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Olduvai III: Catacylsm
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What Will It Take to Get the Public to Embrace Sound Money?

What Will It Take to Get the Public to Embrace Sound Money? 

In the last decade, the combination of virulent asset price inflation and low reported consumer price inflation crippled sound money as a political force in the US and globally. In the new decade, a different balance between monetary inflation’s “terrible twins” — asset inflation and goods inflation — will create an opportunity for that force to regain strength. Crucial, however, will be how sound money advocacy evolves in the world of ideas and its success in forming an alliance with other causes that could win elections.

It is very likely that the deflationary nonmonetary influences of globalization and digitalization, which camouflaged the activity of the goods-inflation twin during the past decade, are already dissipating.

The pace of globalization may have already peaked, before the Xi-Trump tariff war. Inflation-fueled monetary malinvestment surely contributed to its prior speed. One channel here was the spread of highly speculative narratives about the wonders of global supply chains.

Digitalization’s potential to camouflage monetary inflation in goods and services markets, on the other hand, has come largely via its impact on the dynamics of wage determination. It has forged star firms with considerable monopoly power in each industrial sector. Obstacles preventing their technological and organizational know-how from seeping out to competitors means that wages are not bid higher across labor markets in similar fashion to earlier industrial revolutions. These obstacles reflect the fact that much investment is now in the form of firm-specific intangibles. Even so, such obstacles tend to lose their effectiveness over time.

As deflation fades, monetary repression taxes (collected for governments through central banks’ manipulation of rates to low levels so as to achieve 2 percent inflation despite disinflation as described) will undergo metamorphosis into open inflation taxes as the rate of consumer price inflation accelerates. Governments cannot forego revenue given their ailing finances. Simultaneously, asset inflation will proceed down a new stretch of highway where many crashes occur.

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The Fed’s Dangerous Game: A Fourth Round of Stimulus in a Single Growth Cycle

The Fed’s Dangerous Game: A Fourth Round of Stimulus in a Single Growth Cycle

The longer the signals in capital markets go haywire under the influence of “monetary stimulus,” the bigger is the cumulative economic cost. That is one big reason why this fourth Fed stimulus — in the present already-longest (but lowest-growth) of super-long business cycles — is so dangerous.

True, there is nothing new about the Fed imparting stimulus well into a business cycle expansion with the intention of combating a threat of recession. Think of 1927, 1962, 1967, 1985, 1988, 1995, and 1998.

This time, though, we’ve seen it four times (2010/11, 2012/13, 2016/17, 2019) in a single cycle. That is a record. Normally, a jump in recorded goods and services inflation, or concerns about rampant speculation, have trumped the inclination to stimulate after one — or at most two — episodes of stimulus.

Also we should recognize that the length of time during which capital-market signaling remains haywire, is only one of several variables determining the overall economic cost of monetary “stimulus.” But it is a very important one.

Haywire signaling is not just a matter of interest rates being artificially low. Alongside this there is extensive mis-pricing of risk capital. Some of this is related to the flourishing of speculative hypotheses freed from the normal constraints (operative under sound money) of rational cynicism. Enterprises at the center of such stories enjoy super-favorable conditions for raising capital.

There are also the giant carry trades into high-yielding debt, long-maturity bonds, high-interest currencies, and illiquid assets, driven by some combination of hunger for yield and super-confidence in trend extrapolation. In consequence, premiums for credit risk, currency risk, illiquidity, and term risk, are artificially low. Meanwhile a boom in financial engineering — the camouflaging of leverage to produce high momentum gains — adds to the overall distortion of market signals.

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How Asset Inflation Will End — This Time

How Asset Inflation Will End — This Time

Life after death for asset inflation: this is what happens when “speculative fever” remains high even after monetary inflation has paused. This may well have been the situation in global markets during 2019 so far. But history and principle suggest that life after death in this monetary sense is short.

Readers may find it odd to be talking about a pause in monetary inflation at a time when the Fed has cancelled programmed rate rises and the ECB has embarked (March 7) on yet further “radical” policy moves. Moreover, the “core” US inflation rate (as measured by PCE) is still at virtually 2 per cent year-on-year.

Yet we know from past cycles that in the early stages of recession many market participants — and, crucially, central banks — mistakenly view a stall in rate rises or actual rate cuts as stimulatory. Later with the benefit of hindsight these policy moves turn out to be insufficient to prevent a tightening of monetary conditions already in process but unrecognized.

Even had monetary conditions been easing rather than tightening, it is highly dubious whether this difference would have meant the powerful momentum behind the business cycle moving into its recession phase would have lessened substantially.

(As a footnote here: under a gold standard regime there is no claim that monetary conditions will evolve perfectly in line with contracyclical fine-tuning. Both in principle and fact monetary conditions could tighten there at first as recessionary forces gathered. Under sound money, however, contracyclical forces would emerge strongly into the recession as directed by the invisible hand.)

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The Depression of 2019-2021?

The Depression of 2019-2021?

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The profound question which transcends all this day-to-day market drama over the holidays is the nature of the economic slowdown now occurring globally. This slowdown can be seen both inside and outside the US. In reviewing the laboratory of history — especially those experiments featuring severe asset inflation, unaccompanied by high official estimates of consumer price inflation — three possible “echoes” deserve attention in coming weeks and months. (History echoes rather than repeats!)

Will We Learn from History — And What Will Soon Be History?

The behavioral finance theorists tell us that which echo sounds and which outcome occurs is more obvious in hindsight than to anyone in real time. As Daniel Kahneman writes (in Thinking Fast and Slow):

The core of hindsight bias is that we believe we understand the past, which implies the future should also be knowable; but in fact we understand the past less than we believe we do – compelling narratives foster an illusion of inevitability; but no such story can include the myriad of events that would have caused a different outcome .

Whichever historical echo turns out to be loudest as the Great Monetary Inflation of 2011-18 enters its late dangerous phase.  Whether we’re looking at 1927-9, 1930-3, or 1937-8, the story will seem obvious in retrospect, at least according to skilled narrators. There may be competing narratives about these events — even decades into the future, just as there still are today about each of the above mentioned episodes. Even today, the Austrian School, the Keynesians, and the monetarists, all tell very different historical narratives and the weight of evidence has not knocked out any of these competitors in the popular imagination.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves Are Important

And while on the subject of behavioral finance’s perspectives on potential historical echoes and actual market outcomes, we should consider Robert Shiller’s insights into story-telling (in “Irrational Exuberance”):

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How a Fragile Euro May Not Survive the Next Crisis

How a Fragile Euro May Not Survive the Next Crisis

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A big US monetary inflation bang brought the euro into existence. Here’s a prediction: It’s death will occur in response to a different type of US monetary bang — the sudden emergence of a “deflationary interlude.” And this could come sooner than many expect.

The explanation of this sphynx-like puzzle starts with Paul Volcker’s abandonment of the road to sound money in 1985/6. The defining moment came when the then Fed Chief joined with President Reagan’s new Treasury Secretary, James Baker, in a campaign to devalue the dollar. The so-called “Plaza Accord”  of 1985 launched the offensive.

Volcker, the once notorious devaluation warrior of the Nixon Administration (as its Treasury under-secretary), never changed his spots, seeing large US trade deficits as dangerous. The alternative diagnosis — that in the early mid-1980s these were a transitory counterpart to increased US economic dynamism and a resurgent global demand for a now apparently hard dollar — just did not register with this top official.

Hence the opportunity to restore sound money. But this comes very rarely in history — only in fact, where high inflation has induced general political revulsion (as for example after the Civil War) — was inflation snuffed out. In the European context this meant the end of the brief hard-Deutsche-mark (DM) era and the birth of the soft euro.

The run-up of the DM in 1985-7 against other European currencies, as provoked by the US re-launch of monetary inflation, tipped the balance of political power inside Germany in favor of the European Monetary Union (EMU) project. The big exporting companies, the backbone of the ruling Christian Democrat Union (CDU) under Chancellor Kohl, won the day. The hard DM, an evident threat to their profits, had to go. The monetarist regime in Germany tottered towards a final collapse.

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Can Yellen Keep the Boom Going?

Yellen, like notorious previous Fed chiefs including Strong, Martin, and Greenspan, can now claim success in having prolonged and strengthened an asset price inflation which otherwise may well have been about to enter its severe end phase. If history is any guide, the result of that success is to be feared.

Asset price inflations — always characterized by monetary disequilibrium empowering irrational forces — go through a mid-late phase where speculative temperatures fall sharply in some markets which were previously hot. Overinvestment, falling profits, and a discrediting of once popular speculative hypotheses are the usual trigger to such quakes. The central bank can respond by fresh monetary injection and this sometimes brings a new round of speculative enthusiasm even possibly in the recently bust sectors. Symptoms of a sudden climb of goods inflation may emerge. The eventual denouement of crash and recession and the cumulative economic damage are very likely worse than if there had been no late-cycle inflationary stimulus.

The Fed Abandons Plans to Raise Rates

The present Fed resolved to apply the course of monetary injection in early 2016, backtracking from its program of once a quarter 25bp rate hikes heralded in late 2015. The catalyst was a New Year mini-crash in US equities alongside a China currency shock all in the context of a bust in the oil sector and a US growth cycle downturn (2015 and early 2016). In response to the weakening of the dollar the ECB and BoJ intensified their monetary experimentation whilst Beijing pumped up its state credit bubble. In December 2016, amidst evidence of a strong global and US growth cycle upturn, Yellen announced a resumption of tame sporadic “data-dependent 25bp rate rises with no balance sheet reduction.” Such a cautious rate trajectory could be consistent with further aggravation of monetary disequilibrium — in effect a strengthening of late-cycle monetary injections.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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