Archives for posts with tag: financialization

“we are able to catch a first glimpse of the way in which changes in the quantity of money work their way into the economic system. If, however, we are tempted to assert that money is the drink which stimulates the system to activity, we must remind ourselves that there may be several slips between the cup and the lip. For whilst an increase in the quantity of money may be expected, cet. par., to reduce the rate of interest, this will not happen if the liquidity-preferences of the public are increasing more than the quantity of money; and whilst a decline in the rate of interest may be expected, cet. par., to increase the volume of investment, this will not happen if the schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital is falling more rapidly than the rate of interest; and whilst an increase in the volume of investment may be expected, cet. par., to increase employment, this may not happen if the propensity to consume is falling off. ” J.M.Keynes 1936

This is my second post about quantitative easing (QE). This subject may seem arcane but I think it is crucial to the general theme of this blog. As I discussed in that previous post, QE is being held out as a painless solution for a stagnant economy. As such, any other policies to sort out our economy get put to one side in favour of giving QE more of a chance. Meanwhile QE seems to have somewhat mysterious effects on asset prices and those impact on inequality and capital flows between countries and so effect us all.

I think it is important to make a clear distinction between simply using QE to bring risk free interest rates down and using excess QE, above and beyond that, in an attempt to satiate any preference the public may have to hold wealth in the form of zero yielding cash rather than as other asset classes such as stocks or bonds. In WWII and its immediate aftermath, the US and UK governments both used QE to peg low interest rates for both short term and longer term government bonds so as to facilitate massive deficit spending. That is a straightforward policy and keeping such low interest rates could be a permanent arrangement much as it has been in Japan for the past couple of decades. However we now have QE being used not so much to facilitate government spending but as an alternative to that as a way to try and stimulate the economy.

In my previous post I tried to rationalize the effects of further QE (once risk free interest rates were at the lower bound) in terms of how it could place a ceiling, for a period, on the extent to which the central bank could subsequently raise interest rates. Nick Edmonds has expressed skepticism as to whether such a constraint would actually come to bear on a central bank that wished to hike interest rates. His point is that, one way or another, a fix would be found.

Nick Edmonds models QE  in terms of how purchases of assets such as government bonds (by the central bank, from the public) induce price changes in all other asset classes, domestic and foreign, as the public rebalances  holdings of those various asset classes. This also tallies with how the Bank of England explains QE effects. To me this raises the crucial issue of why “the public” chooses to exchange other liquid assets for cash* even when cash is a zero yielding asset and the assets they sell do have an appreciable yield. In principle in the simplest model, a liquid asset with ANY yield would be preferable to zero yielding cash that was in excess of what was needed as a medium of exchange. Such a view however overlooks the crucial attribute of cash as the ideal stable store of value over the short and medium term  (1). Perhaps the clearest description I have seen for this is from an interview with Warren Buffett’s biographer Alice Schroeder:-

“”He thinks of cash as a call option with no expiration date, an option on every asset class, with no strike price.” It is a pretty fundamental insight. Because once an investor looks at cash as an option – in essence, the price of being able to scoop up a bargain when it becomes available – it is less tempting to be bothered by the fact that in the short term, it earns almost nothing. Suddenly, an investor’s asset allocation decisions are not simply between earning nothing in cash and earning something in bonds or stocks. The key question becomes: How much can the cash earn if I have it when I need it to buy other assets that are cheap, versus the upfront cost of holding it? “There’s a perception that Buffett just likes cash and lets cash build up, but that optionality is actually pretty mathematically based, even if he does the math in his head, which he almost always does,””

Asset managers selling assets to the central bank obviously must value the cash they receive just as much as the assets they sell. This undermines the popular narrative about QE causing a “hot potato effect” as asset managers try to offload zero yielding cash. More generally whenever anyone sells an asset to anyone, it is because they value that amount of cash as much as that asset. That, after all, is what sets the market price for assets. So every asset is valued as that amount of “call option …with no expiration date… on every asset class, with no strike price” to use Alice Schroeder’s description of cash in its asset class guise.

Every asset also has its price set by what it itself is likely to earn. Peters and Adamou make the case that asset prices and price volatility find levels at which borrowing money to purchase more of an asset won’t increase gains. Buying more of an asset using borrowed money will amplify any short term gains but also any losses whenever the asset price falls and those losses will outweigh the increased gains overall. This stems from the phenomenon of “volatility decay”. A 25% fall in price requires a 33% rise to get back even,whilst a 50% fall requires a 100% rise. This effect would cap any durable upward repricing of assets unless price volatility also reduced and/or earnings increased.

Obviously, just as cash can be used to “scoop up a bargain when it becomes available“, so any other liquid asset can potentially be sold to fund such a purchase. The asset manager’s ideal would be to have holdings of diverse asset classes that had prices that could be relied upon to move in opposite directions such that bargains in one asset class could be bought when the other asset holdings had boosted available funds. The asset value of cash relies on the unreliability of such negative correlations between the price movements of various assets. I suppose this is making the same general point as J.M.Keynes’s statement :-

“It might be thought that, in the same way, an individual, who believed that the prospective yield of investments will be below what the market is expecting, will have a sufficient reason for holding liquid cash. But this is not the case. He has a sufficient reason for holding cash or debts in preference to equities; but the purchase of debts will be a preferable alternative to holding cash, unless he also believes that the future rate of interest will prove to be higher than the market is supposing.” In this context J.M.Keynes means future interest rates on long term debt or in other words, bond prices.

Of course cash doesn’t simply serve as an asset class; its value is also anchored in the real economy in terms of how much goods and services it can buy. Cash in the hands of asset managers has little influence on the prices of real economy goods and services. Asset managers simply work to transport value through time and use wealth to gather more wealth by buying and selling securities. The cash they control is restricted to that use and so does not generally take part in bidding for goods and services.

So basically the financial system is dealt exogenous constraints from the real economy. Cash has its real economy value and the firms and property underlying assets can only supply asset holders with gains limited by real economic activity. The financial system then juggles that around amongst itself. For everything to still tally up, the extra cash held by the public due to QE must shift the return characteristics of the market to justify the continued exchange of yielding assets for yet more cash. The Peters and Adamou study indicates that increasing levels of cash are unlikely to durably push up asset values. Those selling assets to the central bank also clearly have that perception or presumably they wouldn’t sell. It seems to me that something has to give and perhaps the most likely effect is to synchronize the price movements of the various asset classes. Perhaps that unfolding scenario is the only reason why the public continues to choose to part with assets in exchange for zero yielding cash.

All the cash provided by QE has to be held by someone at all times as with all other issued securities until they are withdrawn. Prior to all of the QE, an upward revaluation of say mining stocks might have entailed a sell off of say long term treasury bonds so as to provide the funds. The last participant to sell his treasury bonds would not have got much money for them and would not have been able to buy many shares of the mining stocks. By contrast, in a post-QE world, the mining stocks could be bid up by buyers who did not need to sell off anything else because they had ample cash reserves to draw upon. Consequently all assets now can be bid up in unison and likewise they can all fall in unison. The more that effect takes hold, the more valuable cash becomes as an asset class. In June 2013 there was a modest drop in asset prices that nevertheless was widely remarked upon because it seemed perfectly synchronized across all major asset classes; all classes of stocks, bonds and commodities, across the globe, seemed to suddenly revalue downwards in terms of the US dollar or Sterling.

Its worth asking whether this is a problem or not. If asset managers now hold more cash and need to hold more cash, then perhaps that is a fairly neutral non-effect. However, at the very least, it makes me very much doubt that we can sort out our economic problems simply by doing more QE.  To me the main downside to QE looks to be a further dislocation between the financial system and the real economy. In an ideal world, asset markets would serve the real economy by coordinating allocation of real resources towards where they could best serve the real economy. I worry that QE might only serve to make asset markets yet more stochastic, disruptive and capricious in their effects on the real economy. Perhaps the starvation that came for many people as a result of the seemingly stochastic spikes in grain prices in 2008 should serve as a warning of the potential real damage irrational financial markets can cause.

notes:

*I’m using “cash” here in the sense of any “cash equivalent” such as risk free bank deposits, very short term treasury bills, and, for banks, bank reserves.

(1) I think Keynes was alluding this when he described the “liquidity-preference due to the speculative motive”. For me however, Keynes’s terminology is unfortunate because this is all about the price stability of cash, not the fact that cash can readily be exchanged for other assets as the adjective “liquidity” is often used to mean.

Related Previous Posts:

Monetary policy, the 1930s and now

Larry Summers at least sees the problem

Related stuff on the web:

Money creation in the modern economy -Bank of England (link added 19march2014 ht JKH)

For Warren Buffett, the cash option is priceless -The Globe and Mail

Chapter 13. The General Theory of the Rate of Interest -J.M.Keynes 1936

Stochastic Market Efficienc-Ole Peters and Alexander Adamou

The Case Against Monetary Stimulus via Asset Purchases -Ashwin Parameswaran

What the *&%! Just Happened -Ben Inker -GMO

Leash the Dogma -John P. Hussman

Investing Like the Harvard and Yale Endowment Funds -Frontier

A Value Investor’s Perspective on Tail Risk Protection: An Ode to the Joy of Cash -James Montier -GMO

Thanks to Dan Kervick and Mark A Sadowski for prompting my thoughts about QE with their astute comments on Steve R Waldman’s Interfluidity blog (obviously if this post is stupid, that’s not their fault 🙂 ).

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Larry Summers gave an IMF speech on Nov 8th where he acknowledged that since the 2008 crisis, the USA has had a “jobless recovery” and that the economy is still floundering well below potential. I’m glad that he is drawing attention to all of that. What I disagree with is his suggestion that we need encouragement of asset bubbles as a way to cope with this reality.

It is as well to note exactly what Larry Summers said:

“Then, conventional macroeconomic thinking leaves us in a very serious problem; because we all seem to agree that, whereas you can keep the Federal funds rate at a low level forever, it’s much harder to do extraordinary measures beyond that forever — but the underlying problem may be there forever. It’s much more difficult to say, well, we only needed deficits during the short interval of the crisis if aggregate demand, if equilibrium interest rates, can’t be achieved given the prevailing rate of inflation.

And most of what would be done under the auspices — if this view is at all correct — would be done under the aegis of preventing a future crisis would be counterproductive, because it would in one way or other raise the cost of financial intermediation, and therefore operate to lower the equilibrium interest rate that was necessary. Now this may all be madness, and I may not have this right at all; but it does seem to me that four years after the successful combating of crisis, with really no evidence of growth that is restoring equilibrium, one has to be concerned about a policy agenda that is doing less with monetary policy than has been done before, doing less with fiscal policy than has been done before, and taking steps whose basic purpose is to cause there to be less lending, borrowing and inflated asset prices than there was before. So my lesson from this crisis is — and my overarching lesson, which I have to say I think the world has under-internalized — is that it is not over until it is over; and that is surely not right now, and cannot be judged relative to the extent of financial panic; and that we may well need, in the years ahead, to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activity, holding our economies back below their potential.”

Throughout this blog I’ve being trying to explore ideas for a reconstruction of our economic system  both to address exactly the “secular stagnation” issue that Larry Summers recognizes AND avoid asset bubble induced financial crises. To me the key is to replace the current tax system with a tax on gross assets.

Furthermore I suspect that asset bubbles actually worsen the underlying root cause of secular stagnation. Over the long term, the only way that bubbles offer relief is by forcing fiscal stimulus in the form of bailouts to clear up the mess after the bubble bursts. As the bubble builds, the private sector appears to be creating prosperity by itself. Once the burst happens, the damage could more than make up for that except government deficits induced by bailouts mitigate the crunch. It may be politically more acceptable to have such “disaster relief” than to have everyday fiscal stimulus but it is exceptionally regressive and wasteful. The private sector becomes distorted into becoming a bailout harvesting machine.

It might be argued that bubbles act as a sort of asset tax in that they cause wealth to be moved out of safety and splurged on malinvestments -creating jobs in the process. People become employed building ghost estates of unwanted houses or making patent applications for pretend biotech innovations or whatever. However I suspect that the people who predominantly get fleeced by such bubbles are minor savers saving for retirement. Retirees who’s pension savings went towards buying insanely overvalued pets.com stock in 2000 are now cutting back consumption as a consequence of having lost those savings. The major players  profited not only at the expense of the real economy but also at the expense of all those “dumb money” savers who bought high and sold low. In that way bubbles actually worsen the wealth inequality that is at the root of the whole problem.

Related stuff on the web:

No, Larry Summers, We Don’t Need More Bubbles -Clive Crook, Bloomberg

Secular Stagnation, Progress in Economics -JW Mason (link added 27nov2013)

The Onion Revealed As Mystery Source Of Larry Summers’ And Paul Krugman’s Economic Insight -ZeroHedge

Secular Stagnation, Coalmines, Bubbles, and Larry Summers -Paul Krugman

The Economy almost certainly needs Bubbles -Michael Sankowski

Why Do the Rich Save So Much -Christopher Carrol

Innovation, Stagnation and Unemployment -Ashwin Parameswaran (link added  30nov2013)

Tapping the Brakes: Are Less Active Markets Safer and Better for the Economy -Stiglitz (link added 21April2014)

appendix (this is an excerpt from the pdf that I started this blog off with)

A zero interest rate policy does not reduce the financial overhead

It is sometimes celebrated that the current ultra-low interest rate regime supposedly reduces the “unearned increment” taken by “rentiers”. Some politicians effuse about the exceptionally low “cost of capital” enabled by the current financial climate. Interest free credit for the financial system means boundless financial leverage. Financial leverage powers the ability of the finance industry to feed off of financial instability and also creates and amplifies such instability.

The current zero-interest rate policy was brought about in Japan to save the Japanese banks after their stock market and real estate price collapse of 1990 and then in the USA and UK after the global asset bubble burst in 2008. Reducing interest rates tends to boost asset prices. Ultra-low interest rates also enable banks to “earn their way out of insolvency” by conducting interest rate arbitrage especially across national boundaries to regions with much higher interest rates. In fact just such a “carry trade” between Japan and the rest of the world provided some of the impetus for the bubble in the lead up to 2008. The impact of zero interest rates runs much deeper than such effects however. Understanding how interest free credit benefits the finance industry requires an understanding of how financial markets extract cash flows via price volatility. Potentially a fluctuating price can be harvested to provide a cash flow. If a security maintains roughly the same price over the long term then that means any 20% drop in price eventually being matched by a 25% rise (4/5×5/4=1), any 50% drop being matched by a 100% rise (1/2×2=1) and any 90% drop being matched by a 1000% rise (1/10×10=1). Obviously, simply holding such a security would provide no benefit as the price would simply bob up and down with no overall gain. However a 50% drop from $100 is a $50 loss whilst a 100% gain from $100 is a $100 gain. The fluctuations in the price are geometric but money is money. The fact that financial holdings can be bought and sold allows that geometric to linear inconsistency to be harvested. Simply periodically rebalancing such a holding against a holding of cash would extract financial gains. Rebalancing across a portfolio of securities with independently fluctuating prices optimises that process.

Rebalancing between financial holdings bids up the prices of whatever is cheap and bids down the prices of whatever is expensive. Such trading moderates the price fluctuations that it depends upon. However, such ‘liquidity providing’ speculation is accompanied by extensive ‘liquidity taking’ speculation that amplifies price fluctuations. If a trader envisions that prices are due to rise (or fall) then she can take advantage of such anticipated price changes.  In an idealised market where no participant had ‘an edge’ such ‘liquidity taking’ speculation would not make sense -the market as a whole would have already priced in any predictable price movement. However in the real world, market-moving levels of finance are controlled by traders who do have ‘an edge’ over the market as a whole. Liquidity panics occur when traders risk losing everything due to the market moving against their leveraged positions. Consequently, increases in the volume of trading activity typically increase rather than decrease price volatility.

Security trading is a zero sum game. For every participant who buys low and sells high someone else has to have sold to them and bought from them. Certain financial securities are firmly linked to the real economy. Commodity futures set the prices for essentials such as crude oil, grains and industrial metals. Producers and processors of such commodities have real world considerations when they decide whether to sell or buy. The real economy provides the “chump” who ends up buying high or selling low so as to provide the trading gains for financiers. Previously, the borrowing cost for the funds used for trading limited such financial extraction. Interest free credit removes that constraint.

The dream of “popular capitalism” was for everyone to own stocks and align with capitalistic interests to benefit from corporate profitability and efficiency. Various government schemes endeavoured to induce households to buy stocks. However a shift in the capital structure of many companies allows much of the potential benefits to slip past “mom and pop” type stock holders. In principle, the stock market provides a mechanism for distributing corporate profits amongst the shareholders. However, companies can decide to take on debt such that much of the cash flow services the debt instead of going to profits. Low interest rates favour such corporate leverage. Corporate debt is encouraged by the current severe taxes on corporate profits. Debt servicing costs are fixed ahead of time whilst the corporate cash flow varies according to the varying fortunes of the company. Once a fixed block of cash flow is pledged to creditors, any variation becomes proportionately much more dramatic for the remaining profits. The consequence is amplified share price volatility. Management payment in the form of stock options especially encourages a capital structure orientated towards inducing share price volatility.

A highly indebted company needs to nimbly keep the debt burden serviceable by either paying off debt if tough times are envisioned or expanding the debt and buying back stock when times are good. In effect the company itself acts as “the chump” using profits for share buybacks and aquisitions -bidding up oscillations in its own share price. Those shareholders who know what they are doing are able to harvest that volatility by buying and selling at opportune times. The benefits entirely pass by the other shareholders who simply hold the stock as the price bobs up and down. All of the gains pass on through to be captured by those who trade astutely. Some shareholdings last for less than a second in an effort to harvest wiggles in the price on a microsecond timescale.

When financial leverage goes wrong, the assets bought on credit may fall in value to become worth less than the money owed. Historically, bankruptcy laws were extremely harsh on debtors and so financial leverage was feared. Without limited liability laws, company owners were personally on the hook for every debt. Nowadays, however, debts can be taken on such that there is an amplification of any gain (which is pocketed) or an amplification of any loss (which becomes un-payable and so is apologized for). The bank bailouts since 2008 have taken this asymmetry to another dimension. The government stepped in and said that it would pay for all of the losses so that none would be suffered by the creditors (predominately also banks and financial institutions in a reciprocal web of lending). Richard Bookstaber summarised the strategy ,

“Innovative products are used to create return distributions that give a high likelihood of having positive returns at the expense of having a higher risk of catastrophic returns. Strategies that lead to a ‘make a little, make a little, make a little, …, lose a lot’ pattern of returns. If things go well for a while, the ‘lose a lot’ not yet being realized, the strategy gets levered up to become ‘make a lot, make a lot, make a lot,…, lose more than everything’, and viola, at some point the taxpayer is left holding the bag.”

Currently, high finance is an extremely complex business. It requires a colossal technological and human effort. The most advanced and expensive computers are dedicated to high frequency trading (HFT). The best and brightest are educated at elite universities to prepare them for the intense battle of mathematical genius that financial trading has become.  Traders pay exorbitant rents so as to have their computers next to those of the major exchanges to avoid even the slightest time delay. A private fibre optic cable has been laid directly between New York and Chicago so as to gain a microsecond advantage for comparisons between the futures and stock markets. It is easy to become beguiled by the sheer complexity and effort of it all. People marvel at superlative feats of human endeavour and the financial markets are the Great Pyramids of our time. That is not to say that it is not counter-productive and essentially moronic.

The vast sums skimmed off from the economy by the vastly expensive finance system could mostly be avoided if money used for financial leverage had a cost such as would be the case under an asset tax system. The useful functions of price discovery and exchange would be better served by pedestrianized financial markets in which all participants interacted on a level playing field. Advanced computers would be rendered pointless if transactions were conducted with a time resolution of minutes rather than microseconds. Such a time buffer would end the vastly expensive arms race in computer technology between elite traders. The current ultra-low-latency trading environment often provides a perfectly continuous price variation down to a microsecond resolution. That much applauded attribute is only of any relevance for ultra-low-latency traders in their quest to out manoeuvre other participants. Whilst advanced technology normally creates such (superfluous) pricing precision it occasionally runs amok creating gross mispricing events such as the “flash crash” of May 2010 and the Knight Capital fiasco of August 2012. A genuinely efficient financial market is one that allows prices to be formed that genuinely reflect supply and demand and does so at minimal cost. Excessive opportunities to “make money” from trading are an indication of a dysfunctional market. However, the current market structure is entirely a concoction for just that purpose. The failure of current financial markets to serve their original purpose is apparent from withdrawals.  Farmers are now making less use of futures to hedge their prospective crop yields. There has been a transfer of stock ownership from households and pension funds to financial institutions.

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist. –Kenneth E. Boulding

Our world today seems full of contradictions. We seemingly need to work longer hours to secure our jobs when there aren’t enough jobs to go around. It appears necessary to bombard us with advertising to persuade us to buy stuff we don’t really want because that is the only way to ensure enough employment for people to afford what they need. Apparently much of this is in aid of economic growth and economic growth is important because without it we won’t be able to service our debt burden.

It is easy to come to the conclusion that debt and economic growth are at the root of our problems and so we should eliminate both. There is a campaign organisation advocating just that – the “Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy” (CASSE). Nevertheless, it is also easy to dream up imaginary fables where both debt and economic growth are entirely beneficial:

Imagine an economy where people relied on camel herding to provide food and fire wood for power. They had intermittent famines whenever droughts occurred and spent all day every day scouring the desert for fire wood, water and camel forage. Life was hard and getting harder due to desertification from camel overgrazing and tree loss.

To avoid the looming crisis they constructed solar powered desalination plants to provide fresh water from the sea and grew seaweed on floating farms to convert into aviation fuel, plastic materials and animal fodder. The waste from the seaweed was used as a soil improver and so plenty of camels could be kept on good pasture for use as family pets and recreational riding. Solar powered, robot staffed, factories provided everything everyone wanted. The land that had been overgrazed recovered and wild animals that had been rare became numerous again. Materials were recycled and the cornucopia of consumer goods and capital equipment entirely came from organizing existing materials using human ingenuity and renewable energy.

All the economic development was funded using debts drawn up between the people. The revenue from providing goods and services to each other provided an ample revenue stream for all the debts to be serviced. Everyone was both a creditor and a debtor. People used the revenue from their debt holdings to help pay their debts to each other. There was initially a debate as to whether to use a monetary system based on bills of exchange drawn up between the populace or whether to allow banks. It was decided that banks would add convenience and fortunately the excess interest charged by banks got spent back into the economy by the bank workers and owners. There initially was nothing much in the way of government but it was decided that so long as government workers spent what was received in taxes back into the economy, a mixed public sector private sector economy might be conducive to overall prosperity.

There was no inflation either of consumer prices or of assets. The price of a camel stayed exactly the same as did the prices of the buildings that predated the economic transition. However whilst previously the camels and few permanent buildings constituted essentially all of the asset stock in the economy; they became a tiny proportion of a vastly wealthier economy with masses of incredibly valuable high tech capital equipment. The stock of debt grew in proportion to the size of the economy; as the economy grew so did the revenue streams available to service the debts with. There seemed no end in sight to the economic growth. People owned more and more sophisticated machines that enabled them to do less and less drudgery. At no point was economic growth sort after as a way to service the debts. It was simply a by-product of people doing things better. If for whatever reason economic growth had stalled, the debts would have remained serviceable because all of the repayments were spent – returning the means of payment back to the debtors.

I think it is instructive to unpick how this imaginary scenario diverges from our real life situation that has led people to found the “Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy”. I think it boils down to the imaginary situation being based on money and debt being entirely used to direct current investment and consumption (I’m not using the word “investment” in its financial meaning as exchange of money for another asset but rather in its economic meaning as spending on new machinery etc.). In the imaginary situation the money and debt are simply a form of communication that enables people to organize and rearrange the resources they have. They are analogous to the pheromones used by insect colonies that enable a colony of insects to work together in harmony for the greater good of each other. My impression is that our real life problems stem from money and debt being instead used to concentrate power and control rather than to direct activity. Often money is lent not so as to obtain a revenue stream to spend on goods and services produced from the investment; but rather so as to gather more wealth to keep as an insurance in case in future there is competition for scarce resources.

It is perfectly rational to want to insure against an uncertain future. The problem is that collectively our ability to provide for each other depends on our real productive capacity not our paper wealth. If bees or ants saved up their pheromones, instead of using them to direct each other for gathering nectar, the colony would collapse. When the hive was in disrepair with no stocks of honey, it would be too late and the amassed stock of pheromones would be seen for the foolishness it was.  It is exactly the same with money and debt for us. I think we need to think rationally about the glitch in the nature of finance that enables claims to be accumulated without an accompanying ability to honour those claims. When we talk about debt being unsustainable, what we are really meaning is that the debt has become disconnected from the real economy and money is being used to gather money rather than to build productive capacity. I think replacing our current tax system with a tax on assets could ensure that all wealth remains continuously grounded in the productive capacity required both to pay such a tax and so prevent that potential glitch in the nature of finance.

We also need to be extremely wary of exhortations for economic growth where what is actually meant is growth of debt disconnected from productive capacity. That is simply a demand for increased wealth inequality. Debts based on lending to fund consumption to paper over inequalities have to be recognised as reckless lending that provides no basis for real wealth and need to be left to default with no backstop for the creditors. It is wealth inequality that leads to disconnected debt being the most financially prudent form of saving. In my opinion, tackling wealth inequality is crucial if we are to have a sustainable prosperous economy.

The “Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy (CASSE)” have a “myth and reality” section. Two of the “myths” they refute are “We can grow the economy continuously because we can decouple growth from resource use and waste production” and “technological progress will allow unlimited economic growth”. Refuting those “myths” seems to me to be saying that people will stop learning from experience. I don’t believe that that would be desirable. I think it is vital never to conflate environmental conservation with eschewing knowledge and technology. A blind grasping for economic growth for the sake of sustaining non-productive debts may be leading us to neglect environmental concerns but in principle efforts directed at protecting our environment may actually lead to economic growth. Goods might become exquisitely designed with a view towards reuse and recycling. Potentially materials could just be remoulded again and again with no waste and no natural resource consumption. Humans have been doing exactly that with gold and gemstones for thousands of years. We will simply need to treat other mineral resources in the same way.

The sun provides our planet with an immense power source that renders the “thermodynamic” objections posed by CASSE complete nonsense. Do CASSE believe that evolution by natural selection will cease? Isn’t evolution simply a honing of the fitness of living things -the natural world’s equivalent of economic growth? I don’t consider that there is any more reason to evoke a “thermodynamic” objection to economic growth than there is against evolution. Of course humans are perfectly capable of screwing up and making each other’s lives miserable. The history of Easter Island illustrates that perfectly. That is very different from saying that we can’t behave differently.

Also see posts:

Rich people could benefit if everyone else were also rich

Chance, luck, risk and economic democracy

Related stuff on the web:

Is sustainable growth an oxymoron -John Fullerton

Growth isn’t possible- nef

The End of Growth Wouldn’t Be the End of Capitalism -The Atlantic

On the Road to Zero Growth -Jeremy Grantham

Murphy’s Law? or, Follies of a Finite Physicist- Noah Smith

I think the greatest threat to our environment is human poverty. This may seem counter-intuitive since in general each rich person consumes and pollutes far more than each poor person. It has been estimated that it would take five Earths to provide all seven billion of us with a current US lifestyle. An astonishingly low environmental impact is achieved by the poorest . On the face of it, if everyone managed to lift themselves out of poverty, increases in pollution and environmental degradation might be expected to cause an environmental calamity. However if having all seven billion of us living an affluent lifestyle poses an environmental challenge, a more serious environmental challenge is posed by having ten billion people sharing the planet even if two billion of those don’t pollute or degrade the environment much due to poverty. To my mind population growth is the crucial environmental issue and population growth comes from poverty.

Hans Rosling makes a very compelling case that the poorest two billion people are the source of global population growth. People from utterly different cultures all over the world on average have large families when child mortality rates are high and small families when they are low. Over the past few decades there has not been an explosion in the number of poor people because thankfully many poor people do manage to escape poverty. But enough remain poor to maintain a steady source of global population growth. The poorest two billion people today are just as poor as the poorest two billion a few decades ago and just as likely to see their children die and just as likely to have large families. Poor people  are the progenitors of the increased future population of better off people who eat meat, drive cars and water their lawns. If you believe that the world can only support a limited number of affluent people then the answer is to ensure that everyone is affluent.

Obviously if each of us who has the good fortune to be comfortably well off chooses to consume in a way that minimises environmental problems; then that is great. We can spend our money on say dance classes for our children rather than new hardwood flooring or whatever –reduce, reuse, recycle. Environmental concerns do also feed into politics though. Many people want the political system to steer other people towards behaviour that protects the environment.  I think it is crucial that people living in the rich world channel the politics of environmental concern towards ameliorating the extent to which the rich world impoverishes the world’s poorest. I don’t think policy makers in the rich world intentionally impoverish the world’s poorest. It comes as a by-product of efforts to ensure prosperity in the rich world or to protect special interest groups in the rich world. Agricultural tariffs and subsidies are a classic example. They lead to what otherwise would be uneconomic intensification of agriculture in the developed world so as to dump food at a loss in the poor world. There is consequent destitution of people who could otherwise be involved in commercial agriculture in the developing world both for local consumption and for export. In the 1800s the case was successfully made that repealing the English “corn laws” would benefit almost everyone with the exception of those wanting increased rents and mortgages from English farmland. I think the same arguments hold today.

In the USA in particular there is much popular support for protectionist tariffs and subsidies*. The USA is such a large country that it can cope relatively well even if global trade gets shut down. I think it is crucial that we unpick the motivation behind such protectionist views. Much of it seems to stem from the conflict between “labour” and “capital”. The owning class has the most to gain from globalization. The owning class can own whichever companies are most profitable where ever they are based. They can lend money to whoever in the world provides the highest return. Workers on the other hand lose bargaining power. Jobs become outsourced to where ever in the world has the lowest wages for a given level of competency. As I see it the answer is to ensure that everyone belongs to the owning class. Replacing all current taxes with an asset tax and paying a citizens’ dividend would have that effect. If the increased profits that came from offshoring jobs went to everyone rather than just a select owning class then much of the current resentment would evaporate.

What the world needs are advances in efficiency and technology. We need to be able to do more with less. To my mind it makes much more sense for people to be freed up to push new technologies in the developed world. A compelling case can be made that developing countries benefit from “learning by doing”. If a basic manufacturing process can be done well in a developing country then it makes sense for it to be done there, providing jobs there. Hopefully the experience gained will raise capabilities so that all of the world can be at the forefront.  People like working not simply because they want money but because they find it satisfying to create and provide, to master skills and innovate. To truly satisfy that motivation, people need to be doing work where they are really making a difference for the better. The duplication and waste that comes from trade barriers runs counter to that.

Even more than trade barriers, I think policies aimed at encouraging capital flows from the developing world to the developed world have been the overriding influence on world poverty. I’ve examined this in the previous post “Isn’t a financialized economy the goose that lays our golden eggs”. People in the UK are not callously minded towards people in the developing world. I’m sure that the decimation of the real value of the median wage across the developing world that occurred during the 1980-2000 “great moderation” period is not connected in most people’s minds  with the apparently miraculous affordability for global commodities that came in that period for those in the developed world. Ignorance is no excuse though. We need to get real and face up to the consequences of the policies we vote for. Making the UK a perfect piggy bank for capital flight from developing countries does far more damage than can be put right by some charitable donations.

It is striking that the popular sympathy for protectionism as a way to “keep jobs here” is at odds with nurturing capital flight from poorer countries as a way to gain prosperity by sleight of hand. If money were staying in poor countries, causing those countries to develop a prosperous economy of their own, then that would raise wages there. That would avoid the issue of jobs being offshored from the rich world to lower wage countries. Furthermore if the whole world were prosperous, then countries that are currently poor would become potential importers of products made by workers here.

The cost of natural resources does however increase if the whole world can afford them. If what we really want are more jobs in the rich world, then perhaps we should be more sanguine about that. There are lots of potential job opportunities in renewable energy and recycling. To my mind it makes no sense to at the same time put up trade barriers so as to “keep jobs at home” and yet entice capital flight so that we can get all the world’s natural resources and put off the day when we need to recycle and use renewables.

*As an aside, I think protectionism also is a very bad idea because it provides a compelling motivation for imperialism. In the absence of world trade, a country needs to have a large internal market and that means that countries need to be as large as possible.

see also posts:

We choose for renewable energy to make no financial sense.

Rich people could benefit if everyone else were also rich.

Globalization, Triffin’s dilemma and demurrage crypto currency.

Isn’t a financialized economy the goose that lays our golden eggs?

Related stuff on the web:

People and the planet -Royal Society

Stop blaming the poor. Its the wally yatchers who are burning the planet – George Monbiot

populationmatters.org

The mother of invention – Interfluidity

This post is an excerpt from the pdf that I started this blog off with. I’ve posted it because I hope it also makes sense as a stand alone post.

When Margaret Thatcher made her economic policy changes in the 1980s many economists predicted that the UK would be plunged into a vortex of impoverishment. In fact although the deindustrialization they predicted took place it coincided with increased prosperity by many measures. The resulting economic transformation was viewed as such a success that a broad political consensus was formed supporting those “neoliberal” economic policies. The Labour Party became New Labour and embraced financial deregulation and a transfer of taxation away from property and onto consumption. Wealth boomed for the wealthiest and everyone else was swept into greater prosperity along with them. Similar measures were taken in the USA and had similar results.

When reading recollections of those involved in the instigation of the Thatcher economic policies it is clear that the key aim and result was to shift from an economy where wage inflation out-paced asset price inflation to the opposite. The resulting benefit to those who already were wealthy before the transition is obvious. What needs to be understood however is how the country overall became richer on a wave of asset price inflation. How were we able to afford imported goods so much more easily than before? Seemingly by simply bidding up the price of pre-existing (or even purely paper) assets we were able to pay foreigners to do our manufacturing and provide us with natural resources that much of the rest of the world couldn’t afford.

The answer becomes apparent when the financial connections with the rest of the World are drawn into the picture. The UK became the piggy bank of the world. Foreigners were able to join in and further inflate the stock market, bond market and real estate bubble. Across the developing world, the immensely rich elite of those countries sought secure and lucrative ways to hold their wealth. The UK became a repository of choice for this “capital flight” from the developing world. When the UK bought imported goods, the money paid for them was returned back to the UK to bid up the value of our asset markets. In effect, trade became a flow of real goods (and migrant workers) to the UK in return for account statements. All that the UK needed to produce were electronic or paper documents.

To kick off this wave of financial inflow, interest rates were raised significantly above the (high) rate of inflation. This offered a potential bonanza to those buying UK treasury bonds especially if the consumer price inflation rate could be reduced. Limits on bank lending were relaxed and tax breaks were offered to those taking on debt. The government curbed labour union powers and disengaged from efforts to limit unemployment. This quashed wage inflation and so the inflationary impetus of credit expansion was channelled into asset price inflation.

The flip side of this flow of funds to the financialized developed economies was painfully manifested across the “developing” world. In fact, it made a mockery of the term “developing”. From the time of independence in 1960, Nigerian GDP increased 135% during the 1960s and then 283% during the 1970s. By contrast it shrank by 66% in the 1980s. The Nigerian Naira / USD exchange rate went from 0.78 in 1980 to 2.83 in 1985 to 8.94 in 1990 to 102.24 in 2000. With economies drained by capital flight, the developing world was no longer as able to afford global commodities such as oil, coffee, metal ores etc. That caused a slump in commodity prices and consequent further slumps in the economies of commodity exporters and so yet more incentive for capital flight.

Economic depression in the developing world was further fuelled by USD  denominated loans made by UK and US banks to third world governments. A sovereign government has no need for borrowing in a currency other than its own. Any public services such as school teaching, road building or construction of sewerage systems etc. could have been provided using local currency issued by the government to pay local people to do the work with taxes payable in the local currency ensuring the value of the local currency. Countries such as Nigeria had trade surpluses. That provided an ample potential immediate source of foreign currency to fund any imports for government use (such as weapons). The only role for USD denominated loans was for adding to capital flight. Meanwhile the western banks profited from the interest payments on the government debt. Political power in third world countries rested on being able to win over powerful cronies with the prospect of facilitated capital flight and so the dire arrangement became further entrenched.

Since 2000 however the developing world has in many cases resumed development. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world have escaped poverty over the last decade. This has been applauded as evidence that neo-liberal economic policies have extended their benefits to everyone. Perhaps a more accurate view would be that a stage in the process of financialization has now been fully wrung out and so the choke hold over the developing world’s economies is slipping. In order to attract financial in-flows, the ideal monetary arrangement is to have high interest rates above the rate of consumer price inflation and an expectation that both inflation and interest rates will subsequently fall. The market price of any asset that provides a long term cash flow will tend to rise if interest rates fall. If an asset costing $10 yields $1 per year when interest rates are 10% then (very crudely) a drop in interest rates to 5% will tend to reset the asset price to $20. Bringing interest rates down from >10% to <1% provides a phenomenal impetus to asset markets as has occurred since 1980. However, once it is done, it is done and so wealth managers will start looking elsewhere.

A whole raft of other such policies also harvested a one off boost for asset prices. Curtailing labour union power, shifting taxation from property onto consumption, encouraging private pension saving and facilitating private sector credit expansion all added to the performance of asset holdings. What provides a real bonanza for asset holders is when there is a transition from an unfavourable financial climate to a favourable one. Once that transition has been fully priced in, much of the gain has already occurred -especially when asset values are elevated and so assets don’t provide much of an income stream. Once everything has been done to make an economy as hospitable as possible for global “hot money”, the market will price in that favour and then global “hot money” will look for a new home where the next price rises are going to occur.  This makes attracting capital flows an inherently one off rather than a sustainable way to achieve prosperity. Capital flows may unfold over decades and that may give the impression that they have provided a timeless prosperous equilibrium but ultimately sustainable prosperity depends on the real economy.

It is vital to appreciate that macroeconomic malign effects don’t require any malign intent on anyone’s part. En-mass, people simply endeavouring to manage their finances as best as possible can inadvertently cause massive waste and destruction whilst all the while being entirely oblivious of it. It is analogous to tragic incidents when people get crushed to death in large crowds. No one person is to blame, the crowd surges and crushes without any person in the crowd acting reprehensibly. That is not to say that there is not a responsibility to take crowd control seriously – quite the opposite. Some of the politicians and technocrats at that vanguard of neo-liberalism actually aimed to alleviate poverty. Their reasoning was that if money is pampered then it will spring forth rewards that can be dispensed to good causes. In their view, capital flight supposedly means that global money is continuously being deployed wherever it can earn the most. That is taken to mean that overall global wealth is maximised and so there is more to go round. The key mistake in this is that it conflates claims over real tangible sources of wealth with the underlying real tangible sources of wealth themselves. Whenever that mistake is made, policy makers inevitably fall into the trap of simply facilitating an expansion in the paper claims over wealth whilst losing sight of the underlying reality required to back-up those claims with the real economy. The true responsibility for policy makers is to ensure that the monetary framework is constructed so as to align with the real economy such that what is best for money becomes what is best for the real economy. If left to its own devices, the financial system will wander away from that ideal.  A financial system built by the financial system will direct resources towards expanding the financial overhead borne by the real economy.

We all know the Samuel Goldwyn quote, “the harder I work the luckier I get”; as a personal maxim it has some considerable advantages over, “what will be, will be.” Capitalism revolves around the idea that control amasses to those who have done well. To some extent that ensures that the economy is governed by the competent. However it would be irresponsible and delusional to deny that the effects of personal effort are overlaid on a canvas of stochastic dumb luck. Serendipity is the backdrop to many a success and many losers are potential future winners. If we want our economy to best provide for all of us and make best use of every ones‘ talents, then we need to face up to this randomness.

Ole Peters has posted a fantastic video lecture about the nature of chance (bear with him past the grasshopper stuff). He describes a simple game where a coin flip decides whether the player gains 50% or loses 40%. Clearly winning  gains more than losing loses BUT a subsequent win does not make up for a preceding loss and a subsequent loss loses more than was gained by a preceding win (1.5×0.6=0.9<1); that is the “magic” of compounding.  This simple set up means that a large enough population of players will, in aggregate, steadily gain from playing the game but all of the winnings will randomly accrue to an ever smaller minority of players whilst almost everyone loses almost everything. Ole Peters points out that from an individual’s perspective playing such a game appears highly unattractive. A critical point to emphasize is that it is just as unattractive for a winner to continue with the game as it is for anyone else. A winning or losing streak does not influence the future. A rational winner would choose to stop and keep the winnings.  If wins and losses are pooled and rebalanced across many players, then the game becomes universally attractive.

Perhaps this simple game has more similarity to real life than we care to admit. Starting an enterprise entails financial risks and from an individual’s perspective the financially prudent course of action is typically to hold back. However, if we do that, nothing gets done and we are all poorer.  Perhaps much of the regulatory and legal framework of our financial system is an attempt to entice participation in the perils of enterprise risk so as to add to the overall greater good of society. Whatever lies behind how our financial system has come to be the way it is; I think it has lost its way. Limited liability and bankruptcy laws protect owners from the full financial consequences of bankruptcy. Winnings are kept but losses can be transferred to creditors. Ultimately the state subsidises credit provision to socialise losses whilst leaving profits with owners. This would all be very well if the only sort of risk being subsidised were true enterprise risk from potentially productive endeavours. We all need people to be making valiant attempts to create the next technological breakthrough or provide services in a more effective manner or whatever. The problem is that blindly subsidising financial credit and risk also encourages concoction of synthetic financial risk through use of financial leverage*.

The incredibly complicated to manage and idiosyncratic world of creative innovation or micro-enterprise is not an easy zone to park a vast fortune into. A vast fortune can however prosper very well in circumstances where enterprise risk is avoided and instead exposure is taken to the stochastic fluctuations of global asset and commodity prices. Then economies of scale favour the biggest players –it becomes more affordable to have market beating ultra-low-latency trading systems and to employ the best of the best to develop and operate them. Wealth deployed in that way however is not providing for the future; it is merely gathering money from other people in a zero sum redistribution towards the richest. Unfortunately leveraged speculation also exacerbates price volatility and that can have tragic real world consequences such as the starvation that occurred from the 2009 spike in grain prices.

In principle financial intermediation might be hoped to distribute risk and so create a situation where enterprise risk is readily taken on. The problem is that true enterprise risk is massively dependent on the details of what is being done. That is something that can only be assessed and managed by those intimately involved in each specific project. It is utterly unsuited for pooling across the whole economy. Large corporations have a tendency to only engage in cutting edge developments after it becomes clear that the most risky, initial stages are in the bag. When broader pools of funding for investment are available, it is all too often the case that genuine attempts at innovation become displaced by those cynically attempting to tap into a gravy train. There are plenty of ghastly anecdotes from the 1990’s tech bubble. One scientist told me about how a financier in the 1990’s tried to persuade him to start a biotech company. The financier was triumphantly boasting that none of the many companies he had started had any prospect of commercial viability and all investors had been conned. Even within large companies, it is very hard to keep cutting edge innovation on an effective focussed footing. All too often projects flounder in a way that wouldn’t happen if those involved all saw the project as theirs rather than the companies.

The mainstream view seems to be that innovation would best be fostered by facilitating concentration of wealth. I wonder whether the opposite might not be true. A universal citizens’ dividend could provide a necessary small measure of financial freedom that would help anyone who fancied to have a go at developing some innovation perhaps together with other like-minded people. The history of the 19th century industrial revolution is full of examples of very small groups of individuals tinkering away and making ground-breaking technological advances. Jean-Pierre Garnier then head of GSK has stated that, “The basic philosophy for modern R&D should be to morph big into small in recognition of the fact that critical mass in fundamental research is the size of one human brain.” To my mind that is an argument for ensuring that much financial power is also at the scale of each and every human. The key thing is that people having a go at developing an innovation whilst being partly supported by a citizens’ dividend would have a lot of skin in the game. Their time and money would be theirs and so they would be so much less likely to simply “go through the motions” in the way they might if they were simply following orders.

I also think the same principle applies to provision of everyday goods and services and not just to cutting edge innovations.  In some circumstances it may be most efficient to supply say groceries through a huge supermarket chain but there are also certain efficiencies in having a dispersed small scale system. Currently, holders of outdoor market stalls selling food may be displaced by a supermarket not because they are less efficient or convenient but simply because a supermarket chain is more suitable for accommodating large scale impersonal financial investment. It might be argued that bank lending provides finance to small scale enterprises such as market stalls. However as Ole Peters so clearly demonstrates in his lecture, an enterprise financed in that way becomes dramatically more risky. The repayments are fixed but the revenue stream is subject to the variances of real life. That is why in the UK and USA the (relatively predictable and secured) purchase of pre-existing housing stock accounts for 80% of bank lending and banks are so wary of business lending. An asset tax and citizens’ dividend system might cause the economy to be conducted at whatever scale was most effective rather than having the current bias towards ever greater scale (this pdf describes such a possible economic arrangement).

*This subject is explored in further detail in the section “A zero interest rate policy does not reduce the financial overhead” on page 18 of this pdf.

Related material on the web:

Opaque and stinky logorrhea- Interfluidity and the many many links therein

We Love Banks – Monetary Realism

Cutting Edge Capital Raising for Small Business – katovich (I added this link 11May 2013)

VC for the people -Interfluidity (link added 17April2014)

There has been almost universal admiration for the strength of character, warm good humour and support for her fellow contestants that was displayed so disarmingly by Carol Thatcher in the 2005 series of the TV show “I’m a celebrity get me out of here”. I’m sorry to hear that Carol’s mother Margaret has passed away this week.

No figure in UK politics raises emotions quite like Margaret Thatcher. Yesterday we had a family gathering where three generations (with ages from five to seventy-two) were all yelling simultaneously about her. Personally, I have tremendous admiration for the steadfast manner in which Margaret Thatcher thwarted all attempts to create a Euro currency that included the UK (yes the idea of the euro was already being touted back then) (see page 14 of this pdf for how the Euro is broken by design). Her good sense when it came to monetary sovereignty can be contrasted with the previous fiasco where the Callaghan government borrowed USD from the US treasury in a goofy attempt to prop up the value of GBP and predictably left the UK in the clutches of the IMF.

When Margret Thatcher came to power the UK was sliding towards an abyss of destructive class conflict. It was not a choice between choosing one stable steady state or another. By the end of the 1970s a very rapidly developing dynamic was hurtling the economy towards calamity. Margaret Thatcher had to wrest control of a runaway train. The shame is that we had a government that aimed to “win” the “class war” rather than constructively resolving it*. In the process the UK economy was financialized and large sections of our country have become economically excluded (for an explanation of how Thatcherism worked, see section “Isn’t a financialized economy the goose that lays our golden eggs?”  on page 10 of this pdf ).

Of course it is all very well bringing hindsight to criticism of the past but we have our own problems today. Our problems today have some curious parallels with the situation in the late 1970s even though the issues today stem from the dynamic set in place by Thatcher. Then labour unions had a stranglehold of power and were able to stop anything being done. As union action rendered industries unworkable for the private sector, they were nationalized and the unions delivered further disruption of the now nationalised industry. Management became focused on labour relations and the idea that industry actually had customers to serve was long forgotten. Thatcher dealt with the unions but now banks have taken on the role of the economic sector that acts purely in the interest of elite bank employees -gutting the economy in the process. Now banks have been taken into state ownership because the action of bankers rendered the banking system unworkable for the private sector. The personalities involved even have an eerie similarity. Arthur Scargill’s battle to have a London second home for life seems much like Fred Goodwin’s pension controversy though of course the bankers grasp an order of magnitude more.

* The section “How direct economic democracy could optimise the economy” on page 7  of this pdf discusses how an employee ownership structure (such as in the John Lewis Partnership) might help to solve this issue.

Related material on the web:

The 1981 Budget – Facts and Fallacies, Session One: Emerging from the 1970s

Mrs. Thatcher’s Mean Legacy- Michael Hudson.and Jeffrey Sommers

Margaret Thatcher’s Gigantic Con Trick- Ramanan

Hidden profits, hidden rents- Interfluidity

Society buckled and is damaged but has never disappeared- Bill Mitchell

And all UK media too

Maastrict and All That -Wynne Godley (link added 12 June 2013)

Direct economic democracy

please click on the above link to view PDF