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A Dire Warning

A Dire Warning

Let’s return to our ongoing series on the destruction of capital, and how to identify the signs. Steve Saville posted a thoughtful article this week entitled The “Productivity of Debt” Myth. His article provides a good opportunity to add some additional thoughts.

We have written quite a lot on this topic. Indeed, we have a landing page for marginal productivity of debt (MPoD) with four articles so far. Few economists touch this topic, perhaps because MPoD shows that our monetary system is failing. We encourage you to do a Google search, and you will see scant mention other than articles by Keith and Monetary Metals. This is tragic. Every monetary economist should be bellowing from the rooftops about the falling marginal productivity of debt!

So when Lacy Hunt wrote in the Hoisington quarterly letter about Diminishing Returns – Consequences of Excess Debt (p. 4), several readers forwarded the link to us. And this week Steve Saville wrote a response to Lacy’s discussion.

We have our own concerns with Lacy’s approach. One is his statement:

“In addition to capital, output is a function of labor, natural resources and technology. Thus, one of these latter three factors must accelerate in order to offset the overuse of debt…”

Unless one considers entrepreneurial innovation to be just a type of “technology”, this formulation is missing something even on its own stated terms. But more broadly, it does not address the problem of interest rates. If companies can borrow at 2%, then there will be scant business opportunities that generate more than about 3%. The marginal productivity of the entrepreneur is brought down by the falling interest rate. The same “inputs” of labor, resources, and technology will yield different results at different interest rates.

Marginal Productivity of Debt

However, today we want to address the points raised by Steve. All indented quotes below are his.

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

Falling Interest Rates

Amassing Unproductive Debt

Last week, we discussed the marginal productivity of debt. This is how much each newly-borrowed dollar adds to GDP. And ever since the interest rate began its falling trend in 1981, marginal productivity of debt has tightly correlated with interest. The lower the interest rate, the less productive additional borrowing has in fact become.

Left: the first IKEA store located in Älmhult in Sweden, near the residence of the company’s founder (nowadays the store is a museum); right: a Task Rabbit car. Given the valuations at which TaskRabbit was able to raise funds recently, it is a good bet IKEA paid a small fortune to take it over (waiting for the QE-induced bubble to burst may have been cheaper). [PT]

Let’s look at a recent event: the Ikea acquisition of TaskRabbit. You might wonder, why does a home goods company need to own a freelance labor company? Superficially, it seems to makes sense. Ikea products notoriously come in flat packs, but consumers don’t want to fuss with all the little parts. They just want finished furniture. Ikea has been using TaskRabbit to hire people to assemble it in their homes.

Isn’t this like that caricature of the billionaire who buys, say, the Planters Peanut company because he likes to eat salted nuts? Ikea could be a customer of TaskRabbit, hiring its temporary workers as needed, without owning the company. In fact, it had been doing that for years.

The acquisition price was not disclosed, however, we can guess that it was high. TaskRabbit was a Silicon Valley darling with a bright future. Its value proposition is right for this economy. It had raised $50 million, presumably at rich valuation multiples.

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

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