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

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 19th, 2012

Week in Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Gold Doesn’t Lie

Posted by PITHOCRATES - September 19th, 2010

Gold and money have an intimate relationship.  Sort of a love/hate thing.  Because, in general, if you love one, you hate the other.  Actually, those are pretty strong words.  Let’s just say it’s a like/disinterested relationship.

During times of reckless, irresponsible monetary/fiscal policy, many people prefer gold over hard cash.  Why?  Two reasons.  Monetary inflation.  And currency depreciation.  Actually, these are two sides of the same coin.  No pun intended.  Well, maybe a little.

When the government spends more money than they have, they have to get more money.  They can increase taxes.  They can borrow it.  Or print it.   And we the people ultimately get poorer when they do. 

If they increase our taxes, we grow poorer.  And…, well, I guess that’s self-explanatory.

If they borrow it, they have to pay interest on what they borrow.  And, ultimately, we pay that.  When they borrow, they sell government securities.  And when they do, there’re more securities on the market.  They have to compete with corporate and municipal bonds (and other debt offerings).  And these have to compete with the government securities.  And how do you do that?  You attract investors with higher interest rates.  And we grow poorer when we have to pay those higher interest rates on our mortgages, car loans and credit cards.

If they print money it means they can no longer borrow.  Meaning they are so far in debt or so un-creditworthy that no one wants to buy their securities.  This is bad.  Real bad.  Because ‘printing’ is really their only option.  I put ‘printing’ into single quotation marks because most money is electronic these days.  Just numbers in columns.  In the old days, though, more of the money was paper.  And they really printed it.  Like in Weimar Germany following World War I.  Depression and reparations caused their printing presses to spit out cash at staggering rates (inflation).  So much so that the value of each individual note plummeted (currency depreciation).  The Germans actually used it for firewood.  Why?  It took less cash to burn than it took to buy firewood to burn.  And when Germans got any cash that they didn’t burn, they tried to spend it as fast as they cold before it became worthless.

This is how we get poorer with inflation.  It makes our money worth less.  Which makes everything cost more in dollars.

This is why gold is attractive during times of reckless, irresponsible monetary/fiscal policy.  It’s a lot harder to ‘inflate’ the quantity of gold.  You just can’t flick a switch.  You gotta mine it.  Process it.  Transport it.  Then introduce it into the market.  This takes time.  And involves a lot of costs.  It just doesn’t happen overnight.  So gold is a relatively safe asset to park your wealth in.  It holds its value.  And, in dollar terms, it increases its value the more money is depreciated.  As the dollar loses its value, it takes more and more dollars to buy the same amount of gold.

So, a high gold price is basically a rejection of a government’s monetary/fiscal policies.  And governments don’t like this.  Especially the Obama Administration.  Which has raised the bar on being irresponsible.  Gold prices are up.  So Rep. Anthony Weiner, Democrat of New York, is investigating.  And he wants to regulate (see Weiner, Waxman Set Gold Hearing from the Future of Capitalism website).  Because gold-selling companies advertise on conservative, cable programming.  Thus he can kill two birds with one stone.  He can try to hide the consequences of the administration’s irresponsible policies.  And he can hurt the advertising revenue of the news outlets that report on those irresponsible policies, thus muzzling the ‘free press’. 

Rep. Weiner can say what he wants to about the gold-selling companies and the conservative outlets but that doesn’t change one significant fact.  The price of gold is up.  And there is a reason for that.  The current monetary/fiscal policies are heading in a very bad direction.  A politician can lie all he wants about that fact.  But the market, left to its own devices, can’t.  And that’s why they want to regulate it.  So they can make it lie.

(Note:  PITHOCRATES does NOT offer investment advice.  Whether or not gold is a good investment is up to you and your financial adviser.)

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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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