest misconceptions about the EU referendum campaign. Britain isn’t having a Trump moment, turning in on itself in a fit of protectionist and nativist pique. Rather, the vote for Brexit was about liberty and free trade—and about trying to manage globalization better than the EU has been doing from Brussels.

The Brexit campaign started as a cry for liberty, perhaps articulated most clearly by Michael Gove, the British justice secretary (and, on this issue, the most prominent dissenter in Mr. Cameron’s cabinet). Mr. Gove offered practical examples of the problems of EU membership. As a minister, he said, he deals constantly with edicts and regulations framed at the European level—rules that he doesn’t want and can’t change. These were rules that no one in Britain asked for, rules promulgated by officials whose names Brits don’t know, people whom they never elected and cannot remove from office. Yet they become the law of the land. Much of what we think of as British democracy, Mr. Gove argued, is now no such thing.

Instead of grumbling about the things we can’t change, Mr. Gove said, it was time to follow “the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back” and “become an exemplar of what an inclusive, open and innovative democracy can achieve.” Many of the Brexiteers think that Britain voted this week to follow a template set in 1776 on the other side of the Atlantic.

Mr. Gove was mocked for such analogies. Surely, some in the Remain camp argued, the people who were voting for Leave—the pensioners in the seaside towns, the plumbers and chip-shop owners—weren’t wondering how they could reboot the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment for the 21st century. Perhaps not, but the sentiment holds: Liberty and democracy matter. As a recent editorial in Der Spiegel put it, Brits “have an inner independence that we Germans lack, in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian, defiant tendencies.”

Mr. Cameron has been trying to explain this to Angela Merkel for some time. He once regaled the German chancellor with a pre-dinner PowerPoint presentation to explain his whole referendum idea. Public support for keeping Britain within the EU was collapsing, he warned, but a renegotiation of its terms would save Britain’s membership. Ms. Merkel was never quite persuaded, and Mr. Cameron was sent away with a renegotiation barely worthy of the name. It was a fatal mistake—not nearly enough to help Mr. Cameron shift the terms of a debate he was already well on the way to losing.

The EU took a gamble: that the Brits were bluffing and would never vote to leave. A more generous deal—perhaps aimed at allowing the U.K. more control over immigration, the top public concern in Britain—would probably have (just) stopped Brexit. But the absence of a deal sent a clear and crushing message: The EU isn’t interested in reforming, so it is past time to stop pretending otherwise.

With no deal, all Mr. Cameron could do was warn about the risks of leaving the EU. If Brits try to escape, he said, they’d face the razor wire of a recession or the dogs of World War III. He rather overdid it. Instead of fear, he seemed to have stoked a mood of mass defiance.

Mr. Obama also overdid it when he notoriously told the British that, if they opted for Brexit, they would find themselves “in the back of the queue” for a trade deal with the U.S. That overlooked a basic point: The U.K. doesn’t currently have a trade deal with the U.S., despite being its largest foreign investor. Moreover, no deal seems forthcoming: The negotiations between the U.S. and the EU over the trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership are going slowly, and the Brits involved in the talks are in despair.

Deals negotiated through the EU always move at the pace dictated by the most reluctant country. Italy has threatened to derail a trade deal with Australia over a spat about exports of canned tomatoes; a trade deal with Canada was held up after a row about Romanian visas. Brexit wasn’t a call for a Little England. It was an attempt to escape from a Little Europe.

Many British voters felt a similar frustration on security issues, where the EU’s leaders have for decades now displayed a toxic combination of hunger for power and incompetence at wielding it. When war broke out in the former Yugoslavia in 1991, the then-chair of the European Community’s Council of Ministers declared that this was “the hour of Europe, not the hour of the Americans—if one problem can be solved by the Europeans, it is the Yugoslav problem.” It was not to be.

Nor did the EU acquit itself much better in more recent crises in Ukraine and Libya. Field Marshal Lord Charles Guthrie, a former chief of the British military, put it bluntly last week: “I feel more European than I do American, but it’s absolutely unrealistic to think we are all going to work together. When things get really serious, we need the Americans. That’s where the power is.” Brits feel comfortable with this; the French less so.

Throughout the campaign, the Brexit side was attacked for being inward-looking, nostalgic, dreaming of the days of empire or refusing to acknowledge that modern nations need to work with allies. But it was the Brexiteers who were doing the hardest thinking about this, worrying about the implications of a dysfunctional EU trying to undermine or supplant NATO, which remains the true guarantor of European security.

In the turbulent weeks and months ahead, we can expect a loud message from the Brexiteers in the British government: The question is not whether to work with Europe but how to work with Europe. Alliances work best when they are coalitions of the willing. The EU has become a coalition of the unwilling, the place where the finest multilateral ambitions go to die. Britain’s network of embassies will now go into overdrive, offering olive branches in capital after capital. Britain wants to deal, nation to nation, and is looking for partners.

Even the debate about immigration had an internationalist flavor to it. Any member of any EU state has had the right to live and work in Britain; any American, Indian or Australian needs to apply through a painstaking process. Mr. Cameron’s goal is to bring net immigration to below 100,000 a year (it was a little over three times that at last count). So the more who arrive from the EU, the more we need to crack down on those from outside the EU. The U.K. government now requires any non-European who wants to settle here to earn an annual salary of at least £35,000 (or about $52,000)—so we would deport, say, a young American flutist but couldn’t exclude a Bulgarian convict who could claim (under EU human-rights rules) that he has family ties in the U.K.

To most Brits, this makes no sense. In a television debate last week, Mr. Cameron was asked if there was “anything fair about an immigration system that prioritizes unskilled workers from within the EU over skilled workers who are coming from outside the EU?” He had no convincing answer.

The sense of a lack of control over immigration to Britain has been vividly reinforced by the scenes on the continent. In theory, the EU is supposed to protect its external borders by insisting that refugees claim asylum in the first country they enter. In practice, this agreement—the so-called Dublin Convention—was torn up by Ms. Merkel when she recklessly offered to settle any fleeing Syrians who managed to make it over the German border. The blame here lies not with the tens of thousands of desperate people who subsequently set out; the blame lies with an EU system that has proven itself hopelessly unequal to such a complex and intensifying challenge. The EU’s failure has been a boon for the people-trafficking industry, a global evil that has led to almost 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean so far this year.

Britain has been shielded from the worst of this. Being an island helps, as does our rejection of the ill-advised Schengen border-free travel agreement that connects 26 European countries. But the scenes on the continent of thousands of young men on the march (one of which made it onto a particularly tasteless pro-Brexit poster unveiled by Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party) give the sense of complete political dysfunction. To many voters in Britain, this referendum was about whether they want to be linked to such tragic incompetence.

The economists who warned about the perils of Brexit also assure voters that immigration is a net benefit, its advantages outweighing its losses. Perhaps so, but this overlooks the human factor. Who loses, and who gains? Immigration is great if you’re in the market for a nanny, a plumber or a table at a new restaurant. But to those competing with immigrants for jobs, houses or seats at schools, it looks rather different. And this, perhaps, explains the stark social divide exposed in the Brexit campaign.

Seldom has the United Kingdom looked less united: London and Scotland voted to stay in the EU, Wales and the English shires voted to get out. (Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already called a fresh vote on secession “highly likely.”) Some 70% of university graduates were in favor of the EU; an equally disproportionate 68% of those who hadn’t finished high school were against it. Londoners and those under age 30 were strongly for Remain; the northern English and those over 60 were strongly for Leave. An astonishing 70% of the skilled working class supported Brexit.

Here, the Brexit battle lines ought to be familiar: They are similar to the socioeconomic battles being fought throughout so many Western democracies. It is the jet-set graduates versus the working class, the metropolitans versus the bumpkins—and, above all, the winners of globalization against its losers. Politicians, ever obsessed about the future, can tend to regard those left unprotected in our increasingly interconnected age as artifacts of the past. In fact, the losers of globalization are, by definition, as new as globalization itself.

To see such worries as resurgent nationalism is to oversimplify. The nation-state is a social construct: Done properly, it is the glue that binds society together. In Europe, the losers of globalization are seeking the protection of their nation-states, not a remote and unresponsive European superstate. They see the economy developing in ways that aren’t to their advantage and look to their governments to lend a helping hand—or at least attempt to control immigration. No EU country can honestly claim to control European immigration, and there is no prospect of this changing: These are the facts that led to Brexit.

The pound took a pounding on the currency markets Friday, but it wasn’t alone. The Swedish krona and the Polish zloty were down by about 5% against the dollar; the euro was down 3%. The markets are wondering who might be next. In April, the polling firm Ipsos MORI asked voters in nine EU countries if they would like a referendum on their countries’ memberships: 45% said yes, and 33% said they’d vote to get out. A Pew poll recently found that the Greeks and the French are the most hostile to the EU in the continent—and that the British were no more annoyed with the EU than the Swedes, the Dutch and the Germans.

The Brexit campaign was led by Europhiles. Boris Johnson, the former London mayor turned pro-Brexit firebrand who now seems likely to succeed Mr. Cameron, used to live in Brussels and can give interviews in French. Mr. Gove’s idea of perfect happiness is sitting on a wooden bench listening to Wagner in an airless concert hall in Bavaria. Both stressed that they love Europe but also love democracy—and want to keep the two compatible. The Brexit revolution is intended to make that point.

Mr. Gove has taken to borrowing the 18th-century politician William Pitt’s dictum about how England can “save herself by her exertions and Europe by her example.” After Mr. Cameron departs and new British leadership arrives, it will be keen to strike new alliances based on the principles of democracy, sovereignty and freedom. You never know: That might just catch on.

The Fed Is as Clueless as You Are

Some analysts noted that the Fed has lost credibility. But perhaps traders have just had too much faith in the omniscience of central bankers all along. They don’t have a crystal ball and are apparently as vulnerable as anyone else to misreading economic tea leaves. There is no corner on certainty in an uncertain world.

‘Nuff said.

http://www.bloomberg.com/gadfly/articles/2016-06-03/the-federal-reserve-is-as-clueless-as-everyone-else

In the last 30 years, the FED has been good at only one thing and that is creating bubbles. Greenspan started them, handed off to Bernanke who then handed off to Yellen. One double talking FED chair after another seeking to destroy the middle class under the guise of ‘this is good for you.’ Financial engineering is reaching epidemic proportions while destroying everything in its path.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s the Clueless FED

Yellin

Economic Policy Report Card: C-

Today’s headlines:

Still anemic: U.S. growth picks up to only 0.8%

U.S. economic growth between January and March was 0.8% compared to the same time frame a year ago. That’s better than the initial estimate of 0.5%, which came in April, but still pretty sluggish.

unemployment-grads-cartoon1

US created 38,000 jobs in May vs. 162,000 expected

Job creation tumbled in May, with the economy adding just 38,000 positions, casting doubt on hopes for a stronger economic recovery as well as a Fed rate hike this summer.

The Labor Department also reported Friday that the headline unemployment fell to 4.7 percent. That rate does not include those who did not actively look for employment during the month or the underemployed who were working part time for economic reasons. A more encompassing rate that includes those groups held steady at 9.7 percent.

The drop in the unemployment rate was primarily due to a decline in the labor force participation rate, which fell to a 2016 low of 62.6 percent, a level near a four-decade low. The number of Americans not in the labor force surged to a record 94.7 million, an increase of 664,000.

growth chart

We’ve been predicting such disappointing results of ineffectual monetary and fiscal policies since this blog began back in August of 2011. And providing corroborating evidence along the way. Yet our policy experts continue to double-down on failed policies.

The problem is that when a nation inflates asset bubbles like we did with commodities, houses, stocks, and bonds over the past 20 years, there is no silver-lining policy correction that does not involve some  economic pain for the body politic. We had that awakening in 2008, but since then we have merely jumped on the same train by pumping out cheap credit for 8+ years.

Perhaps a medical metaphor works here. When prescribing antibiotics to combat an infection one can use small doses to avoid side-effects or one large overkill dose to knock-out the offending bacteria. The first treatment is the conservative, prudent approach that seeks a gradual recovery. The second risks a sudden shock to the system that kills off the infection so the patient can begin healing.

In medicine we’ve discovered that the gradual treatment can enable the bacteria to evolve and resist the antibiotics, making them ineffectual. In a nutshell, this is what we have done with economic policy, especially monetary policy that has distorted interest rates for more than 15 years.

The conservative approach marked by bailouts and government bail-ins has kept the patient flat on his back for 8 years. The more disciplined approach would have shocked the economy severely but gotten the patient out of the recovery room much quicker. We’ve seen that with other countries, like Iceland, that were forced to swallow their medicine in one quick dose.

But, of course, that would have meant a lot of politicians would have lost their cozy jobs. That may happen anyway after the next election.

Profound Changes in Economics

Excellent overview of the New Economics.

New economic thinking has the potential to make political debates far more productive. Economic ideas matter.

Few politicians or policymakers are even dimly aware of the changes underway in economics; but these changes are deep and profound, and the implications for policy and politics are potentially transformative.

 

economics03

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

Statistical Fixations

Martin Feldstein is nowhere near as excitable as David Stockman on Fed manipulations (link to D.S.’s commentary), but they both end up at the same place: the enormous risks we are sowing with abnormal monetary policies. The economy is not nearly as healthy as the Fed would like, but pockets of the economy are bubbling up while other pockets are still deflating. There is a correlation relationship, probably causal.

The problem with “inflation targeting” is that bubble economics warps relative prices and so the correction must drive some prices down and others up. In other words, massive relative price corrections are called for. But inflation targeting targets the general price level as measured by biased sample statistics – so if the Fed is trying to prop up prices that previously bubbled up and need to decline, such as housing and stocks, they are pushing against a correction. The obvious problem has been these debt-driven asset prices, like stocks, government bonds, and real estate. In the meantime, we get no new investment that would increase labor demand.

The global economy needs to absorb the negative in order to spread the positive consequences of these easy central bank policies. The time is now because who knows what happens after the turmoil of the US POTUS election?

Ending the Fed’s Inflation Fixation

The focus is misplaced—and because it delays an overdue interest-rate rise, it is also dangerous.

By MARTIN FELDSTEIN
The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2016 7:02 p.m. ET

The primary role of the Federal Reserve and other central banks should be to prevent high rates of inflation. The double-digit inflation rates of the late 1970s and early ’80s were a destructive and frightening experience that could have been avoided by better monetary policy in the previous decade. Fortunately, the Fed’s tighter monetary policy under Paul Volcker brought the inflation rate down and set the stage for a strong economic recovery during the Reagan years.

The Federal Reserve has two congressionally mandated policy goals: “full employment” and “price stability.” The current unemployment rate of 5% means that the economy is essentially at full employment, very close to the 4.8% unemployment rate that the members of the Fed’s Open Market Committee say is the lowest sustainable rate of unemployment.

For price stability, the Fed since 2012 has interpreted its mandate as a long-term inflation rate of 2%. Although it has achieved full employment, the Fed continues to maintain excessively low interest rates in order to move toward its inflation target. This has created substantial risks that could lead to another financial crisis and economic downturn.

The Fed did raise the federal-funds rate by 0.25 percentage points in December, but interest rates remain excessively low and are still driving investors and lenders to take unsound risks to reach for yield, leading to a serious mispricing of assets. The S&P 500 price-earnings ratio is more than 50% above its historic average. Commercial real estate is priced as if low bond yields will last forever. Banks and other lenders are lending to lower quality borrowers and making loans with fewer conditions.

When interest rates return to normal there will be substantial losses to investors, lenders and borrowers. The adverse impact on the overall economy could be very serious.
A fundamental problem with an explicit inflation target is the difficulty of knowing if it has been hit. The index of consumer prices that the Fed targets should in principle measure how much more it costs to buy goods and services that create the same value for consumers as the goods and services that they bought the year before. Estimating that cost would be an easy task for the national income statisticians if consumers bought the same things year after year. But the things that we buy are continually evolving, with improvements in quality and with the introduction of new goods and services. These changes imply that our dollars buy goods and services with greater value year after year.

Adjusting the price index for these changes is an impossibly difficult task. The methods used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics fail to capture the extent of quality improvements and don’t even try to capture the value created by new goods and services.

The true value of the national income is therefore rising faster than the official estimates of real gross domestic product and real incomes imply. For the same reason, the official measure of inflation overstates the increase in the true cost of the goods and services that consumers buy. If the official measure of inflation were 1%, the true cost of buying goods and services that create the same value to consumers may have actually declined. The true rate of inflation could be minus 1% or minus 3% or minus 5%. There is simply no way to know.

With a margin of error that large, it makes no sense to focus monetary policy on trying to hit a precise inflation target. The problem that consumers care about and that should be the subject of Fed policy is avoiding a return to the rapidly rising inflation that took measured inflation from less than 2% in 1965 to 5% in 1970 and to more than 12% in 1980.

Although we cannot know the true rate of inflation at any time, we can see if the measured inflation rate starts rising rapidly. If that happens, it would be a sign that true inflation is also rising because of excess demand in product and labor markets. That would be an indication that the Fed should be tightening monetary policy.

The situation today in which the official inflation rate is close to zero implies that the true inflation rate is now less than zero. Fortunately this doesn’t create the kind of deflation problem that would occur if households’ money incomes were falling. If that occurred, households would cut back on spending, leading to declines in overall demand and a possible downward spiral in prices and economic activity.

Not only are nominal wages and incomes not falling in the U.S. now, they are rising at about 2% a year. The negative true inflation rate means that true real incomes are rising more rapidly than the official statistics imply. [Sounds good, huh? Not quite. Read Stockman’s analysis.]

The Federal Reserve should now eliminate the explicit inflation target policy that it adopted less than five years ago. The Fed should instead emphasize its commitment to avoiding both high inflation and declining nominal wages. That would permit it to raise interest rates more rapidly today and to pursue a sounder monetary policy in the years ahead.

inflation-vs-employment

%d bloggers like this: