Curiously, as a man of the thirteenth century, I “believe” in the price mechanism. (You know: wheat crop fails, price goes up; too much wheat, price goes down.) As a visitor to the twenty-first, I believe it is no longer working. Nearly one full century into the experiment of unlinking money from things, and linking it to “policy” instead, not one person is left on the whole planet with the fondest idea how our system works.
Some years ago I assembled a little team to study what had gone into the price of a loaf of bread. We had to give up. It was too complicated. Bread was officially “untaxed” in the jurisdiction; yet about the only thing we could establish with any confidence, after looking through the production process, was that more than half the price was cumulative direct and indirect taxes.
David Warren, “Deflationary asides”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-01-27.
July 29, 2016
March 28, 2016
One of the most thorough and meticulously documented accounts of the Fed’s inflationary actions prior to 1929 is America’s Great Depression by the late Murray Rothbard. Using a broad measure that includes currency, demand and time deposits, and other ingredients, Rothbard estimated that the Federal Reserve expanded the money supply by more than 60 percent from mid-1921 to mid-1929. The flood of easy money drove interest rates down, pushed the stock market to dizzy heights, and gave birth to the “Roaring Twenties.” Some economists miss this because they look at measures of the “price level,” which didn’t change much. But easy money distorts relative prices, which in turn fosters unsustainable conditions in certain sectors.
By early 1929, the Federal Reserve was taking the punch away from the party. It choked off the money supply, raised interest rates, and for the next three years presided over a money supply that shrank by 30 percent. This deflation following the inflation wrenched the economy from tremendous boom to colossal bust.
The “smart” money — the Bernard Baruchs and the Joseph Kennedys who watched things like money supply — saw that the party was coming to an end before most other Americans did. Baruch actually began selling stocks and buying bonds and gold as early as 1928; Kennedy did likewise, commenting, “only a fool holds out for the top dollar.”
When the masses of investors eventually sensed the change in Fed policy, the stampede was underway. The stock market, after nearly two months of moderate decline, plunged on “Black Thursday” — October 24, 1929 — as the pessimistic view of large and knowledgeable investors spread.
The stock market crash was only a symptom — not the cause — of the Great Depression: the market rose and fell in near synchronization with what the Fed was doing. If this crash had been like previous ones, the subsequent hard times might have ended in a year or two. But unprecedented political bungling instead prolonged the misery for twelve long years.
Lawrence W. Reed, “The Great Depression was a Calamity of Unfettered Capitalism”, The Freeman, 2014-11-28.
May 25, 2015
Deflation occurs when there is not enough currency in circulation to meet the needs of the economy. Here again, the classical definition focuses on falling prices rather than an insufficient currency stock, but deflation is primarily a monetary phenomenon.
It is the economic version of anemia: too little blood is reaching the body. Each unit of the currency goes up in value relative to the goods and services available, but because the stock of currency isn’t growing fast enough, it starves the economy of investment capital. There isn’t enough money to build out existing business, to create new ones, or to hire new workers. (This is in part what happened during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.) Inventories shrink, but new goods aren’t being produced due to the lack of investment capital. Eventually the economy grinds to a halt as production withers away.
Specie currencies are more prone to deflation than fiat currencies for the simple reason that fiat currencies are not based on scarce (and thus valuable) resources like gold, silver, or what have you. There’s only so much gold and silver to go around, and sometimes the supply of bullion can be interrupted for long periods. (Sometimes this is even done deliberately by rival nations or speculators.) Also, because the value of gold and silver is set outside the control of government or authority issuing the currency, it limits the kinds of monetary policy the sovereign can conduct, especially during times of crisis.
Monty, “Inflation, Deflation, and Monetary Policy”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-07-11.
May 18, 2015
Inflation is a phenomenon that occurs when the value of a given unit of currency becomes debased in some way, and prices then rise to offset the currency’s loss in value. The standard definition of inflation is given in terms of rising prices rather than falling currency value, but that’s misleading. The value of goods and service don’t increase so much as the currency’s value relative to those goods and services decreases, so inflation is more of a monetary phenomenon than a market-price phenomenon.
The more the currency loses value, the higher prices denominated in that currency rise. The classical example of hyperinflation is the 1921-1924 hyperinflation in Weimar-era Germany, though in modern times Zimbabwe’s currency has undergone the same radical devaluation.
What causes a currency to become devalued? There are many causes. With specie currency like gold and silver coins, debasement is usually physical — in former times coins were “shaved” or “clipped” or adulterated with baser metals. The clippings could then be melted down and recast into new coins, but the clipped coin could still be passed off at full value (until the merchants got wise and started weighing and/or assaying the coins). This is why coins began to have milled edges — it made the practice of clipping easier to spot. A variant of the “shaving” debasement strategy is one carried out by the treasury or mint itself: reducing the amount of gold or silver in a coin, but leaving the face-value of the coin the same. This happened often to the Roman denarii — as the Imperial stocks of silver bullion waned, each coin was reduced in weight but mandated to retain the same value. (In modern fiat-money times, coins are generally manufactured out of base metals like nickel, tin, and zinc, but even so, the value of the metal is sometimes still higher than the face-value of the coin.)
In a fiat money regime, debasement is usually the result of creating too much currency for the economy to absorb. If the money supply exceeds some thresh-hold (it’s very complicated to figure out exactly what that thresh-hold is), you have more units of currency chasing the same amount of goods and services — which means that the real unit value of the currency will drop and prices will go up.
Another way a fiat currency can become debased is to arbitrarily re-value your currency relative to the market, or relative to other currencies. If an issuing authority declares the value of a quatloo to be three quatloos to a dollar, even if the market is trading at five quatloos to a dollar, the currency will be debased because it’s not actually worth what the issuing authority says it is. Prices go up, and the government usually responds by implementing price-controls, and in turn the goods and services simply become unobtainable at any price because producers won’t continue to produce at a loss.
No good or service has an absolute value. The value of a good or service is what someone is willing to pay for it. Currency is a specialized good, and is subject to the same law. If the stock of currency grows faster than the value represented by that currency in the wider economy, the currency is in an inflationary state.
Monty, “Inflation, Deflation, and Monetary Policy”, Ace of Spades HQ, 2014-07-11.
January 23, 2015
At Worthwhile Canadian Initiative, Nick Rowe explains just how important Milton Friedman still is in economics today:
I can’t think of any economist living today who has had as much influence on economics and economic policy as Milton Friedman had, and still has. Neither on the right, nor on the left.
If you had a time machine, went back to (say) 1985, picked up Milton Friedman, brought him forward to 2015, and showed him the current debate over macroeconomic policy, he could immediately join right in. Is there anything important that would be really new to him?
We are all Friedman’s children and grandchildren. The way that New Keynesians approach macroeconomics owes more to Friedman than to Keynes: the permanent income hypothesis; the expectations-augmented Phillips Curve; the idea that the central bank is responsible for inflation and should follow a transparent rule. The first two Friedman invented; the third pre-dates Friedman, but he persuaded us it was right. Using the nominal interest rate as the monetary policy instrument is non-Friedmanite, but the new-fangled “Quantitative Easing” is just a silly new name for Friedmanite base-control.
We easily forget how daft the 1970’s really were, and some ideas were much worse than pet rocks. (Marxism was by far the worst, of course, and had a lot of support amongst university intellectuals, though not much in economics departments.) When inflation was too high, and we wanted to bring inflation down, many (most?) macroeconomists advocated direct controls on prices and wages. And governments in Canada, the US, the UK (there must have been more) actually implemented direct controls on prices and wages to bring inflation down. Milton Friedman actually had to argue against price and wage controls and against the prevailing wisdom that inflation was caused by monopoly power, monopoly unions, a grab-bag of sociological factors, and had nothing to do with monetary policy.
December 3, 2014
Money is a symbolic system, the purpose of which is to facilitate exchange and to act as a recordkeeping technology. That money is so very important to our everyday lives and yet has no real connection with physical reality is the source of many apparent paradoxes and contradictions. These are the best of times, these are the worst of times.
Measured by money, things look relatively grim for the American middle class and the poor. Men’s inflation-adjusted average wages peaked in 1973, and inflation-adjusted household incomes for much of the middle class have shown little or no growth in some time. The incomes of those at the top of the distribution (which is not composed of a stable group of individuals, political rhetoric notwithstanding) continue to pull away from those in the middle and those at the bottom. The difference between a CEO’s compensation and the average worker’s compensation continues to grow.
But much of that is written into the code. If, for example, you measure inequality by comparing the number of dollars it takes to land at a certain income percentile, with a hard floor on the low end (that being $0.00 per year in wages) but no ceiling on the top end, and if you have growth in the economy, then it is a mathematical inevitability that incomes at the top will continue to pull away from incomes at the bottom, for the same reason that any point on the surface of a balloon will get farther and farther away from the imaginary fixed point at its center as the balloon is inflated. This will be the case whether you have the public policies of Singapore or Sweden, and indeed it is the case in both Singapore and Sweden.
Purely symbolic systems are easy to manipulate, which is why any two economists can take the same set of well-documented economic data and derive from it diametrically opposed conclusions.
With economic models, we are a little like Neo in The Matrix, before he takes the red pill: We are not in the real world, but in a simulacrum of it, one that has rules, but rules that can be manipulated by those who understand the code. Economic models and analysis are very useful, but it’s worth taking the occasional red-pill tour, leaving behind the world of pure symbolism and taking a look at the physical economy.
Welcome to the paradise of the real.
Kevin D. Williamson, “Welcome to the Paradise of the Real: How to refute progressive fantasies — or, a red-pill economics”, National Review, 2014-04-24
November 12, 2014
Banking is a service, […] and a service has a cost associated with it. Modern banking has all kinds of fees and charges associated with it. But depositors are often charged for keeping too low a balance in their savings or checking accounts, not too large a balance. What’s going on here?
Central banks have created this monster via the regimen of ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy). This is a way of implementing Keynesian stimulus, but central banks have run up against the liquidity-trap wall: interest rates cannot fall below zero. Monetary policy stops working at the zero-interest boundary.
For central banks, the problem is that in a slow-growth economy (or actually a recessive one) a paradox arises where rational behavior on the part of savers leads to bad results: consumers save their money out of concern for the future, but the economy — starved of the cash that fuels it — slows still further. This is the argument behind Keynesian stimulus; inject more (newly-printed) money into the economy until people stop being scared and start spending freely again (with their own money and borrowed money). The danger of inflation looms, however, so central banks try to implement various regimes to keep it under control (with varying degrees of success).
This theory founders on the shoals of reality, alas. It’s rational for people to save money, particularly during bad times, because people believe their currency stock to be an appreciating (or at least a constant-value) asset. But when a sovereign inflates (devalues) its currency to solve a short term economic problem, they run the risk of damaging confidence in the currency itself. Inflation may inject some nitrous oxide into the engine of the economy for a short time, but the outcome may be a blown engine (i.e., a ruined currency, as it was during the Weimar era).
When people lose trust in a fiat currency, it’s nearly impossible to restore confidence in it. Trust is all a fiat currency has — without trust, fiat currency is just worthless paper. This is really the core of the sound-money argument: deflation is bad because it can stall an economy and make debt servicing murderously difficult, but inflation is worse because it wrecks the currency itself. Hard-money currency regimes may be somewhat prone to deflationary cycles, but at least they never go to zero value; they always retain some value. Fiat currencies can go to zero.
Monty, “DOOM: The Wrath of Draghi”, Ace of Spades H.Q., 2014-11-06.
April 5, 2014
Stu Burguiere looks at the remarkable increase in higher grades handed out at US universities:
I never went to college so I missed out on all the keg parties and, apparently, a surplus of good grades.
Contrary to the concept of school as you knew it growing up, A’s are pretty easy to come by these days. In fact the only thing you have to work really hard to get are D’s and F’s. In college today, an A is over four times as common as a D or an F combined.
It’s a drastic change from the 15% of students who received A’s in 1960.
The pool is a little higher today. Ok, it’s a lot higher. If you look at this chart you’ll see that 43% of all letter grades given today are A’s.
And this sort of makes sense if you think about it. No one wants to pay $40,000 a year to hear that they’re dumb.
College is one of the rare businesses in which you pay them and at the end of the experience they tell you how well they did. If you’re a parent and you send your kids to school and they get A’s you feel good about the purchase. But if your kids get F’s you feel like they wasted your money.
And amazingly these institutions of higher learning, that do little other than indoctrinate kids against the evils of capitalism, sure do understand incentives.
February 24, 2014
The Argentine government has announced it will be increasing spending on their armed forces by a third in the coming year. While this report in the Daily Express takes it seriously, it fails to account for the overall sorry state of the Argentinian economy … it’s not clear if there’s any actual money to be allocated to the military:
Buenos Aires will acquire military hardware including fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft weapons and specialised radar, as well as beefing up its special forces.
The news comes months before drilling for oil begins in earnest off the Falkland Islands, provoking Argentina’s struggling President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
Last month she created a new cabinet post of Secretary for the Malvinas, her country’s name for the Falklands.
Meanwhile, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has refused to confirm that Britain would retake the Falklands if they were overrun by enemy forces.
The extra cash means Argentina will increase defence spending by 33.4 per cent this year, the biggest rise in its history. It will include £750million for 32 procurement and modernisation programmes.
They will include medium tanks and transport aircraft and the refurbishment of warships and submarines. The shopping list also includes Israeli air defence systems, naval assault craft, rocket systems, helicopters and a drone project.
As reported earlier this month, the economy is suffering from an inflation rate estimated to be in the 70% range, the government has expropriated private pensions and foreign-owned companies, and is unable to borrow significant amounts of money internationally due to their 2002 debt default. Announcing extra money for the military may well be the economic version of Baghdad Bob’s sabre-rattling press conferences … just for show.
On the other hand, military adventurism is a hallowed tradition for authoritarian regimes to tamp down domestic criticism and rally public opinion. Being seen to threaten the British in the Falkland Islands still polls well in Buenos Aires.
February 1, 2014
In Forbes, Ian Vasquez looks at the plight of the Argentine economy:
Argentina’s luck is finally starting to run out. It devalued its currency by 15 percent last week, marking the beginning of a possible economic crisis of the kind Argentina has become known for. Argentina’s problem is that it has followed the logic of populism for more than a decade and President Cristina Kirchner is showing no interest in changing course.
In the 1990s Argentina combined far-reaching but sometimes flawed market-reforms with irresponsible fiscal policies, culminating in its 2002 default on $81 billion in debt — the largest sovereign default in history. The country delinked its currency from the dollar, experienced a severe economic crisis, and initiated its current period of populist politics.
Those policies included price controls on domestic energy, reneging on contracts with foreign companies, export taxes, more pubic sector employment and vastly increased spending. When you don’t pay massive debts, you get temporary breathing room, so growth resumed. High commodity prices and low global interest rates that lifted demand for Argentine exports also helped produce Argentine growth.
But the government’s appetite has consistently grown faster, and, with little ability to borrow abroad, it has turned to other sources of finance. In 2008, Kirchner nationalized private pension funds worth some $30 billion, and has since nationalized an airline and a major oil company. As it drew down reserves, the government turned to printing money to finance itself, falsifying the inflation rate it says is about 11 percent, but which independent analysts put at about 28 percent. Economist Steve Hanke estimates it is much higher at 74 percent
September 17, 2013
Tyler Cowen wraps up the rise and fall of “right” and “left” economics in the US since the 1960s:
Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s, the so-called “right wing” was right about virtually everything on the economic front. Most of all communism, but also inflation, taxes, (most of) deregulation, labor unions, and much more, noting that a big chunk of the right wing blew it on race and some other social issues. The Friedmanite wing of the right nailed it on floating exchange rates.
Arguably the “rightness of the right” peaks around 1989, with the collapse of communism. After that, the right wing starts to lose its way.
Up through that time, market-oriented economists have more interesting research, more innovative journals, and much else to their credit, culminating in the persona and career of Milton Friedman.
I’ve never heard tales of Paul Samuelson’s MIT colleagues mocking him for his pronouncements on Soviet economic growth. I suspect they didn’t.
Starting in the early 1990s, the left wing is better equipped, more scholarly, and also more fun to read. (What exactly turned them around?) In the 1990s, the Quarterly Journal of Economics is suddenly more interesting and ultimately more influential than the Journal of Political Economy, even though the latter retained a higher academic ranking. The right loses track of what its issues ought to be. There is no real heir to the legacy of Milton Friedman.
August 14, 2013
It’s been a while since I reminded everyone that the official Chinese government statistics can’t be trusted. Here’s Zero Hedge on the same topic:
How Badly Flawed Is Chinese Economic Data? The Opening Bid is $1 Trillion
Baseline Chinese economic data is unreliable. Taking published National Bureau of Statistics China data on the components of consumer price inflation, I attempt to reconcile the official data to third party data. Three problems are apparent in official NBSC data on inflation.
First, the base data on housing price inflation is manipulated. According to the NBSC, urban private housing occupants enjoyed a total price increase of only 6% between 2000 and 2011.
Second, while renters faced cumulative price increases in excess of 50% during the same period, the NBSC classifies most Chinese households has private housing occupants making them subject to the significantly lower inflation rate.
Third, despite beginning in the year 2000 with nearly two-thirds of Chinese households in rural areas, the NSBC applies a straight 80/20 urban/rural private housing weighting throughout our time sample. This further skews the accuracy of the final data.
To correct for these manipulative practices, I use third party and related NBSC data to better estimate the change in consumer prices in China between 2000 and 2011.
I find that using conservative assumptions about price increases the annual CPI in China by approximately 1%.
This reduces real Chinese GDP by 8-12% or more than $1 trillion in PPP terms.
July 23, 2013
Simon Black contradicts the media narrative that Iceland has “recovered” from the melt-down of their banking sector:
It was a spectacular collapse. And the first of many. Ireland, Greece, Cyprus, etc. were soon to follow.
Yet unlike the bankrupt countries of southern Europe, Iceland dealt with its economic emergency in a completely different way.
Politicians here are proud that they never resorted to austere budget cuts that are so prevalent in Europe.
They imposed capital controls. They let the banks fail. And, as is so commonly trumpeted in the press, they ‘jailed their bankers and bailed out their people.’
Today, Iceland is held up as the model of recovery. Famous economists like Paul Krugman praise the government for rapidly rebuilding the economy without having to resort to austerity.
This morning’s headline from The Telegraph newspaper sums it up: “Iceland has taken its medicine and is off the critical list”.
It turns out, most of these claims are dead wrong.
Meanwhile, the government ended up taking on massive amounts of debt in order to bail out the biggest bank of all – Iceland’s CENTRAL BANK.
This was a bit different than the way things played out in the US and Europe.
In the US, the Fed conjures money out of thin air and funnels it to the government.
In Iceland, since the Kronor is not a global reserve currency, the government had to go into debt in order to funnel money to the Central Bank, all so that the currency wouldn’t collapse.
As a result, Iceland’s state debt tripled, almost overnight, in 2008. And from 2007 until now, it has increased nearly 5-fold.
Today, the government is spending a back-breaking 17.3% of its tax revenue just to pay interest on the debt.
And this is real interest, too. Iceland’s central bank owns very little of the government debt. The rest is owed to foreign creditors… putting the country in an extremely difficult financial position.
At the end of the day, the Icelandic people are responsible for this. They were never bailed out. They were stuck with the bill.
Meanwhile, although unemployment in Iceland is low, wages are even lower. And the weak currency has brought on double-digit inflation.
So while people do have jobs, they can hardly afford anything.
This is most prevalent in the housing market, most of which is underwater. Interest rates have jumped so much that many Icelanders are now on negative amortization schedules, i.e. their mortgage balances are actually INCREASING with each payment.
July 13, 2013
The official US inflation rate is around 1% annually. That doesn’t seem quite right to a lot of people who seem to be spending more money for the same goods:
… what Bernanke will never admit is that the official inflation rate is a total sham. The way that inflation is calculated has changed more than 20 times since 1978, and each time it has been changed the goal has been to make it appear to be lower than it actually is.
If the rate of inflation was still calculated the way that it was back in 1980, it would be about 8 percent right now and everyone would be screaming about the fact that inflation is way too high.
But instead, Bernanke can get away with claiming that inflation is “too low” because the official government numbers back him up.
Of course many of us already know that inflation is out of control without even looking at any numbers. We are spending a lot more on the things that we buy on a regular basis than we used to.
For example, when Barack Obama first entered the White House, the average price of a gallon of gasoline was $1.84. Today, the average price of a gallon of gasoline has nearly doubled. It is currently sitting at $3.49, but when I filled up my vehicle yesterday I paid nearly $4.00 a gallon.
And of course the price of gasoline influences the price of almost every product in the entire country, since almost everything that we buy has to be transported in some manner.
But that is just one example.
Our monthly bills also seem to keep growing at a very brisk pace.
Electricity bills in the United States have risen faster than the overall rate of inflation for five years in a row, and according to USA Today water bills have actually tripled over the past 12 years in some areas of the country.
No inflation there, eh?
July 9, 2013
In yesterday’s “Morning Jolt” email, Jim Geraghty made some sport of a New York Times article by James Atlas:
The comments section underneath the article raises the fairly glaring point that Atlas’s rose-colored memories of flying before these harsh Darwinist times (probably to be blamed on Republicans) ignore the fact that once you adjust for inflation, air travel is a lot more accessible to a lot more people today. In the “golden age” of attractive stewardesses that he romanticizes, flying was too expensive for most of middle-class America.
Come on. Look at the prices (adjusted for inflation) of air travel back in the 60s that you so glorify. In 1972 it cost me about $350 round-trip to fly from Atlanta to Chicago to go to college (so usually I took Greyhound). According to online inflation calculators, that’s the equivalent of $1950 today. If we want the same level of service we got in the 60s and 70s, we’d need to pay equivalent prices. Airline travel in “economy” today is pretty much analogous to what bus travel was in the 70s; cheap enough that many people can afford it but dirty, uncomfortable, crowded, and miserable. Comfortable travel is available now, as it was then, to the more well-to-do — if you can afford to pay for first class, then your flight is far more tolerable than if you’re in economy. In 1972, the one time I flew, it was a lot more enjoyable than taking the bus. But then, as now, one got what one paid for. We expect airfares to be rock-bottom low and accessible to all — but we can’t then expect service levels to match what they would be if the airlines still charged the prices they used to charge.
I would note that higher-end air travel is one of those rare products where a large portion of the consumer base isn’t spending their own money. (How many business class or first-class passengers bought those tickets with personal funds, as opposed to having their employer pay for it?) When it’s somebody else’s money, hey, anything goes, or at least as much as you can get away with. (Of course, that’s at other employers. For the transatlantic flights for the Norway cruise, Jack Fowler has booked me a space in an overhead luggage rack.)
If everyone paid out of his own pocket, those passengers willing to pay $659 to $2,337 for a one-way first-class ticket from D.C. to Los Angeles nonstop would largely disappear. But those folks willing to pay those exorbitant costs — really, those companies willing to pay those costs for their employees — are what make the (relatively) cheap price of $234 for the same flight in coach possible. (I got those figures from plugging in a flight from D.C. to LA with one week’s notice into Expedia.)
Also … did no editor at the Times think it was bad timing to run a column complaining about insufficient legroom and stale ham sandwiches right after the crash at San Francisco airport?