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Chapter 4: Early Days

CHAPTER 4: EARLY DAYS.

The situation we are in today has evolved over many centuries. Economists had plenty of time and opportunity to comment – and comment they did. Only recently has it become highly controversial to notice that banks create money, let alone to discuss the implications.[1] This makes the comments of earlier economists particularly interesting – for their honesty and perceptiveness.

This chapter begins with economists commenting on the increasing power and influence of bank-credit. It finishes with a fascinating (and very modern) suggestion from 1707 of how money shouldbe created, fairly and realistically for the benefit of all. The proposal is similar to many reform proposals being put forward today.

Here are some features of bank-money that writers on economics were reacting to (some unfavourably, some favourably):

  • Bankers create more in ‘credit’ than they have in ‘cash’.
  • Their credit becomes money when it circulates in making payments.
  • When bank-credit becomes money, interest siphons money from working and productive people to wealthy and powerful people.[2]
  • Money created by banks increases the powers of government and concentrates the power of capital in fewer and fewer hands.
  • Bank-credit feeds war, predatory nationalism and national debt.
  • Increased concentrations of power bring new moral values: neglecting justice in favour of social management, exploitation and direction from above.

For roughly two thousand years, from the days of Aristotle to the end of the Middle Ages, economists did not pretend to be ‘scientists’. First and foremost, they were moral philosophers. They wrote about money and power in relation to law and the morality of human well-being. Aristotle, for instance, believed that money should be a means of exchange, not allowed to ‘breed’ more money.[3] Money, he said, is a human invention. We must be careful that it produces good, not evil.

 …click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Where Will You Be Seated at the Banquet of Consequences?

The Banquet of Consequences is being laid out, and so the question is: where will you be seated? The answer depends on two dynamics I’ve mentioned many times: what types of capital you own and the asymmetries of our economy.

One set of asymmetries is the result of the system isn’t broken, it’s fixed, i.e. rigged to favor the few at the expense of the many. There are many manifestations of neofeudal asymmetry that divides neatly into two classes and two systems, the nobility and the serfs.

A rich kid caught with drugs gets a wrist-slap, a poor kid gets a tenner in the Drug Gulag.

Upper-middle class households are tax-donkeys, paying high taxes and getting few deductions, while mega-wealthy corporations and financiers enjoy offshore tax shelters of the kind exposed by the Panama Papers.

The stock market operators use high-frequency trading to front-run the market and generate profits that are inaccessible to serfs with retail trading accounts.

And so on. Given that the nobility control the machinery of governance (so-called democracy), there’s no way for commoners to influence the neofeudal cartel-state asymmetries short of shutting down the entire system.

Which leaves the asymmetries created by the dynamics of the 4th Industrial Revolution in which new technologies and business models are destabilizing every sector of the old economy.

The core dynamic here is value flows to what’s scarce and in demand. The asymmetric returns on capital and labor are the direct result of what’s scarce and what’s not scarce and what’s in demand and what’s not in demand.

Ordinary labor and college diplomas are not scarce and therefore command very little premium. Ordinary capital is also not scarce, and hence the low yield on ordinary capital.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Crisis of Capital

The Crisis of Capital

These three dynamics render capital increasingly vulnerable to catastrophic losses as backstops and distorted markets fail.

The undeniable reality of the 21st century economy is that capital has gained while labor has stagnated. While various critics quibbled about his methodology, Thomas Piketty’s core finding–that capital expanded faster than GDP and wages/salaries (i.e. earned income from labor)–is visible in these charts.

Real wages have gone nowhere for decades. Only the top 5% of wage earners have outpaced inflation’s erosion of the purchasing power of their earnings.

Household net worth has soared $60 trillion while GDP expanded by $9 trillion.Compare the relative growth trajectories of the economy and net worth of assets. Clearly, capital has expanded at rates far above the expansion rate of the economy.

Assets (capital) have exploded higher while real-world inflation (including wages) has remained in line with GDP growth: modest at best.

Courtesy of Lance Roberts and Real Investment Advice, here is a chart of total leverage and the S&P 500 stock index. Leverage / debt hasn’t pushed wages higher, but it’s certainly pushed stock valuations to the moon.

While labor / earned income is clearly in a systemic crisis, so too is capital, though it may seem as if capital is far from danger.

Capital’s crisis has several sources. One is the financial system, from pension funds to passive index-fund investors to hedge funds to government tax revenue projections, has become dependent on outsized capital gains for its stability.

Any extended period of low growth rates for capital or–perish the thought, sustained losses– will destabilize every financial structure that is counting on a projection of current returns far into the future.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

When Certainty Frays, Capital Gets Skittish

When Certainty Frays, Capital Gets Skittish

The net result is capital is impaired in eras of uncertainty.

As we look ahead to 2019, what can we be certain of? Maybe your list is long, but mine has only one item: certainty is fraying.

Confidence in financial policies intended to eliminate recessions is fraying, confidence in political processes that are supposed to actually solve problems rather than make them worse is fraying, confidence in the objectivity of the corporate media is fraying, and confidence in society’s ability to maintain any sort of level playing field is fraying.

When certainty frays, capital gets skittish. Predicting increased volatility is an easy call in this context, as capital will not want to stick around to see how the movie ends if things start unraveling. The move out of stocks into government bonds is indicative of how capital responds to uncertainty.

The coordinated efforts of global central banks to backstop and boost markets also backstopped confidence in the banks’ monetary policies. Regardless of the long-term impact of the policies of quantitative easing and repression of interest rates, capital could count on the policies remaining in force and act accordingly.

With the Federal Reserve apparently ending the Fed Put and normalizing interest rates after a decade of near-zero rates, certainty about global central bank policies and the impacts of those policies has dissipated.

With valuations at historic highs and real estate rolling over, confidence that gains are essentially permanent is also fading. Buying at the top and holding onto the asset as it loses value is a predictable way to destroy capital, and so capital’s willingness to exit is rising, as is its preference for deep, liquid markets such as U.S. Treasury bonds, markets where big chunks of capital can be safely parked until clarity and confidence return.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Weighted Average Cost Of Capital

ittybiz.com

The Weighted Average Cost Of Capital

When it goes up, prices go down. It’s going up…

This is a revisitation of a report I wrote back in late 2016, predicting the imminent end of zero-bound interest rates and warning of the downward pressure that rising rates, mathematically, must place on today’s elevated asset prices.

Since the publication of that report, interest rates have indeed vaulted higher. Look at how the 3-month US Treasury yield has exploded since the start of 2017:

A Little Background

When I was fresh out of college in the mid-90s, I landed a job at Merrill Lynch. I was an “investment banking analyst”, which meant I had no life outside of the office and hardly ever slept. I pretty much spoke, thought, and dreamed in Excel during those years.

Much of my time there was spent building valuation models. These complicated spreadsheets were used to provide an air of quantitative validation to the answers the senior bankers otherwise pulled out of their derrieres to questions like: Is the market under- or over-valuing this company? Can we defend the acquisition price we’re recommending for this M&A deal? What should we price this IPO at?

Back then, Wall Street still (mostly) believed that fundamentals mattered. And one of the most widely-accepted methods for fundamentally valuing a company is the Discounted Cash Flow (or “DCF”) method. I built a *lot* of DCF models back in those days.

I promise not to get too wonky here, but in a nutshell, the DCF approach projects out the future cash flows a company is expected to generate given its growth prospects, profit margins, capital expenditures, etc. And because a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, it discounts the further-out projected cash flows more than the nearer-in ones. Add everything up, and the total you get is your answer to what the fair market value of the company is.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Make Capital Cheap and Labor Costly, and Guess What Happens?

Make Capital Cheap and Labor Costly, and Guess What Happens?

Employment expands in the Protected cartel-dominated sectors, and declines in every sector exposed to globalization, domestic competition and cheap capital.

If you want to understand why the global economy is failing the many while enriching the few, start with the basics: capital, labor and resources. What happens when central banks drop interest rates to near-zero? Capital becomes dirt-cheap. It becomes ludicrously easy to borrow money to buy whatever cheap capital can buy: stock buybacks, robots, automation tools, interest-sensitive assets such as housing, competitors or potential competitors, high-yield emerging-market bonds, and so on.

What happens when cartels take control of core domestic industries such as banking, defense, higher education and healthcare? Costs soar because competition has been throttled via regulatory capture, and these domestic sectors are largely non-tradable, meaning they can’t be offshored and have little meaningful exposure to globalization.

Labor-intensive cartels such as these can pass on their rising costs for labor, resources and profiteering. Do you really think assistant deans could be pulling down $250,000 annual salaries in higher education if there was any global or domestic competition?

As for healthcare, I’ve often noted that healthcare/sickcare will bankrupt the nation all by itself. When a cartel such as healthcare / sickcare can force higher prices on employers and employees, the cost of labor throughout the economy rises.

Sickcare Will Bankrupt the Nation–And Soon (March 21, 2011)

Can Chronic Ill-Health Bring Down Great Nations? Yes It Can, Yes It Will (November 23, 2011)

You Want to Fix the Economy? Then First Fix Healthcare (September 29, 2016)

As I’ve indicated on the chart, labor-intensive cartels in non-tradable sectors–higher education, defense/national security, healthcare and banking– can pass on their rising labor costs to their captive customers.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Return of the Euro Crisis: Italy Quakes, Rest of the World Shakes and Merkel’s Empire Breaks

Return of the Euro Crisis: Italy Quakes, Rest of the World Shakes and Merkel’s Empire Breaks

Angela Merkel, emperor of the euro crisis zoneEurope’s many fault lines are spreading once again, bringing the endless euro crisis saga back in 3-D realism. Italy gained a new anti-establishment government last week, even as Spain elected a new Socialista government that could crack Catalonia off from the rest of Spain. All of Europe fell under Trumpian trade-war sanctions and threatened their own retaliation. And Germany’s most titanic bank got downgraded to the bottom of the junk-bond B-bin.

The Italian shakeup caused US bond prices to soar (yields to drop) in a flight of capital from European bonds, yet US stock investors took this invasion of troubles from foreign shores as good enough news to end the week on a positive note. The NASDAQ especially never looked happier, though financials feared contagion. As a result, the contrast between tech stocks and financials burst upward to its highest peak since the top of the dot-com frenzy:

S&P Tech stock reach levels comparable to the last tech crisis.

While Europe’s troubles apparently sounded like great news to US stock investors, the Italian crisis caused EU bank stocks in aggregate to take one of their largest avalanches in history, ending in a one-week cliffhanger at their lowest level in two-and-a-half years. Deutsche Bank, Germany’s titan of global finance, ended looking like the spawn twin of the Lehman Brothers:

Deutsche Bank alone could trigger more than just a euro crisis

Deutsche Bank appears to be leading the way into a full blown euro crisis like Lehman Bros did in the US financial crisis.

In one week, Europe with its impossible euromess moved back into position of being the world’s chief menace. The Eurozone is a house of cards with many exits, each with their own name, as I’ve written about frequently in the past, and it’s time to pay the never-ending euro crisis some attention once again.

Quitaly looks like next Brexit in everlasting euro crisis

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Debt Doesn’t Matter, Because “We Owe It to Ourselves”? Why Krugman and Keynes Are Wrong about This

Debt Doesn’t Matter, Because “We Owe It to Ourselves”? Why Krugman and Keynes Are Wrong about This

It is an undeniable fact that debt, whether private or public, must, eventually, be repaid.

Creditors have better memories than debtors. This elegant line was coined by Benjamin Franklin—political philosopher, prolific writer, humorist and American ambassador to France. Mr. Franklin also was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. A true polymath and a man of great common sense.

An entrepreneur assumes he is entitled to an inexhaustible supply of credit and nonchalantly racks up debt. Soon, he will discover that creditors have better memories than debtors. Credit will dry up. Workers will stop working. Suppliers will stop supplying. Debt, after all, needs to be paid back. Credit and debt are two sides of the same coin.

They will insist there is something subtle about debt we don’t understand.

The creditor is always a virtual partner of the debtor. He has linked his fate with that of the debtor. Every grant of credit is a speculative entrepreneurial venture, the success or failure of which is uncertain.” – Ludwig von Mises in Human Action (Chapter 20 – p539)

Mainstream economists will not deny this. After all, how could they? Yet, they will say we got it wrong. They will argue we don’t get the full picture. They will insist there is something subtle about debt we don’t understand.

We Owe it to Ourselves

The subtlety we fail to see—according to the mainstream—is that public debt and private debt are two different animals. When government owes money to other organizations or individuals, a different rule applies than when a private person or a private enterprise owes money. That rule is: we owe it to ourselves.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

“Creating Wealth” Through Debt: the West’s Finance-Capitalist Road 

“Creating Wealth” Through Debt: the West’s Finance-Capitalist Road 

Photo source David Shankbone | CC BY 2.0

Volumes II and III of Marx’s Capital describe how debt grows exponentially, burdening the economy with carrying charges. This overhead is subjecting today’s Western finance-capitalist economies to austerity, shrinking living standards and capital investment while increasing their cost of living and doing business. That is the main reason why they are losing their export markets and becoming de-industrialized.

What policies are best suited for China to avoid this neo-rentier disease while raising living standards in a fair and efficient low-cost economy? The most pressing policy challenge is to keep down the cost of housing. Rising housing prices mean larger and larger debts extracting interest out of the economy. The strongest way to prevent this is to tax away the rise in land prices, collecting the rental value for the government instead of letting it be pledged to the banks as mortgage interest.

The same logic applies to public collection of natural resource and monopoly rents. Failure to tax them away will enable banks to create debt against these rents, building financial and other rentier charges into the pricing of basic needs.

U.S. and European business schools are part of the problem, not part of the solution. They teach the tactics of asset stripping and how to replace industrial engineering with financial engineering, as if financialization creates wealth faster than the debt burden. Having rapidly pulled ahead over the past three decades, China must remain free of rentier ideology that imagines wealth to be created by debt-leveraged inflation of real-estate and financial asset prices.

Western capitalism has not turned out the way that Marx expected. He was optimistic in forecasting that industrial capitalists would gain control of government to free economies from unnecessary costs of production in the form of rent and interest that increase the cost of living (and hence, the break-even wage level).

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Dissecting the Madness of Economic Reason

David Harvey’s latest book provides a riveting reading of Marx’s Capital and a trenchant critique of a political and economic system spiralling out of control.

A decade after the financial crisis of 2008, global capitalism remains in dire straits. Despite central banks providing a steady diet of low interest rates and pumping over $12 trillion of new money into the world economy through quantitative easing, growth remains anaemic, even as debt levels in many countries are back on the rise and inequality rapidly spirals out of control. Secular stagnation now goes hand in hand with the emergence of new speculative bubbles in stocks and housing, raising fears that fresh financial turmoil and further debt crises may only be a matter of time.

With mainstream economics clearly incapable of providing a satisfactory account of capitalism’s inherent tendency towards crisis formation, the past decade has seen a resurgence of interest in the work of Karl Marx, undoubtedly the most astute observer of the system’s internal contradictions. Perhaps no other living scholar has played a more important role in this renaissance of Marxist theorizing than David Harvey, the geographer whose many books and celebrated online course on Capital weaned a new generation of students and activists on an innovative reading of Marx’s critique of political economy.

In his new book, Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason, Harvey provides a concise introduction to Marx’s theoretical framework and a compelling argument for its increasing relevance to the “insane and deeply troubling world in which we live.” Fleshing out a number of ideas first presented as part of a lecture series at the City University of New York, where he is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography, the book is characteristic of the “late Harvey”: incisive in its analysis, sweeping in its scope, accessible in its style and laced with profound insights on the madness of the economic system under which we live.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Central Banks Have Killed Free Trade

Central Banks Have Killed Free Trade

Defenders and critics of “free trade” and globalization tend to present the issue as either/or:

It’s inherently good or bad. In the real world, it’s not that simple. The confusion starts with defining free trade (and by extension, globalization).

In the classical definition of free trade espoused by 18th century British economist David Ricardo, trade is generally thought of as goods being shipped from one nation to another to take advantage of what Ricardo termed comparative advantage:

Nations would benefit by exporting whatever they produced efficiently and importing what they did not produce efficiently.

While Ricardo’s concept of free trade is intuitively appealing because it is win-win for importer and exporter, it doesn’t describe the consequences of the mobility of capital.

Capital — cash, credit, tools and the intangible capital of expertise — moves freely around the globe seeking the highest possible return, pursuing the prime directive of capital: expand or die.

Capital that fails to expand will stagnate or shrink. If the contraction continues unchecked, the capital eventually vanishes.

The mobility of capital radically alters the simplistic 18th century view of free trade.

In today’s world, trade can not be coherently measured as goods moving between nations, because capital from the importing nation owns the productive assets in the exporting nation. If Apple owns a factory (or joint venture) in China and collects virtually all the profits from the iGadgets produced there, this reality cannot be captured by the models of simple trade described by Ricardo.

In today’s globalized version of “free trade,” mobile capital can skim labor, currencies, interest rates, regulatory burdens and political favors by shifting between nations and assets.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

 

Forget “Free Trade”–It’s All About Capital Flows

Forget “Free Trade”–It’s All About Capital Flows

In a world dominated by mobile capital, mobile capital is the comparative advantage.

Defenders and critics of “free trade” and globalization tend to present the issue as either/or: it’s inherently good or bad. In the real world, it’s not that simple. The confusion starts with defining free trade (and by extension, globalization).

In the classical definition of free trade espoused by 18th century British economist David Ricardo, trade is generally thought of as goods being shipped from one nation to another to take advantage of what Ricardo termed comparative advantage: nations would benefit by exporting whatever they produced efficiently and importing what they did not produce efficiently. While Ricardo’s concept of free trade is intuitively appealing because it is win-win for importer and exporter, it doesn’t describe the consequences of the mobility of capital. Capital–cash, credit, tools and the intangible capital of expertise–moves freely around the globe seeking the highest possible return, pursuing the prime directive of capital: expand or die.

Capital that fails to expand will stagnate or shrink. If the contraction continues unchecked, the capital eventually vanishes.

The mobility of capital radically alters the simplistic 18th century view of free trade. In today’s world, trade can not be coherently measured as goods moving between nations, because capital from the importing nation owns the productive assets in the exporting nation. If Apple owns a factory (or joint venture) in China and collects virtually all the profits from the iGadgets produced there, this reality cannot be captured by the models of simple trade described by Ricardo.

In today’s globalized version of “free trade,” mobile capital can arbitrage labor, currencies, interest rates, regulatory burdens and political favors by shifting between nations and assets.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

A Stock Market Tumble Is the Correction We Need

A Stock Market Tumble Is the Correction We Need

The Fed put us in this predicament. Only the market can get us out of it.

Since hitting rock bottom in 2009, stock prices have consistently increased without much volatility — that is, until these first few days of February when the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell over 2,200 points (-8.5%) and the S&P 500 tumbled 7.9% from their late-January highs. The most popular measure of stock market volatility, VIX, also spiked dramatically to levels not seen since 2011 and 2009.

Financial analysts and writers have pointed to a few events that may be behind the big movements in the stock market:

  • Tax reform could have caused some extra uncertainty about the future for all businesses.
  • Bond markets indicate an increase in future price inflation, which means that the cost of doing business could increase.
  • The increase in expected inflation coupled with a new, optimistic-looking release of official data on wages across the US might be used by the Federal Reserve to justify further interest rate hikes.

But to really get to the bottom of the current stock market decline, we need to go back to the Federal Reserve’s response to the 2007-08 crisis.

Unprecedented Monetary Policy

During that financial and economic collapse, the Federal Reserve responded in unprecedented ways. We saw the biggest expansions of credit and the lowest interbank lending rates ever.

(The blue line above shows the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet expansions. The red line is the Federal Funds Rate, or the rate banks pay each other for loans. It is viewed as the basis for all other loan rates in the US. Together, these show the unprecedented expansionary monetary policy of the Fed in response to the most recent recession.)

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

The Rowboat (Wages) and the Yacht (Assets)

The Rowboat (Wages) and the Yacht (Assets)

As I keep saying: the status quo has divested the working and middle classes.

The reason why the status quo has failed and is fragmenting is displayed in these three charts of wages, employment and assets: wage earners (labor) are in a rowboat trying to catch the yacht of those who own assets (capital).

Here is a chart of weekly wages of those employed fulltime: up a gargantuan $4/week in the 18 years since 2000. Let’s see, $4 times 52 week a year–by golly, that’s a whole $208 a year. Brand new Ford F-150, here we come!

If we go back 38 years to 1980–an entire lifetime of work–we find real (adjusted for official inflation, which seriously understates big-ticket expenses such as rent, healthcare and college tuition/fees) wages have notched higher by $10/week–a gain of $500 annually.

If we adjusted wages by real-world income, we’d find wages have declined since 1980 and 2000.

Here’s employment by age group since the year 2000. THose who can’t afford to retire are still dragging their tired old bones to work while employment for the under-55 cohort hasn’t even returned to the levels of 2000.

Meanwhile, asset valuations have soared. Those who own capital (assets) have done very, very well, those who trade their labor for dollars–they’ve gone nowhere.

Households with two regular jobs could afford to buy a house in Seattle, Brooklyn, or the San Francisco Bay Area in 1995. By 2005, they were priced out. Can a household with median income ($59,000 annually) afford a crumbling shack in any of the white-hot housing markets? You’re joking, right?

The cold reality is wage-earners are tugging on the oars of a water-logged rowboat, trying to catch up with the sleek yacht of asset owners. The system has been rigged to reward those who own assets (capital) or who can borrow immense sums of nearly-free money (credit) to buy assets.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

It’s Time to Retire “Capitalism”

It’s Time to Retire “Capitalism”

Our current socio-economic system is nothing but the application of force on the many to enforce the skims, scams and privileges of the self-serving few.

I’ve placed the word capitalism in quotation marks to reflect the reality that this word now covers a wide spectrum of economic activities, very little of which is actually capitalism as classically defined. As I have explained here for over a decade, the U.S. economy is dominated by cartels and quasi-monopolies that are enforced by the Central State, a state-cartel system of financialized rentier skims that has no overlap with Adam Smith’s free market, free enterprise concept,i.e. classical capitalism.

This is what passes for “capitalism” in modern-day America: the super-rich get super-richer, a thin slice of technocrats, speculators and entrepreneurs advance their wealth and the vast majority lose ground or stagnate:

Here’s another snapshot of state-financier “capitalism” in modern-day America: the centralized organs of the state (the quasi-public Federal Reserve) creates trillions of dollars and hands the nearly free money to financiers, insiders and speculators, all of whom benefit immensely as this flood of cash pushes stocks into the stratosphere:

There are other versions of “capitalism” that are equally rapacious, all of which are iterations of crony-capitalism: gangster-capitalism, theocratic-capitalism, colonial-capitalism, and so on.

The key feature of these forms of organized pillage that mask their predatory nature by claiming to be “capitalist” is they ruthlessly suppress the three core dynamics of classical capitalism:

1. Competition

2. Open/free markets

3. Free flow of capital in all its forms (financial, social, intellectual, etc.)

The only way the few can pillage the many is if the many are denied access to competition, open markets and freely flowing capital.

…click on the above link to read the rest of the article…

Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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