Hiding from the economic crisis

Why are interest rates so low?  It’s a question which has apparently been occupying a couple of North America’s top economists but this blogger sees the discussion as a screen hiding some very important economic issues.such as the root cause of the economic crisis and values which will guide us in trying to  find a solution.

On the surface the answer is simple.  Interest rates are the price of money and are determined by supply and demand.  They are low  because that is where the two balance.  They appear low because we are used to high returns on our investments and are reluctant to give them up.  There is no reason why interest rates could not be zero and maybe they should be.

To understand the root cause of the economic crisis we need to go into a macro economics classroom and watch the lecturer draw his basic diagram on the blackboard.  It is in the shape of an”x” with one side representing the financial side of the economy and the other the real or physical side.   This is important.  As we measure the physical part of the economy in financial terms it is easy to forget the distinction and analyze economic problems only in financial terms.  We need to ask what is happening to the physical side of the economy because it could be that is where the problem is.

This blogger figures the problem is with the resource base.  There are lots of energy and mineral resources left on this planet but we have exploited the most easily accessible.   Those that are left take a lot of time and energy to extract and this is causing a lot of economic problems.  It could even force us into negative growth.  This is a much more serious problem than why interest rates are low.  It is also an extremely difficult problem because it challenges some deeply held beliefs and values.  It’s a lot easier to talk about why interest rates are low.

Some ideas about how to fix the economy are included in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.  A major feature of that essay is a proposal to change the way in which we create  money.

The emotions surrounding money make it a such a difficult subject that few people understand the economics of money and banking. This is unfortunate as money is so essential to how we exchange goods and services.  I encourage you to take a look at the essay.

While I prefer to see low interest rates as a symptom rather than the problem here are  some observations.

Money should be considered a tool to facilitate exchange rather than as a commodity with a value of its own As the quantity of goods and services we want to exchange varies up and down  so does the amount of money supply we need,  If there is too much money there will be inflation and if there is too little money there will be deflation.   Some people believe there should be mild inflation but this reduces the value of savings and should be  considered theft.

Quantitative easing has been an attempt to stimulate economic activity by increasing the money supply.  It has resulted in a rising stock market but has done little for the real economy.  That has to be a sign of a serious problem which has not been identified.

The way in which we create money, known as fractional reserve banking, is a heavy-duty problem because it is based on loans on which interest must be paid.  If all debts had to be repaid at one time there would not be enough money in the economy.  It is a Ponzi scheme on a grand scale and it is no wonder we experience frequent financial crisis.  For more on this topic see these previous posts on this weblog.

I believe we are facing a serious economic problem in that it is not clear there can  be a return to economic growth.  Dealing with this will require some major changes in our way of life.  It is disappointing that two of our most well-known economists are protecting us from having to deal with this with a frivolous argument. It’s as if they are playing in the turkey poo on animal farm and producing gobbledygook.

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A grumpy old man in favour of a basic income scheme

The “free money” giveaway or basic income or universal income scheme being proposed by a few people is a great idea but one that is probably impossible to implement.  However it is nice to dream and fun to think out how to solve economic problems; so here goes.

The basic questions are where does the money come from and how to give the money to people?

The simple answer to the first question is that with a universal income scheme there will no longer be a need for subsidies to producers.  A more difficult answer is that the introduction of an income scheme would be the ideal time to reinvent money.

Generally subsidies (sometimes as tax exemptions)  are given to firms to encourage them to establish plants and provide employment or to save the business and save jobs.  This is great for those who get the jobs or whose employment is saved but it leaves a lot people with nothing.  Subsidies also distort prices so that when we make purchasing decisions based on price we are not necessarily getting the item that was cheapest or most efficient to produce.

Money is something most of us use daily and is probably the least well understood of all the things that are a part of our economy.  When central banks were doing quantitative easing there was some disbelief that they could create money out of nothing.  This is because we have for so long associated money with gold that we think of it as a commodity with value in itself.  It might be better to think of it as a tool with which to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  It represents purchasing power.

Most of what we use as money is created by bankers making loans.  How this works is explained at numerous locations throughout the world-wide web.  My own version along with some of the problems with fractional reserve money is included in the essay “LETS go to market: Dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

One way to reinvent money and implement a universal income scheme would be to take the concept of “local exchange trading system”  and expand it to the national level.  A good part of the essay talks about how this could work and again  I refer you to the essay.  There are many details to be worked out and many problems to be overcome.  The mechanics of the money supply would be easy.  Getting people to accept new ways of thinking about money would be extremely difficult.   Getting people to accept that others should be allowed to do as they wish, whether that be creating art works or drinking beer, would also be difficult.  Getting people to change their vested interests would probably be impossible.

One of my concerns is that our economic order is going to return to something similar to what existed before the industrial revolution in which there was a small group living in relative luxury and the balance of the population lived at a subsistence level. (The ultimate inequality)  I am concerned because I think our economy is possibly going into an extended period of decline.  While there are lots of energy and mineral resources left on this planet the energy required to extract them is becoming more and more excessive to the point it will be less viable.  Without resources it will difficult to maintain everyone at what has been the North American standard of living.

An income scheme would make it a lot easier to cope with an economy on a downward slope.

More and more I am getting to be a grumpy old man.  My generation has been very lucky in the time and place we have lived out our lives.  More and more I am recognizing the next generations, including my grand children, are going to have to deal with a lot of economic pain.  I hope I am wrong and if not I hope I won’t have to see it.

 

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Which is more likely – deflation or inflation?

Conventional economic wisdom, as illustrated by the cover of last week’s The Economist, says deflation is a major threat.  However, this blogger, ever the contrarian,  figures inflation, perhaps even hyperinflation, is a more likely threat.

 The idea that deflation is a threat appears to be  based on the concept of inflationary expectations and the desire by those who make decisions on behalf of he government to maintain mild inflation to help deal with government debt.

That high inflation is a threat is based on the formula MV=PQ, known as the quantity theory of money although I prefer to call it the connectivity formula as it connects the financial and real sides of the economy.

 The case for deflation is made in the November 9, 2013 issue of The Economist. (http://www.economist.com/printedition/2013-11-09)

The above formula tells us that the money supply times the velocity at which it changes hands is equal to prices, or a price index, times the quantity of goods and services produced.  It is not clear everybody accepts this formula but I think it contains a lot of truth.  If one of the four variables changes then to maintain the equality one or more of the others also has to change.  For example if the quantity of goods and services goes up then the money supply also needs to go up.  If the increase in money supply exceeds the increase goods and services, then velocity must go down or prices must go up.  Through recent decades prices have gone up and we have had inflation.

 The  current economic crisis is probably mostly a crisis in Q.  While there are still a lot of mineral and energy resources in the earth’s crust we have extracted the most easily accessible.  What is left is difficult to extract and requires a lot of energy.  In the past economic growth has covered a multitude of economic sins.  It is not clear that the economy will be able to return to the type of growth we have experienced since the start of the industrial revolution.

 During the depression of the 1930s the monetary authorities deliberately restricted the money supply (a reduction in M) and this led to a reduction in Q, a recession and a number of financial institutions failed.  This time they are not going to make the same mistake and have been trying to increase the money supply calling it quantitative easing. Large amounts of money have been pumped into the economy.  Consumer prices have not increased and it is tempting to say the formula is not valid.   It could be that velocity has fallen (there are complaints that corporations are sitting on piles of cash) and that price increases have been in paper financial instruments.

 We should note that Wikipedia gives four major examples of deflation in American history and all of them involve contractions in the money supply.  Maybe the formula holds.

 If the formula is correct and with all the excess money floating around the economy, then there is quite a bit of  potential for something unpleasant to happen.   If not high inflation, then a financial crisis in which the money supply is reduced.  In either case the paper used for those financial instruments might have been more useful as firewood.

 Inflation is complicated by the fractional reserve creation of money.  As can be seen from the formula the money supply needs to flexible up or down according to variations in the quantity of goods and services produced.  But our money supply is created when banks make loans upon which interest is charged. Rather than flexibility there is pressure for the money supply to increase continuously.  The result is a Ponzi scheme which collapses from time to time.  Oops, here comes another financial crisis.

 The goal should be price stability or a zero inflation rate.  As loans are in nominal terms when prices go up people who have borrowed benefit at the expense of those who have loaned the money.  If you are a lender, the higher the inflation rate, the more purchasing power you lose.  Deflation works the opposite way, in that a borrower has to repay more purchasing power.  As governments are major borrowers it is hardly surprising that those who set economic policy are anxious for moderate inflation.  Inflation is a tax if not theft.

 Those  charged with setting government economic policy fear that low inflation could easily slip into deflation.  That would  make repaying government debt more difficult and in the past deflation has been associated severe recession.  The difference this time is that there is lots of money available to facilitate the exchange of goods and services.  Hyperinflation would wipe out a lot of savings, fortunes and pensions.

 Whatever happens it looks as if there is a lot of potential for increasing economic chaos.

Why stimulus spending is a bad idea

Sadly, stimulus spending as an economic cure may make things even worse than they are.   It probably will not provide the results its promoters want although it will likely lead to a more egalitarian but poorer economy because there is a possibility it would lead to some heavy-duty inflation.

The ideal way to deal with the economic crisis requires  a major change in economic thinking and values starting with the way in which money is created.  Some ideas are in my essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis.”  Of course this is not a realistic proposal. Its implementation would require a dictator with a strong and loyal military and this is contrary to my belief that decision-making should be made by individuals.

chovynz_Money_Bag_IconThat leaves austerity or stimulus.

The basic problem is that we have used up a big chunk of the easily accessible resource base.  There may be lots of energy and minerals left in  the surface  of the planet but they are so difficult and expensive to extract we cannot expect continued economic growth.

If this is a correct analysis then austerity will be forced upon us regardless of what we do.  The real challenge is to cope with austerity with a minimum of human suffering.   The problem with austerity as it is being promoted is the selfishness and meanness of those promoting it on the backs of people who are less fortunate.

But what about stimulus?  At least since Keynes, many economists have and continue to believe the way to get economic growth going is via government stimulus.

There is some evidence the depression of the 1930s was made worse because the banking authorities restricted the amount of money in the economy.   Once governments started spending (works and war) and the money supply was allowed to increase the depression came to an end.  This time  central  banks have been trying to stimulate the economy by creating more money to facilitate more economic activity.  It isn’t working  because the resource base won’t support more economic growth  although only a few people see that as the reason.

So what is likely to happen if the Keynesians get a turn at trying to solve the crisis.

There are two difficulties.

The first is that stimulus will be a transfer of purchasing power from those who now have it to others because the debts incurred will eventually be written off either by default or by inflation.  Cyprus isn’t the only country whose savers are likely to be hit.

The puzzle is why with all the quantitative easing and no matching growth in output we haven’t had inflation.  The answer:  there is anecdotal evidence that the banks and corporations are sitting on piles of cash presumably because they don’t  see profit opportunities.

Governments don’t worry about profits so if the money goes instead to governments for stimulus, it will be spent.  There will be more money chasing the same quantities of goods and services and prices are bound to go up.    Inflation provides an indiscriminate haircut to everyone with monetary savings or investments.  If it gets out of control a lot of people will lose their pensions or their fortunes.  It will solve the inequality about which many people have been worrying.  It would also be a neat revenge against those people who want austerity on the backs of poor people although a lot of innocent people would be hurt.

The second problem with stimulus is that if it succeeds in increasing the output of goods and services it will also use up more of the remaining mineral and energy resources and bring forward the timing of a major crash of civilization.  I would like the goal of economic policy to be to minimize overall  human suffering rather than to increase it.

I am not worried about an economic collapse for my own sake, but I do have six young grandchildren.   Perhaps we should post a job opening for a benevolent dictator.

What is really happening in the economy?

With all the headlines about the fiscal cliff and quantitative easing there is a danger that too many people will think economics is just about money.,

When my economics professors stood in front of the black board they often drew an X-shaped graph.  One side of the x represented the real or physical side of the economy and the other represented the financial.

This is an important distinction to make especially as we generally use monetary terms to measure the physical side.

The financial side of the economy has lots of potential to wreck our lives and has done so, but if we really want to know what is happening we need to look at the physical side of things.  We should not assume there is an unlimited supply of energy and mineral resources and that economic growth can continue forever.

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Solving the debt crisis with two coins in the bank. Probably not.

Two platinum coins worth $1 trillion each to solve the U.S. debt problem.  This proposal is reported in this article on the Huffington Post.  The coins would be made by the mint and deposited with the federal reserve to meet debt requirements.  Platinum would be used to get around legal requirements.

The good part of this proposal is that it would replace fractional reserve money with fiat money.  Fractional reserve money is created by the banks when they make loans.  Very little economic thought has gone into the effect of interest rates in this money creation.    This new fiat money would not involve interest charges and that is probably very good.

The problem would be what it does to the money supply.  Presumable  the $2 trillion would be used to pay off government debt.  Some of this debt would be held by the central bank and repaying this shouldn’t change the money supply.  The rest would be to repay bondholders and this would increase the money supply.  Further it would be what economists call high-powered money which is subject to a multiplier effect as it worked its way through the banking system.

The result would be the potential for a massive increase in money supply.  This is the opposite to a return to the gold standard which would force a decrease in the money supply.    The result would be deflation and a decrease in economic activity.

There are four variables in the equation that connects the financial system and the physical side of the economy: the amount of money, the quantity of goods and services produced,  the price index and the velocity or speed at which money circulates. The formula is MV=PQ.  If one of these changes at least one of the others has to change.

If we were to have an increase on the money supply then the velocity must decease or either the price index (inflation) will go up and/or the quantity of goods and services will go up(economic growth).

In an attempt to stimulate economic growth central banks have been trying to increase the money supply and called it quantitative easing.  So far there has been little indication of its working.  This leaves either inflation or a decrease in velocity.

There has been little inflation from quantitative easing so probably the velocity has fallen.

So the impact of the two little platinum coins is unclear but they would certainly be disruptive and have the potential for hyperinflation.

For a fuller explanation of fractional reserve money is created and some of its problems please see the essay “LETS go to market: dealing with the economic crisis” on this weblog.

 

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A different way of creating money – a federal credit card

Here’s another proposal for stimulating the economy but this one is different in that it proposes a different way of creating money.  In fact it’s close to the LETS (Local Exchange Trading System) suggested in my essay LETS go to market;  Dealing with the economic crisis.

The proposal is for each adult to be given a $2,000 federal credit card at a very low interest rate and it comes from Miles Kimball, an economics professor at the University of Michigan,

Here is a link to an article about his proposal and here is a link to his blog posting.

This would allow each person to borrow $2,000 at a low interest rate to be repaid after the economy has fully recovered.

What makes this proposal interesting is that rather than the federal government borrowing money for the program it would be financed directly by the federal reserve and show up on its balance sheet.  This would be creating new money and new purchasing power but it would be different in that it would bypass the banking system.  Therefore the fractional reserve process would be avoided as would commercial interest rates.  I figure interest rates combined with fractional reserves are the cause of inflation and financial instability.

I also like this approach because it gives decision-making powers to individuals rather than politicians and bureaucrats.

But will it work?

The purpose of stimulus programs is to increase the quantity of goods and services produced and consumed and the hope is to jump-start the economy so that it would return to growth.

Certainly it would provide a one-shot stimulus the same as a government works program and it would do so without adding to government debt loads.

So far as returning to economic growth there have already been a number of attempts by increasing the amount of money available (quantitative easing) and there is no evidence they have worked.  It  may be that as well as a financial crisis we are also up against problems with the resource base.

Even though I am skeptical about the effectiveness of Professor Kimball’s proposal I like it because it introduces a new way of creating money.   The next step would be to make it a monthly thing and stop all other government handouts to either consumers or producers.

 

 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.

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