Random thoughts on the basics of economics

At its basic level, economic growth involves an increase in the production of goods and services. Real growth - that is, economic growth adjusted by population - is thus a function of efficiency: an increase in the production of goods and services per head of population. This implies an increasing efficiency in production. In a market system, efficiency is measured by profits and price. In any system (market or otherwise), efficiency is measured by total cost.

Profit: When goods and services are cheaper to produce, private companies make higher amounts of profit.
Price: When goods and services are cheaper to produce, consumers pay less.
Total Cost: When goods and services are cheaper to produce, the total cost of production and consumption to the economy is lowered.

The economy suffers when:
  • The total cost of purchasing these goods and services goes up - total cost being price plus total cost of ownership plus total cost of production. Cost involves more than price.
  • The measurement of price and cost becomes opaque due to changes in the value of money, which acts as a unit of measurement. (Money is simply the means by which society orders the economy around. Money acts as a unit of exchange, a unit of measurement and an asset that is subject to the laws of supply and demand.)
  • Investment bubbles occur within a market system. A bubble is inherently unproductive.
  • An economy produces and consumes goods and services that it does not need (eg, most Western nations can survive on half the food they consume without any real negative effects to the economy)

If there is no increase in the efficiency of production, the economy moves into a steady state, neither growing nor declining (the model proposed by Robert Solow).

An increase in the efficiency of production usually results from technological change (also pointed out by Solow)

While the market system is the most widely used economic system, government forays into an economy have proven to sometimes work and sometimes not. The only pragmatic reason for a government to inject itself into an economy (ie by producing goods and services itself) is if it is able to be more efficient than the market in the area being affected (there are other reasons than being pragmatic though).


With Sovereign Bankruptcy must come a change in Sovereignty

It appears as though Ireland will accept a bailout from the IMF. Without this, and without help from its European partners, the Irish government is likely to default on its debts. While Ireland's sovereign debt level is not as bad as some, a budget deficit of 38.5% of GDP has passed the point of ridiculousness. Even though the economy is improving, it has not improved enough to make an impact on the nation's finances.

Ireland, like Iceland and Greece, has been the creator of its own problems. In normal times, political and economic stupidity and profligacy can be forgiven and eventually papered over. Not this time. The Global Financial Crisis has led to social and economic misery around the globe. Like a cyclone or hurricane it caused major damages to whichever country it hits, but especially upon those who were unprepared and whose financial and economic systems were already dangerously unbalanced.

Ireland's biggest advantage is that it is part of the European Union and that it is part of the Eurozone. This means that it was not tempted to destroy its people's wealth through a currency devaluation - the error that Iceland has made and one which the United States is likely to make. Whatever can be said about architects of Ireland's demise, at least those who saved responsibly have retained their savings and their purchasing power. This will help in Ireland's recovery.

But just as bankruptcy leads to the closure of a business, so should a sovereign default result in a change of sovereignty. This is not to say that Ireland should cease to exist as a political entity - far from it. What needs to change is the nation's constitution and its political system. And this is not code for a new election and some constitutional amendments - rather it is the creation of a completely new nation with a new constitution and a newer way of doing things.

The modern Republic of Ireland came into being during the 20th century. Independence from the United Kingdom resulted from a bloody but thankfully short-lived war. The nation was proclaimed a republic in 1949, completely seceding from the commonwealth of nations and setting up an Irish presidency to replace the British crown as the nation's executive.

Of course none of these political achievements of sovereignty need to be repealed. Nor should the efforts of individuals in gaining such sovereignty be ignored or forgotten. Yet the Republic of Ireland has had its day. A new nation needs to be created from the ashes of the old.

France is in its Fifth Republic. The current political entity of France came into being in 1958. Of course France existed long before 1958, even longer than the four republics and other institutions that governed since 1789. Yet despite the idea that France is an "older" country than Ireland, the current iteration of France is actually nine years younger. Countries have dissolved themselves in the past and reformed themselves into newer entities.

What is needed is an Irish Second Republic.

Some time in the near future (1-2 years), the people of Ireland need to vote in a new constitution. Specifics of the electoral system will be voted on. Moreover, the political parties currently involved in the government will be dissolved - their assets stripped and sold off and the money given to the treasury of the new government. No politician who served in the first republic will be eligible to serve in the second republic. The new political parties will have to go back to the drawing board in garnering popular support. Once the constitution has been approved by the people, the second Republic will be "born" and a new country will result.

Naturally you might ask the question why? Why should sovereign bankruptcy lead to a change in sovereignty?

Part of my reasoning on this is that nations, like individuals, need to suffer the consequences of their actions. Since Ireland as a nation is responsible for its current plight, then Ireland as a nation should cease to exist and be replaced by a new entity. Just as a bankrupt business needs to close permanently, so should a country shut itself down permanently. Yet a nation is not like a business in that it consists of people, and people exist no matter what happens to a business - so the only reasonable solution is that when the nation is "shut down" it undergoes a new birth into a new national identity. So should the current Irish republic shut down and a new one replace it.

Moreover there is the idea that Ireland's plight is not just due to the stupid decisions made by those in power, but by the political system that brought such people into power into the first place. As a result, the political system itself needs to change. From a business perspective, it isn't just sacking the board and electing a new one that will solve the problem - it is the entire system of how the board was voted in, and how the business runs itself, that needs to be changed.

Some may find my business/nation analogies here to be simplistic or offensive. They're not meant to be. Yet just as a company board acts on behalf of shareholders, so too do elected officials act on behalf of the people who make up the nation. Since Ireland's current political system led the nation into bankruptcy, it only stands to reason that a new political system be set up. Wipe the slate clean. Start again as a new country.

Of course, one alternative solution would be for the Irish to simply take the money and keeps things running the same way. Not only does this not punish those who failed, but it leaves in place a clearly defective political system that may just fail again in the future.

Another solution might be to subsume Ireland into the territory of another nation. A nearby friendly nation could, in theory, offer to pay off all of Ireland's debts if Ireland become part of their... kingdom. Naturally such a suggestion is ridiculous.


When banks refuse to lend, the government should create banks that do

One of the more distasteful occurrences over the past few years has been the sight of banks and financial institutions wallowing in the mess they created. Yet this has not been as distasteful as the sight of these same banks and financial institutions being propped up by the US Federal Government, either in the form of bailouts or in increasingly radical monetary policy.

On the one hand I heartily approve of the "creative destruction" that oftentimes besets capitalism, namely that companies and corporations should suffer the consequence of their actions. To watch a stupid company wallow in the mess that it has created is a sober reminder of the perils of too much risky behaviour, especially if such behaviour is endemic. Schadenfreude aside, one of the major advantages of this "creative destruction" occurs when new entrepreneurs with different ideas begin to take control. Recessions and economic downturns are excellent ways of restructuring and improving the system that failed.

But on the other hand, banks and financial institutions are not just like any other company or corporation. Lending money for the purposes of profit is one of the most important practices of a market economy. The collapse of financial institutions can be far more damaging to an economy because, without them, it becomes harder for investors to invest, and harder for borrowers to borrow. This is called a Credit Crisis, and it is what caused both the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Global Financical Crisis that we are experiencing today.

Many economists have pointed out since 2008 that the United States economy is not in a liquidity crisis, but a solvency crisis. This doesn't just mean that it is harder and harder to borrow and lend (as per a liquidity crisis), but that the very financial institutions themselves have become insolvent and close to bankruptcy. This means that money "pumped into" the economy through monetary policy is unlikely to have much effect, since it takes time for bad debts to disappear from the books of these financial institutions (a process that could take years). This in turn leads to "Zombie Banks", whereby the net worth of these institutions is less than zero.

So what we have now is a series of zombie banks and other financial institutions. We're trying to resuscitate them in the hope that they will come alive again, and the process by which we are resuscitating them involves conventional monetary policy (raising and lowering interest rates) and unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing).

Yet I think that there is an alternative to the current situation. If banks and other financial institutions have encountered a solvency crisis and have been "zombified", then perhaps it would be better to simply put them out of their misery, while simultaneously creating "new life" - creating new banks and financial institutions that do not have the same limitations of the undead ones.

The process would be rather simple. A bank is brought into existence by way of congressional legislation and capitalised with quite a few billion dollars of tax payer's money. A board of directors is set up, also by congressional fiat. This board should consist not of industry insiders but experienced businessmen and women who are not just cognizant of the circumstances that led to the recent financial collapse but also willing to avoid the mistakes that were made by the industry leading up to it. The bank will thus become a profit making government enterprise, governed by the congressionally appointed board, and will begin setting up offices throughout the United States to begin operations. As time goes by - say a few years - the bank will be privatized and an IPO will be made on the share market. The money raised in the sale will then be deducted against the tax-payer's money invested in the first place, with the debt remaining becoming a corporate bond owed to the government that will eventually be repaid over time. Moreover, laws would exist to prevent the bank from being merged or acquired by single entities wich would keep the bank owned by a plurality of shareholders for at least the first 10 years of its privatised life (or however many years congress decides upon).

If all goes well, the new bank will generate enough income and profit from its activities to not just pay back money owed to taxpayers, but paid back with interest. This would not just be revenue neutral but revenue positive, allowing a net reduction of government debt over the lifetime of the operation (from creation and capitalisation to IPO and then debt retirement).

And what happens to the Zombie banks while this new bank is created? Hopefully as the new bank grows and develops, so will the zombie banks shrink and eventually disappear.

It needs to be pointed out that the best solution would not be the creation of a single bank, but of multiple ones. Instead of one bank being created and capitalised with tax payer's money, a whole number of banks can be created. This whole process of bank creation could also span many years, with multiple banks being created annually. The process would only stop once congress decides that enough is enough and that the market no longer needs any direct government support.

The creation of multiple banks will help prevent any unsavoury relationships between the banks and the government that created them - once privatized, the government will treat the bank the same as any other, without fear nor favour. Moreover, the creation of multiple banks is essential for a more competitive banking environment.

The advantage that these new banks will have is that they will be solvent, which means that they will be able to respond more effectively to conventional or unconventional monetary policy without being burdened by debts. These banks will also be governed and run by wiser individuals than those who created the crisis, leading to a change of thinking within the credit market hierarchy - a process that is less likely to occur if zombie banks with their flawed management keep being propped up. It also allows "creative destruction" by allowing failing banks to (eventually) go under without compromising the credit market as a whole.

Of course Minarchists would point out that the creation of such financial entities would result in the government intruding into an important part of the marketplace and should not be undertaken, considering, you know, that the government will abuse its position and yada yada yada Nazi tyranny founding fathers blah blah blah. But for those who take stock of what the Founding Fathers of the United States said and did should not be too concerned since congress often created public companies by legislation. In fact the First Bank of the United States was created by the 1st congress which, despite functioning as a proto-central bank, was also partially privatized for the purposes of open market, profit making operations. In short, the government creating a bank by legislation to function in the open market is not just something the Founding Fathers would approve of, but is something they actually did.

Moreover, the creation of new, solvent banks is a better alternative than trying to resuscitate the zombies through increased inflationary policy. Increasing inflation deliberately (which appears to be Krugman's solution) would naturally reduce the debt burden of the zombies and may even result in a more solvent environment. Nevertheless, this would be at the cost of debasing the currency, which may create a pre-2008 environment of negative real interest rates and another bubble economy developing. Additionally, this would ensure that the same financial hierarchy who created the crisis in the first place would retain their power without suffering the consequences of their actions.

The current crop of banks and financial institutions killed the credit industry and helped create the current economic crisis - it stands to reason that they deserve to die and suffer the consequences of their actions. Instead, we have chosen to keep them on life support, feeding them money via bailouts and loose monetary policy in the hope that they will live again, and in the hope that they won't make the same mistakes again. We should abandon this strategy. Instead, we should create new banks capitalised with tax payers money - new banks who will eventually take over the market and allow the zombie banks to die off peacefully.


US Dollar history since 1980 - and how it affects GDP

The USDX is the indice that measures the relative worth of the US Dollar to the rest of the world. Here is a graph showing how the US Dollar has performed since 1980:

As you can see, there was a huge increase in the mid 1980s. The Plaza Accord wiped out the value in the second half of the 80s, while the late 90s saw a resurgence in the US dollar, partly as a result of panic induced by the Asian Economic Crisis, and partly by the Dot-Com Bubble. The large swing upwards in 2008 was due to panic induced by the 2008 Credit Crisis, when investors dumped shares and fled to the safety of treasuries, which naturally drove the US dollar up.


Now if we add Real GDP to the mix, we can see just how well the United States as an economy has performed against the rest of the world. The idea here is that we look at Q1 1980 as the baseline (100), and then adjust each quarter's GDP performance by the 12 month USDX average. I chose to average out the USDX over twelve months rather than three months because otherwise the graph would look a bit too shaky. Here it is:

What is notable here is that the US economy grew rapidly in the early 80s and then busted as a result of the Plaza Accord. this meant the US GDP relative to the rest of the world did not recover until the 90s. The indicie on my spreadsheet shows that GDP per capita peaked at 193.86 in Q3 1985, reached a trough of 133.49 in Q1 1991, and then reached 195.29 in Q2 1998. In other words, it took 13 years for the 1985 peak to be reached again.

GDP then peaked at 259.93 in Q1 2002, which is interesting since this was after the early 2000s recession had peaked. Obviously the drop in GDP was more than made up for in the rise of the US Dollar. Since 2002, the US has been in a protracted fall in real GDP measured against the value of the US Dollar, the trough being 192.54 in Q3 2008 (just when the credit crisis was hitting the most). Since then there has been a small rise, but not by much. The Q3 2010 indice was 207.38 (awaiting GDP revisions), which means that the US economy has barely doubled in size since 1980.


Now we look at Real GDP per capita. This is an important measurement because it examines economic performance per head of population rather than just output. Measuring Real GDP per capita is probably the broadest way to measure whether an economy is growing or is in recession. If we adjust it according to the USDX, we get this:

This, of course, looks worse than Real GDP. In fact the latest indice on my spreadsheet for Q3 2010 is 151.48, which means that economic growth per person is only 50% better than what it was in 1980. Peaks and troughs are pretty much the same as Real GDP.


The last thing I want to look at is the performance of public companies in the US. The Russell 3000 Index measures market capitalisation and has been running as an indice since September 1987. If we adjust the indice by the USDX (monthly values for both) we get the following graph:

Again you can see here the massive impact of the Dot-Com bubble in the late 1990s. The index peaked at 532.12 in August 2000, with a trough of 266.82 in February 2003, a smaller peak of 417.43 in May 2007, a deep trough of 209.98 in February 2009 (a few months after the credit crisis started), and a recent peak of 326.03 in April 2010. The October 2010 indice is 309.75.

In many ways you can see just how damaging the Dot-Com bubble was - each successive peak appears to be lower than the previous one. And remember that this takes into account the relative value of the US Dollar, which means that while Market Caps (and the Russell 3000) might be increasing, the US Dollar might be lowering in value - so what we're seeing is US Market Capitalisation in the context of the entire global economy.


NOTE: The use of Real GDP figures as opposed to current dollar GDP figures here may be problematic. When I measure public debt I only ever use current dollar GDP. If there are any problems with this then let me know, since re-doing these graphs according to current dollar GDP will be fairly easy (the numbers are already in my spreadsheet).

If anyone wants the raw data on my spreadsheet, contact me and I'll send a copy to you. Having my data and conclusions verified by others is a pleasure (even if it means that I have been proved wrong).

Random Thoughts on Government as Business

One way to look at the place of government in an economy is to view it is as just another business. This is because:
  1. It produces goods and services
  2. It has customers
  3. It has shareholders
Of course there is a limit to which government can be identified as a business:
  1. It cannot go bankrupt (debt can be defaulted)
  2. Monopoly: It has little to no competition in an economy
  3. If it is a national government, It can declare war against foreign national governments
  4. It writes and enforces law to govern both society and itself
  5. It has the means of creating money and enforcing its use

The way I always look at government is that it is a mutualized monopoly - while it has no competitors (and is thus a monopoly), its customers are its shareholders. At least in a Democratic country, the government's customers are the people, who are equal shareholders in the national government.

Tax, therefore, should be seen as the price the customers pay for the goods and services that the government provides. The fact that a "user pays" system is not set up does not mean that the system is flawed, since "user pays" itself can be a flawed way of pricing, depending upon the goods or services produced (selling food over the counter is a good user pays system, having toll booths every few kilometres to pay for road building and maintenance is not a good user pays system).


World trade needs to be rebalanced - here's my suggestion

International trade has been around for centuries and has been the creator of both good and bad world economic conditions. What has evolved now, though, is a trade and capital imbalance that is one of the causes of the current economic crisis. If a new economic order is to be created out of this mess, world trade and capital flows need to change.

In the bad old days, mercantilism ruled the waves and nations would compete against each other to gain the best export advantages. This was a self destructive process, since it resulted in trade tariffs and quotas. Mercantilism was part of a broader scheme called "economic nationalism" which saw international trade as a win/lose battle against other nations. Instead of fighting against another nation with armies, countries would fight each other economically. Fortunately economists appeared whose arguments proved beyond reasonable doubt that international trade was actually a win/win - though with a number of caveats.

Sadly, mercantilism is still around. It is practised most notably by China and Japan, with a number of smaller nations (eg Singapore) jumping in. When one nation has a mercantilist trade policy in world trade, the result is a large trade surplus. This trade surplus generates large amounts of foreign currency, which the countries then use to reinvest back into their trade partners. So in Japan and China's case, their trade surplus with the United States leads to large US dollar profits which, rather than being converted into Yen, are reinvested back into the United States. It is a circular process which creates a "virtuous cycle" - US demand for Japanese & Chinese goods leads to US Dollar profits for Japan & China, which leads to reinvestment of these profits back into the United States, which results increased domestic US demand, which results in increased demand for Japanese & Chinese goods. The problem is that this "virtuous cycle" has been exposed as just another bubble that is in the process of bursting.

Theoretically, mercantilism has been abolished. The Word Trade Organisation and its members take a very dim view of member countries setting up trade barriers or quotas. Japan and China get around it however, thanks to the actions of their Central banks. Instead of creating trade barriers, the Central banks of Japan and China sell their own currency and purchase US government bonds (treasuries). This keeps the Yen and the Yuan/Renmimbi cheaper while simultaneously making the US dollar more expensive. With cheap domestic currencies and a customer country with an expensive currency, Japan and China naturally end up having a trade surplus with the United States. Having a cheap currency allows the development of cheap labour thus undercutting any competition from US based companies.

This situation is reflected in a fairly basic economic indicator called the Current account. Nations which have a Current account surplus are nations who receive large amounts of foreign currency for goods and services they sell, as well as from investments that they have in foreign nations. Nations which have a current account deficit are nations who borrow lots of money from nations with current account surpluses.

It is best to look at the current account as an accounting measurement. If our world economy consists of two countries, and country one has a $1 billion current account surplus, then the other country will have a $1 billion current account deficit. You can't have these two nations in this model both running current account deficits or both running current account surpluses. When we take this model to the wider world we realise that one nation's current account deficit is another nation's current account surplus.

So which is better? It might sound better to have a current account surplus, but this is actually mercantilist thinking. In reality they are just as good or just as bad as each other. If we think that the US current account deficit is bad, then we must conclude that the Japanese current account surplus is bad too.

The problem with running large, long term current account imbalances is that, over time, the economy becomes "geared". In the case of the United States, the economy has been "geared" towards the importation of goods and services, it has become "geared" towards borrowing money from overseas - in short, it is an economy that is geared towards consumption and borrowing. By contrast, China and Japan have been "geared" to complement the United States - they are geared towards producing goods and services, and they are geared towards saving. In short, Japan and China are geared towards production and saving.

The figures for these three countries are stark. The United States is running a current account deficit of 3.3% of GDP; Japan is running a current account surplus of 3.3% of GDP; China is running a current account surplus of 4.9% of GDP. Smaller economies have even more notable imbalances (eg Singapore with a current account surplus of 18.4% of GDP, Turkey with a current account deficit of 5.4% of GDP)

Now of course China and Japan DO purchase goods and services from the United States, and people in China and Japan DO borrow money from the United States, and the United States DOES manufacture goods that it exports to China and Japan, and the United States DOES save money. But what we're talking about here is the net result. Just because the United States gets most of its manufactured goods from China and Japan doesn't mean that the United States doesn't manufacture anything. What I'm trying to point out here is that in the back and forth of buying and selling and borrowing and investing that makes up international trade, that current accounts reflect an overall, net position. This means that various industries within these countries stand to gain from any changes in the exchange rate, whichever way it goes.

But the problem with gearing is that any changes in the exchange rate will impact both consumer-friendly nations and producer-friendly nations. Just as investment bubbles will inflate, burst and destroy wealth in the form of stock market busts or property busts, so too can it happen on an international scale. The US, for example, has been running as a consumer-friendly nation for a long time and, as a result, the bubble is about to burst. The United States is naturally the world's financial capital, yet debt has ballooned out of control over the years. The GFC is the beginning of the end of the consumer-friendly United States. Steps need to be taken to gear the United States into a more producer-friendly economy. This doesn't mean becoming mercantilist and running a current account surplus, but it does mean policies to ensure a balanced current account.

The current accounts of Japan and China should therefore no longer be running at a surplus, but should become balanced (ie neither surplus nor deficit) over the long term. This means that the current account of the United States should no longer be running at a deficit, but should become balanced as well. Put simply, the United States needs to produce more and consume less, and save more and borrow less. On the other side of the coin, this means that China and Japan needs to consume more and produce less, and borrow more and save less.

Retooling the United States to become a more producer friendly economy will be painful and it will take time (ie years) to bear fruit. Similarly, retooling Japan and China to become more consumer friendly will be painful too, and will take a similar amount of time to bear fruit.

One solution to the problem of international trade and current account imbalances is to have a common currency. That is what Europe has done with the creation of the Euro. Within the Eurozone, current account differences do occur: Germany has a current account surplus, Spain has a current account deficit. But that doesn't really matter since comparative advantages are very real in international trade, while internal current account issues within the Eurozone will be dealt with by the market without having problems caused by differing currencies. What does matter is the Eurozone's current account overall (presently a current account deficit of 0.4%, which is close to being balanced)

But since the chances of Japan, China or the United States joining the Eurozone (and all that such a joining would entail) is virtually none, another solution must be found.

The solution I have is for the creation of a new international trading agreement that ensures all member nations have balanced current accounts. This would involve the creation of national currency boards in each member nation whose role will be the maintenance of a balanced current account (as opposed to the traditional role of a currency board to maintain a fixed exchange rate). If a nation has a current account deficit, as the United States does, then the currency board (acting with various government bodies like the central bank and/or treasury) will sell off its local currency and purchase foreign currencies on the foreign exchange market, most obviously the currencies of nations who run current account surpluses. Of course these currency boards will have a reciprocal arrangement with the currency boards of the nations they are dealing with. So in the case of the United States and Japan, the US currency board would sell off US dollars and purchase Yen, while the Japanese currency board would sell off US dollar and purchase Yen as well - with the eventual aim of ensuring a balanced current account between the US and Japan.

This system still allows floating currencies but the forex market will be initially dominated by the actions of national currency boards buying and selling currencies in order to create balanced current accounts throughout. This would be better than instituting fixed exchange rates or returning to a gold standard. Since the currency boards will be operating with their respective central banks, money creation by fiat followed by the selling of this currency will be one way to devalue a currency. These currency boards would then only act to ensure a balanced current account. So long as a balanced current account is maintained for their nation or currency zone, they will stay out of the forex markets. Long term current account maintenance will, however, result in regular forays into the forex market - but each foray being only as large as it needs to be to maintain a balanced current account.

Moreover, the more nations which join this agreement, the more natural comparative advantages between nations can be maintained. Rather than ensuring that each nation has a balanced current account with every other nation, the agreement will simply ensure that member nations have a balanced current account overall. For example, in an international economy of three nations, nation A might have a $500 billion current account deficit with country B, country B might have a $500 billion current account deficit with country C, while country C has a $500 billion current account deficit with country A. In this situation, each nation has an unbalanced current account with individual nations, but the overall result is a balanced current account for each of the three nations.

Once this situation is imposed, international trade and capital flows will be easier for the market to handle, since the market will act in the knowledge that currency values will only move within a certain band - and that band will be determined by the currency board and only acted upon according to the status of the current account. There will be less market speculation and more real trade being achieved. This should also result in more predictable, more sustainable economic growth for all nations involved. The win/lose attitude of mercantilism should be replaced by the win/win of balanced international trade.


Of course the theory I am working with here is that balance ensures better economic conditions for all. Ensuring that nations (or more correctly, currency zones) run balanced current accounts is one "pillar" of the new economic order that I see should emerge over the next few decades. These three pillars are:
  • Each currency zone has a balanced current account - neither current account surplus nor current account deficit over the long term.
  • Each currency zone has governments that run balanced budgets over the long term - neither budget surplus nor budget deficit over the long term
  • Each currency zone maintains absolute price stability - neither inflation nor deflation over the long term.
I believe that if these three pillars are set up and maintained, the chances of devastating economic downturns (eg great depression / GFC) will be minimised.


Bernanke's money printing idea is interesting - but I have a better one

I'm no fan of Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke. Bernanke's response to the 2008 credit crisis was to first state that it wasn't happening and then, when it happened, to say that it wouldn't be too bad. Fail. Moreover he was one of the members of the Federal Reserve Board under previous chairman Allan Greenspan who approved of policy keeping interest rates too low between 2002 and 2005, thus creating the conditions for the property bubble. Epic Fail.

But credit where credit's due - the recent announcement of $600 billion in bond repurchases is a step towards a more effective form of monetary policy, though I do question whether it is needed.

Bernanke has the dubious honour of being labelled "Helicopter Ben" because of some comments he made many years ago about how radical monetary policy could have solved the Great Depression. Given the damaging, persistent deflation during that period, Bernanke surmised that increasing the money supply by seigniorage (money printing) and then handing said money out willy nilly to people and businesses would have wiped out deflation and stimulated the economy to begin growing.

Of course those who ran the world economy in the 1930s did not have the information that we do now, namely that inflation and deflation can be controlled through manipulation of the money supply by central banks. The problem with conventional monetary policy is that it focuses solely upon interest rates to achieve its goal - in the case of the United States, adjusting the Federal Funds Rate is the way interest rates are raised or lowered. Developed countries have similar tools while developing countries tend to increase or decrease the reserve ratio as a way to influence monetary conditions.

Adjusting interest rates affects the money supply: Increasing interest rates will remove money from the money supply while decreasing interest rates will add money to the money supply. If a central bank wants to reduce inflation, it removes money from the money supply by raising interest rates; if a central bank wants to increase inflation (to prevent deflation), it adds money to the money supply by lowering interest rates.

Unfortunately, conventional monetary policy is constrained by the natural limits of interest rates. While there are no upper limits to interest rates, the lowest rate is obviously zero. You cannot have negative official interest rates because depositors will simply withdraw their money from banks - hiding cash under the bed is a better investment than keeping it deposited at the bank. When interest rates reach zero there is nothing conventional monetary policy can do to stimulate domestic demand - Japan is a classic example of this, with interest rates near zero for the last 15-20 years.

The Federal Funds rate is currently 0.20%. It has been below 1% since 2008-10-15, which means that the US has, for the past two years, reached the limit of conventional monetary policy. Enter Ben Bernanke and quantitative easing, and you have a radically new monetary policy tool.

The thinking is rather simple:
  • To create more inflation, the money supply needs to be expanded.
  • Since conventional monetary policy has reached its limit, no more money can be added to the money supply through the lowering of interest rates.
  • Therefore money needs to be added to the money supply through different means.
  • Seigniorage (money creation by fiat) is then used to buy back government bonds, thus increasing the money supply.
Seigniorage has been used injudiciously in the past, most notably by Weimer Germany and Mugabe's Zimbabwe, and has created hyperinflation. Yet this is the same process Bernanke is undertaking now. The difference is that the amount being created is limited, which means that the inflationary effect will be similarly limited.

But there are naturally limits to even this level of monetary policy - it is limited by the amount of government bond holders (US treasuries). While the amount of money currently tied up US government debt is huge (over $9 trillion in public debt), in theory this amount may be brought down to zero. This is an important limit for nations like Australia and Norway, whose gross government debt levels are comparatively low (and are actually net negative). Such forms of quantitative easing (as this policy is now known as) do have natural limits that need to be taken into consideration.

So what's my idea then?

Back in March 2009 I wrote an article titled Thoughts on fractional lending and quantitative easing which outlined some ideas I had at the time about unconventional monetary policy. Here it is:

The Central Bank creates money by lending it to Commercial Banks.

This would take the form of a deposit. The central bank creates money by fiat, and then deposits this money in as many banks and financial institutions (institutions that are part of the fractional banking structure) as it can find. This won't be a bond buyback, but a simple deposit. It is not important as to whether the commercial banks pay interest on such a deposit since paying back interest is not important - expanding the money supply is.

Of course, with more money deposited, commercial banks would then have more money to lend out, thus alleviating any credit crisis. There is no money entering the money supply via any bond buybacks or stimulus plans. It's simply money appearing by fiat and being deposited into banks.

But what happens once the economy begins to recover, credit begins to flow again and inflation begins to rise? Well obviously the central bank could then withdraw all or part of its deposit with commercial banks. This would reduce the amount of money commercial banks could lend out and act as a contraction of the money supply.

And then I got thinking again - what if this form of quantitative easing replaced current monetary policy completely? So rather than money being removed or injected into the money supply through bond issues or buybacks - why not simply have the central bank deposit money into commercial banks or withdraw money from its commercial bank accounts? It would still be an open market operation, but one which doesn't require a government bond market to exist or even some form of centrally set level of interest - rates would be completely market controlled and dependent upon how much money the central bank deposits into, or withdraws from, commercial banks.

So, to summarise:

To stimulate growth in the money supply (to battle deflation and thus stimulate economic growth), the central bank creates money by fiat and deposits it into commercial banks.

To restrict growth in the money supply (to battle inflation and thus restrict economic growth), the central bank withdraws money from its commercial bank accounts.

In both cases, the money supply is affected by the ability of the commerical bank to lend up to 100% of its deposits - the more deposits, the more money is lent; the less deposits, the less money is lent.

Naturally, Paul Krugman and others will point out that increasing the money supply during a solvency crisis does little (the "pushing a string" theory) and I would agree that some level of Keynesian stimulus might be necessary, but one which sources its money from central bank money creation rather than by borrowing from the market.

In this scenario, instead of Bernanke's $600 billion being used to buy back government bonds, it is used (for example) to build wind turbines all over the country. It is monetary policy (money creation) AND fiscal policy (increase in production) acting together, and it is aimed at bettering the environment. Of course the $600 billion could be used to build tanks and machine guns for the army, or it can be used to buy everyone in the US multiple cans of Coca Cola, or it can be used to build mansions for the rich, or it can be used to build houses for the poor - the possibilities are endless, as is the potential for both intelligent or stupid spending.

What makes standard Keynesian fiscal policy work is twofold: firstly, money is injected into the economy, and, secondly, goods and services are produced, leading to a multiplier effect. Modified forms of Keynesian stimulus - such as Bush's tax cuts in the early 2000s - have only a single effect, namely money is injected into the economy. Monetary policy, even of the unconventional (quantitative easing) or radical (my March 2009 proposal) variety, has a similar effect: money is increased, but its demand (money velocity) is not. What the market does with the money after it has been gained depends upon how the market is acting, which is why monetary and/or fiscal stimuli do lead to some level of economic growth, but not as much as that enjoyed by a true Keynesian injection.

So the question comes down to this: what will the markets do with the $600 billion that Bernanke injects into the economy through "QE2" (as many have called it)? That, of course, is the issue. Will the markets use that money to invest back into the US economy or will they do something else? The markets have already reacted to the announcement by dumping some of their US dollar holdings, so it may be that QE2 just leads to a dollar devaluation, with the fiat money instead being directed towards Japan, Europe and other major economies. Here in Australia the dollar has breached parity and made buying CDs and books from Amazon.com that much cheaper. Thanks for stimulating the Australian economy, Ben.

But then all this goes back to whether the money supply should be increased. While US inflation is low (currently 1.14%, year on year) deflation is hardly a problem just yet. Deflation hit the US economy very hard in late 2008 when the credit crisis hit, but since then prices have stabilised somewhat. Paul Krugman and others would argue that the US should actually target 4% inflation as a goal rather than as a limit, in which case Bernanke's policy is heading in the right direction. Interest rates have certainly bottomed out, but where is the deflation that can't be influenced by conventional monetary policy?

And this therefore calls to question the reason for quantitative easing. Is Bernanke aiming to stimulate the US economy or is he simply trying to maintain price stability? If it were the latter, then Bernanke is crazy since the US doesn't have a problem with price stability at the moment (unless you adhere to absolute price stability like I do, of course, but that's another topic!), which means that QE2, as an inflationary policy, is being implemented when prices are not in danger of deflating. This can only mean that Bernanke is aiming to stimulate the US economy, and this is problematic.

Who in government should be responsible for direct actions to stimulate the economy? In most nations this responsibility is undertaken by politicians - in other words, elected officials. The Federal Reserve Bank is not run by elected officials but by public servants. Most central banks the world over see price stability as their major, if not sole, concern. Stimulating economic growth should not be the role of a central bank, though central banks should be open to being co-opted by governments to produce outcomes aimed at stimulating growth (an example being my proposal of Bernanke's $600 billion being used to build wind farms above). But if any policies are pursued to stimulate economic growth, they must originate from, and be ultimately controlled by, congress or parliament or diet or duma.

The problem with having a dual role - as the Federal Reserve obviously has - is that it is more open to corruptive influences. "Stimulating the economy" may mean dumping $600 billion into the accounts of troubled financial giants whose incompetency is what drove them to the verge of bankruptcy; it's not a coincidence that these financial giants just happen to own a considerable number of US treasuries that they can sell to the Federal Reserve Bank for the $600 billion being offered. If the Fed was only concerned with price stability they could simply ignore these troubled corporations and only respond to price signals from the Consumer Price Index.

Nevertheless QE2 does open the doors to monetary experimentation, which should be welcomed by those who have been concerned with the limits of interest-rate-based monetary policy.

Update 00:15:00 UTC

If $600 billion were used to build wind farms, the result would be huge. The Cape Wind project will produce 454MW for $2.5 billion. Using simple maths, $600 billion could buy 253.34 GW of nameplate electricity generation. Since the US has around 1075 GW of nameplate electricity generation, you're looking here at 25% of the US electricity market. Obviously these are hard and fast facts and there are certainly limitations to this form of extrapolation, but the sheer amount of money involved here needs to be subject to opportunity cost: would $600 billion of fiat money be better spent constructing wind turbines or injected into the US bond market?


Thoughts on the US mid term elections

As a progressive I was naturally hoping for the Republicans not to gain any power. This doesn't mean I support the Democrats of course, and have criticised Obama more than I have praised him, but this election result is certainly one that the Democrats can certainly be blamed for.

Much has been read and said by others (and myself) about the radicalism besetting the Republican Party. The GOP and the Tea party created an atmosphere of such fear and anger that it was inevitable that mainstream opinions would be changed. Even from day one after Obama's election, conservatives were screaming socialism, communism and Nazism; gun and ammunition sales increased markedly. Then the Tea Party formed. After a while the recession began to be understood as being Obama's fault, even though reasonable and informed people knew otherwise. The GOP has thus swept to power in the House of Representatives by voters who believed the propaganda and the lies of the well funded campaign.

The Republican victory in the house is comparable to that of the 1994 Republican revolution. In 1994 the GOP took control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate from the Democrats. In that year, the Republicans gained 54 seats in the House and 8 in the Senate, wresting control of both. This time around, a similar amount of seats has been gained by the GOP, with 6 Senate seats being won as well. The Democrats will still control the Senate, though.

Nevertheless, there is a difference between the 1994 and the 2010 victory. The 1994 victory was based partly upon a reaction against entrenched Democrat corruption. The Democrats had held the lower house for 56 of the preceding 62 years, and so new, fresh faces were required to keep pushing conservative views forward. American conservatism had, by 1994, been finally subsumed into the Republican party, having spent the previous few decades living mainly amongst the Democrats (the South, once a Democrat/Conservative stronghold, is now a Republican/Conservative stronghold). Of course the "class of 94", led by Newt Gingrich (whom I regard as America's finest conservative politician) was able to use its position firstly to lead a "government shutdown" in a showdown against Bill Clinton, and then, via an investigative process into Clinton's (then) alleged sexual proclivity, was able to humiliate the president into admitting a sexual relationship and then force impeachment based upon the fact that he lied about the relationship under oath.

This time around, though, it is very different. The Democrat controlled Senate will prevent any spurious impeachment of Obama at least until 2012. Moreover, the current victors do not bring a "fresh" congress but one bereft of new ideas. Gingrich and the 1994 congress acted in concert with Clinton to reduce spending and debt and institute new conservative ideas. In 2010 there are very few new conservative ideas beyond cutting taxes. Repealing Obamacare will be impossible without either Senate or Presidential approval.

Part of me relishes the opportunity that the GOP has to now implement its failed policies all over again. Why not cut taxes for the rich again? Why not increase the size of the budget deficit? Why not force another government shutdown in order to create a situation in which government cannot spend? Why not aim to impeach Obama? And while we're at it, why not go Tea Party and shut down Medicare and Social Security while we're at it? Of course these policies will result in massive economic and social degeneration, proving beyond any reasonable doubt that such radically conservative ideas should be permanently dispensed with.

But another part of me knows that such activities will result in much suffering and wants America to avoid it. I like America and want it to be strong and trustworthy. I don't want Americans to be frightened because, as a non American, I can see what happens when Americans fear too much.

But back to these mid term elections. The Democrats were unable to "control the narrative". The Tea Party and its crazies were the focus of everything going on. Beck's rally in Washington may have been a cynical exercise but it worked. Progressives were essentially reduced to being reactionary. Even the "Rally for sanity and/or fear" by Colbert and Stewart was a reaction to Beck. There was nothing huge and exciting that progressives and Democrats were doing to "control the narrative". It was all Tea Parties, Sarah Palin, Christine O'Donnell and Rand Paul. I may be sounding too much like a pundit here, but it seemed that progressive proactivity died out almost as soon as Obama was elected, to be replaced by Conservative Proactivity. Since the Tea Party formed, progressives and Democrats were reduced to being reactive.

Of course one of the big problems here is simply the nature of US politics, which is based on an electoral system that encourages radicalism and hatred rather than consensus and judiciousness. The US electoral system is still based on 18th century ideas and policies and is in need of an overhaul. A preferential voting system would not require any changes to the constitution and it is essential for US politicians on both sides to support such a measure if the US is to have a better functioning congress.


Krugman's inflation suggestion: not a good idea

Paul Krugman is good man. He's brilliant too, and deserves that Nobel Prize he got. Moreover he and I both warned of the coming economic crash. So I respect him.

But since 2008 our paths have diverged. Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, brilliant though they are, are arguing that a dose of inflation is needed to recover the economy. In the other corner lies OSO, Kenneth Rogoff and those who run the European Central Bank, who argue that price stability must be maintained whatever the circumstances, and that efforts must be made to reduce sovereign debt levels.

One of Krugman's arguments of late is that increasing the money base won't help the economy to recover and points to the experience of Japan, who increased their monetary base back in the 90s without seeing an commensurate increase in inflation (at least not enough to reduce deflation). Money printing will not work during a solvency crisis he argues.

Maybe I'm a little too monetarist to agree with Krugman here. My response to the idea that money printing won't lead to inflation is to naturally point at Mugabe's Zimbabwe and Weimar Germany. Certainly these two examples are extreme but they do provide an extreme example of what can happen if governments resort to seigniorage to fund government spending. You can be assured that if the US government organised a similar scheme with the Fed the result will almost certainly be the same. Moreover, had Japan in the 1990s followed the same policy (Mugabe Zimbabwe/Weimar Germany money printing) the result would've been the same.

So how do I explain the facts around early 90s Japan that Krugman uses as evidence? It's simple: Japan didn't increase the monetary base enough. Erring on the side of caution and concerned that they didn't want hyperinflate, Japan's increase of the monetary base was simply too small to make any impact on M2. Since a central bank can theoretically create an infinite amount of money, nothing really prevented Japan from increasing the monetary base beyond what is shown on Krugman's graph.

This is important to realise because I believe that a new system of monetary policy needs to be created, using some of the more radical monetarist ideas of years past. Moreover, unlike Krugman and Stiglitz, I would argue that the inflation target should not be "high" (Krugman argues for 4% inflation) but should be even tighter than what was practised over the past 30 years. Absolute price stability (whereby there is neither inflation nor deflation over the long term) should be the new goal, and it is something that I have been presenting as a solution for some years now. Certainly at the outset of the financial crisis I asked the question of whether the current system needed to be changed. It seems that the thinking of progressive economists has been "yes", but in the opposite direction to what I would argue.

I had assumed that the question of whether inflation was good or bad was solved once and for all by Paul Volcker, who ended the stagflation of the 70s by raising US interest rates and killing off inflation - a process which put the US into a deep recession but which resulted in a low inflation recovery. Moreover I also remember the post-war commitment to Ordoliberalism in West Germany, which created the Wirtschaftswunder - and the importance of low inflation in creating an effective post-war nation.

My argument is this: the closer an economy gets to price stability, the more scope there is for sustainable growth. Conversely, the further away an economy gets from price stability (and that includes persistent inflation as well as persistent deflation), the more scope there is for something to go wrong.

Of course money isn't the real issue. The real issue is the production of goods and services and, according to Robert Solow, the ability to make them more efficiently over time (the cheaper production of goods and services over the long term leads to real economic growth). Money is important - it is essential - but how an economy produces & consumes and invests & borrows depends upon whether price signals are accurate or not. Of course no economy is perfect and people with money will not make rational decisions - but when money retains value over the long term, people are less likely to use their money for irrational purchases or investments.

As I have pointed out years ago, there are three things to remember about money:
  1. It is used as a unit of exchange to purchase goods and services.
  2. It is subject to the laws of supply and demand.
  3. It is used to measure relative worth.
The problem arises when the effects of 2) interfere with the need for 3). If the value of money changes - either through the process of inflation or of deflation - then it no longer functions effectively as a way to measure relative worth.

As an example of this problem I remember reading the biography of Allan Border in which he purchased a car in the early 1970s for around $300, and then sold it in 1978 for the same amount. Of course in the intervening years the level of inflation was quite high, which meant that while he may have felt he had done well in not losing any money in selling it, the reality was that the depreciation of the value of his car matched the depreciation of the value of the currency he used to buy it in the first place.

Of course these arguments seem to be axiomatic - logical presentations without the influence of hard data - and I admit that this is a failing except in two areas: The effect of low inflation in post-war Germany to help create the Wirtschaftswunder; and the need for Paul Volcker to destroy inflation in the early 1980s to bring about a more sustainable economy.

Aiming for higher inflation, as Paul Krugman argues, is exactly the wrong thing to do. It may result in some level of growth but over the long term it will erode America's economy even further. Price stability must be maintained no matter how good or bad an economy is running. It is non negotiable. Economic problems can't be fixed by abandoning price stability, even though many economic problems may remain while price stability is maintained. Other solutions must be found, which puts the onus squarely upon governments to adjust their spending and tax rates (either by expanding or contracting their spending, depending upon how much in debt they are). In many cases it may simply be a matter of waiting until the market sorts itself out.

Other articles of a similar tone:

2008-10-11 Economic Crises still need price stability
2008-10-13 Random thoughts on money (explains some of my thinking in more detail)
2009-01-28 I still believe in inflation targeting