The Obama Recovery is Good for Wall Street but Bad for Main Street

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 18th, 2014

Week in Review

The December jobs report was pretty bleak.  It showed that the unemployment rate fell to 6.7% and that the economy added 74,000 jobs.  Not great but good enough for some who say that President Obama’s policies are finally working after 5 some years of trying.  Which is ridiculous.  Because that unemployment rate doesn’t tell you how many people lost their jobs.  And how many people disappeared from the civilian labor force as they gave up trying to find work that just isn’t there.  Which hides the number of people who lost their jobs.  Because the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t count anyone as unemployed if they are no longer looking for work.  But if you dig down into the jobs report you’ll find this data.  And see that for every person that entered the labor force about seven people left it in December (see The BLS Employment Situation Summary for December 2013 posted January 13th, 2014 on PITHOCRATES).  Which is anything but an economic recovery.

All during the Obama presidency the Federal Reserve has been stimulating the economy.  Right out of the Keynesian handbook.  By keeping interest rates near zero to encourage people to borrow money to buy things they don’t need.  But few have.  No.  The only people borrowing that money are rich investors.  Who are borrowing this ‘free’ money to spend in the stock market.  Helping Wall Street to do very well during the worst economic recovery since that following the Great Depression.  While Main Street sees their median family income fall.  Still the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, thinks he did a heck of a job (see Bernanke Says QE Effective While Posing No Immediate Bubble Risk by Jeff Kearns and Joshua Zumbrun posted 1/16/2014 on Bloomberg).

Bernanke is seeking to define his legacy before stepping down on Jan. 31. During his eight-year tenure as leader of the Fed he piloted the economy through a financial crisis that led to the longest recession since the 1930s. He has tried to bolster growth by holding the target interest rate near zero and pushing forward with unprecedented bond buying known as QE.

“Those who have been saying for the last five years that we’re just on the brink of hyperinflation, I think I would just point them to this morning’s CPI number and suggest that inflation is not really a significant risk of this policy,” Bernanke said, referring to a Labor Department report showing the consumer price index rose 1.5 percent in the past year. The Fed has set an inflation target of 2 percent…

The Federal Open Market Committee (FDTR) announced plans last month to reduce monthly purchases to $75 billion from $85 billion, citing improvement in the labor market. The jobless rate last month fell to 6.7 percent, a five-year low.

The only reason why we don’t have hyperinflation is that everyone has depreciated their currency so much to boost exports and pay for bloated welfare states that all currencies are losing value.  And of all these bad currencies the American currency is the least bad of the lot.  Which is why some foreign nationals will pay to park their money in American banks.  Because the risk of it losing its value is so much greater in their home country.

But that doesn’t mean inflation hasn’t reared its ugly head in the US economy.  Just go to a grocery store and look at a bag of chips.  Or a box of cookies.  Or any packaged item that didn’t seem to get overly expensive during the Obama recession. A bag of chips may be the same $3-4 it was before the recession.  But notice the size of the bag.  It’s gotten smaller.  So, yes, consumer prices have not shown great inflation.  But packaging has gotten smaller.  So instead of paying more for the same quantity we are paying the same price for a lesser quantity.  Which means we may be buying 4 of something in a month instead of 3 of something.  It adds up.  Which is why there are so many more people on food stamps.  The Bernanke inflation is taking more of our paycheck to buy what it once did.

The economy is horrible.  Fewer people are in the labor force with each jobs report.  Our grocery packaging is shrinking.  And once the Fed stops its bond buying the stock market is going to fall.  A lot.  For every time rich investors think the economic data will show solid economic activity what do they do?  They sell their stocks.  Causing a stock market fall.  Why?  Why would investors leave the stock market when the data say the economy is getting stronger?  Which seems to go against common sense?  Because they know there’s been only one thing helping them get rich during the Obama presidency.  That ‘free’ money.  Once that source of cheap money goes away they will sell before those inflated stock prices fall back to earth.

The Obama recovery.  Good for Wall Street.  Bad for Main Street.


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Roman Denarius, New World Gold and Silver, American Continental and German Mark

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 25th, 2013

History 101

Money that is not Scarce is a Poor Temporary Storage of Wealth

They say money doesn’t grow on trees.  And it’s a good thing it doesn’t.  For money is a temporary storage of wealth.  It temporarily stores value.  And one if its attributes is that it has to be scarce.  For example, let’s say you are a highly skilled tomato grower.  And you work in your garden 12 hours each day weeding, fertilizing, watering, tying, pruning, etc., your many fields of tomato plants.  Producing beautiful tomatoes that everyone just loves.  You love your tomatoes so much that you actually gave up your day job to grow them full time.  And support your family with the proceeds from selling your tomatoes.  Which you will exchange with others for money.  Provided that money is scarce.  And will hold the value of your tomatoes.  Until you can exchange that money for something you want.

Now let’s assume money grows on trees.  Anyone can plant one in their backyard.  And it grows like a weed.  That is, you don’t have to fertilize it or water it or do anything else for it.  And anytime you want something you just walk to your money tree and pick the bills you need.  We would never have to work again if we all had money trees in our backyard.  Wouldn’t that be great?  Or would it?  What would happen if everyone quit working because they, too, had a money tree in their backyard?  If no one worked then there would be nothing to buy with the money from your money tree.

But there is another problem.  If everyone had a money tree there would be such much money in circulation that it would no longer be scarce.  And if it’s not scarce it isn’t money.  It isn’t a temporary storage of wealth.  It won’t temporarily store value.  Because someone that has something of value, say delicious tomatoes, won’t want to trade them for something that he or she can just pick off of his own money tree.  Instead, he or she would rather trade those tomatoes for something that does have value.  Like, say, mozzarella cheese.  So a skilled cheese-maker and the skilled tomato-grower can meet to trade things of value with each other.  Tomatoes and mozzarella cheese.  And then each can make a delicious Caprese salad.  Which also has value.  Unlike money that grows on trees that anybody can pick whenever they want to.  Filling the world with people with lots of money but nothing to buy.  Because no one works to grow or make anything.

When Spain brought back New World Gold and Silver it unleashed Inflation in the Old World

For anything to be money it must be scarce.  Just think of the laws of supply and demand.  If there are droughts all summer long farmers have smaller harvests.  Which raises the price of what they bring to market.  Because demand is greater than the supply.  If there was a great growing season they have bumper crops.  Which lowers the price of what they bring to market.  Because supply is greater than demand.  So the scarcer something is the more valuable it is.  And so it is with money.

The main Roman coin was the silver denarius.  As the Roman Empire reached its zenith her borders stopped moving out.  The Roman legions stopped conquering new lands.  And without new conquest there were no spoils to send back to Rome.  So the Romans had to raise taxes to pay for the cost of empire.  The administration of it.  The protection of it.  And a growing welfare state to keep the people content.  To help with these great expenditures they began to debase the denarius.  Mixing more and more lead into the coin.  Reducing the silver content.  So they could make more coins with the available silver.  Thus making these coins less scarce.  And less valuable.  Unleashing an inflation so bad that it devalued the denarius so much that no amount of them could buy anything.   Eventually even the Roman government would refuse to accept it in payment of taxes.  Demanding gold instead.  Or payment in kind.

When Spain arrived in the New World they found a lot of gold and silver.  Which Europeans used as money in the Old World.  The Spanish brought so much gold and silver back to the Old World that it greatly expanded the money supply.  Making gold and silver less scarce.  And less valuable.  Requiring more of it to buy the things it once bought.  So prices rose.  Because of the inflation of the money supply.

The War Reparations the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany led to their Hyperinflation

During the American Revolution there was little specie (i.e., gold and silver coin) in the colonies.  As wars are expensive this made it difficult to finance the war.  The Continental Congress asked for contributions from the states.  And could only hope the states would give them some money.  For they had no taxing powers.  But they never were able to raise enough money.  So they borrowed what they could.  And then started printing paper money.  The continental.  But they printed so many of them that they were far from scarce.  The massive inflation devalued the continental so much that it created the expression “not worth a continental.”  Which meant something was absolutely worthless.  The people would refuse to accept them as legal tender from the Continental Army because they were worthless pieces of paper.  So the army took what they needed from the people.  And gave them IOUs that Congress would settle at some later date.

The Germans paid for World War I by borrowing money.  The increased debt of the nation during the war devalued the currency.  The German mark.  It took more and more of them to exchange for stronger currencies.  Like the U.S. dollar.  The Versailles Treaty that ended the war saddled Germany with the responsibility for the war.  And made them pay enormous amounts of war reparations.  In gold.  Or foreign currency.  So the Germans turned up the printing presses.  And printed marks like there was no tomorrow.  Making them less scarce.  And worth less.  It took more and more of them to exchange for foreign currency to make their reparation payments.  But they didn’t care what the exchange rate was.  For whatever amount of devalued marks they needed to exchange they just turned to their printing presses.  And printed whatever they needed.  This rapid inflation devalued the mark more.  Requiring them to print more.  Which just fed into the inflation.  Eventually bringing on a hyperinflation where it took enormous amounts of marks to buy anything.  For example, it was cheaper and easier to burn marks than it was to buy firewood to burn.

Anytime you make money less scarce you make it worth less.  The inflation of the money supply devalues the currency.  Which raises prices.  Because it takes more of the devalued currency to buy what it once did before the inflation.  So expanding the money supply leads to price inflation.  Good if you’re a rich investor.  But if you’re someone just trying to buy firewood to keep from freezing to death during the winter?  Not so good.  The Romans, the Europeans, the Americans and the Germans all suffered from bad inflation.  Some worse than others.  If the inflation is so bad, such as in the case of hyperinflation, people may lose all confidence in the currency.  And simply stop using it.  Going to a barter system instead.  Like when a tomato-grower trades his tomatoes for a cheese-maker’s mozzarella cheese.


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Quantitative Easing

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 24th, 2013

Economics 101

The Gold Standard prevented Nations from Devaluing their Currency to Keep Trade Fair

You may have heard of the great gamble the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, has been making.  Quantitative easing (QE).  The current program being QE3.  The third round since the subprime mortgage crisis.  It’s stimulus.  Of the Keynesian variety.  And in QE3 the Federal Reserve has been ‘printing’ $85 billion each month and using it to buy financial assets on the open market.  Greatly increasing the money supply.  But why?  And how exactly is this supposed to stimulate the economy?  To understand this we need to understand monetary policy.

Keynesians hate the gold standard.  They do not like any restrictions on the government’s central bank’s ability to print money.  Which the gold standard did.  The gold standard pegged the U.S. dollar to gold.  Other central banks could exchange their dollars for gold at the exchange rate of $40/ounce.  This made international trade fair by keeping countries from devaluing their currency to gain a trade advantage.  A devalued U.S. dollar gives the purchaser a lot more weaker dollars when they exchange their stronger currency for them.  Allowing them to buy more U.S. goods than they can when they exchange their currency with a nation that has a stronger currency.  So a nation with a strong export economy would like to weaken their currency to entice the buyers of exports to their export market.  Giving them a trade advantage over countries that have stronger currencies.

The gold standard prevented nations from devaluing their currency and kept trade fair.  In the 20th century the U.S. was the world’s reserve currency.  And it was pegged to gold.  Making the U.S. dollar as good as gold.  But due to excessive government spending through the Sixties and into the Seventies the American central bank, the Federal Reserve, began to print money to pay for their ever growing spending obligations.  Thus devaluing their currency.  Giving them a trade advantage.  But because of that convertibility of dollars into gold nations began to do just that.  Exchange their U.S. dollars for gold.  Because the dollar was no longer as good as gold.  So nations opted to hold gold instead.  Instead of the U.S. dollar as their reserve currency.  Causing a great outflow of gold from the U.S. central bank.

Going off of the Gold Standard made the Seventies the Golden Age of Keynesian Economics

This gave President Richard Nixon quite the contrary.  For no nation wants to lose all of their gold reserves.  So what to do?  Make the dollar stronger?  By not only stopping the printing of new money but pulling existing money out of circulation.  Raising interest rates.  And forcing the government to make REAL spending cuts.  Not cuts in future increases in spending.  But REAL cuts in current spending.  Something anathema to Big Government.  So President Nixon chose another option.  He slammed the gold window shut.  Decoupling the dollar from gold.  No longer exchanging gold for dollars.  Known forever after as the Nixon Shock.  Making a Keynesian dream come true.  Finally giving the central bank the ability to print money at will.

The Keynesians said they could make recessions a thing of the past with their ability to control the size of the money supply.  Because everything comes down to consumer spending.  When the consumers spend the economy does well.  When they don’t spend the economy goes into recession.  So when the consumers don’t spend the government will print money (and borrow money) to spend to replace that lost consumer spending.  And increase the amount of money in circulation to make more available to borrow.  Which will lower interest rates.  Encouraging people to borrow money to buy big ticket items.  Like cars.  And houses.  Thus stimulating the economy out of recession.

The Seventies was the golden age of Keynesian economics.  Freed from the responsible restraints of the gold standard the Keynesians could prove all their theories by creating robust economic activity with their control over the money supply.  But it didn’t work.  Their expansionary policies unleashed near hyperinflation.  Destroying consumers’ purchasing power.  As the greatly devalued dollar raised prices everywhere.  As it took more of them to buy the things they once did before that massive inflation.

The only People Borrowing that QE Money are Very Rich People making Wall Street Investments

The Seventies proved that Keynesian stimulus did not work.  But central bankers throughout the world still embrace it.  For it allows them to spend money they don’t have.  And governments, especially governments with large welfare states, love to spend money.  So they keep playing their monetary policy games.  And when recessions come they expand the money supply.  Making it easy to borrow.  Thus lowering interest rates.  To stimulate those big ticket purchases.  But following the subprime
mortgage crisis those near-zero interest rates did not spur the economic activity the Keynesians thought it would.  People weren’t borrowing that money to buy new houses.  Because of the collapse of the housing market leaving more houses on the market than people wanted to buy.  So there was no need to build new houses.  And, therefore, no need to borrow money.

So this is the problem Ben Bernanke faced.  His expansionary monetary policy (increasing the money supply to lower interest rates) was not stimulating any economic activity.  And with interest rates virtually at 0% there was little liquidity Bernanke could add to the economy.  Resulting in a Keynesian liquidity trap.  Interest rates so close to zero that they could not lower them any more to create economic activity.  So they had to find another way.  Some other way to stimulate economic activity.  And that something else was quantitative easing.  The buying of financial assets in the market place by the Federal Reserve.  Pumping enormous amounts of money into the economy.  In the hopes someone would use that money to buy something.  To create that ever elusive economic activity that their previous monetary efforts failed to produce.

But just like their previous monetary efforts failed so has QE failed.  For the only people borrowing that money were very rich people making Wall Street investments.  Making rich people richer.  While doing nothing (so far) for the working class.  Which is why when Bernanke recently said they may start throttling back on that easy money (i.e., tapering) the stock market fell.  As rich people anticipated a coming rise in interest rates.  A rise in business costs.  A fall in business profits.  And a fall in stock prices.  So they were getting out with their profits while the getting was good.  But it gets worse.

The economy is not improving because of a host of other bad policy decisions.  Higher taxes, more regulations on business, Obamacare, etc.  And a massive devaluation of the dollar (by ‘printing’ all of that new money) just hasn’t overcome the current anti-business climate.  But the potential inflation it may unleash worries some.  A lot.  For having a far greater amount of dollars chasing the same amount of goods can unleash the kind of inflation that we had in the Seventies.  Or worse.  And the way they got rid of the Seventies’ near hyperinflation was with a long, painful recession in the Eighties.  This time, though, things can be worse.  For we still haven’t really pulled out of the Great Recession.  So we’ll be pretty much going from one recession into an even worse recession.  Giving the expression ‘the worst recession since the Great Depression’ new meaning.


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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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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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Monetarism, Laissez-Faire Capitalism, Augusto Pinochet, Chile, Hyperinflation, El Ladrillo, Chicago Boys, Milton Friedman and Miracle of Chile

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 6th, 2012

History 101

During the 19th Century Mercantilism gave way to Laissez-Faire Capitalism and Free Trade

Portugal and Spain were superpowers around the 16th and 17th centuries.  Great monarchies with mercantilist economic policies.  Which was all about trade.  Maximize exports.  Minimize imports.  Settle colonies to mine/harvest raw material.  To ship back to the mother country.  Where they manufactured goods from the raw materials.  And exported them to other countries.  Selling them for gold and silver.  Which was key.  Maximizing the trade surplus in the balance of trade.  Finished goods going out.  Gold and silver coming in.  For the nation that gathered the most gold and silver won in the zero-sum game of mercantilism.  Where the monarchy works with business.  Picking winners and losers.  And rewarding the winners who help enrich the monarchy.

Of course, these policies force a kingdom’s subjects to pay higher prices.  By keeping out lower-priced imports.  And with special deals favoring some domestic industries so they can sell at monopoly prices.  They nationalized their Industries.  Creating an aristocratic class.  Composed of government officials.  And their partners in the nationalized industries.  Living the good life on the backs of the poor.  Who paid high taxes.  And high prices.  To support those mercantilist policies.  And it was these policies that settled South America.  Taking all of their gold and silver (bullion).  Shipping it back to the mother country.  The surge in bullion in Europe made it less scarce.  And less valuable.  Meaning it took more of it to buy the same things it once did before this surge.  Resulting in higher prices.  And inflation.  Hurting the consumer more.  And leading to the development of the quantity theory of money.  And monetarism.  Which held that the amount of money in circulation had a direct impact on prices.  The more money the higher the prices.

With the rise of Parliament in Britain power shifted from the king to the people.  Via their representatives in Parliament.  Instead of rule by dictate there was rule by consent.  Which made the business of choosing winners and losers more difficult.  Parliament had the power.  But Parliament was more than one person.  It was full of special interests.  Which made it more and more difficult to choose any one special interest over another.  Unable to curry favor for one’s own interest one didn’t support another’s interest.  At least not when that support came at the expense of your interests.  So there was another power shift in addition from the king to parliament.  There was also one from the king to the markets.  So during the 19th century mercantilism gave way to laissez-faire capitalism.  And free trade.  An economic system that let the British Empire dominate the world during the 19th century.  Making it rich.  And powerful.  Thanks to that vigorous economic activity that could build the world’s most powerful navy.  And pay for an army to garrison an empire.  Meanwhile the old school mercantilist empires fell from superpower status.  And became shadows of their former selves.  Soon the Spanish and Portuguese colonies would gain their independence from these dying empires.

Milton Friedman’s Monetarism turned the Chilean Economy Around

The South American nations may have hated their European masters but they liked one thing about them.  Their mercantilist policies.  Which survived into the 20th century.  Where government partnered with business.  In the worst of crony capitalism.  Where special interests that favored the ruling powers received government favors in return.  Usually protected markets.  And favorable legislation.  That allowed them monopoly prices.  Giving them great profits.  Generous union wages and benefits.  And generous health care and pensions.  At least, for those politically connected.  So the government rigged the game for them.  And they made it worth the government’s while to rig the game.  All of this paid for on the backs of the poor.  Who paid high taxes.  As well as high prices.  And suffered abject poverty.  Which made for an unhappy people.  And a large amount of government turnover through revolution as dictatorships and military juntas overthrew other dictatorships and military juntas.

In 1973 it was Augusto Pinochet’s turn in Chile.  Who came to power in a military coup.  At the time the country wasn’t doing so well.  And in full mercantilism.  The economy was in the toilet.  There was abject poverty.  And hyperinflation (peaking at 1000% or so) as the government printed money to pay for its out of control spending.  To try and bribe the angry mob and keep them from overthrowing the latest dictatorship.  Pinochet was the guy to fix that.  Like everybody that came before him.  And after his military junta failed as the previous military juntas failed, he tried something new.  Thanks to something called El Ladrillo.  And economic plan so thick and heavy they called it ‘the brick’.  A plan prepared by the Chicago Boys.  Chilean economists schooled in the Chicago school of economics.  Pinochet even met with Milton Friedman.  Prominent economist of the Chicago school.  And monetarist.  Who came down to give a speech.  (Interestingly, for the American left roundly criticized Friedman for giving a speech in a right-wing dictatorship.  Though he received no such criticism for giving the same speech in a left-wing dictatorship – communist China.  Showing that the political left was okay with human rights violations as long as they were committed in the left-wing dictatorships they so admired). 

Pinochet asked for some economic advice.  Friedman gave it.  And Pinochet followed it.  He ditched the mercantilist policies.  Embraced laissez-faire capitalism.  Privatized the state industries.  Established free trade.  Cut government spending.  And stopped printing money.  Ending the hyperinflation.  Replacing it with a strict monetary policy.  This didn’t please the politically connected as they lost their privilege.  But Friedman’s monetarism turned the Chilean economy around.  Creating a prosperous market economy.  With a growing middle class.  The strong economic growth led to some healthy tax revenue.  Which in later years funded antipoverty programs.  The Miracle of Chile even replaced the military junta with a democratic government.  Chile now has one of the healthiest and freest economies in the world.  An economy better and stronger than their former colonial master.  Spain.  Who maintained enough of their mercantilist policies to pull them into the Eurozone debt crisis.  And probably could learn a thing or two from their one-time colony.  Who is doing very well these days.  Thanks to the Miracle of Chile.  Milton Friedman.  And the Chicago Boys.  Those great Chilean economists given a chance by of all people a military dictator.

Everyone does Better under Free Market Capitalism, not just the Politically Connected

In 2010 a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti.  A country rife with political corruption.  With little, if any, free market capitalism.  And even less rule of law.  Where most people live in abject poverty.  In ramshackle housing.  This earthquake claimed 230,000 lives.  A heart-wrenching loss of life.  Especially sad because the impoverished masses suffered the most.  As is often the case in countries with poor economic and political institutions. 

Later that same year, an 8.8 earthquake hit Chile.  Thanks to the economic reforms that rebuilt Chile into a healthy and prosperous democracy, Chileans did not live in ramshackle housing.  The higher standard of living created by the Chicago Boys’ economic reforms created better housing.  And safer cities.  Because of this the far stronger earthquake in Chile killed far fewer people than the lesser earthquake in Haiti.  The death toll in Chile was less than 1,000.  Which is impressive considering that was one of the most powerful earthquakes in recorded history.

Economics matter.  Say what you want about free market capitalism.  Malign it all you will.  But you can’t change some facts.  In particular, everyone does better under free market capitalism.  Including the poor.  For if this wasn’t the case Chile would have seen the loss of life Haiti saw.  But they didn’t.  Because there were no impoverished masses living in ramshackle housing in Chile.  Because those economic reforms improved the standard of living for all Chileans.  Not just the politically connected.


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Some say the Germans should Remember that Austerity gave them Hitler and should therefore Forgive some Greek Debt

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 19th, 2012

Week in Review

There are more Nazi comparisons in the continuing saga of the Greek debt crisis as people keep picking on Germany.  The strongest Eurozone state.  And the only one who can bail out the weaker ones (see Germany has forgotten the lessons of war reparations by Jeremy Warner posted 2/17/2012 on The Telegraph).

While on the subject of historical parallels, there’s another which has not yet been given sufficient an airing. This was the vexing question of German war reparations after the slaughter of the First World War, brilliantly identified by John Maynard Keynes at the time in his polemic, “Economic Consequences of the Peace”, as fundamentally unfair on the Germans. Keynes branded the Treaty of Versailles a “Carthaginian Peace”.

True.  The Treaty of Versailles did treat the Germans unfairly.  A word commonly bandied about at the time in Germany was humiliated.  And betrayed.  Even stabbed in the back.  Because the Germans didn’t start that war.  Everyone was eager to go to war.  And nearly everyone did thanks to those entangling alliances that George Washington warned us about.  And another thing.  The Germans didn’t lose the war.  No one did.  And no one won the war.  It ended in an armistice.  Much like the Korean War.  And yet during the treaty process they identified Germany as the sole culprit that caused the war.  And the allies all tried to recoup their losses and rebuild their empires by bleeding Germany dry.

Part of Germany’s purpose during interminable attempts to renegotiate these debts on less oppressive terms was to demonstrate that the German economy was in no position to pay – ergo, the creditor was at some stage going to have to take an almighty hit. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that the Weimar hyperinflation was deliberately engineered in order to demonstrate this fact beyond doubt. There can be no other explanation for the bizarrely ruinous policies of deficit financing pursued by the Bundesbank at that time. No sane central banker could possibly have sanctioned such a strategy…

Given its history, it is quite strange that Germany has such difficulty in grasping this reality. It is sometimes said that German attitudes to the economy and the current crisis are instructed by experience of Weimar inflation and its catastrophic consequences. Yet it wasn’t hyperinflation that brought Hitler to power, but rather the depression of the early 1930s, which in Germany’s case was greatly exaggerated by the pro-cyclical austerity the government of the time insisted on applying to the problem. Those who who [sic] don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

The Weimar hyperinflation played a part.  But what really motivated Hitler was the Versailles Treaty.  Hitler was a veteran of WWI.  He served bravely.  Was promoted to corporal.  Suffered temporary blindness from a gas attack.  And he knew the Germans weren’t beaten.  Exhausted?  Yes.  War weary?  Yes.  But militarily defeated?  No.  It was the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty that drove Hitler.  So much so that when his panzer armies conquered France he met the French in a special rail car to sign the instrument of surrender.  The same rail car the Germans signed the humiliating Versailles Treaty.

Many Germans rallied around Hitler because they felt the same way.  Germany had grown to be the dominating European power.  And that treaty did what Germany’s enemies couldn’t do.   Change the balance of power in Europe.  To reverse the German successes of the last century or so.  This is what brought Hitler to power.  Vengeance.  To right the wrongs done to Germany.  Had they not been so wronged it is unlikely that a gifted orator would have risen to inflame the masses.  For there may have been no hyperinflation without those punishing reparations in the first place.  And without that economic crisis the world wouldn’t even know the name Adolf Hitler.  (Probably.  Unless a prosperous Weimar Germany liked and bought his art.  Then instead of remembering him as a crazed mass murderer we would remember him as an artist.)

In contrast nobody wronged Greece.  They got into this mess on their own.  By irresponsible government spending.  And the cure for irresponsible spending is responsible spending.  Not forgiving debt so they can keep spending irresponsibly.  German hyperinflation resulted from unjust war reparations that destroyed the German economy.  The Greek crisis resulted from irresponsible spending that destroyed the Greek economy.  Spending is the problem.  It needs to be cut.  So they stop running deficits.  And stop growing their debt.  But cutting government spending is easier said than done.  For once the government makes the people dependent on government benefits the people tend to not want to give them up.  But they must.  It’s the only way to fix the underlying problem.  Irresponsible spending.  And forgiving debt not only misses this central point.  It encourages more of the same.


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The Eurozone to fail because they will Never have the Fiscal or Political Union Required to make a Currency Union Work

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 11th, 2011

Week in Review

The Eurozone is doomed.  For the things they say they need to do they just can’t agree to do (see Like it or not, the euro is doomed by Hibah Yousuf posted 12/9/2011 on CNN Money).

European leaders, particularly from France and Germany — the eurozone’s two largest economies — have had very different views on the ultimate role of the fiscal compact, and the latest proposals are just “too little, too late, and miss the structural problem,” said Leach.

Germany has been strongly opposed to sending the ECB down a path of printing money to stabilize Europe’s economy.

“Printing money is associated with hyperinflation, the collapse of the Weimer Republic, and the rise of Hitler,” noted Leach. “From a German perspective the question is that, once the ECB has lost its virginity printing money, just how promiscuous could it become.”

Hyperinflation and the collapse didn’t happen when they started printing money.  These happened after they printed a lot of money.  It was a progression.  For it takes time to make your currency worthless.  Which is something the Germans don’t want to experience again.  Because it didn’t end well for them the first time.

Afseth said the fiscal union needs to focus more on boosting economic growth, rather than just pushing for budgetary discipline and fiscal austerity. And it needs to advocate for pooling the eurozone’s debt together, so the region can issue eurobonds, another highly contentious topic among Europe’s political leaders.

Despite the multitude and extent of the political disagreements that could lead to the eurozone’s crumble in the near-term, more optimistic experts say Europe’s leaders will likely find a middle ground to avoid the severe economic consequences.

“The political arguments are strong, but they come against a hard economic reality,” said Andrew Milligan, head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments in Edinburgh, Scotland, noting that the costs for a single country leaving the eurozone could amount to at least 15% or 25% of its economy, if not more.

There are those who want the European Central Bank (ECB) to assume the debt of the member states.  Like the U.S. did in 1790.  But the Americans already had a currency union.  And a political union.  As well as a common language.  A common heritage.  Common institutions.  A national post office.  And a lot of other common things.  With only about 100 years of history.  And despite all of this the idea of assumption did not go over well.  It took a fight.  And some wheeling and dealing.  Europe, on the other hand, has only a common currency.  And they’ve been around for about 2,000 years of history.  So chances are all they will have is a common currency.  And they may not be able to save that.

The Eurozone was the answer to the United States.  The world’s number one economy.  Because within her borders was the largest free trade zone in the world.  Which exploded her economic growth to the top spot.  The Eurozone was to replicate that in Europe.  A united states of Europe.  And it worked.  But it probably won’t last.  If only one nation drops out of the Eurozone it could reduce the economy of the united states of Europe by 25%.  And if one goes more will probably follow.  This economic powerhouse will be united no longer.  And it will probably plunge Europe into recession.

“A break-up could result in very major recession in Europe, and so it’s hard to imagine how any politicians and governments could possibly make a conscious, voluntary decisions to leave the eurozone,” said Milligan.

So clearly the Euro failing will be too painful to endure.  So painful that the member states will try everything within their power to prevent that.  Including trying to get the ECB to issue Eurobonds.  And print money.  Much like Richard Nixon did when he abandoned the gold standard in 1971.  Saying he was then a Keynesian, too.  And the U.S. spun out of control with double digit inflation rates.  High unemployment.  Stagflation.  And it wasn’t Keynesian economics that finally fixed this mess.  It was the anti-inflation policies of Paul Volcker of the central bank.  He raised interest rates.  And stopped printing money.  This fixed the inflation problem.  Then Ronald Reagan fixed the economic problem.  By cutting taxes.  Something the Europeans may not be physiologically able to do.

So it really doesn’t matter what they do.  For the end will be the same.  It may be sooner or later.  But the Eurozone will most probably dissolve.  Because they will never have the fiscal or political union required to make a currency union work.


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The Zimbabwean Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono does not Approve of Current American Monetary Policy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 4th, 2011

Week in Review

For all of you tax/print and spend Keynesians, here’s an example of what can go wrong when you try to print away all your financial worries (see The Dollar Is Dead, Says the World’s Worst Central Banker by Reuters posted 12/2/2011 the Atlantic).

You might not be a fan of Ben Bernanke’s monetary policies. And you might be fed up with the European Central Bank’s dawdling. But whatever their shortcomings might be, at least they’re not responsible for 231,000,000% inflation.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Zimbabwe Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono.

Gono was the man who turned on the printing presses to fund Zimbabwe’s government after dictator Robert Mugabe drove its economy off a cliff. The resulting hyperinflation left the Zimbabwe dollar effectively worthless. But at the very least, everybody got some totally sweet 100-trillion-dollar bills. They even kind of looked like monopoly money.

Nowadays, Zimbabwe uses the American dollar as its main official currency.

Imagine you are a Zimbabwean.  You had your life savings in the bank.  Saved up from working hard and pinching your pennies.  And you won the lottery.  All together let’s say you accumulated one million dollars for your retirement.  The only problem is that you are a Zimbabwean.  And those dollars are now worthless.  So you have nothing.  And can’t retire.

This is what hyperinflation does.  Inflation does the same.  Only at a slower pace.  It makes your money worth less.  And as it shrinks prices soar.  Because that money becomes more worthless with every day.  And it takes more and more of that useless stuff to buy anything.

“With the continuous firming of the Chinese yuan, the US dollar is fast ceasing to be the world’s reserve currency and the Euro-Zone debt crisis has made things even worse,” he said earlier this week, according to New Zimbabwe. “As a country, we still have the opportunity to avoid being caught napping by adopting the Chinese yuan as part of consolidating the country’s look East policy.”

As Zero Hedge pointed out, it’s a bit concerning that the man responsible for the world’s most staggering monetary failure now sees storm clouds gathering around the greenback. On the other hand, it’s the man responsible for the world’s most staggering monetary failure. We may need to take his opinion with a grain of salt.

If that ain’t a kick in the crotch.  An architect of monetary destruction wagging his finger at American monetary policy.  Sure, we should take his opinion with a grain of salt.  But if anyone knows anything about inflation, this guy does.

Of course, Zimbabwe ships about 40% of its exports to China.  So that may be part of it, too.  That may help them gain some better terms with the Chinese.  But still.  If anyone knows what NOT to do it’s this guy.  And it sounds like he’s telling the Americans that they are doing what they should not be doing.  Printing money.  Like he did.


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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 4th, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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