This is Us

Somehow we cling to the hope that debt on our side of the world works differently than debt on the other side of the world.  And then we wonder why GDP constantly falters and consumer spending is so reticent.

Beijing can rely only on stimulus. Extraordinary spending in March produced only a one-month bump—and that blip came at a high price. The government in March piled up debt at least four times faster than it created nominal GDP…eventually rapid credit creation must produce a disaster. Already, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is well north of 300 percent…

China’s Economy Is Past the Point of No Return

by Gordon G. Chang

After a near-disastrous start to the year and a one-month recovery in March, the Chinese economy looks like it’s now headed in the wrong direction again. The first indications from April show the country was unable to sustain upward momentum.

Even before the first dreadful numbers for last month were released, Anne Stevenson-Yang of J Capital Research termed the uptick the “Dead Panda Bounce.”

The economy is essentially moribund as there is not much that can stop the ongoing slide. A contraction is certain, and a severe adjustment downward—in common parlance, a crash—looks likely.

At the moment, China appears healthy. The official National Bureau of Statistics reported that growth in the first calendar quarter of this year was 6.7 percent. That is just a smidgen off 6.9 percent, the figure for all of last year. Moreover, the quarterly result cleared the bottom of the range of Premier Li Keqiang’s growth target for this year, 6.5 percent.

The first-quarter 6.7 percent was too good to be true, however. And there are two reasons why we should be particularly alarmed.

First, China’s statisticians appear to be just making the numbers up. For the first time since 2010, when it began providing quarter-on-quarter data, NBS did not release a quarter-on-quarter figure alongside the year-on-year one. And when NBS got around to releasing the quarter-on-quarter number, it did not match the year-on-year figure it had previously reported.

NBS’s 1.1 percent quarter-on-quarter figure for Q1, when annualized, produces only 4.5 percent growth for the year. That’s a long distance from the 6.7 percent year-on-year growth that NBS reported for the quarter.

Even China’s own technocrats do not believe their own numbers. Fraser Howie, the coauthor of the acclaimed Red Capitalism, notes that the chief of a large European insurance company, who had just been in meetings with the People’s Bank of China, said that even the Chinese officials were joking and laughing in derision when they talked about official reports showing 6 percent growth.

Second, the central government simply turned on the money taps, flooding the economy with “gobs of new debt,” as the Wall Street Journal labeled the deluge.

The surge in lending was one for the record books. Credit growth in Q1 was more than twice that in the previous quarter. China created almost $1 trillion in new credit during the quarter, the largest quarterly increase in history. [The Fed has created $3.5+ trillion and counting during our non-recovery.]

Of course, Chinese banks tend to splurge in Q1 when they get new annual quotas, but this year’s lending exceeded all expectations.

The Ministry of Finance also did its part to refloat the economy. Its figures show that in March, the central government’s revenue increased 7.1 percent while spending soared 20.1 percent.

All that money produced good results—for one month. In April, the downturn continued. Exports, in dollar terms, fell 1.8 percent from the same month last year, and imports tumbled 10.9 percent. Both underperformed consensus estimates. A Reuters poll, for instance, predicted that exports would decline only 0.1 percent, while imports would fall 5 percent.

Exports have now dropped in nine of the last ten months, and imports, considered a vital sign of domestic demand, have fallen for eighteen straight months.

Both figures show a marked deterioration from March, when exports jumped 11.5 percent and imports fell 7.6 percent.

The trade figures followed extremely disappointing surveys of the manufacturing sector. The official Purchasing Managers’ Index came in at 50.1, down from March’s 50.2, barely above the 50.0 that divides expansion from contraction.

The widely followed Caixin survey registered at 49.4, down from March’s 49.7. April was the fourteenth straight month of contraction in this more representative—and far more reliable—survey.

Beijing will release additional numbers in the next two weeks, but its reported figures—especially those showing consumer prices, retail sales and industrial output—have obviously become less accurate in recent months. By now, with the first indications for April, it’s clear the economy did not turn the March spike into a recovery.

That has grave implications for Beijing, as Chinese technocrats have evidently lost control of the economy. For one thing, they are no longer helped by strong external demand, and there is little prospect of relief in coming months. As Zhou Hao of Commerzbank told the Wall Street Journal, “China is on its own.”

And alone, Beijing can rely only on stimulus. Extraordinary spending in March produced only a one-month bump—and that blip came at a high price. The government in March piled up debt at least four times faster than it created nominal GDP.

Although debt does not work the same way in China’s state-directed economy as it does in freer ones, eventually rapid credit creation must produce a disaster. Already, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is well north of 300 percent, as Barron’s, referring to Victor Shih’s calculations, notes. Soros in January said the ratio could be as high as 350 percent, and Orient Capital Research in Hong Kong suggests 400 percent.

Whatever it is, China is just about at the limits of the debt it can bear, as growing defaults—and a stark warning from the Communist Party itself on Monday—indicate.

There are many problems, but state firms, backed by Beijing’s spend-like-there’s-no-tomorrow approach, are investing capital, and private ones are not. Leland Miller and Derek Scissors note that their China Beige Book survey of 2,200 Chinese businesses shows that in the first quarter, capital expenditure by lumbering state firms was “stable from a year ago” while private companies “cut back substantially.”

That is an issue because virtually no one thinks an even bigger state sector is a good idea. Yet Chinese leaders have opted for one because, as a practical matter, they have no choice. Structural economic reform, which everyone knows is necessary, would lower growth rates too far, well below zero. That’s politically unacceptable, so they continue with a strategy that must result in a crash, simply because it buys time.

It is no coincidence that Chinese leaders are now pressuring analysts and others to brighten their forecasts and not report dour news, to show zhengnengliang—“positive energy”—a sure indication Beijing has run out of real options.

China, therefore, has passed not only an inflection point but also the point of no return. There are no longer off ramps on the road leading over the cliff.

And that thud you just heard when the first April numbers were issued? That was the big black-and-white bear hitting the floor.

Has the Fed Been Feeding the Zombies?

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

Reprinted from Barrons:

How the Fed Fights the Zombie Economy With Easy Money

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

April 16, 2016

[IllustratIon: Martin Kozlowski]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impotent Fed

From an interview of Bill Gross in Barron’s:

You have taken central bankers to task for impotence and ignorance, among other sins. In particular, you have written that Fed Chair Janet Yellen and others are ignorant of the harm done by their policies “to a classical economic model that has driven prosperity.” Just what did you mean, and what sorts of dangers do we face?

The Federal Reserve was created in 1913. President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard in 1971. For the past 40-plus years, central banks have been able to print as much money as they wanted, and they have. When I started at Pimco in 1971, the amount of credit outstanding in the U.S., including mortgages, business debt, and government debt, was $1 trillion. Now it’s $58 trillion. Credit growth, at least in its earlier stages, can be very productive. For all the faults of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the securitization of mortgages lowered interest rates and enabled people to buy homes. But when credit reaches the point of satiation, it doesn’t do what it did before.

Think of the old Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life. A grotesque, rotund guy keeps eating to demonstrate the negatives of gluttony, and finally is offered one last thing, a “wafer-thin mint.” He swallows it and explodes. It’s pretty funny. Is our financial system, with $58 trillion of credit, to the point of a wafer-thin mint? Probably not. But we’re to the point where every bite is less and less fulfilling. Even though credit isn’t being created as rapidly as in the past, it doesn’t do what it did before.

Central banks believe that the historical model of raising interest rates to dampen inflation and lowering rates to invigorate the economy is still a functional model. The experience of the past five years, and maybe the past 15 or 20 in Japan, has shown this isn’t the case.

So where does that leave our economy?

In the developed financial economies, as a bloc, lowering interest rates to near zero has produced negative consequences. The best examples of this include the business models of insurance companies and pension funds. Insurers have long-term liabilities and base their death benefits, and even health benefits, on earning a certain rate of interest on their premium dollars. When that rate is zero or close to it, their model is destroyed.

To use another example, California bases its current and future pension payments to civil workers on an estimated future return of 8% or so from bonds and stocks. But when bonds return 1% or 2%, or nothing in Germany’s case, what happens? We’ve seen the difficulties that Puerto Rico, Detroit, and Illinois have faced paying their debts.

Now consider mom and pop and other people who read Barron’s. They are saving for retirement and to put their kids through college. They might have depended on a historic 8%-like return from stocks and bonds. Well, sorry. When interest rates get to zero—and that isn’t the endpoint; they could go negative—savers are destroyed. And savers are the bedrock of capitalism. Savers allow investment, and investment produces growth.

Are you suggesting a recession looms?

No. I see very slow growth. In the U.S., instead of 3% economic growth, we have 2%. In euroland, instead of 2%, growth is 1%-plus. In Japan, they hope for anything above zero.

What governments want, and what central banks are trying to do, is produce, in addition to minimal growth, a semblance of inflation. Inflating is one way to get out from under all the debt that has been accumulated. It isn’t working, because with interest rates at zero, companies and individual savers sense the futility of taking on risk. In this case, the mint eater doesn’t explode, but the system sort of grinds to a halt.

It doesn’t look like anything is grinding to a halt around here. You can see gorgeous golf courses from one window and a yacht basin from the other.

This isn’t the real economy. It is Disneyland and Hollywood. It is finance-based prosperity, based on money that doesn’t produce anything anymore because yields are so low.

Even in a negative-rate environment, as in Germany or Switzerland, banks and big insurance companies have little choice but to park their money electronically with the central bank and pay 50 basis points. But an individual can say “give me back my money” and keep it in cash. That’s what would make the system implode. I’m not talking about millionaires or Newport Beach–aires, but people with $25,000 or $50,000. Without deposits, banks can’t make loans anymore, so the system starts to collapse.

Let’s say Yellen steps down and President Obama appoints you the new head of the Fed. What would you do differently?

What you’re really asking is: What is the way out? The way out is a little bit of pain over a relatively long period of time. That is a problem for politicians and central bankers who are concerned with their legacy. It means raising interest rates and returning the savings function to normal. The Fed speaks of normalizing the yield curve but knows it can’t go too fast. A 25-basis-point increase [in the federal-funds rate] in December had consequences in terms of strengthening the dollar and hurting emerging markets.

Will the Fed raise rates this year?

Yes, as long as the stock market permits it. They have to normalize interest rates over a period of two, three, four years, or the domestic and global economy won’t function. In today’s world, normalization would mean a 2% fed-funds rate, a 3.5% yield on the 10-year bond, and a 4.5% mortgage rate. Would this create some pain? Of course. Housing prices probably would stop rising, and might fall a bit. The Fed has to move gradually.

What will be the 10-year Treasury yield at the end of 2016?

Close to what it yields now. I expect the Fed to raise rates once or twice this year. That would put the fed-funds rate at 1%. Does the 10-year deserve to yield 1.90% with fed funds at 1%? Yes, so long as inflation is 2% or less. If the Fed raises rates, the euro and yen could weaken. That would mean rates in Europe and Japan don’t have to go negative, or to extreme lows. In a sense, the Fed is driving everything. But it can’t raise rates too much without threatening a country like Brazil, whose corporations have tons of dollar-dominated debt.

What will the global economy look like in five or 10 years?

Structurally, demographics are a problem for global growth. The developed world is aging, with Japan the best example. Italy is another good example, and Germany is a good, old society, too. As baby boomers get older, they spend less and less. But capitalism has been based on an ever-expanding number of people. It needs consumers.

Another thing happening is deglobalization, whether it’s Donald Trump building a wall to keep out Mexicans, or European nations putting up fences to keep out migrants. Larry Summers [former secretary of the Treasury] has talked about secular stagnation, or a condition of little or no economic growth. At Pimco, I used the term “the new normal” to refer to this condition. It all adds up, again, to very slow growth. The days of 3% and 4% annual growth are gone.


Nowhere to Run to, Baby, Nowhere to Hide.

QE and ZIRP until the cows come home…

Clueless in Davos

By Peter Schiff

Making their annual pilgrimage to the exclusive Swiss ski sanctuary of Davos last week, the world’s political and financial elite once again gathered without having had the slightest idea of what was going on in the outside world. It appears that few of the attendees, if any, had any advance warning that 2016 would dawn with a global financial meltdown. The Dow Jones Industrials posted the worst 10 day start to a calendar year ever, and as of the market close of January 25, the Index is down almost 9% year-to-date, putting it squarely on track for the worst January ever. But now that the trouble that few of the international power posse had foreseen has descended, the ideas on how to deal with the crisis were harder to find in Davos than an $8.99 all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, with a free cocktail.

The dominant theme at last year’s Davos conference, in fact the widely held belief up to just a few weeks ago, was that thanks to the strength of the American economy the world would finally shed the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, it looks like we are heading straight back into a recession. While most economists have been fixated on the supposed strength of the U.S. labor market (evidenced by the low headline unemployment rate), the real symptoms of gathering recession are easy to see: plunging stock prices and decreased corporate revenues, bond defaults in the energy sector and widening spreads across the credit spectrum, rising business inventories, steep falls in industrial production, tepid consumer spending, a deep freeze of business investments and, of course, panic in China. The bigger question is why this is all happening now and what should be done to stop it.

As for the cause of the turmoil, fingers are solidly pointing at China and its slowing economy (with very little explanation as to why the world’s second largest economy has just now come off the rails). And since everyone knows that Beijing’s policymakers do not take advice from the Western financial establishment, the only solutions that the Davos elite can suggest is more stimulus from those central banks that do listen.

Interviewed on an investment panel in Davos, American multi-billionaire and hedge fund manager, Ray Dalio, perhaps spoke for the elite masses when he said, “…every country in the world needs an easier monetary policy.” In other words, despite years (decades in Japan) of monetary stimulus, in the form of low, zero, and, in some cases, negative interest rates, and trillions of dollars in purchases of assets through Quantitative Easing (QE) programs, what the world really needs is more of the same. Lots more. Despite the fact that no country that has pursued these policies has yet achieved a successful outcome (in the form of sustainable growth and a subsequent return to “normal” monetary policy), it is taken as gospel truth that these remedies must be administered, in ever-greater dosages, until the patient improves. No one of any importance in Davos, or elsewhere for that matter, seems willing to question the efficacy of the policies themselves. And since the U.S. Federal Reserve is the only central bank officially considering policy tightening at present, Dalio’s comments should be seen as squarely addressing the Fed. But apparently they were not.

While economists are calling for central banks in Brussels, Beijing, and Tokyo to pull out more of the monetary stops, few have called for the Federal Reserve in Washington to do the same. Most on Wall Street are, publicly at least, supporting rate increases from the Fed, albeit at a slower pace than what was envisioned just a few months, or even weeks, ago. As many economists were very public in excoriating the Fed for moving too slowly in 2015, perhaps they are unwilling to admit that their confidence was misplaced. Many also may realize the colossal embarrassment that would await Fed policymakers if they were to reverse policy so quickly. To have waited nearly 10 years to raise interest rates in the U.S., only to cut rates less than three months later would be to admit that the Fed was both clueless AND ineffective. This could cause an even greater panic as investors became aware that there is no one flying the plane.

But perhaps the main reason other central bankers are reluctant to urge the Fed to ease is that the United States is supposedly the poster boy that proves quantitative easing actually works. After all, the rest of the world is being told to emulate the successes that were achieved in the U.S. Ben Bernanke had the courage to act while European central bankers were too timid, and the result was not only full employment and a recovery strong enough to withstand higher rates in the U.S., but a best-selling book and magazine covers for Bernanke. The world’s central bankers are not quite ready to consign Bernanke’s book to the fiction section where it rightfully belongs, as it would call into question their own commitment to following a failed policy.

But some doubt is starting to creep in publicly. An underlying headline in a January 25 story in the Wall Street Journal finally said what most mainstream pundits have refused to say: “Fed is a key reason markets have plunged and risk of recession is rising.” But even in that article, which analyzes why six years of zero percent interest rates created bubble-like conditions that were vulnerable to even the small pin that a 25-basis point increase would provide, the Journal was reluctant to say that the Fed should begin to ease policy. At most, they seemed to urge the Fed to call off any future increases until the market could adjust and digest what has already happened.

However, George Soros, another legendary hedge fund billionaire (with a well-known political agenda), is dipping his toes in that controversial pool, by nearly telling the Fed that the time had come to face the music and eat some humble pie. In an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Francine Lacqua on January 17, Soros claimed that the Fed’s decision to raise rates in December was “a mistake” and that he “would be surprised” if the Fed were to compound the mistake by raising rates again. (Officially the Fed has forecast that it is likely to boost rates four times in 2016). When pressed on whether the Fed would actually do an about-face and cut rates, Soros would simply say that “mistakes need to be corrected and it [a Fed reversal] could happen.” Look for many more investors to join the crowd and call for a reversal, regardless of the loss of credibility it would cause Janet Yellen and her crew.

But when I publicly made similar statements months ago, saying that if the Fed were to raise rates, even by a quarter point, the increase would be sufficient to burst the stock bubble and tip the economy into recession, my opinions were considered completely unhinged. My suggestion that the Fed would have to later reverse policy and cut rates, after having raised them, was looked at as even more outrageous, akin to predicting that the U.S. would be invaded by Canada. Now those pronouncements are creeping into the mainstream.

I was able to see through to this scenario not because I have access to some data that others don’t, but because I understood that stimulus in the form of zero percent interest rates and quantitative easing is not a means to jump start an economy and restore health, but a one-way cul-de-sac of addiction and dependency that pushes up asset prices and creates a zombie economy that can’t survive without a continued stimulus. In the end, stimulus does not create actual growth, but merely the illusion of it.

This is consistent with what is happening in the global economy. China is in crisis because commodities and oil, which are priced in dollars, have sold off in anticipation of a surging dollar that would result from higher rates. The financial engineering that has been made possible by zero percent interest rates is no longer available to paper over weak corporate results in the U.S. Our economy is addicted to QE and zero rates, and without those supports, I feel strongly we will spiral back into recession. This is the reality that the mainstream tried mightily to ignore the past several years. But the chickens are coming home to roost, and they have a great many eggs to lay.

Investors should take heed. The bust in commodities should only last as long as the Fed pretends that it is on course to continue raising rates. When it finally admits the truth, after its hand is forced by continued market and economic turmoil, look for the dollar to sell off steeply and commodities and foreign currencies to finally move back up after years of declines. The reality is fairly easy to see, and you don’t need an invitation to Davos to figure it out.

Peter Schiff is the CEO of Euro Pacific Capital.

America’s Bank – A Review

Interesting book review with highlights of the history of the Federal Reserve. We should keep in mind that all financial crashes are rooted in excess credit creation. Unconstrained credit creation has now become the primary strategy of our central banks.

An All Too Visible Hand

When Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was yet to be invented

By James Grant

The Federal Reserve is America’s problem and the world’s obsession. When will Janet Yellen choose to lift the federal-funds rate from its longtime resting place of zero, thereby upending or not upending (it depends on whom you ask) individuals and markets in all four corners of the earth? Her subjects await a sign. While tapping their feet, they may ponder how things ever came to this pass. How, indeed, did such all-powerful body come into existence in the first place—and why?

Roger Lowenstein’s “America’s Bank,” which chronicles the passage of the 1913 Federal Reserve Act, is victor’s history. Its worldview is that of today’s central bankers, the bailers-out of markets, suppressors of interest rates and practitioners of money conjuring. In Mr. Lowenstein’s telling, what preceded the coming of the Federal Reserve was a financial and monetary dark age. What followed was the truth and the light.

It sticks in the craw of good Democrats that, in 1832, their own Andrew Jackson vetoed the rechartering of the Second Bank of the United States, the predecessor of the Federal Reserve. Just as galling is the fact that Old Hickory’s veto message is today counted as one of America’s great state papers. In it, Jackson denies to Congress the power to delegate its constitutionally given duty to “coin money and regulate the value thereof.” To do so, Jackson affirmed, would render the Constitution a “dead letter.”

America’s Bank

By Roger Lowenstein

Mr. Lowenstein contends that, in the creation of the Federal Reserve 80 years later, Congress and the people commendably put that hard-money Jacksonian claptrap behind them. Mandarin rule is the way forward in monetary policy, he suggests—the Ph.D. standard, as one might call it, under which former tenured economics faculty exercise vast discretionary power over the value of money and the course of interest rates, financial markets and business activity. Give Mr. Lowenstein this much: As the world awaits the raising of the Fed’s minuscule interest rate, the questions he provokes have never been timelier. Not for the first time the thoughtful citizen must wonder: What’s money and who says so?

When Woodrow Wilson signed the Federal Reserve Act into law in 1913, the dollar was defined as a weight of gold. You could exchange the paper for the metal, and vice versa, at a fixed and statutory rate. The stockholders of nationally chartered banks were responsible for the solvency of the institutions in which they owned a fractional interest. The average level of prices could fall, as it had done in the final decades of the 19th century, or rise, as it had begun to do in the early 20th, without inciting countermeasures to arrest the change and return the price level to some supposed desirable average. The very idea of a macroeconomy—something to be measured and managed—was uninvented. Who or what was in charge of American finance? Principally, Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

How well could such a primitive system have possibly functioned? In “The New York Money Market and the Finance of Trade, 1900-1913,” a scholarly study published in 1969, the British economist C.A.E. Goodhart concluded thus: “On the basis of its record, the financial system as constituted in the years 1900-1913 must be considered to have been successful to an extent rarely equalled in the United States.”

The belle epoque was not to be confused with paradise, of course. The Panic of 1907 was a national embarrassment. There were too many small banks for which no real diversification, of either assets or liabilities, was possible. The Treasury Department was wont to throw its considerable resources into the money market to effect an artificial reduction in interest rates—in this manner substituting a very visible hand for the other kind.

Mr. Lowenstein has written long and well on contemporary financial topics in such books as “When Genius Failed” (2000) and “While America Aged” (2008). Here he seems to forget that the past is a foreign country. “Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth,” he contends, “the United States—alone among the industrial powers—suffered a continual spate of financial panics, bank runs, money shortages and, indeed, full-blown depressions.”

If this were even half correct, American history would have taken a hard left turn. For instance, William Jennings Bryan, arch-inflationist of the Populist Era, would not have lost the presidency on three occasions. Had he beaten William McKinley in 1896, he would very likely have signed a silver-standard act into law, sparking inflation by cheapening the currency. As it was, President McKinley signed the Gold Standard Act of 1900, which wrote the gold dollar into the statute books.

The doctrine that interest rates are the Federal Reserve’s to manage has come to be regarded, at least by the mandarins, as settled science. It was not so when the heroes of Mr. Lowenstein’s story were conspiring to create a new central bank. Abram Piatt Andrew Jr. took to the scholarly journals to denounce the government’s attempts to pin down money-market interest rates.

Indiana-born, Andrew came East to study, taught economics at Harvard and lent his talents to the National Monetary Commission in 1909 and 1910—the group that conducted the field work to prepare for the grand banking reform. Somewhere along the line, he conceived the idea that the money market should be free of federal manipulation. As prices had been rising—a gentle inflation had begun just before the turn of the 20th century—interest rates should have followed prices higher. That they did not was the complaint that Andrew laid at the doorstep of the government.

Andrew contended that the Treasury Department—under Lyman J. Gage, who served from 1897 to 1902, and his successor, Leslie M. Shaw, who resigned in 1907—“succeeded in keeping the money rate of interest below the rate which would have been ‘normal’ or ‘natural.’ . . . They had kept alive a continuously excessive demand for credit by making it available at less than the normal cost. They had sown the wind and their successor was to reap the whirlwind.”

It is an indictment that comes ready-written against the Federal Reserve’s policy today. Interest rates are prices. Far better that they be discovered in the marketplace than administered from on high. One has to wonder what Andrew would say if he were spirited back to earth to read a random edition of this newspaper in the seventh year of the Fed’s attempt to create prosperity through the technique of zero-percent interest rates. He might want a quiet word with Ms. Yellen.

Andrew is not the only vivid personality in this tale of unintended consequences. Mr. Lowenstein entertainingly limns a gallery of them: Paul Warburg, a German-banker immigrant eager to import European ideas into his adopted country; Carter Glass, an irritable Virginia newspaperman turned congressman (later senator) and currency reformer; Nelson Aldrich, a suspiciously affluent Rhode Island senator and central-bank exponent; Robert Owen, a former Indian agent from the Oklahoma Territory who pushed the Federal Reserve Act through the Senate; William Gibbs McAdoo Jr., the Treasury secretary who married the boss’s daughter; that boss himself, Woodrow Wilson; and Frank Vanderlip, president of what today is Citigroup.

Vanderlip, not alone among his fellow agitators for a central bank, was keen on the gold standard and “fervent,” as Mr. Lowenstein puts it, in his “denunciations of government control.” Here is a fine piece of irony. Government control is exactly what the authors of the Federal Reserve Act unintentionally achieved, though Andrew, at least, might have anticipated this public-policy reversal. He noticed that, under Leslie Shaw’s meddling stewardship in the early years of the 20th century, the Treasury had shifted government deposits to private institutions in times of crisis. “Outside relief in business, like outdoor charity,” as Mr. Lowenstein quotes him saying, “is apt to diminish the incentives to providence, and to slacken the forces of self-help.”

Centralized government control arrived in force with the Banking Act of 1935. It established the centralization of monetary power within the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, and it repealed the so-called double-liability law on bank stocks: No more would the holders of common stocks in failed banks be assessed to help defray the debts of the institutions in which they had invested. Anyway, there would be precious few failures to deal with, proponents of the new thinking contended. Knowing that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. stood behind their money, depositors would give up running; they would rather walk to the bank.

The new doctrines repulsed H. Parker Willis, a key player during the organization of the Fed and later a professor of banking at Columbia University. “It is far better, both for the depositor and the banker,” said Willis of the FDIC, “that the actual net irreducible losses growing out of bank failure should fall where they belong. The universal experience with this kind of insurance—if it may be called—has pointed to the danger of increasing losses as the result of bad banking management induced by belief in deposit guarantee.”

Willis didn’t imagine the half of it. On top of deposit insurance evolved the notion that some banks—Citi, for instance—were too big to fail. They must be nurtured through subsidy and bank-friendly monetary policy: low money-market interest rates, for example. It happened that the Citigroup that evolved from Vanderlip’s National City Bank became a ward of the state in 2008. The massive federal bailout of Citi exacted many costs, including a level of regulatory micromanagement that Vanderlip could not have begun to conceive.

J.P. Morgan Chase, which did not fail in 2008, recently went public to describe the intensity of the federal oversight it labors under. More than 950 employees, it revealed, are dedicated to complying with 750 requirements laid down by 21 government entities to achieve and maintain capital adequacy. The Fed itself is high among those demanding overseers. The workers shuffle 20,000 pages of documentation and manipulate 225 econometric models.

The rage to micromanage spans the world. “It can’t be,” the head of Sweden’s Nordea Bank was quoted forlornly saying last year in the Financial Times, “that the only purpose of banking is to stop banks from going bankrupt.” Oh, yes it can.

One thinks back to the supposed financial dark ages when, in 1842, New Orleans bankers, setting down a kind of operational manifesto, succeeded in committing the essentials of safe and sound banking practice to one side of one page. They prospered by simple maxims—e.g., do what you will with your own capital but do not abuse the depositor’s funds—well after the Civil War. Some may protest that banking has become more complex since those days. The boggling, 23,000-page length of the Dodd Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 (complete with supporting rules) would suggest that it has become 23,000 times more complex. I doubt that.

The legislation to which President Wilson affixed his signature in 1913—Mr. Lowenstein observantly notes that he signed with gold pens—included no intimation of the revolutionary techniques of monetary control that would come into being after 2008: zero-percent interest rates, “quantitative easing,” and central-bank-sponsored bull markets in stocks and real estate, among others.

The great value of “America’s Bank” is the comparison it invites between what lawmakers intend and what they achieve. The act’s preamble described a modest effort “to provide for the establishment of the Federal Reserve banks, to furnish an elastic currency, to afford means of rediscounting commercial paper and to establish a more effective supervision of banking in the United States and for other purposes.” “And for other purposes”—our ancestors should have known.

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.

The Greek Tragedy Enters the 3rd Act

stock_market_bubbleDavid Stockman will be wrong until he’s right.

The only thing in this utterly broken “market” which is really priced-in is an unshakeable confidence that any disturbance to the upward march of asset prices will be quickly, decisively and reliably countermanded by central bank action.

It Is NOT Priced-In, Stupid!

by  • July 6, 2015

Among all the mindless blather served up by the talking heads of bubblevision is the recurrent claim that “its all priced-in”. That is, there is no danger of a serious market correction because anything which might imply trouble ahead—-such as weak domestic growth, stalling world trade or Grexit——is already embodied in stock market prices.

Yep, those soaring averages are already fully risk-adjusted!

So the “oxi” that came screaming unexpectedly out of Greece Sunday evening will undoubtedly be explained away before the NYSE closes on Monday. Nothing to see here, it will be argued. Today’s plunge is just another opportunity for those who get it to “buy-the-dip”.

And they might well be right in the very short-run. But this time the outbreak of volatility is different. This time the dip buyers will be carried out on their shields.

Here’s why. The whole priced-in meme presumes that nothing has really changed in the financial markets during the last three decades. The latter is still just the timeless machinery of capitalist price discovery at work. Traders and investors in their tens-of-thousands are purportedly diligently engaged in sifting, sorting, dissecting and discounting the massive, continuous flows of incoming information that bears on future corporate profits and the present value thereof.

That presumption is dead wrong. The age of Keynesian central banking has destroyed all the essential elements upon which vibrant, honest price discovery depends. These include short-sellers which insure disciplined two-way markets; carry costs which are high enough to discourage rampant leveraged speculation; money market uncertainty that is palpable enough to inhibit massive yield curve arbitrage; option costs which are burdensome enough to deny fast money gamblers access to cheap downside portfolio insurance; and flexible, mobilized interest rates which enable imbalances of supply and demand for investable funds to be decisively cleared.

Not one of these conditions any longer exists. The shorts are dead, money markets interest rates are pegged and frozen, downside puts are practically free and carry trade gambling is biblical in extent and magnitude.

So a vibrant market of atomized competition in the gathering and assessment of information relevant to the honest pricing of financial assets has been replaced by what amounts to caribou soccer. That is, the game that six-year old boys and girls play when the chase the soccer ball around the field in one concentrated, squealing pack.

The soccer ball in this instance, alas, is the central banks. Until Sunday the herd of speculators was in full rampage chasing the liquidity, word clouds and promises of free money and market “puts” with blind, unflinching confidence.

The only thing in this utterly broken “market” which was really priced-in, therefore, was an unshakeable confidence that any disturbance to the upward march of asset prices would be quickly, decisively and reliably countermanded by central bank action. But now an altogether different kind of disturbance has erupted. It is one that does not emanate from short-term “price action” of the market or an unexpected macroeconomic hiccup or lend itself to another central bank hat trick.

Instead, the Greferendum amounts to a giant fracture in the apparatus of state power on which the entire rotten regime of financialization is anchored. That is, falsified financial prices, massive, fraudulent monetization of the public debt and egregious and continuous bailouts of private speculator losses, mistakes and reckless gambling sprees.

What has transpired in a relative heartbeat is that one of the four central banks of the world that matter is suddenly on the ropes. In the hours and days ahead, the ECB will be battered by desperate actions emanating from Athens, as it struggles with a violent meltdown of its banking and payments system; and it will be simultaneously stymied and paralyzed by an outbreak of public confusion, contention and recrimination among the politicians and apparatchiks who run the machinery of the Eurozone and ECB superstate.

Yes, the Fed will reconfirm its hundreds of billions of dollar swap lines with the ECB, and the BOJ and the Peoples Printing Press of China will redouble their efforts to prop-up their own faltering stock markets and to contain the “contagion” emanating from the Eurozone.

But this time there is a decent chance that even the concerted central banks of the world will not be able to contain the panic. That’s because the blind confidence of the caribou soccer players will be sorely tested by the possibility that the ECB will be exposed as impotent in the face of a cascading crisis in the euro debt markets.

Here are the tells. If the Syriza government has any sense it will nationalize the Greek banking system immediately; replace the head of the Greek central bank with a pliant ally; refuse to heed any ECB call for collection of the dubious collateral that stands behind its $120 billion in ELA and other advances; and print ten euro notes until the plates on the Greek central bank’s printing presses literally melts-down.

If the Greeks seize their banking system and monetary machinery from their ECB suzerains in this manner—- out of desperate need to stop the asphyxiation of their economy—– those actions will trigger, in turn, pandemonium in the PIIGS bond markets. From there it would be only a short step to an existential crisis in Frankfurt and unprecedented, fractious conflict between Berlin, Paris, Rome and Madrid.

Either all of the Eurozone governments fall in line almost instantly in favor of a massive up-sizing of the ECBs bond buying campaign to stop the run on peripheral bond markets, or the Draghi “whatever it takes” miracle will be obliterated in a selling stampede that will expose the naked truth. Namely, that the whole thing since mid-2012 was a front-runners con job in which the ECB temporarily rented speculator balance sheets in order to prime the PIIGS bond buying pump, thereby luring the infinitely stupid and gullible managers of bank, insurance and mutual fund portfolios into loading up on the drastically over-valued public debt of the Eurozone’s fiscal cripples.

Needless to say, there is likely to emerge a flurry of leaks and trial balloons from the desperate precincts of Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt. These will be designed to encourage the Greeks to leave their banking system hostage to “cooperation” with their paymasters, and to persuade traders that Draghi has been greenlighted to buy up the PIIGS debt hand-over-fist——-and to do so without regard to the pro-rata capital key under which the current program is straight-jacketed.

But that assumes that the Germans, Dutch and Finns capitulate to an open-ended and frenzied bond-buying campaign that would make the BOJ’s current madness look tame by comparison. Yet if they do, its only a matter of time before the euro goes into a terminal tail-spin. And if they don’t, collapsing euro debt prices will infect the entire global bond market in a tidal wave of contagion.

Either way, its not priced-in. That’s been the real stupid trade all along.

Beyond Piketty’s Capital


What Ben Franklin and Billie Holiday Could Tell Us About Capitalism’s Inequalities

It has now been two years since French economist Thomas Piketty published his tome, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and one year since it was published in English, raising a fanfare of praise and criticism. It has deserved both, most notably for “putting the distributional question back at the heart of economic analysis.”[1] I would imagine Professor Piketty is also pleased by the attention his work has garnered: What economist doesn’t secretly desire to be labeled a “rock-star” without having to sing or pick up a guitar to demonstrate otherwise?

Piketty’s study (a collaborative effort, to be sure) is an important and timely contribution to economic research. His datasets across time and space on wealth, income, and inheritances provide a wealth of empirical evidence for future testing and analysis. The presentation is long, as it is all-encompassing, tackling an ambitious, if not impossible, task. But for empirics alone, the work is commendable.

Many critics have focused on methodology and the occasional data error, but I will dispense with that by accepting the general contour of history Piketty presents as accurate of real trends in economic inequality over time. And that it matters. Inequality is not only a social and political problem, it is an economic challenge because extreme disparities break down the basis of free exchange, leading to excess investment lacking productive opportunities.[2] (Piketty ignores the natural equilibrium correctives of business/trade cycles, presumably because he perceives them as interim reversals on an inevitable long term trend.) I have followed Edward Wolff’s research long enough to know there is an intimate causal relationship between capitalist markets and material outcomes. I believe the meatier controversy is found in Piketty’s interpretations of the data and his inductive theorizing because that tells us what we can and should do, if anything, about it. Sufficient time has passed for us to digest the criticisms and perhaps offer new insights.

Read the full essay, formatted and downloadable as a pdf…


[1] Distributional issues are really at the heart of our most intractable policy challenges. Not only are wealth and income inequalities distributional puzzles, so are hunger, poverty, pollution, the effects of climate change, etc. Unfortunately, the profession tends to ignore distributional puzzles because the necessary assumptions of high-order mathematical models that drive theory rule out dynamic network interactions that characterize markets. Due to these limitations, economics is left with the default explanations of initial conditions, hence the focus on natural inequality, access to education, inheritance, etc. General equilibrium theory (GE) also assumes distributional effects away: over time prices and quantities will adjust to correct any maldistributions caused by misallocated resources. For someone mired in poverty or hunger, it’s not a very inspiring assumption.

[2] As opposed to distributional problems, modern economics is very comfortable studying and prescribing economic growth. Its mathematical models provide powerful tools to study and explain the determinants of growth. This is why growth is often touted as the solution to every economic problem. (When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.) But sustainable growth relies on the feedback cycle within a dynamic market network model, so stable growth is highly dependent on sustainable distributional networks.

The Ironies of ZIRP


This is an excellent explanation of the behavioral illogic of Zero Interest Rate Policies being imposed by the major central banks of the world. If only they paid more attention to how they were increasing perceived risks and uncertainty in markets.

From Barrons:

Low Interest Rates: A Self-Defeating Strategy

Instead of encouraging spending and boosting the economy, low rates can lead people to squirrel more money away to meet their retirement or other goals.

April 17, 2015
When I think back on all the crap I learned in grad school, it’s a wonder I can think at all, to paraphrase Paul Simon. And that also goes for what was drummed into me as an undergraduate, way back when we used Kodachrome film to take photographs with Nikon cameras, instead of iPhones (and Eastman Kodak was among the elite 30 Dow industrials).Among those shibboleths was that low interest rates always stimulate the economy. Reduced borrowing costs make it easier for folks to buy houses and companies to invest and expand. Lower yields on savings cut the incentives for consumers to stash their cash in the banks like Scrooge and instead make them more inclined to go out and spend and have a good time. And all that spending should tend to push up prices and, in due time, set up the next cycle of rising rates.

And if interest rates ever hit zero, money would be free, which should mean the economy should be like an open bar—a real party. Then think about what would happen if rates went where they never had gone before—below zero percent and into negative territory. Lenders would be paying borrowers, rather than the other way around.

This isn’t some alternate universe, but rather what’s actually happening in Europe. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, some borrowers in Spain had the rates on their mortgages fall below zero, which meant the bank owed them money. That comes as approximately one-third of all European government bonds carry negative yields.

Those are mainly short-to-intermediate maturities whose yields have followed the European Central Bank’s minus 0.20% deposit rate into negative territory. But, by week’s end, the benchmark 10-year German bund yield seemed inexorably headed below zero, as it set another record closing low of 0.073%, according to Tradeweb. At that return, investors would double their money in a mere 1,000 years.

But the boom that the textbooks predict is nowhere in evidence. That’s not a surprise to Jason Hsu, vice chairman and co-founder of Research Affiliates and also a card-carrying Ph.D. and adjunct professor at UCLA. As a frequent visitor to Japan over more than a decade, he’s had a chance to observe firsthand the effect of near-zero interest rates.

In the complete opposite of what classical economics teaches, low returns actually have induced Japanese consumers to spend less, he says. As the aging population saves more to get to a threshold of assets needed for retirement, firms seeing no spending are loath to spend, invest, or hire. “This is a bad spiral that never was predicted,” Jason explains (appropriately enough, over a sushi lunch).

This had always been assumed to reflect both the demographics and cultural traits of Japan. But that world view will have to be revised, as there’s evidence of the same thing happening in Europe, he adds, with Germans reacting to zero interest rates by saving more. This behavioral dimension helps explain the tepid payoff from the unprecedented “financial repression” that has taken interest rates to zero and below.

The restraints on spending from forcing savers to save more in a low-rate environment has been a theme sounded by a number of critics, including David Einhorn, the head of Greenlight Capital, a hedge fund. At a recent Grant’s Interest Rate Observer conference, he quoted Raghuram Rajan, the head of India’s central bank, who, in a lecture at the Bank for International Settlements in 2013, spoke of the plight of someone nearing retirement and facing losses on savings (from two bear markets this century) and low prospective returns. That “can imply low real interest rates are contractionary—savers put more aside as interest rates fall in order to meet the savings they think they will need when they retire.” Indeed, according to a widely cited estimate by Swiss Re, U.S. savers have foregone some $470 billion in interest earnings since 2008.

That conundrum was quantified in a report by David P. Goldman, head of Americas research at Reorient Capital in Hong Kong. A saver who accumulates assets for retirement through stocks would want to “annuitize” or convert that wealth into a stream of income for retirement. “But the amount of income investors can expect to receive from an equity portfolio converted into bonds actually has fallen over the past 18 years,” he writes.

At the peak of the stock market in 2000, Goldman calculates that one unit of the Standard & Poor’s 500 annually earned the real equivalent of $1,900 (adjusted for inflation, in 1982 dollars) when invested in Baa (medium-grade) corporate bonds. At the market’s recovery in 2007, one unit of the S&P would earn $1,300; now, it’s only $1,100.

The same goes for home prices. A house bought for $500,000 in 2000 and sold today and reinvested in Baa bonds would yield $16,000 annually in 1982 dollars, versus $22,000 when it was bought 15 years ago. Bottom line: “Assets have soared, but the prospective interest on these assets has shrunk.”

Which means that even the affluent top 20% of Americans (who accounted for 61% of domestic consumption in 2012, up from 53%, according to data cited by Goldman) who actually have assets are more cautious about spending than a naïve view of the wealth effect might suggest, he concludes.

To be fair, what we learned about interest rates and the economy were predicated on “normal” levels. A decline in mortgage rates from, say, 7% to 5% could reliably be counted on to set off a rebound. That would lower the monthly payment on a $300,000, 30-year loan by nearly 25%, to around $1,600 from $2,000. First-time home buyers then might qualify to get into a house; the sellers could trade up to nicer digs; those who stayed put could refinance and cut their payment or take down more money to pay off other debt or spend on a car, boat, or college tuition.

It may be that, as interest rates—which represent the time value of money [plus the risk premium for uncertain outcomes]—approach zero, their impact is distorted, just as time is distorted as the speed of light is approached, according to Einstein.

Financial repression that has depressed rates to levels that are unprecedented in history is having unpredictable effects, which shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. Even if we didn’t learn about them in school.

Piqued by Piketty?

“Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

– Benjamin Franklin


Over the past 18 months there’s been a gushing and gnashing over the book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century. I have to admit I’m a bit late to the party and am just getting around to reading (perusing?) it. (I have a good excuse – an 18 mo. old baby.)

Seems most of the feedback has been delineated by political ideology – the left embraces Piketty’s work and the right dismisses it. Perhaps we can pursue a non-ideological tack to dissect Piketty’s take on capitalism.

Piketty has been rightly praised for the work he has led on the collection of historical wealth and income data, and he generously offers this data to the world for future study. Most of the controversy involves his particular interpretation of these historical statistics, claiming that inequalities have reached the same levels as the roaring ’20s a century earlier. Depending on one’s measures and comparisons, that might be argued as true. The devil is in the details.

Piketty makes broad claims that inequality is inherent to the internal dynamics of capitalist markets and that the interim period – 1930s-1970s – was a reversal due to the wealth destruction of the Great Depression and WWII. Then he explicates his “law” of capital that the rate of return on capital (r) will always exceed the rate of economic growth (g), leading to ever narrower concentrations of wealth among the owners of capital. But this is too broad a brush.

We need to unbundle the capitalist wealth creating process and the dynamics of distribution in order to understand why the data looks the way it does. How, when and why does r exceed g and what are the distributional consequences? Piketty so far has not provided satisfying answers.

First, he defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being productive or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as collectibles such as art and jewelry. Thus, there is no distinction made between financial or physical capital or non-productive real assets and thus no explanation for why different asset classes might experience varying growth rates and what that means for wealth and incomes. The return on capital does not always exceed the growth rate and will often drop precipitously over the business or trade cycle, as well as due to the falling marginal rate of return on existing investment. (Certainly r was negative for a considerable period of time during the Great Depression, the 70s stagnation and our recent Great Recession.) With his broad brush, Piketty ignores these insightful details.

Financial assets, as claims on real assets (a form of derivative really), often fluctuate more widely than real assets. Real asset classes that are illiquid, such as art and real estate, often don’t trade, thus making true value difficult to ascertain. Let us explain why this matters (see Figure I.1 below from Piketty’s dataset): The two periods that Piketty claims represent his conclusion on inequality (red circles) were both marked by financial asset bubbles fomented by easy credit bubbles (green squares). In both cases, when the credit crunch inevitably came, these asset prices adjusted quite drastically and quickly, erasing much of the wealth accumulated during the bubble (look at the wealth shares of the 1% over time – it’s quite a roller coaster ride). The difference today is that we have harnessed public credit to maintain these inflated asset prices. Let me make the difference plain: in the panic of 1929 and the early ’30s stock brokers jumped out of windows to their untimely deaths; after the panic of Lehman’s collapse, they jumped out with Federal Reserve-issued parachutes and landed safely on their yachts and vineyards.

Income-USA-1910-2010Piketty’s graph does highlight a concern here. The massive crash in asset prices and capital incomes after 1940 was surely due to the destruction of WWII when high property values in Europe became worthless. The central banks of the world have done their utmost to prevent such a crash after 2008, but one can still manage a price correction to reassert pre-bubble values. Admittedly, this is difficult to do with debt and requires a lot of bankruptcy that needs to be managed. But instead we’ve reflated the bubble asset prices at the high end, and with them the high incomes derived from capital. Life is good when you’re the king (or the Fed chairperson).

Second, we should understand that housing is playing an outsized role in our recent widening of wealth inequality. Housing policy rewarded real estate investments over other investments during the long credit bubble that accompanied the maturation of the baby boom generation (green square on right). This gave the housing sector a double stimulus: rising demand plus a generous tax preference. When housing wealth is stripped from the current distribution of capital, wealth inequality appears much flatter (see Rognlie).

So, rather than some immutable law of capitalism, perhaps Piketty has identified an artifact of short-sighted policy, especially by central banks and government housing policy. In our recent financial market “correction,” these asset prices have not really corrected, as de-leveraging of private credit (mostly in the FIRE sector) has merely been assumed by public credits. The Fed has expanded its balance sheet by about $4.5 trillion and the Treasury has increased the total debt by almost $8 trillion. With all that liquidity sloshing around, the rich have gotten richer because of their ownership of capital assets, both real and financial, while economic growth and employment have stagnated because of de-leveraging and the uncertainty of price distortions keyed off a deliberately depressed interest rate. These monetary and fiscal policies have greatly aggravated inequality and created the more serious problem of allowing those with inflated financial assets to trade them for more permanent real assets, thus narrowing the control over these real asset classes. In the distant past this was called feudalism and we risk recreating such class distinctions.

Nevertheless, Piketty hits on some key truths about the workings of capitalism, none of which are really new but are worth reiterating. First, we call it CAPITAL-ism for a reason – it depends on the accumulation and productive deployment of capital in order to create wealth. To quote Ben Franklin: “Money makes money. And the money that money makes makes more money.”

For the same reason we don’t call it LABOR-ism, because capitalism is about successful risk-taking and our property rights legal system assigns risks and returns to a priori ownership claims. For too long we’ve understood the distributional mechanism of capitalism to be wage incomes, when an increasing share of that distribution is remitted through capital ownership claims on profits. Technology and globalization has only amplified this trend. In addition, a mature capitalist society with an aging demographic depends on an increasing share of rents earned by accumulated capital.

The growing disparity of wage incomes can be largely traced to incomes associated with financial capital, such as in the FIRE sector, and by winner-take-all, or superstar, markets in many professions such as entertainment and sports, but also among corporate managerial elites. In a free and just society this inequality needs to be addressed, but turning back to a laborist model of economic development would mean turning back the tides of trade and freedom.

Rather, we need to promote capital accumulation across the broadest stretch of the population. This simple graph of the relationship between physical capital per worker and income shows the symbiosis between these two factors of production – we merely need to cease dividing them into their antagonistic corners through misguided tax policy.

capital-income – from David Weil, Economic Growth.

In addition, we need policies that promote long-term risk-taking and risk management and de-emphasize short-term asset trading. A return to saving and prudent investment will require disciplinary constraints on credit policy, something we’ve lost with too much central bank discretion over monetary policy. The question is how will we attain that discipline with a fiat monetary regime that allows credit creation according to the policy whims of the central bank and the Treasury?

The answers to inequality are not simple and certainly more complex than Piketty’s retrograde and admittedly unworkable proposal of taxing capital for redistribution by the state. The leftist appeal of this argument readily embraces the idea that wealth in private hands is somehow more easily abused than wealth in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. Tell that to the victims of statism across former Soviet societies. Instead, wealth should be enjoyed by the widest possible swath of the citizenry to be earned by the sweat of their brows and the liberated ingenuity of their imaginations. As I presented in an earlier post, Billie Holiday makes the most insightful observation when it comes to our capitalist society: “God Bless the Child that’s got his own.”

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