FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #27: “Yes, it’s the economy, but the economy is not JUST monetary policy, stupid.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 17th, 2010

DURING UNCERTAIN ECONOMIC times, people act differently.  If business is down where you work, your company may start laying off people.  Your friends and co-workers.  Even you.  If there is a round of layoffs and you survive, you should feel good but don’t.  Because it could have been you.  And very well can be you.  Next time.  Within a year.  In the next few months.  Any time.  You just don’t know.  And it isn’t a good feeling.

So, should this be you, what do you do?  Run up those credit cards?  By a new car?  Go on a vacation?  Take out a home equity loan to pay for new windows?  To remodel the kitchen?  Buy a hot tub?  Or do you cut back on your spending and start hoarding cash?  Just in case.  Because those unemployment payments may not be enough to pay for your house payment, your property taxes, your car payment, your insurances, your utilities, your groceries, your cable bill, etc.  And another loan payment won’t help.  So, no.  You don’t run up those credit cards.  Buy that car.  You don’t go on vacation.  And you don’t take that home equity loan.  Instead, you hunker down.  Sacrifice.  Ride it out.  Prepare for the worse.  Hoard your cash.  Enough to carry you through a few months of unemployment.  And shred those pre-approved credit card offers.  Even at those ridiculously low, introductory interest rates.

To help hammer home this point, you think of your friends who lost their jobs.  Who are behind on their mortgages.  Who are in foreclosure.  Whose financial hardships are stressing them out to no ends.  Suffering depression.  Harassed by collection agencies.  Feeling helpless.  Not knowing what to do because their financial problems are just so great.  About to lose everything they’ve worked for.  No.  You will not be in their position.  If you can help it.  If it’s not already too late.

AND SO IT is with businesses.  People who run businesses are, after all, people.  Just like you.  During uncertain economic times, they, too, hunker down.  When sales go down, they have less cash to pay for the cost of those sales.  As well as the overhead.  And their customers are having the same problems.  So they pay their bills slower.  Trying to hoard cash.  Receivables grow from 30 to 45 to 90 days.  So you delay paying as many of your bills as possible.  Trying to hoard cash.  But try as you might, your working capital is rapidly disappearing.  Manufacturers see their inventories swell.  And storing and protecting these inventories costs money.  Soon they must cut back on production.  Lay off people.  Idle machinery.  Most of which was financed by debt.  Which you still have to service.  Or you sell some of those now nonproductive assets.  So you can retire some of that debt.  But cost cutting can only take you so far.  And if you cut too much, what are you going to do when the economy turns around?  If it turns around?

You can borrow money.  But what good is that going to do?  Add debt, for one.  Which won’t help much.  You might be able to pay some bills, but you still have to pay back that borrowed money.  And you need sales revenue for that.  If you think this is only a momentary downturn and sales will return, you could borrow and feel somewhat confidant that you’ll be able to repay your loan.  But you don’t have the sales now.  And the future doesn’t look bright.  Your customers are all going through what you’re going through.  Not a confidence builder.  So you’re reluctant to borrow.  Unless you really, really have to.  And if you really, really have to, it’s probably because you’re in some really, really bad financial trouble.  Just what a banker wants to see in a prospective borrower.

Well, not really.  In fact, it’s the exact opposite.  A banker will want to avoid you as if you had the plague.  Besides, the banks are in the same economy as you are.  They have their finger on the pulse of the economy.  They know how bad things really are.  Some of their customers are paying slowly.  A bad omen of things to come.  Which is making them really, really nervous.  And really, really reluctant to make new loans.  They, too, want to hoard cash.  Because in bad economic times, people default on loans.  Enough of them default and the bank will have to scramble to sell securities, recall loans and/or borrow money themselves to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if their timing is off, if the depositors demand more of their money then they have on hand, the bank will fail.  And all the money they created via fractional reserve banking will disappear.  Making money even scarcer and harder to borrow.  You see, banking people are, after all, just people.  And like you, and the business people they serve, they, too, hunker down during bad economic times.  Hoping to ride out the bad times.  And to survive.  With a minimum of carnage. 

For these reasons, businesses and bankers hoard cash during uncertain economic times.  For if there is one thing that spooks businesses and banks more than too much debt it’s uncertainty.  Uncertainty about when a recession will end.  Uncertainty about the cost of healthcare.  Uncertainty about changes to the tax code.  Uncertainty about new government regulations.  Uncertainty about new government mandates.  Uncertainty about retroactive tax changes.  Uncertainty about previous tax cuts that they may repeal.  Uncertainty about monetary policy.  Uncertainty about fiscal policy.  All these uncertainties can result with large, unexpected cash expenditures at some time in the not so distant future.  Or severely reduce the purchasing power of their customers.  When this uncertainty is high during bad economic times, businesses typically circle the wagons.  Hoard more cash.  Go into survival mode.  Hold the line.  And one thing they do NOT do is add additional debt.

DEBT IS A funny thing.  You can lay off people.  You can cut benefits.  You can sell assets for cash.  You can sell assets and lease them back (to get rid of the debt while keeping the use of the asset).  You can factor your receivables (sell your receivables at a discount to a 3rd party to collect).  You can do a lot of things with your assets and costs.  But that debt is still there.  As are those interest payments.  Until you pay it off.  Or file bankruptcy.  And if you default on that debt, good luck.  Because you’ll need it.  You may be dependent on profitable operations for the indefinite future as few will want to loan to a debt defaulter.

Profitable operations.  Yes, that’s the key to success.  So how do you get it?  Profitable operations?  From sales revenue.  Sales are everything.  Have enough of them and there’s no problem you can’t solve.  Cash may be king, but sales are the life blood pumping through the king’s body.  Sales give business life.  Cash is important but it is finite.  You spend it and it’s gone.  If you don’t replenish it, you can’t spend anymore.  And that’s what sales do.  It gets you profitable operations.  Which replenishes your cash.  Which lets you pay your bills.  And service your debt.

And this is what government doesn’t understand.  When it comes to business and the economy, they think it’s all about the cash.  That it doesn’t have anything to do with the horrible things they’re doing with fiscal policy.  The tax and spend stuff.  When they kill an economy with their oppressive tax and regulatory policies, they think “Hmmm.  Interest rates must be too high.”  Because their tax and spending sure couldn’t have crashed the economy.  That stuff is stimulative.  Because their god said so.  And that god is, of course, John Maynard Keynes.  And his demand-side Keynesian economic policies.  If it were possible, those in government would have sex with these economic policies.  Why?   Because they empower government.  It gives government control over the economy.  And us.

And that control extends to monetary policy.  Control of the money supply and interest rates.  The theory goes that you stimulate economic activity by making money easier to borrow.  So businesses borrow more.  Create more jobs.  Which creates more tax receipts.  Which the government can spend.  It’s like a magical elixir.  Interest rates.  Cheap money.  Just keep interest rates low and money cheap and plentiful and business will do what it is that they do.  They don’t understand that part.  And they don’t care.  They just know that it brings in more tax money for them to spend.  And they really like that part.  The spending.  Sure, it can be inflationary, but what’s a little inflation in the quest for ‘full employment’?  Especially when it gives you money and power?  And a permanent underclass who is now dependent on your spending.  Whose vote you can always count on.  And when the economy tanks a little, all you need is a little more of that magical elixir.  And it will make everything all better.  So you can spend some more.

But it doesn’t work in practice.  At least, it hasn’t yet.  Because the economy is more than monetary policy.  Yes, cash is important.  But making money cheaper to borrow doesn’t mean people will borrow money.  Homeowners may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest mortgages, but they aren’t going to take on additional debt to spend more.  Not until they feel secure in their jobs.  Likewise, businesses may borrow ‘cheap’ money to refinance higher-interest debt.  But they are not going to add additional debt to expand production.  Not until they see some stability in the market and stronger sales.  A more favorable tax and regulatory environment.  That is, a favorable business climate.  And until they do, they won’t create new jobs.  No matter how cheap money is to borrow.  They’ll dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

NOT ONLY WILL people and businesses be reluctant to borrow, so will banks be reluctant to lend.  Especially with a lot of businesses out there looking a little ‘iffy’ who may still default on their loans.  Instead, they’ll beef up their reserves.  Instead of lending, they’ll buy liquid financial assets.  Sit on cash.  Earn less.  Just in case.  Dig in.  Hold the line.  And try to survive until better times.

Of course, the Keynesians don’t factor these things into their little formulae and models.  They just stamp their feet and pout.  They’ve done their part.  Now it’s up to the greedy bankers and businessmen to do theirs.  To engage in lending.  To create jobs.  To build things.  That no one is buying.  Because no one is confident in keeping their job.  Because the business climate is still poor.  Despite there being cheap money to borrow.

The problem with Keynesians, of course, is that they don’t understand business.  They’re macroeconomists.  They trade in theory.  Not reality.  When their theory fails, it’s not the theory.  It’s the application of the theory.  Or a greedy businessman.  Or banker.  It’s never their own stupidity.  No matter how many times they get it wrong.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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LESSONS LEARNED #3 “Inflation is just another name for irresponsible government.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2010

PEOPLE LIKE TO hate banks.  And bankers.  Because they get rich with other people’s money.  And they don’t do anything.  People give them money.  They then loan it and charge interest.  What a scam.

Banking is a little more complex than that.  And it’s not a scam.  Countries without good banking systems are often impoverished, Third World nations.  If you have a brilliant entrepreneurial idea, a lot of good that will do if you can’t get any money to bring it to market.  That’s what banks do.  They collect small deposits from a lot of depositors and make big loans to people like brilliant entrepreneurs.

Fractional reserve banking multiplies this lending ability.  Because only a fraction of a bank’s total depositors will ask for their deposits back at any one time, only a fraction of all deposits are kept at the bank.  Banks loan the rest.  Money comes in.  They keep a running total of how much you deposited.  They then loan out your money and charge interest to the borrower.  And pay you interest on what they borrowed from you so they could make those loans to others.  Banks, then, can loan out more money than they actually have in their vaults.  This ‘creates’ money.  The more they lend the more money they create.  This increases the money supply.  The less they lend the less money they create.  If they don’t lend any money they don’t add to the money supply.  When banks fail they contract the money supply.

Bankers are capital middlemen.  They funnel money from those who have it to those who need it.  And they do it efficiently.  We take car loans and mortgages for granted.  For we have such confidence in our banking system.  But banking is a delicate job.  The economy depends on it.  If they don’t lend enough money, businesses and entrepreneurs may not be able to borrow money when they need it.  If they lend too much, they may not be able to meet the demands of their depositors.  And if they do something wrong or act in any way that makes their depositors nervous, the depositors may run to the bank and withdraw their money.  We call this a ‘run on the bank’ when it happens.  It’s not pretty.  It’s usually associated with panic.  And when depositors withdraw more money than is in the bank, the bank fails.

DURING GOOD ECONOMIC times, businesses expand.  Often they have to borrow money to pay for the costs of meeting growing demand.  They borrow and expand.  They hire more people.  People make more money.  They deposit some of this additional money in the bank.  This creates more money to lend.  Businesses borrow more.  And so it goes.  This saving and lending increases the money supply.  We call it inflation.  A little inflation is good.  It means the economy is growing.  When it grows too fast and creates too much money, though, prices go up. 

Sustained inflation can also create a ‘bubble’ in the economy.  This is due to higher profits than normal because of artificially high prices due to inflation.  Higher selling prices are not the result of the normal laws of supply and demand.  Inflation increases prices.  Higher prices increase a company’s profit.  They grow.  Add more jobs.  Hire more people.  Who make more money.  Who buy more stuff and save more money.  Banks loan more, further increasing the money supply.  Everyone is making more money and buying more stuff.  They are ‘bidding up’ the prices (house prices or dot-com stock prices, for example) with an inflated currency.  This can lead to overvalued markets (i.e., a bubble).  Alan Greenspan called it ‘irrational exuberance’ when testifying to Congress in the 1990s.  Now, a bubble can be pretty, but it takes very little to pop and destroy it.

Hyperinflation is inflation at its worse.  Bankers don’t create it by lending too much.  People don’t create it by bidding up prices.  Governments create it by printing money.  Literally.  Sometimes following a devastating, catastrophic event like war (like Weimar Germany after World War II).  But sometimes it doesn’t need a devastating, catastrophic event.  Just unrestrained government spending.  Like in Argentina throughout much of the 20th century.

During bad economic times, businesses often have more goods and services than people are purchasing.  Their sales will fall.  They may cut their prices to try and boost their sales.  They’ll stop expanding.  Because they don’t need as much supply for the current demand, they will cut back on their output.  Lay people off.  Some may have financial problems.  Their current revenue may not cover their costs.  Some may default on their loans.  This makes bankers nervous.  They become more hesitant in lending money.  A business in trouble, then, may find they cannot borrow money.  This may force some into bankruptcy.  They may default on more loans.  As these defaults add up, it threatens a bank’s ability to repay their depositors.  They further reduce their lending.  And so it goes.  These loan defaults and lack of lending decreases the money supply.  We call it deflation.  We call deflationary periods recessions.  It means the economy isn’t growing.  The money supply decreases.  Prices go down.

We call this the business cycle.  People like the inflation part.  They have jobs.  They’re not too keen on the deflation part.  Many don’t have jobs.  But too much inflation is not good.  Prices go up making everything more expensive.  We then lose purchasing power.  So a recession can be a good thing.  It stops high inflation.  It corrects it.  That’s why we often call a small recession a correction.  Inflation and deflation are normal parts of the business cycle.  But some thought they could fix the business cycle.  Get rid of the deflation part.  So they created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) in 1913.

The Fed is a central bank.  It loans money to Federal Reserve regional banks who in turn lend it to banks you and I go to.  They control the money supply.  They raise and lower the rate they charge banks to borrow from them.  During inflationary times, they raise their rate to decrease lending which decreases the money supply.  This is to keep good inflation from becoming bad inflation.  During deflationary times, they lower their rate to increase lending which increases the money supply.  This keeps a correction from turning into a recession.  Or so goes the theory.

The first big test of the Fed came during the 1920s.  And it failed. 

THE TWO WORLD wars were good for the American economy.  With Europe consumed by war, their agricultural and industrial output decline.  But they still needed stuff.  And with the wars fought overseas, we fulfilled that need.  For our workers and farmers weren’t in uniform. 

The Industrial Revolution mechanized the farm.  Our farmers grew more than they ever did before.  They did well.  After the war, though, the Europeans returned to the farm.  The American farmer was still growing more than ever (due to the mechanization of the farm).  There were just a whole lot less people to sell their crops to.  Crop prices fell. 

The 1920s was a time America changed.  The Wilson administration had raised taxes due to the ‘demands of war’.  This resulted in a recession following the war.  The Harding administration cut taxes based on the recommendation of Andrew Mellon, his Secretary of the Treasury.  The economy recovered.  There was a housing boom.  Electric utilities were bringing electrical power to these houses.  Which had electrical appliances (refrigerators, washing machines, vacuum cleaners, irons, toasters, etc.) and the new radio.  People began talking on the new telephone.  Millions were driving the new automobile.  People were traveling in the new airplane.  Hollywood launched the motion picture industry and Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse.  The economy had some of the most solid growth it had ever had.  People had good jobs and were buying things.  There was ‘good’ inflation. 

This ‘good’ inflation increased prices everywhere.  Including in agriculture.  The farmers’ costs went up, then, as their incomes fell.  This stressed the farming regions.  Farmers struggled.  Some failed.  Some banks failed with them.  The money supply in these areas decreased.

Near the end of the 1920s, business tried to expand to meet rising demand.  They had trouble borrowing money, though.  The economy was booming but the money supply wasn’t growing with it.  This is where the Fed failed.  They were supposed to expand the money supply to keep pace with economic growth.  But they didn’t.  In fact, the Fed contracted the money supply during this period.  They thought investors were borrowing money to invest in the stock market.  (They were wrong).  So they raised the cost of borrowing money.  To ‘stop’ the speculators.  So the Fed took the nation from a period of ‘good’ inflation into recession.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

Congress passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff in 1930.  But they were discussing it in committee in 1929.  Businesses knew about it in 1929.  And like any good business, they were looking at how it would impact them.  The bill took high tariffs higher.  That meant expensive imported things would become more expensive.  The idea is to protect your domestic industry by raising the prices of less expensive imports.  Normally, business likes surgical tariffs that raise the cost of their competitor’s imports.  But this was more of an across the board price increase that would raise the cost of every import, which was certain to increase the cost of doing business.  This made business nervous.  Add uncertainty to a tight credit market and business no doubt forecasted higher costs and lower revenues (i.e., a recession).  And to weather a recession, you need a lot of cash on hand to help pay the bills until the economy recovered.  So these businesses increased their liquidity.  They cut costs, laid off people and sold their investments (i.e., stocks) to build a huge cash cushion to weather these bad times to come.  This may have been a significant factor in the selloff in October of 1929 resulting in the stock market crash. 

HERBERT HOOVER WANTED to help the farmers.  By raising crop prices (which only made food more expensive for the unemployed).  But the Smoot-Hawley Tariff met retaliatory tariffs overseas.  Overseas agricultural and industrial markets started to close.  Sales fell.  The recession had come.  Business cut back.  Unemployment soared.  Farmers couldn’t sell their bumper crops at a profit and defaulted on their loans.  When some non-farming banks failed, panic ensued.  People rushed to get their money out of the banks before their bank, too, failed.  This caused a run on the banks.  They started to fail.  This further contracted the money supply.  Recession turned into the Great Depression. 

The Fed started the recession by not meeting its core expectation.  Maintain the money supply to meet the needs of the economy.  Then a whole series of bad government action (initiated by the Hoover administration and continued by the Roosevelt administration) drove business into the ground.  The ONLY lesson they learned from this whole period is ‘inflation good, deflation bad’.  Which was the wrong lesson to learn. 

The proper lesson to learn was that when people interfere with market forces or try to replace the market decision-making mechanisms, they often decide wrong.  It was wrong for the Fed to contract the money supply (to stop speculators that weren’t there) when there was good economic growth.  And it was wrong to increase the cost of doing business (raising interest rates, increasing regulations, raising taxes, raising tariffs, restricting imports, etc.) during a recession.  The natural market forces wouldn’t have made those wrong decisions.  The government created the recession.  Then, when they tried to ‘fix’ the recession they created, they created the Great Depression.

World War I created an economic boom that we couldn’t sustain long after the war.  The farmers because their mechanization just grew too much stuff.  Our industrial sector because of bad government policy.  World War II fixed our broken economy.  We threw away most of that bad government policy and business roared to meet the demands of war-torn Europe.  But, once again, we could not sustain our post-war economy because of bad government policy.

THE ECONOMY ROARED in the 1950s.  World War II devastated the world’s economies.  We stood all but alone to fill the void.  This changed in the 1960s.  Unions became more powerful, demanding more of the pie.  This increased the cost of doing business.  This corresponded with the reemergence of those once war-torn economies.  Export markets not only shrunk, but domestic markets had new competition.  Government spending exploded.  Kennedy poured money into NASA to beat the Soviets to the moon.  The costs of the nuclear arms race grew.  Vietnam became more and more costly with no end in sight.  And LBJ created the biggest government entitlement programs since FDR created Social Security.  The size of government swelled, adding more workers to the government payroll.  They raised taxes.  But even high taxes could not prevent huge deficits.

JFK cut taxes and the economy grew.  It was able to sustain his spending.  LBJ increased taxes and the economy contracted.  There wasn’t a chance in hell the economy would support his spending.  Unwilling to cut spending and with taxes already high, the government started to print more money to pay its bills.  Much like Weimar Germany did in the 1920s (which ultimately resulted in hyperinflation).  Inflation heated up. 

Nixon would continue the process saying “we are all Keynesians now.”  Keynesian economics believed in Big Government managing the business cycle.  It puts all faith on the demand side of the equation.  Do everything to increase the disposable money people have so they can buy stuff, thus stimulating the economy.  But most of those things (wage and price controls, government subsidies, tariffs, import restrictions, regulation, etc.) typically had the opposite effect on the supply side of the equation.  The job producing side.  Those policies increased the cost of doing business.  So businesses didn’t grow.  Higher costs and lower sales pushed them into recession.  This increased unemployment.  Which, of course, reduces tax receipts.  Falling ever shorter from meeting its costs via taxes, it printed more money.  This further stoked the fires of inflation.

When Nixon took office, the dollar was the world’s reserve currency and convertible into gold.  But our monetary policy was making the dollar weak.  As they depreciated the dollar, the cost of gold in dollars soared.  Nations were buying ‘cheap’ dollars and converting them into gold at much higher market exchange rate.  Gold was flying out of the country.  To stop the gold flight, Nixon suspended the convertibility of the dollar. 

Inflation soared.  As did interest rates.  Ford did nothing to address the core problem.  During the next presidential campaign, Carter asked the nation if they were better off than they were 4 years ago.  They weren’t.  Carter won.  By that time we had double digit inflation and interest rates.  The Carter presidency was identified by malaise and stagflation (inflation AND recession at the same time).  We measured our economic woes by the misery index (the unemployment rate plus the inflation rate).  Big Government spending was smothering the nation.  And Jimmy Carter did not address that problem.  He, too, was a Keynesian. 

During the 1980 presidential election, Reagan asked the American people if they were better off now than they were 4 years ago.  The answer was, again, ‘no’.  Reagan won the election.  He was not a Keynesian.  He cut taxes like Harding and JFK did.  He learned the proper lesson from the Great Depression.  And he didn’t repeat any of their (Hoover and FDR) mistakes.  The recession did not turn into depression.  The economy recovered.  And soared once again.

MONETARY POLICY IS crucial to a healthy and growing economy.  Businesses need to borrow to grow and create jobs.  However, monetary policy is not the be-all and end-all of economic growth.  Anti-business government policies will NOT make a business expand and add jobs no matter how cheap money is to borrow.  Three bursts of economic activity in the 20th century followed tax-cuts/deregulation (the Harding, JFK and Reagan administrations).  Tax increases/new regulation killed economic growth (the Hoover/FDR and LBJ/Nixon/Ford/Carter administrations).  Good monetary policies complimented the former.  Some of the worst monetary policies accompanied the latter.  This is historical record.  Some would do well to learn it.

www.PITHOCRATES.com

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