Mario Draghi’s Fatal Conceit
On 23 August 2017, the president of the European Central Bank (ECB) gave a speech titled “Connecting research and policy making” at the annual assembly of the winners of the Nobel Price for Economics in Lindau, Germany.1 What Mr Draghi talked about on this occasion — and especially what he didn’t talk about — was quite revealing.
Any analysis of the causes of the latest financial and economic crisis is conspicuously absent from Mr Draghi’s remarks. One gets the impression that the crisis came basically unexpected, out of the blue. There is no mention of the role of central banks, the monopoly producers of unbacked paper (or: fiat) money, played for the crisis.
No word that central banks had for many years manipulated downwards interest rates — accompanied by an excessive increase in credit and money supply — causing an unsustainable “boom.” When the bust set in — triggered by the spreading of the US subprime crisis across the globe — the ugly consequences of this central bank monetary policy came to the surface.
In the bust, many governments, banks and consumers in the euro area found themselves financially overstretched. The economies of Southern Europe especially do not only suffer from malinvestment on a grand scale, they also found themselves in a situation in which they have lost their competitiveness.
Mr Draghi, however, doesn’t deal with such unpleasant details. Instead, he lets his audience know how well the ECB pursued a policy of "crisis solution." His narrative is straightforward: Without the ECB’s bold actions, the euro area would have fallen into recession-depression, perhaps the euro area would have broken apart.
The analogy to such a line of argumentation would be praising a drug dealer, who provides the drug addict (who became a drug addict because of him) with just another shot. Repeated consumption of drugs does not heal but damages drug addict. Who would applaud what the drug dealer does? Likewise: would it be appropriate to praise the ECB’s action?
Mr Draghi presents himself as a fairly modest, intellectually ‘undogmatic’ central bank president stressing the importance of the insights produced by economic research for real life monetary policy making (thereby dutifully applauding the output of the economics profession). But the policy maker’s approach is far from being scientifically impartial.
Draghi's Flawed Methods
Today’s economics research — as it is pursued, and taught, by leading mainstream economists — rests on a scientific method that is borrowed from natural science and builds on positivism-empiricism-falsificationism.2 This approach, used in economics, does not only suffer from logical inconsistencies, its embedded skepticism and relativism has, in fact, has let economics astray.
Under the influence of positivism-empiricism-falsificationism economic theory – in particular monetary theory and financial market theory – has become the intellectual stirrup-holder of central banking, legitimizing the issuance of fiat money, the policy of manipulating the interest rate, the idea of making the financial system ‘safer’ through regulation.
In this vein, Mr Draghi praises especially the independence of central banks — for it would shield central bankers from destabilizing political outside influence. One really wonders how this argument — one-sided as it is — could find acceptance, especially in view of the fact that independent central banks have caused the great crisis in the first place.
The Central Bank's Many Friends
Why is there hardly any public opposition to Mr Draghi’s narrative? Well, a great deal of experts on monetary policy — coming mostly from government sponsored universities and research institutes — tends to be die-hard supporters of central banking. The majority of them would not find any fundamental, that is economic or ethic, flaw with it.
These so-called “monetary policy experts,” devoting so much time and energy for becoming and remaining an expert on monetary policy, unhesitatingly favor and accept without reservation the very principles on which central banking rests: the state’s coercive money production monopoly and all the measures to assert and defend it.
The upshot of such a mindset is this: “Once the apparatus is established, its future development will be shaped by what those who have chosen to serve it regard as its needs,”3 as F.A. Hayek explained the irrepressible expansionary nature of a monopolistic government agency – like a central bank.
Experts, keenly catering to the needs of the state and the banks, will make monetary policy increasingly complex and incomprehensible to the general public. Just think about the confusing abbreviations the ECB uses such as, say, APP, QE, CBPP, OMT, LTRO, TLTRO, ELA etc.4 In this way central bankers effectively sneak themselves out from public and parliamentary control.
Has the ECB Violated its Mandate?
It comes therefore as no surprise Mr Draghi hails “non-standard policy measures” such as quantitative easing through which the central bank subsidizes financially ailing governments and banks in particular. Mr Draghi, however, does not leave it at that. He also suggests that monetary policy should shake off remaining restrictions that hamper policy maker’s discretion:
[W]hen the world changes as it did ten years ago, policies, especially monetary policy, need to be adjusted. Such an adjustment, never easy, requires unprejudiced, honest assessment of the new realities with clear eyes, unencumbered by the defence of previously held paradigms that have lost any explanatory power.
These remarks come presumably because the German Constitutional Court has found indications that the ECB’s government bond purchases may violate EU law and has asked the European Court of Justice to make a ruling. The German judges say that ECB bond buys may go beyond the central bank's mandate and inhibit euro zone members' activities.
The issue is no doubt delicate: If the ECB is prohibited from buying government bonds (let alone reverse its purchases), all hell may break loose in the euro area: Many government and banks would find it increasingly difficult to roll-over their maturing debt and take on new loans at affordable interest rates. The euro project would immediately find itself in hot water.
Without a monetary policy of ultra-low interest rates and bailing out struggling borrowers by printing up new money (or promising to do so, if needed) the euro project would already have gone belly up. So far the ECB has indeed successfully concealed that the pipe dream of successfully creating and running a single fiat currency has failed.
The crucial question in this context is, however: What has changed in economics in the last ten years? Unfortunately, economists that follows the doctrine of positivism-empiricism-falsificationism feel encouraged to question, even reject, the idea that there are immutable economic laws, preferring the notion that ‘things change’ that ‘everything is possible’.
However, sound economics tells us that there are iron laws of human action. For instance, a rise in the quantity of money does not make an economy richer, it merely reduces the marginal utility of the money unit, thus reducing its purchasing power; or: suppressing the interest rate through the central bank must result in malinvestments and boom and bust.
In other words: Sound economics tells us that central bankers do not pursue the greater good. They debase the currency; slyly redistribute income and wealth; benefit some groups at the expense of others; help the state to expand, to become a deep state at the expense of individual freedom; make people run into ever greater indebtedness.
What central bankers really do is cause a "planned chaos." Unfortunately, the damages they create — such as, say, inflation, speculation, recession, mass unemployment etc. — are regularly and falsely attributed to the workings of the free market, thereby discouraging and eroding peoples’ confidence in private initiative and free enterprise.
The failure of such interventionism — of which central bank monetary policy is an example par excellence — does not deter its supporters. On the contrary: They feel emboldened to pursue their interventionist course ever more boldly and aggressively to achieve their desired objectives. Mr Draghi made a case in point when he said in July 2012:
“[W]e think the euro is irreversible” and “the ECB is ready to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro. And believe me, it will be enough.”5 Hayek’s warning in his book Fatal Conceit (1988) goes unheard: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."6
Mr Draghi’s speech should not convince us that monetary policy rests on sound economics, or that the ECB works for the greater good. If anything, it shows that economics has been twisted and deformed to service the needs of the state and its central bank – which increasingly erodes what little is left of the free market to keep the fiat money system going.
Holding up the fiat euro will result in a coercive redistribution of income and wealth among people, within and across national borders, to an extent historically unprecedented in times of piece. As a tool of an effectively anti-democratic policy, the single European currency will remain a source of interminable conflict, injustice, and it will be a drag on peoples’ prosperity.
- 1. See Draghi, M., The interdependence of research and policymaking, speech at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, Lindau, Germany, 23 August 2017.
- 2. For a critical analysis see Hoppe, H.-H. (2006), Austrian Rationalism in the Age of the Decline of Positivism, in: The Economics and Ethics of Private Property. Studies in Political Economy and Philosophy, 2nd edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute, Auburn, US Alabama, pp. 347 – 379.
- 3. Hayek, F. A. v. (1960), The Constitution of Liberty, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. 291.
- 4. APP = Asset Purchase Programme, QE = quantitative easing (issuing new money by purchasing bonds), CBPP = Covered Bond Purchase Programme, OMT = Outright Monetary Transactions, LTRO = Long-term Refinancing Operations, TLTRO = Targeted Long-term Refinancing Operations, ELA = Emergency Liquidity Assistance.
- 5. Draghi, M., Verbatim of the remarks made by Mario Draghi, speech held at the Global Investment Conference in London, 26 July 2012.
- 6. Hayek, F. A. v. (1988), Fatal Conceit. The Errors of Socialism, edited by W. W. Bartley, III, Routledge, London, p. 76.
Not Even Junk Will Fetch High Interest Rates Anymore
The Federal Reserve tries and tries and just can’t muster up some price-tag ripping price inflation. Blowing up its balance sheet from $900 billion to $4.5 trillion would have seemed to send us to Zimbabwe, but no, prices just won’t cooperate with the monetary masterminds toiling away in the Eccles Building.
MarketWatch’s Caroline Baum says Fed Chairs used to call these things conundrums. However, “Conundrums are a thing of the past. Nowadays, Fed Chairwoman Janet Yellen has an explanation — an excuse, really — for almost anything, from the atypical behavior of asset prices to inconsistencies in economic relationships,” writes Baum.
We’re told by President Trump that we’re at full employment, yet prices (the way the Fed measures them anyway) can’t get to the 2 percent increase level Yellen et. al. considers nirvana.
Baum writes that the Fed called price changes “transitory” then they were “definitional challenges” followed by “idiosyncratic factors,” such as “a precipitous drop in the price of wireless telecommunications services this year.”
It’s in all the economic textbooks: Nothing stops inflation like a drop in cell phone fees.
This summer, private economists are pointing to drops in hotel rates as depressing CPI and whatnot. However, Ms. Baum knows, “Inflation is a monetary phenomenon. When the Fed expands its balance sheet through asset purchases, it has no control over where that newly created money will go: toward the purchase of goods and services; or into financial assets, such as stocks, junk bonds or housing.”
She continues, “The Fed’s asset purchases lower risk-free Treasury rates, encouraging investors to reach for yield and buy riskier assets.
“Because asset prices aren’t part of official inflation measures, and because identifying an asset bubble is beyond their scope, central bankers eschew using monetary policy to respond to them.”
The Fed is not alone in its bubble enabling. A Bloomberg Businessweek headline screams, “Even the Junkiest Sovereign Debt Now Pays Less Than 6%.” with the subtitle naming the culprit, “Central bank buying has distorted the market and reduced yields on the lowest-rated debt.”
It’s not just those cranky Austrians calling central bankers on the carpet for their monetary mischief these days. Everyone knows, is holding their breath, and hoping for the best.
Natasha Doff explains,
The junkiest emerging-market bonds yield less now than U.S. Treasury bills did as recently as 1999. Yields on state debt of Mongolia, Ukraine and Belarus -- at seven levels below investment grade, among the world's lowest ranked -- have dropped under 6 percent in the past two months.
It is as Ms. Baum writes, “Asset prices are a symptom; excessive credit growth is the cause.”
William White wrote in a 2009 paper that bubble episodes have the following in common: leverage, speculation and declining credit standards.
For instance money losing Tesla looked to sell $1.5 billion of junk bond debt and ended up selling $1.8 billion because the demand was so high for it's B- rated paper.
"I won't call it a bubble," said Andrew Feltus, co-head of high yield and bank loans at Amundi Pioneer Asset Management in Boston told Reuters. "The (market) fundamentals are pretty good."
Some would disagree. According to ValueWalk, “Tesla, Inc. is an over-hyped, lousy company, from a financial perspective, that is destined to go bankrupt.”
Famed Short-seller Jim Chanos said last year the announced $2.6 billion merger with SolarCity Corp. will make Tesla Motors Inc. a "walking insolvency."
A “walking insolvency” can borrow more than it wants at 5.3%; now that’s a conundrum.
Douglas French is former president of the Mises Institute, author of Early Speculative Bubbles & Increases in the Money Supply, and author of Walk Away: The Rise and Fall of the Home-Ownership Myth.
Are Central Banks Nationalising the Economy?
The FT recently ran an article that states that “leading central banks now own a fifth of their governments’ total debt.”
The figures are staggering.
- Without any recession or crisis, major central banks are purchasing more than $200 billion a month in government and private debt, led by the ECB and the Bank of Japan.
- The Federal Reserve owns more than 14% of the US total public debt.
- The ECB and BOJ balance sheets exceed 35% and 70% of their GDP.
- The Bank of Japan is now a top 10 shareholder in 90% of the Nikkei.
- The ECB owns 9.2% of the European corporate bond market and more than 10% of the main European countries’ total sovereign debt.
- The Bank of England owns between 25% and 30% of the UK’s sovereign debt.
A recent report by Nick Smith, an analyst at CLSA, warns of what he calls ”the nationalization of the secondary market.”
The Bank of Japan, with its ultra-expansionary policy, which only expands its balance sheet, is on course to become the largest shareholder of the Nikkei 225’s largest companies. In fact, the Japanese central bank already accounts for 60% of the ETFs market (Exchange traded funds) in Japan.
What can go wrong? Overall, the central bank not only generates greater imbalances and a poor result in a “zombified” economy as the extremely loose policies perpetuate imbalances, weaken money velocity, and incentivize debt and malinvestment.
Believing that this policy is harmless because “there is no inflation” and unemployment is low is dangerous. The government issues massive amounts of debt and cheap money promotes overcapacity and poor capital allocation. As such, productivity growth collapses, real wages fall and purchasing power of currencies fall, driving the real cost of living up and debt to grow more than real GDP. That is why, as we have shown in previous articles, total debt has soared to 325% of GDP while zombie companies reach crisis-high levels, according to the Bank of International Settlements.
Government-issued liabilities monetized by the central bank are not high-quality assets, they are an IOU that is transferred to the next generations, and it will be repaid in three ways: with massive inflation, with a series of financial crises, or with large unemployment. Currency purchasing power destruction is not a growth policy, it is stealing from future generations. The “placebo” effect of spending today the Net Present Value of those IOUs means that, as GDP, productivity and real disposable income do not improve, at least as much as the debt issued, we are creating a time bomb of economic imbalances that only grows and will explode sometime in the future. The fact that the evident ball of risk is delayed another year does not mean that it does not exist.
The government is not issuing “productive money” just a promise of higher revenues from higher taxes, higher prices or confiscation of wealth in the future. Money supply growth is a loan that government borrows but we, citizens, pay. The payment comes with the destruction of purchasing power and confiscation of wealth via devaluation and inflation. The “wealth effect” of stocks and bonds rising is inexistent for the vast majority of citizens, as more than 90% of average household wealth is in deposits.
In fact, massive monetization of debt is just a way of perpetuating and strengthening the crowding-out effect of the public sector over the private sector. It is a de facto nationalization. Because the central bank does not go “bankrupt,” it just transfers its financial imbalances to private banks, businesses, and families.
The central bank can “print” all the money it wants and the government benefits from it, but the ones that suffer financial repression are the rest. By generating subsequent financial crises through loose monetary policies and always being the main beneficiary of the boom, and the bust, the public sector comes out from these crises more powerful and more indebted, while the private sector suffers the crowding-out effect in crisis times, and the taxation and wealth confiscation effect in expansion times.
No wonder that government spending to GDP is now almost 40% in the OECD and rising, the tax burden is at all-time highs and public debt soars.
Monetization is a perfect system to nationalize the economy passing all the risks of excess spending and imbalances to taxpayers. And it always ends badly. Because two plus two does not equal twenty-two. As we tax the productive to perpetuate and subsidize the unproductive, the impact on purchasing power and wealth destruction is exponential.
To believe that this time will be different and governments will spend all that massive “very expensive free money” wisely is simply delusional. The government has all the incentives to overspend as its goal is to maximize budget and increase bureaucracy as means of power. It also has all the incentives to blame its mistakes on an external enemy. Governments always blame someone else for their mistakes. Who lowers rates from 10% to 1%? Governments and central banks. Who is blamed for taking “excessive risk” when it explodes? You and me. Who increases money supply, demands “credit flow,” and imposes financial repression because “savings are too high”? Governments and central banks. Who is blamed when it explodes? Banks for “reckless lending” and “de-regulation”.
Of course, governments can print all the money they want, what they cannot do is convince you and me that it has a value, that the price and amount of money they impose is real just because the government says so. Hence lower real investment, and lower productivity. Citizens and companies are not crazy for not falling into the trap of low rates and high asset inflation. They are not amnesiac.
It is called financial repression for a reason, and citizens will always try to escape from theft.
What is the “hook” to let us buy into it? Stock markets rise, bonds fall, and we are led to believe that asset inflation is a reflection of economic strength.
Then, when the central bank policy stops working — either from lack of confidence or because it is simply part of the liquidity — and markets fall to their deserved valuations, many will say that it is the fault of “speculators,” not the central speculator.
When it erupts, you can bet your bottom dollar that the consensus will blame markets, hedge funds, lack of regulation and not enough intervention. Perennial intervention mistakes are “solved” with more intervention. Government won on the way up, and wins on the way down. Like a casino, the house always wins.
Meanwhile, the famous structural reforms that had been promised disappear like bad memories.
It is a clever Machiavellian system to end free markets and disproportionately benefit governments through the most unfair of competitions: having unlimited access to money and credit and none of the risks. And passing the bill to everyone else.
If you think it does not work because the government does not do a lot more, you are simply dreaming.
Originally published at DLacalle.com
How Rand Paul Can Free Americans from the Fed
Ever since entering the Senate, Rand Paul has continued his father’s work in advocating for an audit of the Federal Reserve. This week, writing for the Daily Caller, Senator Paul renewed his efforts, illustrating how the recent era of unconventional monetary policy has made an audit all the more important:
In 2009, then-Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was able to refuse to tell Congress who received over two trillion in Fed loans, and it took congressional action and a Bloomberg lawsuit to force the Fed to reveal the details of what it did in more than 21,000 transactions involving trillions of dollars during the 2008 financial crisis. A one-time audit of the Fed’s emergency lending mandated by Congress revealed even more about the extent to which the Fed put taxpayers on the hook.
When pushed to defend the lack of transparency for the Federal Reserve, officials like Janet Yellen and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin point to the myth of the Fed independence — a position that requires outright ignorance of the history of America’s central bank and the executive branch. Of course it’s quite usual for the Senate to base the merits of legislation entirely off of fallacious arguments, so they have continued to be the legislative body holding up a Fed audit with little indication they are prepared to move.
While not as catchy as “End the Fed”, this piece of legislation – inspired by the work of F.A. Hayek – was perhaps Ron Paul’s most radical pieces of legislation. The idea was quite simple: eliminate legal tender laws mandating the use of US Dollars and remove the taxes Federal and State governments place on alternative currencies — such as gold and silver. While the original legislation did apply to “tokens,” an updated version should explicitly include the growing market of cryptocurrencies as a good with monetary value that should not be taxed.
What this would do is create a more even playing field between the dollar and alternative currencies, allowing an easy way for Americans to safeguard their wealth if they ever have reason to doubt the wisdom of the Federal Reserve’s policies. Just as Senator Paul advocated for the ability of Americans to be able to opt-out of the failing Obamacare system, this bill would grant Americans a lifeboat should the weaknesses inherent with the Fed’s fiat money regime expose themselves.
Unlike most examples of monetary policy reforms, which tend to be the products of ivory tower echo chambers, competition in currency would reflect active political trends. In recent years, states like Texas, Utah, and – in 2017 – Arizona have passed laws allowing the use of silver and gold for use in transactions. Meanwhile, other countries have looked to embrace the potential of cryptocurrencies for their monetary regimes. This makes this not only an idea that is good on paper, but one whose time has come.
As alluded to before, simply because a policy makes sense does not mean the Senate will act on it. That doesn’t mean the conversation and debate isn’t worth having. While it may still be on the horizon, there has been a steady drumbeat in Washington for the Federal Reserve to face some sort of reform. For two Congressional sessions in a row, the House has passed legislation explicitly calling for the Fed to embrace a “rules-based monetary system.” While this approach may sound better than today’s PhD standard, it doesn’t solve the problems inherent with central banking and fiat money.
Monetary rules such as “NGD Targeting” – which has the support of a rare coalition including the Cato Institute, Mercatus Center, Christina Romer, and Paul Krugman — should never be seen as a “reasonable compromise” for those skeptical about the Fed. Instead it’s simply another way of disguising central planning in a way to make it more palpable to the public, and therefore more difficult to stop. By putting this bill out there, Rand Paul can help frame the debate and bring a real solution to the table. Something that wouldn't force the Fed to change a single thing, only making them compete on the market like the producer of other good or service.
After all, as is the case with healthcare, or shoes, the best sort of “monetary policy” is competition on the market. Not one dictated by government.
Central Banks Are Hiding the True Price of Risk
The Rise of Zombie Companies — And Why It Matters
The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) has warned again of the collateral damages of extremely loose monetary policy. One of the biggest threats is the rise of “zombie companies.” Since the “recovery” started, zombie firms have increased from 7.5% to 10.5%. In Europe, Bof A estimates that about 9% of the largest companies could be categorized as “walking dead.”
What is a zombie company? It is — in the BIS definition — a listed firm, with ten years or more of existence, where the ratio of EBIT (earnings before interest and taxes) relative to interest expense is lower than one. In essence, a company that merely survives due to the constant refinancing of its debt and, despite re-structuring and low rates, is still unable to cover its interest expense with operating profits, let alone repay the principal.
This share of zombie firms can be perceived by some as “small.” At the end of the day, 10.5% means that 89.5% are not zombies. But that analysis would be too complacent. According to Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, debt repayment capacity has broadly weakened globally despite ultra-low rates and ample liquidity. Furthermore, the BIS only analyses listed zombie companies, but in the OECD 90% of the companies are SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), and a large proportion of these smaller non-listed companies, are still loss-making. In the Eurozone, the ECB estimates that around 30% of SMEs are still in the red and the figures are smaller, but not massively dissimilar in the US, estimated at 20%, and the UK, close to 25%.
The rise of zombie companies is not a good thing. Some might say that at least these companies are still functioning, and jobs are kept alive, but the reality is that a growingly “zombified” economy is showing to reward the unproductive and tax the productive, creating a perverse incentive and protecting nothing in the long run. Companies that underperform get their debt refinanced over and over again, while growing and high productivity firms struggle to get access to credit. When cheap money ends, the first ones collapse and the second ones have not been allowed to thrive to offset the impact.
Low interest rates and high liquidity have not helped deleverage. Global debt has soared to 325% of GDP. Loose monetary policies have not helped clean overcapacity, and as such zombie companies perpetuate the glut in many sectors, driving down the growth in productivity and, despite historic low unemployment rates, we continue to see real wages stagnate.
The citizen does not benefit from the zombification of the economy. The citizen pays for it. How? With the destruction of savings through financial repression and the collapse of real wage growth. Savers pay for zombification, under the mirage that it “keeps” jobs.
Zombification does not boost job creation or buy time, it is a perverse incentive that delays the recovery. It is a transfer of wealth from savers and healthy companies to inefficient and obsolete businesses.
The longer it takes to clean the overcapacity — which stands above 20% in the OECD — and zombification of the economy, the worse the outcome will be. Because, when the placebo effect of monetary policy disappears, the domino of bankruptcies in companies that have been artificially kept alive will not be offset by the improvement in high added-value sectors. Policymakers have decided to penalize the high productivity sectors through taxation and subsidize the low productivity ones through monetary and fiscal policies. This is likely to create a vacuum effect when the bubble bursts.
The jobs and companies that they try to protect will disappear, and the impact on banks’ solvency and the real economy will be much worse.
Avoiding making hard decisions from a crisis created by excess and overcapacity ends up generating a much more negative effect afterward.
Reprinted with permission of the author. Daniel Lacalle has a PhD in Economics and is author of Escape from the Central Bank Trap, Life In The Financial Markets, and The Energy World Is Flat (Wiley).