Euthanasia of the Rentiers
Ben Bernanke presided over the Federal Reserve for two terms, from 2006 through 2014. A year and half into his first term, he began driving the Federal Funds Rate down. By the end of his frantic interest episode, this key overnight lending benchmark had been crushed. It hit bottom, and it hasn’t sprung back in over 6 years since.
Everyone is harmed by zero interest policy. Who suffers the most is open to debate, but one obvious candidate is the retiree who lives on a fixed income. These are people who worked and saved their whole lives, and now they depend on interest to buy groceries and heat their homes. For them, zero interest is like breathing air without oxygen. They suffer a slow death by suffocation.
In writing about this class of people, economist John Maynard Keynes used a term he intended to be pejorative—the rentier. In Keynes’ view, those who invest capital to earn a yield are parasites. In The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, he asserted that the rentier is a “functionless investor” (i.e., gets paid for doing nothing). Keynes called for “the euthanasia of the rentier” by government suppression of the interest rate.
Recently, former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has begun blogging at the Brookings Institution. He wrote that legislators said he was “throwing seniors under the bus.” He reassures us that he “was concerned about those seniors as well.”
That is a neat little example of context-switching. These unnamed legislators did not ask Chairman Bernanke how he felt as he was throwing senior citizens under the bus. His feelings are not the issue. The issue is whether zero interest does, in fact, throw seniors and other rentiers under the bus. Bernanke can’t deny that, and he doesn’t try.
Instead, he offers this, “But if the goal was for retirees to enjoy sustainably higher real returns, then the Fed’s raising interest rates prematurely would have been exactly the wrong thing to do.” Got that? We have to keep interest low, so seniors can earn more interest.
Ben Bernanke, the man with feelings for seniors. As he points out here, he knows at least two of them personally.
Photo credit: Alex Brandon / AP Photo
Putting the Hurt on Labor
Interest rates have been falling for over three decades. Conventional economics has two things to say about this. One, inflation expectations are falling. Monetarists believe that the interest rate is set based on bond traders’ predictions of future price increases. Two, if employment and GDP are weak, then the central bank should increase the money supply. By increasing the money supply, it will cause rising prices, and somehow that causes workers to get hired. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen wrote a paper defending this absurd claim (which I criticized).
The Swiss Franc Will Collapse
I have worked to keep this piece readable, and as brief as possible. My grave diagnosis demands the evidence and reasoning to support it. One cannot explain the collapse of this currency with the conventional view. “They will print money to infinity,” may be popular but it’s not accurate. The coming destruction has nothing to do with the quantity of money. It is a story of what happens when interest rates fall into a black hole.
Decades of Falling Rates
The old joke is, “(with a Russian accent) In America, you correct newspaper, but in Soviet Union, newspaper corrects you.” Switzerland is now experiencing the bond market equivalent. In America, the government pays you to borrow but in Switzerland you pay the government. All Swiss bonds have a negative yield out to 9 years. Negative means you pay them to lend them your money. The 10-year Swiss government bond has effectively zero yield. For comparison, the 10-year US Treasury is 1.8%.
Here is a graph of the Swiss yield curve.
From Shortage to Ample Supplies
We don’t normally analyze the crude oil market. However, there has been a huge price move (which may not be complete yet). With the endless rumors of deals that explain the move, we thought we would look at the spreads. The data shows a startling picture.
You should approach supply and demand in this market similarly to gold and silver. The difference is that there is very little inventory buffered in the system. Notwithstanding what you read about China “buying up” the oil to take advantage of “cheap” prices, oil requires specialized storage facilities. There is a significant cost to store it, and finite capacity too.
Below is a 3D graph of the futures curve taken at various times, from before the crash through January 9. Each line represents the curve at a given moment. Red lines are where there is backwardation. Yellow is a flat curve. And green indicates contango.
Unlike our regular Supply and Demand Report for gold and silver, this shows just the price of various futures contracts and does not compare to the spot price. So here, backwardation is when a farther-out contract is cheaper than a nearer one. Contango is when the nearer one is cheaper. As with the monetary metals, backwardation is a sign of shortage, and contango is a sign of adequate or abundant supply.
CPI and the “Wealth Effect”
In Poker, to go all in means to bet everything you have. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that, at least so far as the mainstream audience is concerned, we gold advocates have gone all in. We have made one argument: we should adopt the gold standard, because inflation. By inflation, it is generally meant rising consumer prices (this is not my definition), again at least so far as the mainstream audience goes.
It’s true. Prices have been rising relentlessly since the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. We certainly have made the argument that inflation happens in paper money, but not in gold. I think most people believe that, despite the obfuscations of the diehard apologists for the Fed.
I think people care about inflation—but not that much. People who work for wages mostly get mad at their boss for not giving them a big enough raise. People who are retired on a pension mostly get mad at the politicians for the same reason. They complain that the cost of living adjustment is not enough.
What about the rich? This graph explains why the rich are not at all unhappy.
The Problem of Contingent Data
Have you ever been in an argument about whether we should raise taxes and then someone tosses out a real whopper? “The top tax rate for decades after World War II was over 90% and look how the economy boomed!”
Or perhaps you read a Paul Krugman column where he said that, “there’s a big problem with the claim that monetary policy has been too loose: where’s the inflation [he means rising prices]?”
Both the Internet troll and Professor Krugman are making the same mistake. Let me explain.
Economists love to use the Latin phrase ceteris paribus. It means all else being equal. It’s great in a thought experiment. For example, what would happen if we made a change in America today? Suppose we criminalized all use of fossil fuels. We can’t really do that (I hope!) but it can serve a pedagogic purpose.
It should be pretty obvious that the consequence of shutting off the motors is to shut off production, and people will soon starve. If this isn’t obvious, then you don’t need my blog entry on economic argumentation. You need The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels by Alex Epstein.
Every economist is aware that in comparing a historical time to the present, or comparing two different countries all else is not equal. There is not one difference between the immediate postwar period and today. There are innumerable differences. You can’t just assume that the one difference you’re debating is the only one that matters.
Cartoon via Washington Post
Only Number Two?
A story has been echoing around the financial news for a few weeks. One article about it, It’s official: America is now No. 2 by Brett Arends at MarketWatch, came to my attention. Arends asserts that the Chinese economy is now larger than the economy in the US. Here’s what he said.
“We’re no longer No. 1. Today, we’re No. 2. Yes, it’s official. The Chinese economy just overtook the United States economy to become the largest in the world.”
With GDP data from the IMF, we can easily see that the US economy is bigger than China’s. The IMF estimates 2014 GDP at $10.4T for China and $17.4T for the USA. So how does Arends claim the contrary? He uses different data that IMF adjusts. By this methodology, the Chinese economy is “really” $17.6T.
China’s GDP in hundreds of million yuan
Begging the Question on Minimum Wages
The battle over minimum wages is raging. Emotions are running hot. Some cities are setting the bar very high. For example, Seattle is mandating a $15/hour wage.
Economically, the issue is very simple. Minimum wage laws do not raise anyone’s wage. This is because it’s not sustainable to overpay.
Suppose you run a small tailor shop. Customers are willing to pay $20 to repair a pair of slacks. Why are they willing to pay that, and no more? It’s not just their budget, but also the relative value of fixing their old trousers compared to buying new ones. A higher wage for your employees will have no effect on customer willingness to pay.
You have rent, utilities, insurance, wear and tear on your sewing machines, etc. that add up to $10. Therefore your maximum gross profit is $10. You cannot pay someone $11, much less $15, to do this work. If the law attempts to force you to overpay, then you have to lay off workers or even close your doors. Going out of business is no fun, but it beats losing more money.
This is black and white. Minimum wage law can destroy jobs and businesses but it cannot raise wages. However, many people become very emotional on this issue. So let’s look at the issue from a different angle.
There is an endless outpouring of sympathy and support for the unskilled laborer. How is this poor downtrodden helpless victim supposed to feed a family, cover medical expenses, and save for retirement earning only $7.25 per hour?
I don’t know.
My lack of an answer to this question is no justification for minimum wage laws. This is not even the right question. It is an example of the logical fallacy known as begging the question—when you presume what you should be asking. We should ask if one man’s need creates a duty for anyone else. Then the answer is a lot clearer.
The last time I checked, we had not adopted the Communist Manifesto as our new constitution. There is no law saying that each is to be given according to his need.
Not quite adopted just yet: the communist manifesto by Marx and Engels.
(Amazingly, they actually charged 40 cents for this)
A Republic – If You Can Keep It
As the famous story goes, when Ben Franklin left Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia had a question she wanted answered.
“Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
No one today (well, seemingly other than the current president) wants a monarchy. However, too many call our once-Republic a “democracy”. They love the idea of the will of the people, directly determined by vote and imposed by force of law.
The primary argument against this form of government is that it’s tyranny. A majority has no right to take away the rights of any individual, no matter how unpopular he may be. However, that is precisely the consequence of giving the people the power to vote for anything, with no constitutional limits to the power of government.
Benjamin Franklin: founding father, prolific inventor, and frequent purveyor of political wisdom.
(Painting by David Martin, 1767)
Drivers of Financial Implosion
I proposed seven drivers of financial implosion in my dissertation. My recent writing has focused on two of them. One is the falling rate of interest on the 10-year government bond. As interest falls, the burden of debt rises. Since the falling rate incentivized more and more people to borrow, the number of indebted people, businesses, corporations, and of course governments is large. When the rate gets to zero, the burden of debt becomes theoretically infinite.
In the US, the downward trend is still in a deceptively mild phase (though there was a vicious spike down on Oct 15 to 1.87%). The rate on the 10-year Treasury is 2.3% today. In Germany, it is down to 0.82% and in Japan the metastatic cancer is much closer to causing multiple organ failures, with a yield of just 0.46%.
Two is gold backwardation, which has also been quiescent of late. Although it is worth noting that with these lower gold prices, temporary backwardation has returned. The December gold cobasis is over +0.2%).
I haven’t written much about a third indicator yet. What proportion of government bond issuance does the central bank have to buy? I theorized that when the central bank is buying all of the bonds issued by the government, that this is another sign of imminent collapse. I phrased it, as with the other indicators, as a value that is falling. Collapse happens when it hits zero, if not earlier. Here is what I wrote:
“The average amount of new Treasury bond issuance minus new central bank Treasury bonds falling towards zero (i.e. the central bank is buying a greater and greater proportion of Treasury bonds issued).”
Bloomberg recently published an article about the Bank of Japan’s announcement of a new bond-buying program. Bloomberg presents two facts. One, the Bank plans to buy ¥8 to ¥12 trillion per month. Two, the government is selling ¥10 trillion per month in new bonds. This is an astonishing development.
The Bank of Japan will buy 100 percent of the new government bond issuance.
More Articles of Interest:
- The “War on Cash” Migrates to Switzerland
- Gold Mining: A Surge in Insider Buying and Improving Profit Margins
- Canada's Central Bank is Headed by a Comedian
- The Islamic State – a Terror Organization Like no Other
- Friday Never Happened - ”Because of China”?
- A Mountain of Debt and no Growth
- Switzerland and Gold: What Next?
- In the Limelight: What the Oil Price Decline is Telling Us, by Dirk Steinhoff
- Nationalist Group Takes Responsibility for Murders in Ukraine
- Money for Nothin' and your Chicks for Free – and your Houses too!