Inflation and the Erosion of Savings

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 4th, 2013

Economics 101

Some of the First Banknotes were Gold Receipts Redeemable for Gold on Deposit in a Goldsmith’s Safe

Money has a few important attributes.  It has to be portable so we can carry it to the store.  It has to be durable so we can use it and carry it without it wearing out.  It has to be divisible so we can buy things at a variety of prices and make change.  It has to be fungible so one $20 bill is the same as any other $20 bill.  And it has to be scarce.  Because above all else money has to store value.  For money is a temporary storage of value.  Which is why we don’t use garbage for money.  Because garbage isn’t scarce.  Nor is it portable, durable or fungible.  And it smells bad.  No one wants it.  And no one will take it in payment for anything.

Precious metals make good money.  They have all of the necessary attributes money should have.  Especially gold.  Which will last forever.  And it will never rust or lose its sheen.  And above all it is scarce.  No one can make gold.  It takes enormous costs to find it, mine it and process it.  So it’s not easy to make it NOT scarce.  Which means it will hold its value.  The only drawback to gold is that it’s not that portable.  It’s pretty heavy to carry around.  And a little dangerous.  As you can’t hide a large and heavy pouch full of gold very well.

So some people started thinking.  Who else has a lot of gold?  And needs to put it in a safe place where others can’t help themselves to it?  A goldsmith.  Who has a large safe they lock their gold in.  So, for a fee, the goldsmith would lock up other people’s gold in his safe.  And give them a paper receipt for the gold on deposit.  And the banknote was born.  People left their gold in the safe.  And used their gold receipts as money.  Paper currency.  Which were fully redeemable for the gold on deposit in the goldsmith’s safe.

The more we Increase the Money Supply the more we Depreciate the Currency and reduce Purchasing Power

Issuing banknotes for gold on deposit evolved into the gold standard.  Where we used paper currency that represented the gold on deposit.  And it was just as good as that gold.  Sharing all the same attributes.  Portable, durable and fungible.  As well as scarce.  If, that is, the amount of paper in circulation equals the amount of gold on deposit.  If so then the paper is as scarce as gold.  And as valuable.  So people will be willing to hold onto it.  Just as they are willing to hold onto the gold.  Because the paper currency is redeemable for the gold on deposit.

But as governments spent money they started to think.  They could spend more money if they just printed more.  And increase the amount of money in circulation beyond the amount of gold on deposit.  Allowing governments to spend more.  And they did.  But it made paper money less scarce.  And less valuable.  We can see how with the following table.  We start with $100 of gold on deposit.  And $100 of paper banknotes in circulation.  Then each year we increase the number of banknotes in circulation (the money supply) by 3% while the amount of gold on deposit remains the same.  Representing a 3% annual inflation rate.  ‘MSB’ stands for Money Supply at the Beginning of the year.  ‘New’ stands for the New money added to the money supply that year.  ‘MSE’ stands for Money Supply at the End of the year.  ‘100/MSE’ is the result of dividing the $100 of gold on deposit by the money supply at the end of the year.  And ‘Savings’ stands for the purchasing power of $750,000 in retirement savings after being adjusted for inflation ($750,000 X 100/MSE).

Inflation on Savings 3 Percent

When 100/MSE equals 1 the amount of banknotes in circulation equals the amount of gold on deposit.  Which means those banknotes are as good as gold.  For you can redeem every last one of them for that gold on deposit.  But when they start printing more banknotes the money supply grows greater than the gold on deposit that backs it.  Making each dollar worth less.  Depreciating the currency.  For the total amount of currency in circulation still equals the $100 of gold on deposit.  The more we increase the money supply the more we depreciate the currency.  Reducing the purchasing power of the currency in circulation.  Which erodes away the value of retirement savings over time.

High Inflation Rates greatly Discourage Savings and Encouraging Consumption

This was at a 3% annual inflation rate.  Which is something you may find in the United States or Britain.  Some countries, though, really inflate their currency.  Especially nations that have abandoned the gold standard.  Which removed all restraint from printing money.  The following table shows what happens to that retirement savings at a 25% annual inflation rate.

Inflation on Savings 25 Percent

Even though there is no longer an exchange mechanism between gold and dollars to keep the monetary authorities responsible they are still supposed to exercise restraint.  As if there was still a gold standard.  Because whether there is gold or not a massive inflation of the money supply still depreciates the currency.  And the greater the inflation the greater it erodes that retirement savings.  At this rate a person’s retirement savings loses over half of its value in 4 years.  It loses 74% of its value in 6 years.  And loses 89% in 10 years.  Greatly discouraging savings.  And encouraging consumption.  Graphing these results we get savings curves for these different inflation rates.

How Inflation Erodes Savings

Note that the higher the inflation rate the steeper the curve.  And the steeper the curve the faster your retirement savings lose their purchasing power.  Here you can see why people living in countries with high inflation rates don’t want to hold onto their currency.  They try to spend it as soon as they get it.  Buying things that hold their value.  Or exchanging it for a stronger currency.  Like U.S. dollars.  British pounds.  Or Eurozone euros.  Anything to avoid their wealth eroding inflation.

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The Keynesian Fiat Economies are so Bad that the World is Turning back to Gold

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 19th, 2013

Week in Review

Keynesians hate the gold standard.  They blamed it for the Great Depression.  Which they believed could have been avoided if the government printed more money instead of contracting the money supply.  For a Keynesian’s answer to everything is to expand the money supply.  So the government can spend more money.  This came to a head in the U.S. during the Seventies.  Foreign countries were converting their dollars into gold.  Because the U.S. was devaluating the dollar by printing so much new money.  So these countries took the gold instead.  Because you can’t depreciate gold.

The Seventies were a disaster.  It turned out that the government just couldn’t print money to pay its bills as the destruction they caused on the dollar devastated the economy.  So they backed off.  The Federal Reserve raised interest rates into the double digits to stamp out that destructive inflation.  The world didn’t return to a gold standard, though.  As most countries were still hard-core Keynesians who liked the ability to make money out of nothing so they can keep spending. But now the Eurozone is in a sovereign debt crisis.  The UK is slashing their NHS budget.  Japan is now spending twice their GDP and stuck in an economic slump going on for over two decades.  And as the U.S. is spending about 100% of its GDP they added a whopper of a new entitlement.  Obamacare.  The destruction of the dollar isn’t a question of if but when.  And now we’re seeing a quasi return to the gold standard as nations everywhere are losing faith in the ability of these Keynesian governments to spend responsibly (see A new Gold Standard is being born by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard posted 1/17/2013 on The Telegraph).

The world is moving step by step towards a de facto Gold Standard, without any meetings of G20 leaders to announce the idea or bless the project.

Some readers will already have seen the GFMS Gold Survey for 2012 which reported that central banks around the world bought more bullion last year in terms of tonnage than at any time in almost half a century.

They added a net 536 tonnes in 2012 as they diversified fresh reserves away from the four fiat suspects: dollar, euro, sterling, and yen…

Neither the euro nor the dollar can inspire full confidence, although for different reasons. EMU is a dysfunctional construct, covering two incompatible economies, prone to lurching from crisis to crisis, without a unified treasury to back it up. The dollar stands on a pyramid of debt. We all know that this debt will be inflated away over time – for better or worse. The only real disagreement is over the speed.

This is the inevitable result of Keynesian economics.  Reckless spending that destroys currencies.  And right now these countries stand in judgment of the U.S., the Eurozone, Great Britain and Japan.  Their social spending obligations have put them on a path towards currency destruction.  And they don’t want be around when that happens while holding dollars, euros, sterling, or yen.  Because they just won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on.

In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged American Industrialists went on strike.  Walked away from their companies and disappeared.  Leaving their overregulated and overtaxed businesses to the government to do with them as they pleased.  Refusing to be economic slaves anymore.  They eventually migrated to a place called Galt’s Gulch somewhere in Colorado.  Where they made their own community.  And economy.  Where creators traded with other creators.  Using that one money that stood the test of time.  Gold.  For if you wanted to buy something in Galt’s Gulch you had to have gold.  For no one accepted cash there.  Some have been predicting we’ve been on the brink of something like this actually happening for the last 80 years or so.  And now it’s happening.  Only it’s not American industrialists turning on the U.S. government but the rest of the world.

Is it any wonder that sales of Atlas Shrugged have surged during the Obama administration?  These people are seeing what these countries see.  The decline of the U.S.  And the destruction of the dollar.  Thank you President Obama.

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Tax Cuts, Roaring Twenties, Farm Prices, Smoot-Hawley Tariff, Stock Market Crash, New Deal, Great Depression and the Great Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - November 6th, 2012

History 101

(Originally published March 20, 2012)

Tax Cuts and the Small Government Policies of Harding and Coolidge gave us the Roaring Twenties

Keynesians blame the long duration of the Great Depression (1929-1939) on the government clinging to the gold standard.  Even renowned monetarist economist Milton Friedman agrees.  Though that’s about the only agreement between Keynesians and Friedman.   Their arguments are that the US could have reduced the length and severity of the Great Depression if they had only abandoned the gold standard.  And adopted Keynesian policies.  Deficit spending.  Just like they did in the Seventies.  The decade where we had both high unemployment and high inflation.  Stagflation.  Something that’s not supposed to happen under Keynesian economics.  So when it did they blamed the oil shocks of the Seventies.  Not their orgy of spending.  Or their high taxes.  And they feel the same way about the Great Depression.

Funny.  How one price shock (oil) can devastate all businesses in the US economy.  So much so that it stalled job creation.  And caused high unemployment.  Despite the government printing and spending money to create jobs.  And to provide government benefits so recipients could use those benefits to stimulate economic activity.  All of that government spending failed to pull the country out of one bad recession.  Because of that one price shock on the cost of doing business.  Yet no one talks about the all out assault on business starting in the Hoover administration that continued and expanded through the Roosevelt administration.

Herbert Hoover may have been a Republican.  But he was no conservative.  He was a big government progressive.  And believed that the federal government should interfere into the free market.  To make things better.  Unlike Warren Harding.  And Calvin Coolidge.  Who believed in a small government, hands-off policy when it came to the economy.  They passed tax cuts.  Following the advice of their treasury secretary.  Andrew Mellon.  Which gave business confidence of what the future would hold.  So they invested.  Expanded production.  And created jobs.  It was these small government policies that gave us the Roaring Twenties.  An economic boom that electrified and modernized the world.  With real economic growth.

If an Oil Shock can prevent Businesses from Responding to Keynesian Policies then so can FDR’s all out War on Business

The Roaring Twenties was a great time to live if you wanted a job.  And wanted to live in the modern era.  Electric power was spreading across the country.  People had electric appliances in their homes.  Radios.  They went to the movies.  Drove cars.  Flew in airplanes.  The Roaring Twenties was a giant leap forward in the standard of living.  Factories with electric power driving electric motors increased productivity.  And reduced air pollution as they replaced coal-fired steam boilers that up to then powered the Industrial Revolution.  This modernization even made it to the farm.  Farmers borrowed heavily to mechanize their farms.  Allowing them to grow more food than ever.  Bumper crops caused farm prices to fall.  Good for consumers.  But not those farmers who borrowed heavily.

Enter Herbert Hoover.  Who wanted to use the power of government to help the farmers.  By forcing Americans to pay higher food prices.  Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.  Thinking that a boom in the stock market was from speculation and not the real economic growth of the Twenties.  So they contracted the money supply.  Cooling that real economic growth.  And making it very hard to borrow money.  Causing farmers to default on their loans.  Small rural banks that loaned to these farmers failed.  These bank failures spread to other banks.  Weakening the banking system.  Then came the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Passed in 1930.  But it was causing business uncertainty as early as 1928.  As the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was going to increase tariffs on just about everything by 30%.  Basically adding a 30% tax on the cost of doing business.  That the businesses would, of course, pass on to consumers.  By raising prices.  Because consumers weren’t getting a corresponding 30% pay hike they, of course, could not buy as much after the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.  Putting a big cramp in sales revenue.  Perhaps even starting an international trade war.  Further cramping sales.  Something investors no doubt took notice of.  Seeing that real economic growth would soon come to a screeching halt.  And when the bill moved through committees in the autumn of 1929 the die was cast.  Investors began the massive selloff on Wall Street.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929.  The so-called starting point of the Great Depression.  Then the Smoot-Hawley Tariff became law.  And the trade war began.  As anticipated.

Of course, the Keynesians ignore this lead up to the Great Depression.  This massive government intrusion into the free market.  And the next president would build on this intrusion into the free market.  Ignoring the success of the small-government and tax cuts of Harding and Coolidge.  As well as ignoring the big-government free-market-intrusion failures of Herbert Hoover.  The New Deal programs of FDR were going to explode government spending to heights never before seen in peace time.  Causing uncertainty like never seen before in the business community.  It was an all out assault on business.  Taxes and regulation that increased the cost of business.  And massive government spending for new benefits and make-work programs.  All paid for by the people who normally create jobs.  Which there wasn’t a lot of during the great Depression.  Thanks to programs like Reconstruction Finance Corporation, Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Homeowners Loan Corporation, Tennessee Valley Authority, Agricultural Adjustment Act, National Industrial Recovery Act, Public Works Administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Glass–Steagall Act, Securities Act of 1933, Civil Works Administration, Indian Reorganization Act, Social Security Act, Works Progress Administration, National Labor Relations Act, Federal Crop Insurance Corporation, Surplus Commodities Program, Fair Labor Standards Act, Rural Electrification Administration, Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration, etc.  Oil shocks of the Seventies?  If an oil shock can prevent businesses from responding to Keynesian policies then an all out war on business in the Thirties could do the same.  And worse.  Far, far worse.  Which is why the Great Depression lasted 10 years.  Because the government turned what would have been a normal recession into a world-wide calamity.  By trying to interfere with market forces.

Only Real Economic Growth creates Jobs, not Government Programs

The unemployment rate in 1929 was 3.1%.  In 1933 it was 24.9%.  It stayed above 20% until 1936.  Where it fell as low as 14.3% in 1937.  It then went to 19.0%, 17.2% and 14.6% in the next three years.  These numbers stayed horrible throughout the Thirties because the government wouldn’t stop meddling.  Or spending money.  None of the New Deal programs had a significant effect on unemployment.  The New Deal failed to fix the economy the way the New Dealers said it would.  Despite the massive price tag.  So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

What finally pulled us out of the Great Depression?  Adolf Hitler’s conquering of France in 1940.  When American industry received great orders for real economic growth.  From foreign countries.  To build the war material they needed to fight Adolf Hitler.  And the New Deal programs be damned.  There was no time for any more of that nonsense.  So during World War II businesses had a little less uncertainty.  And a backlog of orders.  All the incentive they needed to ramp up American industry.  To make it hum like it once did under Harding and Coolidge.  And they won World War II.  For there was no way Adolf Hitler could match that economic output.  Which made all the difference on the battlefield.

Still there are those who want to blame the gold standard for the Great Depression.  And still support Keynesian policies to tax and spend.  Even today.  Even after 8 years of Ronald Reagan that proved the policies of Harding and Coolidge.  We’re right back to those failed policies of the past.  Massive government spending to stimulate economic activity.  To pull us out of the Great Recession.  And utterly failing.  Where the unemployment rate struggles to get below 9%.  The U-3 unemployment rate, that is.  The rate that doesn’t count everyone who wants full time work.  The rate that counts everyone, the U-6 unemployment rate, currently stands at 14.9%.  Which is above the lowest unemployment rate during the Great Depression.  Proving once again only real economic growth creates jobs.  Not government programs.  No matter how many trillions of dollars the government spends.

So much for super smart government bureaucrats.

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Pure Gold Standard

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 8th, 2012

Economics 101

To Expand the Money Supply under a Pure Gold Standard requires an Enormous Investment unlike it does for Fiat Money

Do you know why we’ll never have a pure gold standard?  Because a pure gold standard doesn’t need a government.  Or their economists (from the Keynesian school) advising them how to make the economy better.  A pure gold standard works all by itself.  And is hard to manipulate.  Governments can’t inflate the money supply to spend money they don’t have.  So it really takes the fun out of being a spendthrift politician.  And because it would work so well it would debunk a century or so of Keynesian economics.  And shut down most economics departments at our Universities.  Because that’s all they know how to teach.  Keynesian economics.

So there is a lot of opposition to returning to a responsible monetary standard like a pure gold standard.  Ronald Reagan was the last presidential candidate to include a pure gold standard in the campaign platform.  But the idea died quickly after inauguration.  Not because he lied.  There was just too much political opposition that would never let it happen.  For that’s the last thing our spendthrift politicians in Washington want.  Something restraining them from spending what they don’t have.  As that would only make it more difficult to buy votes.  Reward campaign donors.  And reward special contributors with federal jobs in an ever expanding federal bureaucracy.

No, what the spendthrift politicians like is fiat money.  The kind you make up out of thin air.  Easily.  And with very little cost.  Either by printing paper dollars.  Or adding numbers to an electronic ledger.  Something you can’t do when you use gold.  Because to expand the money supply under a pure gold standard requires an enormous investment to find it.  To dig the ore out of the ground.  To comminute it (break it into smaller pieces) usually by crushing and grinding.  To smelt it.  To separate the gold from everything else pulled out of the ground with it.  And add it to the money supply.  This process takes a while.  And costs an enormous amount of money.  Unlike fiat money.  Where they can simply expand the money supply with a few computer key strokes.  Over a cup of coffee.

The Keynesian Interest Rate will always have a Larger Inflation Factor Included than a Gold Standard Rate

Gold mining requires gold mining companies.  And these gold mining companies have to raise a lot of capital to finance their extraction of gold.  Often with stocks and bonds.  So digging gold out of the ground requires investors to take great risks with their investment portfolios.  So it takes a lot to get gold out of the ground.  Which is why under a gold standard you can never have runaway inflation.  Technically you could.  But it would require the company to invest an inordinate amount of money into that inflation.  And if they flooded the market with all of that gold it would only lower the price of gold.  So they would spend more to earn less.  Something a private company is not likely to do.  Which is why it would be very difficult to impossible to have runaway inflation.

One of the things that makes a healthy economy is low interest rates.  If the cost of borrowing money is low more people will borrow money.  And if they’re buying things that require loans they’re generating a lot of economic activity.  Creating a lot of jobs along the way.  This is why Keynesians want to print money.  To flood the market with dollars so it doesn’t cost much to borrow them.  But there is another factor in interest rates.  Inflation.  The greater the inflation rate the greater the interest rate.  To compensate lenders for the loss in purchasing power over the time of the loan.  And increasing the money supply devalues the dollar.  Leading to a loss in purchasing power.  And those higher interest rates.

As it is much easier to inflate fiat money than it is with gold interest rates are higher with fiat money than they are with gold.  Because there is always a risk for governments to print more money for political purposes (i.e., buying votes) there is more cushion built in interest rates.  If you remove the irresponsible government aspect from the monetary system interest rates will be lower.  Because lenders would ask for less cushion in their interest rates.  Because of this stability that gold gives you interest rates are low for extended periods of time.  Encouraging lenders to lend.  And borrowers to borrow.  Leading to economic growth.  And jobs.  What the Keynesians try to get by printing money.  But the Keynesian interest rate will always have a larger inflation factor included.  So their interest rates will never be as low as they are under a pure gold standard.

Because Gold is not a Friend of Inflation it is no Friend to Keynesian Economists or Spendthrift Politicians

Under such a gold standard we would not get rid of paper dollars.  We’d still have those.  Only there would be no fractional reserve banking.  Where the banks keep only a small percentage of their deposits in their bank vaults while lending the rest out.  Under a gold standard our dollars would be ‘receipts’ for the gold stored in those bank vaults.  If the price of gold was $50 an ounce (it’s not) then $1 would equal 1/50 of an ounce of gold.  So for every dollar in circulation there would be 1/50 of an ounce of gold in a bank vault somewhere.  If you had $500 in your checking account the bank would have 10 ($500 X 1/50) ounces of gold on deposit for you.  Which means if everyone came to withdraw their money at the same time everyone would get their money.  There would not be any bank runs.  And no bank failures like there were during the Great Depression.

But could banks still loan money with a 100% reserve requirement for demand deposits (i.e., checking accounts)?  Yes.  They would loan money that people deposited for a fixed period of time.  Like a 5-year certificate of deposit.  Where the depositor can’t withdraw it until that 5-year period is up without a significant penalty for early withdrawal.  If a bank makes a 4-year loan with a 5-year deposit the money should be returned to the bank in time for the depositor to withdraw it at the end of 5 years.  As most savings are long-term (such as for retirement) this would not hinder lending.  There would still be plenty of money to lend.  Only there may be tighter lending standards where only people who can actually repay their loans may be able to borrow money.  Which would be a good thing.  As it would prevent another subprime mortgage crisis from happening.

If the economy grows larger than the money supply there will be fewer dollars chasing all those goods and services.  Meaning that the dollar’s purchasing power will increase.  And prices will fall.  This is something Keynesians all fear (but not consumers who like lower prices).  For they say if prices fall there could be another Great Depression.  However, the Federal Reserve helped to bring about the Great Recession with their deflationary monetary policies.  They contracted the money supply by some 30%.  That can’t happen with a pure gold standard.  Because the money supply never gets smaller.  Because just as you can’t create gold out of thin air you can’t make it disappear.  For once they add it to the money supply it is always there.  The gold stock never shrinks.  It can only grow less than the economy.  So you can have a monetary deflation without a depression.  Which is a good thing.  For your paycheck will go farther.  You savings will give you a better retirement.  It even makes international trade fair.  Because gold is gold.  Which makes any currency based on a unit weight of gold difficult to manipulate when it comes to exchange rates.  As prices are, essentially, in weights of gold.

So who wouldn’t win under a pure gold standard?  Governments with welfare states.  Who like to buy votes with their power over the monetary system.  Who depend on Keynesian inflationary policies to give them those large sums to spend.  And because gold is not a friend of inflation it is no friend to Keynesian economists or spendthrift politicians.

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The Federal Reserve, Roaring Twenties, Stock Market Crash, Banking Crises, Great Depression and John Maynard Keynes

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 25th, 2012

History 101

The Federal Reserve increased the Money Supply to Lower Interest Rates during the Roaring Twenties

Benjamin Franklin said, “Industry, perseverance, & frugality, make fortune yield.”  He said that because he believed that.  And he proved the validity of his maxim with a personal example.  His life.  He worked hard.  He never gave up.  And he was what some would say cheap.  He saved his money and spent it sparingly.  Because of these personally held beliefs Franklin was a successful businessman.  So successful that he became wealthy enough to retire and start a second life.  Renowned scientist.  Who gave us things like the Franklin stove and the lightning rod.  Then he entered his third life.  Statesman.  And America’s greatest diplomat.  He was the only Founder who signed the Declaration of Independence, Treaty of Amity and Commerce with France (bringing the French in on the American side during the Revolutionary War), Treaty of Paris (ending the Revolutionary War very favorably to the U.S.) and the U.S. Constitution.  Making the United States not only a possibility but a reality.  Three extraordinary lives lived by one extraordinary man.

Franklin was such a great success because of industry, perseverance and frugality.  A philosophy the Founding Fathers all shared.  A philosophy that had guided the United States for about 150 years until the Great Depression.  When FDR changed America.  By building on the work of Woodrow Wilson.  Men who expanded the role of the federal government.  Prior to this change America was well on its way to becoming the world’s number one economy.   By following Franklin-like policies.  Such as the virtue of thrift.  Favoring long-term savings over short-term consumption.  Free trade.  Balanced budgets.  Laissez-faire capitalism.  And the gold standard.  Which provided sound money.  And an international system of trade.  Until the Federal Reserve came along.

The Federal Reserve (the Fed) is America’s central bank.  In response to some financial crises Congress passed the Federal Reserve Act (1913) to make financial crises a thing of the past.  The Fed would end bank panics, bank runs and bank failures.  By being the lender of last resort.  While also tweaking monetary policy to maintain full employment and stable prices.  By increasing and decreasing the money supply.  Which, in turn, lowers and raises interest rates.  But most of the time the Fed increased the money supply to lower interest rates to encourage people and businesses to borrow money.  To buy things.  And to expand businesses and hire people.  Maintaining that full employment.  Which they did during the Roaring Twenties.  For awhile.

The Roaring Twenties would have gone on if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding/Mellon/Coolidge Policies

The Great Depression started with the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  And to this date people still argue over the causes of the Great Depression.  Some blame capitalism.  These people are, of course, wrong.  Others blamed the expansionary policies of the Fed.  They are partially correct.  For artificially low interest rates during the Twenties would eventually have to be corrected with a recession.  But the recession did not have to turn into a depression.  The Great Depression and the banking crises are all the fault of the government.  Bad monetary and fiscal policies followed by bad governmental actions threw an economy in recession into depression.

A lot of people talk about stock market speculation in the Twenties running up stock prices.  Normally something that happens with cheap credit as people borrow and invest in speculative ventures.  Like the dot-com companies in the Nineties.  Where people poured money into these companies that never produced a product or a dime of revenue.  And when that investment capital ran out these companies went belly up causing the severe recession in the early 2000s.  That’s speculation on a grand scale.  This is not what happened during the Twenties.  When the world was changing.  And electrifying.  The United States was modernizing.  Electric utilities, electric motors, electric appliances, telephones, airplanes, radio, movies, etc.  So, yes, there were inflationary monetary policies in place.  But their effects were mitigated by this real economic activity.  And something else.

President Warren Harding nominated Andrew Mellon to be his treasury secretary.  Probably the second smartest person to ever hold that post.  The first being our first.  Alexander Hamilton.  Harding and Mellon were laissez-faire capitalists.  They cut tax rates and regulations.  Their administration was a government-hands-off administration.  And the economy responded with some of the greatest economic growth ever.  This is why they called the 1920s the Roaring Twenties.  Yes, there were inflationary monetary policies.  But the economic growth was so great that when you subtracted the inflationary damage from it there was still great economic growth.  The Roaring Twenties could have gone on indefinitely if Herbert Hoover had continued the Harding and Mellon policies (continued by Calvin Coolidge after Harding’s death).  There was even a rural electrification program under FDR’s New Deal.  But Herbert Hoover was a progressive.  Having far more in common with the Democrat Woodrow Wilson than Harding or Coolidge.  Even though Harding, Coolidge and Hoover were all Republicans.

Activist Intervention into Market Forces turned a Recession into the Great Depression

One of the things that happened in the Twenties was a huge jump in farming mechanization.  The tractor allowed fewer people to farm more land.  Producing a boom in agriculture.  Good for the people.  Because it brought the price of food down.  But bad for the farmers.  Especially those heavily in debt from mechanizing their farms.  And it was the farmers that Hoover wanted to help.  With an especially bad policy of introducing parity between farm goods and industrial goods.  And introduced policies to raise the cost of farm goods.  Which didn’t help.  Many farmers were unable to service their loans with the fall in prices.  When farmers began to default en masse banks in farming communities failed.  And the contagion spread to the city banks.  Setting the stage for a nation-wide banking crisis.  And the Great Depression.

One of the leading economists of the time was John Maynard Keynes.  He even came to the White House during the Great Depression to advise FDR.  Keynes rejected the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  And the policies favored by the Austrian school of economics (the only people, by the way, who actually predicted the Great Depression).  Which were similar to the Franklin/Harding/Mellon/Coolidge policies.  The Austrians also said to let prices and wages fall.  To undo all of that inflationary damage.  Which would help cause a return to full employment.  Keynes disagreed.  For he didn’t believe in the virtue of thrift.  He wanted to abandon the gold standard completely and replace it with fiat money.  That they could expand more freely.  And he believed in demand-side solutions.  Meaning to end the Great Depression you needed higher wages not lower wages so workers had more money to spend.  And to have higher wages you needed higher prices.  So the employers could pay their workers these higher wages.  And he also encouraged continued deficit spending.  No matter the long-term costs.

Well, the Keynesians got their way.  And it was they who gave us the Great Depression.  For they influenced government policy.  The stock market crashed in part due to the Smoot Hawley Tariff then in committee.  But investors saw the tariffs coming and knew what that would mean.  An end to the economic boom.  So they sold their stocks before it became law.  Causing the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Then those tariffs hit (an increase of some 50%).  Then they doubled income tax rates.  And Hoover even demanded that business leaders NOT cut wages.  All of this activist intervention into market forces just sucked the wind out of the economy.  Turning a recession into the Great Depression.

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Bretton Woods, Nixon Shock, OPEC, Yom Kippur War, Oil Embargo, Stagflation, Paul Volcker, Ronald Reagan and Morning in America

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 18th, 2012

History 101

Under the Bretton Woods System the Americans promised to Exchange their Gold for Dollars at $35 per Ounce

Wars are expensive.  All kinds.  The military kind.  As well as the social kind.  And the Sixties gave us a couple of doozies.  The Vietnam War.  And the War on Poverty.  Spending in Vietnam started in the Fifties.  But spending, as well as troop deployment, surged in the Sixties.  First under JFK.  Then under LBJ.  They added this military spending onto the Cold War spending.  Then LBJ declared a war on poverty.  And all of this spending was on top of NASA trying to put a man on the moon.  Which was yet another part of the Cold War.  To beat the Soviets to the moon after they beat us in orbit.

This was a lot of spending.  And it carried over into the Seventies.  Giving President Nixon a big problem.  As he also had a balance of payments deficit.  And a trade deficit.  Long story short Nixon was running out of money.  So they started printing it.  Which caused another problem as the US was still part of the Bretton Woods system.  A quasi gold standard.  Where the US pegged the dollar to gold at $35 per ounce.  Which meant when they started printing dollars the money supply grew greater than their gold supply.  And depreciated the dollar.  Which was a problem because under Bretton Woods the Americans promised to exchange their gold for dollars at $35 per ounce.

When other nations saw the dollar depreciate so that it would take more and more of them to buy an ounce of gold they simply preferred having the gold instead.  Something the Americans couldn’t depreciate.  Nations exchanged their dollars for gold.  And began to leave the Bretton Woods system.    Nixon had a choice to stop this gold outflow.  He could strengthen the dollar by reducing the money supply (i.e., stop printing dollars) and cut spending.  Or he could ‘close the gold window’ and decouple the dollar from gold.  Which is what he did on August 15, 1971.  And shocked the international financial markets.  Hence the name the Nixon Shock.

When the US supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War the Arab Oil Producers responded with an Oil Embargo

Without the restraint of gold preventing the printing of money the Keynesians were in hog heaven.  As they hated the gold standard.  The suspension of the convertibility of gold ushered in the heyday of Keynesian economics.  Even Nixon said, “I am now a Keynesian in economics.”  The US had crossed the Rubicon.  Inflationary Keynesian policies were now in charge of the economy.  And they expanded the money supply.  Without restraint.  For there was nothing to fear.  No consequences.  Just robust economic activity.  Of course OPEC didn’t see it that way.

Part of the Bretton Woods system was that other nations used the dollar as a reserve currency.  Because it was as good as gold.  As our trading partners could exchange $35 for an ounce of gold.  Which is why we priced international assets in dollars.  Like oil.  Which is why OPEC had a problem with the Nixon Shock.  The dollars they got for their oil were rapidly becoming worth less than they once were.  Which greatly reduced what they could buy with those dollars.  The oil exporters were losing money with the American devaluation of the dollar.  So they raised the price of oil.  A lot.  Basically pricing it at the current value of gold in US dollars.  Meaning the more they depreciated the dollar the higher the price of oil went.  As well as gas prices.

With the initial expansion of the money supply there was short-term economic gain.  The boom.  But shortly behind this inflationary gain came higher prices.  And a collapse in economic activity.  The bust.  This was the dark side of Keynesian economics.  Higher prices that pushed economies into recessions.  And to make matters worse Americans were putting more of their depreciated dollars into the gas tank.  And the Keynesians said, “No problem.  We can fix this with some inflation.”  Which they tried to by expanding the money supply further.  Meanwhile, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on October 6, 1973, kicking off the Yom Kippur War.  And when the US supported their ally Israel the Arab oil producers responded with an oil embargo.  Reducing the amount of oil entering America, further raising prices.  And causing gas lines as gas stations ran out of gas.  (In part due to Nixon’s price controls that did not reset demand via higher prices to the reduced supply.  And a ceiling on domestic oil prices discouraged any domestic production.)  The Yom Kippur War ended about 20 days later.  Without a major change in borders.  With an Israeli agreement to pull their forces back to the east side of the Suez Canal the Arab oil producers (all but Libya) ended their oil embargo in March of 1974.

It was Morning in America thanks to the Abandonment of Keynesian Inflationary Policies

So oil flowed into the US again.  But the economy was still suffering from high unemployment.  Which the Keynesians fixed with some more inflation.  With another burst of monetary expansion starting around 1975.  To their surprise, though, unemployment did not fall.  It just raised prices.  Including oil prices.  Which increased gas prices.  The US was suffering from high unemployment and high inflation.  Which wasn’t supposed to happen in Keynesian economics.  Even their Phillips Curve had no place on its graph for this phenomenon.  The Keynesians were dumfounded.  And the American people suffered through the malaise of stagflation.  And if things weren’t bad enough the Iranians revolted and the Shah of Iran (and US ally) stepped down and left the country.  Disrupting their oil industry.  And then President Carter put a halt to Iranian oil imports.  Bringing on the 1979 oil crisis.

This crisis was similar to the previous one.  But not quite as bad.  As it was only Iranian oil being boycotted.  But there was some panic buying.  And some gas lines again.  But Carter did something else.  He began to deregulate oil prices over a period of time.  It wouldn’t help matters in 1979 but it did allow the price of crude oil to rise in the US.  Drawing the oil rigs back to the US.  Especially in Alaska.  Also, the Big Three began to make smaller, more fuel efficient cars.  These two events would combine with another event to bring down the price of oil.  And the gasoline we made from that oil.

Actually, there was something else President Carter did that would also affect the price of oil.  He appointed Paul Volcker Chairman of the Federal Reserve in August of 1979.  He was the anti-Keynesian.  He raised interest rates to contract the money supply and threw the country into a steep recession.  Which brought prices down.  Wringing out the damage of a decade’s worth of inflation.  When Ronald Reagan won the 1980 presidency he kept Volcker as Chairman.  And suffered through a horrible 2-year recession.  But when they emerged it was Morning in America.  They had brought inflation under control.  Unemployment fell.  The economy rebounded thanks to Reagan’s tax cuts.  And the price of oil plummeted.  Thanks to the abandonment of Keynesian inflationary policies.  And the abandonment of oil regulation.  As well as the reduction in demand (due to those smaller and more fuel efficient cars).  Which created a surge in oil exploration and production that resulted in an oil glut in the Eighties.  Bringing the price oil down to almost what it was before the two oil shocks.

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Phillips Curve

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 17th, 2012

Economics 101

A High Savings Rate provides Abundant Capital for Banks to Loan to Businesses

Time.  It’s what runs our lives.  Well, that, and patience.  Together they run our lives.  For these two things determine the difference between savings.  And consumption.  Whether we have the patience to wait and save our money to buy something in the future.  Like a house.  Or if we are too impatient to wait.  And choose to spend our money now.  On a new car, clothes, jewelry, nice dinners, travel, etc.  Choosing current consumption for pleasure now.  Or choosing savings for pleasure later.

We call this time preference.  And everyone has their own time preference.  Even societies have their own time preferences.  And it’s that time preference that determines the rate of consumption and the rate of savings.  Our parents’ generation had a higher preference to save money.  The current generation has a higher preference for current consumption.  Which is why a lot of the current generation is now living with their parents.  For their parents preference for saving money over consuming money allowed them to buy a house that they own free and clear today.  While having savings to live on during these difficult economic times.  Unlike their children.  Whose consumption of cars, clothes, jewelry, nice dinners, travel, etc., left them with little savings to weather these difficult economic times.  And with a house they no longer can afford to pay the mortgage.

A society’s time preference determines the natural rate of interest.  A higher savings rate provides abundant capital for banks to loan to businesses.  Which lowers the natural rate of interest.  A high rate of consumption results with a lower savings rate.  Providing less capital for banks to loan to businesses.  Which raises the natural interest rate.  High interest rates make it more difficult for businesses to borrow money to expand their business than it is with low interest rates.  Thus higher interest rates reduce the rate of job creation.  Or, restated another way, a low savings rate reduces the rate of job creation.

The Phillips Curve shows the Keynesian Relationship between the Unemployment Rate and the Inflation Rate

Before the era of central banks and fiat money economists understood this relationship between savings and employment very well.  But after the advent of central banking and fiat money economists restated this relationship.  In particular the Keynesian economists.  Who dropped the savings part.  And instead focused only on the relationship between interest rates and employment.  Advising governments in the 20th century that they had the power to control the economy.  If they adopt central banking and fiat money.  For they could print their own money and determine the interest rate.  Making savings a relic of a bygone era.

The theory was that if a high rate of savings lowered interest rates by creating more capital for banks to loan why not lower interest rates further by just printing money and giving it to the banks to loan?  If low interests rates were good lower interest rates must be better.  At least this was Keynesian theory.  And expanding governments everywhere in the 20th century put this theory to the test.  Printing money.  A lot of it.  Based on the belief that if they kept pumping more money into the economy they could stimulate unending economic growth.  Because with a growing amount of money for banks to loan they could keep interest rates low.  Encouraging businesses to keep borrowing money to expand their businesses.  Hire more people to fill newly created jobs.  And expand economic activity.

Economists thought they had found the Holy Grail to ending recessions as we knew them.  Whenever unemployment rose all they had to do was print new money.  For the economic activity businesses created with this new money would create new jobs to replace the jobs lost due to recession.   The Keynesians built on their relationship between interest rates and employment.  And developed a relationship between the expansion of the money supply and employment.  Particularly, the relationship between the inflation rate (the rate at which they expanded the money supply) and the unemployment rate.  What they found was an inverse relationship.  When there was a high unemployment rate there was a low inflation rate.  When there was a low unemployment rate there was a high inflation rate.  They showed this with their Phillips Curve.  That graphed the relationship between the inflation rate (shown rising on the y-axis) and the unemployment rate (shown increasing on the x-axis).  The Phillips Curve was the answer to ending recessions.  For when the unemployment rate went up all the government had to do was create some inflation (i.e., expand the money supply).  And as they increased the inflation rate the unemployment rate would, of course, fall.  Just like the Phillips Curve showed.

The Seventies Inflationary Damage was So Great that neither Technology nor Productivity Gains could Overcome It

But the Phillips Curve blew up in the Keynesians’ faces during the Seventies.  As they tried to reduce the unemployment rate by increasing the inflation rate.  When they did, though, the unemployment did not fall.  But the inflation rate did rise.  In a direct violation of the Phillips Curve.  Which said that was impossible.  To have a high inflation rate AND a high unemployment rate at the same time.  How did this happen?  Because the economic activity they created with their inflationary policies was artificial.  Lowering the interest rate below the natural interest rate encouraged people to borrow money they had no intention of borrowing earlier.  Because they did not see sufficient demand in the market place to expand their businesses to meet.  However, business people are human.  And they can make mistakes.  Such as borrowing money to expand their businesses solely because the money was cheap to borrow.

When you inflate the money supply you depreciate the dollar.  Because there are more dollars in circulation chasing the same amount of goods and services.  And if the money is worth less what does that do to prices?  It increases them.  Because it takes more of the devalued dollars to buy what they once bought.  So you have a general increase of prices that follows any monetary expansion.  Which is what is waiting for those businesses borrowing that new money to expand their businesses.  Typically the capital goods businesses.  Those businesses higher up in the stages of production.  A long way out from retail sales.  Where the people are waiting to buy the new products made from their capital goods.  Which will take a while to filter down to the consumer level.  But by the time they do prices will be rising throughout the economy.  Leaving consumers with less money to spend.  So by the times those new products built from those capital goods reach the retail level there isn’t an increase in consumption to buy them.  Because inflation has by this time raised prices.  Especially gas prices.  So not only are the consumers not buying these new goods they are cutting back from previous purchasing levels.  Leaving all those businesses in the higher stages of production that expanded their businesses (because of the availability of cheap money) with some serious overcapacity.  Forcing them to cut back production and lay off workers.  Often times to a level below that existing before the inflationary monetary expansion intended to decrease the unemployment rate.

Governments have been practicing Keynesian economics throughout the 20th century.  So why did it take until the Seventies for this to happen?  Because in the Seventies they did something that made it very easy to expand the money supply.  President Nixon decoupled the dollar from gold (the Nixon Shock).  Which was the only restraint on the government from expanding the money supply.  Which they did greater during the Seventies than they had at any previous time.  Under the ‘gold standard’ the U.S. had to maintain the value of the dollar by pegging it to gold.  They couldn’t depreciate it much.  Without the ‘gold standard’ they could depreciate it all they wanted to.  So they did. Prior to the Seventies they inflated the money supply by about 5%.  After the Nixon Shock that jumped to about 15-20%.  This was the difference.  The inflationary damage was so bad that no amount of technological advancement or productivity gains could overcome it.  Which exposed the true damage inflationary Keynesian economic policies cause.  As well as discrediting the Phillips Curve.

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Federal Reserve System, Great Depression, Banking Crises, Gold Reserves, Gold Exchange Standard, Interest Rates and Money Supply

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 31st, 2012

History 101

The Gold Exchange Standard provided Stability for International Trade

Congress created the Federal Reserve System (the Fed) with the passage of the Federal Reserve Act in 1913.  They created the Fed because of some recent bad depressions and financial panics.  Which they were going to make a thing of the past with the Fed.  It had three basic responsibilities.  Maximize employment.  Stabilize prices.  And optimize interest rates.  With the government managing these things depressions and financial panics weren’t going to happen on the Fed’s watch.

The worst depression and financial panic of all time happened on the Fed’s watch.  The Great Depression.  From 1930.  Until World War II.  A lost decade.  A period that saw the worst banking crises.  And the greatest monetary contraction in U.S. history.  And this after passing the Federal Reserve Act to prevent any such things from happening.  So why did this happen?  Why did a normal recession turn into the Great Depression?  Because of government intervention into the economy.  Such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act that triggered the great selloff and stock market crash.  And some really poor monetary policy.  As well as bad fiscal policy.

At the time the U.S. was on a gold exchange standard.  Paper currency backed by gold.  And exchangeable for gold.  The amount of currency in circulation depended upon the amount of gold on deposit.  The Federal Reserve Act required a gold reserve for notes in circulation similar to fractional reserve banking.  Only instead of keeping paper bills in your vault you had to keep gold.  Which provided stability for international trade.  But left the domestic money supply, and interest rates, at the whim of the economy.  For the only way to lower interest rates to encourage borrowing was to increase the amount of gold on deposit.  For with more gold on hand you can increase the money supply.  Which lowered interest rates.  That encouraged people to borrow money to expand their businesses and buy things.  Thus creating economic activity.  At least in theory.

The Fed contracted the Money Supply even while there was a Positive Gold Flow into the Country

The gold standard worked well for a century or so.  Especially in the era of free trade.  Because it moved trade deficits and trade surpluses towards zero.  Giving no nation a long-term advantage in trade.  Consider two trading partners.  One has increasing exports.  The other increasing imports.  Why?  Because the exporter has lower prices than the importer.  As goods flow to the importer gold flows to the exporter to pay for those exports.  The expansion of the local money supply inflates the local currency and raises prices in the exporter country.  Back in the importer country the money supply contracts and lowers prices.  So people start buying more from the once importing nation.  Thus reversing the flow of goods and gold.  These flows reverse over and over keeping the trade deficit (or surplus) trending towards zero.  Automatically.  With no outside intervention required.

Banknotes in circulation, though, required outside intervention.  Because gold isn’t in circulation.  So central bankers have to follow some rules to make this function as a gold standard.  As gold flows into their country (from having a trade surplus) they have to expand their money supply by putting more bills into circulation.  To do what gold did automatically.  Increase prices.  By maintaining the reserve requirement (by increasing the money supply by the amount the gold deposits increased) they also maintain the fixed exchange rate.  An inflow of gold inflates your currency and an outflow of gold deflates your currency.  When central banks maintain this mechanism with their monetary policy currencies remain relatively constant in value.  Giving no price advantage to any one nation.  Thus keeping trade fair.

After the stock market crash in 1929 and the failure of the Bank of the United States in New York failed in 1930 the great monetary contraction began.  As more banks failed the money they created via fractional reserve banking disappeared.  And the money supply shrank.  And what did the Fed do?  Increased interest rates.  Making it harder than ever to borrow money.  And harder than ever for banks to stay in business as businesses couldn’t refinance their loans and defaulted.  The Fed did this because it was their professional opinion that sufficient credit was available and that adding liquidity then would only make it harder to do when the markets really needed additional credit.  So they contracted the money supply.  Even while there was a positive gold flow into the country.

The Gold Standard works Great when all of your Trading Partners use it and they Follow the Rules

Those in the New York Federal Reserve Bank wanted to increase the money supply.  The Federal Reserve Board in Washington disagreed.  Saying again that sufficient credit was available in the market.  Meanwhile people lost faith in the banking system.  Rushed to get their money out of their bank before it, too, failed.  Causing bank runs.  And more bank failures.  With these banks went the money they created via fractional reserve banking.  Further deflating the money supply.  And lowering prices.  Which was the wrong thing to happen with a rising gold supply.

Well, that didn’t last.  France went on the gold standard with a devalued franc.  So they, too, began to accumulate gold.  For they wanted to become a great banking center like London and New York.  But these gold flows weren’t operating per the rules of a gold exchange.  Gold was flowing generally in one direction.  To those countries hoarding gold.  And countries that were accumulating gold weren’t inflating their money supplies to reverse these flows.  So nations began to abandon the gold exchange standard.  Britain first.  Then every other nation but the U.S.

Now the gold standard works great.  But only when all of your trading partners are using it.  And they follow the rules.  Even during the great contraction of the money supply the Fed raised interest rates to support the gold exchange.  Which by then was a lost cause.  But they tried to make the dollar strong and appealing to hold.  So people would hold dollars instead of their gold.  This just further damaged the U.S. economy, though.  And further weakened the banking system.  While only accelerating the outflow of gold.  As nations feared the U.S. would devalue their currency they rushed to exchange their dollars for gold.  And did so until FDR abandoned the gold exchange standard, too, in 1933.  But it didn’t end the Great Depression.  Which had about another decade to go.

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Capital Flows and Currency Exchange

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 30th, 2012

Economics 101

Before we buy a Country’s Exports we have to Exchange our Currency First

What’s the first thing we do when traveling to a foreign country?  Exchange our currency.  Something we like to do at our own bank.  Before leaving home.  Where we can get a fair exchange rate.  Instead of someplace in-country where they factor the convenience of location into the exchange rate.  Places we go to only after we’ve run out of local currency.  And need some of it fast.  So we’ll pay the premium on the exchange rate.  And get less foreign money in exchange for our own currency.

Why are we willing to accept less money in return for our money?  Because when we run out of money in a foreign country we have no choice.  If you want to eat at a McDonalds in Canada they expect you to pay with Canadian dollars.  Which is why the money in the cash drawer is Canadian money.  Because the cashier accepts payment and makes change in Canadian money.  Just like they do with American money in the United States.

So currency exchange is very important for foreign purchases.  Because foreign goods are priced in a foreign currency.  And it’s just not people traveling across the border eating at nice restaurants and buying souvenirs to bring home.  But people in their local stores buying goods made in other countries.  Before we buy them with our American dollars someone else has to buy them first.  Japanese manufacturers need yen to run their businesses.  Chinese manufacturers need yuan to run their businesses.  Indian manufacturers need rupees to run their businesses.  So when they ship container ships full of their goods they expect to get yen, yuan and rupees in return.  Which means that before anyone buys their exports someone has to exchange their currency first.

Goods flow One Way while Gold flows the Other until Price Inflation Reverses the Flow of Goods and Gold

We made some of our early coins out of gold.  Because different nations used gold, too, it was relatively easy to exchange currencies.  Based on the weight of gold in those coins.  Imagine one nation using a gold coin the size of a quarter as their main unit of currency.  And another nation uses a gold coin the size of a nickel.  Let’s say the larger coin weighs twice as much as the smaller coin.  Or has twice the amount of gold in it.  Making the exchange easy.  One big coin equals two small coins in gold value.  So if I travel to the country of small coins with three large gold coins I exchange them for six of the local coins.  And then go shopping.

The same principle follows in trade between these two countries.  To buy a nation’s exports you have to first exchange your currency for theirs.  This is how.  You go to the exporter country with bags of your gold coins.  You exchange them for the local currency.  You then use this local currency to pay for the goods they will export to you.  Then you go back to your country and wait for the ship to arrive with your goods.  When it arrives your nation has a net increase in imported goods (i.e., a trade deficit).  And a net decrease in gold.  While the other nation has a net increase in exported goods (i.e., a trade surplus).  And a net increase in gold.

The quantity theory of money tells us that as the amount of money in circulation increases it creates price inflation.  Because there’s more of it in circulation it’s easy to get and worth less.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices rise.  As prices rise in a nation with a trade surplus.  And fall in a nation with a trade deficit.  Because less money in circulation makes it harder to get and worth more.  Because the money is worth more it takes less of it to buy the same things it once did.  So prices fall.  This helps to make trade neutral (no deficit or surplus).  As prices rise in the exporter nation people buy less of their more expensive exports.  As prices fall in an importer nation people begin buying their less expensive exports.  So as goods flow one way gold flows the other way.  Until inflation rises in one country and eventually reverses the flow of goods and gold.  We call this the price-specie flow mechanism.

In the Era of Floating Exchange Rates Governments don’t have to Act Responsibly Anymore

This made the gold standard an efficient medium of exchange for international trade.  Whether we used gold.  Or a currency backed by gold.  Which added another element to the exchange rate.  For trading paper bills backed by gold required a government to maintain their domestic money supply based on their foreign exchange rate.  Meaning that they at times had to adjust the number of bills in circulation to maintain their exchange rate.  So if a country wanted to lower their interest rates (to encourage borrowing to stimulate their economy) by increasing the money supply they couldn’t.  Limiting what governments could do with their monetary policy.  Especially in the age of Keynesian economics.  Which was the driving force for abandoning the gold standard.

Most nations today use a floating exchange rate.  Where countries treat currencies as commodities.  With their own supply and demand determining exchange rates.  Or a government’s capital controls (restricting the free flow of money) that overrule market forces.  Which you can do when you don’t have to be responsible with your monetary policy.  You can print money.  You can keep foreign currency out of your county.  And you can manipulate your official exchange rate to give you an advantage in international trade by keeping your currency weak.  So when trading partners exchange their currency with you they get a lot of yours in exchange.  Allowing them to buy more of your goods than they can buy from other nations with the same amount of money.  Giving you an unfair trade advantage.  Trade surpluses.  And lots of foreign currency to invest in things like U.S. treasury bonds.

The gold standard gave us a fixed exchange rate and the free flow of capital.  But it limited what a government could do with its monetary policy.  An active monetary policy will allow the free flow of capital but not a fixed exchange rate.  Capital controls prevent the free flow of capital but allows a fixed exchange rate and an active monetary policy.  Governments have tried to do all three of these things.  But could never do more than two.  Which is why we call these three things the impossible trinity.  Which has been a source of policy disputes within a nation.  And between nations.  Because countries wanted to abandoned the gold standard to adopt policies that favored their nation.  And then complained about nations doing the same thing because it was unfair to their own nation.  Whereas the gold standard made trade fair.  By making governments act responsible.  Something they never liked.  And in the era of floating exchange rates they don’t have to act responsibly anymore.

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Comparative Advantage and Free Trade

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 21st, 2012

Economics 101

Mercantilism benefited only Protected Industries which Profited Handsomely from Higher Consumer Prices  

The Age of Discovery ushered in the era of mercantilism.  An era of trade.  But protected trade.  Tariffs, quotas, protectionism, restrictions, subsidies, etc.  You name it they used it.  To favor their trade position and their domestic industries.  And to restrict that of everyone else.  For mercantilism was a zero-sum game.  You only did well if others did not.  A thought that still has traction today.  Especially in older, inefficient industries.  That cannot compete with international competition that provides better quality at lower prices.  Such as textiles.  Steel.  Automobiles.  The Americans protected these industries in the face of better foreign competition.  Which only hastened their decline.

A protected industry has no incentive to improve.  When protective tariffs raise prices of lower-priced and higher-quality imports consumers buy the inferior domestic goods.  Because the tariffs make the better goods more costly.  So when a business has a captive audience their only focus is in maintaining that protectionism giving them that advantage.  Not improving their quality.  Or improving their productivity to lower their prices.  Why?  Because they don’t have to.  So prices continue to rise to pay for inefficient labor and management.  And quality continues to decline due to the lack of real competition forcing them to continually provide a better product.  By improving designs.  Production methods.  And making capital investments in new machinery and equipment.

This is the cost of protectionism.  Poorer quality and higher prices.  Because of the misguided belief in the zero-sum game of mercantilism.  There was a reason why mercantilism was abandoned for free trade.  Because free trade was better.  For consumers.  Giving them lower prices and higher quality.  Whereas mercantilism benefited only those protected industries which profited handsomely from those higher consumer prices.  And the government officials who granted those favorable protectionist policies.

The Consumer gets Lower Prices AND Higher Quality thanks to the Division of Labor, Specialization and Comparative Advantage

As civilization advanced so did the division of labor.  People began to specialize.  Instead of growing our own food, making our own tools, spinning our own pottery, etc., we did only one thing.  And did it well.  Then we traded the things we made for the things we didn’t make.  This division of labor created a middle class.  And this middle class would take their goods to market to trade with other middle class artisans.  At first bartering with each other.  Trading good for good.  Then they introduced a temporary storage of value into the economy.  Money.  Making those trades easier by reducing search times.  Trading your goods for money.  And your money for goods.  Making life a lot simpler at the market.

Let’s take a closer look at the division of labor.  Let’s consider two artisans.  A toolmaker.   And a potter.  Both are skilled craftspeople.  And can make an assortment of goods.  But each excels at one particular skill.  The toolmaker can make 10 plows a day.  But if he makes 2 pottery bowls he can only make 4 plows in that same day.  The potter can make 12 pottery bowls in a day.  But if he makes 3 plows he can only make 5 pottery bowls in that same day.  Each can make more of their specialty.  But when they try to make other things in addition to their specialty they can’t make as much of their specialty as before.  So there is a cost to the toolmaker to make pottery.  To make 2 bowls cost the toolmaker 6 plows.  And there is a cost to the potter to make tools.  To make 3 plows cost the potter 7 bowls.  So the economy as a whole is better off when the toolmaker and the potter focus all of their energies in their own specialty.  When they do we get 10 plows and 12 bowls in one day.  When they don’t we only get 7 plows and 7 bowls.

We call this economic principle comparative advantage.  Where we look at economic output.  Which is what matters.  The more we bring to market the better it is for consumers.  Because greater quantities mean lower prices.  And when these skilled craftspeople focus on their specialty they improve the overall quality of the goods they bring to market.  So the consumer gets lower prices AND higher quality.  Thanks to the division of labor.  Specialization.  And comparative advantage.

We will always Have Jobs regardless the Size of our Imports for Having a Job is the Only Way to Buy those Imported Goods

If you multiply this over and over again to represent all the individual economic exchanges throughout the world you see why free trade is better than the protectionist policies of mercantilism.  Because it provides consumers with greater economic output at lower prices and higher quality.  This is why nations practicing free trade have the highest standards of living.  Because their people can walk into large department stores and fill their carts with inexpensive, high quality goods on a moderate paycheck.  Which could never happen if the mercantilists had their way.

The old inefficient industries want tariffs to increase the costs of those goods we fill our shopping carts with.  Including the food we eat.  And the cars we drive.  They use lofty arguments about protecting American jobs.  But those protectionist policies destroy jobs by increasing costs for businesses throughout the supply chain.  Raising consumer prices everywhere.  Reducing the amount of things we can buy.  Meaning businesses can’t grow and create new jobs.  Or they have to cut back production and eliminate existing jobs.

There’s also a lot of talk about the balance of payments.  Which actually meant something during the days of the gold standard.  For any trade deficits had to be paid for with gold.  But we don’t have the gold standard anymore.  Governments everywhere abandoned it in favor of irresponsible government spending.  So we don’t have to pay for trade deficits with gold.  Most money today is just electronic entries in a computer.  International capital flows have never been greater.  There are currency markets where people actively trade the world’s currencies.  So trade deficits don’t mean the same thing they once did in the mercantile world.  Then there’s the argument that if all our manufacturing jobs go overseas there will be no jobs for Americans.  If we import everything and export nothing there will be jobs everywhere but here.  Sounds like a problem.  But can that happen?  Not unless we get those imports for free.  So we will always have jobs regardless the size of our imports.  For having a job is the only way to buy the imported goods in those department stores.

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