Power & Market
Dr. Guido Hulsmann joined the Tom Woods show last week to discuss his work on the cultural and political consequences to inflation - a subject often neglected by most economists.
To read more about Dr. Hulsmann's work on the topic, check out his book The Ethics of Money Production.
When I was in Congress and had to regularly fly between DC and Texas, I was routinely subjected to invasive “pat-downs” (physical assaults) by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). One time, exasperated with the constant insults to my privacy and dignity, I asked a TSA agent if he was proud to assault innocent Americans for a living.
I thought of this incident after learning that the TSA has been compiling a “troublesome passengers” list. The list includes those who have engaged in conduct judged to be “offensive and without legal justification” or disruptive of the “safe and effective completion of screening.” Libertarian journalist James Bovard recently pointed out that any woman who pushed a screener’s hands away from her breasts could be accused of disrupting the “safe and effective completion of screening.” Passengers like me who have expressed offense at TSA screeners are likely on the troublesome passengers list.
Perhaps airline passengers should start keeping a list of troublesome TSA agents. The list could include those who forced nursing mothers to drink their own breast milk, those who forced sick passengers to dispose of cough medicine, and those who forced women they found attractive to go through a body scanner multiple times. The list would certainly include the agents who confiscated a wheelchair-bound three-year-old’s beloved stuffed lamb at an airport and threatened to subject her to a pat-down. The girl, who was at the airport with her family to take a trip to Disney World, was filmed crying that she no longer wanted to go to Disney World.
The TSA is effective at violating our liberty, but it is ineffective at protecting our security. Last year, the TSA’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), conducted undercover tests of the TSA’s ability or detect security threats at airports across the country. The results showed the TSA staff and equipment failed to uncover threats 80 percent of the time. This is not the first time the TSA has been revealed to be incompetent. An earlier DHS study fund TSA screenings and even the invasive pat-downs were utterly ineffective at finding hidden weapons.
The TSA’s “security theater” of treating every passenger as a criminal suspect while doing nothing to stop real threats is a rational response to the incentives the TSA faces as a government agency. If the TSA puts up an appearance of diligently working to prevent another 9/11 by inconveniencing and even assaulting as many travelers as possible, Congress will assume the agency is doing its job and keep increasing the TSA’s budget. Because the TSA gets its revenue from Congress, not from airline passengers, the agency has no reason to concern itself with customer satisfaction and feels free to harass and assault people, as well as to make lists of people who stand up for their rights.
Congress should end the TSA’s monopoly on security by abolishing the agency and returning responsibility for security to the airlines. The airline companies can contract with private firms that provide real security without treating every passenger as a criminal suspect. A private security firm that assaults its customers while failing to detect real dangers would soon go out of business, whereas the TSA would likely have its budget and power increased if there was another attack on the US.
If shutting down the TSA is too “radical” a step, Congress should at least allow individuals to sue TSA agents for assault. Anyone who has suffered unfair treatment by the TSA as a result of being put on the “troublesome passengers” list should also be able to seek redress in court. Making TSA agents subject to the rule of law is an important step toward protecting our liberty and security.
In 2015, the Texas State government announced plans to create a "gold depository." At the time, we reported this could be a significant step toward wider use of gold and silver as legal tender by essentially creating a parallel banking system based on precious metals.
The basic idea has always been simple: create a place where gold and other precious metals could be stored. The implications, however, are for far ranging in that over time, such an institution has the potential to function as a bank that could potentially offer the ability to facilitate the use of gold as money.
Existence of the depository opens up the possibilities for users creating a new type of currency in which purchases are made electronically with the backing of the gold in the depository. In other words, one could potentially use the depository's infrastructure to make purchases using gold, and to have gold either directly deposited into another's account, or converted to US dollars and deposited in a conventional bank. Arguably, this is just an electronic version of gold-backed money.
And now the Texas Bullion Depository has opened for business. The Ft Worth Star-Telegram reports :
The Texas Bullion Depository opened in Austin Wednesday, three years after state lawmakers signed off on creating an official place for people to store their gold and other precious metals.
“We’re proud that the nation’s first state-administered bullion depository is now a reality — this is a big day for Texans who want to secure their precious metal assets,” said Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar , who became the depository's first customer this week. “I deposited some gold."
The article notes that gold deposits are verified and insured.
Although administered by the State of Texas, the depository is significant as an institution that provides a means of storing what are potentially highly liquid assets outside the US banking system regulated by the Federal Reserve and the US federal government.
Moreover, as the article notes,
Financial institutions, cities, school districts, businesses, individuals — even other countries — could do business with the depository.
The depository is funded by fees, and in a normal world, this might act as a significant disincentive to using the depository's services. But in a world of enduring near-zero interest rates, the opportunity cost of not keeping money in a bank has become especially low. If banks were paying, say, three percent on savings accounts, cash would look a lot more lucrative. But when banks won't pay even one percent on deposits, you're not missing out on much by putting some wealth in the form of gold into a depository.
Response to the depository in the media has been generally muted outside Texas, although New York lawyer Joe Patrice did see the implications of the depository, and emotionally condemned the idea , claiming that it violated the so-called "supremacy clause" of the US Constitution. Couched placed between several insults directed at Texans, Patrice writes:
Though this does bring us to the actual reason for the bill: a symbolic gesture to convince morons that Texas is an independent realm...Having their own money bin and currency system — writing checks based off stockpiled metals creates, for all intents and purposes, an independent, gold-backed currency — goes a long way toward fluffing the illusion that Texas holds sway over the rest of America.
Of course, the depository doesn't violate any provision of the Constitution, and invoking the phrase "supremacy clause" is just the usual M.O. of people who don't want anyone doing anything anywhere without the explicit approval of the federal government.
If anything, with the depository, Texas is moving in the direction mandated by the US Constitution in which, as Bill Greene notes at mises.org, contains a negative mandate in which “No State shall... make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts.”
Not that something is necessarily good because the US Constitution says so. The Constitution was, after all, primarily adopted to increase the power of the federal government. That's why the anti-federalists opposed it.
The state legal tender provision, however, reflects the 18th-century wisdom that government money unmoored to commodity money empowers governments at the expense of ordinary people.
It will be interesting to follow the Texas experience in this regard and see what effect, if any, it has on other state legislatures that have also expressed interest in expanding the use of gold and silver as legal tender. We have already seen a number of states, including Arizona, Idaho, Utah , and Wyoming.
The biggest potential downside, of course, is the risk of the federal government outlawing and seizing gold as it did in the 1930s.
Yesterday’s Inspector General report on the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton contained plenty of bombshells, including a promise by lead FBI investigator Peter Strzok that “We’ll stop” Donald Trump from becoming president. The report reveals how unjustified secrecy and squirrelly decisions helped ravage the credibility of both Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the FBI. But few commentators are recognizing the vast peril to democracy posed by the sweeping prerogatives of federal agencies.
The FBI’s investigation of Clinton was spurred by her decision to set up a private server to handle her email during her four years as secretary of state. The server in her Chappaqua, N.Y. mansion was insecure and exposed emails with classified information to detection by foreign sources and others.
Clinton effectively exempted herself from the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The State Department ignored 17 FOIA requests for her emails prior to 2014 and insisted it required 75 years to disclose emails of Clinton's top aides. A federal judge and the State Department inspector general slammed the FOIA stonewalling.
Clinton’s private email server was not publicly disclosed until she received a congressional subpoena in 2015. A few months later, the FBI Counterintelligence Division opened a criminal investigation of the “potential unauthorized storage of classified information on an unauthorized system.”
The IG report gives the impression that the FBI treated Hillary Clinton and her coterie like royalty — or at least like personages worthy of endless deference. When Bleachbit software or hammers were used to destroy email evidence under congressional subpoena, the FBI treated it as a harmless error. The IG report “questioned whether the use of a subpoena or search warrant might have encouraged Clinton, her lawyers ... or others to search harder for the missing devices [containing email], or ensured that they were being honest that they could not find them.” Instead, FBI agents worked on “rapport building” with Clinton aides.
Read the full article at USA Today
The $85 billion mega-merger of AT&T with Time Warner appears headed for consummation, which will create another big digital media company with telecom underpinnings. But will this endless scramble for eyeballs and clicks, the quest to determine which platforms finicky content consumers will choose in coming years, actually create any value for shareholders? Or will it end up like the AOL/Time Warner merger of 2000, a poster child for unduly optimistic predictions about the value of merging technology platforms?
Beyond digital media companies, questions loom about the booming M&A market in general. Is the world of deals mostly malinvestment, as David Stockman charges, or does at least some transaction activity represent organic and healthy allocations of capital? Are company valuations and purchase prices completely out of whack, due to a Fed-juiced equities market? Do stock buybacks, creative recapitalizations, and listless horizontal mergers attempt to create ersatz "financial" growth in lieu of the real thing?
All of these are open questions, and mises.org readers need no explanation of how central banks and low interest rates create malinvestment. But (cue movie trailer voice) in a monetary world controlled by central banks, the damnable answer is we can never know. That is precisely Stockman's point: because the Fed controls the most important price in the economy — the Fed Funds rate — it's impossible to know the true price of anything.
Value is subjective, and supply and demand drives prices. But both measures are expressed in dollars.
So the brilliant young tech kid who gets $30 million from a VC fund for a great new idea may have created value for society that justifies it — or may be the lucky recipient of cheap shotgun money, spread around by yield-chasing fund managers hoping whiz kid's idea pays 20X or 50X to cover losses elsewhere.
This is true of all speculative markets, to be sure. VC, M&A, and equity markets would have uneven distributions of winners and losers without the Fed. But one of the big problems with central banking generally is this: when you manipulate the cost of money and credit, you necessarily manipulate that distribution. This strengthens the perception that wealth is a rigged game, and in fact actually creates an undeserving class of Fed-connected elites in heavily "financialized" industries.
One company hoping to cash in on easy money is Vice Media, a rough and tumble media platform focused on the advertising cliche known as the "youth market." You may have happened across Vice.com, or seen their ubiquitous videos on airlines or your social media feeds. The slant is decidedly leftwing, which is no surprise, but also fairly interesting — one recent video highlighted the tragic history between Haiti and the Dominican Republic with compelling on-the-ground storytelling.
Still, it's a niche brand at best. So imagine thinking Vice.com is worth several billion dollars, ranking it among the most valuable private companies in America. Imagine thinking it will soon be worth $50 billion, perhaps within a decade. Imagine thinking the company is wildly undervalued, so that you pull $70 million in spare change from your back pocket and invest in something you don't quite understand but imagine represents youth and revolutionary thinking.
We might call such a person a fool, someone suffering from historical amnesia when it comes to the dot.com and housing bubbles, who forgets the importance of fundamentals and real earnings in overvalued companies. We might call them a sucker who deserves to lose money. Or we might call them a genius, if it all works out. In fact that $70 million investor back in 2012 was no less than Rupert Murdoch — by all accounts a brilliant and shrewd media mogul, not to mention hard nosed investor. And he's not alone, as a very serious private equity player — TPG — invested $450 million just a year ago.
Fast forward to today, and Vice Media is reeling from a combination of lagging revenue, a confusing array of platforms, and the struggle to figure out millennial TV habits. So the next round of Murdochs and TPGs might not be easily identified.
Vice, mind you, produces "content" rather than tangible goods or services. And not just any content, but edgy content, which requires an almost preternatural understanding of the shifting social media and hipster landscapes. Edgy is amorphous, and quickly lost. Worse yet is the risk of a stale company imagining it's still edgy, i.e., lacking self-awareness. Now-shuttered Rare comes to mind, as does the struggling Buzzfeed.
All of this suggests Vice needs the right people, and a constant new stream of them, to stay relevant. This is a tall order even in the older, slower print world, as anyone familiar with Rolling Stone or Spin can attest. So investing in Vice truly means investing in people, like its wild man founder Shane Smith, not management, products, brands, processes, or systems. And people are notoriously unreliable.
Rupert Murdoch and TPG should be worried.
Addendum: the deal world today is not just a large-cap, headline-making phenomenon. Deal activity across company sizes is robust, both in terms of volume and value, despite cooling somewhat from a recent 2015 peak. M&A buyers spend nearly $5 trillion annually, more than $1.5 trillion of it in the US.
The two primary categories of M&A distinguishes between "strategic" and "financial" buyers.
Strategic acquisitions involve existing corporations scooping up competitors, new service lines, new brands, or new technology, with the goal of greater vertical integration and the economies of scale and management such integration makes possible. "Synergy" is the awful buzzword frequently used to describe big corporations either merging with a similarly sized company, snapping up smaller bolt-on businesses as subsidiaries, or absorbing established companies to fill holes in their product and service offerings.
Vertical integration, however, comes at a potential price. As Rothbard posits in Man, Economy, and State, corporations that become too large and dominant in a field risk losing perspective on profit and loss with regard to their intra-subsidiary transfer pricing, the amount each subsidiary "charges" the others for goods and services. Corporate executives who buy up too many similar companies might find themselves with imperfect information about internal profits and losses, and thus (like Soviet planners) become unable to allocate resources and price end goods/services effectively.
As a general rule strategic buyers are less sensitive to interest rates and central bank signals, because big existing corporations often bring cash to the table or swap their own valuable stock. When Amazon simply plunks down $13.7 billion in cash to buy Whole Foods, it's not doing so to make a quick buck or even take advantage of low interest rates (though it did issue corporate debt to raise some of the money). It's not openly engaging in the kind of financial engineering David Stockman decries, although he does frequently criticize Amazon's lack of profits and dividends relative to its sky-high P/E ratio. In essence, strategic buyers (especially public corporations) often have the luxury of long-range decision-making.
Financial buyers, however, generally consist of private equity or venture funds whose investors want to buy a company and sell it within a three to five year window. As Peter Thiel describes in Zero to One, for every investment that hits, most will fizzle. So the goal is to avoid too much downside risk while biding time to unearth the big winning investment — a story Thiel knows well from his experience with PayPal, Ebay, and Facebook (note that private equity firms often invest in large public companies; the strategic vs. financial distinction is based on the identity of the buyer rather than the target entity).
During the heady go-go years of private equity M&A, from the mid-1990s until the Crash of 2008, Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke demonstrated their commitment to making credit cheap and easy, and to making sure stock markets didn't crash. So private equity players responded rationally, buying up companies with 1 part equity to 6, 7, 8, or more parts debt. Often the 1 part debt was divided into tranches and split between various funds, isolating the risk of losing equity even further.
Keep in mind most corporate interest payments are deductible for tax purposes, while dividend payments are not. So it made sense to load up a company with cheap debt, and use revenue to pay off that debt quickly (while deducting the interest portion) rather than funding non-deductible capital expenditures to improve future productivity. Why worry about capex, product development, or improving factories when you plan to sell the company in three years anyway? Load it up with debt, fire existing management, install overseers, put every available dollar toward debt service, and get out before any long-term cracks began to show. After all, there was always another private equity firm (or IPO) waiting to buy.
This model is what propelled Mitt Romney from being merely a rich man to being a very rich one.
It's hardly surprising that fund managers and corporate CEOs developed a short-term mindset: monetary policy almost demanded it. And it's hardly surprising that enterprise values rose to crazy heights, with many financial deals closing for a purchase price of 10 or 12X earnings.
It was all driven by cheap credit, and it all came crashing down in 2008. But if M&A volume is any indicator, we haven't learned a thing.
The Justice Department Inspector General is expected to release on Thursday its report on alleged FBI misconduct during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump supporters and opponents are already pre-spinning the report to vindicate or undercut the president. Unfortunately, the report will not consider fundamental question of whether the FBI’s vast power and secrecy is compatible with American democracy.
According to some Republicans, the FBI’s noble history was tainted by its apparent favoritism for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Democrats have gyrated over the past 18 months, first blaming the FBI for Clinton’s loss and then exalting the FBI (along with former FBI chief and Special Counsel Robert Mueller) as the best hope to save the nation.
In reality, the FBI has been politically weaponized for almost a century. The FBI was in the forefront of the notorious Red Scare raids of 1919 and 1920. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer reportedly hoped that arresting nearly 10,000 suspected radicals and immigrants would propel his presidential campaign. Federal Judge Anderson condemned Palmer’s crackdown for creating a “spy system” that “destroys trust and confidence and propagates hate.” He said, “A mob is a mob whether made up of government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals, loafers, and the vicious classes.”
After the Palmer raids debacle, the FBI turned its attention to U.S. senators, “breaking into their offices and homes, intercepting their mail, and tapping their telephones,” as Timothy Weiner noted in his 2012 book, “Enemies: The History of the FBI”. After the FBI’s political espionage was exposed, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, warned in 1924, “A secret police system may become a menace to free government and free institutions because it carries with it the possibility of abuses of power which are not always quickly comprehended or understood.” Stone fired the FBI chief, creating an opening for J. Edgar Hoover, who would head the FBI for the next 48 years. Hoover pledged to cease the abuses but the outrages mushroomed.
In the 1948 presidential campaign, Hoover brazenly championed Republican candidate Thomas Dewey, leaking allegations that Truman was part of a corrupt Kansas City political machine. In 1952, Hoover sought to undermine Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson by spreading rumors that he was a closet homosexual.
Read the full article at The Hill
Today was the first day of this year’s Rothbard Graduate Seminar. A total of 27 students from 13 countries have joined us in Auburn to dissect and discuss Murray Rothbard’s economic treatise Man, Economy, and State. RGS stands alone as the sole academic program in the world that applies the tradition of a great book seminar to Austrian economics. It has proved to be an invaluable asset in developing modern scholars in the Misesian tradition, and is possible thanks to the incredible generosity of Alice Lillie.
Man, Economy, and State is a work deserving of the title "great book, it having played an important role in the history of Austrian economics. Dr. Joseph Salerno has credited the publishing of Rothbard’s masterpiece as being vital to the revival of the Austrian tradition in the United States. As he wrote in his paper, The Rebirth of Austrian Economics — in Light of Austrian Economics:
This handful of scattered contributions to Austrian economics forthcoming in the 1950s, however, would have defined the death throes of the school rather than the prelude to its rebirth were it not for the creative genius of Murray Rothbard, which came to fruition in the early 1960s. The revival of Austrian economics as a living scientific movement can be dated from the publication of Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State in 1962, a contribution to Austrian economics and to pure economics in general that ranks as one of the most brilliant performances in the history of economic thought.
In his review of the book in 1962, Ludwig von Mises also identified Man, Economy, and State as an important contribution to economics that built upon the contributions of the Austrian school:
The main virtue of this book is that it is a comprehensive and methodical analysis of all activities commonly called economic. It looks upon these activities as human action, i.e., as conscious striving after chosen ends by resorting to appropriate means. This cognition exposes the fateful efforts of the mathematical treatment of economic problems…
In every chapter of his treatise, Dr. Rothbard, adopting the best of the teachings of his predecessors, and adding to them highly important observations, not only develops the correct theory but is no less anxious to refute all objections ever raised against these doctrines. He exposes the fallacies and contradictions of the popular interpretation of economic affairs.
Today’s RGS sessions focused on the first three chapters of Man, Economy, and State, with Dr. David Gordon lecturing on praxeology and Dr. Guido Hulsmann leading discussion on topics such as direct and indirect exchange.
Some photos from today’s sessions can be found below: