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Why Negative Interest Rates Will Fail – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

Why Negative Interest Rates Will Fail – Article by Frank Hollenbeck

The New Renaissance HatFrank Hollenbeck
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It is now just a matter of time before the US central bank follows the central banks of Japan, the EU, Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland in setting negative rates on reserve deposits.

The goal of such rates is to force banks to lend their excess reserves. The assumption is that such lending will boost aggregate demand and help struggling economies recover. Using the same central bank logic as in 2008, the solution to a debt problem is to add on more debt. Yet, there is an old adage: you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make him drink! With the world economy sinking into recession, few banks have credit-worthy customers and many banks are having difficulties collecting on existing loans.

Italy’s non-performing loans have gone from about 5 percent in 2010 to over 15 percent today. The shale oil bust has left many US banks with over a trillion dollars of highly risky energy loans on their books. The very low interest rate environment in Japan and the EU has done little to spur demand in an environment full of malinvestments and growing government constraints.

Central bank policies have also driven government bond yields into negative territory. Nearly $7 trillion of government bonds are currently trading at negative rates.

But, economic theory presupposes that negative rates are an impossibility. After all, why would you buy a one-year treasury bill for $1,005 that will get you $1,000 in a year, when you can stuff your mattress with the $1,005 and still have $1,005 in a year? Some would say that storing money is costly and risky, but that is also true for most assets.

The reason is actually quite simple and shows how distortive monetary policy has become worldwide: It makes sense to purchase a bill for $1,005 if you intend to sell it before it matures to the central bank for more than $1,005. In today’s world, the central bank is often ultimately expected to purchase the bill and lose money on it. It’s just another type of debt monetization.

(And it is, by the way, something the Germans emphatically wanted to avoid when the ECB was initially created.)

We Just Need to Print More Money!
The real problem is the way monetary policy is taught in almost every undergraduate and graduate program in the world. Pick up any macroeconomics textbook and it will explain how interest rates are determined by the demand and supply of liquidity. The economy is treated as a car, and interest rates are viewed as the gas petal. When reality does not match up with the model, today’s economist, instead of questioning the model and theory, assumes that more of the same will ultimately force reality into the model.

The problem arises from a fundamental misunderstanding about the role of interest rates. Mises in 1912 had this to say about our current enlightened view on money:

[This view of money] regards interest as a compensation of the temporary relinquishing of money in the broader sense — a view, indeed, of unsurpassable naiveté. Scientific critics have been perfectly justified in treating it with contempt; it is scarcely worth even cursory mention. But it is impossible to refrain from pointing out that these very views on the nature of interest holds an important place in popular opinion, and that they are continually being propounded afresh and recommended as a basis for measures of banking policy.

In fact, interest rates reflect the ratio of the value assigned to current consumption relative to the value assigned to future consumption. That is, money isn’t just some commodity that can solve our problems if we just create more of it. Money serves a key function of coordinating output with demand across time.

So, the more you interfere with interest rates, the more you create a misalignment between demand and supply across time, and the greater will be the adjustment to realign output with demand to return the economy to sustainable economic growth with rising standards of living (see here and here). Negative rates will only ensure an ever greater misalignment between output and demand.

As with Japan, Western economies that pursue a long-term policy of low or negative interest rates can expect decades of low growth unless these “unorthodox” monetary policies are rapidly abandoned. Recessions are not a problem of insufficient demand. They are a problem of supply being misaligned with demand.

The War on Cash
Meanwhile, a goal of some of the attendees at Davos and others has been to push the world toward a cashless society since an increase in cash holdings would limit the effectiveness of negative rates. They know that if they eliminate cash, central banks will have greater control over the money supply and the ability to guide the economy toward their macroeconomic goals.

As long as there is physical cash, people will hold cash in times of uncertainty. It is a wise alternative when all other options seem unproductive or irrational — and keeping cash in a bank at a time of negative rates is, all things being equal, irrational. Central banks, not surprisingly, would therefore like to take away the ability to hold cash outside the banking system. Worst of all, people who hold cash outside the system might be saving it instead of spending it. Naturally, from the Keynesian perspective, this must be stopped.

This is just the latest frontier in the radical monetary policy we’ve been increasingly witnessing since the 2008 financial crisis. The best monetary policy, however, is no monetary policy at all, and central bankers should take an extended holiday so that the world economy can finally heal itself.

Frank Hollenbeck teaches finance and economics at the International University of Geneva. He has previously held positions as a Senior Economist at the State Department, Chief Economist at Caterpillar Overseas, and as an Associate Director of a Swiss private bank.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Mises on Protectionism and Immigration – Article by Matt McCaffrey

Mises on Protectionism and Immigration – Article by Matt McCaffrey

The New Renaissance HatMatt McCaffrey
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The economic causes and consequences of immigration are among the most important issues facing the world today. Both pro- and anti-immigration advocates are digging in their heels, and both sides look increasingly unlikely to relent. Despite the bleak outlook, however, there is still hope for a peaceful and charitable discussion of the economics of immigration.

With that in mind, I want to consider Mises’s thoughts on the topic. For Mises, emigration and immigration are motivated by a simple economic fact: the conditions of production are not the same in all places. Natural and human conditions change constantly, and as a result, the productivity of land, labor, and capital do so as well. Therefore in order to take advantage of changing conditions and produce in the most productive ways possible, people must constantly migrate to those places where their contributions are most valuable (1919, pp. 84–85).

The desire to move from low-productivity to high-productivity regions is for Mises the fundamental explanation for the migration of peoples, and limits overpopulation (1919, p. 85). We can say a country is relatively overpopulated when the same amount of capital and labor is less productive there than in another nation. Reducing overpopulation means reducing this “disproportion” by allowing for the mobility of persons and goods (1919, p. 86). In Mises’s view, mobility was an achievement of liberalism:

The principles of freedom, which have gradually been gaining ground everywhere since the eighteenth century, gave people freedom of movement. … Now, however — as a result of a historical process of the past — the earth is divided up among nations. Each nation possesses definite territories that are inhabited exclusively or predominantly by its own members. Only a part of these territories has just that population which … it would also have under complete freedom of movement, so that neither an inflow or an outflow of people would take place. The remaining territories are settled in such a way that under complete freedom of movement they would have either to give up or to gain population. Migrations thus bring members of some nations into the territories of other nations. That gives rise to particularly characteristic conflicts between peoples. (1919, pp. 86–87)

Mises has two types of conflict in mind: economic and social. Economic conflict occurs because domestic workers resent that fact that immigration bids down their wages:

[I]n territories of immigration, immigration depresses the wage rate. That is a necessary side effect of migration of workers and not, say, as Social Democratic doctrine wants to have believed, an accidental consequence of the fact that the emigrants stem from territories of low culture and low wages. (1919, p. 87)

Social conflict can also arise. Mises emphasized, however, that in most cases immigrants are obliged to give up their national identity and adapt themselves to the culture of their new home. Only in relatively extreme cases, such as European imperialism, was it historically possible for immigrants to replace original inhabitants and their cultures (1919, p. 89). In fact, according to Mises, strong cultures need not resort to government in order to protect themselves:

A nation that believes in itself and its future, a nation that means to stress the sure feeling that its members are bound to one another not merely by accident of birth but also by the common possession of a culture that is valuable above all to each of them, would necessarily be able to remain unperturbed when it saw individual persons shift to other nations. A people conscious of its own worth would refrain from forcibly detaining those who wanted to move away and from forcibly incorporating into the national community those who were not joining it of their own free will. To let the attractive force of its own culture prove itself in free competition with other peoples — that alone is worthy of a proud nation, that alone would be true national and cultural policy. The means of power and of political rule were in no way necessary for that. (1919, pp. 103–04)

However, for Mises, cultural considerations are mainly an aside. In general, he saw conflicts over immigration as being driven mostly by protectionism rather than insurmountable differences in human beings or cultures (1935). In particular, domestic unions support government policies to restrict immigration and thus keep low-wage competition out of the labor market:

Public opinion has been led astray by the smoke-screen laid down by Marxist ideology which would have people believe that the union-organized “proletariat of all lands” have the same interests and that only entrepreneurs and capitalists are nationalistic. The hard fact of the matter — namely that the unions in all those countries which have more favorable conditions of production, relatively fewer workers and thus higher wages, seek to prevent an influx of workers from less favored lands—has been passed over in silence. (1935)

As Per Bylund notes, this is precisely what is happening in Sweden, where unions prevent the integration of immigrants so as to keep wages high. Protectionism at home also breeds protectionism abroad, as foreign nations try to cope with lower productivity through their own regulations designed to counter “unfair” competition on the world market. As economic conditions worsen in those countries where migration is prevented by the state, conflict becomes inevitable:

[People in these countries] will certainly still have just as much cause to complain as before — not over the unequal distribution of raw materials, but over the erection of migration barriers around the lands with more favorable conditions of production. And it may be that one day they will reach the conclusion that only weapons can change this unsatisfactory situation. Thus, we may face a great coalition of the lands of would-be emigrants standing in opposition to the lands that erect barricades to shut out would-be immigrants. … Without the reestablishment of freedom of migration throughout the world, there can be no lasting peace. (1935)

In this way, protectionist policies inevitably lead to conflict and the destruction of human life and welfare. In fact, Mises even hints that government policies aiming to control the movement and employment of individuals suffer from the same problems socialist central planning does (1919, p. 85). At the same time, entrepreneurship and the division of labor are the foundations of a rational social order, and neither is possible without free labor markets.

The main threat facing society then is illiberal ideology, and the only solution to this “principle of violence” is to develop a consistent liberal philosophy to serve as the basis for a peaceful society (1951, p. 49).

Mises believed that any society that rejected the values of liberalism was doomed. In an age of nationalism, protectionism, and war, it’s easy to see what he meant.

Matt McCaffrey is assistant professor of enterprise at the University of Manchester.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

The Fed Passes the Buck: Blame Oil and China – Article by C. Jay Engel

The Fed Passes the Buck: Blame Oil and China – Article by C. Jay Engel

The New Renaissance HatC. Jay Engel
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There are a handful of themes out there on recent market action that are either totally wrong or otherwise highly misleading. For instance, regarding the recent calamity in the capital markets, one especially apparent dichotomy has presented itself as offering two choices as to what, exactly, is causing the painful turbulence.

There are some who, in a complete echo of the news headlines, are quick to point the finger at both oil and China. And yet there are others who point the finger at the Fed for “raising rates too early.” Along with the second is the observation that “inflation is totally MIA” and therefore it was ludicrous that the Fed felt the need to “raise interest rates.” Both of these tend to express anguish over the “strong dollar.”

Both of these miss the entire point, and the cause of the current trouble. For one thing, it is ridiculous to blame oil for the falling markets when the falling oil is the very thing that needs to be explained. It is wholly unsatisfactory to explain something by describing it. It works well for headlines, and for shifting the blame away from where it really belongs, but one must learn to look deeper. One cannot expect to impress anyone by explaining that the plane is crashing to the ground because it is no longer flying. What is the cause of oil’s magnificent plummet toward the bottom? That is the true question.

Moreover, the problem with the “China thesis” is that it doesn’t explain anything either. It merely observes a correlation in the markets and therefore makes it highly convenient to put the blame on “the other guys.” Let me not be misunderstood here: the Chinese and US economies are certainly influenced by each other, especially in our age of fluctuating fiat currencies. But ultimately, both China and the US — indeed the entire world — are being dragged down by past actions of their respective central banks and more specifically the illusion of prosperity via monetary and credit expansion.

Which leads to the second theme: putting the blame on the Fed for “raising rates” too early. That is, there are a good many who argue that if the Fed had never announced in December that it was going to seek minuscule increases in the Federal Funds rate, none of the recent market drops would have happened. They will say things like “inflation was never a threat, so the Fed was irresponsible to raise rates.”

Money-Supply Inflation vs. Price “Inflation”
This is confused. First, it must be constantly emphasized that the meaning of inflation, contrary to the mainstream’s application of it, is more appropriately defined an increase in the money supply, not “rising prices.” The reason why the Fed and proponents of central banking prefer the “rising prices” definition is because it obscures the chief source of our present economic condition. It rips the blame away from the Fed and toward all kinds of other “market forces” and therefore encourages the central bank to swoop in to the rescue rather than be the object of severe suspicion. Indeed, as Mises observed (page 420 of Human Action):

What many people today call inflation or deflation is no longer the great increase or decrease in the supply of money, but its inexorable consequences, the general tendency toward a rise or a fall in commodity prices and wage rates. This innovation is by no means harmless. It plays an important role in fomenting the popular tendencies toward inflationism.

First of all there is no longer any term available to signify what inflation used to signify. It is impossible to fight a policy which you cannot name. …

The second mischief is that those engaged in futile and hopeless attempts to fight the inevitable consequences of inflation — the rise in prices — are disguising their endeavors as a fight against inflation. While merely fighting symptoms, they pretend to fight the root causes of the evil. Because they do not comprehend the causal relation between the increase in the quantity of money on the one hand and the rise in prices on the other, they practicalIy make things worse.

Rising prices can be a result of inflation, but it is not itself inflation. So then, inflation was actually very high in the last decade due to the Fed’s QE and other monetary policy schemes. Second, it should never be ignored that “rising prices” can easily be found in the capital markets themselves. It doesn’t take an investment guru to observe the staggering levels to which the various market indexes have reached. Digging only a little bit farther into the surface reveals the absurd prices for the so-called highest valued stock such as Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and so on.

Where All That Money Went
More importantly, however, is the fact that much of the newly created money has not even come close to creating “widespread [consumer price] inflation” due to the actual structure of the current, post-crises banking regime. In fact, Jeffrey Snider, among others, have argued that it is literally impossible for “price inflation” to take place as a direct result of QE due to the way that money currently enters the system as reserves. “Price inflation” would need to come from the actions of individual banks themselves who are at present cautious about their consumer lending practices. Therefore the Fed is not creating “price inflation,” but something far worse: capital misallocation.

The point here is simply that those who want the interest rates to be continually suppressed so that economic activity will be encouraged, don’t even realize that this is literally the cause of bubble creations, not productive economic activity.

It used to be, under the pre-crises fractional-reserve model, that there would be loads of malinvestment as a result of banks creating new loans (new economic activity would take place, and then collapse back down). But now, money is created, not by commercial banks, but mostly by the Fed itself. Which means that, in the phraseology of David Stockman, the new money is simply sloshing around the canyons of Wall Street and pushing up equity and bond prices, rather than reaching the “real economy.”

The Bubble Only Prolongs the Problem
Thus, contrary to those blaming the Fed for causing stocks to fall by “raising rates” (which Joe Salerno reflects on here) we want to stress the fact that, in raising rates, the most that the Fed could do is unravel previously made mistakes. In other words, there is nothing praiseworthy in the first place about artificially propped up stock market levels. We have no interest in lauding the longevity of the bubble, because the bubble is the enemy of the healthy economy. The collapsing equity markets reveal where bubbles were formed and that our alleged prosperity is an illusion. And this is precisely what former Dallas Fed Chairman Richard Fisher stated in a conversation on CNBC last week when he confessed: “We frontloaded a tremendous market rally to create a wealth effect.”

And thus, the money expansion must inevitably cycle back down. Fisher himself admits: “… and an uncomfortable digestive period is likely now.” What was inflated up to the top, must deflate down to the floor. That is the only way for an economy to recover: bad credit needs to be liquidated. Unfortunately, it is painful indeed.

That is the true cause of the recent calamity. The dollar is “strengthening” by virtue of our credit system cracking at the seams. In other words, the so-called “strong dollar,” is merely one side of the pendulum swing of a volatile collapsing banking system. It shouldn’t be assumed that the dollar is becoming more sound; it is not. But if we might ever again have a sound currency, we first have to face the music.

And thus oil too, after years of being elevated up toward the heavens via the Fed’s monetary shenanigans, is experiencing its own inevitable bust. The illusion is being exposed.

Unfortunately, the Fed is a wild card, so we stay tuned to whether it will let the markets recover, or continue the perpetual cycle of money creation. My own advice for the Fed is neither to “raise rates” nor to lower them. But rather, to let go and let the market correct itself. For we have a lot of correction ahead of us.

C. Jay Engel is an investment advisor at The Sullivan Group, an independent, Austrian-School oriented, wealth management firm in northern California. He is especially interested in wealth preservation in lieu of our era of rogue Central Banking. He is an avid reader of the Austro-libertarian literature and a dedicated proponent of private property and sound money. Feel free to email C. Jay, visit his blog, and follow him on Twitter.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Is the Auto-Loan Bubble Ready to Pop? – Article by Tommy Behnke

Is the Auto-Loan Bubble Ready to Pop? – Article by Tommy Behnke

The New Renaissance HatTommy Behnke
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On Tuesday, it was announced that over seventeen million new vehicles were sold in 2015, the highest it’s ever been in United States history.

While the media claims that this record has been reached because of drastic improvements to the US economy, they are once again failing to account for the central factor: credit expansion.

When interest rates are kept artificially low, individuals are misled into spending more than they otherwise would. In hindsight, they discover that their judgment errors wreaked havoc on their financial well-being.

This is a lesson that the country should have learned from the Subprime Crisis of 2008. Excessive credit creation led too many individuals to buy homes, build homes, and invest in the housing industry. This surge in artificial demand temporarily spiked prices, resulting in over four million foreclosed homes and the killing of over nine million US jobs.

Instead of learning from the mistakes that sent shock waves throughout most of the planet, the Federal Reserve has continued with its expansionist policies. Since 2009, the money supply has increased by four trillion, while the federal funds rate has remained at or near zero percent. Consequently, the housing bubble has been replaced with several other bubbles, including one in the automotive industry.

Automotive companies have taken advantage of the cheap borrowing costs, increasing vehicle production by over 100 percent since 2009:

Behnke 1_0Source: OICA

In order to generate more vehicle purchases, these companies have incentivized consumers with hot, hard-to-resist offers, similar to the infamous “liar loans” and “no-money down” loans of the 2008 recession. Dealerships have increased spending on sales incentives by 14 percent since last year alone, and the banners in their shops now proudly proclaim their acceptance of any and all loan applications — “No Credit. Bad Credit. All Credit. 100 Percent Approval.” As a result, auto loans have increased by nearly $80 billion since 2009, many of which have been given to individuals with far-from-stellar credit scores. Today, almost 20 percent of all auto loans are given to individuals with credit scores below 620:

Behnke 2.pngSource: New York Fed

Not only are more auto loans being originated, but they are also increasing in duration. The average loan term is now sixty-seven months (that’s 5.58 years) for new cars and sixty-two (that’s 5.16 years) months for used cars. Both are record numbers.

Average transaction prices for new and used cars are also at their record highs. Used car prices have increased by nearly 25 percent since 2009, while new car prices have increased by over 15 percent. Part of this has to do with the increasing demand for cars generated by the upsurge in auto loans. The main reason, however, is that consumers — taking advantage of the accessibility of cheap credit — are purchasing more expensive body styles. This follows the housing bubble trend, when the median size of a newly built single-family home rose to 2,272 square feet at the start of 2007.

We all know the end result of the Great Recession — prices soared, millions of houses were foreclosed, and unemployment surged. Demand for homes then plummeted, and home prices ultimately dropped by 20 percent each month.

The auto bubble has yet to burst, but its negative effects are already starting to gradually appear. For one, delinquencies on car loans have increased by nearly 120 percent, from just over 1 percent in 2010 to 2.62 percent in 2014. Since cars rapidly depreciate in value, this number is projected to spike. By the time these six, seven, and eight year no-money down loans are due to be paid in full, many of these vehicles won’t be worth paying off anymore — maintenance and loan costs will start exceeding the value of the cars.

According to the Center for Responsible Lending, one in every six title-loan borrowers is already facing repossession fees. If defaults sharply increase in the coming years as projected, the market will become flooded with used cars, and their prices will, with near certainty, fall to a significant degree.

At a time when labor force participation is at its lowest level since 1977 — at a time when real wages are rising less than they have since at least the 1980s — it is imperative that the Federal Reserve stop misleading individuals into making irrational investments. The economy is simply too frail to continue weathering these endless business cycles. Economists, politicians, and the general populace need to start learning from their economic history so they can begin recognizing that favoring debt over thrift isn’t beneficial to the country’s financial well-being. Failure to do so will simply lead to more bubbles, more malinvestment, and more economic headaches in the years to come.

Tommy Behnke is an economics major and Mises University alumnus.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Venezuela’s Bizarre System of Exchange Rates – Article by Emiliana Disilvestro & David Howden

Venezuela’s Bizarre System of Exchange Rates – Article by Emiliana Disilvestro & David Howden

The New Renaissance HatEmiliana Disilvestro & David Howden
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Venezuela is currently going through its worst crisis in history, replete with an endless list of interesting problems. Foremost among these are severe shortages in even the most basic of necessities. Economists have used these shortages as textbook examples to illustrate the pernicious effects of price controls.

Few people, however, are aware that many of the country’s problems are caused by a complex monetary arrangement that makes use of four different exchange rates simultaneously. The result is that Venezuela can either be extremely cheap, or unbearably expensive, depending on the rate used.

Monetary chaos began in 2003 when the late President Hugo Chavez imposed currency controls to stem capital flight after an oil strike. At the time, one US dollar could fetch 1.6 Venezuelan bolivars. Today, barely ten years later, that same dollar can buy 172 bolivars, a devaluation of over 99 percent! Of course, that is in the official (i.e., government regulated) market. On the black market, the exchange rate is currently nearly 900 bolivars to the US dollar. That is, if you can find anyone selling dollars, or more importantly, looking to buy the badly tarnished Venezuelan currency.

This devaluation is in and of itself a large problem, both for consumers who must deal with high degrees of price inflation and for businesses that must undergo long-term capital planning decisions with a constantly moving monetary unit. However, it is the volatility of the exchange rate caused by the government’s continuous changes to currency restrictions and official rates that is proving the most cumbersome problem.

A Very Complex System of Exchange Rates

Currently there are four exchange rates: First is the official one, called CENCOEX, and which charges 6.30 bolivars to the dollar. It is only intended for the importation of food and medicine.

The next two exchange rates are SICAD I (12 bolivars per dollar) and SICAD 2 (50 bolivars per dollar); they assign dollars to enterprises that import all other types of goods. Because of the fact that US dollars are limited, coupons are auctioned only sporadically; usually weekly in the case of SICAD 1 and daily for SICAD 2. However, due to the economic crisis, no dollars have been allocated for these foreign exchange transactions and there hasn’t been an auction since August 18, 2015. As of November 2015, the Venezuelan government held only $16 billion in foreign exchange reserves, the lowest level in over ten years, and an amount that will dry up completely in four years time at the current rate of depletion.

The last and newest exchange rate is the SIMADI, currently at 200 bolivars per dollar. This rate is reserved for the purchase and sale of foreign currency to individuals and businesses.

There are many problems in Venezuela as a result of this complex system. The most obvious is the near impossibility to actually get assigned to these rates due to the complex bureaucratic process one must navigate to apply for them. In response to these difficulties, Venezuelans must rely on the black market to meet their demands for foreign currency. Therefore, people naturally rely on the black market rate, which although it is much less advantageous (at 900 vs. anywhere from 6.3 to 200 bolivars per dollar on the “official” market), at least offers the possibility to procure the much needed foreign exchange.

Corruption, which is a main characteristic of Venezuela’s political regime, is another problem derived from this complex monetary system. Officials within the government and those connected to it have taken advantage of their positions of power and influence to mismanage the money assigned for other, productive and necessary, institutions. Thus, well-connected individuals obtain US dollars through the legal channels and then sell them on the black market at a higher price. (This activity is one of the only ways to consistently earn high levels of profits in the beleaguered Venezuelan economy, and is only available to those privileged few who are connected to the proper government officials.)

This point is especially important when studying the vast array of shortages. The embezzlement of foreign currency intended for importing basic goods, e.g., foreign exchange reserved for the CENCOEX and SICAD exchange rates, leave legitimate businessmen with no options to obtain legally the necessary currencies to import goods. Owing to the rapidly depreciating bolivar, US dollars are hoarded as a means of savings, thus further exacerbating the foreign exchange shortage for importers. As a consequence, imports are unable to be paid for, leading to shortages on top of those already caused by extensive and damaging price controls.

The Poor Suffer the Most

These problems affect directly all citizens, but are especially pernicious to lower-income individuals. Many suppliers will only sell what few goods they have for US dollars, eschewing accepting bolivars in the payment of their wares. Black market currency sellers set up shop outside supermarkets to accommodate this phenomenon, but it must be noted that only the upper-middle and higher income earners are able to afford to pay the black market rate. The result is that the lower-income segment of Venezuelan society, those who price and currency controls are supposedly helping, are not able to obtain the currency necessary to buy simple goods and services (and the wealthy can only do so at a high price).

Although the business community demands to be paid in US dollars this harms lower-income individuals unduly and is a completely rational response. If businesses kept selling their scarce supply of goods at the official rate their shelves would deplete faster than they already do. Venezuelans earn income at the official rate of 6.30 bolivars to the US dollar while businesses must pay a much higher rate in order to import goods. This difference must be accounted for by stores asking for prices commensurate with what they must pay to stock their shelves.

The complex exchange rate system in Venezuela is not only a good example of unnecessary government meddling in the economy, but also explains why a corrupt political regime has been able to retain power for so long despite more than a decade of hardship imposed on the country. The use of several exchange rates has made it easy for the Chávez and Maduro governments and their followers to make enormous profits by embezzling the money assigned to the business community and individuals. By doing so, they have completely devalued the bolivar and impoverished what was once one of the richest countries in the world.

Emiliana Disilvestro studies international business at Saint Louis University at its Madrid campus.

David Howden is Chair of the Department of Business and Economics and professor of economics at St. Louis University’s Madrid Campus, and Academic Vice President of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

Why Capitalists Are Repeatedly “Fooled” By Business Cycles – Article by Frank Shostak

Why Capitalists Are Repeatedly “Fooled” By Business Cycles – Article by Frank Shostak

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Shostak
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According to the Austrian business cycle theory (ABCT) the artificial lowering of interest rates by the central bank leads to a misallocation of resources because businesses undertake various capital projects that — prior to the lowering of interest rates —weren’t considered as viable. This misallocation of resources is commonly described as an economic boom.

As a rule, businessmen discover their error once the central bank — which was instrumental in the artificial lowering of interest rates — reverses its stance, which in turn brings to a halt capital expansion and an ensuing economic bust.

From the ABCT one can infer that the artificial lowering of interest rates sets a trap for businessmen by luring them into unsustainable business activities that are only exposed once the central bank tightens its interest-rate stance.

Critics of the ABCT maintain that there is no reason why businessmen should fall prey again and again to an artificial lowering of interest rates.

Businessmen are likely to learn from experience, the critics argue, and not fall into the trap produced by an artificial lowering of interest rates.

Correct expectations will undo or neutralize the whole process of the boom-bust cycle that is set in motion by the artificial lowering of interest rates.

Hence, it is held, the ABCT is not a serious contender in the explanation of modern business cycle phenomena. According to a prominent critic of the ABCT, Gordon Tullock,

One would think that business people might be misled in the first couple of runs of the Rothbard cycle and not anticipate that the low interest rate will later be raised. That they would continue to be unable to figure this out, however, seems unlikely. Normally, Rothbard and other Austrians argue that entrepreneurs are well informed and make correct judgments. At the very least, one would assume that a well-informed businessperson interested in important matters concerned with the business would read Mises and Rothbard and, hence, anticipate the government action.

Even Mises himself had conceded that it is possible that some time in the future businessmen will stop responding to loose monetary policy thereby preventing the setting in motion of the boom-bust cycle. In his reply to Lachmann (Economica, August 1943) Mises wrote,

It may be that businessmen will in the future react to credit expansion in another manner than they did in the past. It may be that they will avoid using for an expansion of their operations the easy money available, because they will keep in mind the inevitable end of the boom. Some signs forebode such a change. But it is too early to make a positive statement.

Do Expectations Matter?
According to the critics then, if businessmen were to anticipate that the artificial lowering of interest rates is likely to be followed some time in the future by a tighter interest-rate stance, their conduct in response to this anticipation will neutralize the occurrence of the boom-bust cycle phenomenon. But is it true that businessmen are likely to act on correct expectations as critics are suggesting?

Furthermore, the key to business cycles is not just businessmen’s conduct but also the conduct of consumers in response to the artificial lowering of interest rates — after all, businessmen adjust their activities in accordance with expected consumer demand. So on this ground one could generalize and suggest that correct expectations by people in an economy should prevent the boom-bust cycle phenomenon. But would it?

For instance, if an individual John, as a result of a loose central bank stance, could lower his interest rate payment on his mortgage why would he refuse to do that even if he knows that a lower interest rate leads to boom-bust cycles?

As an individual the only concern John has is his own well-being. By paying less interest on his existent debt John’s means have now expanded. He can now afford various ends that previously he couldn’t undertake.

As a result of the central bank’s easy stance the demand for John’s goods and services and other mortgage holders has risen. (Again it must be realized that all this couldn’t have taken place without the support from the central bank, which accommodates the lower interest-rate stance.)

Now, the job of a businessman is to cater to consumers’ future requirements. So whenever he observes a lowering in interest rates he knows that this most likely will provide a boost to the demand for various goods and services in the months ahead.

Hence if he wants to make a profit he would have to make the necessary arrangements to meet the future demand.

For instance, if a builder refuses to act on the likely increase in the demand for houses because he believes that this is on account of the loose monetary policy of the central bank and cannot be sustainable, then he will be out of business very quickly.

To be in the building business means that he must be in tune with the demand for housing. Likewise any other businessman in a given field will have to respond to the likely changes in demand in the area of his involvement if he wants to stay in business.

A businessman has only two options — either to be in a particular business or not to be there at all. Once he has decided to be in a given business this means that the businessman is likely to cater for changes in the demand for goods and services in this particular business irrespective of the underlying causes behind changes in demand.

Failing to do so will put him out of business very quickly. Now, regardless of expectations once the central bank tightens its stance most businessmen will “get caught.” A tighter stance will undermine demand for goods and services and this will put pressure on various business activities that sprang up while the interest-rate stance was loose. An economic bust emerges.

We can conclude that correct expectations cannot prevent boom-bust cycles once the central bank has eased its interest-rate stance. The only way to stop the menace of boom-bust cycles is for the central bank to stop the tampering with financial markets. As a rule however, central banks respond to the bust by again loosening their stance and thereby starting the new boom-bust cycle phase.

Frank Shostak is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute. His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies. He received his bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University, master’s degree from Witwatersrand University and PhD from Rands Afrikaanse University, and has taught at the University of Pretoria and the Graduate Business School at Witwatersrand University.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

No, “Big Data” Can’t Predict the Future – Article by Per Bylund

No, “Big Data” Can’t Predict the Future – Article by Per Bylund

The New Renaissance HatPer Bylund
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With Google’s dominance in the online search engine market we entered the Age of Free. Indeed, services offered online are nowadays expected to be offered at no cost. Which, of course, does not mean that there is no cost to it, only that the consumer doesn’t pay it. Early attempts financed the services with ads, but we soon saw a move toward making the consumer the product. Today, free and unfree services alike compete for “users” and then make money off the data they collect.

Data has always been used, but what’s new for our time is the very low (or even zero) marginal cost for collecting and analyzing huge amounts of data. The concept of “Big Data” is taking over and is predicted to be “the future” of business.

There’s a problem here, and it is the over-reliance on the Law of Large Numbers in social forecasting. Statistical probabilities for events may mathematically converge to the mean, but is it applicable in the real world? The answer is most definitely yes in the natural sciences. Repeated controlled experiments will weed out erroneous explanations or causes to phenomena, at least assuming we’re good enough at separating and controlling those causes.

What about the social sciences? In this age of scientism, as Hayek called it, we’re told “Big Data” will completely transform production, logistics, and sales. The reason for this is that vendors can better target customers and even foresee what they might want next. Amazon.com does this on their web site in crude form, where they make suggestions based on your purchase history and what others with similar purchase histories have searched for. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

There is some regularity to our interests and behavior. All of us are, after all, human beings — and we’re formed in certain cultures. So one American with interests x, y, and z may have other interests similar to another American who also has an interest in x, y, and z.

Human Behavior Is Unpredictable
But similarity is not the same thing as prediction. Amazon.com’s suggestions or the highly annoying ads following you around web sites are useful methods for sellers because they can somewhat accurately identify what not to offer. Exclusion of very low-probability interests increases the probability for suggesting something that the person behind the eyeballs focusing on the computer screen may be interested in.

To use as prediction, however, exclusion of almost-zero probability events is far from sufficient. Indeed, prediction requires that we are able to accurately exclude all but one or a couple highly probable outcomes. And we have to be able to rely on that these predictions turn out to be true. Otherwise we’re just playing games, and so we’re making guesses. Sure, they’re educated guesses (because we’ve excluded the impossible and almost-impossible), but they’re still games and guesses.

Where Big Data Fails
Speaking of guesses, Microsoft’s Bing search engine, which powers the Windows digital assistant Cortana among other things, has produced a prediction engine with the purpose of predicting sports and other results. They rely on very advanced algorithms and huge amounts of collected data.

Amazingly, they did very well initially and predicted the outcomes of the World Cup perfectly. So maybe we can use Big Data to get a glimpse of the future?

No, not so. The Bing teams are learning a lesson only Austrians and, more specifically, Misesian praxeologists, seem to be alone in grasping: that there are no constants in human action, and therefore that predictions of social phenomena are impossible. Pattern predictions, as Hayek called them, may not be impossible, but predictions of exact magnitudes are. For instance, we can rely on economic law (such as “demand curves slope downward”) to estimate an outcome such as “the price will be lower than it otherwise would have been,” but we can’t say exactly what that price will be.

When it comes to sports, reality shows and other competitions between individuals or teams, the story is exactly the same. The team with a better track record doesn’t always win. Why? They have objectively performed better than the other team, perhaps exclusively so, but this doesn’t say anything about the future. We’re not here referring to the philosophical doubt as in “will the sun shine tomorrow?” (maybe something changes completely the sun’s ability to shine during the night).

The Social Sciences Are Different
In the social sciences we’re dealing with complex phenomena. Action and, especially, its outcome is the result of a complex system of social interaction, psychology, and much more. Are the players in both teams as motivated and focused as they were before? Did anything in their personal lives affect their mindsets or psyches? How do the players within their teams and players in other teams react on each other before and during the game? A team with a poor track record can upset a team with an objectively better track record; this happens all the time. Sometimes for the sole reason that the better team underestimates the worse team, or because the underdog feels no pressure to perform and therefore plays less defensively.

Bing’s prediction engine struggles with this, just as we would predict. As Windows Central reported recently, the prediction engine had its “worst week yet” picking only four of fourteen winners in the NFL. Overall, its track record was approximately two-thirds right and one-third wrong (95–53). It’s definitely better than tossing a coin, but pretty far from actually predicting the results.

In other words, if you’re placing bets you may want to use the Bing prediction engine. That is, unless you have the type of tacit, implicit understanding of what’s going on that the engine is missing. Maybe you can beat it, or maybe not. In either case, you cannot count on coming out a victor each and every time.

The reason for this is that the outcome simply cannot be predicted perfectly — or even close to it. Even the players themselves cannot predict who’ll win a game, but they may have inside information about whether their own team seems motivated and focused. It is not a perfect method, however, and it certainly cannot be scientific.

Even with Big Data there’s no predicting of social events — there’s only guessing. Yes, guessing with access to huge amounts of data is easier, at least if the data is reliable and relevant. But a good guess is not the same thing as a prediction; it is still a guess, and it can be wrong. Winning every time requires luck.

Per L. Bylund, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Records-Johnston Professor of Free Enterprise in the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University. Visit his website at PerBylund.com.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

How Money Disappears in a Fractional-Reserve Money System – Article by Frank Shostak

How Money Disappears in a Fractional-Reserve Money System – Article by Frank Shostak

The New Renaissance Hat
Frank Shostak
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Most experts are of the view that the massive monetary pumping by the US central bank during the 2008 financial crisis saved the US and the world from another Great Depression. On this the Federal Reserve Chairman at the time Ben Bernanke is considered the man that saved the world. Bernanke in turn attributes his actions to the writings of Professor Milton Friedman who blamed the Federal Reserve for causing the Great Depression of 1930s by allowing the money supply to plunge by over 30 percent.

Careful analysis will however show that it is not a collapse in the money stock that sets in motion an economic slump as such, but rather the prior monetary pumping that undermines the pool of real funding that leads to an economic depression.

Improving the Economy Requires Time and Savings
Essentially, the pool of real funding is the quantity of consumer goods available in an economy to support future production. In the simplest of terms: a lone man on an island is able to pick twenty-five apples an hour. With the aid of a picking tool, he is able to raise his output to fifty apples an hour. Making the tool, (adding a stage of production) however, takes time.

During the time he is busy making the tool, the man will not be able to pick any apples. In order to have the tool, therefore, the man must first have enough apples to sustain himself while he is busy making it. His pool of funding is his means of sustenance for this period—the quantity of apples he has saved for this purpose.

The size of this pool determines whether or not a more sophisticated means of production can be introduced. If it requires one year of work for the man to build this tool, but he has only enough apples saved to sustain him for one month, then the tool will not be built—and the man will not be able to increase his productivity.

The island scenario is complicated by the introduction of multiple individuals who trade with each other and use money. The essence, however, remains the same: the size of the pool of funding sets a brake on the implementation of more productive stages of production.

When Banks Create the Illusion of More Wealth
Trouble erupts whenever the banking system makes it appear that the pool of real funding is larger than it is in reality. When a central bank expands the money stock, it does not enlarge the pool of funding. It gives rise to the consumption of goods, which is not preceded by production. It leads to less means of sustenance.

As long as the pool of real funding continues to expand, loose monetary policies give the impression that economic activity is being boosted. That this is not the case becomes apparent as soon as the pool of real funding begins to stagnate or shrink. Once this happens, the economy begins its downward plunge. The most aggressive loosening of money will not reverse the plunge (for money cannot replace apples).

The introduction of money and lending to our analysis will not alter the fact that the subject matter remains the pool of the means of sustenance. When an individual lends money, what he in fact lends to borrowers is the goods he has not consumed (money is a claim on real goods). Credit then means that unconsumed goods are loaned by one productive individual to another, to be repaid out of future production.

The existence of the central bank and fractional reserve banking permits commercial banks to generate credit, which is not backed up by real funding (i.e., it is credit created out of “thin air”).

Once the unbacked credit is generated it creates activities that the free market would never approve. That is, these activities are consuming and not producing real wealth. As long as the pool of real funding is expanding and banks are eager to expand credit, various false activities continue to prosper.

Whenever the extensive creation of credit out of “thin air” lifts the pace of real-wealth consumption above the pace of real-wealth production this undermines the pool of real funding.

Consequently, the performance of various activities starts to deteriorate and banks’ bad loans start to rise. In response to this, banks curtail their loans and this in turn sets in motion a decline in the money stock.

Does every curtailment of lending cause the decline in the money stock?

For instance, Tom places $1,000 in a savings deposit for three months with Bank X. The bank in turn lends the $1,000 to Mark for three months. On the maturity date, Mark repays the bank $1,000 plus interest. Bank X in turn after deducting its fees returns the original money plus interest to Tom.

So what we have here is that Tom lends (i.e., gives up for three months) $1,000. He transfers the $1,000 through the mediation of Bank X to Mark. On the maturity date Mark repays the money to Bank X. Bank X in turn transfers the $1,000 to Tom. Observe that in this case existent money is moved from Tom to Mark and then back to Tom via the mediation of Bank X. The lending is fully backed here by $1,000. Obviously the $1,000 here doesn’t disappear once the loan is repaid to the bank and in turn to Tom.

Why the Money Supply Shrinks
Things are, however, completely different when Bank X lends money out of thin air. How does this work? For instance, Tom exercises his demand for money by holding some of his money in his pocket and the $1,000 he keeps in the Bank X demand deposit. By placing $1,000 in the demand deposit he maintains total claim on the $1,000. Now, Bank X helps itself and takes $100 from Tom’s deposit and lends this $100 to Mark. As a result of this lending we now have $1,100 which is backed by $1,000 proper. In short, the money stock has increased by $100. Observe that the $100 loaned doesn’t have an original lender as it was generated out of “thin air” by Bank X. On the maturity date, once Mark repays the borrowed $100 to Bank X, the money disappears.

Obviously if the bank is continuously renewing its lending out of thin air then the stock of money will not fall. Observe that only credit that is not backed by money proper can disappear into thin air, which in turn causes the shrinkage in the stock of money.

In other words, the existence of fractional reserve banking (banks creating several claims on a given dollar) is the key instrument as far as money disappearance is concerned. However, it is not the cause of the disappearance of money as such.

Banks Lend Less as the Quality of Borrowers Worsens
There must be a reason why banks don’t renew lending out of thin air. The main reason is the severe erosion of real wealth that makes it much harder to find good quality borrowers. This in turn means that monetary deflation is on account of prior inflation that has diluted the pool of real funding.

It follows then that a fall in the money stock is just a symptom. The fall in the money stock reveals the damage caused by monetary inflation but it however has nothing to do with the damage.

Contrary to Friedman and his followers (including Bernanke), it is not the fall in the money supply and the consequent fall in prices that burdens borrowers. It is the fact that there is less real wealth. The fall in the money supply, which was created out of “thin air,” puts things in proper perspective. Additionally, as a result of the fall in money, various activities that sprang up on the back of the previously expanding money now find it hard going.

It is those non-wealth generating activities that end up having the most difficulties in serving their debt since these activities were never generating any real wealth and were really supported or funded, so to speak, by genuine wealth generators. (Money out of “thin air” sets in motion an exchange of nothing for something — the transferring of real wealth from wealth generators to various false activities.) With the fall in money out of thin air their support is cut-off.

Contrary to the popular view then, a fall in the money supply (i.e., money out of “thin air”), is precisely what is needed to set in motion the build-up of real wealth and a revitalizing of the economy.

Printing money only inflicts more damage and therefore should never be considered as a means to help the economy. Also, even if the central bank were to be successful in preventing a fall in the money supply, this would not be able to prevent an economic slump if the pool of real funding is falling.

Frank Shostak is an Associated Scholar of the Mises Institute. His consulting firm, Applied Austrian School Economics, provides in-depth assessments and reports of financial markets and global economies. He received his bachelor’s degree from Hebrew University, master’s degree from Witwatersrand University and PhD from Rands Afrikaanse University, and has taught at the University of Pretoria and the Graduate Business School at Witwatersrand University.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

The Fed Desperately Tries to Maintain the Status Quo – Article by Ronald-Peter Stöferle

The Fed Desperately Tries to Maintain the Status Quo – Article by Ronald-Peter Stöferle

The New Renaissance HatRonald-Peter Stöferle
November 5, 2015
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During the press conferences of recent FOMC meetings, millions of well-educated investment professionals have been sitting in front of their screens, chewing their fingernails, listening as if spellbound to what Janet Yellen has to tell them. Will she finally raise the federal funds rate that has been zero bound for over six years?

Obviously, each decision is accompanied by nervousness on the markets. Investors are fixated by a fidgety curiosity ahead of each Fed decision and never fail to meticulously observe Janet Yellen and the FOMC, and engage in monetary ornithology on doves (growth- and employment-oriented FOMC members) and hawks (inflation-oriented FOMC members).

Fed watchers also hope for some enlightening information from Ben Bernanke. According to Reuters, some market participants paid some $250,000 just to join one of several dinners, where the ex-chairman spilled the beans. Apparently, he does not expect the federal funds rate to return to its long-term average of about 4 percent during his lifetime.

In a conversation with Jim Rickards, Bernanke stated that a rate hike would only be possible in an environment in which “the U.S. economy is growing strongly enough to bear the costs of higher rates.” Moreover, a rate increase would have to be clearly communicated and anticipated by the markets — not to protect individual investors from losses, Bernanke assures us, but rather to prevent jeopardizing the stability of the “system as a whole.”

It is axiomatic that zero-interest-rate-policy (ZIRP) cannot be a permanent fixture. Indeed, Janet Yellen has been going on about increasing rates for almost two years now. But, how much more lead time will it require to “prepare” the markets? In both September and October the FOMC chickened out, even though we are not talking about hiking the rate back to “monetary normalcy” in one blow. The decision on the table is whether or not to increase the rate by a trifling quarter point!

The Fed’s quandary can be understood a little better by examining what “monetary normalcy,” or a “normal interest rate,” is supposed to be. Or, even more fundamentally: what is an interest rate?

We “Austrians” understand an interest rate as an expression of market participants’ time preference. The underlying assumption is that people are inclined to consume a certain product sooner rather than later. Hence, if savers restrict their current consumption and provide the resources for investment instead, they do so only on condition that they will be compensated by increased opportunities for consumption in the future. In free markets, the interest rate can be regarded as a measure of the compensation payment, where people are willing to trade present goods for future goods. Such an interest rate is commonly referred to as the “natural interest rate.” Consequently, the FOMC bureaucrats would ideally set as a goal a “normal interest rate” that equals the “natural” one.This, however, remains unlikely.

Six Years of “Unconventional” Monetary Policy
ZIRP was introduced six years ago in response to the financial crisis, and three QE programs have been conducted. This so-called “unconventional monetary policy” is supposed to be abandoned as soon as the economy has gathered pace. Despite the tremendous magnitude of these market interventions, the momentum in the US economy is rather lame. Weak Q1 data, which probably resulted from a weak trade balance due to a 15 percent rise of the US dollar, shocked even the most pessimistic of analysts; the OECD and the IMF have revised down their 2015 growth estimates. A long-lasting, self-sustaining growth is out of the question. This confirms the assumption that ZIRP fuels everything under the sun — see “The Unseen Consequences of Zero-Interest-Rate Policy” — except long-term productive investment.And what about unemployment and inflation that are key elements of the Fed’s mandate? The conventional unemployment rate (U3) has returned to its long-run normal level, so the view prevails that things are developing well. However, those figures conceal a workforce participation rate that has fallen by more than 3 percent since 2008, indicating that some 2.5 million Americans are currently no longer actively looking for a new job. However, should the economic situation improve, they would likely rejoin the labor force. Furthermore, the proportion of those only working part-time due to a lack of full-time positions is much higher now than before the crisis. “True” unemployment currently stands rather at about 7.25 percent.

A Weak Economy and Weak Inflation
With regard to inflation, the Fed’s target is 2 percent, as measured by growth of the PCE-index. This aims to buffer the fiat money system against the threat of price deflation. In a deflationary environment, it is believed, the debt-servicing capacity of market participants (e.g., governments, private enterprises, financial institutions, and private households) would come under intense pressure and likely trigger a chain reaction in which loans collapse and the monetary system implodes.

In many countries, and among them the US, inflation is remarkably low — partly due to transitory effects of lower energy and import prices — while low interest rates have merely weaved their way to asset price inflation so far. But, as price reactions to monetary policy maneuvers may occur with a lag of a few years, we should expect that sooner or later inflation will also spill over to normal markets.

As a response to anything short of massive improvement of economic and employment data, a rate hike is scarcely likely, and inflation in the short-term is also unlikely. Moreover, the current composition of the FOMC — which is extremely dovish — implies inflation-sensitive voices are relatively underrepresented. This gives rise to the suspicion that rate hikes are not very likely at all in the scenario in the short-term.

What Will the Fed Do If There’s Real Economic Trouble?
One is concerned about economic development, which has a shaky foundation and headwinds from other parts of the world; it appears that growth has cooled down substantially in the BRICS countries. Meanwhile, China might be on the brink of a severe recession. (Indeed, China was possibly the most decisive factor to nudge the Fed away from raising rates in September and October.) This implies that world-wide interest rates will remain at very low levels and a significant rate hike in the US would represent a sharp deviation in this environment, bringing with it massive competitive disadvantages.

The markets are noticeably pricing out a significant rate hike. The production structure has long since adapted to ZIRP and “short-term gambling, punting on momentum-driven moves, on levered buybacks” are further lifting the opportunity costs of abandoning it. In order to try to rescue its credibility, the Fed may decide to try some timid, quarter-point increases.

But what will they do if markets really crash? Indeed, they are terrified of the avalanche that they might trigger. If there are any symptoms that portend calamity, the Fed will inevitably return to ZIRP, launch a QE4, or might even introduce negative interest rates. Hence, there does not seem to be a considerable degree of latitude such that a return to conventional monetary policy could seriously be expected.

“The Fed is raising rates!” — This has become a running gag.

Ronald-Peter Stöferle is a Chartered Market Technician (CMT) and a Certified Financial Technician (CFTe). During his studies in business administration and finance at the Vienna University of Economics and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he worked for Raiffeisen Zentralbank (RZB) in the field of Fixed Income/Credit Investments. In 2006 he began writing reports on gold. His six benchmark reports called “In GOLD we TRUST” drew international coverage on CNBC, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Financial Times. He was awarded “2nd most accurate gold analyst” by Bloomberg in 2011.

This article was originally published by the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided full credit is given.

The Fed Can’t Raise Rates, But Must Pretend It Will – Article by Thorsten Polleit

The Fed Can’t Raise Rates, But Must Pretend It Will – Article by Thorsten Polleit

The New Renaissance HatThorsten Polleit
October 26, 2015
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Waiting for Godot is a play written by the Irish novelist Samuel B. Beckett in the late 1940s in which two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, keep waiting endlessly and in vain for the coming of someone named Godot. The storyline bears some resemblance to the Federal Reserve’s talk about raising interest rates.

Since spring 2013, the Fed has been playing with the idea of raising rates, which it had suppressed to basically zero percent in December 2008. So far, however, it has not taken any action. Upon closer inspection, the reason is obvious. With its policy of extremely low interest rates, the Fed is fueling an artificial economic expansion and inflating asset prices.

Selected US Interest Rates in Percent
Selected US Interest Rates in Percent

Raising short-term rates would be like taking away the punch bowl just as the party gets going. As rates rise, the economy’s production and employment structure couldn’t be upheld. Neither could inflated bond, equity, and housing prices. If the economy slows down, let alone falls back into recession, the Fed’s fiat money pipe dream would run into serious trouble.

This is the reason why the Fed would like to keep rates at the current suppressed levels. A delicate obstacle to such a policy remains, though: If savers and investors expect that interest rates will remain at rock bottom forever, they would presumably turn their backs on the credit market. The ensuing decline in the supply of credit would spell trouble for the fiat money system.

To prevent this from happening, the Fed must achieve two things. First, it needs to uphold the expectation in financial markets that current low interest rates will be increased again at some point in the future. If savers and investors buy this story, they will hold onto their bank deposits, money market funds, bonds, and other fixed income products despite minuscule yields.

Second, the Fed must succeed in continuing to postpone rate hikes into the future without breaking peoples’ expectation that rates will rise at some point. It has to send out the message that rates will be increased at, say, the forthcoming FOMC meeting. But, as the meeting approaches, the Fed would have to repeat its trickery, pushing the possible date for a rate hike still further out.

If the Fed gets away with this “Waiting for Godot” strategy, savings will keep flowing into credit markets. Borrowers can refinance their maturing debt with new loans and also increase total borrowing at suppressed interest rates. The economy’s debt load can continue to build up, with the day of reckoning being postponed for yet again.

However, there is the famous saying: “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” What if savers and investors eventually become aware that the Fed will not bring interest rates back to “normal” but keep them at basically zero, or even push them into negative territory?

If a rush for the credit market exit would set in, it would be upon the Fed to fill debtors’ funding gap in order to prevent the fiat system from collapsing. The central bank would have to monetize outstanding and newly originated debt on a grand scale, sending downward the purchasing power of the US dollar — and with it many other fiat currencies around the world.

The “Waiting for Godot” strategy does not rule out that the Fed might, at some stage, nudge upward short-term borrowing costs. However, any rate action should be minor and rather short-lived (like they were in Japan), and it wouldn’t bring interest rates back to “normal.” The underlying logic of the fiat money system simply wouldn’t admit it.

Selected Japanese Interest Rates in Percent
Selected Japanese Interest Rates in Percent

The Fed — and basically all central banks around the world — are unlikely to accept deflation clearing out the debt, which would topple the economic and political structures built upon it. Fending off an approaching recession-depression with more credit-created fiat money and extremely low, perhaps even negative, interest rates is what one can expect them to do.

Murray N. Rothbard put it succinctly: “We can look forward … not precisely to a 1929-type depression, but to an inflationary depression of massive proportions.”

Dr. Thorsten Polleit is the Chief Economist of Degussa (www.degussa-goldhandel.de) and Honorary Professor at the University of Bayreuth. He is the winner of the O.P. Alford III Prize in Political Economy and has been published in the Austrian Journal of Economics. His personal website is www.thorsten-polleit.com.

This article was published on Mises.org and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution United States License, which requires that credit be given to the author.