Interesting Money Graphics

08-roman-empire-chart

dollar_devaluation

One cannot take these graphs at face value, for example, the long $ decline from 1933 to the present has also been the Pax Americana where the US has dominated geopolitics. Also, the Roman denarius was a commodity based currency, while the US$ is a fiat currency backed by US government taxing power over US assets.

But the larger issue of the costs of empire over time are instructive. One should dig deeper in analysis, but not be too complacent. Especially in light of the currency manipulations of the current age.

At Long Last, the Fed Faces Reality

The Fed faces reality? After 8 years, I’m not holding my breath…

Unconventional monetary policy—including years of ultralow interest rates—simply hasn’t delivered.

By GERALD P. O’DRISCOLL JR.

WSJ, Dec. 15, 2016 

As was widely anticipated, Federal Reserve officials voted Wednesday to raise short-term interest rates by a quarter percentage point—only the second increase since the 2008 financial crash. The central bank appears to have finally confronted reality: that its unconventional monetary policy, particularly ultralow rates, simply has not delivered the goods.

In a speech last week, the president of the New York Fed, William Dudley, brought up “the limitations of monetary policy.” He suggested a greater reliance on “automatic fiscal stabilizers” that would “take some pressure off of the Federal Reserve.” His proposals—such as extending unemployment benefits and cutting the payroll tax—were conventionally Keynesian.

Speaking two weeks earlier at the Council on Foreign Relations, Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer touted the power of fiscal policy to enhance productivity and speed economic growth. He called for “improved public infrastructure, better education, more encouragement for private investment, and more effective regulation.” The speech, delivered shortly after the election, almost channeled Donald Trump.

Indeed, the markets seem to be expecting a bigger, bolder version of Mr. Fischer’s suggestions from the Trump administration.

• Infrastructure: Mr. Trump campaigned on $1 trillion in new infrastructure, though the details are not fully worked out. The left thinks green-energy projects—such as windmill farms—qualify as infrastructure. Living in the West, I’d prefer to build the proposed Interstate 11, a direct line from Phoenix, to Las Vegas and then to Reno and beyond.

• Education: Nominating Betsy DeVos to lead the Education Department shows Mr. Trump’s commitment to real education reform, including expanded school choice. Much of America’s economic malaise, including income inequality and slow growth, can be laid at the feet of deficient schools. Although some students receive a world-class education, many get mediocrity or worse.

• Private investment and deregulation: Mr. Trump promises progress on both fronts. He is filling his cabinet with people—including Andy Puzder for labor secretary and Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency—who understand the burden that Washington places on job creators.

Businesses need greater regulatory certainty, and reasonable statutory time limits should be placed on environmental reviews and permit applications. That, along with tax cuts, would do the trick for boosting investment.

All that said, central bankers have a role to play as well. The Fed’s ultralow interest rates were intended to be stimulative, but they also squeezed lending margins, which further dampened banks’ willingness to loan money.

There’s a strong case for a return to normal monetary policy. The prospects for economic growth are brighter than they have been in some time, and that is good. The inflation rate may tick upward, which is not good. Both factors argue for lifting short-term interest rates to at least equal the expected rate of inflation. Depending on one’s inflation forecast, that suggests moving toward a fed-funds rate in the range of 2% to 3%.

The Fed need not act abruptly, but it also does not want to get further behind the curve. Next year there will be eight meetings of the Federal Open Market Committee. A quarter-point increase at every other meeting, at least, would be in order.

This could produce some blowback from Congress and the White House. Paying higher interest on bank reserves will reduce the surplus that the Fed returns to the Treasury—thus increasing the deficit. But the Fed could ease the political pressure if it stopped resisting Republican lawmakers’ effort to introduce a monetary rule, which would curb the central bank’s discretion and make its policy more predictable. This isn’t an attack on the central bank’s independence, as Fed Chair Janet Yellen has wildly argued, but an exercise of Congress’s powers under the Constitution.

The one big cloud that darkens this optimistic forecast is Mr. Trump’s antitrade stance. Sparking a trade war could undo all the potential benefits that his policies bring. David Malpass, a Trump adviser and regular contributor to these pages, argues that trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement are rife with special benefits for big companies, but that they do not work for America’s small businesses. The argument is that Mr. Trump wants to renegotiate these deals to make them work better. I hope Mr. Malpass is correct, and that President-elect Trump can pull it off.

But for now, a strengthening economy offers a chance to return to normal monetary policy. Fed officials seem to have come around to that view. With any luck, Wednesday’s rate increase will be only the first step in that direction.

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.

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.

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.

 

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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

Politics, Economics, and the State of Our World

QE paradox

This is an interesting graphic that not only illustrates the futility of current monetary stimulus (the QE-ZIRP Paradox), but also the larger contradiction we’ve created in the relationship between politics and economics. I’ll explicate how this contradiction also explains Europe’s predicament with Greece and the other periphery countries in Eurozone, and also applies to emerging countries, especially China.

We can envision economics as a boundary of constraints or possibilities on the choices we can make in life. We might call these budgetary constraints, but it also pertains to constraints on growth and expansion. Relate this to personal finance:  economics constrains the choices we have on what kind of house we buy or rent, what cars we drive, what vacations we can take, what schools we attend, etc., etc. Within those constraints we often have many choices and possibilities for trade-offs. We can decide to buy a small house to afford a big car, or a tuition-free school in favor of more exotic vacations. We make these decisions everyday throughout our lifetimes.

The personal choices we make within the constraints of economics are analogous to the social choices we make through democratic politics. So, economics is like the box within which politics can allocate resources by democratic consensus. We can decide on more social welfare, or more national defense, or more leisure time. The irrationality is believing that we can somehow make choices that lie far outside the constraints of economics. Fantasies like we can all fly to the moon, all have a heart transplant, or perhaps live high on the hog without working to produce the necessary prosperity.

Economic constraints and political choices interact, an important dynamic since both are malleable over time. We can make choices that expand the constraints of economics, which would mean an expansion of possibilities through growth. Or we can make choices that shrink the boundaries of the economically possible, reducing our choices in the future. The interesting point to make at this stage of our exposition is that, like the boundaries we set for our children, economic constraints are a disciplinary factor that helps to keep our political choices honest.  In other words, economics disciplines our political choices by penalizing bad choices and rewarding good choices.

This has profound implications for how society works.

One can imagine that one of the major economic constraints on our personal set of choices is the amount of money we have. In other words, the fungible value of our assets and savings. Rich people have fewer economic constraints than poor people. But this supply of money is not fixed and can be augmented by borrowing through the issuance of credit and assumption of debt obligations. So, one can buy a more expensive house by borrowing the necessary funds from a mortgage lender and then paying it back over time. We soon figured out that when the supply of money is too strict, economic constraints are unnecessarily tight, so money supply should adapt to the needs of the political economy.

Thus, we can expand the economic constraints facing society by expanding the supply of money through credit. One might think, “Wow, that was easy. Now we have lots more choices!” And the next thought should be, “Well, what’s the limit on how much money we can create?”

First, we should remember that money is not wealth, it merely represents wealth. When money was backed by gold reserves, the supply of gold limited the amount of money in the system. If  Country A adopted bad policies relative to its trading partner Country B, gold reserves would flow out, threatening the underlying value of Country A’s currency. This would force Country A to correct its policies or risk impoverishment. The exchange rates between currency A and B did not reflect these changes because both were fixed to gold; but the underlying values had obviously changed demanding a revaluation of both currencies relative to gold. While workable, this was a herky-jerky way of adapting to changing economic conditions and resulted in many financial,  economic, and political crises along the way. It took WWI and WWII to finally break away from a gold standard as an economic constraint.

In 1948, the western powers that had been victorious in WWII established an international currency regime (called Bretton Woods) backed by the US$ fixed to gold and a host of institutions to help manage international relations, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the United Nations. Unfortunately, this regime depended on US policy to defend the monetary regime, even when it contradicted US domestic economic interests. With Vietnam war spending and Great Society social spending (guns and butter), too many dollars were created, causing a run on US gold redemptions by countries like France. In 1971, the Bretton Woods system finally broke down as Nixon closed the gold window to redemptions and all currencies began to float in value relative to other currencies. There was now no fixed relationship of the currency to anything of tangible value – its value was established by government fiat. The initial effect was a stagnating economy plus inflation, a decade-long slog in the 1970s that gave birth to the term stagflation.

At the time, it was thought that exchange rate movements would signal necessary policy changes to keep each countries’ political priorities aligned with economic constraints. It turns out this assumption did not hold up to political realities because volatile exchange rates do not necessarily affect domestic economic interests to the point where politicians feel the need to respond. How many of us know or care how the US$ is performing relative to the other currencies of the world? The result was that politically favorable (more for everybody!), but economically detrimental, policies could be pursued, while exchange rate volatility could be largely ignored. Thus, the economic discipline to guide political choices was lost, permitting bad policies to persist. We have seen this in the explosion of credit and debt around the world and the volatility in exchange rates and asset markets.

Now we can see the problem illustrated in the graphic above. Instead of forcing necessary fiscal reform, we end up throwing more monetary stimulus at the problem. The results have been rising inequality, asset booms and busts, and massive resource misallocations that will cost society economically for a long time. On the global stage, China is the poster child of excess. It will all end when we finally hit the wall and throwing more money at the problem no longer works.

Europe, the EU, and Greece.

We can consider another case in Europe where volatile exchange rates after 1971 inhibited trade with unnecessary currency risks and conversion costs. The idea was that a currency union under the euro would greatly expand intra-European trade by eliminating these costs. But a currency union requires consistent monetary and fiscal policy and a re-balancing mechanism. In the US this is achieved through a Federal government that taxes and redistributes resources. In the European view, economic discipline would by imposed by a set of consistent policy rules established under the European Union and Parliament. Once, again, the result was that individual country governments found ways to skirt the rules or outright deceive the EU on its government budgets. Sometimes this was necessary given the varying needs of uneven development among countries. We see the result in Greece, when it was soon discovered that Greece had borrowed and spent public funds far in excess of the 3% boundary established by the EU.

So, a currency union also has failed to discipline politics, and the result has been a catastrophe for the Greek people and a severe blow to the concept and credibility of the European Union and the euro.

————

The bottom line is that democratic politics needs a firm disciplinary constraint, or else a financially manipulated economy will give society just enough rope to hang itself with. Unfortunately, this has happened quite frequently in history.

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