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As an economist, it is getting more difficult to understand the logic underlying current monetary policy in the U.S. There are two main channels by which economists think monetary policy can influence growth and employment. The first is to lower interest rates to spur investment and consumption spending. The second is to induce inflation so real wages drop, spurring output and employment.
Since 2008, the central bank has reduced interest rates to almost zero with little to show for it. You can bring a horse to water in a trough, pond, or lake, but you cannot make him drink. Most of the added liquidity has found its way into excess reserves. Banks are not lending because they have few creditworthy customers who want to borrow. The household sector is still deleveraging and has less appetite for more debt, and the business sector is careful about making future investments in a financial and economic environment on unstable footing. Businesses are keenly aware of the malinvestments never cleaned up after the last bubble and of the price distortions of current monetary policy. Why would businesses stick their necks out if they suspect a painful adjustment is around the corner?
Since the first channel has failed, only the second channel remains. Economists are generally in agreement, however, that there is no long-run trade-off between inflation and unemployment. The Keynesians and monetarists believe that there may be a short-run trade-off. If people have adaptive expectations, (based on the recent past) then monetary policy that creates inflation will reduce unemployment by lowering a worker’s real wages. Of course, once a worker realizes he has been fooled, he will demand an increase in nominal wages to bring his real wages back up to previous levels. The gain in employment is only temporary. If, instead, people base their expectations rationally and are not fooled, the neo-classical position, there is no short- or long-run trade-offs between inflation and unemployment.
In a capitalist economy, relative prices play a crucial role in sending information to producers about what society wants. When one price goes up and another goes down, these are signals that tell producers to make more of the first good and less of the second. It is a complex system of signals with price changes reflecting the urgency of the needs within the reality of the law of scarcity. The most important aspect of a price system is the information it conveys to guide production.
Inflation causes an “information extraction” problem. When all prices are going up by different degrees, it is very difficult for an entrepreneur to distinguish between a relative and an absolute price change. Is a rising price a reflection of greater demand or inflationary pressure? That is, does it reflect a society’s changing needs or simply reflects a changed measuring stick (i.e., the value of money)? The same information extraction problem holds true with the prices of resources and labor. We have different labor markets with a wage gradient established along the production process. The printing of money interferes with this wage gradient and the information it conveys about the right proportion of capital and consumption goods to produce. Overall employment may initially improve but the gain is not worth the cost from the adjustment that must occur once the printing stops.
Looking at historical evidence, inflation leads to higher, not lower, unemployment. This should not be surprising. Inflation is like a wrench thrown into the workings of a capitalist system.
If economists agree that there is no long-term trade-off between inflation and unemployment, and the current Fed strategy to lower interest rates has failed miserably to boost growth, then we must ask, why is the Fed, even after this week’s taper, in effect printing $75 billion a month? It’s likely the goal is to induce inflation for a short-term gain in employment. Things are no better if the Fed’s strategy is to raise asset prices to induce an imaginary wealth effect. Yet multiple bubbles may pop before any wealth effect takes place. The Fed should not be playing the economy as a stake in a poker game.
Through multiple bubbles, Alan Greenspan’s monetary policy was responsible for massive human suffering worldwide. Yet Greenspan is living high on the hog with a comfy government pension, spending his spare time penning op-ed articles and dispensing his expert advice on the lecture circuit. He informs us that he was only human and that no one saw the bubble coming. This is less than ingenuous. If you play with fire, and you burn down the forest, it is criminal to say “I did not realize that playing with matches was dangerous.” The sad situation is that we recently replaced him with even bigger arsonists!
One can be certain that interest rates will shoot up once inflation picks up. Since most of the U.S. debt is short term, it is going to be very difficult to inflate prices to reduce the real value of the debt. How will the U.S. government react if it has to refinance at interest rates of 12 percent or more, like in 1981? Yellen is no Volker; will she be able to tame the inflation beast as Volcker did? The independent German central bank was powerless to stop the German government from using the printing presses during 1921-23.
Napoleon and Hitler, both responsible for millions of deaths, rode to power on a wave of discontent that followed periods of excessive monetary printing. Why are we taking such risks?
Still unnoticed by a large part of the population is that we have been living through a period of relative impoverishment. Money has been squandered in welfare spending, bailing out banks or even — as in Europe — of fellow governments. But many people still do not feel the pain.
However, malinvestments have destroyed an immense amount of real wealth. Government spending for welfare programs and military ventures has caused increasing public debts and deficits in the Western world. These debts will never be paid back in real terms.
The welfare-warfare state is the biggest malinvestment today. It does not satisfy the preferences of freely interacting individuals and would be liquidated immediately if it were not continuously propped up by taxpayer money collected under the threat of violence.
Another source of malinvestment has been the business cycle triggered by the credit expansion of the semi-public fractional reserve banking system. After the financial crisis of 2008, malinvestments were only partially liquidated. The investors that had financed the malinvestments such as overextended car producers and mortgage lenders were bailed out by governments; be it directly through capital infusions or indirectly through subsidies and public works. The bursting of the housing bubble caused losses for the banking system, but the banking system did not assume these losses in full because it was bailed out by governments worldwide. Consequently, bad debts were shifted from the private to the public sector, but they did not disappear. In time, new bad debts were created through an increase in public welfare spending such as unemployment benefits and a myriad of “stimulus” programs. Government debt exploded.
In other words, the losses resulting from the malinvestments of the past cycle have been shifted to an important degree onto the balance sheets of governments and their central banks. Neither the original investors, nor bank shareholders, nor bank creditors, nor holders of public debt have assumed these losses. Shifting bad debts around cannot recreate the lost wealth, however, and the debt remains.
To illustrate, let us consider Robinson Crusoe and the younger Friday on their island. Robinson works hard for decades and saves for retirement. He invests in bonds issued by Friday. Friday invests in a project. He starts constructing a fishing boat that will produce enough fish to feed both of them when Robinson retires and stops working.
At retirement Robinson wants to start consuming his capital. He wants to sell his bonds and buy goods (the fish) that Friday produces. But the plan will not work if the capital has been squandered in malinvestments. Friday may be unable to pay back the bonds in real terms, because he simply has consumed Robinson’s savings without working or because the investment project financed with Robinson’s savings has failed.
For instance, imagine that the boat is constructed badly and sinks; or that Friday never builds the boat because he prefers partying. The wealth that Robinson thought to own is simply not there. Of course, for some time Robinson may maintain the illusion that he is wealthy. In fact, he still owns the bonds.
Let us imagine that there is a government with its central bank on the island. To “fix” the situation, the island’s government buys and nationalizes Friday’s failed company (and the sunken boat). Or the government could bail Friday out by transferring money to him through the issuance of new government debt that is bought by the central bank. Friday may then pay back Robinson with newly printed money. Alternatively the central banks may also just print paper money to buy the bonds directly from Robinson. The bad assets (represented by the bonds) are shifted onto the balance sheet of the central bank or the government.
As a consequence, Robinson Crusoe may have the illusion that he is still rich because he owns government bonds, paper money, or the bonds issued by a nationalized or subsidized company. In a similar way, people feel rich today because they own savings accounts, government bonds, mutual funds, or a life insurance policy (with the banks, the funds, and the life insurance companies being heavily invested in government bonds). However, the wealth destruction (the sinking of the boat) cannot be undone. At the end of the day, Robinson cannot eat the bonds, paper, or other entitlements he owns. There is simply no real wealth backing them. No one is actually catching fish, so there will simply not be enough fishes to feed both Robinson and Friday.
Something similar is true today. Many people believe they own real wealth that does not exist. Their capital has been squandered by government malinvestments directly and indirectly. Governments have spent resources in welfare programs and have issued promises for public pension schemes; they have bailed out companies by creating artificial markets, through subsidies or capital injections. Government debt has exploded.
Many people believe the paper wealth they own in the form of government bonds, investment funds, insurance policies, bank deposits, and entitlements will provide them with nice sunset years. However, at retirement they will only be able to consume what is produced by the real economy. But the economy’s real production capacity has been severely distorted and reduced by government intervention. The paper wealth is backed to a great extent by hot air. The ongoing transfer of bad debts onto the balance sheets of governments and central banks cannot undo the destruction of wealth. Savers and pensioners will at some point find out that the real value of their wealth is much less than they expected. In which way, exactly, the illusion will be destroyed remains to be seen.
If we are not yet at Peak Debt, we are getting close, and that means we are also getting close to Peak Government.
Have we reached Peak Government? That is, a structural point beyond which government can no longer grow sustainably?
To help answer the question, I’ve assembled charts of the foundations of growth: population, gross domestic product (GDP), private employment and output per person (i.e. productivity). These have grown 28%, 75%, 28% and 58% respectively. (I have used 1990 as a baseline, as the past 23 years gives us a reasonably accurate clue as to the long-term trendlines of the current economy.)
In other words, if growth depended entirely on population growth, the real (inflation-adjusted) economy would have grown 28% since 1990. Instead, the GDP rose by 75%. This is the result of rising output per person, i.e. an increase in productivity.
- Want to see what’s ahead for America’s young? Pay attention to what’s already happened in Japan (dangerousminds.net)
- Population growth increases climate fear (sfgate.com)
- The Government Shutdown Looms: A Q&A On What Happens Next (financialsurvivalnetwork.com)