The Keynesian Abenomics is Raising Prices in Japan

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 14th, 2014

Week in Review

Money is a temporary storage of value.  We created money to make trade easier.  We once bartered.  We looked for people to trade with.  But trying to find someone with something you wanted (say, a bottle of wine) that wanted what you had (say olive oil) could take a lot of time.  Time that could be better spent making wine or olive oil.  So the longer it took to search to find someone to trade with the more it cost in lost wine and olive oil production.  Which is why we call this looking for people to trade goods with ‘search costs’.

Money changed that.  Winemakers could sell their wine for money.  And take that money to the supermarket and buy olive oil.  And the olive oil maker could do likewise.  Greatly increasing the efficiency of the market.  There is a very important point here.  Money facilitated trade between people who created value.  Creating something of value is key.  Because if people were just given money without producing anything of value they couldn’t trade that money for anything.  For if people didn’t create things of value to buy what good was that money?

Today, thanks to Keynesian economics, governments everywhere believe they can create economic activity with money.  And use their monetary powers to try and manipulate things in the economy to favor them.  And one of their favorite things to do is to devalue their money.  Make it worth less.  So governments that borrow a lot of money can repay that money later with devalued money.  Money that is worth less.  So they are in effect paying back less than they borrowed.  And governments love doing that.  Of course, people who loan money are none too keen with this.  Because they are getting less back than they loaned out originally.  And there is another reason why governments love to devalue their money.  Especially if they have a large export economy.

Before anyone can buy from another country they have to exchange their money first.  And the more money they get in exchange the more they can buy from the exporting country.  This is the same reason why you can enjoy a five-star vacation in a tropical resort in some foreign country for about $25.  I’m exaggerating here but the point is that if you vacation in a country with a very devalued currency your money will buy a lot there.  But the problem with making your exports cheap by devaluing your currency is that it has a down side.  For a country to buy imports they, too, first have to exchange their currency.  And when they exchange it for a much stronger currency it takes a lot more of it to buy those imports.  Which is why when you devalue your currency you raise prices.  Because it takes more of a devalued currency to buy things that a stronger currency can buy.  Something the good people in Japan are currently experiencing under Abenomics (see Japan Risks Public Souring on Abenomics as Prices Surge by Toru Fujioka and Masahiro Hidaka posted 4/14/2014 on Bloomberg).

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to vault Japan out of 15 years of deflation risks losing public support by spurring too much inflation too quickly as companies add extra price increases to this month’s sales-tax bump.

Businesses from Suntory Beverage and Food Ltd. to beef bowl chain Yoshinoya Holdings Co. have raised costs more than the 3 percentage point levy increase. This month’s inflation rate could be 3.5 percent, the fastest since 1982, according to Yoshiki Shinke, the most accurate forecaster of Japan’s economy for two years running in data compiled by Bloomberg…

“Households are already seeing their real incomes eroding and it will get worse with faster inflation,” said Taro Saito, director of economic research at NLI Research Institute, who says he’s seen prices of Chinese food and coffee rising more than the sales levy. “Consumer spending will weaken and a rebound in the economy will lack strength, putting Abe in a difficult position…”

Abe’s attack on deflation — spearheaded by unprecedented easing by the central bank — has helped weaken the yen by 23 percent against the dollar over the past year and a half, boosting the cost of imported goods and energy for Japanese companies.

Japan is an island nation with few raw materials.  They have to import a lot.  Including much of their energy.  Especially since shutting down their nuclear reactors.  Japan has a lot of manufacturing.  But that manufacturing needs raw materials.  And energy.  Which are more costly with a devalued yen.  Increasing their costs.  Which they, of course, have to pay for when they sell their products.  So their higher costs increase the prices their customers pay.  Leaving the people of Japan with less money to buy their other household goods that are also rising in price.  Which is why economies with high rates of inflation go into recession.  As the recession will correct those high prices.  With, of course, deflation.

Keynesians all think they can manipulate the market place to their favor by playing with monetary policy.  But they are losing sight of a fundamental concept in a free market economy.  Money doesn’t have value.  It only holds value temporarily.  It’s the things the factories produce that have value.  And whenever you make it more difficult (i.e., raise their costs by devaluing the currency) for them to create value they will create less value.  And the economy as a whole will suffer.


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The BLS Employment Situation Summary for November 2013

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 9th, 2013

Economics 101

There was Much Spending in November where People Gathered to Celebrate the Thanksgiving Holiday

The Bureau of Labor Statistics November’s Employment Situation Summary is out.  The government is trumpeting the 203,000 jobs created and the fall in the unemployment rate from 7.3% in October to 7.0%.  Proof they say that the economy is turning around.  And that their economic policies are working.  So everything is coming up roses.  If you stop reading the Employment Situation Summary there, that is.  For if you read further the economy is still horrible.

A big part of this improvement was the furloughed federal workers returning to work after the government shutdown.  And the Thanksgiving Holiday.  With retail hiring seasonal employees and stocking their shelves for the kick off of the Christmas shopping season.  This year starting on Thanksgiving Day for many retailers.  So you would expect a gain in employment connected to the Christmas shopping season.  Which there has been.  Retail trade employment added 22,000 jobs.  And leisure and hospitality, employment in food services and drinking places added 18,000 jobs.  And air transportation added 3,000 jobs.  Thanks to the biggest travel day of the year falling in November.

So there was much spending where people gathered with friends and family to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday.  And the mad rush to the stores to begin their Christmas shopping.  There was much traveling, shopping and dining in November.  As there always is.  Though some years are better than others.  There was also new hiring in the automobile and construction industries.  Probably more due to the near-zero interest rates thanks to the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing.  Basically printing money to drive down interest rates.  To encourage people to buy big ticket items like cars and houses.  Even though they had no plans to do so.

It is only the Decline in the Number of People in the Labor Force that gives us an Improving Unemployment Rate

So new jobs in these areas don’t reflect on the overall economic climate.  Because once Christmas is over business will lay off those they hired for those seasonal jobs.  And once the Federal Reserve stops ‘printing money’ those interest rates will rise.  Perhaps compounded by runaway inflation from so much printing.  So these aren’t good indicators of the economy.  We can gain a better understanding by looking at the higher stages of production.  Where there are large capital outlays required to hire and expand business.  Industries that look at the long-term.  So if they’re not hiring they’re not optimistic about the long-term economic picture.

A lot of economic activity has to happen before a retail store can sell anything.  Raw material industries have to pull resources out of the environment.  Industrial processors have to transform these raw materials so manufacturers can use them.  And once manufacturers build things wholesalers buy them and resell them to retailers.  That’s a lot of costs these industries have to incur to produce things that may sell 6-9 months later.  Or longer.  And if the economy is looking anemic to them they are not going to incur these costs.  Which is what happened in November with some of these higher stages of production.  Mining, logging and wholesale trade showed little to no change.

The civilian labor force declined by 720,000 in October.  With the government shutdown blamed for a lot of these lost jobs.  So when the government opened for business again in November we should have seen a large increase in the civilian labor force.  But we didn’t.  The civilian labor force only increased by 455,000 in November.  Which means that if you factor out the government shutdown there was still a decline in the number of jobs.  And it is only this decline in the number of people in the labor force that gives us an improving unemployment rate.  For once people give up and quit looking for a job because the economy is so bad the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) stops counting them.  Skewing the real unemployment rate.

The Current Economic Recovery is a False One created with the Smoke and Mirrors of Low Interest Rates

This gets to the crux of the Obama economic recovery.  Or, rather, the absence of any recovery.  The government trumpets the creation of 195,000 new jobs per month this year.  But they don’t tell us how many jobs we lost per month this year.  Which we can calculate.  In January of this year there were 89,009,000 people not in the labor force.  In November that number rose to 91,273,000.  A total loss of 2,265,000 jobs this year.  Or a loss of 205,909 each month.  So while they cheerfully report the creation of 195,000 new jobs per month we actually lost 205,909 jobs each month.  If you count those people who left the labor force the BLS doesn’t count when calculating the unemployment rate.  In fact, if you look at the trends this year you can see the trends are going in the wrong direction.

Those in Labor Force vs Unemployment Rate thru November 2013 R1

The most shocking thing about this chart is that there are over 91 million people not in the labor force.  The labor force is the sum of the employed and unemployed persons.  So these are people who could be in the labor force but aren’t.  Because they don’t have a job.  For whatever reason.  On welfare, collecting disability, early retirement, just can’t get a job because the economy is so bad, etc.  So there will always be people out of the labor force.  And a large number is bad.  Because these people aren’t helping to create economic activity.  Which is why the Obama recovery is so anemic.

What’s also shocking about this chart are the trends.  The official unemployment rate has been falling.  Good news, yes?  Well, as it turns out, no.  Because the number of people not in the labor force has been rising during the decline in the unemployment rate.  Making the unemployment numbers questionable at best.  For you can’t have less unemployment if people continue to leave the workforce because they can’t get a job.  And the employment picture isn’t getting better.  It’s getting worse.  And it’s going to keep getting worse until those higher stages of production start hiring.  Which they won’t do until they see a real economic recovery.  And not a false one created with the smoke and mirrors of low interest rates.


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Housing Boom, Bubble and Bust

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 15th, 2013

Economics 101

Building and Furnishing Houses creates Great Economic Activity

Central to any booming economy are healthy home sales.  For home sales unleash great economic activity.  From the first surveys of a new subdivision.  To the new sewers and water systems.  Gas and telephone.  Cable television and broadband Internet.  Concrete for basements, driveways and sidewalks.  Structural steel (that beam in the basement and steel poles holding up the house).  Rough carpentry.  Electrical work and plumbing.  Drywall, windows and roofing.  Painting, flooring, doors and hardware.  Heating and air conditioning.  Lighting and plumbing fixtures.  Brick, siding and landscaping.  Etc.

All of this takes manufacturing to make these construction products.  All these manufacturers need raw materials.  And raw material extraction needs heavy equipment and energy.  At all of these stages of production are jobs.  Extracting raw materials.  Processing raw materials.  Manufacturing products out of these raw materials.  Building this production equipment.  Interconnecting these stages of production is every form of transportation.  Rail, Great Lake freighter, river barge and truck.  Requiring even more jobs to build locomotives, rolling stock, ships and trucks.  And jobs to operate and maintain them.  And build their infrastructure.  Filling all of these jobs are people.  Earning a paycheck that will let them buy a house one day.

Then even more economic activity follows.  As people buy these homes and furnish them.  Washers and dryers.  Refrigerators, stoves, microwaves, food processors and coffee makers.  Furniture and beds.  Light fixtures and ceiling fans.  Rugs, carpeting and vacuum cleaners.  Telephones, televisions, music systems, modems and computers.  Curtains, drapes, blinds and shades.  Shower curtains, bath mats, towels and clothes hampers.  Mops, buckets, cleaning supplies and waste baskets.  Lawnmowers, fertilizers, hoses and sprinklers.  Snow shovels and snow blowers.  Cribs, highchairs, diapers and baby food.  Etc.  All of these require manufacturers.  And all of these manufacturers require raw materials.  As well as transportation to move material and product between the stages of production.  And to our wholesalers and retailers.  More jobs.  More people earning a paycheck.  Who will one day buy their own home.  And create even more economic activity.

Bill Clinton pressured Lenders to Lower their Requirements and Subprime Lending took Off

This is why governments love housing.  And try to do everything within their power to increase home ownership.  Which is why they changed the path to home ownership.  After World War II when the building of subdivisions took off there was the 3-6-3 savings and loan.  Where savings and loan paid 3% interest on savings accounts.  Loaned money to home buyers at 6%.  And were on the golf course by 3 PM.  And the mortgage was the 30-year conventional mortgage with a 20% down payment.

The conventional mortgage was the mortgage of our parents.  Who had no problem putting off their wants to save money for that 20% down payment.  They prioritized.  And planned for the future.  But the conventional mortgage has an obvious drawback.  It limits home ownership to those who can save up a 20% down payment.  Pushing home ownership further out for some.  Or just taking that option away from a large percentage of the population.  So the government stepped in.  To help those who couldn’t save 20% of the house’s price.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Down Payment

As we lowered the down payment amount it allowed lower-income people the opportunity of home ownership.  But it didn’t get them a lot of house.  That is, those who could afford a 20% down payment could buy more house for the same monthly payment than those who couldn’t afford it.  And a house in a better neighborhood.  Which some said was unfair.  Some in government even called it discriminatory.  As Bill Clinton did.  Who pressured lenders to lower their lending requirements to qualify the unqualified.  His Policy Statement on Discrimination in Lending helped to fix that alleged problem.  And kicked off subprime lending in earnest.  Leading to the subprime mortgage crisis.  And the Great Recession.

Conventional Wisdom was to Pay the Most you could Possibly Afford when Buying a House

But lowering the down payment wasn’t enough.  Even eliminating it all together.  The people needed something else to help them into home ownership. And to generate all of that economic activity.  And this was something the government could fix, too.  By printing a lot of money.  So banks had a lot of it to lend.  Thus keeping interest rates artificially low.  And we can see the effect this had on home ownership combined with a zero down payment.  It allowed people to buy more house for the same given monthly payment.  Even more than those buying with the 3-6-3 conventional mortgage.

Mortgage Qualification Decreasing Mortgage Rate

Falling interest rates bring in a lot more people into the housing market.  Which is good for sellers.  And good for the economy.  A lot more people than just those who could afford a 20% down payment can now buy your house.  As people bid against each other to buy your house they bid up your price.  Raising home prices everywhere.  Increasing the demand for new housing.  Which builders responded to.  Creating a housing boom.  As builders flood the market with more houses.  At higher prices.  That new homeowners move into.  And max out their credit cards to furnish.  Creating a lot of debt people are servicing at these artificially low interest rates.  But then the economy begins to overheat.  And other prices begin to rise.  Leaving people with less disposable income.  The housing boom turns into a housing bubble.  House prices are overvalued.  Those artificially low interest rates created a lot of artificial demand.  Bringing people into the market who weren’t planning on buying a house.  But decided to buy only to take advantage of those low interest rates.

Conventional wisdom was to pay the most you could possibly afford when buying a house.  For all houses gained value.  You may struggle in the beginning and have to make some sacrifices.  Say cut out steak night each week.  But in time you will earn more money.  That house payment will become more affordable.  And your house will become more valuable.  Which will let you sell it for more at a later date letting you buy an even bigger house in an even nicer neighborhood.  But when it’s cheap interest rates driving all of this activity there is another problem.  For printing money creates inflation.  And inflation raises prices.  Gasoline is more expensive.  Groceries are more expensive.  As prices rise households have less disposable income.  And have to cut out things like vacations.  And any discretionary spending on things they like but don’t need.  Which destroys a lot of economic activity.  The very thing the government was trying to create more of by printing money.  So there is a limit to the good economic times you create by printing money.  And when the bad consequences of printing money start filtering through the rest of economy the government has no choice but to contract the money supply to limit the economic damage.  And steer the economy into what they call a soft landing.  Which means a recession that isn’t that painful or long.

The Price of Artificially Low Interest Rates is Inflationary Booms, Bubbles and Great Recessions

As interest rates rise home buying falls.  Leaving a lot of newly built homes unsold on the market.  And that housing bubble bursts.  Causing home values to fall back down from the stratosphere.  Leaving a lot of people owing more on their mortgage than their houses are now worth.  What we call being ‘underwater’.  And as interest rates rise so do the APRs on their credit cards.  As well as their monthly payments.  And those people who paid the most they could possible afford for a house with an adjustable rate mortgage saw their mortgage interest rates rise.  As well as their monthly payment.  By a lot.  So much that these people could no longer afford to pay their mortgage payment anymore.  As a half-point increase could raise a mortgage payment by about $50.  A full-point could raise it close to $100.  And so on.

Increasing Monthly Payment dur to Increasing Mortgage Rate

With the fall in economic activity unemployment rises.  So a lot of people who have crushing credit card debt and a house payment they can no longer afford lost their job as well.  Causing a rash of mortgage foreclosures.  And the subprime mortgage crisis.  As well as a great many personal bankruptcies.  Causing the banking system to struggle under the weight of all this bad debt.  Add all of this together and you get the Great Recession.

This is the price of artificially low interest rates.  You get inflationary booms.  And bubbles.  That burst into recessions.  That are often deep and long.  Something that didn’t happen during the days of 3-6-3 mortgage lending.  And the primary reason for that was that the U.S. was still on a quasi gold standard.  Which prevented the government from printing money at will.  The inflationary booms and busts that come with printing money.  And Great Recessions.


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Stages of Production, Free Market Capitalism, Civil War, King Cotton, Emancipation Proclamation, Southern Democrats and Jim Crow Laws

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 17th, 2012

History 101

Free Market Capitalism maximizes Wealth Creation with Free Markets, Free Trade and Free Labor 

The whole point to a value added tax (VAT) is that we add value as we go through the stages of production.  Raw materials in the earth have no value.  They begin having value when we extract them.  Raw iron ore gains value when we process the iron out of the rock.  A Great Lakes freighter full of taconite pellets (processed from low-grade iron ore flint-like rock) is worth more than the same weight of the low-grade iron ore flint-like rock.  These taconite pellets gain value when we transform them into steel in a blast furnace.  That steel gains more value when we transform it into steel products (like a truck frame or a refrigerator).  The finished goods we incorporate these steel products into gain even more value.

The VAT tax applies a tax on the increased value at every stage in the stages of production.  It’s a way for government to collect a lot of tax revenue without using something obvious like a sales tax.  Because no one but the government knows all the tax collected on all that value created.  Which is a very important point.  Increasing value increases tax revenue.  And that’s because increasing value increases wealth.  Making economically advanced countries (with a lot of economic activity throughout the stages of production) wealthy countries.  Giving them an advanced industrial base.  An extensive infrastructure.  And a high standard of living.

Free market capitalism maximizes this wealth creation.  Free markets.  Free trade.  And free labor.  Where people can work hard to learn a skill that will give them more value.  And the ability to create more wealth with their labors.  Allowing them to earn a nice paycheck.  That they can use in the market place to buy things.  Contributing to economic activity.  And the wealth creation in the country.  As well as the tax base.  The greater the population the greater the number of people engaging in economic activity.  The greater the number of retail stores.  The greater the wholesale industry.  The greater the manufacturing base.  And the greater amount of raw material extraction.  All of this activity producing an advanced nation.  That can build whatever it needs.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation made it Impossible for the Europeans to Support the Southern Cause

There were two Americas in the mid 1800s.  An industrial North.  And an agricultural South.  An advanced nation in the north based on free labor.  And medieval economy based on slave labor in the south.  In the north they had factories, shipyards, railroads and everything else a modern industrial nation had.  In the south they had cotton.  In the north they had a growing population of free men.  In the south they had a growing population of slaves.  In 1861 the North had a population of about 22 million.  The South had a population of about 5.5 million free men.  And about 3.5 million slaves.  So the North enjoyed explosive economic activity creating great wealth.  While the South enjoyed great wealth from their cotton.  For the few plantation owners.  The slaves didn’t enjoy any of that wealth.  While the majority of the white population struggled to scratch out a living on small family farms.

When the American Civil War broke out the South was at a distinct disadvantage.  For technology wins wars.  And the North was far more technologically advanced than the South.  As Rhett Butler said in Gone with the Wind, “They’ve got factories, shipyards, coal mines…and a fleet to bottle up our harbors and starve us to death.  All we’ve got is cotton, and slaves and…arrogance.”  Which was true.  But in their arrogance they thought that King Cotton would trump all of the North’s advantages.  By bringing in the British on the South’s side.  Because Britain bought a lot of that southern cotton.  And the South was sure that Britain would support their cause to maintain that cotton flowing to their textile and garment industries.  They thought wrong.

Cotton was a raw material.  And other people could grow it just as well as the southern plantations.  Yes, the self-imposed cotton embargo by the South on Britain hurt the British.  Causing a major interruption to their textile and garment industries.  But it didn’t take long to replace that Southern cotton with Egyptian and Indian cotton.  And in no time the British industries were up and running again as if nothing had happened.  Creating higher orders of wealth than the raw cotton resources of the South.  Which was a problem for the South.  For there was no way for them to break the blockade of their harbors without European help.  But that help would never come.  Because the only thing they had to offer, cotton, was available elsewhere.  Not to mention the fact that Britain had emancipated her slaves.  And was working diligently to interdict the Atlantic slave trade.  So they weren’t coming to the South’s aid.  And if Britain wasn’t going to help then neither were the French.  And Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was just the icing on the cake.  Making it impossible for the Europeans to support the Southern cause.  It then became a matter of time for the technologically advanced north to defeat the medieval South.

The South’s Old World Economy was just no Match for the New World Economy of the North  

Outmanned, out manufactured and with no foreign recognition the South learned the lesson that an economy based on slave-labor was no match for an economy based on free market capitalism.  For the slave-based agricultural economy was little different than the feudalism of the Middle Ages.  A system long since abandoned in Europe but clung on to in the Confederate South.  Concentrating the wealth in a few hands.  The landed aristocracy.  And a small middle class of artisans and business owners primarily to serve the planter class.  While everyone else, whites and slaves, worked hard and barely survived.  The blacks of course suffering more than the whites.  But they both lived in poverty.

The advanced economy of the industrial North built ships, cannon, rifles, bullets, locomotives, track and everything else a modern industrial economy has.  Their ships commanded the rivers and the southern coast.  The South was cut off from the rest of the world.  Their valuable cotton sitting worthless in warehouses because there was no one to sell it to.  Not even in the South.  For while the North had a textile industry the South did not.  With no way to add value to this cotton this cotton lost all value.  And the Southern economy collapsed.  Because cotton was all they had.  Well, that, and arrogance.  But when that cotton became worthless the South had nothing.  And little choice but to surrender.  And they did.  First General Lee to General Grant.  Then General Johnston to General Sherman.  And soon the war was over.

It took some 4 years and about 600,000 dead.  Which is especially sad considering the South never had a chance.  Their Old World economy was just no match for the New World economy of the North.  With the thing they were fighting for, slavery, being the cause for their defeat.  For slavery may have worked in a medieval agricultural-based economy.  Where there were no stages of production.  Just procurement of raw material.  But it was no match for free men working in free market capitalism.  Which is why the North prevailed in the Civil War.  And why the United States went on to be an economic superpower.  And leader of the free world.  Thanks to President Lincoln.  Who freed the slaves.  And the South from its Old World past.  Unleashing human capital everywhere throughout the United States.  And allowing all people to engage in economic activity.  Though the freed slaves would suffer discrimination for decades under the Southern Democrats.  And their Jim Crow Laws (separate but equal).  But the Republicans would eventually usher in civil rights legislation ending that.  Just as they ended slavery.  Allowing all people to live a better life under free market capitalism.


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Stages of Production

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 16th, 2012

Economics 101

People used their Human Capital to Transform Raw Materials into Something Valuable

As we unleashed our human capital civilization advanced.  Our food needs taken care of thanks to advances in agriculture we used our new free time to think.  To think about transforming the world around us.  By exploring our world.  And the stuff that made it.  Great civilizations rose and fell throughout history.  But the ones that really advanced the world were those in northern Europe.  The people who conquered the oceans.  The Portuguese.  The Spanish.  The Dutch.  The French.  And the British.

As these great European powers set out to explore the world they established colonies in faraway lands.  To gather the raw materials available.  And to ship them back to their mother countries.  Where their advanced civilizations would transform those raw materials into higher value finished goods.  And then export them throughout the world.  Including their colonies.  This was mercantilism.  Establish colonies.  Ship raw materials to the mother country.  Export finished goods.  And Import bullion accepted in payment for those finished goods.

It’s not a good economic system.  Mercantilism.  But it did create the United States.  Which started out as a British colony.  But as a colony of a mercantilist country the Americans had to follow the rules of the mother country.  First of all they had to understand their place.  And purpose.  They were subordinate to the mother country.  And their only purpose was to procure raw materials and ship them to the mother country.  They couldn’t open trade with other countries.  Everything that left the colonies had to go on a British ship to a British port.  Where British manufacturers would transform those raw materials into finished goods for export.  The British did this because finished goods were more valuable than raw goods.  And sold for much higher prices than the raw materials sold for.  So Britain did the manufacturing.  While their colonies fed their manufacturers with raw material.

The Stages of Production is the Economic Activity that happens to bring Finished Goods to Market

The British eventually abandoned mercantilism and adopted free market capitalism and free trade.  And the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  This after losing the American colonies in the Revolutionary War, losing about half of their empire.  So free market capitalism is clearly superior to mercantilism.  But for a couple of centuries mercantilism built empires.  And provided an excellent example of the stages of production.

Raw materials mean little to consumers.  What we like are the things that people with human capital transform them into.  The things we go to the store to buy.  Such as a smartphone, for example.  Whenever a new model comes out we flock to our favorite retail store to buy it.  The retail store has it to sell because they bought a shipment from their wholesaler.  The wholesaler had it to sell because they bought it from the assembly plants that assembled them.  The assembly plants could build them because they bought the components (displays, hard cases, antennas, keys, circuit boards, etc.) from various manufacturers.  And the various manufactures bought raw materials from those who extracted them from the ground.  Interconnecting all of these is ship, rail and truck transportation.  Even planes.  Not to mention an extensive cellular network to make these smartphones work.  As well as all the software applications they run.  Adding value at every stage along the way.

There is much economic activity that happens to bring that smartphone to your favorite retail store.  Throughout these stages of production.  Note how everything else has to happen before you buy that smartphone.  Going all the way back to the extraction of raw materials from the ground.  All of these stages have to happen before you buy that phone.  So the payment for the phone follows much later than all of these other stages.  Introducing a very important element in the stages of production.  Time.  It takes time to bring things to market.  And because it takes time it also takes money.  Everyone working from raw material extraction to the salesperson selling you the phone earns an income.  And their employers pay them before you buy your phone.  Some a lot earlier than others.  Also, all of these people either work in a building.  Or in the field with equipment.  Things that others have to build first before we can even begin our raw material extraction.  Requiring an enormous capital investment before anyone earns a dime of revenue on the sale of a smartphone.

The British Empire went on to Rule the World for a Century or More because they let the Market Manage their Economy

To bring a smartphone to a retailer near you requires people to risk their money by investing in something that may earn a profit.  Investors.  And bankers.  As people saved their money they created large pools of capital for businesses to borrow.  Venture capitalists bankrolled promising entrepreneurs.  And the big corporations turned to the equity and bond markets to raise their capital.  Individuals worked hard and saved money to put in their savings account.  Or to buy stocks and bonds.  Because they did there was money to borrow.  Or to invest.  And because there was money to borrow and invest the stages of production could begin.

In the days of mercantilism the government controlled much of this.  Even providing some of that early capital.  But as the economy grew more complex it was too complex for government to manage.  Which is why the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or more.  Because they let the market manage their economy.  A myriad of people in the market place pursuing their own interests.  Pursuing profits.  Which is why free market capitalism works.  For no one person could know enough to manage all of the stages of productions to bring a smartphone to market.  And the beautiful thing is in free market capitalism no one person has to.  For when people throughout the stages of production pursue profits smartphones arrive at a retailer near you.  At reasonable prices to boot.

So the next time you pick up a smartphone at a retailer think of everything it took to bring it to your hands.  And everything it takes to operate it as you wish.  Hundreds of thousands of people pursuing profits.  Most of which have no idea what they’re doing will allow you to hold a smartphone at your favorite retailer.  Because in the stages of production everyone does their part.  Without any consideration of what their part is in the big picture.  Which is why it works so well.  Thanks to people thinking.  And unleashing their human capital to create great things throughout the stages of production.


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Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 14th, 2012

Economics 101

Wealth is the Stuff we use our Talent and Ability to Make

Mercantilism gave us the United States.  For it was because of these policies that the British established colonies in North America.  And it was those same policies that led to American Independence.  Because those polices pissed off the Americans. 

The mercantile system came into being as nation states arose from feudal estates.  Kings arose and consolidated these estates into larger kingdoms.  Then one king arose to consolidate the kingdoms into a nation.  Creating Spain, France, the Netherlands, England, etc.  Enlightened thinking and better technology created food surpluses.  With food surpluses a middle class of artisans arose.  And manufactured goods.  People met in markets to trade their food and goods.   These markets grew into cities.  All of this economic activity created wealth.  Food.  And manufactured goods.  That we bought with money.  Often silver and gold. 

There was wealth.  And there was money.  Two different things.  Wealth is the stuff we use our talent and ability to make.  Food and manufactured goods, for example.  And the more food and manufactured goods a nation has the wealthier that nation is.  This is a critical point.  And the mercantile policies ultimately failed because those policies mistook money for wealth.  But money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  To make our trading of food and manufactured goods easier.  By reducing the search costs to find people to trade with.  Which is why the barter system failed in a complex economy.  It just took too long to find people to trade with.  Money solved that problem.  Because you could trade what you had for money.  Then trade your money for what you wanted.

England used the Positive Flow of Bullion to Finance the Building of the Royal Navy

Mercantilism focused on the money.  And used wealth to accumulate it.  Instead of the other way around.  The way most advanced nations do today.  These European nations accumulated money with international trade.  Beginning in the 15th century they started looking at the balance of trade between nations.  And did everything they could to maintain a positive balance of trade.  Meaning they tried to export more than they imported.  Why?  Well, nations often did trade with each other.  So they owed each other money.  And when you settled your account if other nations owed you more than you owed them there was a net flow of money to you.  Bullion.  Silver and gold.  Which is what they wanted.

To maintain a positive balance of trade the government actively intervened into the economy.  It set up monopolies.  It provided subsidies for manufacturers who exported their goods for bullion.  It placed tariffs on imports.  Or simply blocked the importation of any goods that they produced domestically.  They set up colonies to harvest raw materials to ship back to the mother country.  Which would use those raw materials in their factories to produced higher valued finished goods.  That they would export.  Especially to their colonies.  Which were convenient captive markets for their finished goods.  On the mother country’s ships.  Through the mother country’s ports.  Where they, of course taxed it.  Guaranteeing that at every step of the way they added to the positive bullion flow back to the mother country.

And it worked.  To a certain extent.  England used that positive flow of bullion to finance the building of the Royal Navy.  Which proved invaluable in the wars that followed in the mercantile world.  For mercantilism is a zero-sum game.  For every winner there had to be a loser.  Which is why this era was an era of world war.  To wrest control of those colonies.  And those sea lanes.  Great Britain came out the victor.  Thanks to their Royal Navy.  But it wasn’t all good.  For Spain found gold in the New World.  And they took it.  Shipped it back to the Old World.  Just like a good mercantilist would.  Which caused problems in the Old World.  Because money is not wealth.  It’s a temporary storage of wealth.  And when they inflated their money supply it took more of it to hold the same amount of value it once did.  Because there was so much of it in circulation.  And what happens during inflation?  Prices rise.  Because the money is worth less it takes more of it to buy the same things as it did before.  So by hording bullion to create wealth they actually destroyed wealth.  With wealth-destroying inflation.

With the Boston Tea Party the Americans Renounced Mercantilism and Demanded Free Trade

Spain was one of the greatest mercantile nations of the era.  But they quickly became a shadow of their former self.  Even though they had more bullion than their European neighbors.  For it turned out that those mercantile policies hindered economic growth.  Which is the true source of wealth.  Economic growth.  Where people use their talent and ability to create things.  That’s where the true value lay.  Not the money that held that value temporarily.  All those mercantilist policies did was raise domestic prices.  And allocated scarce resources poorly. 

It turned out free trade was the secret to wealth.  For free trade can increase wealth.  For both nations.  Thanks to something we call comparative advantage.  Instead of both nations manufacturing all of their goods they should only manufacture those goods that they can manufacture best.  And trade for the goods they can’t manufacture best.  This more efficiently allocates those scarce resources.  And produces a greater total amount of wealth.  By allowing people to buy lower cost imports they have more money left over to buy other stuff.  Increasing the overall amount of economic activity.  Which is why when Great Britain adopted free trade in the 19th century the British Empire went on to rule the world for a century or so.  And led the Industrial Revolution.  By creating wealth.  Goods and services people created with their talent and ability.  That changed the world.  And ushered in the modern era.  Something no amount of bullion could do.

But before Britain adopted free trade they were struggling with one of their belligerent colonies.  Their British American colonies.  Who were unhappy over taxation without representation in Parliament.  And the mother country forcing them to buy only British tea shipped on British ships at higher prices than they could get from the Dutch.  The British thought they found a solution to their problem.  By permitting their British East India Company monopoly to ship their tea directly to America without passing through an English port.  The tea was cheaper because of this.  But it also would set a precedent for taxation without representation.  Something the Americans weren’t about to accept.  So they threw that tea into Boston Harbor.  What we affectionately call the Boston Tea Party.  Renouncing mercantilism.  And demanding the right to engage in free trade.  Which they got after winning their independence.  And the mother country would follow suit in a few decades.  Because they, too, would learn that free trade was better than mercantilism.


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Brazil is Rich in Resources but Beset with Poverty Despite its Social Spending

Posted by PITHOCRATES - December 18th, 2011

Week in Review

The Portuguese colonized Brazil.  Which is why Portuguese is one of the top ten most spoken languages in the world.  Because there are a great many Brazilians speaking Portuguese.  So there is a strong bond between Brazil and Europe.  Home of tiny little Portugal (and a wonderful dessert wine.  Port).  Perhaps a little too strong (see Brazil state struggles with poverty despite rich natural resources posted 12/12/2011 on the Los Angeles Times).

Brazil’s huge northern state of Pará is about three times the size of California, home to much of the Amazon rain forest and is the second-largest producer of the nation’s most important export, iron ore.

But poverty levels are well above the national average…

Even opponents of the bill, however, recognized the predicament, and it’s one that is repeated in parts of Peru, Colombia and elsewhere in South America: the lack of central government representation for states that are resource-rich (be it mining, gas or other commodities) but poverty-stricken.

“We can’t accept that in this country, natural resources benefit companies, but not its people,” said Simão Jatene, governor of Pará. “The Brazilian fiscal system is extremely perverse with respect to Pará…”

In Brazil, the last decade of economic growth has brought tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty, powered by commodities exports, consumer credit growth and social spending. But the country still remains extremely unequal, across class and geographical lines. Some parts of the southeastern cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have a higher gross domestic product per capita than rich European countries, while in remote parts of Pará, residents who are struck ill must brave a five-day boat ride to the nearest hospital for treatment, O Globo reported.

The Amazon rain forest, eh?  Perhaps part of the problem is the environmentalists trying to save the rain forest.  Preventing any development there.  Condemning these people to a life of poverty.  Because it is usually a trade off.  Save the planet.  Or save man.  Rarely can you do both.  At least the way the environmentalists see it.  Who won’t be happy until they take civilization back to the days of Neanderthal.  And you know there are those out there who would bitch about Neanderthal’s use of tools changing his environment, too.  Which is the greatest crime man can make.  Changing his environment.

The lack of central government is the problem?  Funny.  The lack of central government didn’t stop the British and the Industrial Revolution they kicked off.  And the lack of central government didn’t appear to be a problem for Andrew Carnegie as he created a steel revolution in the United States.  Which is far bigger than California.  Yet the economy of the country grew so great it topped the mighty British Empire from the top spot.  One country with a limited central government.  Besting another country with a limited central government.

The problem the Brazilians have is spelled out in this article.  Their economy has been driven by the export of commodity materials.  Exporting raw materials?!?  This isn’t capitalism.  This is mercantilism.  And why only some Brazilians are living the good life.  They need to ignite an engine of economic exchange within Brazil.  Use those raw materials in domestic industries.  Build factories to transform them into consumer goods that Brazilians will buy with their factory wages.  Like the Americans did in the 19th century.  And we did that with less central government than we have today.  And I’m guessing that’s the only problem Brazil has.  Too much government.

Any country has the human capital to do what the Americans and the British did.  They just need the key to unlock that capital.  And the key to that lock is called free market capitalism.  Brazil is already far down this road.  They just need to let the rest of their country play catch-up.  And they’ve got to back off on the social spending.  Or else they’ll end up like Europe and their Eurozone.  Fighting for their life.  From excessive social spending.  If European capitalists had any advice for the Brazilians it would be this; don’t do it.  Don’t follow them down the Road to Serfdom.  Be free.  Stay free.  And let capitalism be free.


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LESSONS LEARNED #20: “It is never a consumer that complains about ‘predatory’ pricing.” -Old Pithy

Posted by PITHOCRATES - July 1st, 2010

ECONOMIES OF SCALE and vertical integration can do two things very well.  Make industrialists rich.  And make the things they sell cheap. 

The more you make, the less each thing you make costs.  Businesses have fixed costs.  Big one time investments in plant and equipment.  Businesses have to recover these costs.  Each thing they sell has a portion of these fixed costs added to its price.  The more they sell, the less they need to add to each unit sold.  This is economies of scale.  Think of bulk goods.  Warehouse clubs.  Places where you can buy large quantities of things at lower unit prices.  You may buy an ‘economy pack’ of 3 bottles of shampoo shrink-wrapped together.  The purchase price of a 3-pack will be greater than the price of a single bottle of shampoo at your convenient corner drug store.  But the unit cost of each of the bottles in the 3-pack will be less.  You save more over time by buying 3 bottles at a time.  Spending more, then, means spending less.  In time.

Few of us buy raw materials.  Few have a need for crude oil.  Iron ore.  Coal.  Limestone.  Manganese.  But they make the stuff we buy.  A lot of things have to happen before those raw materials make it to us in those things we buy.  It has to be mined or drilled/pumped.  Transported.  Processed.  Stored.  Transported again.  Processed again.  Stored again.  Transported again.  There are many different stages between extracting raw materials from the earth and incorporating them into a final product we consumers buy.  At every stage there are costs.  And inefficiencies.  Which add to costs.  By reducing these costs along the way, the component materials used at the final manufacturing stage cost less.  This reduces the selling price of the final product.  This is what vertical integration does.  It puts everything from the extraction of raw materials to the incorporation of those processed materials into the final product for sale under control of the final user.  It brings in a high level of quality, cost containment and reduction of inefficiencies into the entire process resulting in a high quality, mass produced, inexpensive product.

Not everyone can do these things.  You have to live and breathe the industry you’re in.  You have to understand it intimately.  An industrialist at the top of his game can do this.  A politician can’t.  States trying to take control of their economy have failed.  Every time they’ve tried.  Why?  Politicians are ‘intellectuals’.  They’ve never run a business.  They only thought about it.  And, somehow, that gives them the moral authority to tamper in something they are simply unqualified to do.  And when they meddle, they destroy.  Purposely.  Or through unintended consequences.  In the process, though, they enrich themselves.  And their cronies.

ANDREW CARNEGIE WAS a brilliant entrepreneur.  After working for a railroad, he saw the future.  Railroads.  And he would build its rails.  And its bridges.  With his Keystone Bridge Company.  Which used steel and iron.  So he built his Union Mills.  Which needed pig iron.  So he built his Lucy blast furnace.  Which consumed raw material (iron, coke, limestone).  So he secured his own sources of raw materials. 

His Lucy blast furnace set world records, nearly doubling the weekly output of his steel competitors.  No one made more steel than Carnegie.  For less.  In about 20 years, he brought the price down for steel rails from $160/ton to $17/ton.  And got rich in the process.

Economies of scale.  Vertical integration.  And innovation.  Carnegie hired the best people he could find and used the latest technology.  Always improving.  Always cutting costs.  Always making steel more plentiful.  And cheaper.  His steel built a nation.  Dominated the industry.  And destroyed the competition.  Of course, that drew the attention of the government.  And they tried to break up the steel giant because it was unfair to the competition.  Who couldn’t sell steel as cheap as he could.

JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER was a brilliant entrepreneur.  After trying the oil drilling business, he saw the future.  The refining business.  For America lit the night with kerosene.  And he would provide that kerosene.  At prices that a poor man could afford.  And he did.  And he saved the whales in the process (his cheap kerosene put the whale oil business out of business).

Like Carnegie, cutting costs and production efficiencies consumed him.  He built his own kilns and used his own timber for fuel.  He made his own barrels from his own timber.  He used his own horse-drawn carts, boats, rail cars and pipelines.  He bought up competitors.  He grew to dominate the industry.  By far the biggest shipper, he got better shipping rates than his competitors.  And he constantly innovated.  When others were dumping the gasoline byproduct from refining kerosene into the river (no internal combustion engine yet), he was using it for fuel.  He hired the best talent available to find a use for every byproduct from the refining process, giving us everything from industrial lubricants to petroleum jelly (i.e., Vaseline).

His company, Standard Oil, was close to being a monopoly.  When they controlled 90% of the market kerosene was never cheaper.  He brought the price down from $0.26/gallon to $0.08/gallon.  And that was an outrage.  We can’t allow any one company to control 90% of the market.  Sure, consumers were doing well, but the higher-cost competitors could not stay in business selling at those low prices.  So the government broke up Standard Oil via antitrust legislation (the Sherman Act).  To protect the country from monopolistic practices.  And cheap kerosene, apparently.

BILL GATES WAS a brilliant entrepreneur in building Microsoft.  The personal computer (PC) was new.  You couldn’t do much with it in the early days unless you were pretty computer savvy.  But programs were available that made them great business tools (word processing and spreadsheet programs). 

IBM created the PC.  And they licensed it so others could make IBM-like machines.  IBM clones.  The PC industry chewed each other up.  But Gates did well.  Because all of these machines used his operating system (Microsoft’s Disk Operating System – DOS).  Apple developed the Macintosh (with a mouse and Graphical User Interface – GUI) but it was expensive.  Anyone who used one in college wanted to buy one.  Until they saw the price.  So they bought an IBM clone instead.  And when Gates came out with Windows, they were just as easy to use as the Macs.

Because of the higher volume of the IBM platform sold, Microsoft flourished.  Software was bundled.  New machines came preloaded with Windows.  And Internet Explorer.  And Windows Media Player.  You got a lot of bang for the buck going with a Windows-based PC.  And Windows dominated the market.  Consumers weren’t complaining.  Much.  Sure, there were things they did bitch about (glitches, drivers, viruses, etc.), but it sure wasn’t price.

Of course, Microsoft’s competitors were hurting.  They couldn’t sell their products if Microsoft was giving away a similar product free.  Because they were hurting their competitors, the government tried to break up the company with the Sherman Act. 

THE NORTHERN SECURITIES SUIT of 1902 found a holding company guilty of not yet committing a crime.  Teddy Roosevelt’s administration filed a Sherman antitrust suit against Northern Securities.  This was a holding company for Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroads.  What’s a holding company?  It replaced a trust.   Which large corporations created in response to government’s attacks on large corporations.

Small competitors feared large corporations.  They could not compete against their economies of scale and vertical integration.  The little guys couldn’t sell things as cheap as the big corporations could.  So the government intervened to protect the little guy.  So they could sell at higher prices.

But businesses grow.  All big corporations started out as little guys.  And the growing process doesn’t stop.  So the big corporations had to find other ways to grow.  They formed trusts.  Then the trust-busters busted up the trusts.  The next form was the holding company. 

The trust-busters said that the big corporations, trusts and holding companies were all trying to become monopolies.  And once they eliminated all competitors, they would raise their prices and gouge the consumers.  Northern Securities never did.  But they could.  So they were guilty.  Because they might commit a crime.  One day.

ALL BUSINESS OWNERS aren’t morally ethical and honest.  But the market is, albeit cruel.  Economies of scales will always put the little guy out of business.  Sad, yes, for the little guy.  But for every little guy put out of business, millions of consumers save money.  They can buy things for less.  Which means they have more money to buy more things.  New things.  Different things.  From new little guys who now have a chance with this new surplus of purchasing power.

But when politicians get involved, consumers lose.  When they help a competitor, they help them by keeping prices high.  To keep competition ‘fair’.  For the politically connected.

Consumers never complain about low prices.  Only competitors do.  Or their employees.  Those working on whaling ships didn’t like to see the low price of Rockefeller’s kerosene.  But the new refining industry (and its auxiliaries) created far more jobs than were lost on the whaling ships.  We call it progress.  And with it comes a better life for the many.  Even if it is at the expense of the few.


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