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More on the puzzle of negative interest rates

More on the puzzle of negative interest rates

Interest rates on many bonds have plunged into negative territory. But why on earth would anyone be willing to save $1000 only to get $999 in the future? Saving up for a rainy day has always gone hand in hand with a positive interest rate, not a negative one.

In my last post I showed how negative real return on saving could emerge. I invoked a certain type of a economy – a dystopic island where castaways like Robinson Crusoe live. The island’s few meagre opportunities to invest have dried up. Technological advancement has halted. To prepare for his retirement Robinson Crusoe stores coconuts, but the constant assault from rodents and insects meant that he’d end up with less resources than he started with.

Crusoe and other castaways his age can also prepare for old age by lending resources to the island’s younger generation. But if the young are dying out, then the much larger cohort of older islanders will have to offer the few remaining young a lower – even negative – interest rate to coax them to borrow.

A tale of two interest rates

Our world is certainly experiencing many problems. But it doesn’t seem to correspond to the grim reality of a decaying Robinson Crusoe world. Sure, we are getting older and having fewer kids. But it’s hard to argue that technological advancement has ground to a halt or that projects are so non-productive that we are content to earn 0%.

For evidence, take a look at a chart of the rate of return on U.S. business capital:

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How California stayed with gold when the rest of the U.S. adopted fiat money

How California stayed with gold when the rest of the U.S. adopted fiat money

We are ten years into the age of bitcoin. But people are still using national currencies like yen, dollars, and pounds to buy things. What does history have to say about switches from one type of monetary system to another? In this post I’ll dig for lessons from California’s successful resistance to a fiat standard that was imposed on it in the 1860s by the rest of the U.S.

Not long after the war American Civil War broke out in 1861, a run on New York banks forced most of the country’s banks to stop redeeming their banknotes with gold. A few months later Abraham Lincoln’s Union government began to issue inconvertible paper money in order to finance the war. These notes were popularly known as Greenbacks.

$1 legal tender note, or greenback

Thus the 19 states in the Union shifted from a commodity monetary standard onto a fiat monetary standard. But Californians, who had been using gold as a payments medium for the previous decade-and-a-half, chose not to cooperate and continued to keep accounts in terms of gold. As a result, California stayed on a gold standard while the rest of the Union grappled with fiat money.

This had very different repercussions for prices in each region. As the Union issued ever more greenbacks to finance the war, the perceived quality of these IOUs deteriorated. Through much of 1863 and 1864, their price fell relative to gold. Because prices in the Union were set in terms of greenbacks, consumer and wholesale prices rose rapidly.

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Sanctions Busting, European Style

Sanctions Busting, European Style

U.S. officials were infuriated last week when Germany, the UK, and France unveiled plans to create a European payments channel to help Iran to avoid U.S. sanctions. Even more surprising was their chosen allies: in announcing their sanctions busting plan, the Europeans were joined by Russia and China.

There has been very little detail provided on the proposed payments channel. The press release describes it as “a Special Purpose Vehicle, to facilitate payments related to Iran’s exports (including oil) and imports.” Nor did EU High Representative Federica Mogherini’s comments after the press release contain much information about the special purpose vehicle’s technical specifications, other than to say that it would be “opened to other partners in the world.”

Despite the lack of particulars, I’ll make some educated guesses in this post about the intended role of the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) and how it will be designed. I think that the SPV will probably be able to carve out some space for the rest of the world to engage in Iranian trade, but we shouldn’t overestimate its power. The U.S., after all, wields an incredible amount of economic might and under Trump hasn’t been shy about deploying it.

Trump leaves the Nuclear Deal

The background for the creation of the new European payments channel is the Trump administration’s recent departure from the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This was a deal signed by the France, UK, Germany, U.S., Russia, and China, or the E3+3, in 2015. The JCPOA promised to normalize Iran’s economic relations with the rest of the world in return for fully-audited limitations on Iran’s nuclear efforts.

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Gold and the Monetary Blockade on Iran

Gold and the Monetary Blockade on Iran

This blog post is a guest post on BullionStar’s Blog by the renowned blogger JP Koning who will be writing about monetary economics, central banking and gold. BullionStar does not endorse or oppose the opinions presented but encourage a healthy debate.

With Donald Trump close to re-instituting economic sanctions on Iran, it’s worth remembering that gold served as a tool for skirting the the last round of Iranian sanctions. If a blockade were to be re-imposed on Iran, might this role be resuscitated?

The 2010-2015 Monetary Blockade

The set of sanctions that the U.S. began placing on Iran back in 2010 can be best thought of as a monetary blockade. It relied on deputizing U.S. banks to act as snitches. Any U.S. bank that was caught providing correspondent accounts to a foreign bank that itself helped Iran engage in sanctioned activities would be fined. To avoid being penalized, U.S. banks threatened their foreign bank customers to stop enabling Iranian payments or lose their accounts. And of course the foreign banks (mostly) complied. Being cut off from the U.S. payment system would have meant losing a big chunk of business, whereas losing Iranian businesses was small fry.

One of the sanctioned activities was helping Iran to sell oil. By proving that they had significantly reduced their Iranian oil imports, large importers like Japan, Korea, Turkey, India, and China managed to secure for their banks a temporary exemption from U.S. banking sanctions. So banks could keep facilitating oil-related payments for Iran without being cut off from the dollar-based payments system. The result was that Iran’s oil exports fell, but never ground to a halt. This was a fairly balanced approach. While the U.S. wanted to deprive Iran of oil revenue – which might be used to build nuclear weapons – it didn’t want to force allies to do entirely without necessary crude oil.

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Money as a Measuring Stick

Money as a Measuring Stick

Imagine if the world’s metre sticks all grew or shrunk a bit each year. That would make for a confusing system of weights and measures, wouldn’t it? Well, that is exactly what happens with money.

We have been measuring the world around us for thousands of years. Units like feet and cubits have been used for distances, pounds and kilograms to measure weight, and dollars and yen to measure economic value. Measuring value, however, is by far the most complicated of the measurements that must be taken. This is because – unlike the other units – the various items that have been used to represent dollars and yen are constantly fluctuating in value.

The British Pound, or lb

Monetary units have always been closely tied up with units of weight. For instance, the word “pound” has been used to describe both the British monetary unit (£) and the weight (lb). The pound weight was originally based on wheat. In 1266, King Henry III decreed that the British unit referred to as the grain should be defined as the weight of a corn of wheat “well dried, and gathered out of the middle of the ear.” Thirty-two grains were to be equal to a pennyweight, twenty pennyweights equal to an ounce, and twelve ounces added up to a pound. So the early English pound, otherwise known as the Tower pound, was comprised of 7,680 “well-dried” grains from the middle of an ear of wheat.

Grains of wheat

The Tower pound wasn’t the only pound weight used in England. The Troy pound, used for gold and silver, contained 5,760 grains, while the Merchant pound was made up of 6,750 grains. To add to the confusion, the avoirdupois pound would contain 7,000 grains.

The Exchequer Standard

Although the grain unit served as the basis for weights, people didn’t go about their regular business of measuring the weights of things by counterbalancing them against tiny grains of wheat. Imagine how awkward it would be to go to the local market to ask for an ounce of meat! The butcher would have had to count out 640 grains and then counterbalance them on a scale against the hunk of meat, an arduous process that would have brought the gears of trade to a near halt. Buyers would have been constantly accusing sellers of not using appropriately dry grains, adding to the confusion.

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Why QE didn’t send gold up to $20,000

Why QE didn’t send gold up to $20,000

Why didn’t quantitative easing, which created trillions of dollars of new money, lead to a massive spike in the gold price?

The Quantity Theory of Money

The intuition that an increase in the money supply should lead to a rise in prices, including the price of gold, comes from a very old theory of money—the quantity theory of money—going back to at least the philosopher David Hume. Hume asked his readers to imagine a situation in which everyone in Great Britain suddenly had “five pounds slipt into his pocket in one night.” Hume reasoned that this sudden increase in the money supply would “only serve to increase the prices of every thing, without any farther consequence.”

Another way to think about the quantity theory is by reference to the famous equation of exchange, or

  • MV = PY
  • money supply x velocity of money over a period of time = price level x goods & services produced over that period

A traditional quantity theorist usually assumes that velocity, the average frequency that a banknote or deposit changes hands, is quite stable. So when M—the money supply— increases, a hot potato effect emerges. Anxious to rid themselves of their extra money balances M, people race to the stores to buy Y, goods and services, that they otherwise couldn’t have afforded, quickly emptying the shelves. Retailers take these hot potatoes and in turn spend them at their wholesalers in order to restock. But as time passes, business people adjust by ratcheting up their prices so that the final outcome is a permanent increase in P.

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Should we Restore the Gold Standard?

Would it make sense to rebuild an international gold standard like the one we had in the late 1800s? Larry White says the idea has merit, David Glasner believes it isn’t worth the risk. Over the years I’ve followed the back-and-forth between these two blogging economists, each of whom has done an admirable job defending their respective side for and against the gold standard. Let’s look at one or two of the most important themes running through the White v Glasner debate.

Like a ruler measures distances, a nation’s monetary standard serves as a measuring stick for the value of goods and services. People need to be able to set sticker prices with the unit, calculate profit and loss, negotiate labour contracts, and establish the terms of long-term debts using it. If the measuring stick is faulty, then all these important tasks becomes unnecessarily difficult.

Gold as Unit of Account

Since 1971 we have been on a fiat money standard in which all currencies float against each other. Central banks try to ensure that, within the confines of their nation, the general level of domestic consumer prices stays constant, or at least rises at a constant rate of around 2-3%. And while the first decade of the fiat standard was a disaster characterized by high and rising inflation, central bankers in developed nations have generally managed to keep inflation on track for the last thirty or so years.

To re-establish a modern gold standard, each nation’s unit of account—say the $ or ¥ or £—would have to be redefined as a certain fixed number of ounces of gold.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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