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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Truth: An impossible request

Dear Santa Clause,  For Christmas this year I ask you to give all the people around the world a sense of truthfulness to themselves and all others including young children.

There are two problems in this request: People believe in different versions of the truth and many people have an interest in distorting the truth.

There are many things about ourselves and this world that we do not and can not know from rational observation.  A lot of people fill in the gaps with differing religious knowledge but it is difficult for an observer to say which version is the truth.  A person who claims to speak or write only the truth is playing god with his/her religion and values.  Who is to say there is no Santa Clause?  A philosopher could define Santa Clause as a concept and maybe make the case that he is real.

Deliberate distortions of the truth go back to the dawn of civilisation.  I have read that ancient story tellers quickly learned to make their stories show their patrons in favourable lights.

There are a lot of distortions of the truth in our own civilization including war reporting, the courts and most politically correct issues.

Distortions of the truth in war reporting were documented in 1975 by Phillip Knightly in his book The First Casualty.  War correspondents are called upon to distort the truth for the sake of their part in their country’s war effort. The first casualty of war is he truth

I would suggest this happens where ever there is conflict.

Courts put some emphasis on  “the whole truth and nothing but the truth”.  But how much injustice has resulted from prosecutors with holding  evidence which shows a person to be innocent.  The adversarial process is a strong incentive to avoid the truth.

There are also distortions in most politically correct issues.  Feminists are mistresses of the ancient art of sophistry, North American natives are a conquered people and police do not care about the color of the people they shoot.

Politicians and business people often have a vested interest in hiding the truth.  Political leaders who say the economy is on a long-term down trend are unlikely to get many votes, or at least they think that.  Every banker in the world would lie to avoid a run on his bank.

Donald Trump challenged the media with his untruths and won.  As a former journalist I was very happy not to be working the election.  If the press had not reported his distortions he probably would not even have got the nomination.  Mostly I worked on small town newspapers where most of the politicians were basically honest.

News people like good stories and when famous people say stupid or ridiculous things, it is usually a good story.   I once quoted a school trustee because I wanted to show how stupid he was.  The next day some lady phoned the local radio talk show and said,  “Did you see what Dr. P….. said at school board.  Wasn’t that great?”

What about the responsibility of the media to report the truth?  Publishers have the right to decide what goes into their publication and some specialize in fiction. There are ethical issues in claiming fiction as fact.  It is also hard for a reporter or editor to ignore a statement because he knows it is not true. Most reporters, editors and publishers do not want to upset their friends.  In general advertisers to not much  care about the editorial content so long as their advertising brings in customers.

How do we as consumers of news know if something is true?  We have to evaluate if an item makes sense and that depends upon our values, religion and knowledge base.

As I have worked on this post I have wondered a little if untruthfulness is an essential part of surviving human relationships.  That might be best left for another reincarnation.

 

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The sophistry of feminist economics

My experience of women is that a lot of them naturally use the techniques of sophistry in their arguments with men.  A recent column on feminist economics in The Economist is a good example of this applied to economics. The column mentions the number of women teaching economics, the pay gap and mostly the unpaid work done by women.

The first thing to say in a criticism of feminism is that if your can make a person feel guilty then it is a lot easier to control them.  On this count the feminists have been very successful.  Us guys are supposed to feel guilty about our personalities, our relationships and our sexuality. Some feminists would have us believe that everything we do is to put down and control women.  Some feminists have DBS degrees. (The D stands for doctor.)  If you repeat an untruth often enough some people will come to believe it.

Most of the complaints relate to injustice of which there is a lot in this world.  The truth is that men inflict injustice upon both women and other men and women inflict injustice upon both men and other women.  We would be a lot better off fighting injustice wherever it is rather than having a competition to see who has experience the worst injustice.  The sophistry comes from focusing on a very narrow injustice and ignoring the rest.  We will not be able to deal with injustice or violence against women unless we also deal with injustice and violence against men

The column points out In 2014 only 12% of American economics professors were female, and only one woman (Elinor Ostrom) has won the Nobel prize for economics. This could be because male economists discourage women from studying the field or it could be because women are generally smarter than men and stay away from a field which is based largely on misconceptions and false motivators.  Maybe women are more reluctant to sell their souls to the almighty dollar.

The same may also be true for the pay gap.  A lot of women do not want the stress that goes with higher paying jobs.  It is a lot less stressful to encourage men to take these jobs and a lot of women put their partners under pressure.  Probably rates of pay are more a function of supply and demand for workers rather than a conspiracy of men to keep women from equal pay.

The issue of unpaid work is another case of a very narrow focus in order to promote the false premise that women are cheated because they do not get paid for the housework and child rearing that they do.  We are now talking about relationships and the fundamental of good relationships is that there must be a more or less equal two-way exchange. I believe this even though I have been accused of being selfish for saying it.  In a lot of traditional economic and marriage partnerships all or most labor was unpaid. In our industrial society some work is paid and some is unpaid. As technology has reduced the household work of the partnership and as standards of living have tightened, more women are working outside the house for pay.

Sometimes historical marriage relationships have involved a division of labour and in some cases the division of labour has been essential for survival.  This may be less so now and the division of labour should be for each couple to work out without the interference of feminists.  The important thing is that for the relationship to be satisfactory  the exchange needs to be more or less equal.  These days couples are not so dependent for survival on a relationship with a member of the opposite sex and any woman (or man) who feels cheated can easily break up.  With house work some women do it to themselves in that they decide what work should be done and how often.  It may be that asking men to help is really an attempt to power trip.

One of my concerns about feminism is that it does not encourage good relationships.  How can you hope for a good relationship when one partner is using sophistry to  make the other feel guilty so you can control him?

One of the greatest injustices against women in our society is that so many end up as lonely old ladies. It may be  this would be eased if women were to focus on building good relationships.  Statistically people in good relationships live longer than others.

The dynamics of private and public ownership

In discussions on the pros and cons of private versus public ownership one should consider competition, decision-making and the dynamics of relationships between firms and governments.

I figure the people who run firms behave in similar ways regardless of who owns the firm. Most of us most of the time think and act in our own short-term interests. This applies to most the people in government and business and makes for interesting dynamics where people do not always behave according to what they say.

Generally people in business dislike competition and try to limit it.  One way to restrict competition is to get governments to pass legislation which interferes with the operation of markets. licensing, tariffs, subsidies, patents and copyright all restrict competition and allow some firms to obtain profits they otherwise would not have.  This creates dynamics between firms (or business associations) and governments as firms want to ensure they have sympathetic governments and governments want business to support them..

The people in charge of governments generally want to remain in power and therefore most of their decision-making is to this end.  Thus the main difference between private and public ownership is in decision-making.  Private owners want to make profits while government owners want  to remain in power.  They want businesses under their control to make management decisions which will help in  a reelection (Or in the case of dictatorships to limit uprisings) and they also want to reward supporters with plum jobs.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that managers and owners (private or public)  may have different goals.  Managers may want to build empires rather than maximise profits.

Where do us consumers fit into this?  There are always people in government and industry who say they are working for our best interests but most of the time I don’t believe them.  Generally our best interest is served when there is competition.  However, as noted above governments and industry work hard to restrict competition.  When  we have competition we get the best prices and a generally efficient economy.  In a competitive economy consumers get to make decisions according to their values.

 

 

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.

 

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The benefits and challenges of free trade

Economists are generally in favor of free trade because most of them know the law of comparative advantage but I bet they would quickly change their minds if a “free trade agreement” were to specify that all economic teaching and advice were to be provided by the partner country.

It’s easy to see the benefits of trade but the obstacles can be overwhelming.

The law of comparative advantage tells us that two countries will produce more if they specialize in what they are most efficient and trade even if one of the countries is less efficient than the other in all areas of production.

The first thing to say is that free trade agreements are not what I learned was free trade.  To me free trade should be trade without any restrictions. There should be no tariffs, no quotas and no subsidies.  A country that wants free trade could and should do it unilaterally.  A free trade agreement should be called managed or negotiated trade as negotiations tend to focus on tradeoffs between commodities.  It is my understanding that countries which have conducted unilateral free trade have done very well.

The problem with free trade is that even though the countries as a whole will be better off some people fear they will lose. It becomes an emotional issue because some people are likely to lose their occupations and their income.

The challenge then is to make a win-lose proposition into a win-win so that everyone can share the benefits.  One way to do this would be with a universal income scheme.  The benefits could be in the form of increased income or increased free time for other activities.

Another aspect of trade is that it is a social activity whether we trade with a neighbor or somebody on the other side of the planet.  It is a bit of a stretch to think we have relationships with the Asian people who make our shirts but when some of them died in a workplace fire quite a few of us felt some pain –  for a short time. For relationships to be satisfactory there needs to be a more or less equal exchange.  If we want other countries to buy from us then we need to buy from them.

With the world economy in trouble everyone sees the answer to their problems is  to export more because domestic markets are slowing.  I think there is something wrong in that.  At the same time those who feel threatened by the free trade agreements now in the works will be strongly opposed.  The best bet would be to cooperate and look for win-win trade.

Counting money

Bank tellers tend to be very fast and very accurate at counting money.  Economists have a more difficult time of it.  They can’t even agree on a definition.  This post was prompted by this article criticizing The Fed on how it measures the money supply.

Once upon a time I worked as a journalist.  I used to say there are two types of figures.  One kind we photographed and put on the front page and they help to sell newspapers.  The other kind help to put things into perspective.  When I got to university and wanted to study economics I found I didn’t have the calculus skills to do econometrics so I have stayed with my idea that statistics help with perspectives.

mystica_Coins_Money_Economics is about relationships.  It is about the relationships that go with the exchange of goods and services and since some exchanges involve the state it is also about our relationships with governments.

Not all exchanges can be recorded let alone measured therefore statistics are of limited use.

Mathematical concepts are useful in that they can simplify the analysis of relationships and help us understand what is happening.  Sometimes statistics can be useful for evaluating things we want to believe.  One should be leery of drawing conclusions from emotional accounts of events.  For example, a former professor claimed that during the industrial revolution things got worse for working people before they got better.  One of his arguments was highly emotional newspaper accounts of children dying in poverty.  I would have been more convinced it he had produced statistics of child mortality rates before, during and after the industrial revolution.

Back to money.  For economists it is difficult to count because there are so many things including cigarettes and candy have been used and there are a number of economic  definitions  depending upon what types of bank deposits are included.  I figure money should be defined as anything that represents purchasing power including and especially computer impulses.

Money is my favorite subject although I have never wanted to be a bank teller.

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