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Will Macro-Economists Ever Learn?

As we lurch through successive credit crises, central bankers and economists believe they learn valuable lessons every time, and that the ultimate prize, the suppression of business cycles through monetary policy, will be achieved.

We saw, over Brexit, how wrong the Bank of England’s and the UK Treasury’s models were, and these errors were also evident in the OECD’s model. Brexiteers smelled conspiracy, but in the absence of evidence, perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the errors were genuine. If so, all computer economic modelling has been a waste of time.

Then there’s the old mantra of garbage in, garbage out, which is certainly true. However, the problem goes deeper than the models, and is rooted in the rejection of classical economic theory. This rejection dates from Keynes’s General Theory, published in 1936, which forms the basis of today’s macroeconomics. Even though macroeconomics began to evolve during the depression years, Keynes’s book really marked the birth of it becoming mainstream.

The failures are manifest and multiple. And while we have no knowledge of the counterfactual, there is good reason to believe the errors made by following macroeconomic theory are far greater than if we were still basing government policy on classical economics. Admittedly, this is a broad statement that does not allow for differences of opinion between the classical economists of yesteryear, and differences of opinion between economists post-war. But there are some fundamental distinctions between the two disciplines that can be agreed.

The most fundamental is of approach. Classical economists agreed that demand is subordinate to supply. In other words, the time-line of goods and services acquired by the individual is that his demand for them must be successfully anticipated before being produced and supplied. The reasoning is unarguable.

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Benn Steil: The Fed Could be Tightening More Than it Realizes

Ten years ago, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers rocked global financial markets, the Fed’s balance sheet stood at $925 billion—mostly U.S. Treasuries. After fifty-nine months of asset purchases to push down longer-term interest rates, it had ballooned to a peak of $4.5 trillion, including nearly $1.8 trillion in mortgage securities, in October 2014.

In October of this year, the Fed at last began a slow slimming-down of the balance sheet, allowing $10 billion in maturing securities to roll off without reinvesting the proceeds. All else being equal, this represents a tightening of monetary policy, as it tends to push up longer-term (10-year) market interest rates.

In Fed chair Janet Yellen’s words, the central bank “does not have any experience in calibrating the pace and composition of asset redemptions and sales to actual prospective economic conditions.” She has therefore stressed that the Fed sees its balance-sheet reduction as a primarily technical exercise separate from the pursuit of its monetary policy goals—in particular, pushing inflation back up to 2%. The Fed’s main tool for tightening monetary policy in a recovering economy would, therefore, she explained, be raising short-term market interest rates by paying banks greater interest on reserves (IOR). Since December 2015, the Fed has raised the rate on IOR by 100 basis points (1%), which has pushed up its short-term benchmark rate—the effective federal funds rate—in tandem.

But is Yellen right that the Fed’s gradual approach to balance-sheet reduction makes it relatively unimportant in its impact on monetary conditions? Our analysis suggests that it will be, in fact, considerably more important than the market, or the Fed itself, realizes. Here is why.

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Cryptos May Destabilise Fiat

The assumption in some quarters is that crypto-currencies will replace gold as money, or at least challenge it. This is an error borne out of a misunderstanding of catallactics, or the theory of exchange. It also ignores the fact that beyond a few European countries and North America, gold is firmly money in the minds of ordinary people. I wrote an article on this subject, explaining why cryptocurrencies are not a new form of money, here.

Anyone reading this article may wish to read my original article first, to understand the true status of cryptocurrencies. I concluded that cryptocurrencies are the purest form of financial bubble in the history of speculation, and will be of great theoretical interest to future generations, just as the phenomena of the Mississippi, South Sea, and tulip bubbles are to us today. I also wrote that

“It’s worth noting that all crypto-currencies together are worth $120bn, with bitcoin $55bn of that total. This is only a very small fraction of cash and deposits worldwide. Therefore, the point where new money to fuel the craze runs out does not appear to have been reached, and could have much further to go.”

That was in August, when bitcoin was about $3,000 against today’s price of more than double that. In the short-term, all sorts of dubious promoters are sending unsolicited invitations to buy, promising price gains of thousands per cent. It’s a fair bet these promoters own cryptocurrencies themselves, and are puffing their own interest. A failure of the innocent to take the bait in sufficient numbers could easily lead to a sharp correction.

We must look beyond that. This article will examine more closely the dynamics driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, and it concludes that rather than destabilise gold, if the craze continues it is far more likely to destabilise fiat currencies.

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Is There a Way Out of the ECB’s Trap?

 

The ECB faces the Devil’s Alternative that Frederick Forsyth mentioned in one of his books. All options are potentially riskly. Mario Draghi knows that maintaining the so-called stimuli involves more risks than benefits, but also knows that eliminating them could make the eurozone deck of cards collapse.

Despite the massive injection of liquidity, he knows that he can not disguise political risks such as the secessionist coup in Catalonia. The Ibex reflects this, making it clear that the European Central Bank does not print prosperity, it only puts a floor to valuations.

The ECB wants a weak euro. But it is a game of juggling to pretend a weak euro and at the same time a strong economy. The European Union countries export mostly to themselves. Member countries sell more than two-thirds of their goods and services to other countries in the eurozone. Therefore, the more they export and their economies recover, the stronger the euro, and with it, the risk of losing competitiveness. The ECB has tried to break the euro strength with dovish messages, but it has not worked until political risk reappeared. With the German elections and the prospect of a weak coalition, the results of the Austrian elections and the situation in Spain, market operators have realized – at last – that the mirage of “this time is different “in the European Union was simply that, a mirage.

A weak euro has not helped the EU to export more abroad. Non-EU exports from the member countries have been stagnant since the monetary stimulus program was launched, even though the euro is much weaker than its basket of currencies compared to when the stimulus program began. The Central Bank Trap, which I explain in my new book.

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Is Funding About Money?

A key factor that constrains people’s ability to generate goods and services is the scarcity of funding. Contrary to popular thinking, funding is not about money as such but about real savings.

Note that various tools and machinery or the infrastructure that people have created is for only one purpose and it is to be able to produce final consumer goods that are required to maintain and promote peoples life and well-being.

For a given consumption of final consumer goods, the greater the production of these goods the larger the pool of real funding or savings is going to be. The quantity and the quality of various tools and machinery i.e. the available infrastructure, place a limit on the quantity and the quality of the production of consumer goods.

Through the increase in the quantity of tools and through the introduction of better tools and machinery a greater output can be secured. The increase in the quantity of tools and their enhancement requires funding to support various individuals that are engaged in the production of new tools and machinery.

This of course means that through the increase in real savings, a better infrastructure can be built and this in turn sets the platform for a higher economic growth.

A higher economic growth means a larger quantity of consumer goods, which in turn permits more savings and also more consumption. With more savings a more advanced infrastructure can be created and this in turn sets the platform for a further strengthening in the economic growth.

Note that the savers here are wealth generators. It is wealth generators that save and employ their real savings in the buildup of the infrastructure. The savings of wealth generators employed to fund various individuals that are specialized in the making and the maintenance of the infrastructure. Real savings also fund individuals that are engaged in the production of final consumer goods.

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What Hayek Tells Us About the Link Between Ultra-Loose Monetary Policy and Political Instability

The European Central Bank will increase the overall volume of its bond purchase program to 2.550.000.000.000 euros by September 2018. The main refinancing rate will remain at zero. Mario Draghi has stressed that this policy shall continue until inflation picks up sustainably (which is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future). The works of Friedrich August von Hayek (1931, 1944, 1976) help to explain why the tremendous monetary expansion is increasingly causing growing economic and political instability in Europe.

Hayek’s (1931) Production and Prices explains boom and bust with central bank mistakes. During the upswing, the central bank keeps the interest rate too low. Investment projects with comparatively low marginal efficiency are launched, financed by credit creation of the banking sector. Share prices hike, because profit opportunities of enterprises and banks increase, while deposit rates are low. Wages do not rise as long as idle capacities in the labor market exist. As soon as wages start to rise, enterprises lift prices and inflation picks up. When the central bank increases the interest rate to contain inflation, investment projects with low marginal efficiency have to be dismantled. The boom turns into bust. The central bank aggravates the recession by keeping the interest rate too high.

To understand the economic development of the industrialized countries since the mid 1980s Hayek (1931) is important, but two modifications have to be made (Schnabl 2016). In line with Hayek, central banks around the globe have tended to keep interest rates too low during upswings, thereby causing exuberant booms. In contrast to Hayek’s theory, they cut interest rates fast during crisis to avoid painful recessions. In addition, increasingly expansionary monetary policies became visible in rising asset rather than goods prices (see Figure). Therefore, interest rates could converge towards zero and central bank balance sheet could be inflated without inflation targeting central banks being forced to tighten monetary policy.

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For God’s Sake, Stop!

“Most economists, it seems, believe strongly in their own superior intelligence and take themselves far too seriously. In his open letter of 22 July 2001 to Joseph Stiglitz, Kenneth Rogoff identified this problem. ‘One of my favourite stories from that era is a lunch with you and our former colleague, Carl Shapiro, at which the two of you started discussing whether Paul Volcker merited your vote for a tenured appointment at Princeton. At one point, you turned to me and said, “Ken, you used to work for Volcker at the Fed. Tell me, is he really smart ?” I responded something to the effect of, “Well, he was arguably the greatest Federal Reserve chairman of the twentieth century.” To which you replied, “But is he smart like us ?”

  • Satyajit Das.

“..Every time a report lands on their desks, central bankers must stop to think about the economic, social and political havoc their policies have caused over the past 10 years.

“The desperate attempt to avoid deflation via quantitative easing and record-low interest rates has had horrible side effects, and this observation is hardly controversial. The rich have become much richer; corporate wealth has become more concentrated; soaring house prices have created intergenerational strife; low yields have made all but the super-rich paranoid that they will be entirely unable to finance their futures. Most markets have ended up overvalued (this will really matter one day), while pension fund deficits and a constant sense of crisis have discouraged capital investment — and have possibly held down wages in the UK.

“Set a target, get a distortion. This is standard stuff. But the fact that extreme monetary policy has been going on for so long means that central bankers do not just have macro problems to feel bad about.

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If Political Candidates Advocated Liberty

In modern democracies, political cycles never end. As soon as one election is over, those in government office or aspiring to such an office are already running for the next election. Having recently attended a public forum of state-level candidates looking to the 2018 election, I wondered what a real friend of freedom might say if he was offering himself for such a political office.

At a luncheon event several candidates running in the forthcoming Republican Party primary in South Carolina made their pitch as to why they should be their party’s nominees for state legislative offices in the next general election. They answered questions submitted by attendees at the lunch and made opening and closing statements about who they were and what they stood for.

Liberty Rhetoric, But Interventionist Policies

Not too surprisingly they all, in their respective ways, said they were “pro-business,” advocated lower taxes, a freer enterprise market environment, and greater transparent accountability by those in power in the state capital.

Why did each say they were running for elected office? They all had been in business but now wanted to “give back” and “serve” their communities.

What were major themes in many of the questions directed at them? South Carolina is a growing state with international corporations opening more manufacturing facilities, and matching this is an increasing population as more people move to the Palmetto State.

Those who submitted questions wanted to know what the candidates would do, if elected, about improving and widening road infrastructure to reduce increasing congestion, and how they would “manage” growth in the state? And what they might do in terms of taxes? There were other topics and issues, but these especially stood out.

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Low Interest Rates Subsidize Wealthy Households

When the economy begins to sink into recession, politicians, mainstream economists, policy wonks, and the Federal Reserve begin beating the economic stimulus drum.

Politicians, however, disagree over the type of stimulus to implement. The center-left party proposes greater expenditures on public assistance programs. The center-right party supports permanent tax rate reductions. The center-left party opposes tax cuts because they say it benefits the rich. The center-right party opposes raising government expenditures because it increases government debt. This discord generally results in a temporary compromise where government expenditures are boosted and tax rates are cut. This compromise is called “discretionary fiscal stimulus.”

While the debate over discretionary fiscal stimulus has to overcome Senate filibusters and heated House debates, the central bankers at the Fed quickly implement monetary stimulus. Boosting aggregate demand is the intended purpose of it and discretionary fiscal stimulus. In mainstream economic theory, greater aggregate demand lowers unemployment and raises GDP. In spite of grave warnings from Austrian-school economists, the Fed pursues these goals by lowering interest rates via an expansion credit.

Although the political parties disagree over the type of fiscal stimulus to implement, both support the Fed’s monetary stimulus. Perhaps they do so because lower interest rates lower the cost of the budget deficits their discretionary fiscal stimulus produces. The lower interest rates also reduce the interest Americans pay on their debts. The total of this debt is unevenly distributed across the richest 1 percent, the next 9 percent, and the bottom 90 percent of Americans (as ranked by wealth), according to the following table.

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Total household debt averaged $11.295 trillion dollars over the four quarters in 2013, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Multiplying this value by the percentages in the above table indicates that the richest 1 percent, the next 9 percent, and the bottom 90 percent have aggregate debts of $610 billion, $2.383 trillion, and $8.302 trillion, respectively. These values are listed in the Total Debt column below.

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Necessity is the Mother of Invention–Retirees Desperate Reach for Yield

Ben Bernanke’s creativity inspired a generation of economists and central bankers. QE, ZIRP and NIRP established a new class of economics that is mathematically sound but practically disastrous. Billions of dollars were transferred from savers to investors to boost the economy, but the wizards of quant forgot that something has to give. In this case, it was the formation of a pension crisis that threatens the golden years of millions of retirees across the world. None of the econometrics models provide a solution for the growing gap in pension funding, other than unsustainable debt accumulation.

Creativity cascaded to the less sophisticated pension fund managers. In a desperate reach for yields they increased exposure to project finance. Perceived higher returns, long-term investment horizon and inflation protection made it the perfect match for pension funds. However, like their central banker peers, pension fund managers were completely mistaken. Actual risks were largely underestimated. The binary nature of cashflow risks makes conventional risk measures meaningless. This is best illustrated by looking at the cumulative default rates of project finance (1991-2011) in North America, which exceeded the default rate of the non-investment grade Ba bonds in the first 6 years and is more than triple that of investment grade default rates.

Cum Defaut Rates

The European Investment Bank (EIB) decided to ride the wave of project finance and waste taxpayers’ money by providing loans and insurance on risks that EIB cannot remotely comprehend. They ignored the fact that mono-liners in the US did the same a decade ago and paid a hefty price when the bubble burst where almost all bond insurers went out of the market.

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Neo-Liberalism: From Laissez-Faire to the Interventionist State

One of the most accusatory and negative words currently in use in various politically “progressive” circles is that of “Neo-Liberalism.” To be called a “Neo-Liberal” is to stand condemned of being against “the poor,” an apologist for the “the rich” and a proponent of economic policies leading to greater income inequality.

The term is also used to condemn all those who consider the market economy to be the central institution of human society, at the expense of senses of “community” and shared caring and concern beyond supply and demand. A Neo-Liberal is one who reduces everything to market-based dollars and sense, and disregards the “humane” side of mankind, say the critics of Neo-Liberalism.

The opponents of Neo-Liberalism, so defined, claim that its proponents are rabid, “extremist” advocates of laissez-faire, that is, a market economy unrestrained and unrestricted by government regulations, controls or redistributive fiscal policies. It represents and calls for the worst features of the “bad old days” before socialism and the interventionist-welfare state, each in their respective “radical” or “moderate” ways, attempted to abolish or rein in unbridled, “anti-social” capitalism.

The Birth of Neo-Liberalism: Walter Lippmann and a Paris Conference

The historical fact is that these descriptions have little or nothing to do with the origin of Neo-Liberalism, or what it meant to those who formulated it and its policy agenda.  It all dates from about eighty years ago, with the publication in 1937 of a book by the American journalist and author, Walter Lippmann (1889-1974), entitled, An Inquiry into the Principles of the Good Society, and an international conference held in Paris, France in August of 1938 organized by the French philosopher and classical liberal economist, Louis Rougier, centered around the themes in Lippmann’s book. A transcript of the conference proceedings was published later in 1938 (in French) under the title, Colloquium Walter Lippmann.

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What Should Be the Criteria for Model Selection?

In order to make the data “talk,” economists utilize a range of statistical methods that vary from highly complex models to a simple display of historical data. It is generally held that by means of statistical correlations one can organize historical data into a useful body of information, which in turn can serve as the basis for assessments of the state of the economy. It is held that through the application of statistical methods on historical data, one can extract the facts of reality regarding the state of the economy.

Unfortunately, things are not as straightforward as they seem to be. For instance, it has been observed that declines in the unemployment rate are associated with a general rise in the prices of goods and services. Should we then conclude that declines in unemployment are a major trigger of price inflation? To confuse the issue further, it has also been observed that price inflation is well correlated with changes in money supply. Also, it has been established that changes in wages display a very high correlation with price inflation.

So what are we to make out of all this? We are confronted here not with one, but with three competing “theories” of inflation. How are we to decide which is the right theory? According to the popular way of thinking, the criterion for the selection of a theory should be its predictive power.

On this Milton Friedman wrote,

The ultimate goal of a positive science is the development of a theory or hypothesis that yields valid and meaningful (i.e., not truistic) predictions about phenomena not yet observed.[1]

So long as the model (theory) “works,” it is regarded as a valid framework as far as the assessment of an economy is concerned. Once the model (theory) breaks down, we look for a new model (theory).

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Fed Confused About What Drives Inflation

On October 4 2017, the former governor of the Federal Reserve Daniel Tarullo in a speech at the Brookings think-tank in Washington said Fed policy makers do not have a reliable theory of what drives inflation. According to Tarullo, central bankers should pay less attention to theoretical models and more to actual data. However, how is it possible to make any sense of the data without having a reliable theory?

The importance of theory

The purpose of a theory is to enable to ascertain the definition of a phenomenon that is subject to investigation.

The correct definition attempts to identify the essence of the phenomenon i.e. the key parts that drives the phenomenon.

For instance, the definition of human action is not that people are engaged in all sorts of activities, but that they are engaged in purposeful activities – it is purpose that gives rise to an action.

So when Tarullo states that Fed policy makers do not know the causes that drive inflation he basically says that Fed policy makers have not as yet established the correct definition of inflation.

Is it then valid to be practical, as suggested by Tarullo, to focus only on the data to understand what inflation is all about? If Fed policy makers respond to changes in price indices without establishing what drives these changes this runs the risk of making things much worse.

Attempting to define what inflation is all about

The subject matter of inflation is embezzlement by means of diluting the purchasing power of individuals. The source for this act of embezzlement is increases in money supply out of “thin air”. The increase in money out of “thin air” sets in motion an exchange of nothing for something or the diversion of real wealth from wealth generators to the holders of the newly created money.

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The Upcoming Increase in Interest Rates

Last week, both Janet Yellen of the Fed and Mark Carney of the Bank of England prepared financial markets for interest rate increases. The working assumption should be that this was coordinated, and that both the ECB and the Bank of Japan must be considering similar moves.

Central banks coordinate their monetary policies as much as possible, which is why we can take the view we are about to embark on a new policy phase of higher interest rates. The intention of this new phase must be to normalise rates in the belief they are too stimulative for current economic conditions. Doubtless, investors will be reassessing their portfolio allocations in this light.

It should become clear to them that bond yields will rise from the short end of the yield curve, producing headwinds for equities. The effects will vary between jurisdictions, depending on multiple factors, not least of which is the extent to which interest rates and bond yields will have to rise to reflect developing economic conditions. The two markets where the change in interest rate policy are likely to have the greatest effect are in the Eurozone countries and Japan, where financial stimulus and negative rates have yet to be reversed.

Investors who do not understand these changing dynamics could lose a lot of money. Based on price theory and historical experience, this article concludes that bond yields are likely to rise more than currently expected, and equities will have to weather credit outflows from financial assets. Therefore, equities are likely to enter a bear market soon. Commercial and industrial property should benefit from capital flows redirected from financial assets, giving them one last spurt before the inevitable financial crisis. Sound money, physical gold, should become the safest asset of all, and should see increasing investment demand.

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The Political and Economic Mystiques of State Power

One of the great political mysteries has been the success of governments in ruling over societies with little opposition and resistance from the vast majority of the population, even when those governments have been brutal tyrannies and openly dictatorial in their control.

This has been true, no less, under democratic regimes, as well, under which levels of taxation have been far higher and the degrees of regulation over personal, social and economic activities often much more intrusive than under tyrants of bygone ages. This has been in spite of the fact that those governments are formally “answerable to the people” through regular elections determining who holds high political office with legitimized power over the electorate’s lives.

Conquest and Plunder as the Origin of the State

It has long been understood by historians that most modern States, such as in Europe, have their origins in conquest and plunder. Invading tribes and bands would vanquish existing rulers and their peoples, and settle down to permanently live off those whom they had not killed during the conquest.

The German sociologist, Franz Oppenheimer (1864-1943), especially emphasized this in his classic work on the origin of political power and authority, The State (1914). He argued that there are fundamentally two ways by which individuals may obtain the material means that they wish to have to maintain and improve their lives: the economic means and the political means: Said Oppenheimer:

There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. There are work or robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others.

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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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Olduvai III: Cataclysm
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