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.

 

 

 

 

 

Retirement, the future and The Economist

The editors and writers of The Economist news magazine must be ageing and not seeing things too clearly.  That is my conclusion after reading their recent special report on the future of elderly people.  Another option is that my view of the future is incorrect.  The Economist is much more optimistic than I am, I hope they are correct.

I disagree with them on three issues – the future of the economy, the work ethic and financial issues.

Most of their readers probably have a vested interest in continued economic growth and to prosper the magazine needs to support this. And they do.

This blogger figures the current economic problems are related to energy and mineral resources.  We have used up the most accessible of these and those which are left take so much energy to extract they are worthless.  If this is correct the outlook for the future is rather grim.  We can anticipate a lot of human suffering as we have to adapt to a down economy.  So far retirees have largely been exempt from this but our time may be coming. Trump, Brexit, Saunders, Corbyn and Macron could all be symptoms of this problem.  Lots of people recognize something is not right but do not know what it is.

In recent years The Economist has come up with a number of cute cures for the economic crisis.  This time we are going to save ourselves by getting people to work further into old age.  This commitment to the work ethic may be good for those whose fortunes and status depend upon getting other people to work for them but if the above analysis is correct increasing economic activity will use up more energy and resources and bring forward the timing of a complete economic collapse.  Rather than promoting the work ethic we need to be pushing a leisure ethic  in which people get their self identity from doing non economic things such as music, theatre, art or writing a weblog on economics. The Economist talks about a longevity dividend.  Should this dividend be more work or more leisure?

One of the features of money is that it gives a person control over resources.  Financial obligations left over from the era of prosperity mean some older people have a greater  command over current resources than the young.  Older people are going on luxury cruises in which a waiter from a third world country puts the pepper on their food while their grandchildren are struggling to find jobs and homes.  When the crisis hits pensions and other savings the cruise ship operators will be lobbying for the release from prison of a famous Italian captain so they can put him back to work.

This blogger tends to be pessimistic about the economic future.  I figure I was very lucky in the time and place in which I was born and have lived most of my life (1941 and western Canada).

Why debt is a huge problem

Generally accepted wisdom tells us that excessive debt is a serious problem although some people question why government debt to a central bank is problematic. After all what is wrong with one government agency owing money to another?  Why not just let the debt build up?

In this case the generally accepted wisdom is probably correct because debt is an important part of our money supply.   If we were to lose our money supply our economy would be in big trouble.

Money is a complex part of our economy and I suspect few people, including a lot of economists, really understand how it works.  Fractional reserve banking is complex but I have found it relative easy to understand.  I have explained it in the essay  LETS go to market: Dealing with the financial crisis on this weblog and there are numerous explanations that can be found with any search engine.  I encourage you to figure it out.

About 90 per cent of our money supply is based on the debt created in fractional reserve banking. This is a problem for three reasons.

The first is that the money supply needs to be flexible up and down.  The amount of money we need to facilitate the exchange of goods and services must be proportional to the quantity of goods and services we need to exchange.  I know economists like to model the economy on a least squares regression formula which gives an upwards line with a steady slope.  However, the reality is that the economy behaves like a fractal which means there are a series of ups and downs and more ups and downs within each trend. The amount of money needed varies with each up and down but fractional reserve money can only keep on increasing.  This sort of works when there is continuous economic growth but if growth slows or reverses, then there are problems.

The second problem with fractional reserve banking is that interest is charged on the debt created. This adds a purely financial demand for more money in that it is not needed for exchange of goods and services.  If all outstanding debts plus interest had to be repaid at the same time there would not be enough money in the economy. From time to time this feature of fractional reserve banking catches up with us and we call it a financial crisis.

The third problem is that when there is a financial crisis lots of people lose their savings.  The need to save for a rainy day, or retirement, is a part of our psyche and fully exploited by the marketing arm of the financial industry but there are three ways in which we can lose our savings: a financial crises, inflation or a major economic downturn. these are more likely when the economy is not growing or declining. With the current economic climate most of us would probably be better off to live for today and worry about tomorrow when that day comes.  The best way to secure one’s future is probably a market garden.

These are real problems and from time to time they cause havoc in the lives of most of us.  Therefore we are right to worry about excessive debt.  The good news is that there are other ways of creating money and the bad news is that money is such an emotional concept that most people are not prepared to consider other ideas.

One of the other ways of creating money is discussed in my ebook Funny Money: Adapting to a down economy which is available free from the link at the top of this weblog.

We tend to take money for granted so long as the economy is working but it is such an important concept that we would do well to try to understand it and make changes.  I cannot see that happening so in the meantime we should remember the advise of Shakespeare: Neither a lender nor a borrower be.

 

The theology of being good or mean

Do we need religion to tell us to be kind to others or do we need religion to give us permission to be selfish and inconsiderate of others?

This question follows from an article which outlines some of the scriptures used by some North Americans to justify policies which some of us might think are mean.

Shortly after leaving high school this guy came across a book called The Panchatantra which is part of the wisdom literature of ancient India.  One of the verses which has stayed with me through the years is:

Forget you prosings manifold,
the moral law is easily told,
to help your neighbour, that is good,
to hurt him, that is devilhood..

This simple verse is straight forward and one would think  it, or something similar, is all people need for moral guidance.  How ever , at least in our culture, some people follow it some of the time, some people ignore it all the time and some people follow it all (or most) of the time.

It would be interesting to know if this applies to all cultures or are there some in which all people follow the  principle all  the time.  To answer this one would probably have to spend several reincarnations doing field work in anthropology.

Reading the above article I note that almost all the scriptural references provide justification for being mean to others.  Could it be that if one wants to be selfish or nasty one needs divine assistance?  A lot of our economic culture is based on exploiting and taking advantage of other people.  If you are a part or nearly a part of the one percent your fortune and your status depend upon others working hard.

I think we should make a distinction between economic well-being and theological salvation.  It may be that we alone are responsible for our salvation, but people should not have to go hungry.

This blogger believes the technology which allows us to produce so much with so little effort should be a part of our collective inheritance.  The benefits should be shared equally rather than going to  few people.

Regardless of what Christian or other scriptures say, I think we should expect people to follow ancient Hindu moral law.

Guaranteed work or guaranteed income?

As an alternative to a basic income scheme a commentator on Medium is proposing universal guaranteed work.  This writer has put a lot of thought into his proposal and deserves to have it given some consideration.  I have a strong commitment to a guaranteed income scheme and I have some heavy-duty concerns about his work plan.

My first concern is a belief that we do not have enough energy and mineral resources to provide employment for all the people who inhabit this planet.  There are still lots of resources but we have cherry picked the most accessible and those which are left will require lots of inexpensive energy to extract.  Even if the cost of solar energy continues to drop there may not be enough other resources to maintain the economic growth required to provide work for everyone. Topsoil is a major resource which may deteriorate and restrict growth.

The proposal for guaranteed work is probably based on a belief in economic growth and a long tradition that people must “do their share” and work to support themselves.  It may be that some people see a basic income scheme as a way of distributing goods and services rather than as an economic necessity.

Technology has been changing our economy at least since an ancient farmer discovered he could increase his production by using a horse with a collar instead of an ox with harnesses.  This development and all those that  followed allowed fewer people to work the land and more people to do other things such as fight and prey.  (In medieval times there were three classes of people – those who prayed, those who fought and those who worked to support the first two.)  My professor of European economic history spent a lot of time talking about agricultural developments which increased productivity.

Modern technology is an extension of this trend releasing more people to do things other than work to provide food and shelter.  A major question is what is this free time going to be used for.  There are many choices beyond preying and fighting including making more electronic gadgets and performing or listening to music.  Another question is who is going to make the decision about what to do with this time.  I believe individuals should be able to make the decisions for themselves.

My third concern is that a guaranteed work scheme is a continuation of the work ethic which allows a few people to tell the rest of us what to do.  We should consider the agricultural surplus and the benefits of technology an inheritance for all of us rather than a right which can be expropriated by a few.  We should be able to decide for ourselves what we want to do with the free time we have inherited from our ancestors.  That could be drinking beer or creating great works of art.  Who is to say one activity is better than another? We need a leisure ethic rather than a work ethic.

Sadly there are some people who feel they should be able to tell others how to live their lives.  A universal guaranteed work scheme is an open invitation to these people to practice this dark business.

Our civilization has to deal with some serious economic problems.  I fear the work program as proposed would make a lot of those problems even worse.  A guaranteed income program would not be enough to solve all the problems but it would be a start and needs a lot more thought.

 

 

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