The 2007-2017 Depression
Just remember that every country in the Western world already has the disease.
In the days when I was more involved with euro-scepticism than I am today (we’re talking about the time of Maastricht, here) I was always rather puzzled by the arguments being put forward by my comrades about the Euro. They would complain that Europe was not an “optimal currency area” and that it would lead to a “one-size-fits-all” monetary policy.
And now I realise why I was so puzzled. They were wrong.
My argument against the Euro (should you be interested) was that freedom had a better chance outside a European federation than inside and so anything coming from the EU was likely to be a bad thing.
Anyway, the crisis that the Euro currently faces has nothing to do with “optimal currrency areas” (which I do not believe exist) and nothing to do with interest rates (at least not the sort set by central banks).
No, this crisis has one very simple cause: Greece (and others) borrowed too much. Actually, even that isn’t the crisis. The crisis is that other countries in Europe are worried that if Greece were to go bust their too-big-to-fail banks would indeed fail and disaster would ensue. Others of us, of course, think that trying to prevent this from happening will lead to an even greater disaster but that is by the by.
Now, getting back to the crisis, you’ll notice that none of this has anything to do with the Euro.
Well, kinda. There is the little matter of the Maastricht criteria. These were the levels of debt, deficit and inflation that all members of the Eurozone were supposed to meet. And after a state had received the EU’s imprimatur, it was not unreasonable for banks to think that they (the states) were a good credit risk.
So, there’s sort of an implicit guarantee here although frankly I would be inclined to remind the banks that they are ultimately responsible for assessing the credit worthiness of the people they are lending to and if they lend too much to such sub-prime borrowers then it’s their funeral.
This book, which even some normal people I know have heard of, was originally published in the 1970s and is about the Weimar hyperinflation of 1923.
It’s a bit fact after fact. Sure the thousands become millions and millions become billions (or milliards as they said at the time) and the our billions become the their billions. And it’s good at describing how some do badly then most do badly while a small minority who have borrowed at nominal rates do very well for themselves indeed. But there’s not enough space given over to consider the debates of the time or the principal actors. Thus we never get to find out anything about key figures like Hugo Stinnes, the industrialist or Rudolf Havenstein, the Ben Bernanke of the day.
What is odd is what the Germans do not do. They do not refuse Reichsmarks. They do not seriously examine how they got into this mess. They do not question the existence of a united Germany [Incidentally, why is it that the appeal of German unity has never been dimmed by its rather less than stellar reality?]
Actually, that’s not quite true. Towards the end there are nascent secessionist movements in Bavaria, the Rhineland, Hamburg and Saxony. It is at this moment the government gets its act together.
The other feature of the final stages was the food situation. Farmers stopped supplying the towns which led to the towns coming to the farms. And not in a nice way.
At root of it all was a government deficit. Fergusson never really explains how this comes about. One can speculate that it’s the consequence of the Germans having to pay not only for their own war but for everyone else’s (through reparations) as well as propping up inefficient state industries like the state railway and post office. But Fergusson never does the sums so we don’t know.
[Afterthought. Actually, he does point out that towards the end even the government had given up trying to do the sums. Another impact of hyperinflation.]
One of the odd things about that time was the virtual absence of unemployment. But then it struck me - in a hyperinflation you have to keep working. If you are unemployed your savings won’t last 5 minutes. Unemployment can be a “good” which hyperinflation denies.
The end is also rather odd. Normality - or what passed for it in Weimar Germany - came with the introduction of the Rentenmark backed not by gold - they’d run out of it - but by mortgages and rye contracts. And, bizarrely enough, it worked.
1. Why would a failure to raise the debt ceiling lead to default?
2. Why would default be a bad thing?
Up to now, libertarians have been very good at telling the world what the state shouldn’t be doing and shouldn’t have done but not so good (as Brian Micklethwait is constantly reminding me) at telling the world what the state should be doing.
So, at risk of preserving constitutional government in the UK, here’s my go:
1. Abolish all employment, planning and health and safety legislation.
2. Cut all departmental budgets by 25%. No exceptions. If contracts get in the way change them retrospectively. OK, there will be exceptions. But anything more for Department A means even less for Department B.
3. Re-introduce the 1997 tax code. If nothing else it will be a lot shorter than the current one. But the chances are that it will be a lot simpler.
4. Abolish the Bank of England and allow private note/coin issue.
5. Abolish all bank regulation.
6. When banks go bust (as they will) honour deposit guarantees but do not bail them out.
7. Abolish deposit guarantees (when things start to stabilise).
8. Seeing as democracy - or that version that allows representation without taxation - got us into this mess; abolish it. All voters must be net contributors to the budget.
But won’t there be strikes and riots?
Maybe, but it still has to be done. The government has made a whole load of promises it can’t keep. If the population would rather live in a fantasy land and express this preference through rioting then we’re doomed anyway.
Excellent Cobden Centre interview with Philipp Bagus. Apart from the excellent economics two facts I wasn’t previously aware of. One, Bagus is German (I’d had him down as a Spaniard). Two, the Germans still feel guilty about the war. I always thought that was a myth and an increasingly mythical myth at that. Apparently not.
Assuming I’m right and the economy is headed for a hell of a collapse then the absolute best thing the government could do would be to abolish employment laws. The easier it is for employers to employ people the more the people will be able to get jobs and the less bad the depression will be.
I often see the expression “RBS [or whatever] is 83% [or whatever] owned by the government.” But is that true? What the government did (if I recall correctly) was to buy preference shares. Now, to my mind preference shares are shares in name only. They do not (Lord, let me be right on this) offer voting rights and so do not offer control.
What have I got wrong here?
I mean Japan is going to collapse at some point so why not now? My understanding is that the one thing propping it up is its inhabitants’ propensity for buying government debt. But what if they no longer have the money?
Losing 25% of your electricity generating capacity. That sounds a lot.
I am hoping to get back into podcasting some time. But this time round I want to do it using Skype. Recording a conversation down the line means that you can get into editing straight away and vastly increases the number of people you can talk to.
To that end I am phoning up friends on Skype and recording the conversations as a way to get some practice at this. (So, be warned. Well, not really, I will tell you and nothing will be uploaded without your say so.) It is a remarkably difficult thing to get right and up until recently I was beginning to think it was impossible - at least on a Mac.
But it isn’t and a couple of weeks ago I was recording a conversation with Brian Micklethwait. Interesting conversation and Brian and I agree it deserves a wider audience. So, here goes.
It started with us discussing Brian’s then talk-to-be on the rise of Austrian Economics before moving on to free states, the surprising resilience of Western democracy, greenery and Keynesianism.
Sadly, it starts and ends rather abruptly. Hope that doesn’t spoil things too much.
And then I think: "Do I really want this to be solved constitutionally?" There is so much unpicking that has to be done of taxes and regulations and contracts and international agreements that I doubt it's even possible. I don't doubt the horror, at least initially, of a constitutional collapse, especially with so many members of the population convinced socialists (of one flavour or another) but it seems to me to be the only way of sweeping away the Sargasso Sea of government.
Just been listening to George Osborne’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference.
Oh dear. Oh, fucking dear. We’re fucked. Totally and utterly screwed.
The human part of his brain does seem to have some idea of how big a hole we’re in. Sadly, the politician part - the dominant part - does not. So, he’s going to protect the NHS and medical research and high-speed lines (I kid you not!).
And next week it will be the Army and then education - he’s already pretty much ruled out any serious welfare reform. And the week after that: everything else.
The rule with cuts is: no exceptions.
There was a brief period when I was prepared to believe that the Coalition might just have the balls do what was necessary. OK, it’s not quite over yet but I am not optimistic.
CNBC is much better than the BBC. But that is not saying much. For the most part it offers up a stream of Keynesians with a smattering of Monetarists.
So, imagine my surprise when I turned on today to hear someone talking sense. Real, proper, honest-to-Godness, complete, free-market, Austrian sense. I even spent the next half an hour glued to the show just so I could catch his name.
I succeeded. The guy’s name is Sean Corrigan and he works for these people.
Oh, and he writes for the Cobden Centre. Which I would have known if I monitored their RSS feed.
Found here. Look at that fourth bar. Yes, that’s the UK. The government owns a colossal amount of soon-to-be-worthless Treasuries presumably bought out of the proceeds from those gold sales. Brilliant.
In the early 1980s unemployment was concentrated in formerly industrial areas - former steel towns, former mining villages, those sort of places. Although governments were careful to get rid of actual dole queues any television crew worth its salt could easily find a scene of decay to illustrate the problem. Such scenes were endlessly repeated on the television with the result that unemployment became a huge political issue.
In the current depression it seems to me that unemployment is much more dispersed. It is therefore harder to visualise and less likely to be such a huge political issue.
This is probably a good thing as it means that governments will be less scared of the inevitable increases in unemployment that will come when they start to introduce the right sorts of policies.
There’s some sort of EU commission into Greece’s finances. Or is it the IMF? Or both? And Greek Prime Ministers and Finance Ministers keep getting interviewed on CNBC. And the whole issue keeps making the number one slot on the financial news. And there are ominous rumblings about Greece being chucked out of the Euro. The sort of ominous rumblings that can turn into ominous realities really quickly in much the same way that that ominous and ludicrous rumbling about sterling leaving the ERM all those years ago turned out to be ominously and ludicrously prescient.
But the deficit is “only” 12.7% of GDP. And it’s the overall debt level that matters. When that gets up to 200% then you’re in trouble. I don’t know where Greece is. And apparently, neither do they - lots of dodgy statistics and off balance sheet accounting making things very foggy.
But, hey, who cares? If Greece cannot finance her debts eventually no one will lend her money and she will simply have to stop spending the stuff. Problem solved.
At least, you would have thought so. I mean, at least I would have thought so. But all this activity suggests that something’s up.
I wonder if the fear is that if Greece goes bust, the Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish might start to think they’re next. When that happens they might warm to the idea of the ECB printing money to pay off their debts (monetizing the debt as it is known) hence creating inflation. And they might lobby for it. If you’re German there’s a good chance you don’t want to pay for Greek pensions through inflation and perhaps you feel that now would be the best time to draw a line in the sand.
Thought: this shows that the real purpose of central banks is to finance government debt. In normal circumstances that is done by selling bonds. In extreme circumstances that is done by printing money.
Michael’s theory is that one of the consequences of the current recession/depression/end-of-civilisation-as-we-know-it, is that a whole bunch of industries that have been around of donkeys years are going to disappear. He reckons that this will include: book shops, newspapers and opticians.
This podcast marks a first. It is the first to be recorded down the line using Skype. I think it works pretty well.
I am not quite sure how this came about but you know how it is: you start rootling around in the numbers and before you know it you’ve produced a table with the gold price divided by the GDP deflator for every year the 20th century.
And then you do a graph (click to enlarge):
Now parts of this graph are easy to explain:
- Why is the number for 1900 almost exactly the same as it is now? Easy, gold preserves its value.
- Why the huge upsurge in the 1970s? Because people were scared of inflation.
- If the 1970s inflation caused an upsurge why not the Great War inflation?
- What was going on in the 1930s? Sure there was an initial upsurge after Britain abandoned the Gold Standard in 1931 but after that nothing.
- Why the gradual decline after the Second World War? I offer as a possibility that people had confidence in their currency even though it was slowly but surely losing value. Actually, that might well explain the post-Great War decline as well.
But it’s the best we’ve got. And when it comes to being a store of value gold is the best we’ve got.
Unless I do the figures for silver…
Which was pretty much my thinking when I forked out for Tom Woods’s Meltdown, a free market take on what I like to call the Greater Depression. I wasn’t buying it in the hope of greater wisdom, more in the way you might buy a Watford replica shirt - to show support, to egg the team on.
Well, I was wrong. “Meltdown” is a triumph. It chronicles the boom and the early part of the bust before explaining how it all fits into Austrian Business Cycle Theory. In doing so it manages to to explain that theory better than I’ve ever seen it explained and (I’m pretty sure) expand on it. Oh, and it’s short.
One bit I was particularly impressed with was Woods’s description of money. For him, and now me, money is a claim on real resources. Now, Woods is not being particularly original here - Mises said this - but it’s something - and I regard myself as reasonably au fait with Austrian economics - that I hadn’t heard before. It’s importance lies in the way it explains why any form of funny money - whether in the form of central bank notes based on nothing or fractional reserve bank notes - er, also based on nothing - are so economically damaging - because they deceive people as to what precise resources they can command.
Or, to put it another way - you think you can build the Empire State Building but actually you can only build half of it.
But that’s only one example and “Meltdown” is full of them. This really is genius. To have produced a book that combines topicality, lucidity, and theory is a breathtaking achievement. If Woods didn’t sweat blood writing this I don’t believe he’s entirely human.
Wouldn't it just be easier for David Cameron to say that a future Conservative government won't pay it? Because if he said that right now (and loudly enough) no one in their right mind would buy the government's debt and the problem would disappear in an instant.
This partly comes from my reading of Murray Rothbard’s “The Mystery of Banking” and a comment I left on Brian Micklethwait’s blog.
Two ideas. What money really is and what we have come to understand as money. And the connection? What we have come to know as money is a perversion of a perversion of that original idea.
The original idea is simple enough. Money is metal. Sometimes gold, sometimes silver. Sometimes cigarettes (which is not a metal at all) but that’s another story. The point is that a metal like gold is very useful as money: it’s scarce, it’s consistent, it’s durable, it’s divisible. And that, at root, is all you need.
Until you try to use it that is. Say, you’re selling Mars Bars and some bloke tries to buy one of your Mars Bars with a lump of yellow metal which he claims to be gold. How do you know it is what he says it is? How do you know it hasn’t been mixed with something else, something cheaper? Sure, there are some tests you can carry out but you need equipment and that is likely to be expensive and bulky and time-consuming to use. Not really the sort of thing you want to be having to take down to Tescos.
The answer to this verification problem is, of course, coinage. You take your metal down to the mint, they weigh it, melt it down, add some alloy and stamp it out with some pretty, hard to reproduce pattern. In other words they brand it, in just the same way that Cadbury’s brand bars of Dairy Milk. And with much the same effect. Now everyone knows what they are getting.
At which point we get the first perversion. Enter the state. For reasons that are not entirely clear the state has always claimed a monopoly on minting coins. Roman emperors have their heads on the currency. It is not difficult to see why. States always need to raise money. There are two ways to do this. The first is taxation. But taxation is a pain. You need agents and sometimes people shoot these agents. The second is inflation. You take a coin, you melt it down, you add some base metal and you mint two new coins. Bingo, you’re twice as rich. And states have been doing this since time immemorial.
The next perversion comes with storage. If you’ve got a lot of gold you don’t really want to keep it at home - someone might steal it. So, you take it down to a secure store - known at the time as a goldsmith’s. And in return you are given a receipt. Now obviously this receipt is a rather valuable piece of paper, so it has to have many of the properties of a coin - hard to reproduce pattern etc. The point is that if the receipt is good enough the bearer has a choice. Yes, he can use it to redeem his gold, or, he can use it as money in its own right. It is literally as good as gold.
At which point we get the second perversion. The goldsmith realises that his receipt is now being accepted as money. This means that year on year only a small portion of the gold in storage will ever be redeemed. So, he decides to print up some new receipts and lend them out in the hope that there will never be a time when he has to redeem all the receipts (or notes) at once. On the face of it this sounds like fraud - but your high street banks are doing this every day (or rather were until the credit crunch struck).
Actually, this is a bit of an aside because the really important thing is what happens next. The government gets involved. It starts issuing its own notes - in Britain this began with the Bank of England in the 1690s. Then it bans anybody else from issuing their own. First by banning the practice within 65 miles of London and then everywhere else.
Now, from the state’s point of view this is not a perfect solution. The notes are still redeemable for something real - namely gold. So, what they do is to suspend redemption in time of war eg Napoleonic Wars, First World War, on an apparently temporary basis and then progressively put up ever greater barriers to redemption. In the 1920s when Britain went back on the gold standard the kicker was that normal everyday citizens could no longer redeem their notes.
And then, as they did in Britain in 1931, they break the link with metal entirely. The perversion of money is complete.
Or let me put it another way. RBS, BoS, Barclays, Lloyds, they've all been around for a hell of a long time. Hundreds of years. They've always attracted greedy people - heck why else do people become bankers? And yet they've always survived. What's different about this time?
Now, I think the answer is the government's low interest policy but even if it's not it's got to be something big and unusual.
If Britain was the first country to recover from the Depression last time round, why is it that this time around the British government is seeking to emulate the policies of the United States which was last country to recover?
I’ve noticed that one of the accusations made by the government (and mentioned in this very excellent piece by Sean Gabb) is that those who oppose their (alleged) anti-slump policies would rather “do nothing.”
To which the reply I suppose is that if doing something means stealing from taxpayers, savers and future generations - which after all is what the government’s policies amount to - then “doing nothing” is indeed the better option.
Update The link should now be working.
I like the Austrian School of Economics. Its theories are simple, logical and almost completely avoid recourse to numbers. And it also has the best explanation I have come across for the current Depression.
That explanation, incidentally, goes something like this: because interest rates were too low, the money supply increased, bubble activities were encouraged and resources were misallocated. The Depression is the process in which resources are re-allocated but this time to the correct activities.
This is fine as far as it goes. It certainly goes a long way to explaining what happened in the US where they built too many houses.
But what about the UK? Here building has pretty much been outlawed. Sure, there’s been a bit of in-filling going on but was it really enough to cause the downturn? So, where in the UK is the misallocation? What activities have been going on in the UK that shouldn’t have been? I am sure it has something to do with the housing bubble but although prices went up it is difficult to see how activity was altered from what it otherwise might have been.
Since writing those lines it occurs to me that the lack of infrastructure activities: new roads, better railways, power stations etc could be part of it. They might not be bubble activities but they could well be the other side of the coin: things that should have been done but weren’t. Also, the huge amount of activity directed by government especially into things like recycling and CO2 reduction. That looks like a classic bubble activity.
So the Stealth-Taxer General is all of a sudden cutting taxes. Did be perhaps take a walk in the general direction of Damascus? Or did he instead read Taxation is Theft and think “How could I have been so stupid all this time?”
Well...no. Gordon Brown is not someone who lies awake at night wondering if he could, you know, just possibly be wrong.
His problem is with the Depression and his attempts to avoid the unavoidable.
Assets are not worth what they once were. So anyone who took out a loan on one of these assets is trying to pay it back as quickly as possible and cut their losses. On the other side of the lending bargain banks are increasingly reluctant to lend.
All this will lead (for complex reasons) to a contraction of the money supply and, hence, deflation or falling prices. Hooray, you might say.
Alas, modern-day politicians are slaves to the doctrine that deflation is bad. So they are desperate to avoid it. So they need to create inflation. Under normal circumstances this is easy enough - reduce the rate the central banks charge the retail banks for money and let the money supply rip.
But the banks are increasingly reluctant to lend. Even the ones partly owned by the Government.
So, we get tax cuts paid for by the printing presses which they hope will cause inflation.
There’s another side issue here. If you inflate your currency and on one else does then your exchange rate goes down like a stone. So, what you need is for everyone to doing roughly the same thing at the same time. It’s called co-ordination and is the principal reason for the calling of the G20.
Incidentally, I have grave doubts whether this will work on its own terms - it certainly won’t on anyone else’s. My guess is that anyone given free money will simply put it in the bank.
My thoughts about the current economic situation are so jumbled up I thought I’d do another podcast rather than attempt to write it all down. I think it more or less works though at times it’s a bit incoherent. The good thing is that I felt a lot better after recording it.
It cuts off rather dramatically at the end - in mid-sentence in fact. Fortunately, that’s the middle of the very last sentence and the meaning is fairly clear.
Oh, this is a goody:
In a time of state-sponsored easy credit all projects get financed by incautious banks with cheap, centrally supplied money. There is no market for cautiously lent money, priced correctly for the risk involved. Why would anyone pay more for funds from a cautious bank when cheaper funds from an easier source are available?
This is why the profits of incautious banks grew, and why their stock prices multiplied.
Meanwhile careful bankers sunk. As Brown (and Greenspan) injected ever more money into the economy the cautious banks began to lose their customers, their managers, their share values, and their independence. This Darwinian extinction of caution is the direct result of a monetary environment which was hostile to cautious bankers; one which favoured those banks with an appetite for cheap money.
Paul Tustain, How Bullion Vault sees the credit crunch (email to Bullion Vault customers)
That is the best explanation I have heard so far as to why the money men went mad: the government made them. And, yes, I am a customer of these people.
For some time I have been seeing the current crisis as a showdown between the Autrian and Chicago schools of pro-capitalist thought. So, I was glad when a real economist attempted to explain the differences.
My money’s on the Austrians by the way.
while managing to mention the Austrian School. Fab.
(via The von Mises Institute)
Instead of furthering the inevitable liquidation of the maladjustments brought about by the boom during the last three years, all conceivable means have been used to prevent that readjustment from taking place; and one of these means, which has been repeatedly tried though without success, from the earliest to the most recent stages of depression, has been this deliberate policy of credit expansion. ... To combat the depression by a forced credit expansion is to attempt to cure the evil by the very means which brought it about; because we are suffering from a misdirection of production, we want to create further misdirection--a procedure that can only lead to a much more severe crisis as soon as the credit expansion comes to an end. ...It is probably to this experiment, together with the attempts to prevent liquidation once the crisis had come, that we owe the exceptional severity and duration of the depression.We must not forget that, for the last six or eight years, monetary policy all over the world has followed the advice of the stabilizers. It is high time that their influence, which has already done harm enough, should be overthrown.
Friedrich Hayek, June 1932
It would appear that the governments intend to swap fake assets for fake money.
That is all.