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What Bernanke Means: QE2 Will Not Boost Money Supply


Most of the loudest critics of the Federal Reserve are aghast at Ben Bernanke’s recent interview, in which he stated that:

We’re not printing money.

The amount of currency in circulation is not changing.

The money supply is not changing in any significant way.

— Ben Bernanke, 60 Minutes Interview, December 2010

What on earth, people wonder, does he mean by that? How could he say such an obviously crazy thing?

I mean, he is spending NEW money buying up bonds and notes…everyone but Bernanke is calling this QE2 (Quantitative Easing)…and the whole point of this is to add money to the economy.

How can he say the money supply is not changing?

But he isn’t simply crazy…he means something specific, and sane (if misguided).

He means this:

Quantity Times Velocity

The real money supply is not simply the number of dollars in existence. As Nobel-laureate economist Friedrich Hayek pointed out, real money supply is really a multiplication of the amount of money, times how much the money is moving around.

(S)upply equals (Q)uantity times (V)elocity.

This chart of the movement of MZM, the best measure of money people can actually use, tells the tale of woe...velocity, and therefore REAL money supply, has fallen deeply, despite the Fed's hopeless efforts to stop it.

And right now, money velocity is as low as it’s been since the Great Depression…not surprising, since this is the first depression the US has suffered, since.

That means it’s moving very little. In fact, it’s mostly sitting around in banks, doing nothing. It is, as Bernanke implied, effectively out of circulation.

That money is as absent from the economy as if it did not exist. This is the Fed’s fault, because they started paying interest on reserves held idle right at the beginning of this depression, but that’s a separate article.

So even though we now have more Quantity than ever, it’s multiplied by an abnormally low Velocity, to the real supply is lacking.

Right now, Austrians like Hayek and socialists like Keynes would agree that our real money supply is actually at a traumatic low, because much of the quantity is sitting around, unavailable.

Let’s hear Hayek agree with Keynes, himself:

On the first issue — whether to use one’s money or whether to hoard it — there is no important difference between us. It is agreed that hording money, whether in cash or in idle balances, is deflationary in its effects. No one thinks that deflation is in itself desirable.

— Hayek in an open letter to Keynes, 1932, regarding how to respond to the Great Depression

 

Money, money, everywhere, but not a cent to spend.

Like the ocean in my favorite poet’s most famous poem, the money sitting around in banks is, ironically, unavailable for the real money supply.

Bernanke is trying to fix this, by temporarily buying up bonds and treasury notes, therefore bypassing the banks’ massive reserves, putting money directly in the economy.

For the moment, he is correct, that this isn’t boosting the real money supply, because so much of the money is lying salted in (virtual) bank vaults, useless.

Temporary Money

Now his critics, those who know enough monetary theory to understand about velocity the way you now do, say this doesn’t matter, because eventually the velocity will recover, and then we’ll have normal velocity times much more quantity. And that would mean inflation…there’s no way around that.

Bernanke would point out, correctly, that this is not correct, either…

See, the Fed doesn’t consider the money it is printing real. It is ephemeral, temporary money, like a Virtual Particle in physics…popped into existence for a bit, then gone.

And this is true:

When the Fed lends money to a bank overnight, the bank is required to pay it back the next day, plus interest. The same for its more recent, unhealthy bout of lending for thirty or ninety days…after that time, the bank pays the money back, with interest.

And when that money is paid back, it literally “vanishes”, into the “thin air” out of which it was created.

For now, the banks keep re-borrowing money, keeping the extra Quantity in a cycle…but when the Fed decides things are getting better, it can start making that borrowing less desirable, so banks re-borrow less, causing the Quantity of money to decline.

When it engages in Quantitative Easing (Bernanke hates that term, and calls it Credit Easing…bureaucrats love euphemisms), the same thing happens;

The Fed buys notes, adding money to the economy…but later it can SELL those notes, and destroy the money paid for them. It will probably sell them at a higher price than it bought, allowing it to actually destroy MORE money than it created, if it chooses.

So it could, in theory, keep the real money supply at a constant, stable level, allowing prices to be natural.

So Bernanke is Right, Everything Is OK?

Unfortunately…no.

The first problem is that Bernanke, and his peers, don’t understand some economic basics:

We’ve been very, very clear that we will not allow inflation to rise above two percent or less…We could raise interest rates in 15 minutes if we have to. So, there really is no problem with raising rates, tightening monetary policy, slowing the economy, reducing inflation, at the appropriate time.

Now THAT is the part that makes me gasp in horror…he thinks he can stop inflation in fifteen minutes? Doesn’t he know the fishtail effect?

Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan, and the Nobel Laureate Chicago school economist Milton Friedman, both understood that when the Fed meddles with the economy, its effects take up to EIGHTEEN MONTHS to show up.

So the day that Bernanke decides “Oh, we’ve hit two percent inflation”, he will raise rates…and then inflation will KEEP GOING UP for at least the next eighteen months.

Eighteen months is a LONG time, in economic terms.

Fishtail Effect

It’s long enough that the Fed will become frantic, as its efforts fail to show any results…they’ll keep raising rates, selling notes and bonds, destroying money, until the economy finally seems to be turning around…weakening.

Then they will have overshot the actual mark by around 18 months. For the next 18 months the economy will KEEP getting worse, KEEP getting slower, until it enters into a recession. Because of the amount of money the Fed bubbled in during this depression, and has to suck out, it will probably be the worst recession since the Stagflation of the late seventies and resulting recessions, which were the worst in history.

It’s like when you are on an icy road, and you try to turn…the car doesn’t respond, so you turn the wheel more, and more…by the time the car responds, you’ve turned too much. You straighten the wheel happily, but the car KEEPS turning past where you wanted. So you turn in the other direction…but it keeps turning the original direction. By the time it responds, you turned too much the other way…et cetera.

This is the source of the modern “business cycle” of recessions, that have happened since the US left the Gold Standard in the 1930s. The Fed, and the rest of government, are constantly meddling with the economy, and then discovering the damage they did when it shows up years later, then reacting to that with even more damaging behavior, back and forth in an endless cycle of unintended consequences.

Now this has, up to now, been better than the “business cycle” of depressions and panics the US suffered from 1873-1933, when the US was on a fiat gold standard. But now we’re suffering a depression, despite being off the gold standard, so that’s all out the window.

What we need, of course, is for the Federal Reserve’s monopoly dollar to be replaced by a free market in money, as Friedrich Hayek proposed.

But, failing that, we need the Fed to at least go back to mostly staying out of the economy, as Alan Greenspan tried to do, instead of constantly expanding its meddling, as Bernanke has done, helping lock us into this cycle of economic devastation.

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December 9, 2010 Posted by | Economy, International, Philosophy, Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Conservatives Say: It’s OK If Obama Blames Bush


No RiNOs (Republicans in Name Only)Yes, whenever the sagging economy comes up, or the foreign quagmires, Obama blames Bush. And certain talk show hosts have defensive hysterics over that.

But, unlike neocons at Fox and on the radio, and other advocates of Big Brothernment, true Conservatives have no problem at all with this, for two reasons:

First) It’s true. Bush governed like a Liberal, spending money, increasing regulations, and dragging us into a trillion dollars in wars, and then mismanaged them abysmally. Even if it is embarrassing to  “our side”, we believe in supporting the truth, taking responsibility for mistakes (something Bush rarely did), and fixing problems.

Second) It’s not a condemnation of Conservatism, anyway, because Bush was so Liberal. Like neocons in general, he only talked Conservative, but when the chips were down he always turned to huge government solutions, more squandering of taxpayer money, et cetera.

It’s no surprise that we had economic and political trauma, when Bush violated Conservative principles in these ways:

  • He had claimed the economy needed to be deregulated, yet he rolled out more huge regulatory schemes, even counting only his first two years in office, than Clinton did in eight…hundreds of billions of dollars in new regulations on insurance, shipping, health care, and many other industries.
  • Even his “tax cuts” were mostly semi-annual welfare checks disguised as “refunds”, along with “tax credits” that are literally welfare, plus a maze of new exemptions that truly increased tax compliance cost just as much as any actual tax savings. Compare this to Reagan simplifying the tax code so much that people saved as much in compliance costs as they saved in taxes.
  • His “solution” to the failure of socialized education was to break his School Choice promise and set up a massive Federal bureaucracy called No Child Left Behind.
  • His response to 9-11 was to set up a police state in violation of the Constitution, to refuse Afghanistan’s offer to turn over bin Laden for war crimes trial in order to invade, and to attack Al Qaeda’s mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein.
  • His promise to make Socialist Security more privatized and voluntary was abandoned because he was spending all of his political capital on a voluntary trillion-dollar set of wars.
  • Speaking of socialism, until Obama’s health care plan passes (shudder), Bush’s prescription drug plan stands as the largest socialized medicine expansion in US history.
  • Speaking of being more Liberal than Clinton, in EVERY SINGLE YEAR, of his eight years in office, Bush increased domestic spending more than Clinton did in his entire second term.
  • His answer to Katrina was to throw $87,000,000,000 dollars at the region, that had already squandered more than the rest of the nation’s combined Army Corps of Engineers budget at NOT fixing its levees.
  • His response to the economic decline was to not only increase spending above his super-Clinton levels, but to bail out companies and squander hundreds of billions on “stimulus” packages that actually depress the economy more.

Who’s seriously surprised that this kind of socialism caused an economic depression? Hoover’s big-government approach helped cause the Great Depression, and Bush’s similar approach did the same.

Real Conservatives don’t try to defend this. Instead, we say:

Yes, that’s right, Bush’s domestic policies cause economic catastrophe…so stop doing exactly the same stuff, Obama!

October 29, 2009 Posted by | Economy, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Why Do Good People Hope Obama Fails?


che-obama-posterized

(caption: Hoping The People succeed often means hoping a specific politician's agenda will fail.)

There was a recent hue and cry about Rush Limbaugh saying he hoped that Obama would fail.

But he has plenty of people on his side…from all over the political spectrum. Why?

Look not at the words a politician uses to adorn his proposals, but at the things it will actually produce.

There is a huge gulf between the pretty things Obama promises, and the poverty and tyranny he, like his predecessor Bush, would deliver if successful.

Progressive “Universal health care”, anywhere in the world, produces universally short supply and slow progress of medical technology.

“Renewable energy” has been the promise of government for forty years, but all that it’s ever produced is renewable economic malaise.

“Comprehensive immigration reform” means bundling bad ideas with good ones, for an overall worsening of conditions.

Our economic depression was caused, in part, by high energy prices (because of Bush’s insane foreign policies driving the price of oil up 700%). Now Obama promises to drive up energy prices even higher, on purpose, in the name of “global warming” that ignores the past two years of global cooling…and we should wish him to succeed?

Canadians illegally sneak to the US to get health care, when suffering or even in danger of death, because it can be months, or even years, before their own system rations out treatment to them. Britain actually bans life-saving treatments it deems “too expensive”. You’re not even allowed to buy them for yourself, much less get them “free”. The whole problem with US health care, in the first place, is that government has been increasing the “universal” and “free” parts for over forty years, stripping consumer control from our hands, causing prices to go up and service to plummet…would we really hope Obama manages to make that rationing universal?

There are debates, in America, over:

* Whether jobs should be protected from new immigrants, or they will increase wealth and demand enough to be a net plus

* Whether people who have broken existing laws in order to sneak into the country, by tens of millions, should be given blanket amnesty, or have to go back home and start over legally, or simply be thrown in prisons or exiled permanently.

* Whether tax-paying, productive people should be forced not only to subsidize poverty and failure among formerly tax-paying Americans, but even for foreigners who show up illegally just to get the free handouts, as is helping bankrupt California right now. Should their children suffer for their wrongs, or just the children of people who pay taxes?

All of those debates should be settled, separately. Lumping separate issues together to force people to take the bad ones in order to have the essential good ones is one of the great crimes of modern government.

But we must hope he succeeds in this?

That’s not the kind of “hope” people voted for in 2008.

We hope THE PEOPLE succeed…which often means hoping a specific politician’s agendas fail, completely.

July 10, 2009 Posted by | Economy, environment, Health, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Unemployment Benefits INCREASE Unemployment


The recent increases in unemployment benefits, rather than helping fight unemployment, have actually increased unemployment dramatically 

 

The recent increases in unemployment benefits, rather than helping fight unemployment, have actually increased unemployment dramatically

Subsidies Cause Surplus

If you wanted to have too many apples, you could simply get the government to pay billions of dollars to apple growers. You can do this with almost anything; it’s called a subsidy.

Aside from the many problems intentional subsidies always cause, there are many “unintentional” subsidies. Perhaps the worst of these is the unemployment subsidy.

When you give people money for each apple you grow, more people choose to grow apples, and apple growers choose to make more. It creates an imbalance, producing more apples than the society really finds worthwhile.

When you give people money based on how unemployed they are, you likewise cause more people to be unemployed, and people to be unemployed longer. I don’t even need to go into how that creates an imbalance, as (unlike apples) more unemployment is obviously, universally, bad.

Some people, mostly those who have little real-life experience (like a Kennedy or Bush family member) might say “But nobody would CHOOSE to stay unemployed, just for benefits”.

Second, they’re wrong…but I’ll get back to that.

First

FIRST, it doesn’t matter if nobody does it on purpose. When the Fed raises interest rates just 0.25%, fewer people buy houses. Not one human being actually says “I am not buying this house, because the Fed raised rates by a fraction of one percent”.  It isn’t even raising home loan rates (it has no control over those), just the rate at which it lends to banks. Yet the trickle-down effect is fewer homes bought, in part because home loan rates creep up a tiny bit.

The same is true of unemployment. There is a trickle-down impact, over the span of 300,000,000 people, where some stay unemployed longer, and more BECOME unemployed, because unemployment is subsidized. As even a tiny increase in home loan interest rates invisibly pushes a few people over to the side of not buying a house, an increase in unemployment subsidy pushes a few people over into being unemployed.

Over the span of hundreds of millions of people, that is dramatic, in both cases.

And now we can get back to “second”:

Second

The ivory tower “nobody would choose to stay unemployed” people are wrong.

People DO choose not to work because they know they have an unemployment buffer.

They choose not to work as hard or otherwise volunteer to be the one laid off, choose not search as hard, pass up jobs they would otherwise take, and even actively stay unemployed, because of the unemployment benefits.

We who have real-life experience probably ALL, right now, know people who are doing this. Many of you, in fact, probably have done it. I am a consultant, so I don’t get unemployment benefits, but I’m sure it would influence me if I did.

I certainly have friends who actively cite the unemployment benefits as allowing them to take their time working. I even know someone who says they are glad the benefits have been extended, as they will be able to go for a year without looking for a job, now.

Sure, most states have some sort of fake attempt to require people to look for and take jobs. But there’s no way to actually make this work. It would cost more than unemployment benefits provide, to actually verify all the claims people make on their “looked for a job” forms. And any cheaper means of proving it would be draconian against all the people who were honest.

The Unemployment Subsidy

So yes, that’s exactly what the Liberals’ unemployment extension has done:

Increase unemployment, by subsidizing it.

We will have higher unemployment rates, and suffer this depression longer, because of the benefit increases. Yet another example of government’s coercive “help” making the problems they attack worse, instead of better.

April 3, 2009 Posted by | Economy, Family, Politics, Society | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Monkeys Don’t Kill People; Xanax Does


Which is more responsible for the isolated incident of a lady being mauled by a chimp...this pigmy marmoset, or the drug the chimp was taking, that is known to cause violent aggression?

Which is more responsible for the isolated incident of a lady being mauled by a chimp...this pigmy marmoset, or the drug the 200 lb ape was taking, that is known to cause violent aggression?

You’ve probably heard, in tedious detail, about the chimp, Travis, who ripped the face off some old lady.

What’s creepy about this story, more than it sounding like people are keeping pets that can kill them (as can horses and dogs), is the way power-hungry politicians are exploiting it, contextually lying, in order to pass unconstitutional laws we’d otherwise never tolerate.

The facts of the story are that a 200 lb chimp, who’d been raised as if a child by some woman who strikes me as emotionally akin to a “cat lady“, was secretly given the drug Xanax in his tea. Yes, she fed him tea. A few minutes later, he freaked out and bolted outside. When the lady’s friend, who apparently had a new hairstyle rendering her a “stranger”, showed up to help, Travis attacked her.

You may have noticed a detail that’s not normally mentioned, above. Travis was given a mood-altering drug, of which he was unaware.  Xanax is a drug that is used to control people’s minds, but it has a well-documented “paradoxical” side effect of sometimes causing people to fly into insane rages, becoming violent and aggressive.

In fact, experts say that Xanax may very well have been the cause of the rampage. Why did journalists mostly ignore this detail? Who knows…perhaps it’s because they’re so likely to be under mood control drugs, themselves. /shrug

Now even people who know they’re taking that drug, and that it may cause them to become criminally aggressive, can be driven to act nuts by it…imagine some animal that doesn’t even know there’s a drug involved (probably doesn’t even understand the concept), who is being drugged.

I wouldn’t want to be around a collie or retriever who’d been driven mad by drugs, nor riding a horse in such a state.

So what’s the response of Big Brotherment to this incident?

Why, to ban the sale of ALL PRIMATES, of course.

Yes, that’s right; they are passing a ban on the sale of 1 inch long mouse lemurs, and all other primates, because some idiot prescribed a drug drug that can cause violent rages, to a 200 lb chimp.

If we were actually going to try to pass some over-reaching law to retroactively prevent this laughably rare, even isolated incident, surely it’d be something like “you can’t give huge apes drugs that might make them insane”, or even a ban on mood-control drugs entirely, which would be a loss ONLY insofar as prohibition is bad.

The truth is, of course, that one of the most vile things politicians do is try to pass laws based on single incidents. The already-suicidal chick who killed herself after someone else’s mom mocked her online has spawned a host of vile laws that are already being extended to speech outside their original intent, for example. Or the crazy Brady Law, that effectively banned only weapons that were not using in the shooting of its namesake. Or the ridiculous “security” measures set up after 9-11, that do zero to actually prevent future terror attacks. How, precisely, will you hijack a jumbo jet with nail clippers and a four ounce sippy cup?

Of course such laws are almost never passed by people who care about the incident at hand.  They’re dishonest people who are actually attempting to forward some agenda of their own. In the case of Representative Blumenauer, author of the primate ban, he’s apparently one of those “pets are slaves” PETA nut-jobs, who has openly said that reptiles are next on his list of ban victims.

What we need, really, is fewer laws, not more of them. Banning the sale of lemurs so small that they’re are in danger of being eaten by mice, in response to the drugging of a man-sized ape, seems like one of those “Romans got brain damage from lead-lined aquaducts, and then things all went to hell” moments.

Representative Blumenauer appears to think these baby monkeys are a choking hazard.

Representative Blumenauer appears to think these baby monkeys should be banned as a choking hazard.

March 26, 2009 Posted by | Philosophy, Politics, Society | , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments

Why Deflation is Bad…for You, Private Property, and Capitalism


Politicians and journalists are worried, right now, about a downward spiral of deflation, of the type that normally comes in an economic depression.

They are pointing to two signs we are having bad deflation…first, the falling price of commodities like oil, and the disappearance of money in this economic failure causing demand to plunge. One of those is actually good, the other is very bad.

When prices go down naturally, because of an increase in efficiency or improvement in technology, it is good for everyone. 

For example:

  • Improved efficiency makes the manufacture of computers cheaper, while more advanced computers make the old versions cost less.
  • Food used to take up most of humanity’s effort, therefore most of  a family’s cost of living, but has declined to third or fourth place as technology and efficiency allowed us to grow more with less.

The decline in oil prices, returning to only double their normal level, will cause a good kind of global price decline, because most prices are effected by the cost of the energy required to create and deliver products and services.

But, again, those specific cost reductions are not deflation.

What Are Real Deflation and Inflation?

When money deflates, people choose to just hold onto it, starving the marketplace and causing a spiral of ever more deflation

When money deflates, people choose to just hold onto it, starving the marketplace and causing a spiral of ever more deflation

In real economic terms, inflation and deflation happen when the ratio of money to economic wealth changes. If the amount of money becomes greater, in comparison to the economy, then you get inflation. Because the most common result of this is for prices to increase, we confuse the terms and call general price increases “inflation”, but actually it’s the change in ratio that is inflation.

The eleven trillion-plus dollars of capital that have purportedly vanished in the past few months represent a huge decline in money supply, causing actual deflation. This failure was caused by the inability of central authority to manage money any better in the US than it could provide shoes and food in the Soviet Union.

Prices Can Increase Without Inflation, Too

Prices can actually increase for other reasons, and that’s not really inflation. For example, when oil increased 600% in price, it drove up the cost of production, without regard for the number of dollars in the economy. This general price increase was NOT inflation.

And when prices decrease for other reasons, it’s not deflation.

Inflation is Harmful

We all know that when the ratio of money to wealth increases, causing inflation, it is bad for the economy, and especially for the poor and middle classes. This is because it usually drives up prices, and the poorer you are, the more of your wealth and well-being is in cash.

Poorer people depend on cash they have in a bank, or other savings. They are paid by employers who give them only a set rate, plus raises for special reasons like increased skill.

Wealthier people tend to have more of their wealth in assets like, stocks and real estate, that will simply increase in price, sheltering them from some of the effect if inflation. They get cost of living increases in salary every year, on top of any other raises.

Deflation is Harmful, too

But the opposite kind of damage occurs if you have deflation, and is compounded by a new problem.

First, deflation artificially drives down prices. To a person with no real assets or investments, this sounds good, because “stuff costs less”.

But it comes at a horrible price.

Deflation punishes investments that can raise people from poverty, both personal investments, and business growth

Deflation punishes investments that can raise people from poverty, both personal investments, and business growth

For example, the decline in prices includes wages. Deflation is universal, with a shortage of money everywhere, so that your income will decline, along with the price you pay for things. What good is cheaper stuff, if you also have less money?

So people with fewer assets and no investments will more or less end up breaking even. But they still lose out in the end, because they become blocked from gaining assets, trapping them in relative poverty.

For example:
 

How Deflation Traps the Poor and Middle Class

Imagine you’re buying a house. Not on a sub-prime loan, but one where your income is perfectly fit for the home you’re getting.

It’s probably a thirty year loan. So you’re going to be stuck paying on the original price of your house, for thirty years, at the original size of house payment.

Now remember that your income (in dollars) is getting smaller every year. That’s deflation.

And the price of your house, too. Each year, its is worth fewer dollars, yet your original debt is the same. And so are your payments.

Within just a few years, you are making far less money, but are stuck with the same size house payment you always had.

While you still have to pay the same percentage of of your paycheck income for food, electricity, and so on, your house payment takes up a higher percentage of that money every year.

Soon, your income has shrunken to the point where you cannot make your house payment at all. Not even if you paid your whole check to the bank every week.

And worse, you can’t simply sell his house to get out of it. The price of your house has also declined every year. Selling it now that the payment is too high won’t even pay off your remaining house debt.

Of course people would quickly learn this, and that they simply cannot buy houses, unless they are so incredibly wealthy that they can save up enough to pay cash. 

But even those wealthy people who can pay cash for a house now face the situation where buying a house is a horrible investment, because the house’s value will decline, in dollars.

It would actually be better to leave the money in a vault, and rent monthly, even for a billionaire, because the money’s value increases, while the house’s price declines. One thousand dollars will be worth more next year, if you simply stick it in your mattress, than one thousand dollars worth of house will be worth in that same year.

In fact, owning land becomes a losing proposition. With even the wealthy better-off renting, who’s going to actually be the landlord?

Deflation Attacks Economic Freedom

In fact, ALL property ownership becomes punished!

With deflation, anything you buy does not just depreciate with use and age, but declines in value every year with prices, compared to if you’d simply kept the money.

Today, you could buy that console game, or car, or collectible, and then sell it on eBay a few years from now and recoup part of the cost. But with deflation, the price you recoup is even farther from if you’d kept the cash in the first place.

Deflation Destroys Capitalism

Deflation punishes investment and property ownership, attacking capitalism at its roots

Deflation punishes investment and property ownership, attacking capitalism at its roots

In fact (and this is where the entire economy implodes from deflation), simply holding on to your money is rewarded versus ANY investment, in a deflationary economy. If you put your money in a big ol’ vault, removing it from the economy entirely, it grows in value every year. But if, instead, you buy stocks, or invest in commodities, then your money is gone, replaced with an asset that becomes worth less every year, in dollar terms.

The growth of every business, in fact, would be undone by the rate of deflation. Now from the company’s standpoint, that is fine, because its expenses decline every year by the same amount.

But from an investor’s standpoint, a company growing at 2% per year during 3% deflation would mean you lose 1% over just stuffing your money in a safe. And yet you also risk, when investing money.

Why bother investing even in a company you think might grow at 5%, when you could have a 100% safe 3% investment in a vault under your mattress? So, really, the company facing deflation is NOT fine, because it discovers that it’s far harder to get investors. In fact, the entrepreneur who would have started that company is 3% punished each year for the effort, making him that much less likely to even bother.

With investors discouraged because of deflation, it becomes harder to create wealth. Capitalism, in fact, becomes almost impossible:

  • An entrepreneur can’t get investors for his new project.
  • There’s less reason to buy stocks, so companies can’t raise capital.
  • You can’t get a loan to start a business, because your company’s income would decline every year, yet the loan payment would stay as large as ever.

With deflation, the very engines of capitalism all die out.

Speculation Defines Capitalism

It is the uncertain investment on the wild new idea that makes capitalism superior to central planning. Anyone can decide to invest in a “sure thing”: if that were good enough, socialism would work, because a government bureaucrat could declare money for the obvious solution. It’s diverse people choosing to risk money on many different wild ideas that lets the best solutions rise to the top.

But that very kind of capital investment, in a deflationary economy, is punished, because you get such a good deal by not investing in anything at all, but holding your money in a vault.

All of this, by the way, is aside from the additional destruction caused by the lack of downward price elasticity on many commodities and time-based investments. That’s much more arcane, but a key source of economic depression, that I’ll get into some other time.

For now, it’s enough to realize that prices being FORCED downward by deflation includes your pay, and the value of any investments you make, so that private property ownership, borrowing, and investing, in fact all capitalism, is crippled under deflation.

December 16, 2008 Posted by | Economy | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Not a Recession: A Depression


 Why does this economic downturn seem different than previous ones in our lifetime? Why does it seem familiar to anyone who is familiar with the economic history of 19th and early 20th centuries?

Because, up to the mid 1940s, the US tended to face economic depressions. Since then, we had not had one…until now. 

What we are suffering, today, is an economic depression.

Sure, it had been trendy, in the last decade or more, to say “we just stopped using the D word after the Great Depression”. But, once again, anyone who knows economic history realizes there’s more to it than that.

There is no official definition of an economic depression, other than the idea that they’re worse than recessions.

There isn’t really an official definition of an economic recession, either, although the pat answer is “two quarters of GPD shrinkage”. Real economists hate that definition, because it ignores more factors than it considers, to the point of being almost useless.

But we can simply examine what were called “depressions”, from 1800 through 1938, and compare them to the recessions between 1947 and 2007, and the differences are obvious.

 

Depressions, Described

 

Each depression / panic from 1819 through 1938 shared certain traits:

A shortage of money itself, leading to

  • Usually at least 2 years, as many as 23 years
  • Sudden runs on banks, causing bank failures
  • Commodity price collapse, where something generic like cotton, steel, oil, or real estate plunged in value, causing a domino effect that devastated the economy
  • A more general decline in prices across the economy
  • A collapse in capital, for example stock market collapse, once that became an important factor
  • A credit freeze, making loans and other forms of obtaining temporary money more difficult 
  • Massive business closings
  • Astonishing amounts of job loss and unemployment

Now what about the subsequent “recessions”, from 1948 through 2003? 

Recessions, Rescribed

 

Every one of them happened like this:

A dramatic raising of interest rates by the Federal Reserve, followed by

  • Usually only a few months, rarely more than a year
  • An increase in private interest rates
  • An increase in unemployment
  • Moderate to extreme price increases
  • A plunge in the stock market and moderate tightening of capital
  • Some amount of business failure

You can see examples of both recessions and depressions at the History of Economic Downturns.

What’s the Difference?

 

We face, as was normal during the days of the gold standard, massive bank runs, a credit freeze, price failures

We face, as was normal during the days of the gold standard, massive bank runs, a credit freeze, price failures

Now the most obvious difference is timespan. 

During the days of economic depressions, the downturns lasted much longer.  Always years, sometimes decades. Economic recessions generally only last months, rarely more than a year…the longest recession has not lasted as long as the shortest depression.

The second is that the trigger is slightly different.

Depressions were caused by a direct shortage of currency (money) in the economy. This, in fact, led to the other obvious differences, like runs on banks, mostly caused by a shortage of money making people worry about bank stability.

Recessions, on the other hand, have been preceded, in every single case, by the Federal Reserve raising rates, trying to make it harder to get new money. That’s very similar, but it leaves the financial sector able to compensate, however painfully, so that bank runs and commodity price failures never become “necessary”.

And that’s probably the next most important difference:

During the depressions, bank runs were almost universal, commodity price collapse was normal, the loss of huge numbers of jobs and businesses was a constant.

In the era of recessions, none of those things occurred at all. Unemployment, though miserable, was generally only a few percentage points higher, and while some businesses failed, nothing like the tens of thousands of the depression days, even though the economy was smaller back then.

Now, which are we seeing today?

Are We Depressed?

 

Let’s make a list:
  • Runs on banks, and bank failures
  • Real estate price collapse, along with some other commodities, including many metals like gold, copper, and nickel
  • The massive price inflation expected to result from high energy prices failed to materialize, representing an inability of people to pay more, even though production cost had to rise
  • A collapse in capital, for example stock market free-fall
  • A failure in credit, making loans and other forms of obtaining temporary money more difficult 
  • Massive business closings
  • A rising snowball of job loss and unemployment

Well, this does indeed sound almost exactly like a depression, not a recession. 

And, in fact, it was preceded by a money shortage, just like other depressions. In our case, the shortage was caused by high oil prices, two wars, and hundreds of billions in new foreign “aid” shipping trillions of dollars overseas, much faster than the Federal Reserve was creating new money. This meant that, while the surplus of foreign-based dollars caused its value to plunge compared to foreign money, here in the US there was less money available than usual.

Without as much money, we could not maintain the prices of some commodities, we became distrusting of banks, credit became scarce…ultimately, a new economic depression was natural. 

Why didn’t we have depressions from 1948 through 2007?

Up to the 1940s, the US had usually depended upon gold, and sometimes silver, to back its money. It claimed you could cash in a paper dollar, any time you wanted, for gold. This meant that money was, in a sense, just a glorified form of barter for a commodity.

In those days of a gold standard, if the economy grew faster than the supply of gold, this created a shortage of money, which could only grow as fast as people could dig up gold. When the economy grew faster, the relative shortage of money would eventually force banks to close, commodity prices to plunge, prices to decline, credit to freeze, and generally the economy to grind to a halt, to wait for gold to catch up.

That ended in 1946, when the US entered into the Breton Woods agreement. This was a sort of price fixing scheme, where instead of making a dollar equal to a certain amount of gold for exchange, each government just attempted to force the price of gold to remain a certain amount, compared to its money.

This happened to coincide, exactly, to the end of economic depressions. Without money being linked to the barter of a commodity that had its own separate value and supply, it did not end up in such short demand that the whole economy would fail. The recessions that did occur were from money shortages caused by the Federal Reserve, but these could be overcome, so banks never had runs, commodity prices never collapsed, et cetera.

This became even more true in the 1970s, when even the Breton Woods agreement was ended, and the price of gold became a legitimate free market price, not a fixed one.

Why are we having a depression, today?

As I noted earlier, this is the first time since the 1930s when there was a shortage of money so grave that we stopped trusting banks, could not pay for important commodities, and so on.

This is because we sent so much money overseas, out of our own reach.

The normal money we have sent abroad for decades, because we buy goods, was actually barely enough to keep up with foreign demand for dollars…but in 2001, that began to change:

The price of oil went through the roof. At its peak, we were paying 700% of oil’s natural price. This amounted to as much as one trillion dollars leaving the US to import oil, without getting anything in return (beyond what we normally got for 1/7th the amount). 

Meanwhile, we engaged in two wars, that cost hundreds of billions of dollars, much of which went to foreign countries.

And, in order to support those wars, paid hundreds of billions in new “foreign aid”, money shipped abroad with no imported wealth to offset it, at all.

This left us without enough money to simply run our own economy.

The result? Bank closings, real estate and other price failures, massive unemployment, bankrupcies, business failures…

Another economic depression.

December 5, 2008 Posted by | Economy, Politics | , , , | 2 Comments

   

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