Two Consecutive Negative Quarterly Growth Rates in Business Earnings say we’re in a Recession

Posted by PITHOCRATES - March 9th, 2013

Week in Review

Business earnings drive everything in the economy.  Every dollar a person spends in the economy came from a business.  From someone spending their paycheck.  To someone spending their government assistance.  Because business provides every tax dollar the government collects.  Whether from the business directly.  Or from their employees.  So business earnings are everything.  If they’re not earning profits they’re not creating jobs.  And the fewer people that are working the less tax revenue there is.

Lakshman Achuthan with the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) looks at business earnings and has found a direct correlation between the growth rate of business earnings and recessionary periods.  Finding that whenever there were 2 or more consecutive quarters of a falling growth rate in business earnings we were in a recession.  Business Insider has reproduced his chart showing this correlation as well as quoting from his report (see CHART OF THE DAY: A Stock Market Trend Has Developed That Coincided With The Last 3 Recessions by Sam Ro posted 3/6/2013 on Business Insider).

This is a bar chart of S&P 500 operating earnings growth going back a quarter of a century on a consistent basis, as we understand from S&P. Others can choose their own definitions of operating earnings, but this is the data from S&P. In this chart, the height of the red bar indicates the number of consecutive quarters of negative earnings growth.

It is interesting that, historically, there have never been two or more quarters of negative earnings growth outside of a recessionary context. On this chart, showing the complete history of the data, the only times we see two or more quarters of negative growth are in 1990-91, 2000-01, 2007-09 and, incidentally, in 2012. This data is not susceptible to the kind of revisions one sees with government data. The point is that this type of earnings recession is not surprising when nominal GDP growth falls below 3.7%. So, even though the level of corporate profits is high, this evidence is also consistent with recession.

Follow the above link to see this chart.

The stock market is doing well now thanks to the Federal Reserve flooding the market with cheap dollars.  Investors are borrowing money to invest because of artificially low interest rates.  So the rich are getting richer in the Obama recovery.  But only the rich.  For an administration that is so concerned about ‘leveling the playing field’ their economic policies continually tip it in favor of the rich.  Who can make money even if the economy is not creating new jobs.  Which it isn’t.

All of these recessions can be traced back to John Maynard Keynes.  And Keynesian economics.  Playing with interest rates to stimulate economic activity.  The 1990-91 recession was made so bad because of the savings and loan (S&L) crisis.  Which itself is the result of government interventions into the private economy.  First they set a maximum limit on interest rates S&Ls (and banks) could offer.  Then the Keynesians (in particular President Nixon) decoupled the dollar from gold.  Unleashing inflation.  Causing S&Ls to lose business as people were withdrawing their money to save it in a higher-interest money market account.  Then they deregulated the S&Ls to try and save them from being devastated by rising inflation rates.  Which the S&Ls used to good advantage by borrowing money and loaning it at a higher rate.  Then Paul Volcker and President Reagan brought that destructive high inflation rate down. Leaving these S&Ls with a lot of high-cost debt on their books that they couldn’t service.  And while this was happening the real estate bubble burst.  Reducing what limited business they had.  Making that high-cost debt even more difficult to service.  Ultimately ending in the S&L crisis.  And the 1990-91 recession.

Fast forward to the subprime mortgage crisis and it was pretty much the same thing.  Bad government policy (artificially low interest rates and federal pressure to qualify the unqualified) created another massive real estate bubble.  This one built on toxic subprime mortgages.  Which banks sold to get them off of their books as fast as possible because they knew the mortgage holders couldn’t pay their mortgage payment if interest rates rose.  Increasing the rate, and the monthly payment, on their adjustable rate mortgage (ARM).  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought and/or guaranteed these toxic mortgages and sold them to their friends on Wall Street.  Who chopped and diced them into collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).  Sold them as high-yield low-risk investments to unsuspecting investors.  And when interest rates rose and those ARMs reset at higher interest rates, and higher monthly payments, the subprime borrowers couldn’t pay their mortgages anymore.  Causing a slew of foreclosures.  Giving us the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

In between these two government-caused disasters was another.  The dot-com bubble.  Where artificially low interest rates and irrational exuberance gave us the great dot-com bubble.  As venture capitalists poured money into the dot-coms who had nothing to sell, had no revenue and no profits.  But they could just as well be the next Microsoft.  And investors wanted to be in on the next Microsoft from the ground floor.  So they poured start-up capital into these start-ups.  Helped by those low interest rates.  And these start-ups created a high-tech boom.  Colleges couldn’t graduate people with computer science degrees fast enough to build the stuff that was going to make bazillions off of that new fangled thing.  The Internet.  Even cities got into the action.  Offering incentives for these dot-coms to open up shop in their cities.  Building expansive and expensive high-tech corridors for them.  Everyone was making money working for these companies.  Staffed with an army of new computer programmers.  Who were living well.  The brightest in their field earning some serious money.  So they and their bosses were getting rich.  Only one problem.  The companies weren’t.  For they had nothing to sell.  And when the start-up capital finally ran out the dot-com boom turned into the dot-com bust.  As the dot-com bubble burst.  And when it did the NASDAQ crashed in 2000.  When it became clear that all of President Clinton’s prosperity in the Nineties was nothing more than an illusion.  There would be 4 consecutive quarters of negative growth in business earnings before the dust finally settled.  One quarter worse than both the S&L crisis and the subprime mortgage crisis recessions.

And now here we are.  With 2 consecutive quarters of negative earnings growth under our belt.  Based on this chart this has happened only three times in the past 3 decades.  The 1990-91 recession.  The 2000-01 recession.  And the 2007-09 recession.  Which if his theory holds we are in store for another very nasty and very long recession.  No matter what the government economic data tells us.

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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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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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Argentines prefer having U.S. Dollars Under the Mattress over having Argentine Pesos in the Bank

Posted by PITHOCRATES - June 16th, 2012

Week in Review

No one likes austerity.  The Greeks hate it so much they may vote to leave the Euro.  So they can keep printing money.  To pay for a bloated public sector and generous state benefits.  For it is the easy way out.  It’ll put people back to work on the government payroll.  And solve all of their problems.  Well, not all of their problems (see Argentina loses a third of its dollar deposits by Jorge Otaola posted 6/8/2012 on Reuters Africa).

Argentine banks have seen a third of their U.S. dollar deposits withdrawn since November as savers chase greenbacks in response to stiffening foreign exchange restrictions, local banking sources said on Friday.

Depositors withdrew a total of about $100 million per day over the last month in a safe-haven bid fueled by uncertainty over policies that might be adopted as pressure grows to keep U.S. currency in the country.

The chase for dollars is motivated by fear that the government may further toughen its clamp down on access to the U.S. currency as high inflation and lack of faith in government policy erode the local peso…

Feisty populist leader Fernandez was re-elected in October vowing to “deepen the model” of the interventionist policies associated with her predecessor, Nestor Kirchner, who is also her late husband.

Since then she has limited imports, imposed capital controls and seized a majority stake in top energy company YPF…

Many are taking what dollars they can get their hands on and stashing them under the mattress or in safety deposit boxes, fearing moves by the government to forcibly “de-dollarize” the economy. Officials have strongly denied any such plan…

She wants Argentines to end their love affair with the greenback and start saving in pesos despite inflation clocked by private economists at about 25 percent per year…

But savers in crisis-prone Argentina are notoriously jittery. Memories of tight limits on bank withdrawals and a sharp currency devaluation remain fresh a decade after the country’s massive sovereign debt default.

To put this another way, if you have an inflation rate of 25% you’d have to have an interest rate on your bank savings account of at least 25% just to break even.  But you’re probably not going to get 25%.  Let’s say you only get 5%.  With this information you now have to make a choice.  You can buy a $1,000 wide-screen television now even though you don’t have the room for it.  Or you can wait 4 years to buy it when you will have the room for it.  Well, your savings will only earn about $200 interest in those 4 years.  Bringing your account balance to about $1,200.  But at a 25% annual inflation rate that television will cost about $2,500 after 4 years (increase the price of the television 25% each year).  So the smart choice is to buy the set now because your savings will lose so much of their purchasing power in 4 years that you won’t be able to buy it then.

This is the cost of Keynesian economics and fiat money.  When governments can print money they do.  Some more than others.  But the more they print the more inflation they create.  And the more faith people lose in their currency.  Which is a very bad thing to happen with fiat money.  Because the only value fiat money has is the faith people put into it.  And when they lose that faith they put U.S. dollars under their mattresses.  Because they know those dollars will hold more of their purchasing power than Argentine Pesos.

Populist leaders are popular for a reason.  They appeal to the angry mob.  Blame their problems on others.  And enact popular policies that will lead a nation to their ruin.  The Argentines have seen it a few times.  One of their leaders even invaded the Falkland Islands once to distract the people from their horrible economy.  One wonders if their current leader may do the same.  Especially as they’re now looking for oil down there.

All the Keynesian economists belittle anyone who talks about austerity and spending cuts.  They say the answer is to spend more not less.  Despite the fact that every country in a financial crisis got into that crisis by spending more not less.  But Keynesians like inflation.  Because it’s a hidden tax.  And a great way to transfer more private wealth to the government.  They especially love that part about your savings losing their purchasing power.  Because they owe a lot of money.  And it’s easier to repay old loans in those highly depreciated dollars.  Especially when you can print them.

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Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan, Interstate Commerce Act, Sherman Antitrust Act, Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Federal Reserve, Nixon and Reagan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 31st, 2012

History 101

Government Induced Inflation caused the Panic of 1893 and caused the Worst Depression until the Great Depression

Britain kicked off the Industrial Revolution.  Then handed off the baton to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century.  As American industry roared.  Great industrialists modernize America.  And the world.  Andrew Carnegie made steel inexpensive and plentiful.  He built railroad track and bridges.  And the steel-skeleton buildings of U.S. cities.  Including the skyscrapers.  John D. Rockefeller saved the whales.  By producing less expensive kerosene to burn in lamps instead of the more expensive whale oil.  He refined oil and brought it to market cheaper and more efficiently than anyone else.  Fueling industrial activity and expansion.  J.P. Morgan developed and financed railroads.  Made them more efficient.  Profitable.  And moved goods and people more efficiently than ever before.  Raising the standard of living to heights never seen before. 

The industrial economy was surging along.  And all of this without a central bank.  Credit was available.  So much so that it unleashed unprecedented economic growth.  That would have kept on going had government not stopped it.  With the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890.  Used by competitors who could not compete against the economy of scales of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan and sell at their low prices.  So they used their friends in government to raise prices so they didn’t have to be as competitive and efficient as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Morgan.  This legislation restrained the great industrialists.  Which began the era of complying with great regulatory compliance costs.  And expending great effort to get around those great regulatory compliance costs.

Also during the late 19th century there was a silver boom.  This dumped so much silver on the market that miners soon were spending more in mining it than they were selling it for.  Also, farmers were using the latest in technology to mechanize their farms.  They put more land under cultivation and increased farm yields.  So much so that prices fell.  They fell so far that farmers were struggling to pay their debts.  So the silver miners used their friends in government to solve the problems of both miners and farmers.  The government passed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which increased the amount of silver the government purchased.  Issuing new treasury notes.  Redeemable in both gold and silver.  The idea was to create inflation to raise prices and help those farmers.  By allowing them to repay old debt easier with a depreciated currency.  And how did that work?  Investors took those new bank notes and exchanged them for gold.  And caused a run on U.S. gold reserves that nearly destroyed the banking system.  Plunging the nation in crisis.  The Panic of 1893.  The worst depression until the Great Depression.

Richard Nixon Decoupled the Dollar from Gold and the Keynesians Cheered 

J.P. Morgan stepped in and loaned the government gold to stabilize the banking system.  He would do it again in the Panic of 1907.  The great industrialists created unprecedented economic activity during the latter half of the 19th century.  Only to see poor government policies bring on the worst depression until the Great Depression.  A crisis one of the great industrialists, J.P. Morgan, rescued the country from.  But great capitalists like Morgan wouldn’t always be there to save the country.  Especially the way new legislation was attacking them.  So the U.S. created a central bank.  The Federal Reserve System.  Which was in place and ready to respond to the banking crisis following the stock market crash of 1929.  And did such a horrible job that they gave us the worst depression since the Panic of 1893.  The Great Depression.  Where we saw the greatest bank failures in U.S. history.  Failures the Federal Reserve was specifically set up to prevent.

The 1930s was a lost decade thanks to even more bad government policy.  FDR’s New Deal programs did nothing to end the Great Depression.  Only capitalism did.  And a new bunch of great industrialists.  Who were allowed to tool up and make their factories hum again.  Without having to deal with costly regulatory compliance.  Thanks to Adolf Hitler.  And the war he started.  World War II.  The urgency of the times repealed governmental nonsense.  And the industrialists responded.  Building the planes, tanks and trucks that defeated Hitler.  The Arsenal of Democracy.  And following the war with the world’s industrial centers devastated by war, these industrialists rebuilt the devastated countries.  The fifties boomed thanks to a booming export economy.  But it wouldn’t last.  Eventually those war-torn countries rebuilt themselves.  And LBJ would become president.

The Sixties saw a surge in government spending.  The U.S. space program was trying to put a man on the moon.  The Vietnam War escalated.  And LBJ introduced us to massive new government spending.  The Great Society.  The war to end poverty.  And racial injustice.  It failed.  At least, based on ever more federal spending and legislation to end poverty and racial injustice.  But that government spending was good.  At least the Keynesians thought so.  Richard Nixon, too.  Because he was inflating the currency to keep that spending going.  But the U.S. dollar was pegged to gold.  And this devaluation of the dollar was causing another run on U.S. gold reserves.  But Nixon responded like a true Keynesian.  And broke free from the shackles of gold.  By decoupling the dollar from gold.  And the Keynesians cheered.  Because the government could now use the full power of monetary policy to make recessions and unemployment a thing of the past.

Activist, Interventionist Government have brought Great Economic Booms to Collapse 

The Seventies was a decade of pure Keynesian economics.  It was also the decade that gave us double digit interest rates.  And double digit inflation rates.  It was the decade that gave us the misery index (the inflation rate plus the unemployment rate).  And stagflation.  The combination of a high inflation rate you normally only saw in boom times coupled with a high unemployment rate you only saw during recessionary times.  Something that just doesn’t happen.  But it did.  Thanks to Keynesian economics.  And bad monetary policy.

Ronald Reagan was no Keynesian.  He was an Austrian school supply-sider.  He and his treasury secretary, Paul Volcker, attacked inflation.  The hard way.  The only way.  Through a painful recession.  They stopped depreciating the dollar.  And after killing the inflation monster they lowered interest rates.  Cut tax rates.  And made the business climate business-friendly.  Capitalists took notice.  New entrepreneurs rose.  Innovated.  Created new technologies.  The Eighties was the decade of Silicon Valley.  And the electronics boom.  Powering new computers.  Electronic devices.  And software.  Businesses computerized and became more efficient.  Machine tools became computer-controlled.  The economy went high-tech.  Efficient.  And cool.  Music videos, CD players, VCRs, cable TV, satellite TV, cell phones, etc.  It was a brave new world.  Driven by technology.  And a business-friendly environment.  Where risk takers took risks.  And created great things.

History has shown that capitalists bring great things to market when government doesn’t get in the way.  With their punishing fiscal policies.  And inept monetary policies.  Activist, interventionist government have brought great economic booms to collapse.  Who meddle and turn robust economic activity into recessions.  And recessions into depressions.  The central bank being one of their greatest tools of destruction.  Because policy is too often driven by Big Government idealism.  And not the proven track record of capitalism.  As proven by the great industrialists.  And high-tech entrepreneurs.  Time and time again.

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LESSONS LEARNED #87: “In a democracy you hold the keys to the treasury. So be careful of what you ask for.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - October 13th, 2011

Keynesian Spending gave us Double Digit Interests Rates, Double Digit Inflation Rates and Stagflation

LBJ was going to end poverty.  He declared war on it.  His soldiers?  Dollars.  Lots of them.  His battle plan?  The Great Society.  Tactics?  Just throw lots of money at a problem.  Hope that some of it actually hit its target.  And further hope that some of the money that did hit its target actually did something beneficial.  Just hope for the best.

And thus grew the welfare state.  The recipients liked it.  Because they were the recipients.  Government liked it.  Because the recipients liked it.  Who voted for them out of gratitude.  And dependency.  And the Keynesian economists liked it.  Because government spending was stimulus.  And they love stimulus.  These Keynesian economists.  So everybody kept asking for more.  As no one saw the harm in printing money to make people feel good.

The Keynesian said this was proof that a manageable amount of continuous inflation (printing money) would do away with the business cycle.  The boom and bust that had recurring good times.  And recurring recessions.  They said let’s just have a continuous boom.  When real demand fell just create artificial demand by having the government step in.  Let the government stimulate demand by printing money to spend.  And they did.  GDP went up.  Thus proving their theory.  Or so they thought.  Until they realized printing all that money had so weakened the dollar that interests rates soared.  To double digits.  As did prices.  Giving us double digit inflation rates.  And stagflation.  That’s why the economy sucked in the Seventies.  And why Jimmy Carter was a one term president.

Bad Monetary Policy gave us Cheap Money, the Housing Bubble and the Subprime Mortgage Crisis

After the dot-com bubble burst the economy went into recession.  So the government went to their patented recession cure-all.  Monetary policy.  Playing with interest rates.  I.e., printing money.  Because housing sales have always been the key to a growing economy.  Because building a house generates a lot of economic activity.  And furnishing a house generates even more economic activity.  So the best way to kick-start the economy was to get more people into houses.  The more the better.  Whether they could afford to or not.  Because no matter what happens, people always pay their mortgage.

So the government kept interest rates low.  Artificially low.  To encourage people to borrow money.  To buy housees.  And they did.  But not enough of them did.  Poor people weren’t buying.  Mortgage bankers were turning them down.  Because they couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.  So the government pressured them to approve people even if they didn’t qualify.  Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guaranteed these risky mortgages.  Then bought them.  It worked.  Thanks to ARMs and no-doc mortgages, anyone could walk in off the street and get a cheap mortgage with little down.  The people liked it.  And asked for more.  Thus began the housing boom.

People were buying and selling houses like there was no tomorrow.  Investors were flipping homes.  People were moving up into McMansions.  Bidding the price of houses into the stratosphere.  Paying whatever the price was.  Because the money was so cheap to borrow.  Artificially low.  Which really inflated the price of these houses.  To unsustainable levels.  Until the bubble burst.  And these prices began to correct to reflect reality.  The Fed, waking up the next morning in a stupor, saw what they had done.  And desperately tried to fix things.  To limit the damage.  They raised interest rates.  ARMs reset.  And the great Subprime Mortgage Crisis began.  And thanks to Fannie and Freddie buying those risky mortgages, the contagion spread around the world.  To everyone who bought what they thought were safe investments backed by safe mortgages.  Because people always paid their mortgages.   But were, in fact, backed by the riskiest of all investments.  Defaulting subprime mortgages.

The Social Democracies’ Spending gave European Countries Staggering Debt and a Sovereign Debt Crisis

Karl Marx was a German.  But his theories quickly swept across the Rhine.  Soon there were communists everywhere in the West.    After World II, when communism became the new enemy, Western Europe favored something called social democracies.  Communism-light.  The social welfare state.  Cradle to the grave nanny state.  With generous state benefits.  National health care.  Pensions.  You name it.  And the state gave it.

People liked it.  Asked for more.  And their governments were glad to oblige.  They spent more and more money.  Rather, they spent more and more of the taxpayers’ money.  These social democracies had some of the highest tax rates.  Which was fine with the poor receiving these generous state benefits.  But it explains why anti-capitalists like John Lennon and Bono moved out of the UK.  To escape the high taxes on the wealth they created with free market capitalism.  So there was a capital flight out of these social democracies.  While at the same time their public sectors grew.  More and more people worked for the government.  Received government pay and benefits.  And generous pensions.  The people liked this.  And asked for more.  Except Lennon and Bono, of course.  And the other superrich who fled these social democracies.

As tax rates climb and capital flees, though, economic activity stagnates.  Which forces these countries to borrow.  And borrow some of them did.  Some of the smaller countries in the Eurozone (Greece) are so in debt that they can’t even roll over their existing debt.  They are in such a mess that no one wants to take a chance loaning them money.  Because no one thinks Greece will ever be able to repay whatever they borrow.  Of course, with the common currency (Euro), Greece’s problems are everyone’s problems.  So the richer countries in the Eurozone (Germany) are pouring money into the ECB to try and rescue Greece.  And save the Euro.  What we call the European sovereign debt crisis.  While the world waits with bated breath.  Because if they fail it could very well plunge the world into another severe recession.  Or worse.  Because the world needs the Eurozone.  To buy their exports.  So they can prop up their own sick economies.

Class Warfare pits the Rich against the Poor and Middle Class, the Taxpayers against the Public Sector

Many, if not all, of the great crises countries have…are…going through is because of bad monetary policy.  Using the power of the purse to make happy voters.  Whatever the cost.  For they were always sure they could avoid paying this cost.  That they could always keep pushing this cost off onto a future generation.  But the spending grew too great.  The debt grew too high.  And, before they knew it, that future generation was here.  And it’s us.

The people grew fat and lazy on these generous benefits.  And they never worried about the cost.  Because the cost was always someone else’s problem.  Until now.  Not only are they losing some of these generous benefits.  But they now have to pay for some of them.  The cost being so great that everyone has to pay their ‘fair’ share.  Which was fair when ‘everyone’ didn’t include them.  But it now includes them.  And they don’t like it one bit.  So they’ve taken to the streets throughout Europe.  Rioting here.  Protesting there.  And demanding that the rich (anyone who is not them) pay more in taxes so they can continue to live the good life.  All funded courtesy of the taxpayers.  Who aren’t.  Living the good life.

So class warfare escalates.  Pitting the rich against the poor and middle class.  And the taxpayers against the public sector.  Placing these countries on the brink of anarchy.  All because the people learned that they could vote themselves money.  And did.  They got everything they asked for.  Including something they didn’t bargain for.  The destruction of their countries.

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Ronald Reagan’s Reaganomics Increased GDP and Tax Revenue, Decreased Unemployment and Tamed Inflation

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 8th, 2011

Ronald Reagan’s Supply-Side Reaganomics caused an Economic Boom

Politics is a struggle.  Between those on the Left.  And those on the Right.  And nowhere is it more partisan than when it is about one subject.  ReaganomicsRonald Reagan‘s supply-side economics.  Of the Austrian School.  That the Left belittles as trickle-down economics. 

His tax cuts during the Eighties sparked an economic boom.  No one denies this.  In fact, life was very good during the Eighties.  So good that the Left denounce those years as the Decade of Greed.  “Yes, a lot of people got rich,” the Left says.  “But at what cost?”  And then they point to those ‘soaring’ Reagan deficits.  Peaking at about $221.2 billion in 1986.  Or about $358.3 billion adjusted for inflation.  (Pretty tame by today’s standards.  Barack Obama has one in the $1.6 trillion neighborhood.)  But did Reagan cause them with his tax cuts?

To answer this question we look at historical GDP (gross domestic product).  And tax receipts.  From the Seventies and the Eighties.  From the heyday of Keynesian economics.  After the Nixon Shock in 1971. That ended the ‘gold standard‘.  When Nixon said, “I am now a Keynesian in economics.”  And through Reaganomics.  All dollar amounts are constant 2005 dollars (shown in billions).  These are graphed along with the top marginal tax rate, inflation and the unemployment rate.

(Sources: GDP, tax revenue, top marginal tax rate, inflation, unemployment)

Inflation Eroded GDP and Raised Unemployment in the Seventies

There are two relatively flat plateaus on the GDP graph.  Flat or falling GDP growth indicates a recession.  One starting sometime after 1972.  The other one around 1979. 

Both of these correspond to a spike in the inflation rate.  This happens because inflation erodes GDP.  By raising prices.  Higher prices mean we buy less.  Which means less GDP.  And higher prices tend to inflate business profits.  Where profit gains are from inflation.  Not from selling more stuff.  Which means less GDP.

Inflation is one half of the business cycle.  Which is a boom-bust cycle.  A booming economy.  And a busting recession.  Inflation.  And deflation.  Growth.  And recession. 

During growth there’s inflation.  Prices go up as more people want to buy the same things.  Bidding up prices.  The unemployment rate falls.  Because businesses are hiring more people.  To expand.  To meet this demand. 

When they expand too much there’s too much stuff on the market.  People can’t buy it all.  So prices go down.  To encourage people to buy.  And businesses cut back.  Lay people off.  With fewer people working there’s fewer people to buy that excess supply.  So prices fall more.  And businesses lay more people off.  To reflect the falling demand.  Which increases the unemployment rate.

The business cycle, then, corrects prices.  And readjusts supply to demand.  Keynesian economics was going to change this, though.  By removing the recession part.   Through permanent inflation.  At least, that was the plan.  The two plateaus in the GDP graph shows that the business cycle is still here despite their best efforts.   

And the Keynesians only made things worse.  By causing double-digit inflation.  By creating more demand than existed in the market.  People used that easy money.  To buy things they wouldn’t have otherwise bought.  Creating ‘bubbles’ of inflated prices.  Which are corrected by recessions.  And the greater the bubble, the greater the recession.

Easy Monetary Policy (i.e., Printing Money) made Inflation Worse in the Seventies

Government spent a lot during the Seventies.  A lot of that was Keynesian spending paid for with easy monetary policy (i.e., printing money).  Something governments can only do.  They are the only ones that can say, “Use these paper bills as legal tender.  We guarantee it.”

Making fiat money is easy.  But there is a cost.  The more you make the more you devalue your currency.  That’s the cost of inflation.  Money loses some of its purchasing power.  The greater the inflation the greater loss of purchasing power. 

They printed a lot of money during the late Seventies.  So much that the dollar lost a lot of its purchasing power.  Hence the double-digit inflation.

Paul Volcker was a Federal Reserve chairman.  He started in the last year of Jimmy Carter‘s presidency.  And remained chairman for about 8 years.  He raised interest rates severely.  To constrict the money supply.  To pull a lot of those excess dollars out of circulation.  This caused a bad recession for Reagan.  But it killed the double-digit inflation beast.  This sound money policy was a tenet of Reaganomics.  Which was an integral part of the Eighties boom.

Reagan’s Tax Cuts Increased both GDP and Tax Revenue

The hallmark of Reaganomics, of course, is low taxes.  Reagan cut the top marginal tax rate.  He dropped it from 70% to 28% in four cuts.  After the first cut GDP took off.   Because rich people reentered the economy. 

They weren’t parking their money in investments that helped them avoid paying the top marginal tax rate.  They were starting up businesses.  Or buying business.  Creating jobs.  Because the lower tax rates provided an incentive to earn business profits.  And not settle for lower interest income.  Or capital gains. 

For business profits can be far greater than interest earned on ‘income tax avoiding’ investments.  Such as government bonds.  And if we don’t penalize rich people for risk-taking they will take risks.  Create another Microsoft.  Or Apple.  But they are less likely to do that if they know we will penalize them for it.  And that’s what a high marginal tax rate is.  A penalty.  Remove this penalty and they will choose risky profits over safe interest every time.  And make a lot of jobs along the way.

And this is what they did during the Eighties.  Their ‘greed’ created a boom in employment.  A rising GDP.  Accompanied with a falling unemployment rate.  Rich people were pulling their money out of tax shelters.  And putting it into businesses.  Where they could make fat profits.  And making fat profits in business requires employees.  Jobs.  Unlike making money with safe tax-sheltered investments. 

Tax revenue increased.  There were more business profits.  And more business income taxes on those profits.  There were more jobs.  More employees in the workforce.  Paying more payroll taxes.  And more personal income taxes

Successful businesses made more rich people.  And more rich people pay more income taxes than fewer rich people.  A lot more.  The top marginal tax rate was lower.  But there were more businesses and people paying taxes.   Because the lower rates created more taxpayers.  And richer taxpayers to tax.  Which increased overall tax revenue.

Tax Revenue Increased under Reaganomics but Government Spending simply Increased More

So to summarize the data during Reaganomics, GDP grew, tax revenue grew, unemployment fell and inflation was tame.  All the things you want in a healthy economy.  And this all happened when the top marginal tax rate was cut from 70% to 28%. 

So, no, the Reagan deficits were NOT caused by the Reagan tax cuts.  That’s a myth created by the Left to revise history.  To recast the successful policies of Ronald Reagan as failures.  So they can continue in their tax and spend ways.

Those deficits were a spending problem.  Not a revenue problem.  For tax revenue increased after the tax cuts.  So why the deficits?  Because government spending simply increased more.

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FUNDAMENTAL TRUTH #48: “Government benefits aren’t from the government. They’re from the taxpayers.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - January 11th, 2011

The Concept of Other People’s Money

A lot of people don’t understand how a bank works.  Or government.  In fact, banks and government are similar in one respect.  They both ‘give’ things away.  Banks loan money.  Government gives out benefits.  But before either gives anything away, they have to take from other people first.  Banks take money from depositors.  And government takes money from taxpayers.  That’s how they get the money that they give away (bank loans and government benefits).

You see, banks and government have no money of their own.  They work with other people’s money.  Yes, they can make money.  Banks via fractional reserve banking.  And government via monetary policy (lowering the discount rate, selling bonds and treasuries or simply printing money – we call this fiat money).  But there’s a danger when they do.  If they make too much money, we get inflation.  And a lot of bad things follow inflation.  Higher interest rates.  Higher prices.  And an overheated economy that eventually crashes into recession.  Which causes higher unemployment.  So they have to be careful when they’re making money.

If inflation is such a bad thing, then why do they even make money in the first place?  That’s a bit complicated.  To get a simplified understanding, think of a bank.  Businesses borrow from banks to expand their business.  When they expand they create jobs.  Everybody likes this.  Jobs.  So we try to help them get the money they need to expand their businesses.  But banks often don’t have enough money from their depositors to loan to all these businesses.  Fractional reserve banking solves that problem.  This allows the banks to lend more money than they have in their vaults from their depositors.  Creating more money allows more economic activity.  And that’s why we make money.  But we have to be careful not to make too much.

Money is only as Good as our Faith in It

More economic activity means more jobs.  And more taxes for the government.  This is why the government likes a little inflation.  A little bit allows economic activity.  And what is economic activity?  People trading with each other.  A worker trades his or her skills for groceries.  Of course, an office worker in midtown Manhattan can’t easily trader his or her office skills for a dairy farmer’s milk and cheese in Wisconsin.   But that’s okay.  Because we have a medium of exchange to make trading easier.  Our money.

You see, it’s things or services we want.  Not the money.  Money just lets us trade what we do with what others do.  We’ve used different types of money throughout history.  Specie (like gold and silver coins).  And commodities (tobacco, food, whiskey, etc.).  Specie and commodities have intrinsic value.  They’re worth something besides their value as money.  And because of this, it is not easy to make more of it.  Because a printing press can’t print gold, silver, tobacco, food, whiskey, etc.  So you can’t ‘stimulate’ the economy like you can with fiat money.  Of course, this can be a good thing.  Because you can’t over-stimulate the economy like you can with fiat money.  There are pros and cons of each type of money.  And there’s been a lot of debate between competing types of money (such as the gold standard versus fiat money). 

Money is only as good as our faith in it, though.  Because specie and commodity have intrinsic value, it’s easy to have faith in it.  It’s pretty hard to make this kind of money worthless.  But it’s easy to make fiat money worthless.  All you have to do is print too much of it.  You do that and people won’t want to use it.  Because they will have little faith that it will hold its value.

Inflation Reduces your Purchasing Power

How bad can it get?  Let’s illustrate with an example.  Let’s say you dug down about 30 feet in your back yard and discovered gold.  And you worked your butt off to bring it up to the surface, smelt it and pour it into gold bars.  Now you want to trade that gold for a new car, a 60″ plasma television, a state of the art home theater sound system, an in-the-ground swimming pool, some property on an island in the Caribbean and a few other extravagances.  You see all of these things for sale.  But the sale prices are all in dollars, not weights of gold.  Not a problem.  Because you can sell your gold for dollars. 

Think of a scale.  Put your gold on one side of the scale.  And put dollars on the other side.  When the scale balances (when both sides equal the same value, not weights), you have the value of your gold in dollars.   Let’s say your gold equals $1 million.  Lucky for you because that’s the total price of everything you want to buy. 

A week later you have all the details worked out.  You’re ready to write your checks.  But the day before, the government printed more money and doubled the number of dollars in circulation.  When you increase the number of dollars, you decrease the value of each dollar.  In this case, they doubled the amount of money so money is now only worth half of what it used to be worth.  This makes you furious.  Because if you had waited only one more week, you would have gotten $2 million for your gold instead of $1 million (same amount of gold on one side of the scale but twice the amount of dollars on the other).  Worse, not only did the price of your gold go up (after you had already sold it at the old price), but prices everywhere went up.  The stuff you were about to buy for $1 million now costs $2 million.  Now you can only buy half of what you want.  Because doubling the amount of dollars in circulation cut your purchasing power in half.

Other People’s Things

This is the time value of money.  Money decreases in value over time because of inflation.  The greater the inflation rate, the quicker the money in your wallet loses value.  During times of high inflation, people will not want to hold onto their money for a long time.  They’ll want to spend it fast.  Because they’ll be able to buy more with it sooner than they will be able to later.  And it’s the things they want to buy that have real value to them.  Not the money.

Things, not money.  That’s what people want.  And that’s what government benefits are.  Things.  Other people’s things.  You can’t just print money and give it away.  Because you need things to buy with that money.  So not only do you need taxpayers to pay taxes.  But you need them to make the things (and services) people want to buy. 

The greater amount of benefits the government hands out, the more of other people’s stuff they have to take.  That’s why there is a limit on the amount of benefits that government can hand out.  The things the government does to pay for those benefits reduces economic activity.  And increases unemployment.  Unemployed people can’t make stuff or perform services.  And they have less stuff to take.   No matter how much fiat money the government prints.

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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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