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Explaining the Credit Cycle

EXPLAINING THE CREDIT CYCLE

This article summarises why the credit cycle leads to alternate booms and slumps. It is only with this in mind that they can be properly understood as current economic conditions evolve.

The reader is taken through three monetary models: a fixed money economy, one governed by changes in bank credit, and finally the consequences of central bank intervention.

Classical economics provided the basis for an understanding of the effects of bank credit expansion. The theory, embodied in the division of labour, eluded Keynes, who was determined to justify an interventionist role in the economy for the state.

 Neo-Keynesian policies have been responsible for growing monetary intervention. This article serves as a reminder of the distortions introduced by the credit cycle and why central bank monetary policies are fundamentally destructive of the settled economic order that exists without monetary expansion.

Defining the problem

The credit cycle drives the business, or trade cycle. It should be obvious that changes in the quantity of money, mostly in the form of bank credit, has an effect on business conditions. Indeed, that is why central banks implement a monetary policy. By increasing the quantity of money in circulation and by encouraging the banks to lend, a central bank aims to achieve full employment. Other than quantitative easing, the principal policy tool is management of interest rates on the assumption that they represent the “price” of money.

But there is also a cyclical effect of boom and bust, linked to changes in the availability of bank credit, and so modern central banks have tried to foster the boom and avoid the slump.

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Money Supply Growth in May Again Surges to an All-Time High

MONEY SUPPLY GROWTH IN MAY AGAIN SURGES TO AN ALL-TIME HIGH

Money supply growth surged to another all-time high in May, following April’s all-time high that came in the wake of unprecedented quantitative easing, central bank asset purchases, and various stimulus packages.

The growth rate has never been higher, with the 1970s the only period that comes close. It was expected that money supply growth would surge in recent months. This usually happens in the wake of the early months of a recession or financial crisis. The magnitude of the growth rate, however, was unexpected.

During May 2020, year-over-year (YOY) growth in the money supply was at 29.8 percent. That’s up from April’s rate of 21.3 percent, and up from May 2019’s rate of 2.15 percent. Historically, this is a very large surge in growth both month over month and year over year. It is also quite a reversal from the trend that only just ended in August of last year, when growth rates were nearly bottoming out around 2 percent. In August, the growth rate hit a 120-month low, falling to the lowest growth rates we’d seen since 2007.

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tms

The money supply metric used here—the “true” or Rothbard-Salerno money supply measure (TMS)—is the metric developed by Murray Rothbard and Joseph Salerno, and is designed to provide a better measure of money supply fluctuations than M2. The Mises Institute now offers regular updates on this metric and its growth. This measure of the money supply differs from M2 in that it includes Treasury deposits at the Fed (and excludes short-time deposits, traveler’s checks, and retail money funds).

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Can An Increase In the Demand For Money Neutralize the Effect of a Corresponding Increase in Money Supply?

CAN AN INCREASE IN THE DEMAND FOR MONEY NEUTRALIZE THE EFFECT OF A CORRESPONDING INCREASE IN MONEY SUPPLY?

According to popular thinking, not every increase in the supply of money will have an effect on the production of goods. For instance, if an increase in the supply is matched by a corresponding increase in the demand for money then there will be no effect on the economy. The increase in the supply of money is neutralized so to speak by an increase in the demand for money or the willingness to hold a greater amount of money than before.

What do we mean by demand for money? In addition, how does this demand differ from the demand for goods and services?

Demand for money versus demand for good

The demand for a good is not essentially the demand for a particular good as such but the demand for the services that the good offers. For instance, an individuals’ demand for food is on account of the fact that food provides the necessary elements that sustain an individual’s life and wellbeing.

Demand here means that people want to consume the food in order to secure the necessary elements that sustain life and wellbeing.

Likewise, the demand for money arises on account of the services that money provides. However, instead of consuming money people demand money in order to exchange it for goods and services.

With the help of money, various goods become more marketable – they can secure more goods than in the barter economy. What enables this is the fact that money is the most marketable commodity.

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The Chain Reaction is Now in Process

THE CHAIN REACTION IS NOW IN PROCESS

Much has been written about the economic consequences of Covid-19, yet, just as in many of the analyses of the Great Depression and the 2008 crisis, the years of accumulating debt preceding the event do not attract the attention they deserve. Covid-19—or to be more precise, the lockdown—has initiated a cascading liquidation of the debt bubble which has been building for a generation. From the early 1980s, each recession has been responded to with iteratively lower interest rates. Following the bursting of the late-1980s credit bubble, Greenspan inaugurated the loosest monetary policy for a generation, creating the Dot Com Bubble. When this burst in 2000, it was responded to with even lower interest rates, reaching 1% from 2003-4, generating the Housing Bubble. When this burst in 2007/8, the response was zero percent interest rates, turning a $150 trillion global debt bubble as it was then—already the largest In history—into a $250 trillion global debt bubble.

At the Cobden Centre we have organised many talks around the world on the nature of the debt bubble, including in the European Parliament, the Bank of England and the OECD headquarters. When central banks set interest rates it fundamentally distorts the pricing mechanisms of credit markets, just like price setting in other parts of the economy. Friedrich von Hayek won the Nobel Prize in 1974 for articulating that interest rates, like other prices, should be set by the market rather than central planning committees. We are not surprised when the government setting the price of food in Venezuela leads to food shortages so we should not be surprised that zero percent interest rates have led to a $250 trillion global debt bubble. Below is a speech I gave in the European Parliament in 2018 in which I adumbrated these points for a political audience:

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The Deadliest Virus

THE DEADLIEST VIRUS

The deadliest virus is the institutionalized coercion which lies in the very DNA of the state and may even initially permit a government to deny the outbreak of a pandemic. Evidence has been suppressed, and heroic scientists and doctors have been harassed and silenced simply because they were the first to realize and expose the gravity of the problem. As a result, weeks and months have been lost, at an enormous cost: Hundreds of thousands of people have died due to the worldwide spread of an epidemic which, in the beginning, the shamefully manipulated official statistics made appear less dangerous that it actually was.

The deadliest virus is the existence of cumbersome bureaucracies and supranational organizations, which did not manage or wish to monitor in situ the reality of the situation, but instead endorsed the information received, while offering constant support and even praising – and thus becoming accessories to – all the coercive policies and measures adopted.

The deadliest virus is the notion that the state can guarantee our public health and universal welfare, when economic science has demonstrated the theoretical impossibility of the central planner’s giving a coherent and coordinating quality to the coercive commands it issues in its attempt to achieve its pompous objectives. This impossibility is due to the huge volume of information and knowledge which such a task would require and which the planning agency lacks. It is also, and primarily, due to the fact that the institutional coercion typical of the agency impacts the social body of human beings, who alone are capable of coordinating themselves (and do so spontaneously) and creating wealth, and thus, such coercion prevents the emergence of precisely the first-hand knowledge the state needs to bring about coordination with its commands. This theorem is known as the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism. Mises and Hayek discovered the theorem in the 1920s, and the events of world history cannot be understood without it.

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Fed Accountability is a Farce

FED ACCOUNTABILITY IS A FARCE

The Fed claims they are “accountable to the public and the U.S. Congress.” But what good is accountability, if the public and Congress have little understanding of what the Fed does? Even worse, if no one has the power to stop the inflationary actions of the Fed, what good are the accountability measures in place?

This week, Chair Powell addressed Congress and provided the June Monetary Policy Report. The process of testifying before Congress is very much farcical because what the Fed says has no bearing on what the Fed does. We can assume few members of Congress actually understand monetary economics. But what if many of them did, as well as the general public, could the Fed really get away with all of this?

Reviewing the Chair’s testimony to Congress reveals how little the Fed and Congress know about economics and illustrates how ineffective testimony before Congress really is.

In his speech, Powell lists many of the lending programs (Paycheck Protection Program, Main Street Lending Program and Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Program) but when it comes to corporate bond buying program, all he offered was:

To support the employment and spending of investment-grade businesses, we established two corporate credit facilities.

Like a teenager trying to hide purchases made on a parent’s credit card, he did not explicitly list the Primary and Secondary corporate credit facilities by name. He only said the two “corporate credit facilities,” the only two the Fed has. How issuing debt to corporations or trading their bonds on the stock exchange supports employment or spending is anyone’s guess. What does it matter anyway? Even if he said $750 billion may go to buy corporate bonds, who would stop them?

He moved from vagueness to deception quickly with the statement:

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Why the New Economics Just Boils Down to Printing More Money

WHY THE NEW ECONOMICS JUST BOILS DOWN TO PRINTING MORE MONEY

[Editor’s Note: this article is adapted from a 2003 essay in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics entitled “New Keynesian Monetary Views: A Comment.” As economists abandon theory in favor of makeshift plans to flood the economy with stimulus, Hülsmann here provides some helpful reminders of the fundamental problems behind the current economic consensus on money.]

The essential fallacy of John Maynard Keynes and his early disciples was to cultivate the monetary equivalent of alchemy. They believed that paper money was a suitable means to alleviate the fundamental economic problem of scarcity. The printing press was, at any rate, under certain plausible conditions of duress, a substitute for hard work, savings, and cutting prices (Hazlitt 1959, 1960).

The self-styled new Keynesians have not at all abandoned this fallacy, and they therefore do not differ in any essential respect from the old Keynesians, in spite of the pains they take to distinguish themselves from the latter. The new Keynesian recommendation for monetary policy is to “stabilize the growth of aggregate demand.” In plain language this means that the monetary authorities should never stop flooding the economy with paper money. This is recognizably the core tenet of the old Keynesian monetary program, which in itself had been nothing but even older fallacies clothed in the new language of aggregate analysis.

In many respects, new Keynesian views on monetary theory and policy seem to be even more fallacious than those of their predecessors. Whereas Keynes and his immediate followers were still trained in the old-fashioned art of economic reasoning, the new Keynesians are macroeconomic purebreds.1 Their expertise lies more or less exclusively in the field of modeling.

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Tragedies of Our Time: Pandemic, Planning, and Racial Politics

TRAGEDIES OF OUR TIME: PANDEMIC, PLANNING, AND RACIAL POLITICS

An old adage says that tragedies often come in threes. Certainly, the first half of 2020 has seen a version of this. First, the coronavirus that has infected millions of people and killed hundreds of thousands. Second, the response by most governments to the virus by commanding near universal business lockdowns and stay-at-homes that have wrecked economic havoc on the world economy. And, third, the horrific killing of George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed black man in Minneapolis by a policeman, that has served as the catalyst for demonstrations against police abuse and charges of racism all around the world.

They are tragedies that, for the most part, have been man-made. Yes, the coronavirus has been a “force of nature,” though the verdict is still out on the actual origin of the virus and how it first entered the general population in Wuhan, China and then began to spread from one continent to another. But what has become fairly clear is the “human factor” in analyzing and forecasting its likely impact on the world population, which, in turn, highly influenced government responses to it.

Human “Error” in the Coronavirus Projections

British Professor Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College in London, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), offered modeling projections about the likely spread and effect of the virus on the world population that greatly influenced the British and many other governments’ decisions to order business shutdowns and stay-at-home “social distancing” lockdowns. Partly because of this advice, much of the world’s social and economic life came to a halt.

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Unintended Consequences of Monetary Inflation

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES OF MONETARY INFLATION

“In short, the Fed is committed to rescue businesses from the greatest economic catastrophe since the great depression and probably even greater than that, to fund the US Government’s rocketing budget deficits, fund the maintenance of domestic consumption directly or indirectly through the US Treasury, while pumping up financial markets to achieve these objectives and preserve the illusion of national wealth.

“Clearly, we stand on the threshold of an unprecedented monetary expansion.”

Introduction

President Reagan memorably said that the nine words you don’t want to hear are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Governments in all the major jurisdictions are now making good on that unwanted promise and are taking responsibility for everything from our shoulders.

Those receiving subsidies and loan guarantees are no doubt grateful, though they probably see it as the government’s duty and their right. But someone has to pay for it. In the past, by the redistribution of wealth through taxes it meant that the haves were taxed to give financial support to the have-nots, at least that was the story. Today, through monetary debasement nearly everyone benefits from monetary redistribution.

This is not a costless exercise. Governments are no longer robbing Peter to pay Paul, they are robbing Peter to pay Peter as well. You would think this is widely understood, but the Peters are so distracted by the apparent benefits they might or might not get that they don’t see the cost. They fail to appreciate that printing money is not just the marginal source of finance for excess government spending, but it has now become mainstream.

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There Will Be No Recovery Without Production

THERE WILL BE NO RECOVERY WITHOUT PRODUCTION

Through most of the coronavirus crisis, those who have made the case for stay-at-home, reduce or stop work, and narrow the range of retail shopping to assure “social distancing” to reduce the spread of the virus have accused their critics of being more interested in preserving livelihoods than “saving lives.” But there is no preservation of any lives if people are not able to produce and work, without which none of the necessities and other wants of any members of society can be fulfilled.

Listening to many politicians and political pundits, and even some “economists,” you could easily think that 250 years of economic understanding had never happened. One of the oldest of economic fallacies is that money is wealth; that is, the notion that if you create pieces of paper, put some kind of government stamp on it announcing that it is “money,” and spread it around among the members of society, you thereby conjure up from nothing actual material and other forms of wealth.

Money is a medium of exchange, some commodity or other useful thing that is found widely advantageous to use as a convenient intermediary to better facilitate the exchange of other goods and services one for the other when more direct barter transactions are found to be impossible to arrange or more costly to carry out.

Printing Money Does Not Magically Create Goods

But increasing the number of units of the particular item used as money does not, in itself, increase the physical quantities of all the other goods that people want to acquire through exchange to satisfy their wants and desires. These other goods that people actually want must be produced, manufactured, transported and made ready in the forms and at the places desired by members of society.

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How to Maintain a Bull Market After Coronavirus

HOW TO MAINTAIN A BULL MARKET AFTER CORONAVIRUS

Everyone thinks they know the cause and effect of the Federal Reserve’s response to crises such as 2008 and 2020. The Fed prints money to buy assets. This increases the quantity of money. And this causes prices to rise. The Fed wants this, because it thinks that inflation eases the burden on debtors. The mainstream wants this, because they have been brainwashed into thinking that inflation causes good effects such as employment. The critics decry this, because they see inflation as a tax.

This view is not even wrong.

The dollar is not money. It is just credit. And it’s not printed. It’s borrowed. An increase in the quantity of it does not necessarily cause commodity and consumer prices to rise. Just look at not one, but two drops in the price of oil. And not small drops, but epic collapses. Starting in June 2014, the price began to fall from $108. By January 2016, it had dropped to $26, a crash of 76%. Then it rose for a whole, hitting $77 by October 2018. It has been downward since then, to $66 this January, or -14%. It’s now $25, which is a further loss of 62%. This is not counting the brief plunge to -$38 on April 20—yes, those who had oil were obliged to pay someone to take it off their hands (thus debunking the notion that oil is like gold).

In other words, this not-even-wrong theory predicts a didn’t-even-happen price hike.

When a bank, pension fund, or investor sells a bond to the Fed, they do not go out and buy consumer goods. They buy another asset. This is why the result is not rising consumer prices, but rising asset prices.

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It’s Only Paper

IT’S ONLY PAPER

The response to the virus has added a new mechanism of capital consumption to the many we have documented over the years. Businesses are shut down, yet they continue to incur expenses. There is a popular misconception out there that this is merely a paper loss. One can almost picture a neutron bomb that somehow wipes out only paper, leaving all the physical assets and plant unscathed. It’s a pleasant fantasy. And it’s quite a popular one—not only amongst all the usual suspects, but even an Austrian school economist of our acquaintance asserted it.

As an aside, this illustrates that, too often, economists are unfamiliar with business. The economist looks at a closed restaurant and thinks there’s no reason why this restaurant can’t be mothballed for a day, a week, a month, or a year. The owner of the restaurant would object that he’s still paying certain expenses, even if he’s laid off all of his staff. And the economist retorts, “That’s just paper!”

The economist—and politicians—are tempted to think that the government and its central bank can restore the lost paper capital by extending a loan, or even doling out free money. This is simply not true.

One thing should be bloody clear: whatever expenses this restaurant pays, is a transfer of real resources from the restaurant to the recipients. Those recipients are buying food, fuel, clothing, shelter, etc. It’s not just paper.

Looking deeper into the restaurant, we see that, even when it’s closed, it’s still burning some electricity (even if not as much as when it’s operating). There’s insurance premiums. And building maintenance. Over time, exposure to sun, wind, rain, and snow damages the roof, windows, and even the walls.

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How the GDP Framework Creates the Illusion That By Means of Money Pumping the Central Bank Can Grow an Economy

HOW THE GDP FRAMEWORK CREATES THE ILLUSION THAT BY MEANS OF MONEY PUMPING THE CENTRAL BANK CAN GROW AN ECONOMY

In response to a weakening in the yearly growth rate of key economic indicators such as industrial production and real gross domestic product (GDP) some commentators have raised the alarm of the possibility of a recession emerging.

Some other commentators are dismissive of this arguing that the likelihood of a recession ahead is not very high given that other important indicators such as consumer outlays as depicted by the annual growth rate of retail sales and the state of employment appear to be in good shape (see charts).

Most experts tend to assess the strength of an economy in terms of real gross domestic product (GDP), which supposedly mirrors the total amount of final goods and services produced.

To calculate a total, several things must be added together. In order to add things together, they must have some unit in common. It is not possible however to add refrigerators to cars and shirts to obtain the total amount of final goods.

Since total real output cannot be defined in a meaningful way, obviously it cannot be quantified. To overcome this problem economists employ total monetary expenditure on goods, which they divide by an average price of goods. However, is the calculation of an average price possible?

Suppose two transactions are conducted. In the first transaction, one TV set is exchanged for $1,000. In the second transaction, one shirt is exchanged for $40. The price or the rate of exchange in the first transaction is $1000/1TV set. The price in the second transaction is $40/1shirt. In order to calculate the average price, we must add these two ratios and divide them by 2. However, $1000/1TV set cannot be added to $40/1shirt, implying that it is not possible to establish an average price.

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Do Banks Require Savings to Accommodate Demand for Lending?

DO BANKS REQUIRE SAVINGS TO ACCOMMODATE DEMAND FOR LENDING?

There is an emerging view held by many commentators that it is banks and not the central bank that are key for the expansion of money. This way of thinking is promoted these days by the followers of the post Keynesian school of economics (PK).[1] In a research paper by the Bank of England’s Zoltan Jakab and Michael Kurnhof, they suggest that

In the intermediation of loanable funds model of banking, banks accept deposits of pre-existing real resources from savers and then lend them to borrowers. In the real world, banks provide financing through money creation. That is they create deposits of new money through lending, and in doing so are mainly constrained by profitability and solvency considerations.[2]

It seems that for the researchers at the Bank of England and PK followers the key for money creation is demand for loans, which is accommodated by banks increasing lending. In this framework, banks do not have to be concerned with the means of lending, all that is necessary here that there is a demand for loans, which banks are going to accommodate i.e. demand creates supply.

According to the Bank of England researchers,

In the real world, the key function of banks is the provision of financing, or the creation of new monetary purchasing power through loans, for a single agent that is both borrower and depositor. The bank therefore creates its own funding, deposits, in the act of lending, in a transaction that involves no intermediation whatsoever. Third parties are only involved in that the borrower/depositor needs to be sure that others will accept his new deposit in payment for goods, services or assets. This is never in question, because bank deposits are any modern economy’s dominant medium of exchange.[3]

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The Ghost of Failed Banks Returns

THE GHOST OF FAILED BANKS RETURNS

Last week’s failure in the US repo market might have had something to do with Deutsche Bank’s disposal of its prime brokerage to BNP, bringing an unwelcome spotlight to the troubled bank and other foreign banks with prime brokerages in America. There are also worrying similarities between Germany’s Deutsche Bank today and Austria’s Credit-Anstalt in 1931, only the scale is far larger and additionally includes derivatives with a gross value of $50 trillion.

If the repo problem spreads, it could also raise questions over the synthetic ETF industry, whose cash and deposits may face escalating counterparty risks in some of the large banks and their prime brokerages. Managers of synthetic ETFs should be urgently re-evaluating their contractual relationships.

Whoever the repo failure involved, it is likely to prove a watershed moment, causing US bankers to more widely consider their exposure to counterparty risk and risky loans, particularly leveraged loans and their collateralised form in CLOs. The deterioration in global trade prospects, as well as the US economic outlook and the likelihood that reducing dollar interest rates to the zero bound will prove insufficient to reverse a decline, will take on a new relevance to their decisions.

Problems under the surface

Last week, something unusual happened: instead of the more normal reverse repurchase agreements, the Fed escalated its repurchase agreements (repos). For the avoidance of doubt, a reverse repo by the Fed involves the Fed borrowing money from commercial banks, secured by collateral held on its balance sheet, typically US Treasury bills. Reverse repos withdraw liquidity from the banking system. With a repo, the opposite happens: the Fed takes in collateral from the banking system and lends money against the collateral, injecting liquidity into the system. The use of reverse repos can be regarded as the Fed’s principal liquidity management tool when the banks have substantial reserves parked with the Fed, which is the case today.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
In progress...

Olduvai II: Exodus
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