Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Krugman and Money Bubbles

In a recent NYT piece, Krugman suggests that 'money is only a “social contrivance”. It’s a convention, which works as long as the future is like the past.' He then goes on to say later:

A final thought: the notion that there must be a “fundamental” source for money’s value, although it’s a right-wing trope, bears a strong family resemblance to the Marxist labor theory of value. In each case what people are missing is that value is an emergent property, not an essence: money, and actually everything, has a market value based on the role it plays in our economy — full stop.
Before reading the rest of the post, you should really read his full discussion, as this post will not make sense without you doing so. For me, the problem is his idea that there is no fundamental source for the value of money. It is wholly fantasy.

Here, for the sake of simplicity, I will treat the following as 'money'; base money (e.g. bits of green paper, and money created by the central bank through open market operations, and debt money (e.g. bonds, bank credit etc.). I know that we could debate the question of differences between these money types, what should be included in money etc. However, my purpose here is specific, and you will (I hope)understand why I characterise money in this way.

For me, the most important thing about money is not about the nature of the money, but about the demands that money might make on the economy. For example, each unit of money is a future demand for x value of product and services in a particular economic unit, typically but not always a country. The interesting thing about money is that it can very broadly be divided into 'now' money, and money in y period of time, or money in y period of time and z now etc. In other words, money units have a temporal dimension. This gives us something of an idea of how money can be seen to be founded in something. This is that the value of money is determined by the demands that might be made on the total value of output in the economic unit.

The important point about this is that, at given moments in time, there is a combination of credit money and base money in any economy. However, at any given moment, there is a total level of output of value in the economy. I use the word value here because what value might be is subjectively derived; for person A, they may value a new television over a Wedgewood tea set, even where the tea set has a higher price. However, regardless of what individuals value, there is a total output, however difficult that might be to measure accurately, but with relative prices making the best proxy that we have for perceptions of value. The point is that, with a given labour force, given technologies, given skill sets, and so forth, there is finite amount of value that can be created in an economy at any given moment.

You will notice here that I am treating an economy as if it is an economic island, which is false. Economies are not islands, and an economy's output is also contingent on the value creation in other economies. For example, if country B makes a product better/more cost effectively (I leave this loose here) than country A, then the country A output of value is questionable unless they do something to match the country B output of value. As such it possible to have potential for output of value that will not be realised, as there is a real world of competition. Therefore, the potential output of value of an economic unit is not its potential, but its potential in relation to other economic units. That potential is continually shifting, dictated by policy, individual and corporate endeavour etc.

The value of money is therefore contingent upon several factors; temporal, quantity, and the potential value of output of the economy which the money represents. For example, the bond market is driven by second guessing the relative influence of these factors, albeit that the second guessing is often crude and misdirected. The key point here is that each monetary unit, given these contingencies, at any given moment in time, represents one x percent of the total value of output in the economy. In other words, money is rooted in the total output of value in the economy, at a given moment in time. There can only be, as an economy is currently structured now, x amount of value of goods/services that can be purchased. I am being simplistic here, as some people simply hold the 'now' money, so that it ceases to be a demand on the economic unit, even though the money exists. In this circumstance, it makes no call on the output of value at that moment. It is another contingency on how money is valued, but by not making a call on the value in the economy now, it allows for a call on value tomorrow. For example, for a bond that has matured, might not be used as money now, but to buy more bonds with a view that this will allow an even greater capture of value in the future.

There are several things that are important when viewing money and value of output in the future. It is quite possible to issue more money now in the expectation that output of value will increase in the future to match the increase in money. Creating a greater supply of money, with the contingency that output of value will match the increase in supply is a risk. If output of value does not increase commensurate to the increase in money, then there is a problem. The value of output per unit of money has diminished. Most damaging of all, is when the demand for the value of output sits outside of the economic unit; if the demand is within the economic, it might represent a transfer, for example the liquidation of a mortgage debt.

However, even then, it is possible that the issuance of too much mortgage 'money' might be inflationary, and problematic. If the mount of money created for mortgages increases faster than the value of the value of the housing stock, this means that there is a specific and narrow price inflation, but also with a wider price inflation in the economy as a whole, as that mortgage money transfers into the economy. It just takes time. The housing bubble was this process in action. The rate of mortgage money creation increased faster than the value of housing stock, and also prompted bubble activity, such as building McMansions as a process of trying to soak up some of this new money creation. This brings me back to the problem of external credit, which is far worse, as it never represents an internal transfer.

The external funding of new money in the economy, such as mortgage debt, is a future external demand on the output of value in the economy. In all cases, it quite literally means that in the future, a demand will be made on the value of output in the economy such that some of that value output will no longer be available within the economic unit. The greater the value of the money created through external debt, the greater the demand on future output of value. This kind of demand can accumulate to the point where the external demands on the total output of value are so large, that an economy has no reasonable chance of servicing the value without having so many goods and services flow out of the economic unit that the actors in the unit will be reduced to penury. This is Greece now.

The curious part of the Greece story is that it is divorced from base money, and the problems are entirely created by creditors realising that the output of the Greek economy is not able to provide the value that they expected, or rather that Greece is unwilling to deliver that value as the loss of that value of output from within the economic unit of Greece is too hard to bear. The external debt of Greece is simply a massive demand on the value of the total output of value of the economic unit called Greece.

The idea that monetary units have no foundation, except in a social construction is simply not true. It is founded in the output of value in the economy for which a particular currency pertains. It may be complex, due to the contingencies that I describe. This is why all debt markets are so complex. However, there is one thing that is certain. If the aggregrate money supply increases faster than the value of output, the value of each unit of money will be diminished. We must also remember that the value of each economic unit is contingent upon the ability of each unit in each area of business, and that the aggregate of the ability will inherently effect the value of money, as this will impact upon the ability to realise potential output of value in an economy. Finally, externally created money is the highest risk, as it will absolutely make a demand on output of value in the future, and that value, if repaid will mean less output of value in the economic unit. Even if the economy does grow in an economic unit, a portion of that growth will no longer be available in the economic unit. The economic unit will have less output of value at the time that the demand is made for the output of value.

The final point is this; expanding money supply without an ability for increases in the output of value destroys the value of money. Borrow and spend is exactly this, and external borrowing is horrendously risky.

Note: This started as a short and quick and 'dirty' post, but did not turn out that way. I hope it all hangs together, and I have avoided some complexity that might have been added due to time constraints, and to keep the ideas as simple as possible. The nature of internally generated debt money is a case in point. Comments, as ever, welcomed. Feel free to be critical and pick holes. I published despite this despite being loose ideas with critiques in mind; I would like to refine these ideas, and critiques (constructive ones) and suggestions will help. In short, I have thrown the ideas 'into the ring' to see how they stand up to critical eyes. Regular readers will know that I have considered money before (sorry, no time to find the link, but it would help in supporting this post), and this is just some further thoughts/evolution/adaptation of the earlier longer and more detailed consideration.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The UK: Statistics and Economy

Some time ago, I was complaining about the increasing opacity/difficulty in obtaining information about the UK economy, for example with the previously wonderful National Statistics now completely hopeless. As such, I have to offer a big word of thanks to Dr. Tim Morgan of Tullett Prebon, who has made an excellent database of statistics available here, and would also recommend the database to those who are likewise frustrated with finding basic data from the official sites. In practical terms, it means less time looking for information, and more time looking at what the data might mean. This is what Dr. Morgan has to say:

Finding key data on UK issues such as inflation, the economy, spending, taxation and debt can all too often prove time-consuming and baffling. The Tullett Prebon UK Economic & Fiscal Database is designed to contribute to the quality of the public debate by providing all participants with ready access to objective and consistent data.

As a celebration of so much easily accessible information, I will today overload on statistics, and use the statistics as a foundation for a review of the UK economy. First of all the government finances, commencing with a breakdown of revenues (billions):

There are a couple of points of note here; the first is that after the drop that took place when the economic crisis became visible, revenue has been steadily increasing with VAT revenue growth particularly pronounced. A commentator recently suggested that the deficit growth was due to a collapse in revenue, but we can see that this only explains a small element of the deficit. With regards to collecting revenues, I propose a more open, efficient and transparent system, and a system that will also reduce costs and distortions in behaviour. For example, I propose the abolition of all corporation tax, and a flat income tax. Since writing the post on reform, I have identified some problems with the proposal, but still hold with the principles (I may update the post if I have some time).

Below, we have spending (£billions):

I don't think any reader of this blog will be unaware of the growing problems of financing pensions and health with an ageing population. I have often spoken about the necessity of priority; that the government needs to make some hard choices between where an ultimately limited amount of resource might go. I have also argued that there are ways of cutting the expenditure of government whilst also maintaining provision of services and safety nets. For example, as one of the more controversial suggestions, I propose that welfare becomes an interest free loan with a finite duration and amount. It is a system that would see the welfare share of spending fall, albeit that it would increase government borrowing in the short term. It is a return to the principle of welfare; that it is a safety net. If you look at the links at the top right of the page, you will find solutions to some other areas of spending. I chose the area chart format as they give a good picture of direction of spending and income, but the overview is better represented through a bar chart (billions, at current values):

It does not look very pretty overall. In fact, it look downright ugly. We then have to ask what this is achieving. How is the UK economy really doing? This is unemployment during massive credit expansion:

In this figure, we can see the impact of the boom, and the appearance of the economic crisis is vivid. When looking at the chart, when looking at the fall in unemployment, it needs to be considered in relation to debt, both government (see above) and private:

It is very apparent that debt growth was masking underlying problems in the UK economy. The second chart perhaps is more scary than it should be. We need to remember that the massive increase in aggregate debt took place during a period of high immigration; the massive expansion of borrowing and the activity that it generated had less impact upon unemployment as it also coincided with high immigration levels. This is from the ONS:

And this reflects in the number in employment:

In these charts, we can see that the rapid credit expansion did dent the unemployment statistics as much as would be expected, as the size of the workforce was also increasing, with significant immigration accompanying the credit boom. The really interesting part is to see what all of these people were actually doing:

Perhaps the most notable point in this, is the increasing size of financial intermediation. Although the figures only go to to 2010, we can see the expansion and subsequent contraction of areas that would be associated with a credit boom; wholesale and retail, real estate. Somewhat surprising is that hotel and restaurants did not see greater expansion. Financial intermediation by contrast, has grown and grown, and (at least as far as these figures go) has not yet started to contract, but I believe that this is now taking place from various news stories (and see below). I took a look at the 2007 SIC codes, to get some sense of what the high expansion in 'all other' means, and examples include legal and accounting, management consultancy, scientific research, R&D, Market Research, rental and leasing of machinery, recruitment consultancy, security services, administrative support services etc. In other words, some of these activities might be associated closely with credit expansion, and other not. Manufacturing is notably flat, as are the primary commodity sectors. Although the chart given above is helpful, it does not give an indication of actual employment, and I dug out some figures from ONS, and created the following (key is given underneath):

A = Agriculture, forestry & fishing, B = Mining and Quarrying, C = Manufacturing, D = Electricity, gas, steam & air conditioning supply, E = Water supply, sewerage etc., F = Construction, G = Wholesale, retail, motor trades, H = Transport and Storage, I = Accommodation and food, J = Information and Communication, K = Financial and Insurance, L = Real Estate, M = Professional and Technical Services, N = Admin and Support Services, O = Public admin, defence and compulsory social security, P = Education, Q = Human Health and social work, R = Arts, entertainment and rec, S = All other services.

The stand outs are the decline in manufacturing employment, Construction, Real Estate, and Retail, albeit that there is something of an uptick in the latter. Also notable is that the numbers working for the state appears to be in decline, but we need to consider this against the increase in 'All other' in the earlier chart of GVA and the increase in Professional Services in this chart; it may be that there is displacement going on here..... Another stand out is the increase in Q, Human Health and Social Work, which now seems to be reversing. A real curiosity is the growth in in D & E, which covers utilities; for E this can be explained by the rejuvenation of infrastructure being undertaken by the water companies (as a guess), but the increase in numbers for electricity is more of a puzzle. As discussed earlier, finance and insurance sees the numbers reducing, which is not apparent in the GVA chart. However, whilst this paints a picture of the post economic crisis, more interesting is to look at what has taken place whilst the world economy restructured in response to the entry of the emerging economies into the system, so I have added December 2000 to the chart, with the label of 'Series 6'. I have placed it next to the 2011 figures to make the changes more apparent.

Manufacturing is startling, even though we have long known this to be the case. For construction, there is still have a way to go before reaching pre-boom numbers, and any reversal of credit growth will mean this sector will shrink even further than pre-boom numbers. If we look at retail now in comparison with unsecured debt now and in 2000 (see earlier chart), the picture is mixed. In contrast to the more recent picture, accommodation and food, however, appears to be an area that may have some contraction if credit growth slows, but there is a question of whether people will forgo retail to continue to enjoy these services, which is a different question, and might mean contraction in retail. In other words, how will disposable income be split between these two sectors if credit expansion stops. Real estate activities still seems to over-large in numbers employed, and still has a way to go down. An offset here is that there are reports of inwards investment into UK real estate, with buyers considering the UK a safe haven. In other words, the sector may yet have 'legs', but my guess is that it is unlikely to last too long.

I have already discussed professional services, and the picture here may be seen as supporting the point about displacement (also see N, Admin support, which may be the same question). However, when looking at export figures, these services appear to have grown, so it is hard to make sense of the figures when aggregated. Education (P) is a real standout for growth in employment. It would be interesting to see how much of this growth is in the tertiary sector, which would reflect the government goals of expanding tertiary education, and also the increase in numbers of overseas students. Whether overseas students will continue to want a UK education is a question that is debatable, as questions are being raised about educational quality (beyond the scope of this post). Finally, we come to another huge standout; health (Q). This stands as an exemplar of the hard choices being confronted by government. In simple terms, each additional person employed in the health system is one less person with potential to be employed in underlying wealth generating activity in the wider economy. And the numbers are going to keep on growing as the population ages. Much more could be said on this subject, but I will leave this open for the moment (at risk of comments that point out that it is not as simple point as I make it). 

 We now come to wages. Below are some key figures for wages and inflation:

I have titled the chart 'getting poorer', as this is the picture it paints. You need to consider this in light of the ongoing massive borrow and spend of government, and the dubious activity of printing money. Also, you need to consider that the indices for inflation are questionable, and that even if accepting the indices in principle, the impact upon individual households is variable. If we really want to understand something about the underlying nature of the economy, the devil is in the detail (sorry for the messy chart, but it is readable). I have gone a bit further back than the chart above, and this is because of the fascinating story of consumer durables.

You will note how there was significant deflation in the price of consumer durables, which we can safely say reflects the entry of countries like China into the world economy. We can see the peaks in energy prices, and the fall in the same prices as the economic crisis bit home. And now, we see inflation in energy once again; however, this time, the inflation may yet be offset as the global economy teeters (in part driven by higher energy prices), in part by the adoption of fracking. On the other sideof the coin, so called 'green energy' are a potential driver in the UK towards higher electricity prices. The chart below gives annual electricity bills, and it is apparent that they are growing rapidly. It deserves a post in its own right, but there are considerable problems looming for UK electricity supply, and the real cost of 'green' energy is now becoming apparent in Germany (e.g. see here and here)

Higher energy prices, it should be remembered, impact more upon those with lower incomes, and the same can be said of food prices. Income spent on energy is not spent elsewhere. The final point of note is that consumer durables have now started to climb in price. If  we look at the $US exchange rate, which is the currency of trade, we can see something of the reason (£GB - $US).

Other factors that may also having an impact are rising wages in places like China, and rising energy prices. However, if China does slow significantly, it is quite possible that there will again be deflation in consumer durables; as orders in Chinese factories decline, there may be a period of significant discounting as businesses seek to at least contribute something to their fixed costs. However, the trajectory of the £GB may offset this, and there is ongoing money printing policies in the major economies to muddle any idea of future exchange rates. Competitive devaluation through printing money means that UK money printing effects may be neutralised by other countries printing money. In summary, inflation is very likely to continue, but the degree of future inflation is a very open question. There are simply too many variables that might impact upon inflation in the UK, with UK government and central bank policy simply additional influences.

With regards to house prices, they continue to fall in price in inflation adjusted terms, even if headline prices are relatively stable:

More interesting is the house price to earnings ratio, given below:

By historical standards, they are still high. I must however mention that house prices are, in part, being supported by the inwards investment, as discussed earlier, in particular in London. Nevertheless, the current ratio suggests current prices are not as stable as they may appear. The Economist also proposes that UK real estate is overvalued compared with rental value (26%) and income (17%), suggesting that real declines will continue at some stage.

My final chart of the day is one I will copy from a previous post, covers the balance of trade, and comes from the (from ONS):

£billion, seasonally adjusted
As I stated in a recent post, it is a good indicator of the long term sustainability of the standard of living within an economy and, again, it is not a very positive picture. 

So how can we add up all of these piles of charts? The first point I would like to make is that we can, in part, see that the economic crisis did NOT start in 2008, but started much earlier. It has been so easy for commentators to blame the 'financial crisis', as it evades the fact that there were changes taking place earlier, and that these were simply hidden under the cloak of massive extension of credit. The UK entered the 'financial crisis' already in a state of economic crisis. When looking at relatively benign inflation in the face of credit expansion, the impact of ongoing deflation driven by cheap labour and cost structures in emerging economies was not accounted for. The very real inflation in house prices was ignored; apparently that was un-worrisome inflation. When I first looked at the UK economy in any depth, it quickly became apparent that the boom years were built upon foundations of credit expansion, and I worried for the future and proposed that people were poorer than they thought. We can now see people becoming poorer in the decline in real standards of living, and the now steady decline in the value of most people's primary asset.

People are becoming poorer in spite of government borrow and spend, which is at astoundingly high levels. When consumers were unable to 'grow' the economy through more debt accumulation, the government tried to 'grow' the economy through debt. Spending tomorrow's income now is not a way to grow an economy, as it will see a shrinkage of disposable income in the future. As it is, private debt is now in a very slight decline. However, this slight decline is more than offset by the massive increase in government borrowing; but incomes still continue to fall. This only serves to illustrate the depth of the economic crisis that confronts the UK. Even whilst borrowing and spending more in aggregate, people were becoming poorer, and unemployment was rising. The UK has not even started to address the crisis that sits metaphorically in front of its nose. It does not take much imagination to see what might happen if the UK was to seriously try to balance its budget. Those £billions of debt generate a large amount of employment. What it does not do is generate underlying wealth; that wealth is generated in the primary commodity industries, manufacturing and the export of services. 

These sectors are the ones that are either sitting on plateaus or in decline. Sure, a flood of money into UK real estate might help tide the UK over for a little longer, but that is surely just another repeat of a bubble. There are still such temporary sticking plasters to cover the gaping wound in the UK economy. What these do not do is increase the ability of the UK to export goods and services, which allow the UK to trade in the goods and services necessary to sustain current standards of living. Quite simply, the UK is unable to compete well enough in world markets to sustain the current standard of living. In this post, I looked at government expenditure, and it is apparent that some expenditure is subject to upwards pressure; health care and pensions. These two expenditures look set to rise, even as the UK faces ongoing competitive pressures. In real terms, it means labour being taken from potentially wealth creating industries, and either being redirected into health care, or labour becoming inactive in increasing numbers. The ability to compete with such shifts in the labour force is a challenge the UK must face, in addition to facing the fiercer competition in the world. The UK is not, of course, alone in such challenges, but faces them whilst already struggling to compete. 

I keep on discussing this, but it does not do harm to say it again. The so-called 'austerity' of the current government is not austerity, but a luxury; a luxury that cannot be afforded. It is spending borrowed money to avoid confronting the real underlying standard of living in the UK. It is storing up trouble in the face of the challenges of shifts in the labour force, and a less forgiving world economy. So what is to be done?

The answer is to start to question what can, and cannot be afforded. My benefits reform is an example of how a principle might survive intact, whilst seeing reduction in cost. The aim is simple; to allow what was intended as a safety net to return to its original purpose. Real reform, the kind of reform that is increasingly necessary, requires that the shackles of historic legacies be thrown off. The benefits system did not start out as it is now; it evolved over time into what it has become. The same can be said of swathes of policy that comprises the foundation of government expenditure. If you look at the UK's tax code, it is possible to see that the (sometimes) good intentions of government after government has evolved into a sinkhole to drain away productive activity. Instead, the UK has a massive and fundamentally unproductive industry with the sole purpose of managing tax. Can the UK really afford to have so much productive capacity dedicated to what, in the end, is a process of collecting x amount of government revenue?

It is these really fundamental questions that must be asked, and asked of every area of government; what must the government do, how can it do what it must do differently and better, and where are the priorities for what government should do? These are the questions that are still not being addressed. In the meantime, the UK is becoming poorer. I see no change to this in current policy; but rather see the opposite outcome, which is an acceleration of the decline in the standard of living. After all, where is the policy to really address the poor and declining performance of the UK economy?

Note: I hope this is not too 'clunky'; comments welcomed on this and all points of the post. I have covered a lot of ground in this, so please point out any errors you may see.

Note 2: Shortly after publication - I am not sure I have made the best use of the data given - a bit like a kid in a sweetshop gorging without pause. Thoughts / comments welcomed.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Oh dear, Prof. Krugman

This is a very short post. This from the Guardian on the ever more odd discussions of Prof. Krugman:

On the day the Nobel prize for economics was announced in Stockholm, a former winner was in London urging the government to ditch the "mad" austerity policy that was keeping the British economy depressed. Paul Krugman joined Jonathan Portes for a debate on whether the government had gone too far, too fast.
In what world is the current level of government spending 'austerity'? It is the oddest idea that can be imagined. The deficit is huge (from the Guardian):

Apparently this is 'austerity'. Or at least according to the ever more unreal Prof. Krugman this is 'austerity'. Nevertheless, his words will be taken seriously by many. He may have won a nobel prize, but that does not make his pronouncements any more sensible than any other of the many economists that failed to recognise the problems in the world economy until they were already in plain sight.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Multilplier Effect of Borrowing and Economic Structure

This was originally part of a larger post, but I decided to edit it down to a single point, and will probably chop the remainder of the post up later. As such, it is not up to date on the latest news, but the news on which it is based I think is not the stuff of 'events', but rather reveals something which is driving current problems in Europe and many other countries are facing.This is from the article that started the post:
“This week the socialist government in France went berserk with austerity and tightening measures. This could put the country’s recovery at serious risk and perhaps President Fran├žois Hollande may need to re-read the economic page on ‘fiscal multipliers’ – if no book is available the S&P Rating Services offers a sanguine view on page 5. The study proves how the fiscal multiplier in Spain has been closer to 6 to 1, rather than 1 to 0.5% rule which IMF applies. In the case of France we have an economy with low rates, an expensive labour market and now a new marginal tax of 75% - everything being equal will that lead to lower or higher growth?  I think you know the answer, even without 5 years wasted at a university becoming an economist.” Steen Jakobsen, Chief Economist at Saxo
There is a link in the quote to an a report from S&P, which gives a breakdown of fiscal multipliers; 'For instance, in the UK, a fiscal contraction equivalent to about 4% of GDP between 2009 and 2011 had a negative effect on GDP growth about twice as high as the typical fiscal multiplier implies.' (p.5) The reason given in the S&P report for the higher multiplier is that there has been a simultaneous fiscal tightening over the developed world, and that the effects of reflationary policies in countries like China are fading. 

There are two interesting points that emerge from the S&P report. The first point is that they are actually identifying how critical government borrow and spend is in supporting many developed world economies. The ever well-informed but ever more dubious analysis of Ambrose Evans-Pritchard leads to this conclusion being drawn from the report:

Europe's manic determination to tighten further into recession to meet its bureaucratic targets is nothing less than suicidal.
However, the real point that can be understood from the report is that it reveals something of the depth of the economic structure that is being supported by government borrow and spend policy. Regular readers will know that I have often expressed concern about the way in which many countries have structures that have developed to service debt driven consumption. The interesting thing about this report is that it starts to hint at the degree to which economies are now reliant on ongoing government borrowing to maintain current standards of living. In my first ever post, I argued that, for example, the UK is poorer than it thinks, and this is the case in all of the countries that are following the borrow and spend path through the economic crisis.

It is not at all complicated. Current standards of living are to a very large degree contingent on borrowing and consuming. Economies that do so are simply entrenching the structure to service consumption based upon growing debt. As soon, as a government cuts back on debt growth, the structure that is supported by debt growth starts to collapse, and the real wealth generating economy underneath the unsustainable structure becomes exposed. Quite simply, there is no way out of the pain of restructuring, unless there is major economic upturn around the world. The problem is that, as the situation stands, this is not going to happen.

The Keynesians argue that the answer is more fiscal stimulus, and that this will regenerate demand, and all boats will rise with the fiscal stimuli. If only everyone borrowed and spent, all would be well. However, there is a fundamental problem with this idea. The more countries borrow, the more they restructure their economies around the borrowing. If, as they Keynesians had their way, all the countries of Europe were to raise their borrow and spend, this would (assuming that creditors would go along with it; a big assumption) lift Europe out of its current funk. The problem is that the restructuring of all economies to servicing debt based consumption would simply be greater. As country A borrows more, it would not only lift country A, but also countries B and C, which would help service the new demands in country A. The new activity in country B would also lift demand in country A amd B, and so forth.

The problem with this solution is that it is simply spreading the underlying structure of debt based consumption more broadly. Instead of just being reliant on your own borrowing to support your current standard of living, you become reliant upon country A, C, D, E etc. also continuing to borrow and consume. It merely extends the reliance of borrow and spend into an ever more entrenched network. As soon as any country in the network stops borrowing and spending, it impacts upon other countries within the network. Just as the upwards multiplier in the above paragraph lifted all boat, the same can be said of the downwards multiplier. It is this downwards multiplier that the Keynesians fear, and they are right to fear it.

The Keynesian's problem is that they simply do not accept that the more governments borrow and spend, the more entrenched the underlying problem becomes. The greater the coordination in borrow and spend, the greater the network effect of the multiplier, and the greater the negative impact when any single borrower cuts back. In the case of Europe, the fate of each economy is closely entwined with the European economy as a whole due to dense trade links. Any increase in borrowing of any country will improve the economy of its neighbours, and thus make those neighbours more reliant upon continued borrowing. The problem is that borrowing must have a limit. And as each borrow and spend domino falls, the others start to wobble as the effects of the falling domino moves through the network, multiplying the effects beyond the original domino. Coordinated borrow and spend is metaphorically moving the dominoes ever closer together.

The other problem is also distantly related to game theory. If country A tightens whilst all other countries increase borrow and spend, country A will start to restructure its own economy to be less reliant on borrowing. The stimuli from other countries will help it through the adjustment, and it will be left in a position of relatively less debt. It will still be reliant upon the network effect of the debt accumulation of the other countries in the network, which still means further pain at some point in the future, but the pain will be less than those who borrowed most profligately. By contrast, the country that borrows the most will undergo the greatest restructuring to service debt, and will contribute most to the network, at a cost of being in a weaker position in the future. Whilst this debt accumulation will maintain (or even enhance) their own standard of living in the near term, they are also disproportionately contributing to the network at a cost of increasing their debt and greater cost in the medium to long term. In other words, the smart policy now is to restructure whilst encouraging others to borrow and spend; as long as you are not the lender to those borrowing and spending, as these countries are going to have the greatest problems in repaying the debt later.

When looking at the fiscal multipliers, it is possible to see something of quite how large the debt consumption structure actually is for each country, but what is does not show is how those multipliers might effect a dense network. The problem is that we know that individual country multipliers will certainly have network multipliers, but nobody can calculate the network multipliers, which would require understanding of a dense network of interlinking relationships and layer upon layer of feedback between actors in the network. The real complexity in the European network is the different starting points of different countries, and that apparently less debt structured countries have already been lending heavily to those that have been net contributors to the system, not realising how dependent they themselves were becoming upon debt based consumption. Without this, we would see a very different response to the crisis. 

What this finally comes to is that government borrowing to support consumption cannot be sustained. Borrowing must have a limit. Although cut backs in borrowing will result in a downward spiral, and the downward spiral will be large if there is simultaneous cuts in borrowing, this does not alter the fact that, at some point, economies must restructure. Coordinated borrow and spend can only make the problems even larger in the future. Acting as a net contributor in the network is foolhardy. Lending to a net contributor is foolhardy. Notwithstanding the complexity engendered by past lending, it leaves Europe in a position where the only real solution is to accept that the restructuring will lead to a downwards spiral. Better now than later.

Notes on Comments on the Last Post:

Lord Sidcup:  I agree that, in some respects, the dichotomy between real and unreal becomes ever harder to see. I am very sympathetic to the creditism argument, and the original version of this post was going to address what is 'real' to some degree. For the moment, I will just say that what we are seeing is not that there is not a real underlying economic reality, it is just getting harder and harder to see. In some respects, it is a flight of fancy to use the world 'real', but what I mean by this is the idea that economies, in the long run, are comprised of individual actors who buy and consume 'stuff' and create 'stuff'. The global economy still comprises this fundamental structure. The relationships between these actors are the fundamental drivers of economics in the long run.

These actors operate in a global system comprised of the other actors, and there are subsystems in which these actors participate, which is individual country economies, and these operate more or less efficiently. These in turn have economic entities which operate more or less efficiently. Beneath this is the layer of individual actors, who also are more or less efficient. Obscuring this is money and debt (I will not argue about the distinction between these here), which is a layer over the top of a system in which each individual actor is a consumer of resources and/or adding value to resources (not all actors are both consumers and 'value adders') within a system.

The fundamental of 'real' wealth creation is the efficiency with which value is added to any given resource, relative to other actors. If you can take an input and add more value to it than another actor, then in the long run you will be more wealthy. The obscuring layers hide where the real value is being created. I know this is an incomplete answer, but I hope it helps to clarify a little about what I mean by real. However, in some respects I accept what you say about a false dichotomy, as the unreal and the real are ever less separable.

Lemming: An interesting point about throwing the dice on infrastructure:

He doesn't say it as such, but I think there's a suggestion that if we borrow lots of money to build infrastructure and then default, at least we'll have the infrastructure; if we don't do that, we'll still default because we won't be able to grow, and we won't have the infrastructure for the future either.
I did not see Evan Davies, but note your mention of 'investment' in infrastructure for new rail lines. These were no doubt called an investment, but rail requires subsidy. As such, it is an investment almost guaranteed to create a negative return in financial terms. However, it might have a positive return in improving 'quality of life', but that is achieved at a cost that needs to be considered against other priorities for government spending.

However, the problem runs deeper than this example. If it is accepted that government should provide and invest in infratructure such as roads (which is another topic), then it is quite right that investing in infrastructure might be viewed as a positive, provided that there is a real need (and in the case of roads I would think that this is probably the case). However, the problem of the UK is not one caused by investment in infrastructure, but rather that there is overall consumption that exceeds the wealth generating capacity of the country. The question then becomes one in which it is necessary to ask what can be afforded. Provided that there is a real need for x infrastructure project, it absolutely should be at the top of the priorities. The problem is that nobody is willing to really accept that there must be much tougher priorities or the resources available to goverment must be used more efficiently.

In other words, asking for greater investment in infrastructure may be reasonable, but still leaves the problem that the current undertakings of the government cannot be afforded in their current form. The assumption is that the spending on infrastructure must be undertaken on top of the current undertakings. Where does the assumption come from? It is quite possible to cut undertaking x and y, and at the same time put resource into infrastructure. They are not mutually exclusive. And if, and it is a big if, the infrastructure improves the economy, this will allow for greater resource for the government in the future. My real worry in all of this was that, in particular during the build up to the crisis, was that the words spend and investment became interchangeable. However, that again is another topic. The main point here is to point out the problematic assumption. There is no reason that spending on infrastructure should mean incresing borrowing.  It is just a question of priorities.

General Comments: Thanks for the positive feedback. Also, some challenges and interesting contributions. I would love to answer all the comments, but as you can see, this is already a long post with some long answers to a couple of the comments already. Quite simply, I have run out of time.

Final Note: For some reason, the Blogger service keeps changing 'S&P' to gobbledygook - apologies if this takes place when I hit the publish button, but I am unsure how to fix it (and it may happen in this note as well).

A reply to a comment on this post (same day as post, the reply was too many characters for the comments so added here):

Nice to see you commenting again Chaingangcharlie. I agree that the lead up to the crisis was not a very positive picture for the invisible hand but.....  but the sudden dropping of massive surplus of labour into the world economy was not the work of the invisible hand, but very visible hands. China and India kept their workforce out of the global supply, and then 'dropped' their workforce into the supply. The invisible hand was not the cause here. As a regular reader, I am sure that you will know my argument that this labour shock was the underlying cause of the financial crisis (aided by regulation), the boom in credit etc. I cannot detail this here. However, the point is that it is not the visible hand.

As for bankrupt, you are right that printing money is not going bankrupt in the strictest terms. However, if you hold a devalued GBP that has taken a 'haircut' as a result of devaluation, how is this different from taking a haircut more directly from a failure to pay and renegotiation?

In both cases, the value of your bond holding has fallen, and the issuer has failed to pay what they implicitly promised; returning to you x% of greater value that you lent. A country cannot be legally bankrupt, but being unable to pay your debts is, from a pragmatic point of view the same thing. 

As for the market knows best, as I have detailed in other posts, the global economy is no longer about market signals, but about government and central bank actions. Again, there are very visible hands at work, and how is that working out for us? You say we will head into a long period of pain, and suggest this is not the answer. However, we can see what has happened when the other answer has been pursued to a conclusion; Greece and Spain.  When it comes to other borrow and spend countries, they may have a while yet, but......what must finally happen unless they eventually accept that they cannot consume more than they produce....?

You have confidence, it seems in the policy makers who failed to see the crisis coming, who have not resolved the crisis since it became apparent in 2008, and who have in the meantime printed and borrowed to no effect. And despite this policy action, as I have discussed before, people are still getting poorer, and doing so whilst racking up future commitments that will make people even poorer.

In the meantime they have obliterated any functioning of the market, created monetary time-bombs, and borrowed to the point where any prospect of repaying the debt grows ever more dim. In so doing, what have they created; an economic system that is now policy driven. But driving where? Do you see this policy action working on any level at all, except for building and ever less sustainable and distorted structure?

You have faith in policy makers to make things right. I have no faith in them whatsoever, as their record is dismal. They have failed on every level, and even the most casual reading of the news shows that this is the case. Even when the news is positive, the situation always reverses. The overused phrase of 'green shoots' appears, only to see that there were no real green shoots, or that the shoots whither as soon as they emerge. How much failed policy would it take to convince you? What would it take to dissuade you of the necessity to change course?

Unlike those who proposed exansionary austerity, I never bought this idea. I always recognised that you cannot restructure away from debt fuelled and unsustainable consumption without a painful adjustment. And this is why I emphasise that the problems are that economies are structured around debt based consumption. If that is accepted, then more debt just deepens the problem. More countries simultaneously increasing debt just raises the problem to a new level and deepens the structural problems. I understand your concern, but surely leaving the current system in place can only eventually make things worse.

And then what will the final mess look like? I do not like the choice I propose but it is the same point I have made for a long time; pain now or more pain later. I go for pain now. It is not good, it should never have got to this situation etc. etc. but the situation as it stands is still the situation.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Perpetual Economic Growth Machine

When first starting this blog, I had a thesis; that debt growth was the underlying cause of 'economic growth'. As the blog progressed, along with the breadth and depth of my analysis, I came up with the idea that the economic crisis had an underlying cause; a labour supply shock in conjunction with a lack of commensurate increase in commodity supply. It was an idea that I then used to develop the idea of hyper-competition. In light of this theory, I thought that the outcome would be clear. The Western economies were uncompetitive, and they would lose out in the face of the competition from the emerging economies. It seemed so screamingly obvious that I wrote a post in 2009, predicting that it was the year of the fall of the West (Japan was counted in the West, which I know is a little odd). It was a post in which I made a poor assumption; I thought that, one way or another, the underlying and obvious problems of the Western economies MUST be recognised.

The crash I predicted failed to take place, and I took a hit to my credibility.

When the predicted crash failed to materialise, I was heavily criticised by commentators on Reddit. I responded by saying that at least I was willing to put a date on the turning point, whilst others lack confidence in their theories and refuse to predict outcomes. I should have added that a theory needs to be tested by evidence; can it predict? If it cannot predict, then it fails. Most of what you read does not offer the confidence to predict outcomes, or leaves the timings of outcomes open. The authors shroud their thesis in ambiguity, and nothing they say can be held accountable.

My mistake at the time I wrote of the Downfall of the West was that I failed to see that there was plenty of extremes to which policy makers were willing to resort. In addition, I failed to see how entrenched views of the world were; the West was the heartbeat of the world economy, and NOTHING would ever change that. It a question of government action acting to support and shore up a world view that is resilient the the underlying facts. We would return to the status quo of the West living high on the hog, whilst those poor countries tried to catch up. The world economy would return to the natural order, once we just sorted out the fallout from the 'financial crisis'. It was just a problem in the financial system, and some policy action here and there would return all back to 'normal'.

If you have contrary evidence to your theory, you need to ask why you got it wrong. Perhaps, in the explanation I have given above, I am making excuses. I am highly self-critical, and do not believe these are excuses. In fact, as time has progressed, I have come to the view that I was right all along. Not right that there would be a terrific crash, but right in my underlying thesis. I expected drama, not the steady and relentless decline that has taken place. I argued that the West is 'poorer than we think' and we are steadily recognising this in the decline of the standard of living in many Western countries. We are slowly but surely seeing the middle classes being hollowed out, declining real incomes, growing unemployment (or underemployment). This is taking place against the backdrop of crazy levels of sovereign borrowing, money printing, and the related issue of extraordinarily low interest rates. None of this extreme policy seems able to lift the economies of the West.

Instead, whilst governments rack up debts, and money is pouring forth from central banks, we are just getting poorer. I have to emphasise the point that governments are creating mountains of debt, and we are still in day-to-day terms, getting poorer. We are already poorer, but how much poorer will we be when (assuming we actually pay it) we start to bear the load of the debt being accumulated now. Tax must rise at some stage to pay for it. The opposite view is that economies will return to major growth, and this will cover the debts. It is a promise that has been made for a long time. However, even as governments borrow, as money is printed, there is no real growth. There is only the anaemic growth that is following profligate borrow and spend policy.

It has never been complicated. If I borrow money, and use that money to pay for consumption, it generates activity in the economy. The borrowed money circulating through the economy creates activity, and that reflects in the GDP figures. Take away the borrowing, and GDP falls. We see this in Greece and Spain, and start to see what takes place when an economy reliant on borrowing stops borrowing. The evidence is there in plain sight. Nevertheless, there are many who argue that the problems of overly in-debt countries is to borrow more, and they convince many people. Borrow 1 billion, and it will produce 3 billion of activity in the economy, and the tax income from that activity will allow the economic growth to pay back the debt through increased tax revenue.

Just think about this. A country borrows money to produce revenue to pay back the borrowing. The problem is simple; resources are being consumed along the way. The view that borrowing more is going to solve problems is based upon the idea of a perpetual motion machine. There is no loss of energy, or in this case no loss through the consumption of resource. Borrow and spend is a perpetual motion machine. Borrowed money comes in, generates revenue to pay back the borrowing, and revenue then pays the borrowing. Nothing is lost. No resource is consumed. It is the perfect system. Except that it is impossible.

The perpetual borrow and spend, create revenue, repay borrowing machine is a truly unique idea. It is unique in that so many people have persuaded themselves of its possibility. We laugh at the perpetual motion machine, but many view this perpetual economic growth machine as possible. No loss. Just gain. Here is how it can work. Every year, we can increase our borrowing, and increase the activity in the economy. As the activity increases, we can increase our revenue, and that increases our ability to service our debts. In fact, we are not borrowing enough. If we accelerate our borrowing, we will increase our revenue, and we will be in an even better position to repay our borrowing. The more you borrow, the better you are able to pay back the borrowing. No loss, just growth in revenue, as nothing is apparently being consumed in the process.

If only the perpetual economic machine were true. We could forget having to compete and just borrow our way to prosperity.

I now return to my failed prediction of the 'downfall of the West'. We are growing poorer. And we are consuming based upon growing debt. Real resource is being consumed through debt accumulation. All would be good if there were a perpetual economic growth machine, but it is a fantasy. Nevertheless, that fantasy has real currency in the real world. It has prevented a crash, but we are nevertheless getting poorer. My error of thought was to believe that illogic would be uncovered. Instead, debate and discussion takes place, and the perpetual economic machine is the winning argument that drives belief.  Policy will make the economies of the West return to their natural and rightful position. If in doubt, just keep borrowing towards wealth.

The exceptions, the Spain and Portugal examples, just need to abandon austerity, and they will return to growth. The perpetual economic growth machine will deliver. It WILL deliver, because it MUST deliver. It is a costless machine. Nothing is consumed.

Update just after publication: Just a little note as I left my  thread of thought behind as I wrote (yet again). I missed making a key point. How could anyone predict that people might believe in a perpetual economic growth machine? But people do..... this was a crucial fault in my prediction. Sorry, but I was distracted from the point I was trying to make. I could not accept that the perpetual economic growth machine could be a foundation of belief, and the belief therefore might avoid the crash which I predicted. What we are looking at in the world economy is the contradiction between the perpetual economic growth machine as a belief, and the reality that it cannot and does not work (barring the exceptions such as Spain where we can see the idea collapsing). Reality and belief are bumping together, and reality is slowly winning out.

2nd Update just after publication: Long term readers will have seen my prediction, but still come back. I have always left it in place as I think my record of what I have got wrong is as important as what I have been right about (notwithstanding that I argue here that I was not so wrong). I do not believe that bloggers should 'airbrush' their record, and have left all of my posts as live.  I encourage new readers to dig into the archives. See where I have been right and wrong. Make a judgement on  whether I have something interesting to say based upon my record. I am obviously biased, but I think my record overall puts me in a strong position.....despite my admission/s that I have got things wrong (there is one case where I presented a detailed analysis of an economic forum, only to have an astute reader point out that I was a year out of date; I was analysing the meeting and output of the previsous year, but the post and apology is still online).