The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 3rd, 2014

Economics 101

(Originally published February 27th, 2012)

Because of the Unpredictable Human Element in all Economic Exchanges the Austrian School is more Laissez-Faire

Name some of the great inventions economists gave us.  The computer?  The Internet?  The cell phone?  The car?  The jumbo jet?  Television?  Air conditioning?  The automatic dishwasher?  No.  Amazingly, economists did not invent any of these brilliant inventions.  And economists didn’t predict any of these inventions.  Not a one.  Despite how brilliant they are.  Well, brilliant by their standard.  In their particular field.  For economists really aren’t that smart.  Their ‘expertise’ is in the realm of the social sciences.  The faux sciences where people try to quantify the unquantifiable.  Using mathematical equations to explain and predict human behavior.  Which is what economists do.  Especially Keynesian economists.  Who think they are smarter than people.  And markets.

But there is a school of economic thought that doesn’t believe we can quantify human activity.  The Austrian school.  Where Austrian economics began.  In Vienna.  Where the great Austrian economists gathered.  Carl Menger.  Ludwig von Mises.  And Friedrich Hayek.  To name a few.  Who understood that economics is the sum total of millions of people making individual human decisions.  Human being key.  And why we can’t reduce economics down to a set of mathematical equations.  Because you can’t quantify human behavior.  Contrary to what the Keynesians believe.  Which is why these two schools are at odds with each other.  With people even donning the personas of Keynes and Hayek to engage in economic debate.

Keynesian economics is more mainstream than the Austrian school.  Because it calls for the government to interfere with market forces.  To manipulate them.  To make markets produce different results from those they would have if left alone.  Something governments love to do.  Especially if it calls for taxing and spending.  Which Keynesian economics highly encourage.  To fix market ‘failures’.  And recessions.  By contrast, because of the unpredictable human element in all economic exchanges, the Austrian school is more laissez-faire.  They believe more in the separation of the government from things economic.  Economic exchanges are best left to the invisible hand.  What Adam Smith called the sum total of the millions of human decisions made by millions of people.  Who are maximizing their own economic well being.  And when we do we maximize the economic well being of the economy as a whole.  For the Austrian economist does not believe he or she is smarter than people.  Or markets.  Which is why an economist never gave us any brilliant invention.  Nor did their equations predict any inventor inventing a great invention.  And why economists have day jobs.  For if they were as brilliant and prophetic as they claim to be they could see into the future and know which stocks to buy to get rich so they could give up their day jobs.  When they’re able to do that we should start listening to them.  But not before.

Low Interest Rates cause Malinvestment and Speculation which puts Banks in Danger of Financial Collapse

Keynesian economics really took off with central banking.  And fractional reserve banking.  Monetary tools to control the money supply.  That in the Keynesian world was supposed to end business cycles and recessions as we knew them.  The Austrian school argues that using these monetary tools only distorts the business cycle.  And makes recessions worse.  Here’s how it works.  The central bank lowers interest rates by increasing the money supply (via open market transactions, lowering reserve requirements in fractional reserve banking or by printing money).  Lower interest rates encourage people to borrow money to buy houses, cars, kitchen appliances, home theater systems, etc.  This new economic activity encourages businesses to hire new workers to meet the new demand.  Ergo, recession over.  Simple math, right?  Only there’s a bit of a problem.  Some of our worst recessions have come during the era of Keynesian economics.  Including the worst recession of all time.  The Great Depression.  Which proves the Austrian point that the use of Keynesian policies to end recessions only makes recessions worse.  (Economists debate the causes of the Great Depression to this day.  Understanding the causes is not the point here.  The point is that it happened.  When recessions were supposed to be a thing of the past when using Keynesian policies.)

The problem is that these are not real economic expansions.  They’re artificial ones.  Created by cheap credit.  Which the central bank creates by forcing interest rates below actual market interest rates.  Which causes a whole host of problems.  In particular corrupting the banking system.  Banks offer interest rates to encourage people to save their money for future use (like retirement) instead of spending it in the here and now.  This is where savings (or investment capital) come from.  Banks pay depositors interest on their deposits.  And then loan out this money to others who need investment capital to start businesses.  To expand businesses.  To buy businesses.  Whatever.  They borrow money to invest so they can expand economic activity.  And make more profits.

But investment capital from savings is different from investment capital from an expansion of the money supply.  Because businesses will act as if the trend has shifted from consumption (spending now) to investment (spending later).  So they borrow to expand operations.  All because of the false signal of the artificially low interest rates.  They borrow money.  Over-invest.  And make bad investments.  Even speculate.  What Austrians call malinvestments.  But there was no shift from consumption to investment.  Savings haven’t increased.  In fact, with all those new loans on the books the banks see a shift in the other direction.  Because they have loaned out more money while the savings rate of their depositors did not change.  Which produced on their books a reduction in the net savings rate.  Leaving them more dangerously leveraged than before the credit expansion.  Also, those lower interest rates also decrease the interest rate on savings accounts.  Discouraging people from saving their money.  Which further reduces the savings rate of depositors.  Finally, those lower interest rates reduce the income stream on their loans.  Leaving them even more dangerously leveraged.  Putting them at risk of financial collapse should many of their loans go bad.

Keynesian Economics is more about Power whereas the Austrian School is more about Economics

These artificially low interest rates fuel malinvestment and speculation.  Cheap credit has everyone, flush with borrowed funds, bidding up prices (real estate, construction, machinery, raw material, etc.).  This alters the natural order of things.  The automatic pricing mechanism of the free market.  And reallocates resources to these higher prices.  Away from where the market would have otherwise directed them.  Creating great shortages and high prices in some areas.  And great surpluses of stuff no one wants to buy at any price in other areas.  Sort of like those Soviet stores full of stuff no one wanted to buy while people stood in lines for hours to buy toilet paper and soap.  (But not quite that bad.)  Then comes the day when all those investments don’t produce any returns.  Which leaves these businesses, investors and speculators with a lot of debt with no income stream to pay for it.  They drove up prices.  Created great asset bubbles.  Overbuilt their capacity.  Bought assets at such high prices that they’ll never realize a gain from them.  They know what’s coming next.  And in some darkened office someone pours a glass of scotch and murmurs, “My God, what have we done?”

The central bank may try to delay this day of reckoning.  By keeping interest rates low.  But that only allows asset bubbles to get bigger.  Making the inevitable correction more painful.  But eventually the central bank has to step in and raise interest rates.  Because all of that ‘bidding up of prices’ finally makes its way down to the consumer level.  And sparks off some nasty inflation.  So rates go up.  Credit becomes more expensive.  Often leaving businesses and speculators to try and refinance bad debt at higher rates.  Debt that has no income stream to pay for it.  Either forcing business to cut costs elsewhere.  Or file bankruptcy.  Which ripples through the banking system.  Causing a lot of those highly leveraged banks to fail with them.  Thus making the resulting recession far more painful and more long-lasting than necessary.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  At least, according to the Austrian school.  And much of the last century of history.

The Austrian school believes the market should determine interest rates.  Not central bankers.  They’re not big fans of fractional reserve banking, either.  Which only empowers central bankers to cause all of their mischief.  Which is why Keynesians don’t like Austrians.  Because Keynesians, and politicians, like that power.  For they believe that they are smarter than the people making economic exchanges.  Smarter than the market.  And they just love having control over all of that money.  Which comes in pretty handy when playing politics.  Which is ultimately the goal of Keynesian economics.  Whereas the Austrian school is more about economics.

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Post Office, Telegraph, Telephone, Cell Phones, Texting, Technology, Productivity, Savings, Investment, Japan Inc. and Eurozone Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 13th, 2013

History 101

(Originally published August 28th, 2012)

Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to Stay Relevant in a World where Technology offers a Better Alternative

Once upon a time people stayed in touch with each other by mailing letters to each other.  Benjamin Franklin helped make this possible when he was America’s first Postmaster General of the United States.  And it’s in large part due to his Post Office that the American Revolutionary War became a united stand against Great Britain.  As news of what happened in Massachusetts spread throughout the colonies via Franklin’s Post Office.

In America Samuel Morse created a faster way to communicate.  (While others created this technology independently elsewhere.)  Through ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ sent over a telegraph wire.  Speeding up communications from days to seconds.  It was fast.  But you needed people who understood Morse code.  Those dots and dashes that represented letters.  At both ends of that telegraph wire.  So the telegraph was a bit too complicated for the family home.  Who still relied on the Post Office to stay in touch

Then along came a guy by the name of Alexander Graham Bell.  Who gave us a telephone in the house.  Which gave people the speed of the telegraph.  But with the simplicity of having a conversation.  Bringing many a teenage girl into the kitchen in the evenings to talk to her friends.  Until she got her own telephone in her bedroom.  Then came cell phones.  Email.  Smartphones.  And Texting.   Communication had become so instantaneous today that no one writes letters anymore.  And Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to stay relevant in a world where technology offers a better alternative.

As Keynesian Monetary Policy played a Larger Role in Japan Personal Savings Fell

These technological advances happened because people saved money that allowed entrepreneurs, investors and businesses to borrow it.  They borrowed money and invested it into their businesses.  To bring their ideas to the market place.  And the more they invested the more they advanced technology.  Allowing them to create more incredible things.  And to make them more efficiently.  Thus giving us a variety of new things at low prices.  Thanks to innovation.  Risk-taking entrepreneurs.  And people’s savings.  Which give us an advanced economy.  High productivity.  And growing GDP.

Following World War II Japan rebuilt her industry and became an advanced economy.  As the U.S. auto industry faltered during the Seventies they left the door open for Japan.  Who entered.  In a big way.  They built cars so well that one day they would sell more of them than General Motors.  Which is incredible considering the B-29 bomber.  That laid waste to Japanese industry during World War II.  So how did they recover so fast?  A high savings rate.  During the Seventies the Japanese people saved over 15% of their income with it peaking in the mid-Seventies close to 25%.

This high savings rate provided enormous amounts of investment capital.  Which the Japanese used not only to rebuild their industry but to increase their productivity.  Producing one of the world’s greatest export economies.  The ‘Made in Japan’ label became increasingly common in the United States.  And the world.  Their economic clot grew in the Eighties.  They began buying U.S. properties.  Americans feared they would one day become a wholly owned subsidiary of some Japanese corporation.  Then government intervened.  With their Keynesian economics.  This booming economic juggernaut became Japan Inc.  But as Keynesian monetary policy played a larger role personal savings fell.  During the Eighties they fell below 15%.  And they would continue to fall.  As did her economic activity.  When monetary credit replaced personal savings for investment capital it only created large asset bubbles.  Which popped in the Nineties.  Giving the Japanese their Lost Decade.  A painful deflationary decade as asset prices returned to market prices.

Because the Germans have been so Responsible in their Economic Policies only they can Save the Eurozone

As the world reels from the fallout of the Great Recession the US, UK and Japan share a lot in common.  Depressed economies.  Deficit spending.  High debt.  And a low savings rate.  Two countries in the European Union suffer similar economic problems.  With one notable exception.  They have a higher savings rate.  Those two countries are France and Germany.  Two of the strongest countries in the Eurozone.  And the two that are expected to bail out the Eurozone.

Savings Rate

While the French and the Germans are saving their money the Japanese have lost their way when it comes to saving.  Their savings rate plummeted following their Lost Decade.  As Keynesian economics sat in the driver seat.  Replacing personal savings with cheap state credit.  Much like it has in the US and the UK.  Nations with weak economies and low savings rates.  While the French and the Germans are keeping the Euro alive.  Especially the Germans.  Who are much less Keynesian in their economics.  And prefer a more Benjamin Franklin frugality when it comes to cheap state credit.  As well as state spending.  Who are trying to impose some austerity on the spendthrifts in the Eurozone.  Which the spendthrifts resent.  But they need money.  And the most responsible country in the Eurozone has it.  And there is a reason they have it.  Because their economic policies have been proven to be the best policies.

And others agree.  In fact there are some who want the German taxpayer to save the Euro by taking on the debt of the more irresponsible members in the Eurozone.  Because they have been so responsible in their economic policies they’re the only ones who can.  But if the Germans are the strongest economy shouldn’t others adopt their policies?  Instead of Germany enabling further irresponsible government spending by transferring the debt of the spendthrifts to the German taxpayer?  I think the German taxpayer would agree.  As would Benjamin Franklin.  Who said, “Industry, Perseverance, & Frugality, make Fortune yield.”  Which worked in early America.  In Japan before Japan Inc.  And is currently working in Germany.  It’s only when state spending becomes less frugal that states have sovereign debt crises.  Or subprime mortgage crisis.  Or Lost Decades.

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The First Bank of the United States, the Second Bank of the United States and the Federal Reserve System

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 2nd, 2013

History 101

Merchants raise their Prices when the Monetary Authority depreciates the Currency

What is inflation?  A depreciation of the currency.  By adding more money into the money supply each piece of currency becomes less valuable.  Let’s assume our currency is whiskey.  In bottles.  Whiskey has value because people are willing to pay for it.  And because we are willing to pay for it we are willing to accept it as legal tender.  Because we can always trade it to others.  Who can drink it.  Or they can trade it with others.

Now let’s say the monetary authority wants to stimulate economic activity.  Which they try to do by expanding the money supply.  So there is more money available to borrow.  And because there is more money available to borrow interest rates are lower.  Hence making it easy for people to borrow money.  But the monetary authority doesn’t want to make more whiskey.  Because that is costly to do.  Instead, they choose an easier way of expanding the money supply.  By watering down the bottles of whiskey.

Now pretend you are a merchant.  And people are coming in with the new watered-down whiskey.  What do you do?  You know the whiskey is watered down.  And that if you go and try to resell it you’re not going to get what you once did.  For people typically drink whiskey for that happy feeling of being drunk.  But with this water-downed whiskey it will take more drinks than it used to take to get drunk.  So what do you as a merchant do when the money is worth less?  You raise your prices.  For it will take more bottles of lesser-valued whiskey to equal the purchasing power of full-valued whiskey.   And if they water down that whiskey too much?  You just won’t accept it as legal tender.  Because it will be little different from water.  And you can get that for free from any well or creek.  Yes, water is necessary to sustain life.  But no one will pay ‘whiskey’ prices for it when they can drink it from a well or a creek for free.

It was while in the Continental Army that Alexander Hamilton began thinking about a Central Bank

During the American Revolutionary War we had a very weak central government.  The Continental Congress.  Which had no taxing authority.  Which posed a problem in fighting the Revolutionary War.  Because wars are expensive.  You need to buy arms and supplies for your army.  You have to feed your army.  And you have to pay your army.  The Continental Congress paid for the Revolution by asking states to contribute to the cause.  Those that did never gave as much as the Congress asked for.  They got a lot of money from France.  As we were fighting their long-time enemy.  And we borrowed some money from other European nations.  But it wasn’t enough.  So they turned to printing paper money.

This unleashed a brutal inflation.  Because everyone was printing money.  The central government.  And the states.  Prices soared.  Merchants didn’t want to accept it as legal tender.  Preferring specie instead.  Because you can’t print gold and silver.  So you can’t depreciate specie like you can paper money.  All of this just made life in the Continental Army worse.  For they were hungry, half-naked and unpaid.  And frustrating for men like Alexander Hamilton.  Who served on General Washington’s staff.  Hamilton, and many other officers in the Continental Army, saw how the weakness of the central government almost lost the war for them.

It was while in the army that Hamilton began thinking about a central bank.  But that’s all he did.  For there was not much support for a central government let alone a central bank.  That would change, though, after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 created the United States of America.  And America’s first president, George Washington, chose his old aide de camp as his treasury secretary.  Alexander Hamilton.  A capitalist who understood finance.

Despite the Carnage from the Subprime Mortgage Crisis the Fed is still Printing Money

At the time the new nation’s finances were in a mess.  Few could make any sense of them.  But Hamilton could.  He began by assuming the states’ war debts.  Added them to the national war debt.  Which he planned on paying off by issuing new debt.  That he planned on servicing with new excise taxes.  And he would use his bank to facilitate all of this.  The First Bank of the United States.  Which faced fierce opposition from Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Who opposed it for a couple of reasons.  For one they argued it wasn’t constitutional.  There was no central bank enumerated in the Constitution.  And the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution stated that any power not enumerated to the new federal government belonged to the states.  And that included banking.  A central bank would only further consolidate power in the new federal government.  By consolidating the money.  Transferring it from the local banks.  Which they feared would benefit the merchants, manufacturers and speculators in the north.  By making cheap money available for them to make money with money.  Which is the last thing people who believed America’s future was an agrarian one of yeoman farmers wanted to do.

They fought against the establishment of the bank.  But failed.  The bank got a 20 year charter.  Jefferson and Madison would later have a change of heart on a central bank.  For it helped Jefferson with the Louisiana Purchase.  And like it or not the country was changing.  It wasn’t going to be an agrarian one.  America’s future was an industrial one.  And that required credit.  Just as Alexander Hamilton thought.  So after the War of 1812, after the charter of the First Bank of the United States had expired, James Madison signed into law a 20-year charter for the Second Bank of the United States.  Which actually did some of the things Jefferson and Madison feared.  It concentrated a lot of money and power into a few hands. Allowing speculators easy access to cheap money.  Which they borrowed and invested.  Creating great asset bubbles.  And when they burst, great depressions.  Because of that paper money.  Which they printed so much of that it depreciated the dollar.  And caused asset prices to soar to artificial heights.

Andrew Jackson did not like the bank.  For he saw it creating a new noble class.  A select few were getting rich and powerful.  Something the Americans fought to get away from.  When the charter for the Second Bank of the United States was set to expire Congress renewed the charter.  Because of their friends at the bank.  And their friends who profited from the bank.  But when they sent it to Andrew Jackson for his signature he vetoed the bill.  And Congress could not override it.  Sensing some blowback from the bank Jackson directed that they transfer the government’s money out of the Second Bank of the United States.  And deposited it into some state banks.  The president of the bank, Nicholas Biddle, did not give up, though.  For he could hurt those state banks.  Such as calling in loans.  Which he did. Among other things.  To try and throw the country into a depression.  So he could blame it on the president’s anti-bank policies.  And get his charter renewed.  But it didn’t work.  And the Second Bank of the United States was no more.

National banks versus local banks.  Hard money (specie) versus paper money.  Nobility versus the common people.  They’ve argued the same arguments throughout the history of the United States.  But we never learn anything.  We never learn the ultimate price of too much easy money.  Even now.  For here we are.  Suffering through the worst recession since the Great Depression.  Because our current central bank, the Federal Reserve System, likes to print paper money.  And create asset bubbles.  Their last being the one that burst into the subprime mortgage crisis.  And despite the carnage from that they’re still printing money.  Money that the rich few are borrowing to invest in the stock market.  Speculators.  Who are making a lot of money.  Buying and selling assets.  Thanks to the central bank’s inflationary policies that keep increasing prices.

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China is Worried about rising Property Prices

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 23rd, 2013

Week in Review

Housing sales are booming in China.  And prices are soaring.  So much so that the government is taking some action (see China Orders More Cities to Restrict Housing Purchases by Bloomberg News posted 2/21/2013 on Bloomberg).

China told local authorities to “decisively” curb real estate speculation and take steps to rein in the property market after prices rose the most in two years last month…

The government’s almost three-year effort to curb property prices has included raising down-payment and mortgage requirements, increasing construction of low-cost social housing and restricting home purchases in about 40 cities. Authorities also imposed a property tax for the first time in the cities of Shanghai and Chongqing.

Why all the concern of rising property prices?  Because of what happens when they stop rising.  Like they did in the U.S.  When people were paying mortgages that were greater than the market value of their houses some of them walked away.  And let the bank have their house.  As more did more foreclosed houses entered the market.  When interest rates rose on Adjustable Rate Mortgages (ARM) some could no longer pay their mortgage payment.  And they, too, let the banks have their houses.  Putting more foreclosed houses on the market.  With more houses on the market prices fell further.  Putting more people underwater in their mortgages.  And so on.  Until the U.S. eased itself into the Great Recession.  Just as the Japanese eased themselves in their Lost Decade when their asset bubble burst.

This is what the Chinese want to avoid.  That downward spiral of prices.  Deflation.  Sending their economy into a tail spin.  Like the Japanese are still trying to pull themselves out of some two decades later.  Because housing sales are the biggest driver of the domestic economy.  Building houses.  And furnishing houses.  It all adds up to a lot of economic activity.  Which the Chinese want so desperately so they are not wholly dependent on their export economy.  For they really don’t want to end up like the Japanese.  But they probably will.  As the Chinese are trying to manage the economy too much.  Just as the Japanese did.  All that government partnering with business.  It just doesn’t build real economic activity.  Because you have bureaucrats making economic decisions.  Not the market.  And bureaucrats often get things wrong.  Unlike the market.  Especially when it comes to asset bubbles.  When the market creates them they’re not that big and the corrections are not that painful.  But when the government creates one with their excessive interference into the free market economy you get a Lost Decade.  Or a Great Recession.

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Japan devalues the Yen and the G2O are Okay with it

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 17th, 2013

Week in Review

In the Eighties Japan kept interest rates artificially low.  Creating a lot of artificial economic activity.  Businesses borrowed money because it was cheap.  And banks loaned money because there was so much of it to loan.  Unfortunately, this led to a bubble.  A big one.  Asset prices soared.  And when that bubble burst those prices fell back to earth like a rock.  Sending the Japanese economy free falling into a deflationary spiral as it tried to wring out all of that inflation from those low interest rates.  And some 30 years later they’re still suffering from the affects of that deflation (see G20 defuses talk of “currency war”, no accord on debt by Randall Palmer and Lidia Kelly posted 2/16/2013 on Reuters).

Japan’s expansive policies, which have driven down the yen, escaped direct criticism in a statement thrashed out in Moscow by policymakers from the G20, which spans developed and emerging markets and accounts for 90 percent of the world economy.

Analysts said the yen, which has dropped 20 percent as a result of aggressive monetary and fiscal policies to reflate the Japanese economy, may now continue to fall.

“The market will take the G20 statement as an approval for what it has been doing — selling of the yen,” said Neil Mellor, currency strategist at Bank of New York Mellon in London. “No censure of Japan means they will be off to the money printing presses.”

This is how they got into so much trouble in the first place.  This is why they have a Lost Decade in Japan.  Because of those low interest rates that blew up great asset bubbles.  That burst.  Sending prices into a freefall.  A little hair of the dog that bit you MAY alleviate the discomforts of a hangover.  But when that dog is a 150-pound French Mastiff with your throat in its mouth you’d be better off finding another cure for your inflationary hangover.  For nothing good can possibly come from another round of inflation that will only create more asset bubbles.  Their Lost Decade turned into Lost Decades because they kept trying to fix things before the market undid all their previous fixing.  As painful as it may be they need to let the market complete its correction.  Had they let the market do this in the Nineties the pain would be over with.  And they would be enjoying real economic growth today.

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Post Office, Telegraph, Telephone, Cell Phones, Texting, Technology, Productivity, Savings, Investment, Japan Inc. and Eurozone Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 28th, 2012

History 101

Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to Stay Relevant in a World where Technology offers a Better Alternative

Once upon a time people stayed in touch with each other by mailing letters to each other.  Benjamin Franklin helped make this possible when he was America’s first Postmaster General of the United States.  And it’s in large part due to his Post Office that the American Revolutionary War became a united stand against Great Britain.  As news of what happened in Massachusetts spread throughout the colonies via Franklin’s Post Office.

In America Samuel Morse created a faster way to communicate.  (While others created this technology independently elsewhere.)  Through ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ sent over a telegraph wire.  Speeding up communications from days to seconds.  It was fast.  But you needed people who understood Morse code.  Those dots and dashes that represented letters.  At both ends of that telegraph wire.  So the telegraph was a bit too complicated for the family home.  Who still relied on the Post Office to stay in touch

Then along came a guy by the name of Alexander Graham Bell.  Who gave us a telephone in the house.  Which gave people the speed of the telegraph.  But with the simplicity of having a conversation.  Bringing many a teenage girl into the kitchen in the evenings to talk to her friends.  Until she got her own telephone in her bedroom.  Then came cell phones.  Email.  Smartphones.  And Texting.   Communication had become so instantaneous today that no one writes letters anymore.  And Ben Franklin’s Post Office struggles to stay relevant in a world where technology offers a better alternative.

As Keynesian Monetary Policy played a Larger Role in Japan Personal Savings Fell

These technological advances happened because people saved money that allowed entrepreneurs, investors and businesses to borrow it.  They borrowed money and invested it into their businesses.  To bring their ideas to the market place.  And the more they invested the more they advanced technology.  Allowing them to create more incredible things.  And to make them more efficiently.  Thus giving us a variety of new things at low prices.  Thanks to innovation.  Risk-taking entrepreneurs.  And people’s savings.  Which give us an advanced economy.  High productivity.  And growing GDP.

Following World War II Japan rebuilt her industry and became an advanced economy.  As the U.S. auto industry faltered during the Seventies they left the door open for Japan.  Who entered.  In a big way.  They built cars so well that one day they would sell more of them than General Motors.  Which is incredible considering the B-29 bomber.  That laid waste to Japanese industry during World War II.  So how did they recover so fast?  A high savings rate.  During the Seventies the Japanese people saved over 15% of their income with it peaking in the mid-Seventies close to 25%.

This high savings rate provided enormous amounts of investment capital.  Which the Japanese used not only to rebuild their industry but to increase their productivity.  Producing one of the world’s greatest export economies.  The ‘Made in Japan’ label became increasingly common in the United States.  And the world.  Their economic clot grew in the Eighties.  They began buying U.S. properties.  Americans feared they would one day become a wholly owned subsidiary of some Japanese corporation.  Then government intervened.  With their Keynesian economics.  This booming economic juggernaut became Japan Inc.  But as Keynesian monetary policy played a larger role personal savings fell.  During the Eighties they fell below 15%.  And they would continue to fall.  As did her economic activity.  When monetary credit replaced personal savings for investment capital it only created large asset bubbles.  Which popped in the Nineties.  Giving the Japanese their Lost Decade.  A painful deflationary decade as asset prices returned to market prices.

Because the Germans have been so Responsible in their Economic Policies only they can Save the Eurozone

As the world reels from the fallout of the Great Recession the US, UK and Japan share a lot in common.  Depressed economies.  Deficit spending.  High debt.  And a low savings rate.  Two countries in the European Union suffer similar economic problems.  With one notable exception.  They have a higher savings rate.  Those two countries are France and Germany.  Two of the strongest countries in the Eurozone.  And the two that are expected to bail out the Eurozone.

While the French and the Germans are saving their money the Japanese have lost their way when it comes to saving.  Their savings rate plummeted following their Lost Decade.  As Keynesian economics sat in the driver seat.  Replacing personal savings with cheap state credit.  Much like it has in the US and the UK.  Nations with weak economies and low savings rates.  While the French and the Germans are keeping the Euro alive.  Especially the Germans.  Who are much less Keynesian in their economics.  And prefer a more Benjamin Franklin frugality when it comes to cheap state credit.  As well as state spending.  Who are trying to impose some austerity on the spendthrifts in the Eurozone.  Which the spendthrifts resent.  But they need money.  And the most responsible country in the Eurozone has it.  And there is a reason they have it.  Because their economic policies have been proven to be the best policies.

And others agree.  In fact there are some who want the German taxpayer to save the Euro by taking on the debt of the more irresponsible members in the Eurozone.  Because they have been so responsible in their economic policies they’re the only ones who can.  But if the Germans are the strongest economy shouldn’t others adopt their policies?  Instead of Germany enabling further irresponsible government spending by transferring the debt of the spendthrifts to the German taxpayer?  I think the German taxpayer would agree.  As would Benjamin Franklin.  Who said, “Industry, Perseverance, & Frugality, make Fortune yield.”  Which worked in early America.  In Japan before Japan Inc.  And is currently working in Germany.  It’s only when state spending becomes less frugal that states have sovereign debt crises.  Or subprime mortgage crisis.  Or Lost Decades.

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Goldsmiths, Specie, Bank Notes, Bank Reserves, Spanish Dollar, Continentals, Bank of the United States and the Panic of 1819

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 26th, 2012

History 101

When Spain came to the New World they Brought Home a lot of Gold and Silver and Turned it into Coin

Our first banks were goldsmiths’ vaults.  They locked up people’s gold or other valuable metals (i.e., specie) in their vaults and issued these ‘depositors’ receipts for their specie.  When a depositor presented their receipt to the goldsmith he redeemed it for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.  These notes were as good as specie.  And a lot easier to carry around.  So these depositors used these notes as currency.  People accepted them in payment.  Because they could take them to the goldsmith and redeem them for the amount of specie noted on the receipt.

The amount of specie these first bankers kept in their vaults equaled the value of these outstanding notes.  Meaning their bank reserves were 100%.   If every depositor redeemed their notes at the same time there was no problem.  Because all specie that was ever deposited was still in the vault.  So there was no danger of any ‘bank runs’ or liquidity crises.

When Spain came to the New World they brought home a lot of gold and silver.  And turned it into coin.  Or specie.  The Spanish dollar entered the American colonies from trade with the West Indies.  As the British didn’t allow their colonies to coin any money of their own the Spanish dollar became the dominate money in circulation in commerce and trade in the cities.  (Which is why the American currency unit is the dollar).  While being largely commodity money in the rural parts of the country.  Tobacco in Virginia, rice in the south, etc.  Paper money didn’t enter into the picture until Massachusetts funded some military expeditions to Quebec.  Normally the soldiers in this expedition took a portion of the spoils they brought back for payment.  But when the French repulsed them and they came back empty handed the government printed paper money backed by no specie.  For there was nothing more dangerous than disgruntled and unpaid soldiers.  The idea was to redeem them with future taxation.  But they never did. 

Thomas Jefferson believed that the Combination of Money and Politics was the Source of all Evil in Government 

During the American Revolutionary War the Americans were starving for specie.  They were getting some from the French but it was never enough.  So they turned to printing paper money.  Backed by no specie.  They printed so much that it became worthless.  The more they printed the more they devalued it.  And the fewer people would take it in payment.  Anyone paying in these paper Continentals just saw higher and higher prices (while people paying in specie saw lower prices).  Until some just refused to accept them.  Giving rise to the expression “not worth a Continental.”  And when they did the army had to take what they needed from the people.  Basically giving them an IOU and telling the people good luck in redeeming them.

Skip ahead to the War of 1812 and the Americans had the same problem.  They needed money.  So they turned to the printing presses.  With the aid of the Second Bank of the United States (BUS).  America’s second central bank.  Just as politically contentious as the First Bank of the United States.  America’s first central bank.  The BUS was not quite like those early bankers.  The goldsmiths.  Whose deposits were backed by a 100% specie reserve.  The BUS specie reserve was closer to 10%.  Which proved to be a problem because their bank notes were redeemable for specie.  Which people did.  And because they did and the BUS was losing so much of its specie the government legislated the suspension of the redemption of bank notes for specie.  Which just ignited inflation.  With the BUS.  And the state banks.  Who were no longer bound by the requirement to redeem bank notes for specie either.  Enter America’s first economic boom created by monetary policy.  A huge credit expansion that created a frenzy of borrowing.  And speculation.

When more dollars are put into circulation without a corresponding amount of specie backing them this only depreciated the dollar.  Making them worth less, requiring more of them to buy the same stuff they did before the massive inflation.  This is why prices rise with inflation.  And they rose a lot from 1815 to 1818.  Real estate prices went up.  Fueling that speculation.  Allowing the rich to get richer by buying land that soared in value.  While ordinary people saw the value of their currency decline making their lives more difficult.  Thanks to those higher prices.  The government spent a lot of this new money on infrastructure.  And there was a lot of fraud.  The very reason that Thomas Jefferson opposed Alexander Hamilton’s first Bank of the United States.  The combination of money and politics was the source of all evil in government.  And fraud.  According to Jefferson, at least.  Everyone was borrowing.  Everyone was spending.  Which left the banks exposed to a lot of speculative loans.  While putting so much money into circulation that they could never redeem their notes for specie.  Not that they were doing that anyway.  Bank finances were growing so bad that the banks were in danger of failing.

Most Bad Recessions are caused by Easy Credit by a Central Bank trying to Stimulate Economic Activity 

By 1818 things were worrying the government.  And the BUS.  Inflation was out of control.  The credit expansion was creating asset bubbles.  And fraud.  It was a house of cards that was close to collapsing.  So the BUS took action.  And reversed their ruinous policies.  They contracted monetary policy.  Stopped the easy credit.  And pulled a lot of those paper dollars out of circulation.  It was the responsible thing to do to save the bank.  But because they did it after so much inflation that drove prices into the stratosphere the correction was painful.  As those prices had a long way to fall.

The Panic of 1819 was the first bust of America’s first boom-bust cycle.  The first depression brought on by the easy credit of a central bank.  When the money supply contracted interest rates rose.  A lot of those speculative loans became unserviceable.  With no easy credit available anymore the loan defaults began.  And the bank failures followed.  Money and credit of the BUS contracted by about 50%.  Businesses couldn’t borrow to meet their cash needs and went bankrupt.  A lot of them.  And those inflated real estate prices fell back to earth.  As prices fell everywhere from their artificial heights.

It was America’s first depression.  But it wouldn’t be the last.  Thanks to central banking.  And boom-bust cycles.  We stopped calling these central banking train wrecks depressions after the Great Depression.  After that we just called them recessions.  And real bad recessions.  Most of them caused by the same thing.  Easy credit by a central bank to stimulate economic activity.  Causing an asset bubble.  That eventually pops causing a painful correction.  The most recent being the Great Recession.  Caused by the popping of a great real estate bubble caused by the central bank’s artificially low interest rates.  That gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  Which gave us the greatest recession since the Great Depression.  Just another in a long line of ‘real bad’ recessions since the advent of central banking.

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Chinese Government fights Asset Bubbles and Speculation, Housing Prices Fall as does Economic Activity

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 21st, 2012

Week in Review

The Chinese housing market isn’t what it was.  Which can be quite the problem considering the housing boom was 13% of China’s GDP (see China new home prices slide for sixth consecutive month posted 4/18/2012 on BBC News Business).

Property prices in China have fallen for a sixth consecutive month amid government efforts to control prices and curb speculation.

New home prices in 46 out of 70 Chinese cities fell between February and March. Meanwhile prices were lower than a year ago in 38 cities.

There have been fears of the formation of asset bubbles in China…

The booming housing industry supported China’s expansion in recent years, with real estate investment making up 13% of the nation’s gross domestic product in 2011…

“The ultimate goal of the property tightening is to drive down prices but maintain growth in construction and investment.”

Hey, this kind of sounds familiar.  Prior to 2008, the U.S. housing market was red hot.  People were being approved for mortgages they didn’t have a chance in hell of being able to repay.  And house flippers were walking in and getting mortgages for zero down.  Fixing them up and putting them back on the market.  The subprime mortgage made both of these possible.  And the government was doing everything within its power to put as many people in houses as possible.  Keeping interest rates artificially low.  And having their GSEs Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy up toxic subprime mortgages from banks and unloading them onto unsuspecting investors in the guise of ‘safe’ mortgage-backed securities.   The economy was booming.  Then the housing bubble burst.  As did the economy. 

The lesson here is the same the Japanese learned in the Nineties.  If you put your housing market on government steroids (artificially low interest rates, laws to force lenders t make bad loans, loan guarantees, etc.) it will crash and burn one day.  And if you keep building houses you will lower prices on homes already built.  The houses people are paying mortgages on.  And if you build enough new houses the value of the older houses will be less than the mortgage they’re paying.  Especially after the bubble bursts.  And you see how well that worked out in the U.S.  Suffice it to say President Obama is not running for reelection on his economic record.

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The Bank of India to Reverse its Monetary tightening and Resume Inflationary Expansion

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2012

Week in Review

After battling inflation in India for over a year the Bank of India is ready to reverse course.  To halt the decline in their export market growth rate.  With some inflationary Keynesian policy (see Factory growth eases, but keeps healthy pace in Feb by Sumanta Dey posted 3/1/2012 on Reuters).

…employment contracted for the first time in three months and export orders grew at their slowest pace since November…

Price pressures also rose, with the sub-index for output prices, or the cost of finished products, hitting an 11-month high, and the survey suggests inflation could tick up.

A fall in the headline inflation, as measured by the wholesale price index, to 6.55 percent in January, its lowest level in more than two years, had raised expectations the Reserve Bank of India could start easing policy.

After 13 rate rises to stamp out inflation in between March 2010 and October 2011, the central bank signalled in January it was shifting its focus to growth by cutting the cash reserve requirements for banks by 50 basis points.

Clearly with falling export orders the rise in prices isn’t due to demand.  This rise in prices is inflation driven.  Something they’re no stranger to in India.  And something very Keynesian.  Thirteen interest rate hikes in about 19 months?  That’s about one rate increase every month and a half.  That’s some serious monetary tightening.  And now that inflation is down to 6.55% they’re ready to ease policy.  With some inflationary policy.  By lowering bank reserve requirements.  To expand the money supply via fractional reserve banking.  Which will, no doubt, increase prices further.  As inflation tends to do.

By lowering interest rates they are encouraging Indian manufacturing to borrow and expand production.  To meet a falling demand.  And what happens when businesses expand production amidst a falling demand?  Well, in Japan and the United States that resulted in some nasty asset bubbles.  That brought on some long and unpleasant deflation.  Will this happen in India?  It could.  And may.  Unless some markets open up to absorb any increase in supply.  But with the European Union and the United States still limping along and a Chinese export market competing head to head with the Indians, that’s not likely going to happen.

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Higher Labor Costs are squeezing Margins for Chinese Export Manufacturers

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2012

Week in Review

China is still able to exploit their cheap labor to maintain a healthy export market.  But for how long (see China exports may stay strong despite weak Europe by Zhou Xin and Nick Edwards posted 3/1/2012 on Reuters)?

An estimated 200 million jobs — a quarter of China’s workforce — are directly dependent upon the external sector, hiking the political risks of an export slowdown to a leadership hypersensitive to any hint of social instability that might threaten the one-party rule of the Communist Party…

Ye Dingsong is an exporter who has relied on sales to Europe, but his primary headache is pricing, not falling orders.

“There are orders, but the problem is that it’s hard to get good prices. European buyers have become sensitive to prices, but costs are rising quickly so I have to ask for higher prices,” said Ye, the owner of Dadong Shoes in Wenzhou.

His shoe factory, which at its peak employed more than 100 people, currently has only half as many after workers walked out for better wages elsewhere when Ye said he could manage only a 10 percent rise…

Wenzhou exported 265 million pairs of shoes to the EU last year, roughly one pair for every two EU residents, according to data from the local customs office. But total sales were just $1.6 billion, or $6.04 per pair, meaning margins are very narrow even as a starter’s monthly wage can easily exceed 2,000 yuan ($320).

Ye is one of the many exporters Beijing is trying to help through tough times with tax rebates and easier bank credit.

The state capitalists in America look to China with awe and admiration.  They would love to expand state control of the economy in America to the level in China.  So they, too, can produce those magnificent GDP growth rates.  Which they think they can do.  With a union work force.  Even with the high wages and generous benefits of union workers.  Which, of course, they cannot do.  For the only thing maintaining China’s export market is that cheap labor.  Which is far below the union wages and benefits in America. 

In America a Chinese type state capitalism will not result in higher GDP growth rates.  Only in higher wages and benefits for union workers.  Along with a collapsing GDP growth rate.  Thanks to an uncompetitive American work force becoming even more uncompetitive.

But even in Communist China they are having problems keeping their labor cheap.  But they will do everything they can.  Including brutal state oppression.  And Keynesian economic policies.  Urging businesses to borrow money and expand production.  Even in the face of rising prices.  Which one day will lead to falling sales.  Leaving the Chinese with some nasty asset bubbles in their economy.  The kind the Japanese had in the Nineties.  And the kind the U.S. just recently had in the housing market.  Both bubbles popped.  And a horrible deflation set in to undo all the Keynesian mischief that caused the bubbles in the first place.

There is no way for the Americans to do what the Chinese are doing.  Unless the state capitalists do like the Chinese.  And outlaw all unions.  And that’s about as likely to happen as Keynesian economics policies actually working without causing inflation and asset bubbles.

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