Pensions: Promises and reality

It is difficult for this blogger to get excited about pensions because he grew up to Doris Day singing “Whatever will be, will be“.  I heard that song so many times I still believe it.

There are two things that make pensions difficult.  They are part of a big business and they involve promises to be redeemed  in an unknown future.

This post was inspired by this article in The Economist about pension problems in Taiwan but the ideas here apply anywhere around the world where people rely upon pensions for their future.

Pensions are a problem because we evaluate economic problems in monetary terms and assume there will be no inflation or deflation.  We would get a more accurate evaluation if we did it in physical terms.  The reality is that our future standards of living depend upon the ratio of population to the quantity of goods and services we will be capable of producing. Monetary savings will probably be irrelevant thanks to inflation or bankruptcy.

We know, or we should know, from experience that the economic growth is fractal in nature rather than linear as we learned in university economics.  Being fractal means there are a series of ups and downs and sometimes major changes in direction.  There is some evidence that we are experiencing a major turning down.  This blogger  believes current economic problems are because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  Yes, there are lots left but they require so much energy to extract they are mostly useless.  Regardless of what financial people say there may  be some grim prospects. If this analysis is correct the best career and investment is a market garden.

Pensions and other forms of savings are a big business in which sales people earn  commissions and profits on current sales.  They are selling promises for a future they probably will not have to keep.  The reality is that there may not be enough resources to keep them.

To believe in pensions one must have a lot of faith that the world is going to continue as it is for the rest of one’s life.  We can sometimes see into the near future but the further out we look the more blurred is our vision.

Back to Doris Day.

 

Why your savings and pensions are at risk

The fractional reserve way of creating money means a lot of people are at risk of losing all or part of their savings and pensions.

If there is too much money supply in the economy then we have inflation and people with savings or pensions lose some of their purchasing power and those who owe money benefit because they repay their loans with less purchasing power.  Now you know why governments and the people who speak on their behalf promote mild inflation.  This is at least unauthorized taxation if not theft.

pexels-photo-2105902If you have deflation, then people who are owed money win because they are repaid with more purchasing power than they loaned.  The borrowers lose because they have to repay with more purchasing power.

To be fair to everyone we need to manage the economy so that just the right amount of money is available at all times.  At a time when the economy is on a down trend, this is very important as too much money puts us in danger of hyperinflation.

Getting this amount right has long been a challenge to central banks although the common sense answer is fairly simple.  The money supply should vary with the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange and it should be flexible up and down.

The wrench in the simplicity is the fractional reserve way of creating money.  When banks make loans they must (or should) keep a fraction of the amount on reserve for when the depositor wants his/her money returned.  As the amount is only a fraction banks are at risk of a “run” if depositors lose faith.  And because of the fractional reserve there is a multiplier effect involved.  Does not this sound like a set up for a crisis?  The mechanics of this process are a little complex although I have always found it easy to understand. To figure it out I suggest you Google “fractional reserve” or look at my free e book Funny Money: Adapting to a Down Economy or look at the essay Going to Market on this weblog.

The other end of the wrench is  that interest is charged on the loans made by the banks.  Mainstream economists have given little or no thought to the consequences of this. Because all of our money is created by the making of loans, if all the outstanding debt were to be paid off at one time there would not be enough money to repay it all because of the interest.  The charging of interest on the debt/money means there is never enough money available to repay all outstanding debt. Inflation is built into the fractional reserve way of creating money.

The system works only so long as the economy and the money supply continues to grow.  An upset in either means crisis of which we have had many.

The relationship between money supply and economic output is expressed in a formula, MV=PQ, some times known as the quantity theory of money.  Money times the velocity at which it circulates in the economy is equal to a price index times the quantity of goods and services produced.

I get ticked off because this is frequently taken to mean there is a direct, proportional relationship between the money supply and the inflation rate or price level.   Can’t people see there are four variables in this formula?  Total output is an important part of this formula.  If it should happen to go down something needs to happen to another variable.

Our society has a strong commitment to economic growth and a need to keep it growing so that people will not suffer from unemployment.   Some desperate people are trying to stimulate growth by increasing the money supply. This may increase inflation but it will not lead to growth unless we can find inexpensive energy and mineral resources to support it.  I suspect the new American president has  his eye on parks and reserve lands to encourage more economic activity.  He will probably succeed in the short term to be followed by a major economic collapse.

This blogger thinks we need some major economic reforms, not only in our financial system but in our commitment to economic growth.  We need to minimize our production and exchange of goods and services so we are using fewer energy and mineral resources.

A lot  of people operate on faith in our financial system and ignore suggestions we need reform.  I think the risk is so great that prudent people will at least give some thought to these issues.  It is your savings and your pensions and your future that is at risk.

 

 

Please help promote this weblog

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Pensions and dreams

Many people like to dream about the things they will do in retirement and count on their pensions and savings to make the dreams come true.  For lots of current seniors this has been true but younger people may not get beyond the dream.  All the uncertainties of the economic future come to the fore when one starts thinking about pensions.

One hears two major concerns about pensions:  most  people are not saving enough and too many pensions are based on unfunded liabilities.

The one certainty about retirement futures is that well-being and standard of living will depend upon the quantity of goods and services we are capable of producing and the number of people with whom those goods and services must be shared.  Inflation or bankruptcies could easily wipe out  pensions and savings. In any case an increasing population and people living longer into retirement will put pressure on pensions.

There are two ways we can try to ensure our futures into retirement – we can work our butts off in an attempt to return to economic growth or we can reduce our expectations so that we don’t need so need so many goods and services.  It is possible the second option will be forced upon us.  That may not be all bad.  This blogger knows from experience that canoe camping is a lot cheaper and more enjoyable than the large cruise ships..   I also have to recognize that camping would be a lot less fun if we had to share the lake with 2,000 people at a time.

Most  of us are subject to a lot of media hype about the importance of pensions and saving for retirement.  We should keep in mind that we are in for the long-term while the people selling investments are more interested in their next pay cheque.  What is good for them may not be good for their customers and by the time you find out you may not even remember their name.

Some people are worried about government pensions and see private investments as the answer.  I figure the whole financial system is at risk of either inflation or bankruptcy.

In planning for the future we have to evaluate the potential for a return to economic growth.  If one believes we are going to return to growth then it might  be okay to put a lot of effort into a pension.  .  Personally, I think the best long-term investment at this time is a market garden.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

The future of money: inflation, deflation or disappearance into thin air

The future of money has been getting a little attention lately.  It could go one of three ways – inflation, deflation or part of it could disappear into thin air.  Concerns about money probably reflect concerns and uncertainty about where the economy is going.  Frequently behind these concerns lurk people who want a fixed money supply such as gold or bit coin.

This blogger figures money should be defined as a tool to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  I do not like definitions that make it a store of wealth or a measure of value because these give money an intrinsic value which it does or should not have.  Money should only have value as a tool. 

One of the most important features of money should be the amount available  in the economy needs to be flexible.  It should be able go to up or down  with changes in the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange.  If the money supply is not flexible then as we change the quantity of goods and services then either prices must go up or down or the velocity, the rate at which money changes hands will change.  It is dangerous to assume there will be only growth.

Inflation happens when the money supply increases faster than the rate of economic growth and deflation happens when the money supply goes not keep up with the rate of growth.    Inflation is good for borrowers as the can repay their loans with money which has less real value.  This is one reason governments and their agents want to see mild inflation.  Deflation is good for lenders as they will be repaid with money which has more value.  The ideal should be price stability so nobody loses.

Our understanding of inflation and deflation has been distorted by the long period of economic growth we have just experienced. Most inflation has happened along with growth and most deflation has resulted from banking authorities trying to restrict the amount of money available.  This happened in the 1930s and todays central bankers have sworn to never again let that happen.

There is some evidence that our time of economic growth has terminated.  It is unclear how this will affect prices.  Quantitative easing which is an attempt to increase the money supply has not led to high inflation.  Past hyperinflations have occurred when governments have increased to money supply faster than the economy was capable of growing.  It appears the money created by quantitative easing has led to inflation in the financial markets rather than consumer markets.

Economists generally understand how fractional reserve banking works to increase the money supply but I am not aware of anyone who has thought out the opposite process.  Money that can be created out of thin air can just as easily disappear into thin air.

In fractional reserve banking banks are required to keep a portion of their deposits as reserves for protection against runs. The rest is loaned out and redeposited with the new deposits subject to the same fractional reserve.  The result is that a large proportion of our money supply is  somewhat precarious.  This blogger and many other people on the internet have explained the process.  Just search “fractional reserve banking.”

Central banks can add money to the system by purchasing financial instruments or by changing the reserve requirements.  The could also reduce the money supply by selling financial instruments or by changing the money supply although it is unlikely they will do either under current conditions.

Another way the money supply could be reduced is if the banks suffer large losses.  Any loans the banks have to write off will directly decrease their available reserves.  (The technical term is high powered money.)  This means they will have to decrease their outstanding loans with the same multiplier effect as the money supply was increased.  We will hear about it as a contraction of credit.

So if the banks experience unusually large losses there could be a drastic decrease in the money supply which could have dire consequences.  ( I have read that a number of Canadian and British banks are highly exposed to the energy industry with unsecured loans.)

If a large part of the money supply were to disappear into thin air in the short term a lot of economic activity would come to a screeching halt.  People have in the past used playing cards or candies as a substitute for money.  In the long term the level of activity would depend upon the physical resources available.

People who talk up monetary reform often want a return to a gold standard or facsimile (bit coin).  It is not clear that either of these would correct the problems inherent in the fractional reserve way of creating money.  Nor would they provide the flexibility that is needed in the total amount of money available.

We all think we know everything there is to know about money.  That is a part of what our parents teach us. However, it is a complex subject which few people understand and there are a lot of unknowns, especially if we have to deal with an extended period of low or negative growth.

The gold standard, printing money and getting the right amount

A return to the gold standard and the printing of money to provide a social dividend have recently been suggested on LinkedIn and Reddit as ways to deal with the economic crisis.  The gold standard and the printing of money have been both tried with disastrous results.  To the best of my knowledge the social dividend has not been tried but I see it as a guaranteed annual income and I believe it has a lot of potential – subject to paying attention to the amount of money in the economy.

The problem  with the gold standard is that it can cause recession because it limits the amount of money to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  The problem with printing money is that it can lead to inflation which wipes out people’s savings.

The key to financial economic nirvana is to have just the right amount of money for the quantity of goods and services a society wants to exchange.  Too much money leads to inflation and too little money leads to deflation and a curtailment of economic activity.   The amount of money needs to be flexible to follow the ups and downs of economic activity.

At several times during their history Americans have tried to follow a gold standard.  Generally the result was depression.  In the 1930s the monetary authorities tried to restrict the amount of money in circulation and the result was depression.  The exception was during the gold rushes of the late 19th century when the newly discovered gold allowed the money supply to increase along with economic growth.

Following the first world war the German Weimar republic had lots of financial obligations.  As the external obligations were requiring gold the government met its internal obligations by printing money.  As the money was printed faster than economic activity increased that country experienced inflation which became hyperinflation.  The result was that the savings of most people became worthless.

The social dividend proposal was a feature of Social Credit which had its origins in England in the 1920s and prospered in Alberta and British Columbia.  At least in British Columbia the social dividend was forgotten and the party became a right of centre business coalition.

To the best of my knowledge the social dividend has not been tried.  I think it should be so long as the amount of money in the economy is close to the amount needed.

Money is something we all use and we teach our children at an early age how to manage their money.  However,  very few people understand the economics of money and especially how money is created. I believe that if we are to resolve economic problems we have to understand the economics of money and banking.  The essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis”  talks about how money is created, some of the problems with fractional reserve money which we currently use and proposes an alternative way of creating money based on Local Exchange Trading Systems.  Also a number of posts on this weblog have dealt with money.  Here they are.

Money is a highly emotional issue in part because our culture has raised us to believe that our future depends upon our having adequate savings.  As it is so important one would think people would be wanting to understand it and be prepared to consider reforms as there are such emotional costs to losing it.

I believe the fractional reserve way of creating money is a Ponzi scheme and has built into it a mechanism for forcing a continuous increase in the money supply regardless of increases or decreases in economic activity.  As a part of money creation reform we should look at incorporating a social dividend or universal income scheme.

However the money process is reformed an essential feature is that the money supply should be flexible up and down according to changes in the level of economic growth or degrowth.

The quantity theory of money and transforming economists into fairy godmothers

It could be that the quantity theory of money is controversial and often dismissed because it deals with two aspects of economics where we most want to deceive ourselves – money and economic growth.

When I  started to research and think about this post I quickly got so ticked off that I went downstairs to my lathe to transform a piece of firewood into a magic wand for one of my grandchildren.  (Abracadabra.  All economists will become fairy godmothers – in their next reincarnations.)

The theory states that MV=PQ  where M is the money supply, V is the velocity at which the money changes hands,  P is the price level and Q is the quantity of goods and services exchanged.  What gets me ticked off is that this is frequently taken to mean there is a direct, proportional relationship between the money supply and the inflation rate or price level.   Can’t people see there are four variables in this formula?

The value in this formula is in that it explains relationships and shows how the real or physical side of the economy connects to the financial.  It is difficult because there are problems with fractional reserve money and because some people believe (or need to believe) that economic growth will always continue.  I think these are two aspects of economics where some people have psychological problems accepting the truth.    It becomes even more difficult if one tries to use this formula in a computer model as the four variables are difficult if not impossible to measure.

To maintain the equality, if one variable goes up then one or more of the other variables must also change,  For example, if the money supply increases then velocity must go down and/or one or both of the price level or the quantity of goods and services produced must go up.  It could be that during  recent decades the money supply was increasing faster than Q was increasing. We saw the difference as inflation.

The way we create money is a  major problem.

The fractional reserve creation of money works only so long as more and more money is being created.  Bankers create money by making loans. The problem is the interest.  If all loans plus interest had to be repaid at one time there would not be enough money in the system.. This is similar to a Ponze scheme and works only so long as more and more money can be created.

This means there is constant upwards pressure on the M in the formula – until the money creation breaks down and the M goes down suddenly and either prices fall or the quantity of goods and services produced goes down or both.  When the United States was trying to stick to a gold standard there were frequent economic crises because there was not always enough gold to support the amount of economic activity for which there were human and material resources.  The gold discoveries of the 19th century contributed to prosperity because they added to the money supply.

The big problem on the other side of the equation is Q.  A lot of people believe or assume economic growth will continue forever.  I figure Q behaves as a fractal, that is with ups and downs and ups and downs within each up and down – something like the seashore.

Some of the things which drive Q are not likely to be steady.  Discoveries of energy and mineral resources are erratic;  agricultural  production can vary with the weather; and new technology comes in spurts.  I think Q is currently being restrained because we have used up the most easily accessible energy and mineral resources.  We have picked the low-hanging fruit and what is left is going to take a lot of energy to get.

As Q is a fractal its changes in direction are likely to throw the equation out of balance and force one or more of the other variables to adjust.

Prices appear to respond mostly to changes in M or Q.  Sometimes governments decide to try to control inflation with price controls. and this usually causes problems with the balance of the equation.  Inflation is to the advantage of borrowers and deflation is to the advantage of lenders.  To be fair to everyone we need price stability.   As governments are large borrowers it is natural for people concerned with government finances to favor inflation.  Probably the best way to price stability would be to find another way of creating money so that the total is flexible.  Then the money supply rather than prices could respond to changes in the quantity of goods and services produced.

To the best of my knowledge not much is known about velocity.  I understand that in the days of the gold standard people would hoard gold if they were worried about other forms of money.

To call the formula MV+PQ the quantity theory of money is probably a little misleading. It would be better to think of it as the connectivity formula.  As such I believe it is very valuable in understanding what is happening to the economy.

Perhaps if we had more fairy godmothers we would have  a better understanding of what is happening to us.

 

If you liked this post your are invited to comment, press the like button and/or click  one of the share buttons. If you disagree you are invited to say why in a comment.  While I like the idea of sharing this platform, my personality is such that I don’t reply to many comments.

This columnist from The Economist is encouraging theft

This post is to accuse the Buttonwood columnist in The Economist of encouraging the theft of people’s savings.

In the Nov 30th 2013 issue he/she says “Debt needs to be reduced by default, inflation or financial repression (keeping interest rates as low as possible).”

Lots of others including economists concerned with government policy make similar statements.

The problem is that one person’s debt is another person’s savings.  Therefore when debt is reduced by default or inflation it is going to take away from somebody’s savings.  This might be more visible if loans were made directly from a saver to a borrower without the financial intermediation of banks.

It might also be easier to understand if we were to define money as something representing purchasing power.  Thus a loan is a transfer of purchasing power from the lender to the borrower.  If the loan is not repaid because of default or is reduced by inflation then the lender has lost some of his/her purchasing power.

Some people might say the losses from default are carried by financial institutions.  This is true only if the banks are making excess profits.  If they are not making excess profits and maybe even if they are the losses are most likely to be spread over all their depositors in the form of reduced interest payments.

Of course people who owe lots of money, especially governments, benefit from inflation because they don’t have to repay as much purchasing power.  The ideal should be price stability – zero inflation and zero deflation.

However it happens default or inflation reduces the purchasing power previously owned by savers.  To me this is theft by or on behalf of borrowers.

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