The big Econo-boys are weighing in on the state of the economy, and providing a consensus opinion on the coming economic recovery. According to the Wall Street Journal:
Economists in the latest Wall Street Journal forecasting survey expect the recession to end in September, though most say it won’t be until the second half of 2010 that the economy recovers enough to bring down unemployment.
Gross domestic product was predicted to contract in the first and second quarters of this year by 5.0% and 1.8%, respectively, on a seasonally adjusted annualized rate. A return to growth — a modest 0.4% — isn’t expected until the third quarter. In the fourth quarter of 2008, the most recent period for which data are available, the economy contracted 6.3%.
The outlook for employment isn’t quite as good, though.
Just 12% of the economists expect the unemployment rate to fall some time this year. More than a third of respondents expect the jobless rate to peak in the first half of 2010, while about half don’t see unemployment declining until the second half of 2010. By December of this year, the economists on average expect the unemployment rate to reach 9.5%, up from the 8.5% reported for March. They do see the rate of decline slowing, forecasting 2.6 million job losses in the next 12 months, compared with the 4.8 million jobs lost in the previous period.
I’m a bit more negative on the above. As of today, weekly initial unemployment claims are still at 650,000 per week. If that keeps up, we’ll continue to see 0.5% increases in unemployment on a monthly basis. We might be at 9% by next month, nevermind December.
I’m also concerned about the implications of the rabid expansion of the monetary base over the last 7 months, during which it essentially doubled. If that impacts signifigantly on inflation by the end of the year, then we’ll be between a rock and a hard place with a weak economy, and signifigant inflation. Any Fed moves to contract the monetary base will crater the economy, in much the same way that Paul Volcker’s Fed did in causing the back to back recession of 1981-1982.
There are still treacherous shoals to navigate for the economy before I begin to get bullish on economic growth again.
Some relatively good news and some bad news. The good news has to do with “cap-and-tax” as the WSJ article cited refers to “cap-and-trade”:
Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander called it “the biggest vote of the year” so far, and he’s right. This means Majority Leader Harry Reid can’t jam cap and tax through as part of this year’s budget resolution with a bare majority of 50 Senators. More broadly, it’s a signal that California and East Coast Democrats won’t be able to sock it to coal and manufacturing-heavy Midwestern states without a fight. Senators voting in favor of the 60-vote rule included liberals from Wisconsin, Michigan and West Virginia. Now look for Team Obama to attempt to impose cap and tax the non-democratic way, via regulation that hits business and local governments with such heavy costs that they beg Congress for a less-harmful version.
I say relatively good news because the author is right – if the Obama administration can’t get it through Congress, there’s little doubt they’ll look for an administrative way to impose cap-and-trade through the executive branch. One route may be through the EPA.
Of course, there is always the distinct possibility that one of the Democratic Senators who is presently against limiting the filibuster will be pressured into changing his mind. And then there are always the RINOs.
But the possibliity remains that the cap-and-trade economy killer may be defeated in Congress, or at least delayed for a while. If passed, you could rest assured we’d not be seeing an economic recovery anytime soon.
However, cap-and-trade isn’t the only problem on the horizon. The health care push will be coming up soon as well, now that Congress has passed the Obama budget blueprint with no Republican support.
The most important remaining fight this year is over health care. Democrats seem intent on trying to plow that monumental change through with only 50 votes, even as they negotiate to bring along some Republicans. We hope these Republicans understand that a new health-care “public option” — a form of Medicare for all Americans — guarantees that the 17% of GDP represented by the health-care industry will be entirely government-run within a few years. This is precisely Mr. Obama’s long-term goal, though he doesn’t want to say it publicly.
It is a back-door means of claiming the reforms are “market” oriented while setting up the system to be quietly shifted to government control. And this at a time when more and more doctors are leaving the Medicare system because of low payment.
In the case of health care, the use of “reconciliation” appears to be a possiblity. That means, as an exception to the rule which now requires 60 votes for cloture on all measures of law, the Senate could require a mere majority (51 votes) to pass this monstrosity and see the government devour another 17% of GDP.
The game plan is fairly evident. Grace-Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, said in an interview:
“We really have a pretty good idea of the outline of the plan they are going to be proposing,” she said. They’ll want to “require everyone to have health insurance and require all employers to pay.”
Since some companies and individuals may not be able to afford that, the taxpayers will be told they are making up the difference, she warned.
The real danger, she suggested, is that with a government-run program, private insurance soon will start disappearing.
“If you expand access to government programs, more and more will drop private coverage,” she said. “A lot of this is going to be, I fear, replacing the private coverage with taxpayer supported coverage.”
That will just raise the costs even higher, and be the first step to what she expects eventually will be “a monopoly player.”
Routed through the government bureaucracy, the same inefficiencies that every government run health care service will emerge. And as with any system in which unlimited demand meets finite supply, some sort of rationing will take place. Since government will be the monopoly player, as Turner calls it, that rationing won’t be by price, as it now works, but instead by denial of service:
Already, she said, $1.1 billion is being allocated for “comparative effectiveness studies.”
That will be “what treatments are good and bad, what’s going to be available to us or not. That’s the first step toward rationing,” she said.
That $600 billion dollar “downpayment”, as Obama calls it, will eventually morph into a deficit of trillions. Why? Because the promise is low-cost universal health care. And there is no such animal that is worth a tinker’s dam.
This is such a basic lesson I’m surprised it has to be repeated so often.
Under pressure to narrow projected deficits, President Barack Obama’s 2010 budget proposal calls for raising more than $31 billion over the next decade by eliminating the oil and gas industry’s eligibility for various tax breaks.
When you’re thowing around 3.6 trillion dollar figures for budgets, someone is going to ask, “how are you going to pay for it?” A 3.6 trillion dollar budget certainly doesn’t answer, “by cutting spending” does it? So new sources of revenue have to be found. But in a consumer society who is the ultimate source of all revenue? If you answered, “the consumer” you get a gold star.
So revenue is the purported reason for the focus on oil companies. Additionally, they’re easy to demonize which makes for easy political pickings. That seems to be the modus operandi of this administration.
The plan would slap companies with a new excise tax on production in the Gulf of Mexico worth $5.3 billion between 2010 and 2019, and repeal the industry’s eligibility for a manufacturing tax credit worth $13.3 billion in that period.
In an era in which the word “trillions” is uttered with abandonment, billions suddenly don’t seem like much do they? Unless of course you’re a middle or lower income family. Then trillions and billions are meaningless. It’s how far can you stretch the thousands of dollars you earn each year?
Well that $13 a week tax cut you’re contemplating will quickly disappear at the gas pump if Congress and the adminstration get their way. Fuel prices will rise at the pump and may rise rather dramatically. That’s because that approximately 20 billion you see above will most likely morph into about 400 billion cost to the oil companies during that period:
The industry says the final cost of Mr. Obama’s proposals on petroleum production could top $400 billion, once his plan to put a price on greenhouse-gas emissions is factored in.
The Obama administration has generally justified its proposals by arguing that taxpayers deserve a better deal.
Yeah, I know, “lie” is a strong word. I’ve always considered it to be the knowing telling of a falsehood. And that’s precisely what this “justification” is. The “taxpayer” being talked about isn’t you in this scenario. It’s the government. You will be paying the passed through tax at the pump which the oil companies will then send to DC.
For the seeming millionth time, corporations don’t pay taxes, they collect them and pass them on. Individuals pay taxes.
Last but not least – Raising taxes in recessionary times (not matter how indirect) is a recipe for economic disaster. Additionally such taxes in recessionary times may have the effect of driving jobs offshore where taxes and restrictions are less onerous and seeing oil companies produce less oil and natural gas domestically in a time when there is a growing and increasingly worrisome energy gap.
Not a very bright policy.
This morning on the Opie and Anthony show, Aussie comedian Jim Jeffries was a guest, and he told an amusing story. It seems that he and some fellow comedians were travelling from Perth to Kalgoorlie for some sort comic event. Things went well for a bit, until, about three hours outside of Perth, they ran into an emu. The poor emu didn’t die immediately, and, tragically, had to be dispatched with a large rock. Their car, however, did die, due to radiator damage.
They were stuck in the Australian desert with no transportation. Fortunately, in Australia, they do keep cell towers along the major roads, so Jeff and the boys were able to call a fellow they knew back in Perth, to ask if he could come help them out, and if he did, they’d try to see if they could get him some mike time at the comedy show.
He agreed, and told them he’d be on his way in about an hour.
So, four hours later, Jeff saw his car, coming down the road a couple of miles away. He also saw, anbling slowly towards the road, a large Red Kangaroo. As he watched, the car get closer, he also watched the kangaroo come closer and closer to the road. And in what must have been sort of a horrified fascination, he watched the convergence until BOOM! The car and kangaroo collided.
Fortunately for them, their friend’s car was still driveable after the accident, although the ‘roo was a total write off.
But, the story really encapsulated the way I’ve been feeling watching the economy over the last several months. You can see the elements coming together for some sort of horrible wreck, but there’s not really anything you can do to stop it.
And it looks like the kangaroo is coming closer.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd is moving to allow the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to temporarily borrow as much as $500 billion from the Treasury Department…
Last week, the FDIC proposed raising fees on banks in order to build up its deposit insurance fund, which had just $19 billion at the end of 2008. That idea provoked protests from banks, which said such a burden would worsen their already shaken condition. The Dodd bill, if it becomes law, would represent an alternative source of funding…
The FDIC would be able to borrow as much as $500 billion until the end of 2010 if the FDIC, Fed, Treasury secretary and White House agree such money is warranted. The bill would allow it to borrow $100 billion absent that approval. Currently, its line of credit with the Treasury is $30 billion.
Let’s examine the implications of this. TheFDIC fund is now depleted, and needs to be recharged. Not with $30 billion, but with $500 billion. Banks howled at premiums being increased, saying it could damage their business even further. So now Sec. Geithner, Chmn. Bernanke, and Chmn. Bair are asking for the federal government to open their credit line, which is currently restricted to $30 billion.
Does this mean that the SecTreas, FDIC, and Federal Reserve all believe the FDIC may need to come up with half a trillion dollars to pay back depositors for bank failures? If so, that’s…disturbing.
What do they know about the health of banks that we do not in order to come up with that number? What will the general public do if they figure out the implications of this? How will the markets respond?
Hop. Hop. Hop.
It seems so hard to remember those halcyon days, long ago, when there was some optimism about the country’s economic future. Why, it seems like just last week, when Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was telling us to be cautiously optimistic about the near future.
In his twice-yearly testimony to Congress, Bernanke conceded the economy was undergoing a “severe contraction”, but held out hope of recovery if the White House’s latest bail-out helped to unblock lending to households and businesses.
“Only if that is the case, in my view there is a reasonable prospect that the current recession will end in 2009 and that 2010 will be a year of recovery,” he told the Senate banking committee, adding that healthier global markets would also be essential if the US economy was to return to health.
Some were willing to go even farther, in those happier days of February, 2009. Some chap named Bernard Baumohl of the Economic Outlook Group who seems really to believe that happier days are just around the corner.
“We are not doomed to a lost decade of the sort experienced by Japan in the 1990s,” Mr. Baumohl says. “Nor are we in a depression. We view the drop in GDP in the last quarter, which we may see repeated in magnitude this quarter, [as] symptomatic of a recession in its final convulsive stages, to be followed by a recovery in the second half of the year.”
Oh, wait. That was last week.
This week started off with the S&P 500 dropping another 4.66% today, closing at 700.82, and the Dow off by 4.24% to close at 6,763.29. Well, you can’t slip something like that past the boys at the Dallas Morning News.
“The number 7,000 is not what is important,” said Hugh Johnson, chairman of Illington Advisors in Albany, N.Y. “What is important to everyone is the message that the market is sending us with these losses.”
And that message is that the current recession probably will be longer and more severe than most people expected. For months, the consensus on Wall Street was that the low of 7,500 that the Dow hit in November 2008 would mark the bear market bottom.
Many market analysts predicted that while the Dow would “retest” that low, it would not break through it. They were wrong. The scary thing now is where the Dow and the broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index will make their next stand.
As I’ve mentioned several times, both on the blog, and on the podcast, the historical long-term trend is for the average P/E ratio to drop back to 15. Well, that implies that our equilibrium point is somewhere in the vicinity now of 6,000 on the Dow, and about 620 or so for the S&P. So we’ve still got a ways to go if that historical trend holds true.
Of course, we also have a tendency to drop below an average P/E of 15 as we pull back off the highs, so a 5,000 Dow doesn ‘t seem like an overly pessimistic prediction.
I know I’ve been consistently downbeat on the economy for the last several months, and nothing I’ve seen since I started writing about this in 2007 has changed my mind. I’m not counting on a recovery in 2009, or even in 2010.
Sometimes, a message has to get out there, so that the people who need to hear it can hear it. Often, however, the message can’t be gotten out by presidents, finance ministers, or Fed officials. But, someone has to make the arguments. Samizdata’s Brian Micklethwait takes up the task today.
It needs to be said that under certain circumstances easily now imaginable, many Western citizens would argue, strongly and vocally, that those idiot foreigners who are now lending money to Western governments should in due course be told: sorry sunshine, you ain’t ever going to get it back. Our governments are bankrupt. Why the hell should we and our descendants in perpetuity be paying tribute to you? You knew that the money to pay you back would have to be stolen from us. You assumed we’d just cough up indefinitely. Well, we damn well won’t. You are now a definite part of our problem, and telling you to take a hike is going to be part of our solution. Our thieving class is now “borrowing” money from your thieving class like there is no tomorrow, and we are not responsible for the actions of either gang. A plague on both your houses.
We want you foreign thieves to stop lending to our thieves, now. And the best way for us to convince you that you should indeed stop lending, is to tell you that you are extremely liable never to see most of your money back.
Which has the added virtue of probably, approximately, being true, already.
The last sentence is the real kicker, because it’s beginning to look more like a question of when, rather than if. And, who of course. Of the Western nations, my favored picks, in no particular order, for winning 1st place in the 21st Century Debt repudiation race are, in no particular order: Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal.
Second place will be too close to call.
And you don’t have to couch it in Mr. Micklethwait’s incendiary libertarian rhetoric about their thieves and our thieves. I mean, I agree with it, but the plain fact is that even if you grant that everyone has the best intentions in the world, it still seems that we are very close to a tipping point where it could begin to happen. Bruce wrote about it earlier today.
If one of the Euro Zone nations decide to revert to Lira or Escudos, or whatever, the news that such a deal is in the offing will not only hammer the nation that tries, but anyone else who looks iffy, and, untimately, the Euro itself.
Investors are not going to sit around and wait to have their Euro-denominated paper revalued in Drachma. They’ll immediately start dumping that paper, and moving all the assets they can out of not only the offending nation, but any other country that looks like a weak sister. As the article Bruce quoted notes, “Such a wholesale shift would lead to a collapse in the money supply…” Gee, you think?
Germany, of course, would probably get the lion’s share of that new money, and to avoid a general economic collapse, they’d probably have to dump the Euro, too, and redenominate all that nice cash in Deutschemarks to avoid getting hammered as the rest of the Euro Zone economies collapse. Or, Germany might be the Euro Zone. Maybe France, too. France is more of a hindrance than a help, really, but palling around with the French is the price Germans paid for re-admittance to the human race, after the recent…unpleasantness.
No finance minister can yet say such unpleasant things publicly. But someone needs to to say them, especially since they are starting to sound less and less extreme.
Let me clarify something in the previous post. Some commenters are saying that they don’t understand how government will allow private money to be created, and relinquish the death hold they want to keep on the economy. The short answer is, I don’t think they’ll have a choice. We’ll concentrate on the US here, but keep in mind that the rest of the developed nations are in even worse shape than we are.
What allows the government–any government, but democratic ones in particular–to operate as they do is the consent of the people. Even totalitarian governments have to worry about that, ultimately, although they can keep the lid on for a time, even for a couple of generations. But even totalitarian regimes often run into explosions which topple them, eventually.
But the loss of faith in a liberal, democratic government is the kiss of death for that government. It doesn’t take a full scale revolution. it just takes people to stop cooperating. India was liberated through non-violent action. So was South Africa. nce the people say, “You’re done.” the government is done.
Right now our economic system is built on nothing more than the “full faith and credit” of the US Government. And that will last only as long as we, the people, have faith in it.
Now this particular recession may not be the one that kills that faith. It may be just one of the warning signs of a coming collapse. But a crash is coming, and, I think sooner, rather than later. We cannot continue indefinitely to fund the spending of the richest country on earth with the savings of one of the poorest.
The total debt and future obligation of the US government now exceeds, by a substantial percentage, the total with of the country’s assets. We have a mountain of debt and payment obligations that exceeds our ability to meet, even if we were able to liquidate the entire country.
If we wish to retire those obligations we have essentially two alternatives: We can repudiate them, or we can pay them off through hyperinflation, which, as a practical matter, amounts to the same thing.
For instance, let’s take social security and medicare. We simply don’t have enough money to pay those obligations. We can slash benefits, or eliminate cost of living increases, which is nothing more than repudiating the debt. We can raise the payroll tax to 30% or more, but that will slow economic growth so much that the increase in revenue will be more than offset by the increased unemployment and slower GDP growth that would result, which would make it even more difficult to pay off other obligations, such as Treasury Bonds. Or we can simply print the money, and pay off the paper obligation with money that has signifigantly less purchasing power than the face value of the obligation.
However we go about it, it amounts to a repudiation of all or part of our obliations, and reveals that the government is both faithless and, as investors take note of the repudiation and decide not to buy government paper any more, creditless as well. What paper they have, they will attempt to unload on any idiot stupid enough to take them.
The dollar will collapse to the point that imported goods, even cheap, shoddily made Chinese ones, might as well be made of unobtainium.
The life savings of million upon millions of Americans will evaporate overnight.
There will be serious hardship, and massive unemployment.
That’s the kind of hardship I’m talking about.
So, how much trust will there be in a government who, after all that, comes back and says, “We’ve learned our lesson. Trust us now. It’ll all be different this time.” among a people who’ve watched the government repudiate all of the promises made over the last 70 years?
And how much more will this be true if there is a feasible, private alternative, consisting of hundreds, perhaps thousands of independent sources of money, and credit? One whose reliability can be publicly judged every minute of every day, and which has no coercive power?
It wouldn’t take a revolution to force the government out of the money and economics business. Or the retirement or health care business. All it will take is a lack of trust. Who will want to do business with an entity that has utterly failed to deserve any trust?
The collapse itself will be the revolution.
UPDATE: By the way, the government’s repudiation of its obligations has already begun, in regards to Social Security. If you are in my age cohort or younger, you are not allowed to retire at age 65. Your retirement age is now 72. The government changed the deal. For us, we have to wait an additional 7 years to begin collecting our benefits. Those of us who do not die before age 72, that is.
That wasn’t the deal we had when we started our working lives. The government unilaterally changed the terms of our Social Security compact. They didn’t call it “repudiation” but, that’s certainly what it was.
My first reaction to Pres. Obama’s speech last night was depression. Here were the Democrats giving the president standing O’s for completely converting the Republic into a social democracy. I mentioned that on Facebook, and one of my readers said it reminded him of Amidala’s line from Star Wars Episode III: “So this is how liberty ends…with thunderous applause.”
But on more careful review, I find that I am not, in fact, depressed over the long-term. Indeed, last night’s speech seems to me not to herald the beginning of a new era for big government and socialism, but rather the last gasp of a dying ideology.
We are, I think, at the cusp of a new era, but it isn’t the one that Pres. Obama and his acolytes in the Congress are thinking it is. Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans, it is clear, have any idea about what is happening. Very few people do. I am going to try and explain something very complicated, and do so very simply, and as briefly as I can. So, with the realization that all simplifications are inevitably wrong in some particular, let me explain.
“Ed’s dead, baby. Ed’s dead.”*
We stand now, I think, in a very historically similar position to the one described by Barbara Tuchman, in the beginning chapter of her monumental work on the outbreak of Word War I, The Guns of August:
So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when 9 kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, 3 by 3 the sovereigns rode though the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came 5 heirs apparent, 40 more imperial or royal highnesses, 7 queens, and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented 70 nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled 9 by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.
Four years later, the world order of 1815-1914 was drowned in fire and blood. The Age of Royalty was over, and the Age of Democracy had begun. I believe that Pres. Obama’s speech of last night may very well be the historical equivalent to Edward VII’s funeral.
Ever since it began in late 2007, a blog called Fabius Maximus has been arguing that we are watching the decline and fall–indeed, collapse–of our current economic and financial system. A précis of the argument can be found here, and a more comprehensive archive can be found here. Just as the black-clad crowds lining the streets of the capitol of the British Empire on the morning of May 20, 1910 might have found it inconceivable that their generation would witness the collapse of both the European geopolitical regime, and, ultimately, the British Empire itself, so it may be inconceivable to us that we are witnessing the collapse of the Post-WWII economic and political regime. But I believe it is nevertheless true.
“MONEY! Doesn’t it make you feel good just to say that, Jerry?”
Let me start by explaining what money is. Money is a medium of exchange, that is, it is an object of some kind that I can exchange for goods and service, rather than trying to barter with people to obtain what I need. It may consist of elaborately carved cowry shells, tiny beads painstakingly stitched to strips of leather, round pieces of metal with the image of guys named Julius or Claudius hammered into them, or little pieces of high-quality paper that say “Federal Reserve Note” on them.
But whatever it is, money has certain minimal characteristics. It must be convertible, i.e., if I do a job for you, I have to be willing to accept it as payment, and whoever I buy bread or clothes from has to be willing to accept it in exchange, too. It also has to be difficult to replicate, so that when I accept it, I am reasonably assured that it is the genuine article.
For nearly all of recorded history “money” has been synonymous with gold or silver. And right up till the late 18th century, it was more or les the perfect money. It was intrinsically valuable, in that raw silver or gold was as easily convertible as hammered or minted coins. It was also practically impossible to counterfeit, the best efforts of alchemist to convert dross into gold notwithstanding. It was also relatively rare, and it difficult to obtain new supplies of it without intensive–and extremely expensive–mining operations.
Additionally, there simply wasn’t much to buy. Most people grew their own food, produced their own clothes from flax or wool, and built their own houses by hand. Money was essentially a luxury, and it bought mainly luxury goods for fat cats. Kings could raise and equip armies with it. Merchants could buy nice clothes. But for the most part, money was a tool for use by the rich, and by the relatively few urban dwellers. And, as such, gold or silver was perfect for that level of economic activity.
By the 19th century, though, there were lots more things to buy, and lots more city dwellers, and that trend was increasing rapidly. Hard money became…problematic. The thing about having a hard currency based in gold or silver is that, at the end of the day, whether you run a fully convertible gold standard, or some sort of fractional reserve system, the size of the money supply is always constrained by the amount of gold or silver on hand.
If the economy takes off on a tear, it’s extremely difficult to expand the money supply to meet the demand. When the supply dries up, the economy just shudders to a quick stop, because nobody has enough spare money to fund more expansion. So the economy collapses until it reaches equilibrium with the available money supply, and the cycle starts again. Look at a chart of US economic activity in the 19th century and you see it’s a system of booms and busts, which were far steeper than any we’ve seen since the depression. So the fundamental problem with a gold standard is that it’s relatively inflexible when used by a vibrant, diverse economy. When everybody needs gold, and the demand is unpredictable, gold is very difficult to use unless you’re willing to live with severe booms and busts.
The Great Depression was the death knell for the gold-based world economic system. Those nations that jettisoned gold the fastest, recovered the most. Of course, WWII intervened in the depression, so it took a decade or so to get back to the business of commerce–as opposed to the business of building things to kill Nazis. But, by 1944, everyone–on the Allied side, at least–had recovered enough breathing room to meet at Bretton Woods, NH, and hammer out a new economic system.
What they came up with was a system of fiat currencies, all freely convertible in the FOREX market.
Now, governments could adjust their money supplies appropriately by printing more money or less of it, and taxing their populations more leniently or more severely, as needed. This is the system most of us have grown up with…and it’s dying.
It’s dying because of something innate in human nature that the gold standard was better equipped to deal with: the urge to loot the system.
It’s an urge that has always been there. Sometimes it has been the result of intentional government action to cheapen the currency. If you were, say, the king of Persia, you didn’t need to consult the priests of Ahura Mazda to know that if you changed from using 10 grams of gold per coin, to using only 9 grams per coin, you could stretch your gold supply by 10%. You could then take the extra gold, and buy yourself a nice hat. Or use the extra gold to make one. Whatever.
Of course, people would notice this pretty quickly, and items that used to cost 9 gold pieces would cost 10 pieces–inflation!–but because gold had an intrinsic value, the same weight of gold could be exchanged. It was still pernicious, of course, but because gold had an intrinsic value–and because the supply of gold was relatively inflexible–it wasn’t usually seriously pernicious.
Sometimes, the urge to loot the system has been done by private individuals, who figured out that if they shaved a bit off the edges of their gold pieces, they could accrue enough gold shavings to buy themselves a nice hat, too. This, by the way, is why when we began minting coins instead of hammering them out. They were minted with milled edges, making shaving attempts immediately obvious.
By the 19th century, the looting attempts became widespread, populist movements, like the “Free Silver” movement. At the time, gold was real money. If you took a bunch of gold to a Minting facility, the mint would return you an equal weight in gold coins–minus a nominal minting fee. After huge silver deposits were discovered at places like the Comstock Lode, populist agitation began for minting silver in the same way, at a ratio of 20 ounces of silver for 1 ounce of gold. The massive amount of silver floating around would, of course, have made this an extremely inflationary policy, and the farming and borrowing interests would have benefited by paying off bills for less than they had borrowed…enabling themselves to use the extra saving to buy a nice hat.
But during the First Age of Money, the looting was always constrained by the fact that gold had an intrinsic value, and that the supply of gold was inelastic. There were, therefore built-in constraints to the looting impulse.
When the Bretton Woods Agreement launched the Second Age of Money, it solved the problem of the inelasticity of the money supply, and enabled monetary authorities to fine-tune the money supply in response to economic activity. That was a good thing in the sense that it flattened–although did not eliminate–the business cycle fluctuations.
But the bad thing was that it completely removed any physical restraint on the money supply. It depended on governments and monetary authorities to exercise self-restraint, rather than impersonal, externally imposed constraints. The result has been 65 years of continually expanding credit, more or less constant inflation to a greater or lesser degree, and unrestrained spending and borrowing.
Governments–and their democratic (small “d”) constituencies quickly learned that they could loot the system. Social insurance, medical care, military expansion…whatever the Big Idea of the minute was, we could have it. And if we didn’t want to pay the taxes to the government to pay for it–and, mostly, we didn’t–we could simply borrow it. We could obtain a whole bunch of little green pieces of paper now in exchange for a promise we’d pay back more little green pieces of paper sometime in the future. In the meantime, we could buy all the hats we wanted!
But now, we are obligated to pay back various people about fifty trillion pieces of green paper. Unfortunately, the entire household worth of everyone in the country is worth about forty trillion pieces of green paper.
How can the current economic and financial system possibly be considered solvent at this point? How will re-expanding the cycle of debt re-invigorate it?
No, we’ve had our fun. We got to loot the system for 65 years. Now, the hat bill is coming due.
I suspect we’ll pay the hat bill the same way that Germany repaid their war reparations debt after WWI. “Hey, you remember that reparations bill for 3 billion marks that we’re supposed to pay next week? Yeah. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve sent that order off to the printers, this week, and we should have that printed up for you by Tuesday.”
The result was massive hyperinflation, the collapse of credit, and 5 years of compete economic stagnation, serious economic pain, severe unemployment…and the ability to start over in the mid-20s with a clean balance sheet. Clean enough, in fact, that by 1936 Germany had more or less completely emerged from the Great Depression, while the employment rate in the United States hovered at around 18%.
What Pres. Obama is proposing may result in nothing more than additional spending that helps bring about the collapse of the Post-WWII economic regime, while at the same time providing–temporarily–a social safety net that will provide some help as we pass through a difficult transitional period.
“I was there at the dawn of the Third Age of Mankind…”
OK. Maybe it’s not that grandiose, but I think we are seeing the dawn of the Third Age of Money.
No one in the government realizes how the economic world is changing. So their proposed solutions are likely to be exposed over time as ineffective and, perhaps even counter-productive. The credibility of governments around the world is now invested in staving off an economic collapse. When their failures become evident, and their “solutions” are exposed as fantasies, that credibility will collapse. Who will want to buy government bonds, or use worthless government money? Who will trust the governments who lead us into the economic abyss?
Unfortunately, rather that realizing that we are entering a transition, and trying to discover how to shepherd us through that transition, they are invested in preserving the dying system of government-regulated money supply and credit. And even if they realized that we were in a transitional period, they would still do nothing about it because it would require voluntarily releasing their power over the economy.
Governments have always been in charge of money; determining what money is, how it will be exchanged, how new money will be created, etc. In part, this is traditional, in that only government had the resources and ability to fund and oversee mining and exploration activities, regulate what legal tender consisted of, and all of the other monetary functions. There simply were no other large organizations in existence to perform those tasks.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that organizations began to emerge that could begin performing those tasks, and not until the 18th century that it became practical. Private money of various types began to sprout up everywhere. 18th-century America was, for a time, replete every decent-sized bank issuing its own currency based on deposits.
Eventually, the Federal government cracked down on that private money, not so much from jealousy of the government’s role as the issuer of currency, but because private banks suffered from the same tendency to loot the system, issuing more and more inflated currency until it was worthless, and they ended up wiping out their depositors in the collapse as their obligations came due. There were some solid money banks of course, but the spectacular failures of so many private currency attempts led the government to tax them so heavily that private currency issuance became uneconomic. Governments may not have been perfect, but the constraints of the gold system meant that they didn’t fail as completely and spectacularly as private banks did.
What was missing in private currency of the time, and what has been missing in the current post-WWII financial system is feedback. Yes, there is some, but it takes a long time to filter into the monetary authority, and is derived indirectly from statistics on economic activity, rather than by any sort of direct observation. The Fed raises interest rates today, for instance, and it takes around eight months to observe the indirect effects of the monetary policy change. This is why the role of the Fed, has often been described as steering a car by looking through the rear-view mirror. Based on seeing where you’ve been, you make decisions about where you must go. That may be a form a feedback, but it is so separated in time from the inputs that it’s an inherently unstable system.
By the same token, what killed depositors in banks that issued private money was a lack of feedback. It wasn’t possible to see that bankers were looting the system in time to withdraw your money.
We call this lack of feedback asymmetrical information. We’ve never been able to even approach the ability to have full information about what a bank or government is doing that may affect the money supply, or economic activity as a whole. We’ve never been able to see all sides of the story, as it were. So, we’ve had to more or less leave it in the hands of government, simply because governments have been the only organizations with the size and scope to reduce, even partially, the problem of feedback.
So, it seems pretty hopeless, doesn’t it? The financial world we’ve grown up with is collapsing under the sheer weight of looting. If governments can’t do it, and a return to the gold standard can’t do it, then where are we? At the edge of another dark age?
I foresee the rise of private money once again, and returning in such force as to negate the government’s role in the economy. In fact, the pieces for creating the Third Age of Money are already there.
The Internet will be the platform for the new money. But it’s just the platform; the communications media. The actual objects that make up the Third Age of Money will almost be located in cyberspace.
First, there is encryption. In the not-too-distant future, you will go online with a persona, i.e., an online identity with a unique, highly encrypted digital signature. No more logging in with different user names and passwords at 100 different web sites. Your persona will be uniquely identified as you through the use of 4096-bit or 8192-bit public key encryption. Your persona will be impossible to forge or duplicate. It will be unique. Your “bank” and your “money” will be similarly encrypted.
Second, is your ATM/debit card. It won’t be exactly the same, of course. It will be far more secure, probably through the use of biological identification systems to verify authorization, such as retinal scans. It will be linked directly to your persona’s bank account.
Third, is the ability of all the major banks and credit card companies to do online transactions, and to convert one system of private money to another at a publicly known exchange rate. So, you can pay directly to your account–or withdraw from it–in Discover Dollars, or MasterBucks, or Credit Suisse Francs. Or perhaps there might even be a universally acknowledged unit of currency–the “Credit”–that all the private companies agree to use.
But, the most important element of creating a reliable private money system that is resistant to looting the system is feedback. The reduction of asymmetrical information. And that exists, too. eBay has been using it for years. Indeed, in no small way, the system implemented by eBay may be a key element of our future.
Imagine a system where, every time I do business with your persona, I rate your reliability, and it doesn’t matter of the persona is an individual or a bank…or a government. Every day, millions of people who do transactions in MasterCard can rate the reliability and value of the MasterBucks system. Private companies like Standard and Poors or Moody’s would not only rate MasterBucks, but consumers would rate the reliability of S&P or Moody’s judgments.
And not only are the bank’s persona’s being rated, but your persona is as well, by every one who does business with it.
Put them all together and you have a secure form of private money that’s convertible, impossible to forge, and is subject to constant feedback about its value and performance. Does MasterBucks have too high a debt ratio or too much exposure to non-performing loans at MasterCard? No problem. It’s instantly convertible to Credit Suisse Franks. And the conversion rate lowers MasterBucks reliability ratings even more, signaling the company to correct its course, or lose its depositors.
Think of the implications this has for taxation, especially income taxation. Keep all your money in Credit Suisse Francs, say, and the US government will never even be able to see a record of your deposits or withdrawals. How will they track your income? And who will want to pay governments that failed to prevent the collapse for…well…anything? Who will accede to the demand for money by governments that repudiated their debts, and destroyed the life savings of millions?
I can foresee huge implications for the future that are very pro-liberty. In the long term. In the short term, though, if I’m right, and the current financial system is collapsing we will be in for a very rough decade or so. Very rough indeed.
*Apologies to Quentin Tarantino.
To be blunt about it, this just pisses me off:
GM said it might need as much as $100 billion in financing from the government if it were to go through the traditional bankruptcy process. Rick Wagoner, GM’s chairman and chief executive, said the bankruptcy scenarios are “risky” and “costly” and would only be pursued as a last resort.
Really? Well guess what – it’s even more “risky” and “costly” for the taxpayer to give GM another 100 billion bucks (and further on in the article it is acknowledged that a pre-packaged bankruptcy would cost about 30 billion).
GM claims its going to pare down its working force and model line. But what isn’t clear is how it plans on eliminating the legacy costs which still make it uncompetitive. Anyone know what would require them to confront that issue? That’s right – bankruptcy.
As for Chrysler:
Chrysler’s plan said the company would likely have to file for Chapter 11 protection if it doesn’t get additional loans from the government and concessions from unions, creditors and dealers. It said it would need $24 billion in financing if the company were to file for bankruptcy. But company officials said in a conference call that they believe a Chapter 11 filing is “not necessary” for Chrysler’s survival.
Uh no. Want more money? See Cereberus, the company you belong too and which is sitting on about 150 billion in assests. Let them pick up the tab. If not, see you in bankruptcy court.
This is ridiculous.
In particular, new opposition to further aid for Chrysler seemed to be building on Capitol Hill. In an interview Tuesday, Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) said no more taxpayer money should be given to Chrysler until its majority owner, private-equity firm Cerberus Capital Management LP, agrees to inject more funds into it.
Good. It’s about time this demand was made. What in the world is government doing throwing money at Chrysler when it has an owner with plenty of money? And Cerberus’ answer?
Cerberus said in a statement that it can’t put additional investments into Chrysler because agreements with its investors limit how much it can commit to any single investment. It added Cerberus has agreed to forgo any Chrysler profits before the government loans are repaid.
Tough beans. In that case, Cerberus had better find a way to sell off some of its investments to raise the necessary cash or be prepared to watch Chrysler hit bankruptcy court. Whichever choice it makes, it is not the job of the taxpayer to keep a marginal company afloat. And that’s even more true when that company has private assets upon which it can draw.
But when politicians are in the pain avoidance business, the Constitution is just a piece of paper and whatever they think they need to do to protect their positions of power will be done, regardless of law, principle or morality.
I was sitting here with my two older grandsons and when word came that the bill had been approved by the Senate I said, “congrats boys, you just went about $30,000 into debt tonight”. Of course that spurred an instant response – “What!?”. And then we had a nice little talk.
A bill full of wasteful, unfocused spending with money we don’t have and we’ll be lectured soon about “fiscal responsibility” and “sacrifice” by the profligate yahoos that put this mess together. Can’t wait.