The next economic crisis: financial or real?

A few people are prepping themselves for the next economic crisis and speculating about what will cause it.  This blogger thinks there are several possible causes.  It is about 99.99 per cent certain there will be another crisis.

Even if somebody does make an accurate prediction it will probably do no good because there are so many vested interests there will be no consensus about the cause and about what to do to prevent it.  However, for some of us there is some fun in trying to think out economic problems and we might be able to improve our understanding of economics.  So, here goes.

The possibilities are for the cause to be within the financial system or for the cause to be within the physical or real side of the economy.  As the two are interconnected it may be difficult to determine just what is happening.

Problems within the financial system relate to money. Either there is too much money or not enough.  Ideally the available money supply needs to be just right for the quantity of goods and services exchanged and as this varies it needs to be flexible.  When there is too much money available there is potential for inflation and this is a problem for people with invested savings as they lose some of their purchasing power.  Deflation is a problem for lenders as the money they have loaned out will have less purchasing power when it is returned, if it is returned.

The really serious problem comes when there is not enough money as this curtails economic activity.  Most of the money supply is based on loans made by the financial industry and involves a multiplier.  When the industry has to write off a large quantity of loans, as with the recent subprime housing crisis, the money supply goes down, again with a multiplier effect.  Without money the exchange of goods and services becomes difficult and lots of people lose their jobs. Big time suffering.

Currently it appears there is lots of money floating around the economy.  Lots of firms are reported to have piles of cash on hand and are probably unable to see investment opportunities.

On the real side of the economy, many people assume there are lots of energy and mineral resources available and therefore no physical restraints on the exchange of goods and services.   This may not be true.

A common argument is that as resources are consumed higher prices will bring on a greater supply which happened with oil and lots of minerals.  The problem is that they also require more energy to extract which reduces the energy available for other activities and at some point the value of the energy exceeds the value of the resources.  This blogger figures there are lots of energy and mineral resources available on the earth’s crust,  but the cost of getting them makes them useless.  This could be changed by technology and the decreasing cost of solar energy will make the high cost of oil irrelevant.

Children, workings in a vegetable garden.

However there may be some economic  disruptions in the transition.  How much oil infrastructure will have to be written of and what would that do to the money supply? Also there are all the other minerals for which there are no clear cheap substitutes.

This guy fears the greatest threat to our economic well-being is from resource restrictions on the physical side of the economy.  An even greater threat is that too many people will not see the problem because they analyse problems only in financial terms and will be looking for solutions on the financial side.  Changes in how much money is available or even in the way in which we create money will not add to the resource base or make it cheaper to extract them.

I fear for the future of my grandchildren.

 

 

 

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Recycling is not enough

In this corner of the world recycling is almost universal.  Plastics, glass, metals, compost and drink containers are separated from the rest of the garbage.  Some people also take their own shopping bags to the supermarket.  The exceptions are that we have not mastered the technology of recycling energy and most of us continue to drive a lot

Unfortunately we are still experiencing environmental degradation, inflation and unemployment.  Recycling is not enough.  Its main function is to allow us to feel we are doing something. It allows us to ignore the real issues –  population levels and values.

I believe the most important way in to protect the environment is to reduce the number of people trying to live on this planet.  There are just too many people and I do not like the idea of saying some people should not have the same standard of living as others.  Who is to decide who gets shorted?

I also recognize it is a near impossibility as we cannot tell people not to have sex and not to have children.  What are the consequences of not taking action to reduce the population?  When the Europeans came to North America they brought with them some new diseases and close to 90 per cent of the native population died.  I understand there is some archaeological evidence that there was a similar population reduction in the Mediterranean some millenia ago.  If these precedents hold for us, then there is likely to be one hell of a stench.

We also need to get over our fear of death as so much energy and resources go into prolonging life.  Quite a few years ago The Economist reported that 80 per cent of health care spending is in the last six months of life.  I do not want to go into the 80 per cent and I hope that when my time comes I and those close to me will be able to accept it gracefully.

The other big challenge to protect  the environment deals with values many of which are a part of our committment to economic growth.

According to anthropologist James Suzman who recently published the book Affluence without Abundance, the most successful and long-lasting civilization was that of the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert.  These hunters and gatherers “worked” only ten to 15 hours a week.  As they relocated up to ten times a year they had little interest in material things and their society had high equality.  We cannot all go back to being hunters and gathers but we can choose some of their values and apply them to our daily lives.

If we really want to protect the environment then we should have fewer children, live in place, live a healthy lifestyle, have fewer and smaller toys, drive less, go easy on the travel and work as little as possible.  Recycling may make us feel we are doing something but it is not enough.

 

 

Trade, foreign exchange and big hamburgers

Foreign exchange and trade is hardly a sexy subject and it is one most of us would prefer not to think about. However, when people get excited about globalization or fear their jobs are threatened by trade, then we need to take it seriously.

Foreign exchange involves the financial transactions which go with trade with other countries.  Economics is a social activity and involves relationships even if some are very fleeting.  For any relationship to be satisfactory there needs to be a more or less equal two-way exchange.  This applies to trade with people from other countries.  Trade should be a two-way.

In analysing economic issues it is important to distinguish between physical transactions and financial transactions because sometimes the physical analysis gives a clearer picture than the financial analysis.  If this world had a perfect market economy each physical trade with a foreigner would be matched by a financial transaction.   Changes in prices would reflect changes in supply and demand and would be signals to producers to increase or decrease production or to even stop producing an item. This is true for domestic trade as well as international trade.

As exchange rates are based on supply and demand for currencies, financial only transactions distort the exchange rate and therefore distort prices. Not good.

An interesting approach to foreign exchange is the Big Mac index created by The Economist. I like this because it is based on a physical item, the big mac hamburger,  sold around the world.  If we had international perfect competition and everything were equal a big mac would cost the same in each currency.  The Economist compares the costs at current exchange rates to determine if a currency is over or under valued.

Obviously the world is not equal. Different countries have different values, different resources and different access to energy and mineral resources.

What happens if money is loaned or gifted from one country to another.  If the recipient uses the money to purchase goods or services from the first country, then the money becomes a part of the foreign exchange calculations.   If it is kept in foreign currency reserves,  it is removed from the money supply of the first country until it is used. If the money is exchanged and used to purchase local goods and services, it distorts the exchange rate.  If the money is kept and used to purchase local goods and services, it adds the second country’s money supply and subtracts from that of the first country.

Another complication is that a lot of people speculate about what will happen to the price of one currency in terms of another.  These transactions will be financial only in that they do not match exchanges of goods and services.  It could be that speculation smooths out fluctuations or they could distort prices.  It is hard to know as we do not know which transactions are speculative.  We do know that the volume of foreign exchange trades is massive. This writer suspects that if all financial transactions matched physical trades there would be little fluctuations in exchange rates as changes would take time.

This blogger has spent a lot of time and effort in trying to understand the economics of money, including a degree at the University of British Columbia.  Foreign exchange and trade are difficult probably because there are problems in the way in which we create money.  For more on this please get a free copy of my e-book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy.  One of the problems is that our way of creating money gives some people a lot of power and control over others.  Vested interests are difficult to deal with.

 

 

 

 

 

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