Economic History

 

Looking at the Big Picture

Step back. Look at the big picture. Stocks are near record highs. Investor sentiment has never been more bullish. The VIX, which shows the options market’s expectation of 30-day volatility in stocks, is near record lows.

But the US stock market – broadly measured by the S&P 500 – is “above the line” of our Simplified Trading System (STS). It’s trading above 20 times reported earnings. The index could go much higher. But our simple approach tells us that the safe gains are behind us. It is better to be out than in.

 

small-dollar

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Or:  Who Knew The F***ing Lions Could Swim?

I found myself in a Northern one-horse town some 20 miles west of Aquilea  with no apparent means of getting back to Rome. No, let me amend that, from my personal perspective, it might as well have been a no-horse town. Romans and their money! With every new emperor the denarius becomes worth less than before. And so the ten denarii I still called my own (which of course were all new denarii) wouldn't even buy me a horse. Thanks much, emperor!  Actually, when I left Aquilea – rather in a mad rush on the spur of the moment – I had a lot more money with me than ten denarii. Little did I know that pillaging gangs of Marcomanni had already invaded the empire. I learned about this the hard way, as I encountered a troupe of these bandits three leagues to the West of Aquilea. I can thank Glycon – all hail Glycon!-  and probably several of the other gods profusely that I actually survived the encounter. After all, it is well-known what these Germanic brutes are capable of when they are putting their mind to it. Unfortunately this inadvertent crossing of paths with the barbarian hordes cost me my horse and most of my money. Not to mention my coat and my boots. The only reason why I was left these 10 denarii was that they didn't find my spare purse, which I wear affixed in a place that robbers don't check most of the time, unless they're really hard up. In a way it is an example of poetic justice, or injustice, depending on one's viewpoint. I probably should accept my fate without demur though, since I had to agree with Alexander that to remain in Aquilea was simply no longer an option.

That cheeky little git Commodus – what is he, 10 years old? 11? – even made up a limerick about some unnamed 'Greek fraud and his Roman butt-boy' that he kept reciting all day long and it was pretty clear to everyone whom he meant. I swear that rascal has a glint of Caligula in his eye, it's probably no coincidence that he shares his birthday. Of course the auguries all pronounced a glorious future for the git when he was born, regardless of that unmistakable  hint the date of his birth provided them with. I actually doubt that he is the emperor's son, he's much too healthy for that.  Faustina must have cuckolded Marcus, the gods know she had plenty of opportunity. To think that this naughty and cruel child could one day become emperor makes me shudder. Anyway, that very same day, when we had retired after dinner, Alexander called for me, inviting me to a night-cap. We inevitably turned to discussing recent events with a good helping of trepidation and Alexander pointed out that it was probably rather significant that no-one had attempted to discipline the boy. His tutors made as though they hadn't heard anything, a number of people were giggling as if he had told the joke of the year and the emperor himself reacted mainly by occasionally fixing us with that rather cold glare he sometimes affects.

 

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The ANC, Communism and Umkontho we Sizwe

A veritable flood of articles has been published in the mainstream media in recent days on occasiom of South Africa's first black president, Nelson Mandela passing on recently. We want to take a look at a few aspects of Mandela's and South Africa's history that have not received as much attention as they probably deserve. Most of the world is understandably (and rightly) fawning over Mandela and his achievements, but the US state department had him designated as a terrorist until 1990 and for several decades regarded him as a communist sympathizer. Of course every feted revolutionary leader who has managed to vanquish the oppressors of his people was a 'terrorist' at some point in the past. Anyone who leads an armed revolt against a government is designated a terrorist by those he fights.

 

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1600 Years Ago, in the Year 412 AD, or 1156 Ab Urbe Condita (since the founding of Rome) …

In 412, the Western Roman Emperor Honorius (full name Flavius Honorius Augustus), the son of Theodosius I.,  teamed up with the Visigoth king Ataulf (also: Atawulf, the 'father of wolves') against the usurper Jovinus.

Jovinus had unilaterally proclaimed himself Augustus and made his brother Sebastianus his co-emperor, taking control of Northern Gaul with the help of the Gallic nobility as well as King Gundahar of the Burgundians and King Goar of the Alans. The Burgundians used the opportunity to establish themselves on the Roman side of the Rhine, founding a new kingdom there with Worms as the capital.

Ataulf marched from Italy to Gaul, with ex-emperor Priscus Attalus and Honorius' half-sister Galla Placidia in tow as hostages, ostensibly to join Jovinus.  While on the way, Ataulf crossed paths with another Visigoth chieftain named Sarus, who was supposed to help Jovinus militarily. Ataulf evidently wanted to be the only Visigoth of importance in Gaul and without further ado decided to attack and kill Sarus.

 

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How to Deal with Economic History

In a recent article at the NYT entitled 'Incredible Credibility', Paul Krugman once again takes aim at those who believe it may not be a good idea to let the government's debt rise without limit. In order to understand the backdrop to this, Krugman is a Keynesian who thinks that recessions should be fought by increasing the government deficit spending and printing gobs of money. Moreover, he is a past master at presenting whatever evidence appears to support his case, while ignoring or disparaging evidence that seems to contradict his beliefs.

Among the evidence he ignores we find e.g. the 'stagflation' of the 1970's, or the inability of Japan to revive its economy in spite of having embarked on the biggest government deficit spending spree ever in a modern industrialized economy. Evidence he likes to frequently disparage is the evident success of austerity policies in the Baltic nations (evident to all but Krugman, one might say).

 

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Something Is Cooking

 

By now it has made the rounds that both Super Mario and Thomas Jordan, chairman of the 'Zimbabwe of the Alps' (h/t Jim Grant) suddenly have found out they are either too busy with urgent work or have prior engagements that keep them from appearing at Jackson Hole.

This is potentially quite significant, as whenever these guys postpone long awaited public appearances at important meetings, they are hatching out something big, which they then spring on us mere mortals at the earliest opportunity. The Jackson Hole pow-wow certainly qualifies as an important meeting, as all the CB bigwigs tend to go there, accompanied by a gaggle of academic apologists for central monetary planning who give them new ideas. Everybody gets to hold a speech or present a paper, and we can be fairly sure that the informal gatherings are inter alia used to talk about policy coordination.

 

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… or Why Trying to Prove a Point about Economics with 'Just Two Charts' is a Really Bad Idea

 

The Gold Standard Debate Revisited

The discussion over the GOP's gold standard proposals continues in spite of the fact that everybody surely knows the idea is not even taken seriously by its proponents – as we noted yesterday, there is every reason to believe it is mainly designed to angle for the votes of disaffected Ron Paul and Tea Party supporters, many of whom happen to believe in sound money. As we also pointed out, there has been a remarkable outpouring of opinion denouncing the gold standard. Unfortunately many people are misinformed about both economic history and economic theory and simply regurgitate the propaganda they have been exposed to all of their lives. Consider this our attempt to present countervailing evidence. 

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Introductory Remarks

As we have often pointed out in these pages, to our mind the euro area crisis is not a currency crisis. It is primarily a debt crisis; a crisis of the bloated European welfare states and the fractionally reserved and way overextended   banking systems they harbor. Due to the supra-national status of the central bank it is no longer possible for member nations to simply 'paper over' their economic policy mistakes and so their errors have been revealed for all to see. Instead of being able to surreptitiously impoverish the citizenry by means of inflation and devaluation, the political classes have been forced to face facts.

In this sense, the euro is a great success: it has so far averted an inner-European outbreak of 'beggar-thy neighbor' devaluations. The usual robbing of savers had to be at least partially shelved.

It is entirely mistaken to argue that the monetary union can only work if a so-called 'fiscal union' is established. It is true that the monetary union will work better if its members were to adhere to the rules of the fiscal  pacts they have signed – be it the Maastricht treaty or the latest iteration of the 'fiscal compact'.

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Sucking Up to Power

You know, you would think that after the exquisitely ill-timed Bob Woodward screed 'The Maestro', which feted Alan Greenscam as an infallible central planner who had showered us with unending prosperity just as the bubble his policies had created was about to collapse would have taught journalists a lesson.

Hailing the successes of central planners and bureaucrats is a tricky business – as noted above, the timing quite often turns out to be problematic.

There is a good reason for that: these paeans are only written when it is finally deemed 'safe' to do so. This is usually when a prevailing trend in financial asset prices has become so extended, entrenched and seemingly unstoppable,  that even aunt Imogen and her blind dog in the sticks know about it.

In other words, these screeds are good markers of the social mood and can usually be brought into context with the stock market's recent performance streak. 

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Shooting At the Wrong Target

We were quite surprised, to say the least, when a friend pointed us to a recent article at Marketwatch, entitled „Grantham wonders if Marx was right after all“, sub-titled „Capitalism will gladly sell the rope used to hang itself“, which is a reference to one of Lenin's often quoted bon-mots (which went along the more active line of: 'The capitalists will sell us the rope which we will hang them with').

The article also contains a link to the letter to investors (pdf) in which Grantham is engaging in all the aforementioned wondering. Ominously it is called the 'Longest Letter Ever'.

Al Lewis, the author of the Marketwatch article, leads off by pointing out the differences between the recent letter Warren Buffett sent to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders and Grantham's more pessimistic missive.

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Hungary Back At the Bailout Trough As Investors Go On Strike

Today Hungary's government came under renewed pressure, as yields on Hungary's government debt keep soaring and a treasury bill auction failed.

As Bloomberg reports:

 

„Hungary raised less than planned at a Treasury bill sale as yields soared  on concern the International Monetary Fund and European Union won’t resume aid talks.

The government sold 35 billion forint ($140 million) of one-year bills, 10 billion forint less than targeted, data from the Debt Management Agency, known as AKK, on Bloomberg show. The average yield rose to 9.96 percent, the highest since April 2009, from 7.91 percent at the last sale of the same-maturity debt on Dec. 22.

The cost of insuring Hungary’s debt through credit-default swaps reached an all-time high and the forint touched a record low versus the euro after aid negotiations stalled because of new laws that threaten to undermine the independence of the central bank. Hungary needs a deal as soon as possible and is ready to discuss the conditions, Tamas Fellegi, the minister assigned to lead the talks, told reporters today.

“Fellegi’s comments are aimed at providing reassurance, but I think the market will adopt a seeing-is-believing approach,” Timothy Ash, a London-based economist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, said in an e-mailed comment. “Market trust in this administration is now at rock bottom levels.”

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Paul Krugman on Keynes

As a friend of ours remarked when sending us the link to Paul Krugman's December 29 editorial, 'he's trying to get in the last word for the year'. The editorial is entitled 'Keynes Was Right' and it is at least somewhat reassuring that it appeared on the NYT's 'opinion pages', because that is all it amounts to – an opinion.

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A Historical Mistake

There once was a time when the science of economics – based on sound reasoning –  concluded that economic liberalism was the best way to achieve lasting and growing prosperity. Classical economists may have been stumped by the theory of value, a problem satisfactorily solved by Carl Menger in the 1870's,  but on the whole, their teachings were conducive to the adoption of free market capitalism. This ushered in an age of unprecedented capital accumulation and prosperity.

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Marshall Auerback on the ECB

Hedge fund manager Marshall Auerback has come up with a plan of what the ECB should do in order to resolve the euro area debt crisis. The outline of this plan was posted at Naked Capitalism as 'The ECB vs. Germany'.

Auerback begins by recounting that Germany's central bankers are isolated at the ECB. Their desire to keep monetary policy strictly outside of the realm of fiscal policy has led them to oppose the interventions in government bond markets, and since they were outvoted at the ECB, two of them (Axel Weber and Jürgen Stark) ultimately resigned because they didn't want to be associated with the policy.

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Germany's Institutional Memory

We have often argued that Germany was a likely stumbling block for inflationary initiatives by the ECB in order to rescue wobbly sovereign debtors, a view that was confirmed by the serial resignations of Axel Weber (who stepped down as chief of the Bundesbank) and Jürgen Stark (who resigned from the ECB). Both men, it should be recalled, stepped down over disagreements with the ECB's bond buying program, in spite of the fact that this program has been fully sterilized.

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