Saturday, September 22, 2012

My Predictions

Although I originally began this blog with the idea of keeping track of inflation and potential results for prices and prosperity in general, I haven’t engaged in prediction. My focus has been on commentary. We are, however, at a point that offers some interesting prospects for the future and I though it might be interesting and possibly helpful to suggest a possible set of outcomes.

Specifically, at this point in late 2012 the governments in the major economies have either implemented or are poised to implement some massive monetary flooding, which they call “easing.” The U.S. Federal Reserve officials have announced an open ended $40B a month scheme that will continue until either employment begins increasing or the end of time, whichever comes first. In Europe, the European Central Bank is ready to create unlimited amounts of money, claiming that it has to reduce the spread in government bond prices (between Spain and Italy, who have had to pay high interest rates, and Germany’s very low rates). China is expected to begin more “easing” in that it is currently seeing a much deeper and more significant drop in economic activity than the government seemed to expect. Apparently they thought that they were a separate, insulated entity. In response, just as any Western mixed economy government would do, the Chinese are moving toward spending newly made-up money. Japan has just begun its own easing program and England began theirs a few months ago. There is a great orgy of money creation in progress.

Those countries with “strong” currencies are also involved. They really don’t want to see their competitive position undercut by having other currencies diving in comparative cost, making their own products much more expensive on the world market. One example is that Switzerland’s central bank been buying euros for several months to keep their currency in line. As has been said by others, there is something akin to the arms race growing where every country inflates their currency in competition with the others. This process could also lead to protectionism, with higher tariffs and import controls.

As long as our economic problems are seen as the consequences of low consumption or low demand (and demand is seen as just money and not production related), we can always expect that the government response will be to create more money. There is some fear of the new money increasing consumer prices beyond a certain level (generally at an annual rate of 2% - some poison is good for you apparently). This concern is an interesting hold over from a point where government economists had a closer contact with reality. But there is little concern about the prospects for unacceptable levels of price inflation. It is the case that the upward pressure on prices from constant increases in the money supply tends to be less when production levels are low.

Consequently, we can expect that we will soon see a lot more money being created and put into the larger, more industrialized economies and interest rate will remain extremely low.

The amount of money that actually comes into the U.S. economy is a question for which I have no good answer. There is certainly some, but not as much as you might think when you hear the Fed brag about its easing. The money created by the Fed for QE1 and QE2 is mostly still sitting at the Fed in the deposit accounts for member banks receiving 0.25% a year.

The money supply has continued to grow, but the pace is not as fast as one might expect.

You can see in the graph that the average dollar amount of growth every year has been somewhat consistent. That means that the percentage rate of growth is falling. To just keep the constant percentage rate, this graph would need to show a much larger constantly increasing dollar amount, as the total grew each year.

As a result, consumer prices have moved upward modestly in the last few years (by comparison) and asset prices are mixed (housing downward and equities upward, but less than the CPI). Only bond prices have moved upward, as the Fed has moved to force down long-term interest rates as well as short-term. Long-term rates are very low, especially considering the need for capital in our economy. There is no connection today between savings, investment, interest rates, and the capital markets.

In these conditions, I wonder what the Fed believes that more “quantitative easing” or lower interest rates, could achieve. They talk about lowering unemployment as if the problem is that jobs are not being created for of financial reasons. Here we have an excellent example of theoretical, rationalist thinking that doesn’t consider even the possibility of looking at the real world. At present, there is no connection between the interest rate (including the supply of money) and investment/growth decisions. For a business, the difference between 3% and 2.5% on a long-term, profitable investment is insignificant. The real question for businesses is whether the project could be profitable. Some companies have invested when they have cash on hand. Many are considering a merger or acquisition, which doesn’t add to our productive capacity (although it might improve efficiency). But U.S. companies see no justification in future profitability to make the investment needed to put over two million people to work. The Fed and the Government, and Romney and the Republicans just don’t see that.

Another upcoming set of events in the U.S that could have a negative impact on our economy is the end of the Bush tax cuts and the spending cuts required by law. These events, both scheduled for January 1, 2013, won’t improve the capital and investment situation, although the rate of growth of government debt will slow some. At least in the short-term, if the tax cuts do end and the rate of spending slows, the immediate result will be a drag on the U.S. economy.

I am not convinced that the supposed mandatory cuts in spending are particularly important economically. Some people try to make this situation seem cataclysmic by quoting a cut of over a trillion dollars. That is fraud, since that is a ten-year number. As is always the case with government cuts, they are loaded mostly into the latter years. I think that the 2013 number is closer to $69B, which is for the full year. When you are talking about a multi-trillion budget and a deficit of over a trillion dollars, sixty-nine billion is an accounting error.

But saying “cuts” is intended to be misleading. The Congress didn’t pass a cut in spending. They authorized a reduction in the expected growth of spending. It was a cut from what they thought current laws would require the government would spend. There is not going to be a cut in spending. Let me repeat: These are not cuts in spending but small reductions in the growth of spending. Even so, there may be some companies that will feel an impact in their expected revenue from government contracts. But, economically, compared to the total level of spending and the prospect of more “easing”, big deal.

Combined, the tax cut, possible cuts in the growth of spending, and the Fed’s money flood, mean that there will be less money in people’s pocketbooks, but more, potentially, in the banking system. Remember that the way the Fed’s money gets into the economy is via bank loans. If the banks continue to maintain their stricter standards there is not going to be a significant increase in bank loans. In fact, the current trend is for lower corporate profits, meaning that businesses will be less credit worthy than before (and stock prices should decline, instead of booming). In addition, ever since the beginning of the “Great Recession,” bank regulators have been constantly checking on the “quality” of bank loans. Unless regulators are willing to loosen the strings, banks aren’t taking any riskier loans. I don’t see much of the Fed’s new money getting into the economy. That is not to say that there won’t be an effect. As in the past, there is a tendency to some money to find its way into assets.

In addition, the final Dodd-Frank regulations have yet to appear and the costly ObamaCare provisions are coming into effect. All businesses, but especially banks, are legitimately confident that their costs will increase significantly and their range of action considerably curtailed. Startup businesses have declined. dramatically. For the economic/cultural pessimist, there is much support in the U.S.

In Europe, the central bank is being pushed into acting because the market for Spanish and Italian government bonds demands much higher returns to compensate for higher risk. Personally, I think that there is no uncertainty. Neither Spain nor Italy will be able to repay their bonds in the coming years. (I equate being given worthless money with not being paid.). So the higher rates are certainly justified. But enough of the euro country governments don’t like that. The higher rates mean that Spain and Italy would have to face their insolvency soon, which would be a big problem for the other euro government countries. So the euro block is pushing the central bank to create money to avoid reality. In this case the money will go directly into government spending and will have very negative consequences. Not the least consequence will be a lessening of the pressure on Spain and Italy to solve their problems. (Spain is expected to need the euro bank bailout. No one is currently talking about Italy, but its economy is heading the same direction.) By creating money to buy government bonds the European Central Bank is defaulting on the loans by directly creating inflation and thus reducing the purchasing power of the money that bought the bonds. Everyone in Europe is ignoring that fact. In addition, there will be a lot of upward pressure on prices and everyone will feel the cost. But, most of all, the importance of freeing their economies and being fiscally responsible can be evaded. The ultimate result will be greater disasters.

I expect that China’s new money will be similar to earlier efforts, which went primarily into government owned and controlled businesses, shrinking the portion of the economy that is private. It may also be more of a “consumption” orientation, which will mean less of a push in industrialization, and a move toward Western ideas of a consumer driven economy. That government decision would necessarily reduce the growth rate even without the normal consequences of asset booms and busts.

If more “easing” won’t help solve the unemployment problem (who cares about actual production?) and thus won’t help with economic activity, what will it do?

Well, the U.S. economy isn’t going to grow much, if at all. In fact, it could contract. If the new money just sits at the Fed as before, we needn’t worry about hyperinflation. The money supply will grow, but not significantly faster than before, although those numbers should be watched carefully.

I heard someone point out that since the first “easing” the Dow has risen 4000 points and since the second “easing” nearly 3000. I am sure that the Dow and other indexes will raise some more. The Dow has already gone up a few hundred points since the Fed announcement. What would a push by the Fed be without a serious increase in asset prices? Commodity prices could also rise. Some are saying that industrial commodities, such as copper, will not because industrial production is tending to fall. But the money being created will go somewhere. You just need to keep an eye out to see where that is.

So, if you want to put your money somewhere, based upon recent history, there you are! Just be careful about your timing and don’t lose perspective about the causes of the asset price rise and its duration. Be ready to short.

Of course, economic events are really harder to predict than that, especially in a controlled economy. Something will happen that we don’t foresee and things will happen differently than we expect. One thing we do know, whatever happens, it’s unlikely to be good.

Long-term, the consequence of all of this “easing” is to probably bring the day of reckoning closer, possibly by years. With unemployment staying down, Social Security and Medicare spending will continue to widen the gap between tax income and spending. The demands upon the Treasury will increase, meaning more debt. The low levels of production will mean that wealth is not being created and our personal wealth and standard of living will continue to fall.

I think that money can be made from the chaos and misallocation of resources. You just have to pick your method based upon the circumstances and pay attention to the situation.

P.S. I just listened to Yaron Brook on the Mike Slater show (via a notification from Lassiez-Faire). He says so much of what I just mentioned. I really did work it out before. But he says it well.