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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Banks, Keynes, Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 17th, 2013

History 101

(Originally published June 11th, 2013)

Bringing Borrowers and Lenders Together is a very Important Function of our Banks

Borrowers like low interest rates.  Savers (i.e., lenders) like high interest rates.  People who put money into the bank want to earn a high interest rate.  People who want to buy a house want a low interest rate.  As the interest rate will determine the price of the house they can buy.  Borrowers and lenders meet at banks.  Bankers offer a high enough interest rate to attract lenders (i.e., depositors).  But not too high to discourage borrowers.

This is the essence of the banking system.  And capital formation.  Alexander Hamilton said that money in people’s pockets was just money.  But when the people came together and deposited their money into a bank that money became capital.  Large sums of money a business could borrow to build a factory.  Which creates economic activity.  And jobs.  The United States became the world’s number one economic power with the capital formation of its banking system.  For a sound banking system is required for any advanced economy.  As it allows the rise of a middle class.  By providing investment capital for entrepreneurs.  And middle class jobs in the businesses they build.

So bringing borrowers and lenders together is a very important function of our banks.  And bankers have the heavy burden of determining saving rates.  And lending rates.  As well as determining the credit risk of potential borrowers.  Savers deposit their money to earn one rate.  So the bank can loan it out at another rate.  A rate that will pay depositors interest.  As well as cover the few loans that borrowers can’t pay back.  Which is why bankers have to be very careful to who they loan money to.

Keynesians make Recessions worse by Keeping Interest Rates low, Preventing a Correction from Happening

John Maynard Keynes changed this system of banking that made the United States the world’s number one economic power.  We call his economic theories Keynesian economics.  One of the changes from the classical school of economics we used to make the United States the world’s number one economic power was the manipulation of interest rates.  Instead of leaving this to free market forces in the banking system Keynesians said government should have that power.  And they took it.  Printing money to make more available to lend.  Thus bringing down interest rates.

And why did they want to bring down interest rates?  To stimulate economic activity.  At least, that was their goal.  To stimulate economic activity to pull us out of a recession.  To even eliminate recessions all together.  To eliminate the normal expansion and contraction of the economy.  By manipulating interest rates to continually expand the economy.  To accept a small amount of permanent inflation.  In exchange for a constantly expanding economy.  And permanent job creation.  That was the Keynesian intention.  But did it work?

No.  Since the Keynesians took over the economy we’ve had the Great Depression, the stagflation and misery of the Seventies, the savings and loans crisis of the Eighties, the irrational exuberance and the dot-com bubble crash of the Nineties, the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession.  All of these were caused by the Keynesian manipulation of interest rates.  And the resulting recessions were made worse by trying to keep interest rates low to pull the economy out of recession.  Preventing the correction from happening.  Allowing these artificially low interest rates to cause even more damage.

The Government’s manipulation of Interest Rates gave us the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the Great Recession

My friend’s father complained about the low interest rates during the Clinton administration.  For the savings rate offered by banks was next to nothing.  With the Federal Reserve printing so much money the banks didn’t need to attract depositors with high savings rates.  Worse for these savers was the inflation caused by printing all of this money eroded the purchasing power of their savings.  So they couldn’t earn anything on their savings.  And what savings they had bought less and less over time.  But mortgages were cheap.  And people were rushing to the banks to get a mortgage before those rates started rising again.

This was an interruption of normal market forces.  It changed people’s behavior.  People who were not even planning to buy a house were moved by those low interest rates to enter the housing market.  Then President Clinton pushed other people into the housing market with his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Getting people who were not even planning to buy a house AND who could not even afford to buy a house to enter the housing market.  Those artificially low interest rates pulled so many people into the housing market that this increased demand for houses started raising house prices.  A lot.  But it didn’t matter.  Not with those low interest rates.  Subprime lending.  Pressure by the Clinton administration to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  And Fannie May and Freddie Mac buying those risky subprime mortgages from the banks, freeing them up to make more risky mortgages.  This scorching demand pushed housing prices into the stratosphere.

A correction was long overdue.  But the Federal Reserve kept pushing that correction off by keeping interest rates artificially low.  But eventually inflation started to appear from all that money creation.  And the Federal Reserve had no choice but to raise interest rates to tamp out that inflation.  But when they did it caused a big problem for those with subprime mortgages.  Those who had adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).  For when interest rates went up so did their mortgage payments.  Beyond their ability to pay them.  So they defaulted on their mortgages.  A lot of them.  Which caused an even bigger problem.  All those mortgages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought?  They sold them to Wall Street.  Who chopped them up into collateralized debt obligations.  Financial instruments backed by historically the safest of all investments.  The home mortgage.  Only these weren’t your father’s mortgage.  These were risky subprime mortgages.  But they sold them to unsuspecting investors as high yield and low-risk investments.  And when people started defaulting on their mortgages these investments became worthless.  Which spread the financial crisis around the world.  On top of all of this the housing bubble burst.  And those house prices fell back down from the stratosphere.  Leaving many homeowners with mortgages greater than the corrected value of their house.

It was the government’s manipulation of interest rates that gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  The Great Recession.  And the worst recovery since that following the Great Depression.  All the result of Keynesian economics.  And the foolhardy belief that you can make recessions a thing of the past.

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The Federal Government’s entry into the Student Loan Market eliminates Market Forces

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 7th, 2013

Week in Review

A sound banking system is a requirement for any advanced economy.  Because you need capital to make an advanced economy.  And how do you do that?  By people responsibly saving for their retirement.  Putting away a few dollars of every paycheck.  A small amount of money that can’t buy much of anything.  But when hundreds of thousands of people save a few dollars from every paycheck those small amounts become capital.  Large sums of money banks can lend out to investors who want to build factories.  Responsible bankers loaned their customers’ deposits to investors.  Investors paid the bankers interest on these loans.  And the bankers paid interest to their depositors.  The economy grew.  And people saved for their retirement.  The system worked well.  And grew the US economy into the world’s number one economy.  But now we’re in danger of dropping from that number one spot.  Because the government destroyed our banking system (see Exclusive – JPMorgan to stop making student loans by Reuters posted 9/5/2013 on Yahoo! Finance).

JPMorgan Chase & Co (NYS:JPM) will stop making student loans in October, according to a document reviewed by Reuters on Thursday, after the biggest U.S. bank concluded that competition from federal government programs limits its ability to expand the business.

When the government runs a deficit they sell bonds to finance it.  Pulling capital out of the private sector.  Raising borrowing costs.  The government then tries to lower borrowing costs by printing money.  Expanding the money supply.  And by making more money available to lend interest rates fall.  But it also does something else.  It encourages bad investments.  Malinvestments.  People who look at those artificially low interest rates and think they should borrow money when the borrowing is good.  Even when they don’t have a good investment opportunity.

They may expand their business now because money is cheap now.  Even though they don’t really need the additional capacity now.  And then if the government raises interest rates to cool the overheated economy thanks to those artificially low interest rates these same investors see their revenues fall as they took on additional expenses by expanding their business.  Just because interest rates were low.  Now their costs are higher just when their revenues have fallen.  Pushing the business towards bankruptcy.  Which would never have happened if the government didn’t encourage them to borrow money they didn’t need by keeping interest rates artificially low.

But getting people to borrow money when they don’t need it is the government’s only economic policy.  Which they took to another level in the housing market.  With pressure from the Clinton Justice Department on lenders to qualify the unqualified for loans.  Exploding the use of risky subprime lending.  And then using Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to buy these risky subprime loans from these lenders.  Removing all risks from these lenders and passing them on to the taxpayers.  To encourage these lenders to lower their lending standards.  So they would keep making risky loans.  Which they were more than willing to do if they incurred no risk in making these loans.  Which Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac did for them.  Thus further destroying the banking system.

And now the government has taken over student loans.  Where they will do to student loans what they did to home mortgages.  Where lending decisions will be made for political reasons instead of objective lending standards.  Guaranteeing more subprime mortgage crises in the future.  A further destruction of the banking system.  And the destruction of one of the pillars of an advanced economy.

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Banks, Keynes, Subprime Mortgage Crisis and Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 11th, 2013

History 101

Bringing Borrowers and Lenders Together is a very Important Function of our Banks

Borrowers like low interest rates.  Savers (i.e., lenders) like high interest rates.  People who put money into the bank want to earn a high interest rate.  People who want to buy a house want a low interest rate.  As the interest rate will determine the price of the house they can buy.  Borrowers and lenders meet at banks.  Bankers offer a high enough interest rate to attract lenders (i.e., depositors).  But not too high to discourage borrowers.

This is the essence of the banking system.  And capital formation.  Alexander Hamilton said that money in people’s pockets was just money.  But when the people came together and deposited their money into a bank that money became capital.  Large sums of money a business could borrow to build a factory.  Which creates economic activity.  And jobs.  The United States became the world’s number one economic power with the capital formation of its banking system.  For a sound banking system is required for any advanced economy.  As it allows the rise of a middle class.  By providing investment capital for entrepreneurs.  And middle class jobs in the businesses they build.

So bringing borrowers and lenders together is a very important function of our banks.  And bankers have the heavy burden of determining saving rates.  And lending rates.  As well as determining the credit risk of potential borrowers.  Savers deposit their money to earn one rate.  So the bank can loan it out at another rate.  A rate that will pay depositors interest.  As well as cover the few loans that borrowers can’t pay back.  Which is why bankers have to be very careful to who they loan money to.

Keynesians make Recessions worse by Keeping Interest Rates low, Preventing a Correction from Happening

John Maynard Keynes changed this system of banking that made the United States the world’s number one economic power.  We call his economic theories Keynesian economics.  One of the changes from the classical school of economics we used to make the United States the world’s number one economic power was the manipulation of interest rates.  Instead of leaving this to free market forces in the banking system Keynesians said government should have that power.  And they took it.  Printing money to make more available to lend.  Thus bringing down interest rates.

And why did they want to bring down interest rates?  To stimulate economic activity.  At least, that was their goal.  To stimulate economic activity to pull us out of a recession.  To even eliminate recessions all together.  To eliminate the normal expansion and contraction of the economy.  By manipulating interest rates to continually expand the economy.  To accept a small amount of permanent inflation.  In exchange for a constantly expanding economy.  And permanent job creation.  That was the Keynesian intention.  But did it work?

No.  Since the Keynesians took over the economy we’ve had the Great Depression, the stagflation and misery of the Seventies, the savings and loans crisis of the Eighties, the irrational exuberance and the dot-com bubble crash of the Nineties, the subprime mortgage crisis and the Great Recession.  All of these were caused by the Keynesian manipulation of interest rates.  And the resulting recessions were made worse by trying to keep interest rates low to pull the economy out of recession.  Preventing the correction from happening.  Allowing these artificially low interest rates to cause even more damage.

The Government’s manipulation of Interest Rates gave us the Subprime Mortgage Crisis and the Great Recession

My friend’s father complained about the low interest rates during the Clinton administration.  For the savings rate offered by banks was next to nothing.  With the Federal Reserve printing so much money the banks didn’t need to attract depositors with high savings rates.  Worse for these savers was the inflation caused by printing all of this money eroded the purchasing power of their savings.  So they couldn’t earn anything on their savings.  And what savings they had bought less and less over time.  But mortgages were cheap.  And people were rushing to the banks to get a mortgage before those rates started rising again.

This was an interruption of normal market forces.  It changed people’s behavior.  People who were not even planning to buy a house were moved by those low interest rates to enter the housing market.  Then President Clinton pushed other people into the housing market with his Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending.  Getting people who were not even planning to buy a house AND who could not even afford to buy a house to enter the housing market.  Those artificially low interest rates pulled so many people into the housing market that this increased demand for houses started raising house prices.  A lot.  But it didn’t matter.  Not with those low interest rates.  Subprime lending.  Pressure by the Clinton administration to qualify the unqualified for mortgages.  And Fannie May and Freddie Mac buying those risky subprime mortgages from the banks, freeing them up to make more risky mortgages.  This scorching demand pushed housing prices into the stratosphere.

A correction was long overdue.  But the Federal Reserve kept pushing that correction off by keeping interest rates artificially low.  But eventually inflation started to appear from all that money creation.  And the Federal Reserve had no choice but to raise interest rates to tamp out that inflation.  But when they did it caused a big problem for those with subprime mortgages.  Those who had adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs).  For when interest rates went up so did their mortgage payments.  Beyond their ability to pay them.  So they defaulted on their mortgages.  A lot of them.  Which caused an even bigger problem.  All those mortgages Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought?  They sold them to Wall Street.  Who chopped them up into collateralized debt obligations.  Financial instruments backed by historically the safest of all investments.  The home mortgage.  Only these weren’t your father’s mortgage.  These were risky subprime mortgages.  But they sold them to unsuspecting investors as high yield and low-risk investments.  And when people started defaulting on their mortgages these investments became worthless.  Which spread the financial crisis around the world.  On top of all of this the housing bubble burst.  And those house prices fell back down from the stratosphere.  Leaving many homeowners with mortgages greater than the corrected value of their house.

It was the government’s manipulation of interest rates that gave us the subprime mortgage crisis.  The Great Recession.  And the worst recovery since that following the Great Depression.  All the result of Keynesian economics.  And the foolhardy belief that you can make recessions a thing of the past.

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Capital and Capitalism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 7th, 2012

Economics 101

Entrepreneurs have an Insatiable Desire to Think and Create

It takes money to make money.  For it is money that buys the means of production.  The land, manufacturing plants, small shops, office space, machines, equipment and infrastructure that make things.  The trucks, barges, container ships, locomotives and rolling stock that transport raw material, work-in-progress and finished goods.  These physical assets are capital.  From assembly lines to inventory control systems to accounting software.  Things that let businesses conduct business.  And make profits.

This is the key to capitalism.  Profits.  It’s what allows businesses to make the things we need and enjoy.  Profits are what make an entrepreneur take a risk.  To spend their life savings.  To mortgage their home.  To borrow from a bank.  They do these things because they believe they will be able to earn enough profits to replenish their life savings.  To make their mortgage payments.  To repay their loans.  AND to earn a living in the process.  It is a risky endeavor.  And far more risky than working for someone and earning a steady paycheck.  But if entrepreneurs didn’t take these risks we wouldn’t have things like the iPhone or the automobile or the airplane.  All of which were brought to us because one person had an idea.  And then invested in the capital to bring that idea to market.

Some business ideas succeed.  Many more fail.  But people keep trying.  Because of that insatiable desire to think and create.  And the ability to earn profits to pay for their ideas.  To build on their ideas.  To expand their ideas.  From the first thoughts of it they kicked around in their head.  To the multinational corporations their ideas grew into.  All made possible by the profits they earned.  The more they earned the more they could do.  As they reinvested those earnings into their businesses.  To buy more capital.  That allowed them to build more things.  And use even more capital to bring these things to market.  Creating jobs all along the way.  Jobs that only came into being because of those profits that started as a single thought in someone’s head.

If you can’t Service your Debt your Creditors can and will Force you into Bankruptcy

This is where corporations come from.  From a single thought.  Profitable business operations grow that thought into the corporations they become.  For corporations are not the evil spawn of the damned.  Corporations come from people having a great idea.  Like Starbucks.  And Ben and Jerry’s.  Who are now everywhere so we can enjoy their products wherever we are.  All made possible by the profits of capitalism.

Who’s up for a little accounting?  You are?  Well, then, you came to the right place.  For we’re going to learn a little accounting.  Right here.  Right now.  Corporations determine their profits by closing their books at the end of an accounting period.  A series of accounting steps culminate in the trial balance.  Where the sum of all debits equal the sum of all credits.  Or eventually do after various adjusting entries.  Once they do the books are balanced.  And business at last can see if they were profitable.  By producing an income statement.  Which lists revenue at the top.  Then sums all costs (materials, production wages, payroll taxes & health insurance for that labor, etc.) that produced that revenue.  Subtracting these costs from revenue gives you gross profit.  Then comes overhead costs.  Fixed costs.  Like rent and utilities.  And overhead labor (corporate officers, management, accounting, human resources, etc.).  They sum these and subtract them from gross profit.  Which brings us to earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT).  A very important profitability number.  For if there is any money left by the time you reach EBIT your business operations were profitable.  Your business was able to pay all the due bills to produce your revenue.  Which leaves just two numbers.  Interest they owe on their loans.  And income taxes.

EBIT is a very important number.  For if it’s not large enough to service your debt everything above EBIT is for naught.  Because if you can’t service your debt your creditors can and will force you into bankruptcy.  Never a good thing.  And what follows is usually the opposite of growing your business.  Shrinking your business.  By seriously cutting costs (i.e., massive layoffs).  And eliminating unprofitable lines of revenue.  Downsizing and reorganizing as necessary so your cost structure can produce a profit at the given market price for your goods and/or services.  A price determined by your competition in the market.  If you cannot downsize and reorganize sufficiently to become profitable then you go out of business.  Or you sell the business to someone who can make a profit.  Because unless you can turn a profit your business will consume money.  And that money has to come from somewhere.  Typically it is the business owner until they run out of life savings and home to mortgage.  Because a bank can’t give you money to lose in your business.  For their depositors put their money into the bank to grow their savings.  Not to shrink them.  So a bank has to be profitable to please their depositors.  And if the bank is using their money to make bad loans they will remove their money.  As will other depositors.  Perhaps creating a run on the bank.  And causing the bank to fail.  So while operating at a loss will save employees jobs in the short term it will cause far greater harm in the long term.  Which isn’t good for anyone.

Capitalism works because with Risk there’s Reward

As you can see getting those accounting reports to fairly state the profitability of a business is crucial.  For it’s the only way a business knows if it can pay its bills.  And the way they pay their bills complicate matters.  Revenue and costs come in at different times.  To bring order to this chaos businesses use accrual accounting.  Which includes two very important rules.  To record accurately when revenue is revenue (for example, a down payment is not revenue.  It’s a liability a business owes the customer until the sale transaction is complete).  And to match costs to revenue.  Meaning that every cost a business incurred producing a sale is matched to that sale.  Even long-term fixed assets like buildings and machinery.  Which they depreciate over the life of the asset.  Charging a depreciation expense each accounting period until the asset is fully depreciated.

Because of these accounting reports that fairly state business operations a business knows if they are profitable.  That they can pay all of their bills.  Their suppliers AND their employees.  Their health insurance AND their payroll taxes.  The interest on their debt AND their income taxes.  They can pay all of these when they come due.  And not run out of money when other bills come due.  Which is why they can have confidence when they read their income statement.  Knowing that they paid all their costs due in that accounting period.  Including the interest on their debt.  And their income taxes.  Which takes them to the bottom line.  Net profit.  And if it’s positive they have money to reinvest into their business.  To expand operations.  To increase sales revenue.  Create more jobs.  And they can grow.  But not too much that they lose control.  So they can always pay their bills.  So they can keep doing what they love.  Thinking.  And bringing new ideas to market.

This is capitalism.  Where people take risks.  In hopes of making profits.  They invest in capital to make those profits.  And then use those profits to invest in capital.  It works because there is a direct relationship between risk and profits.  It’s why people take risks.  Create jobs.  And provide the things we need and enjoy.  Because with risk there’s reward.  And accounting reports that fairly state business operations give a business’ management the tools to be profitable.  By matching costs to revenue.  Telling them when they are not using their capital efficiently.  Helping them to stay profitable.  (Unlike anything the government runs.  Because there is no matching of costs to revenue.  Taxes come into the treasury and the treasury pays for a multitude of things.  With no way to know if they are using those taxes efficiently).  And this is capitalism.  Risk and reward.  And accountability.  For when you’re risking your money you become very accountable.  Which is why capitalism works .  And government-run entities don’t.

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The Austrian School of Economics

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 27th, 2012

Economics 101

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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Consumption, Savings, Fractional Reserve Banking, Interest Rates and Capital Markets

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 23rd, 2012

Economics 101

Keynesians Prefer Consumption over Savings because Everyone Eventually Dies

Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of total economic activity.  This consumption drives the economy.  In fact, someone built a school of economics around consumption.  Keynesian economics.  And he loved consumption.  John Maynard Keynes even created a formula for it.  The consumption function.  Which basically says the more income a person has the more that person will consume.  Even created a mathematical formula for it.  No doubt about it, Keynesians are just gaga for consumption.

Of course, Keynesians don’t love everything.  They aren’t all that fond of saving.  Which they see as a drain on economic activity.  Because if people are saving their money they aren’t doing as much consuming as they could.  In fact, their greatest fear when they propose stimulus spending (by giving people more money to spend) to jump-start an economy out of a recession is that people may take that money and save it.  Or, worse yet, pay down their credit card balances.  Which is something most responsible people do during bad economic times.  To lower their monthly bills so they can still pay them if they find themselves living on a reduced income.  Of course, being responsible doesn’t increase consumption.  Nor does it make Keynesians happy.

Keynesians don’t like people behaving responsibly.  They want everyone to live beyond their means.  To borrow money to buy a house.  To buy a car.  Or two.  To use their credit cards.  To keep shopping.  Above and beyond the limits of their income.  To spend.  And to keep spending.  Always consuming.  Creating endless economic activity.  And never worry about saving.  Because everyone eventually dies.  And what good will all that saving be then?

To Help Create more Capital from a Low Savings Rate we use Fractional Reserve Banking

Intriguing argument.  But too much consuming and not enough saving can be a problem, though.  Because before we consume we must produce.  And those producing the things we consume need capital.  Large sums of money businesses use to pay for buildings, equipment, tools and supplies.  To make the things consumers consume.  And where does that capital come from?  Savings.

A low savings rate raises the cost of borrowing.  Because businesses are competing for a smaller pool of capital.  Which raises interest rates.  Because capital is an economic commodity, subject to the law of supply and demand.  Also, with people living beyond their means by consuming far more than they are saving has caused other problems.  Borrowing to buy houses and cars and using credit cards to consume more has led to dangerous levels of personal debt.  Resulting in record personal bankruptcies.  Further raising the cost of borrowing.  As these banks have to increase their interest rates to make up for the losses they incur from those personal bankruptcies.

To help create more capital from a low savings rate we use fractional reserve banking.  Here’s how it works.  If you deposit $100 into your bank the bank keeps a fraction of that in their vault.  Their cash reserve.  And loan out the rest of the money.  When lots of people do this the banks have lots of money to loan.  Which people and businesses borrow.  Who borrow to buy things.  And when buyers buy things sellers will then take their money and deposit it into their banks.  The buyer’s borrowed funds become the seller’s deposited funds.  These banks will keep a fraction of these new deposits in their vaults.  And loan out the rest.  Etc.  As this happens over and over banks will create money out of thin air.  Providing ever more capital for businesses to borrow.  Which all works well.  Unless depositors all try to withdraw their deposits at the same time.  Exceeding the cash reserve locked up in a bank’s vault.   Creating a run on the bank.  Causing it to fail.  Which can also raise the cost of borrowing.  Or just make it difficult to find a bank willing to loan.  Because banks not only loan to consumers and businesses.  They loan to other banks.  And when one bank fails it could very well cause problems for other banks.  So banks get nervous and are reluctant to lend until they think this danger has passed.

A Keynesian Stimulus Check may Momentarily Substitute for a Paycheck but it can’t Create Capital

Consumption, savings, investment and production are linked.  Consumption needs production.  Production needs investment.  And investment needs savings.  Whether it is someone depositing their paycheck into a bank that lends it to others.  Or rich investors who amassed and saved great wealth.  Who invest directly into a corporation by buying new shares of their stock (from an underwriter, not in the secondary stock market).  Or by buying their bonds.

Collectively we call these capital markets.  Where businesses go when they need capital.  If interest rates are low they may borrow from a bank.  Or sell bonds.  If interest rates are high they may issue stock.  Generally they have a mix of financing that best fits the investing climate in the capital markets.  To protect them from volatile movements in interest rates.  And from competition from other corporations issuing new stock that could draw investors (and capital) away from their new stock issue.  Even to secure capital when no one is lending.  By going contrary to Keynesian policy and saving for a rainy day.  By buying liquid investments that earn a small return on investment and carrying them on their balance sheet.  They don’t earn much but can be sold quickly and converted into cash when no one is lending.

A lot must happen before consumers can consume.  In fact, high consumption can pull capital away from those who make the things they consume.  Because without capital businesses can’t expand production or hire more workers.  And no amount of Keynesian stimulus can change that.  Because there are two things necessary for consumption.  A paycheck.  And consumer goods produced with capital.  A stimulus check may momentarily substitute for a paycheck.  But it can’t create capital.  Only savings can do that.

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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 19th, 2010

WHAT GAVE BIRTH to the Federal Reserve System and our current monetary policy?  The Panic of 1907.  Without going into the details, there was a liquidity crisis.  The Knickerbocker Trust tried to corner the market in copper.  But someone else dumped copper on the market which dropped the price.  The trust failed.  Because of the money involved, a lot of banks, too, failed.  Depositors, scared, created bank runs.  As banks failed, the money supply contracted.  Businesses failed.  The stock market crashed (losing 50% of its value).  And all of this happened during an economic recession.

So, in 1913, Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act, creating the Federal Reserve System (the Fed).  This was, basically, a central bank.  It was to be a bank to the banks.  A lender of last resort.  It would inject liquidity into the economy during a liquidity crisis.  Thus ending forever panics like that in 1907.  And making the business cycle (the boom – bust economic cycles) a thing of the past.

The Fed has three basic monetary tools.  How they use these either increases or decreases the money supply.  And increases or decreases interest rates.

They can change reserve requirements for banks.  The more reserves banks must hold the less they can lend.  The less they need to hold the more they can lend.  When they lend more, they increase the money supply.  When they lend less, they decrease the money supply.  The more they lend the easier it is to get a loan.  This decreases interest rates (i.e., lowers the ‘price’ of money).  The less they lend the harder it is to get a loan.  This increases interest rates (i.e., raises the ‘price’ of money). 

The Fed ‘manages’ the money supply and the interest rates in two other ways.  They buy and sell U.S. Treasury securities.  And they adjust the discount rate they charge member banks to borrow from them.  Each of these actions either increases or decreases the money supply and/or raises or lowers interest rates.  The idea is to make money easier to borrow when the economy is slow.  This is supposed to make it easier for businesses to expand production and hire people.  If the economy is overheating and there is a risk of inflation, they take the opposite action.  They make it more difficult to borrow money.  Which increases the cost of doing business.  Which slows the economy.  Lays people off.  Which avoids inflation.

The problem with this is the invisible hand that Adam Smith talked about.  In a laissez-faire economy, no one person or one group controls anything.  Instead, millions upon millions of people interact with each other.  They make millions upon millions of decisions.  These are informed decisions in a free market.  At the heart of each decision is a buyer and a seller.  And they mutually agree in this decision making process.  The buyer pays at least as much as the seller wants.  The seller sells for at least as little as the buyer wants.  If they didn’t, they would not conclude their sales transaction.  When we multiply this basic transaction by the millions upon millions of people in the market place, we arrive at that invisible hand.  Everyone looking out for their own self-interest guides the economy as a whole.  The bad decisions of a few have no affect on the economy as a whole.

Now replace the invisible hand with government and what do you get?  A managed economy.  And that’s what the Fed does.  It manages the economy.  It takes the power of those millions upon millions of decisions and places them into the hands of a very few.  And, there, a few bad decisions can have a devastating impact upon the economy.

TO PAY FOR World War I, Woodrow Wilson and his Progressives heavily taxed the American people.  The war left America with a huge debt.  And in a recession.  During the 1920 election, the Democrats ran on a platform of continued high taxation to pay down the debt.  Andrew Mellon, though, had done a study of the rich in relation to those high taxes.  He found the higher the tax, the more the rich invested outside the country.  Instead of building factories and employing people, they took their money to places less punishing to capital.

Warren G. Harding won the 1920 election.  And he appointed Andrew Mellon his Treasury secretary.  Never since Alexander Hamilton had a Treasury secretary understood capitalism as well.  The Harding administration cut tax rates and the amount of tax money paid by the ‘rich’ more than doubled.  Economic activity flourished.  Businesses expanded and added jobs.  The nation modernized with the latest technologies (electric power and appliances, radio, cars, aviation, etc.).  One of the best economies ever.  Until the Fed got involved.

The Fed looked at this economic activity and saw speculation.  So they contracted the money supply.  This made it hard for business to expand to meet the growing demand.  When money is less readily available, you begin to stockpile what you have.  You add to that pile by selling liquid securities to build a bigger cash cushion to get you through tight monetary times.

Of course, the economy is NOT just monetary policy.  Those businesses were looking at other things the government was doing.  The Smoot-Hartley tariff was in committee.  Across the board tariff increases and import restrictions create uncertainty.  Business does not like uncertainty.  So they increase their liquidity.  To prepare for the worse.  Then the stock market crashed.  Then it got worse. 

It is at this time that the liquidity crisis became critical.  Depositors lost faith.  Bank runs followed.  But there just was not enough money available.  Banks began to fail.  Time for the Fed to step in and take action.  Per the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.  But they did nothing.  For a long while.  Then they took action.  And made matters worse.  They raised interest rates.  In response to England going off the gold standard (to prop up the dollar).  Exactly the wrong thing to do in a deflationary spiral.  This took a bad recession to the Great Depression.  The 1930s would become a lost decade.

When FDR took office, he tried to fix things with some Keynesian spending.  But nothing worked.  High taxes along with high government spending sucked life out of the private sector.  This unprecedented growth in government filled business with uncertainty.  They had no idea what was coming next.  So they hunkered down.  And prepared to weather more bad times.  It took a world war to end the Great Depression.  And only because the government abandoned much of its controls and let business do what they do best.  Pure, unfettered capitalism.  American industry came to life.  It built the war material to first win World War II.  Then it rebuilt the war torn countries after the war.

DURING THE 1980s, in Japan, government was partnering with business.  It was mercantilism at its best.  Japan Inc.  The economy boomed.  And blew great big bubbles.  The Keynesians in America held up the Japanese model as the new direction for America.  An American presidential candidate said we must partner government with business, too.  For only a fool could not see the success of the Japanese example.  Japan was growing rich.  And buying up American landmarks (including Rockefeller Center in New York).  National Lampoon magazine welcomed us to the 90s with a picture of a Japanese CEO at his desk.  He was the CEO of the United States of America, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Honda Motor Company.  The Japanese were taking over the world.  And we were stupid not to follow their lead.

But there was no invisible hand in Japan.  It was the hand of Japan Inc.  It was Japan Inc. that pursued economic policies that it thought best.  Not the millions upon millions of ordinary Japanese citizens.  Well, Japan Inc. thought wrong. 

There was collusion between Japanese businesses.  And collusion between Japanese businesses and government.  And corruption.  This greatly inflated the Japanese stock market.  And those great big bubbles finally burst.  The powerful Japan Inc. of the 1980s that caused fear and trembling was gone.  Replaced by a Japan in a deflationary spiral in the 1990s.  Or, as the Japanese call it, their lost decade.  This once great Asian Tiger was now an older tiger with a bit of a limp.   And the economy limped along for a decade or two.  It was still number 3 in the world, but it wasn’t what it used to be.  You don’t see magazine covers talking about it owning other nations any more.  (In 2010, China took over that #3 spot.  But China is a managed economy.   Will it suffer Japan’s fate?  Time will tell.)

The Japanese monetary authorities tried to fix the economy.  Interest rates were zero for about a decade.  In other words, if you wanted to borrow, it was easy.  And free.  But it didn’t help.  That huge economic expansion wasn’t real.  Business and government, in collusion, inflated and propped it up.  It gave them inflated capacity.  And prices.  And you don’t solve that problem by making it easier for businesses to borrow money to expand capacity and create jobs.  That’s the last thing they need.  What they need to do is to get out of the business of managing business.  Create a business-friendly climate.  Based on free-market principles.  Not mercantilism.  And let that invisible hand work its wonders.

MONETARY POLICY CAN do a lot of things.  Most of them bad.  Because it concentrates far too much power in too few hands.  The consequences of the mistakes of those making policy can be devastating.  And too tempting to those who want to use those powers for political reasons.  As we can see by Keynesian ‘stimulus’ spending that ends up as pork barrel spending.  The empirical data for that spending has shown that it stimulates only those who are in good standing with the powers that be.  Never the economy.

Sound money is important.  The money supply needs to keep pace with economic expansion.  If it doesn’t, a tight money supply will slow or halt economic activity.  But we have to use monetary policy for that purpose only.  We cannot use it to offset bad fiscal policy that is anti-business.  For if the government creates an anti-business environment, no amount of cheap money will encourage risk takers to take risks in a highly risky and uncertain environment.  Decades were lost trying.

No, you don’t stimulate with monetary policy.  You stimulate with fiscal policy.  There is empirical evidence that this works.  The Mellon tax cuts of the Harding administration created nearly a decade of strong economic growth.  The tax cuts of JFK were on pace to create similar growth until his assassination.  LBJ’s policies were in the opposite direction, thus ending the economic recovery of the JFK administration.  Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts produced economic growth through two decades. 

THE EVIDENCE IS there.  If you look at it.  Of course, a good Keynesian won’t.  Because it’s about political power for them.  Always has been.  Always will be.  And we should never forget this.

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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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