China, Taiwan, Four Asian Tigers and 1997 Asian Financial Crisis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 18th, 2013

History 101

Both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek were rather Brutal to any Political Opposition

Today many of the things we buy are stamped ‘Made in China’.  Because the Chinese can manufacture things cheaply.  For they have a booming export economy.  Which the Chinese built by introducing a little capitalism to the communist state.  And some things that were as un-capitalistic as you can get.  Like artificially low interest rates.  Currency manipulation.  Cheap labor.  And the strong arm of the communist ruling party to keep that labor cheap.  All of this to make their exports about the most inexpensive in the world.  Giving them a huge trade advantage.  Filling stores around the world with products stamped ‘Made in China’.

But before there was ‘Made in China’ there was ‘Made in Taiwan’.  Taiwan.  Officially the Republic of China (ROC).  Not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  AKA mainland China.  Taiwan (or the ROC) is an island in the Pacific Ocean off the China coast with Japan to the northeast and the Philippines to the south.  And is where Chiang Kai-shek and his Chinese Nationalists (Kuomintang or KMT) fled to during the Chinese Civil War when Mao Zedong and his communists conquered mainland China.

Both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek were rather brutal to any political opposition.  But while the PRC suffered some of the world’s worst famines and abject poverty Taiwan at least modernized into an advanced industrial economy.  Helped in large part by the KMT taking China’s gold reserves.  Their foreign currency reserves.  As well as the intellectual and business elites.  Who typically flee ahead of advancing communists.  As those are the people the communists usually kill or send off to reeducation camps.

International Investment poured into Southeast Asia and Spread the Asian Miracle beyond the Four Asian Tigers

Taiwan is one of the Four Asian Tigers.  Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong developed advanced economies beginning in the early Sixties.  Thanks in part to laissez-faire economic policies of free trade, open markets, privatization and deregulation.  They also shrunk the size of their public sector.  And had a high savings rate.  Providing the capital for their industrialization.  While keeping personal and public debt levels low.  Because debt matters.  And the more of it you have the more difficult it is to get through a crisis.

But some of these countries also implemented non-laissez-faire economic policies.  Such as keeping domestic interest rates artificially low.  Even having special low rates for select export industries.  And there was some crony capitalism.  Government loaning to their crony capitalist friends.  Some of which disappeared thanks to a certain amount of corruption.  While a lot of it was used to make bad investments.  What those in the Austrian school of economics call malinvestments.  Investments not driven by the laws of supply and demand.  But for non-business reasons.  Growing big for the sake of being big.  Expanding just because of cheap interest rates.  Or the government choosing which businesses to expand.  And often choosing wrong.  Because those decisions were based on political reasons.  Or just a poor understanding of business in general.

The Asian Tigers served as a model for other nations.  Who followed their lead.  And got onto the export bandwagon.  Some even attracted foreign capital to build an export economy with high interest rates.  And pegged their currencies to the U.S. dollar.  To further encourage foreign investors to invest in their countries.  And it worked.  International investment capital poured into Southeast Asia.  Spreading the Asian Miracle beyond the Asian Tigers.

The Asian Tigers recovered the quickest thanks to their Laissez-Faire Economic Policies and their High Savings Rate

Then came the 1997 Asian financial crisis.  Starting in Thailand.  A nation that had a lot of foreign investment.  And a currency pegged to the U.S. dollar.  Then came a massive speculative attack on the currency.  Speculators were trying to force a devaluation of the Thai currency (the baht) by selling mass holdings of the baht.  In hopes of profiting by entering into agreements to repay a debt in baht at a later date.  If the baht devalued they could repay that debt with a cheaper baht.  Thus making a profit.  Thailand fought this devaluation, though.  By selling their foreign reserves to buy baht to maintain the peg to the U.S. dollar.  But they eventually ran out of foreign reserves to sell.  And had to let the baht float.  Causing a massive devaluation.  Making all that foreign debt much more expensive to repay.  Leading to defaults.  And bankruptcies.

Worried foreign investors started pulling their money out of Southeast Asia.  As they sold their holdings they flooded the foreign exchange market with these devalued currencies.  Putting additional pressure on exchange rates.  At the same time the United States was raising their interest rates to head off inflation there.  Those nations that pegged their currency to the U.S. dollar had to strengthen their currencies, too.  Raising the price of their exports.  Making them less competitive.  So exports fell.  Those higher U.S. interest rates made investment there more attractive.  Increasing the capital flight from these countries.  To try and stop this capital flight countries raised their interest rates.  Which further hurt their economies.  As it was more difficult and more costly to borrow money.

Before it was all said and done currencies, stock markets and other assets lost a lot of value in countries hit by the crisis.  Including the Asian Tigers.  But thanks to their laissez-faire economic policies and their high savings rate (except for South Korea) they recovered faster from the crisis than the other Southeast Asian countries.  Of the Four Asian Tigers South Korea suffered the most.  Thanks to a high level of foreign investment.  And numerous corporate bankruptcies.  Because of those malinvestments.  The causes of the 1997 Asian financial crisis are still debated today.  However what can’t be disputed is that those who suffered the least were those nations that embraced laissez-faire economic policies the most.  And those who interfered with market forces to stimulate an export economy tended to suffer more.  Something China (PRC) is doing.  Interfering with market forces to stimulate an export economy.  And making a lot of malinvestments.  As they try to bring their economy up to the standard of Taiwan (ROC).  Only without the laissez-faire economic policies the ROC used.  All but guaranteeing another financial crisis in the region.

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Currencies, Exchange Rates and the Gold Standard

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 17th, 2013

Economics 101

Money is a Temporary Storage of Value that has no Intrinsic Value

Giant container ships ply the world’s oceans bringing us a lot of neat stuff.  Big televisions.  Smartphones.  Laptop computers.  Tablet computers.  The hardware for our cable and satellite TVs.  Toasters.  Toaster ovens.  Mixers and blenders.  And everything else we have in our homes and in our lives.  Things that make our lives better.  And make it more enjoyable.  These things have value.  We give them value.  Some have more value to one than another.  But these are things that have value to us.  And because they have value to us they have value to the people that made them.  Who used their human capital to create things that other people wanted.  And would trade for them.

When we first started trading we bartered with others.  Trading things for other things.  But as the economy grew more complex it took a lot of time to find someone who had what you wanted AND you had what they wanted.  So we developed money.  A temporary storage of value.  So we could trade the valuable things we created for money.  That money held the value of what we created temporarily while we looked for something that we wanted.  Then we exchanged the money we got earlier for something someone had.  It was just like trading our thing for someone else’s thing.  Only instead of spending weeks, months even years meeting hundreds of thousands of people trying to find that perfect match we only needed to meet two people.  One that exchanges money for the thing we have that they want.  And another who has what we want that they will exchange for our money.  Then that person would do the same with the money they got from us.  As did everyone else who brought things to market.  And those who came to market with money to buy what others brought.

Money is a temporary storage of value.  Money itself doesn’t have any intrinsic value.  Consider that container ship full of those wonderful items.  Now, which would you rather have as permanent fixtures in your house?  Those wonderful things?  Or boxes of money that just sit in your house?  You’d want the wonderful things.  And if you had a box of money you would exchange it (i.e., go out shopping) for those wonderful things.  Because boxes of money aren’t any fun.  It’s what you can exchange that money for that can be a lot of fun.

Devaluing your Currency boosts Exports by making those Goods less Expensive to the Outside World

So there is a lot of value on one of those container ships.  Let’s take all of that value out of the ship and place it on a balancing scale.  Figuratively, of course.  Now the owner of that stuff wants to trade it for other stuff.  But how much value does this stuff really have?  Well, let’s assume the owner is willing to exchange it all for one metric ton of gold.  Because gold is pretty valuable, too.  People will trade other things for gold.  So if we put 1 metric ton of gold on the other side of the balancing scale (figuratively, of course) the scale will balance.  Because to the owner all of that stuff and one metric ton has the same value.  Of course moving a metric ton of gold is not easy.  And it’s very risky.  So, instead of gold what else can we put on that scale?  Well, we can move dollars electronically via computer networks.  That would be a lot easier than moving gold.  So let’s put dollars on the other side of that scale.  Figuratively, of course.  How many will we need?  Well, today gold is worth approximately $1,380/troy ounce.  So after some dimensional analysis we can convert that metric ton into 32,150 troy ounces.  And at $1,380/troy ounce that metric ton of gold comes to approximately $44.4 million.  So that container ship full of wonderful stuff will balance on a scale with $44.4 million on the other side.  Or 1 metric ton of gold.  In the eyes of the owner they all have the same value.

Moving money electronically is the easiest and quickest manner of exchanging money for ships full of goods.  These ships go to many countries.  And not all of them use American dollars.  But we can calculate what amounts of foreign currency will balance the value of that ship.  Or one metric ton of gold.  By using foreign exchange rates.  Which tell us the value of one currency in another currency.  Something that comes in pretty handy.  For when, say, an American manufacturer sells their goods they want American dollars.  Not British pounds.  Danish kroner.  Or Russian rubles.  For American manufacturers are in the United States of America.  They buy their materials in American dollars.  They pay their employees in American dollars.  Who pay their bills in American dollars.  Go shopping with American dollars.  Etc.  For everyday American transactions the British pound, for example, would be un-useable.  What these American manufacturers want, then, are American dollars.  So before a foreigner can buy these American exports they must first exchange their foreign currencies for American dollars.  We can get an idea of this by considering that container ship full of valuable stuff.  By showing what it would cost other nations.  The following table shows a sampling of foreign exchange rates and the exchanged foreign currency for that $44.4 million.

foreign currencies and exchange rates

If we take the US dollars and the Exchanged Currency for each row and place them on either side of a balancing scale the scale will balance.  Figuratively, of course.  Meaning these currencies have the same value.  And we can exchange either side of that scale for that container ship full of valuable stuff.  Or for that metric ton of gold.  Why are there such large differences in some of these exchange rates?  Primarily because of a nation’s monetary policy.  Many nations manipulate their currency for various reasons.  Some nations give their people a lot of government benefits they pay for by printing money.  Which devalues their currency.  Some nations purposely devalue their currency to boost their export sector.  As the more currency you get in exchange for your currency the more of these exports you can buy.  Most of China’s great economic growth came from their export sector.  Which they helped along by devaluing their currency.  This boosted exports by making those goods less expensive to the outside world.  But the weakened yuan made domestic goods more expensive.  Because it took more of them to buy the same things they once did.  Raising the cost of living for the ordinary Chinese.

The Gold Standard made Free Trade Fair Trade

Some economists, Keynesians, approve of printing a lot of money to lower interest rates.  And for the government to spend.  They think this will increase economic activity.  Well, keeping interest rates artificially low will encourage more people to buy homes.  But because they are devaluing the currency to keep those interest rates artificially low housing prices rise.  Because when you devalue your currency you cause price inflation.  But it’s just not house prices that rise.  Prices throughout the economy rise.  The greater the inflation rate (i.e., the rate at which you increase the money supply) the higher prices rise.  And the less your money will buy.  While the currencies at the top of this table will have exchange rates that don’t vary much those at the bottom of the table may.  Especially countries that like to print money.  Like Argentina.  Where the inflation is so bad at times that Argentineans try to exchange their currency for foreign currencies that hold their value longer.  Or try to spend their Argentine pesos as quickly as possible.  Buying things that will hold their value longer than the Argentine peso.

Because printing fiat money is easy a lot of nations print it.  A lot of it.  People living in these countries are stuck with a rapidly depreciating currency.  But international traders aren’t.  If a country prints so much money that their exchange rate changes every few minutes international traders aren’t going to want their currency.  Because a country can’t do much with a foreign currency other than buy exports with it from that country.  A sum of highly depreciated foreign currency won’t buy as much this hour as it did last hour.  Which forces an international trader to quickly spend this money before it loses too much of its value.  (Some nations will basically barter.  They will exchange their exports for another country’s exports based on the current exchange rate.  So that they don’t hold onto the devalued foreign currency at all.)  But if the currency is just too volatile they may demand another currency instead.  Like the British pound, the euro or the American dollar.  Because these stronger currencies will hold their value longer.  So they’ll buy this hour what they bought last hour.  Or yesterday.  Or last week.  There is less risk holding on to these stronger currencies because Britain, the European Central Bank and the United States aren’t printing as much of their money as these nations with highly devalued currencies are printing of theirs.

This is the advantage of gold.  Countries can’t print gold.  It takes an enormous expense to bring new gold to the world’s gold supply.  It’s not easy.  So the value of the gold is very stable.  While some nations may devalue their currencies they can’t devalue gold.  A nation printing too much money may suffer from hyperinflation.  Reducing their exchange rate close to zero.  And when you divide by a number approaching zero the resulting amount of currency required for the exchange approaches infinity.  Weimar Germany suffered hyperinflation.  It was so bad that it took so much money to buy firewood that it was easier and less expensive to burn the currency instead.  This is the danger of a government having the ability to print money at will.  But if that same country can come up with a metric ton of gold that person with the container ship full of wonderful stuff would gladly trade it for that gold.  Even though that person will not trade it for that country’s currency.  This was the basis of the gold standard in international trade.  When nations backed their currencies with gold.  And kept them exchangeable for gold.  Forcing nations to maintain stable currencies.  By maintaining an official exchange rate between their currency and gold.  If that nation devalued its currency the market exchange rate will start to move away from the official exchange rate.  For example, say the official rate was $40/troy ounce.  But because they printed so much of their currency they devalued it to where it took $80 to buy a troy ounce on the open market.  So a nation could take $80 dollars of that devalued currency and exchange it for 2 troy ounces of gold from that nation.  The official exchange rate forcing the nation to give away 2 troy ounces of gold for $80 when the real market exchange rate would only have given them 1 troy ounce.  So devaluing your currency would cause gold to flow out of your country.  And the only way to stop it would be to decrease the size of your money supply.  Undoing the previous inflation.  To bring the market exchange rate back to the official exchange rate.  Which is why the gold standard worked so well for international trade.  Nations could not manipulate their currency to get a trade advantage over another nation.  Making free trade fair trade.  Something few say today.  Thanks to currency manipulators like China.

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Keynesians, Gold Standard, Consumer Price Index, Money Stock, Nixon Shock, 1973 Oil Crisis, Gasoline Prices, Hidden Tax and Wealth Transfer

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 24th, 2012

History 101

With the Increase in the Money Supply came the Permanent Increase in Consumer Prices that Continues to this Date

Keynesians hate the gold standard.  Because it puts a limit on how much money a government can print.  Keynesians believe in the power of government to eliminate recessions.  And their cure for recession?  Inflation.  The government prints money to spend in the private economy.  To make up for the decline in consumer spending.  But it turned out this didn’t work.  As the Seventies showed.  They printed a lot of money.  But it didn’t end the recession.  It just raised consumer prices.  Because there is a direct correlation between the amount of money in circulation and consumer prices.  As you can see in the following graph. 

 Source: M2, CPI

 The consumer price index (CPI) data comes from the U.S. Department of Labor.  The data is at 5 year intervals.  The CPI is a ‘basket’ of prices for a selection of representative goods and services divided by another ‘basket’ of prices from a fixed date.  The resulting number is a price index.  If you plot these for a period of time you can see inflation (a rising graph) or deflation (a falling graph).  M2 is the money stock (seasonally unadjusted).  M2 includes currency, traveler’s checks, demand deposits, other checkable deposits, retail MMMFs, savings and small time deposits.

The Breton Woods system established fixed exchange rates for international trade.  It also pegged the U.S. dollar to gold.  The U.S. government promised to exchange U.S. dollars for gold at a rate of $35/ounce.  Making the U.S. dollar as good as gold.  This set the rules for international trade.  Made it fair.  And prevented anyone from cheating by devaluing their currency to make their exports cheaper to gain an economical advantage in international trade.  The system worked well.  Until the Sixties.  Because of the Vietnam War.  And LBJ’s Great Society.  These increased government spending so much that the U.S. government turned to printing money to pay for these.  Which depreciated the dollar.  Making it not as good as gold anymore.  So our trading partners began dumping their devalued dollars.  Exchanging them for gold at $35/ounce.  Which was a problem for the Nixon administration.  For that gold was far more valuable than the U.S. dollar.  They could print more dollars.  But once that gold was gone it was gone.  So Nixon acted to keep that gold in the U.S.

On August 15, 1971 Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold.  Known as the Nixon Shock.  Reneging on the solemn promise to exchange U.S. dollars for gold.  And ramped up the printing presses.  Which you can see in the graph.  After August 15 the money supply began growing.  And continues to this date.  With the increase in the money supply came the permanent increase in consumer prices that, also, continues to this date.  In lockstep with the growth of the money supply.

Prior to the Nixon Shock Gasoline Prices were Falling at a Greater Rate than the Rate Consumer Prices were Rising 

Since August of 1971 the U.S. has maintained a policy of permanent inflation.  Which caused a policy of permanently increasing consumer prices.  Those high prices we complain about, then, are not the fault of greedy businesses.  They’re the fault of government.  And their easy monetary policy.  In fact, if it was not for government’s irresponsible monetary policy the high price we hate most would not be as high as it is today.  In fact, because of the efficiency of the industry bringing us this one product its price has not followed the general upward trend in consumer prices.  And what is this product?  Gasoline.  Which, apart from two spikes in the last 60 years or so has either been falling or holding steady in comparison to consumer prices.

 Source: CPI, Gas $/Gal

 These prices are from DaveManual.com.  And reflect generally the price at the pump over this time period.  Using at first leaded gasoline.  Then unleaded gasoline.  Using inflation adjusted average prices.  Then chained 2005 dollars.  These prices are not exactly apples-to-apples.  But the trending information they provide illustrates two major points.  The two spikes in gas prices were due to demand greatly outpacing supply.  And that even with these two spikes gasoline prices would be far lower today if it wasn’t for the government’s policy of permanent inflation.

Note that prior to the Nixon Shock gasoline prices were falling at a greater rate than the rate consumer prices were rising.  These trends stopped in the Seventies for two reasons.  The Nixon Shock.  And the 1973 oil crisis.  When OPEC punished the U.S. for their support of Israel in the Yom Kippur war by cutting our oil supply.  These two events caused gasoline prices to spike.  But then something interesting happened with these high prices.  It brought a lot of oil producers into the market to cash in on those high prices.  This surge in production coupled with a falling demand due to the U.S. recession in the Seventies caused an oil glut in the Eighties.  Bringing prices back down.  Where they flat-lined for a decade or so while all other consumer prices continued their march upward.  Until two of the most populous countries in the world modernized their economies.  India and China.  Causing a spike in demand.  And a spike in prices.  For it was like adding another United States or two to the world gasoline market.

Inflation is a Hidden Tax that Transfers Wealth from the Private Sector to the Public Sector

Keynesians love to talk about how great the economy was during the Fifties when the high marginal tax rate was 91-92%.  “See?” they say.  “The economy was robust and growing during the Fifties even with these high marginal tax rates.  So high marginal tax rates are good for the economy.”  But they will never comment on how instrumental the gold standard was in keeping government spending within responsible limits.  How that responsible monetary policy kept inflation and consumer prices under control.  No.  They don’t see that part of the Fifties.  Only the high marginal tax rates.  Because they don’t want to return to the gold standard.  Or have any restrictions on their irresponsible ways.

Keynesians believe in the power of government to manage the economy.  And they really like to tax and spend.  A lot.  But taxing too much has consequences.  People don’t like paying taxes.  And don’t tend to vote for people who tax them a lot.  Which is why Keynesians love inflation.  Because it’s a hidden tax.  The higher the inflation rate the higher the tax.  Because government also borrows money.  They sell bonds.  That we buy as a retirement investment.  But if there’s been a good amount of inflation between the selling and redemption of those bonds it makes it a lot easier to redeem those bonds.  Because thanks to inflation those bonds are worth far less than they were when the government issued them.  Even Keynes noted that inflation was a way to transfer a lot of wealth from the private sector to the public sector.  Without many people understanding that it was even happening.

If you ever wondered why it takes two incomes to do what your father did with one income this is why.  Inflation.  This never ending transfer of wealth from the private sector to the public sector.  Leaving us less to retire on.  Making it harder to save for our children’s college education.  Not to mention the higher cost of living that shrinks our real wages.  While they tax our higher nominal wages at ever higher income tax rates (income tax bracket creep is another inflation phenomenon).  Everywhere we turn the government takes more and more of our wealth.  All thanks to LBJ increasing the government spending (for his Vietnam War and his Great Society).  And Richard Nixon decoupling the U.S. dollar from gold.  Instead of doing the responsible thing.  And cutting spending.  But much like high taxes you don’t win any friends at the voting booth by cutting spending.  So thanks to them we’ve had permanent and significant rising inflation and consumer prices ever since.  And as a result a flat to a falling standard of living.  Where soon our children may not have a better life than their parents.  Thank you LBJ and Richard Nixon.  And thank you Keynesian economics.

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World War I, Gold Standard, German Reparations, Hyperinflation, Credit-Anstalt, Keynesian Policies and the Great Depression

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 13th, 2012

History 101

Nations abandoned the Gold Standard to Borrow and Print Money freely to pay for World War I 

Banks loan to each other.  They participate in a banking system that moves capital from those who have it to those who need it.  It’s a good system.  And a system that works.  Providing businesses and entrepreneurs with the capital to expand their businesses.  And create jobs.  As long as all the banks in the system go about their business responsibly.  And their governments go about their business responsibly.  Sadly, neither always does.

World War I changed the world in so many ways for the worse.  It killed a generation of Europeans.  Bankrupted nations.  Redrew the borders in Europe as the victors divvied up the spoils of war.  Setting the stage for future political unrest.  Gave us Keynesian economics.  Saw the beginning of the decline of the gold standard.  A deterioration of international trade.  A rise of protectionism and nationalism.  Punishing German reparations.  To pay for a war that they didn’t necessarily start.  Nor did they necessarily lose.  Which created a lot of anger in Germany.  And provided the seed for the Great Depression.

A set of entangling treaties brought nations eagerly into World War I.  There was great patriotic fervor.  And a belief that this war would be Napoleonic.  Some glorious battles.  With the victors negotiating a favorable peace.  Sadly, no one learned the lessons of the Crimean War (1853-1856).  Which killed approximately 600,000 (about 35% of those in uniform).  Or the American Civil War (1861-1865).  Which killed approximately 600,000 (about 20% of those in uniform).  The first modern wars.  Where the technology was ahead of the Napoleonic tactics of the day.  Modern rifled weapons made accurate killing weapons.  And the telegraph and the railroads allowed the combatants to rush ever more men into the fire of those accurate killing weapons.  These are the lessons they didn’t learn.  Which was a pity.  Because the weapons were much more lethal in World War I (1914-1918).  And far more advanced than the tactics of the day.  Which were still largely Napoleonic.  Mass men on the field of battle.  Fire and advance.  And close with the bayonet.  Which they did in World War I.  And these soldiers advanced into the withering fire of the new machine gun.  While artillery rounds fell around them.  Making big holes and throwing shredded shrapnel through flesh and bone.  WWI killed approximately 10,000,000 (about 15% of those in uniform).  And wounded another 20 million.  To do that kind of damage costs a lot of money.  Big money.  For bullets, shells, rifles, artillery, machine guns, warships, planes, etc., don’t grow on trees.  Which is why all nations (except the U.S.) went off of the gold standard to pay for this war.  To shake off any constraints to their ability to raise the money to wage war.  To let them borrow and print as much as they wanted.  Despite the effect that would have on their currency.  Or on foreign exchange rates.

As Countries abandoned the Gold Standard they depreciated their Currencies and wiped out People’s Life Savings

Well, the war had all but bankrupted the combatants.  They had huge debts and inflated currencies.  Large trade deficits.  And surpluses.  A great imbalance of trade.  And it was in this environment that they restored some measure of a gold standard.  Which wasn’t quite standard.  As the different nations adopted different exchange rates.  But they moved to get their financial houses back in order.  And the first order of business was to address those large debts.  And the ‘victors’ decided to squeeze Germany to pay some of that debt off.  Hence those punishing reparations.  Which the victors wanted in gold.  Or foreign currency.  Which made it difficult for Germany to return to the gold standard.  As the victors had taken most of her gold.  And so began the hyperinflation.  As the Germans printed Marks to trade for foreign currency.  Of course we know what happened next.  They devalued the Mark so much that it took wheelbarrows full of them to buy their groceries.  And to exchange for foreign currency.

Elsewhere, in the new Europe that emerged from WWI, there was a growth in regional banking.  Savvy bankers who were pretty good at risk evaluation.  Who were close to the borrowers.  And informed.  Allowing them to write good loans.  Meanwhile, the old institutions were carrying on as if it was still 1914.  Not quite as savvy.  And making bad loans.  The ones the more savvy bankers refused to write.  Weak banking regulation helped facilitate these bad lending practices.  Leaving a lot of banks with weak balance sheets.  Add in the hyperinflation.  Heavy debts.  Higher taxes (to reduce those debts).  Trade imbalances.  And you get a bad economy.  Where businesses were struggling to service their debt.  With many defaulting.  As a smaller bank failed a bigger bank would absorb it.  Bad loans and all.  Including an Austrian bank.  A pretty big one at that.  The largest in Austria.  Credit-Anstalt.  Which was ‘too big to fail’.  But failed anyway.  And when it did the collapse was heard around the world. 

As banks failed the money supply contracted.  Causing a liquidity crisis.  And deflation (less money chasing the same amount of goods).  Currency appreciation (further hurting a country’s balance of trade).  And low prices.  Which made it harder for borrowers to service their debt with the lower revenue they earned on those lower prices.  So there were more loan defaults.  Bank runs.  And bank failures.  Spreading the contagion to Amsterdam.  To Warsaw.  Germany.  Latvia.  Turkey.  Egypt.  Britain.  Even the U.S.  Soon countries abandoned the gold standard.  So they could print money to save the banks.  Lower interest rates.  Depreciate their currencies.  And wipe out large swathes of wealth denominated in that now depreciated currency.  What we call Keynesian policies.  People’s life savings became a fraction of what they were.  Making for a longer working life.  And a more Spartan retirement. 

Abandoning the Gold Standard didn’t fix the U.S. Economy in 1971

Meanwhile in the U.S. the government was destroying the U.S. economy.  Trying to protect domestic prices they passed the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Raising the price for businesses and consumers alike.  And kicking off a trade war.  Both of which greatly reduced U.S. exports.  New labor legislation keeping wages above market prices while all other prices were falling.  And higher taxes to pay for New Deal social programs.  Wiping out business profits and causing massive unemployment.  Then came the fall in farm prices due to increased farm productivity.  Thanks to farmers mechanizing their farms and greatly increasing their harvests.  Thus lowering prices.  Making it hard to service the bank loans they got to pay for that mechanization.  Thus leading to bank failures in the farming regions.  That spread to the cities.  Causing a liquidity crisis.  And deflation.

Then came Credit-Anstalt.  And all the woe that followed.  Which caused a speculative run in Britain.  Which made the British decide to leave the gold standard.  To stem the flow of gold out of their country.  Which destroyed whatever confidence was still remaining in their banking system.  People thought that the U.S. would be next.  But the Americans defended the dollar.  And instead raised interest rates (by reducing the money supply).  To keep the dollar valuable.  And to protect the exchange rate.  Making it less attractive to exchange cash for gold.  And to restore confidence in the banking system.  Of course, this didn’t help the liquidity crisis.  Which Keynesians blame for the length and the severity of the Great Depression.

Of course, it wasn’t the gold standard that caused the fall of Credit-Anstalt.  It was poor lending practices.  A weak banking regulation that allowed those poor lending practices.  And a lot of bad government policy throughout Europe.  Especially those punishing German reparations.  And the gold standard didn’t cause the economic collapse in the United States.  For it worked well the previous decade.  Providing all the capital required to produce the Roaring Twenties that modernized the world.  It was government and their intrusive policies into the free market that caused the economic collapse.  And abandoning the gold standard wouldn’t have changed that.  Or made the economy better.  And we know this because leaving the gold standard didn’t solve all of the countries woes in 1971.  Because the government was still implementing bad Keynesian policies.

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Printing Money and Screwing Friends

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 12th, 2010

My Coworker, the Cheap Canadian Bastard

I worked with a Canadian once.  A real cheap bastard.  Yeah, he had some financial issues.   But they weren’t my issues.  And I got tired of subsidizing his problems by driving him to lunch every day.  And I got tired of the conversations.  He brought up every negative story about America.  Belittled our president.  Chastised America for not signing on to the Kyoto Protocol.  And said that we did not honor our trade agreement concerning softwood lumber (that his government was subsidizing in order to undersell their American competitors).

What really bothered me was that he was a Canadian that lived near the border but worked in the U.S.  He criticized America but he chose to work in America instead of Canada.  Why?  Because he could get paid more in America.  And there were the perks of crossing the border every day.  He gassed his car up in the United States.  And his wife’s car.  Why?  Because our gas prices were cheaper.  Yeah, he would criticize America until he was blue in the face, but he took every opportunity to escape the taxes that paid for all those things that made his country superior to mine.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I like Canada.  I just don’t like hypocrisy.  He made good money over here.  And with a much more favorable exchange rate back then, that translated into big dollars on the other side of the border.  Back when the American dollar was strong and the Canadian dollar was weak, he did very well.  Those strong American dollars exchanged into a whole lot more Canadian dollars.  Which allowed him to buy a whole lot more stuff than his fellow Canadians.  In fact, a lot of Americans vacationed in Canada back then.  Because the American dollar bought more in Canada than it did in America.

Have Cheap Cash, Will Travel – In Canada

So what’s the point talking about this cheap bastard?  Exchange rates.  And whenever there’s a currency war on the horizon, I can’t help but think about this cheap bastard.  See how he, a Canadian working in America, lived very well with a cheap Canadian dollar.  We paid him in strong U.S. dollars.  He then could use those strong U.S. dollars to buy gas and other ‘less taxed’ items on the U.S. side of the border.  (If he brought in and exchanged weak Canadian dollars for strong U.S. dollars, that same amount of gas would cost him more.)  And when he took those strong U.S. dollars across the border back into Canada, he exchanged them and got so many weak Canadian dollars in return that he alone stimulated the local economy.

Of course, he wasn’t the only one bringing strong American dollars into Canada.  When those strong dollars were exchanged for weak ones, the Canadian tourism industry boomed.  People could vacation in Canada for a week for what a weekend in America would cost.  Canadians traveling into America, on the other hand, paid more for less.  A weekend in America would cost what a week in Canada would cost.

In the above example, you can see how the nation with the weaker currency has more economic activity than the nation with the stronger currency.  Now, to understand international trade and foreign exchange rates, make the following substitutions in the above example:

  • Canada -> America
  • America -> China/Germany/Brazil/other U.S. trading partner

Alone Against the World.  And Alan Greenspan

Well, America is devaluing their currency.  They’re printing money to buy back treasury debt.  Supposedly to stimulate the economy by injecting more liquidity. But our problem is not a liquidity problem.  It’s a lack of consumer spending because of high unemployment.  And a fear of being unemployed soon.  So this will do little to solve our problems.  But it will make our exports cheaper.  And our trading partners’ imports more expensive.  In other words, we’re trying to fix our broken economy by flooding our trading partners’ economies with cheap American goods.  Which is pissing them off big time (see Reuters’ Analysis: German tempers fray as U.S. policy gulf widens by Stephen Brown and Andreas Rinke posted 11/10/2010).

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, 68, said last week that the U.S. Federal Reserve decision to buy $600 billion of government bonds undermined U.S. credibility and was “clueless.” There was no point, he said, in pumping money into the markets.

China and Brazil were among those echoing his comments but U.S. officials were particularly stung by Schaeuble and German Economy Minister Rainer Bruederle saying the Fed move amounted to “indirect manipulation” of the dollar to boost exports; this at a time when Washington is criticizing China for exactly the same kind of strategy.

“It’s not acceptable for the Americans to criticize China for currency manipulation then slyly help the dollar by printing at the Federal Reserve,” Schaeuble told Der Spiegel magazine.

And speaking of Brazil, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said warned America not to rely on exports alone (see Brazil’s Lula Says World Headed For ‘Bankruptcy’ Unless Rich Nations Act posted 11/11/2010 on the Dow Jones Newswires).

“If they don’t consume, and they just bet on exports, the world will go into bankruptcy,” he told reporters as leaders at the Group of 20 industrial and developing nations headed into a two-day summit in the South Korean capital.

Even Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman, is expressing concern over the impact of American policy on foreign exchange rates (see Greenspan warns over weaker dollar by Alan Beattie in Seoul posted 11/10/2010 in the Financial Times).  In that same article, Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, warned that this currency manipulation could trigger a trade war that would make the next 12 months worse than the previous 12 months.

We’re All Cheap Bastards Now

When it comes down to it, I guess we’re all cheap bastards.  We all want some unfair advantage in life.  Like my one-time Canadian coworker.  And I can understand how our trading partners feel.  I’ve worked with and been lectured for years about how my country should change.  All the while he prospered quite handsomely from the way things were.  Of course, I can take some solace in the dollar’s slide.  It’s trading pretty much at parity with the Canadian dollar now.  It’s gotten so bad that I’ve heard my old friend has since found work on his side of the border.  Good for him.  Now he can truly embrace all those taxes that he spoke so highly about while he was avoiding them for all those years.

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The Fed to Buy $600 Billion in Government Bonds

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 5th, 2010

The Fed’s $600 billion government bond Purchase may Worsen the Recession

The Fed is preparing to buy some $600 billion in government bonds.  They call it quantitative easing (QE).  The goal is to stimulate the economy by making more money available.  The problem is, though, we don’t have a lack of money problem.  We have a lack of jobs problem.  Unemployed people can’t go to the store and buy stuff.  So businesses aren’t looking to make more stuff.  They don’t need more money to borrow.  They need people to go back to work.  And until they do, they’re not going to borrow money to expand production.  No matter how cheap that money is to borrow.

This isn’t hard to understand.  We all get it.  If we lose our job we don’t go out and buy stuff.  Instead, we sit on our money.  For as long as we can.  Spend it very carefully and only on the bare necessities.  To make that money last as long as possible to carry us through this period of unemployment.  And the last thing we’re going to do is borrow money to make a big purchase.  Even if the interest rates are zero.  Because without a job, any new debt will require payments that we can’t afford.  That money we saved for this rainy ‘day’ will disappear quicker the more debt we try to service.  Which is the opposite of what we want during a period of unemployment.

Incidentally, do you know how the Fed will buy those bonds?  Where they’re going to get the $600 billion?  They going to print it.  Make it out of nothing.  They will inflate the money supply.  Which will depreciate our currency.  Prices will go up.  And our money will be worth less.  Put the two together and the people who have jobs won’t be able to buy as much as they did before.  This will only worsen the recession.  So why do they do it?

Quantitative Easing May Ease the Global Economy into a Trade War

A couple of reasons.  First of all, this administration clings to outdated Keynesian economics that says when times are bad the government should spend money.  Print it.  As much as possible.  For the economic stimulus will offset the ‘negligible’ inflation the dollar printing creates.  The only problem with this is that it doesn’t work.  It didn’t work the last time the Obama administration tried quantitative easing.  As it didn’t work for Jimmy Carter.  Of course, when it comes to Big Government policies, when they fail the answer is always to try again.  Their reason?  They say that the government’s actions that failed simply weren’t bold enough.

Another reason is trade.  A cheaper dollar makes our exports cheaper.  When the exchange rates give you bushels full of U.S. dollars for foreign currency, those foreign nations can buy container ships worth of exported goods.  It’s not playing fair, though.  Because every nation wants to sell their exports.  When we devalue the dollar, it hurts the domestic economies of our trading partners.  Which they want to protect as much as we want to protect ours.  So what do they do?  They fight back.  They will use capital controls to increase the cost of those cheap dollars.  This will increase the cost of those imports and dissuade their people from buying them.  They may impose import tariffs.  This is basically a tax added to the price of imported goods.  When a nation turns to these trade barriers, other nations fight back.  They do the same.  As this goes back and forth between nations, international trade declines.  This degenerates into a full-blown trade war.  Sort of like in the late 1920s.  Which was a major factor that caused the worldwide Great Depression.

Will there be a trade war?  Well, the Germans are warning this action may result in a currency war (see Germany Concerned About US Stimulus Moves by Reuters).  The Chinese warn about the ‘unbridle printing’ of money as the biggest risk to the global economy (see U.S. dollar printing is huge risk -China c.bank adviser by Reuters’ Langi Chiang and Simon Rabinovitch).  Even Brazil is looking at defensive measures to protect their economy from this easing (see Backlash against Fed’s $600bn easing by the Financial Times).  The international community is circling the wagons.  This easing may only result in trade wars and inflation.  With nothing to show for it.  Except a worse recession.

Businesses Create Jobs in a Business Friendly Environment

We need jobs.  We need real stimulus.  We need to do what JFK did.  What Reagan did.  Make the U.S. business friendly.  Cut taxes.  Cut regulation.  Cut government.  And get the hell out of the way. 

Rich people are sitting on excess cash.  Make the business environment so enticing to them that they can’t sit on their cash any longer.  If the opportunity is there to make a favorable return on their investment, guess what?  They’ll invest.  They’ll take a risk.  Create jobs.  Even if the return on their investment won’t be in the short term.  If the business environment will reward those willing to take a long-term risk, they will.  And the more investors do this the more jobs will be created.  And the more people are working the more stuff they can buy.  They may even borrow some of that cheap money for a big purchase.  If they feel their job will be there for awhile.  And they will if a lot of investors are risking their money.  Creating jobs.  For transient, make-work government jobs just don’t breed a whole lot of confidence in long term employment.  Which is what Keynesian government-stimulus jobs typically are.

We may argue about which came first, the chicken or the egg.  But here is one thing that is indisputable.  Jobs come before spending.  Always have.  Always will.  And quantitative easing can’t change that.

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