David Gordon on Mervyn King: Central Bankers are Losing Faith in their own Alchemy. Cobden

Mervyn King is the British Ben Bernanke. An eminent academic economist, who now teaches both at New York University and the London School of Economics, King was from 2003 to 2013 Governor of the Bank of England. In short, he is a very big deal. Remarkably, in The End of Alchemy he frequently sounds like Murray Rothbard.

King identifies a basic problem in the banking system that has again and again led to financial crisis.

“The idea that paper money could replace intrinsically valuable gold and precious metals, and that banks could take secure short-term deposits and transform them into long-term risky investments came into its own with the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. It was both revolutionary and immensely seductive. It was in fact financial alchemy — the creation of extraordinary financial powers that defy reality and common sense. Pursuit of this monetary elixir has brought a series of economic disasters — from hyperinflation to banking collapses.”

How exactly is this alchemy supposed to work?

“People believed in alchemy because, so it was argued, depositors would never all choose to withdraw their money at the same time. If depositors’ requirements to make payments or obtain liquidity were, when averaged over a large number of depositors, a predictable flow, then deposits could provide a reliable source of long-term funding. But if a sizable group of depositors were to withdraw funds at the same time, the bank would be forced either to demand immediate repayment of the loans it had made, … or to default on the claims of depositors.”

Readers of Rothbard’s What Has Government Done to Our Money? will recognize a familiar theme.

Many have sought to salvage the alchemy of banking by resorting to a central bank. By acting as a lender of last resort, a central bank can bail out banks in need of funds to satisfy anxious depositors and thus avert the danger of a bank run. The alchemy of transforming deposits into investments can now proceed.

Though he was one of the world’s leading central bankers, King finds fault with this “solution.” A local bank can be rescued by getting money from the central bank, but the process generates new problems. Thomas Hankey, a nineteenth-century Governor of the Bank of England, pointed out some of these in response to Walter Bagehot, the classic defender of the central bank as the lender of last resort:

[i]f banks came to rely on the Bank of England to bail them out when in difficulty, then they would take excessive risks and abandon “sound principles of banking.” They would run down their liquid assets, relying instead on cheap central bank insurance — and that is exactly what happened before the recent [2008] crisis. The provision of insurance without a proper charge is an incentive to take excessive risks — in modern jargon, it creates “moral hazard.”

Given the dangers of financial alchemy, what should we do about it? Again, King strikes a Rothbardian note. He writes with great sympathy for one hundred percent reserve banking.

Even though the degree of alchemy of the banking system was much less fifty or more years ago than it is today, it is interesting that many of the most distinguished  economists of the first half of the twentieth century believed in forcing banks to hold sufficient liquid assets to back 100 percent of their deposits. They recommended ending the system of “fractional reserve banking,” under which banks create deposits to finance risky lending and so have insufficient safe cash reserves to back their deposits.

Like Rothbard, King calls attention to the insights of the nineteenth-century Jacksonian William Leggett. King cites an article of 1834 in which Leggett said:

Let the [current] law be repealed; let a law be substituted, requiring simply that any person entering into banking business shall be required to lodge with some officer designated in the law, real estate, or other approved security, to the full amount of the notes which he might desire to issue.

King may to an extent resemble Rothbard; but unfortunately he is not Rothbard; and alert readers will have caught an important difference between King’s idea of one hundred percent reserve banking and Rothbard’s. King’s notion, unlike Rothbard’s, still allows banks to expand the money supply. The “liquid assets” need not be identical with the deposits: they need only be easily convertible into money should the need arise to do so.

King’s own plan to “end the alchemy” allows for substantial monetary expansion. He calls his idea the “pawnbroker for all seasons (PFAS)” approach. This is a form of “liquidity” insurance. Banks would have to put up in advance as collateral with the central bank some of their assets. This would act as a “form of mandatory insurance so that in the event of a crisis a central bank would be free to lend on terms already agreed.” So long as the insurance had been paid, though, the central bank would still bail the bank out in a crisis by giving it more money. Contrast this with the plan suggested in the quotation from Leggett, in which if a bank could not redeem its notes, depositors could proceed directly against the bank’s assets. This allows no monetary expansion; and Rothbard’s plan is of course more restrictive still.

Having come so close to Rothbard, why does King shrink from the final step? Why does he still allow room for monetary expansion? He fears deflation.

Sharp changes in the balance between the demand for and supply of liquidity can cause havoc in the economy. The key advantage of man-made money is that its supply can be increased or decreased rapidly in response to a sudden change in demand. Such an ability is a virtue, not a vice, of paper or electronic money. … The ability to expand the supply of money in times of crisis is essential to avoid a depression.

But if the demand for liquidity suddenly increases, when the monetary stock is constant, cannot falling prices for goods satisfy the demand? King, here following Keynes, is skeptical. “Wage and price flexibility does help to coordinate plans when all the markets relevant to future decisions exist. But in practice they do not, and in those circumstances cuts in wages and prices may lower incomes without stimulating current demand.” Prices may keep falling indefinitely.

Other possibilities of coordination failure also trouble King, and underlying them is an important argument. Following Frank Knight, he distinguishes between risk and uncertainty.

Risk concerns events, like your house catching fire, where it is possible to define precisely the nature of that future outcome and to assign a probability to the occurrence of the event based on past experience. … Uncertainty, by contrast, concerns events where it is not possible to define, or even imagine, all possible future outcomes, and to which probabilities cannot therefore be assigned.

We live in a world of radical uncertainty, and thus we cannot be sure that relying on market prices to adjust to changes in the demand to hold money suffices to avert catastrophe. It is for this reason that resort to monetary expansion sometimes is needed.

This argument moves altogether too fast. It does not follow from the fact that Knightian uncertainty prevails widely that one must take seriously the possibility that prices and wages would fall indefinitely. In a situation of uncertainty, we cannot, by hypothesis, calculate probabilities; but this does not require that we take outlandish possibilities as likely occurrences that must be averted by the government. Some reason needs to be given for supposing that prices will continue to fall indefinitely. Why would entrepreneurs not be able to correct the situation, without resorting to monetary expansion? We are not faced with a dichotomy between exact mathematical calculation, in the style of an Arrow-Debreu equilibrium, and blind groping in the dark.

King himself acknowledges that in the American depression of 1920 to 1921, no resort to the government was needed.

The striking fact is that throughout the episode there was no active stabilization policy by the government or central bank, and prices moved in a violent fashion. It was, in the words of James Grant, the Wall Street financial journalist and writer, “the depression that cured itself.”

It is encouraging that King cites the Austrian economist James Grant, but he draws from his work an insufficient message. “The key lesson from the experience of 1920–21 is that it is a mistake to think of all recessions as having similar causes and requiring similar remedies.” In view of the manifold invidious consequences, fully acknowledged by King, of government intervention, should we not rather emphasize the need to rely on the unhampered market? King nevertheless merits praise for coming close, in his own way, to many Austrian insights.

“The Lessons of the 1920–21 Depression” by J. T. Salerno Pace University

The Forgotten Depression is a narrative history of the depression of 1920–21. Although it is informed by a very definite theory—the Austrian business cycle theory—it is not a standard work in applied economics. It does not first present the theory in a rigorous formulation and then move on to apply the theory by adducing pertinent qualitative facts and statistical data to explain a complex historical event such as a depression. It instead proceeds by way of anecdotes and contemporary media accounts, liberally seasoned with telling quotations from politicians, policy makers, economists, business leaders, and other contemporary observers of the unfolding depression. Data on money, prices, and production are inserted at crucial points to keep the reader abreast of the economy’s precipitous decline, but they do not dominate and weigh down the story. James Grant, a masterful stylist, effectively weaves these disparate elements into a seamless and compelling narrative that never flags in pace or wanders off track. The book should appeal to a wide variety of readers, from college students and business professionals to academic economists and policy makers.

By proceeding anecdotally, Grant gives the reader an intimate “feel” for the intellectual milieu prevailing at the time, offering a bracing immersion into an economic paradigm unimaginably alien to contemporary thinking about business cycles. It is for this reason that the book is especially valuable for academic economists whatever their theoretical bent or policy predilections. Grant conveys to the reader a clear understanding of a policy for curing depressions that was nearly universally prescribed in the era before macroeconomic concepts and formulas fastened themselves upon the minds of economists and media opinion molders. This policy is today derisively referred to as “liquidationist.”

To understand the liquidationist position, one must first grasp its foundational concepts and assumptions. In the world of the early 1920s so richly portrayed by Grant, there was no national macroeconomic entity with which economic theory and policy were concerned: “As far as the political-economic mind of 1920 was concerned, there was no ‘U.S. economy.’ And as the economic totality was yet unimagined, so too was the government’s role in directing, managing and stimulating it” (p. 128; see also p. 67). Economists—with a few notable exceptions—did not think of the “price level” as a unitary statistical construct or worry overmuch about its fluctuations. Nor did they try to calculate “aggregate demand” or total spending or even consider either relevant to economic performance. Indeed, for most economists, the core of the market economy was the interdependent system of money prices, including wage and interest rates. Money prices were seen as the foundation for the calculations of revenues, costs, profits, and asset values upon which entrepreneurs based their resource-allocation decisions. Furthermore, it was widely recognized that money prices were in constant flux as they coordinated economic activities in the face of ceaseless change in consumer tastes, business organization, technology, population, labor skills, and so on. As Grant aptly and incisively expresses his theme in the preface, “The hero of my narrative is the price mechanism” (p. 2).

The favorable view of liquidation as a cure for depression thus arose naturally out of the belief that the price mechanism, when left undisturbed, benignly adapts resource allocation and production to the underlying economic realities. As Grant points out, to liquidate, as the term was used at the time, simply meant “to throw on the market” (p. 172). In this sense, “liquidating” labor, inventories, farms, and businesses was a call to allow the price system to operate to discover the configuration of wages, prices, and asset values appropriate to the reemployment of idle resources in the production of goods most urgently demanded by consumers. If this price adjustment incidentally resulted in deflation, then so be it. In lieu of the fictitious concept of a unitary price level, inert and resistant to movement, money prices were conceived as naturally and fluidly (but not instantly) moving up and down like a swarm of bees in flight. The fact that the “price swarm” might be ascending or descending would not inhibit and, indeed, might be required to facilitate necessary changes in the relative positions of money prices. (The metaphor of a “price swarm” wasn’t coined until 1942 by Arthur W. Marget in The Theory of Prices: A Re-examination of the Central Problems of Monetary Theory, 2 vols. [New York: Kelley, 1966, pp. 2:330–36], but it aptly describes the earlier classical-liquidationist view of the value of money.) Deflation presented no special problem because the classical view of the value of money still prevailed. In this view, money’s value was simply the unaveraged array of money prices inverted to reveal the alternative quantities of each good or service that exchanged for the money unit—for example, the dollar. Money prices fluctuated freely, so then must the value of money, which was determined in the same integral market process.

Grant’s judicious choice of quotations shows how pervasive and deeply ingrained was the view that the only sure cure for the depression was deflation and liquidation of overblown resource and asset prices. Here are some examples.

Benjamin Strong, the governor of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, foresaw the need for deflation and liquidation at the height of the postwar boom in 1919, writing that an anticipated change in Federal Reserve Board and Treasury policy “will insure during the next year or two a very considerable liquidation of our banking position . . . and a considerable decline in the price level” (qtd. on p. 92). The Berkeley economist Adolph C. Miller, a member of the Federal Reserve Board, opined in 1919, “Where there has been inflation, there must follow a deflation, as a necessary condition of economic health,” although Miller doubted that this deflation could and would be done (qtd. on pp. 94–95). Another member of the board and concurrently the comptroller of the currency, John Skelton Williams, in early 1921 viewed the global collapse of commodity prices as “inevitable” and welcomed the day when “the private citizen is able to acquire, at the expenditure of a dollar of his hard-earned money, something approximating the quantity and quality which that dollar commanded in prewar times” (qtd. on p. 118). As Grant concludes, the entire Federal Reserve Board was in remarkable agreement: “A continuing, drastic and perhaps violent rollback in prices, and therefore in wages, was the way forward” (p. 118).

The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston identified “two important conditions precedent to the laying of enduring foundations for the future stability of business, namely, liquidation and deflation … and an increasingly satisfactory banking situation with reserves augmented and loans decreasing [i.e., bank credit contraction]” (p. 120). A. Barton Hepburn, a former comptroller of the currency, also declared for bank-credit contraction and price deflation in 1920, lamenting, “The people of the country have by no means realized as yet the necessity for economy, liquidation of loans and curtailment in the use of credits. We will never be able to bring about the desired deflation until the general extravagance is curtailed” (qtd. on p. 98).

Even some prominent academic economists took up the case for deflation. Professor Edward W. Kemmerer of Princeton University, a leading monetary theorist, vigorously exhorted an audience of bankers in mid-1920, “We must have contraction. . . . We can’t go ahead with our business and make much progress . . . until we get substantial contraction” (qtd. on p. 125 n.).

Politicians also joined the chorus calling for deflation. In his inaugural address in March 1921, President Warren G. Harding perceptively declaimed in its favor, “The economic mechanism is intricate and its parts interdependent, and has suffered the shocks and jars incident to abnormal demands, credit inflations, and price upheavals. . . . Prices must reflect the receding fever of war activities. . . . We must face a condition of grim reality, charge off our losses and start afresh [i.e., liquidate]. It is the oldest lesson of civilization” (qtd. on pp. 135–36).

There was no fear among contemporary observers that, as current macroeconomic jargon would put it, “aggregate supply curves” would shift slowly and painfully to the right because entrepreneurs’ and workers’ expectations would adjust very slowly to the new reality. For liquidationists, in contrast, deflation would proceed very rapidly because bankers, investors, entrepreneurs, and consumers expected it to do so. And they expected it to do so because the intellectual paradigm and the monetary policy regime fostered such expectations. Even though the Fed was up and running, it did not yet see its task as preventing money prices from adjusting to changed conditions of money supply and demand.

Contemporary economic observers also did not fret about the modern specter of a runaway deflationary spiral that might result from plunging prices stoking expectations of further declines in prices and inducing consumers and entrepreneurs to delay purchases into the indefinite future. The reasons they ignored such an eventuality were obvious. First, such an event had never been experienced previously under the gold standard. Second, according to the liquidationist view, credit contraction and deflation was the most expeditious method for realigning money prices and costs, in particular wage rates. It was well understood that capitalists and entrepreneurs did not react to some abstract price level but to actual or expected price margins. Deflation under a freely operating price mechanism did not just lower the height of the price swarm but also deftly reconfigured it so that price margins expanded to the point where entrepreneurial pessimism and malaise gave way to optimism and energetic risk taking.

The liquidationist policy was criticized at the time by a small but notable group of economists, foremost among them Irving Fisher, John Maynard Keynes, and the Swede Gustav Cassel. These economists formulated what came to be known as the “stabilizationist position,” according to which maintaining a constant price level was the necessary and sufficient condition for ridding the economy of business cycles, especially depression and unemployment. For these economists, deflation was “a cruel and colossal blunder” (p. 123). Cassel denied that gradual deflation was possible and foretold that the Fed would not be able to control the rate of descent of prices or the level to which they would tumble. Writing two years after the 1920–21 depression had already ended, Keynes claimed that deflation would induce “everyone in business to go out of business for the time being” and “everyone who is contemplating expenditure to postpone orders so long as he can” (qtd. on p. 124).

In any event, as Grant demonstrates, the liquidationists proved to be correct. Cassel’s dire warning that deflation, once unleashed, would become unhinged from economic fundamentals was not substantiated. And Keynes’s dire assessment of the effect of deflation was proved false two years before he wrote it down. During the depression, total spending or nominal gross national product (GNP) tumbled by 24 percent from $91.5 billion in 1920 to $69.6 billion in 1921, and real GNP shrank by 9 percent. As Grant puts it, there was a “perpendicular plunge in commodity prices,” which never before had “fallen so far and so fast” (p. 182). Both farm prices and wholesale prices plummeted by more than one-third in 1921. Unemployment reached 15.3 percent in 1921. But despite “the breakneck rate of decline” of prices—or rather because of it—the liquidation process came naturally to an end, and prices reached a finite bottom beginning in March 1921. Contrary to Cassel and Keynes, deflation did not continue indefinitely or bring about a cessation of all economic activities and business expenditures. In fact, the U.S. economy entered a remarkably strong and rapid recovery in 1921 (pp. 186–90).

Paradoxically, in the immediate aftermath of its greatest triumph, the liquidationist position was completely discredited and placed beyond the pale of rational discourse. By the mid-1920s, the early Fisher–Keynes macroeconomics of price-level stabilization swept the field in the English-speaking world. Under the sway of this sophisticated brand of monetary crankism, policy makers and politicians deliberately disabled the price mechanism and ensured that less than a decade later a garden-variety recession would be transformed into the tragedy of the Great Depression.

The United States Of Insolvency

James Grant  

$13,903,107,629,266. Can the nation afford this much debt?

This much I have learned about debt after 40 years of writing and study: It is better not to incur it. Once it is incurred, it is better to pay it off. America, we have a problem.

We owe more than we can easily repay. We spend too much and borrow too much. Worse, we promise too much. We conjure dollar bills by the trillions–pull them right out of thin air. I won’t insist that this can’t go on, because it has. I only say that it will eventually stop.

I don’t know the date, but I believe that I know the reason. It will stop when the world loses confidence in the dollars we owe. Come that moment of truth, the nation will resemble Chicago, a once prosperous polity now trying to persuade its once trusting creditors that it is actually solvent.

To understand our financial fix, put yourself in the position of the government. Say you earn the typical American family income, and you spend and borrow as the government does. So assuming, you would earn $54,000 a year, spend $64,000 a year and charge $10,000 to your already slightly overburdened credit card. I say slightly overburdened–your outstanding balance is about $223,000.

Of course, MasterCard wouldn’t allow you to run up that kind of tab. At an annual percentage rate of 15%, the cost to service a $223,000 balance would absorb 62% of your pretax income. But the government is different from you and me (and Chicago). It has a central bank.

The Federal Reserve is the government’s Monopoly-money machine. It sets some interest rates and influences many others. It materializes dollars. It regulates–now regiments–the nation’s banks. It pulls levers to make the stock market go up.

Congress is the source of the Fed’s power. The Constitution is the source of Congress’s power. The parchment enjoins Congress to coin money and regulate the value thereof. The founders viewed money as a scale or yardstick, something that measures value. The Fed views money as a magic wand, something that creates value.

Dollars aren’t so much minted these days. Rather, they issue from the Fed’s computers in billowing digital clouds. The cost of producing them is only the energy expended on tapping the keys. The Fed emits these electronic greenbacks to attempt to control the course of economic events. It’s a heaven-sent monetary system for a big-spending government.

You may struggle to pay that midteens rate on your outstanding credit-card balance. The Treasury gets by paying an average of just 1.8% on that portion of the debt, held by savers and investors both here and abroad. Defined in this way, we owe $13.9 trillion. The $19 trillion figure ticking upward on the famous National Debt Clock adds the debts the government owes itself. (How does this pseudo bookkeeping work? The Social Security Administration takes in–temporarily–more than it pays out. With the surplus it buys Treasury bonds. The bonds enlarge the debt clock’s debt.) It’s not so important that the government pays itself on time. What is important is that the government pay its public creditors on time. So cast your eyes on the exact numerical rendering of that slightly smaller sum: $13,903,107,629,266. It is unmanageable.

One can assume that the creditors trust the currency in which they expect to be repaid. I wonder why, and for how much longer. The Fed once fought inflation. Now it actually sets out to cause it–about 2% a year is the target. Striving to inflate, it presses down interest rates and rustles up new dollars.

From the nation’s 18th century founding until 1971, the dollar was defined as a weight of gold or silver. Americans did business with paper, of course. But these commercial bills and banknotes were convertible into monetary bedrock, the precious metals. The expression sound as a dollar derives from the ring of a gold piece when you plunked it on a counter.

Sound money coincided with balanced budgets. Government borrowings climbed in wartime and subsided in peacetime. The pattern was disarranged by depression in the 1930s and war in the 1940s. It was broken by the Johnson Administration’s guns and butter and entitlements programs in the 1960s. Richard Nixon administered the coup de grâce on Aug. 15, 1971, when he announced that the dollar would derive its value from the say-so of the government. The Fed could print as many green bills as the traffic would bear.

Many applauded that sea change, then and later. Easy money rarely fails to please–at first. It buoys stocks, bonds and commercial real estate. House prices jump, and car sales zoom. (Average auto-lending rates, now 4%, have been nearly sawed in half since 2007.) Politicians, noticing how a bull market fattens public pension funds, ratchet up the benefits they promise to retirees (a fact that state and federal pensioners are encouraged to remember on Election Day).

Periodically, the buzz wears off. What remains is a hangover of debts and promises. The proliferating dollars facilitate heavy borrowing. Ultra-low interest rates mask the cost.

I don’t ask that we return to some long-lost fiscal and monetary Eden. None has ever existed, even in America. Crises and business cycles are always with us. I merely observe that sound money and a balanced budget were two sides of the coin of American prosperity.

Then came magical thinking. Maybe you had a taste of modern economics in school. If so, you probably learned that the federal budget needn’t be balanced–it’s nothing like a family budget, the teacher would say–and that gold is a barbarous relic. To manage the business cycle, the argument went, a government must have the flexibility to print money, to muscle around interest rates and to spend more than it takes in–in short, to “stimulate.”

Oh, we have stimulated. Between the fiscal years 2008 and 2012 alone, federal deficits totaled $5.6 trillion. The public debt nearly doubled in the same span of years, to $11.2 trillion. The Federal Reserve tickled $1.6 trillion in new digital dollars into existence. True, our Great Recession proved no Great Depression, but the post-2008 recovery is the limpest on record.

A thin cheer went up in January when the deficit (calculated over the 12 preceding months) weighed in at a mere $405 billion, the lowest over any 12-month period since 2008. Only $405 billion. It’s not so much, as Washington strums its calculators.

Let us pause to reflect that a billion is a thousand million, and that a trillion is a thousand billion–or, alternatively, a million millions. It’s a measure of the fix we’re in that the billions hardly seem worth talking about.

It’s tomorrow’s trillions–the ones we’ve grandly promised to pay ourselves–that lie at the heart of the problem. The granddaddy of far-off commitments was Social Security, which dates from the 1930s. Medicare and Medicaid in the 1960s and the Affordable Care Act in 2010 duly followed. The debt, as big as it is, is the measure of past spending in excess of tax receipts, a pattern of bad fiscal habits that traces its intellectual roots to John Maynard Keynes and has its dollars-and-cents origins with Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society. What awaits us and our children and their children is the unpaid tab of the future.

“Nobody knows anything,” screenwriter William Goldman wisely observed about the accuracy of Hollywood box-office forecasts. The economists, in general, are no better than the studio executives.

You can’t blame people for not paying attention. America has forever defied the doomsdayers. The very language of government debt is calculated to tranquilize the critical mind. We speak of the Department of the Treasury rather than the Department of the Debt. (There’s no net treasure in the Treasury.) We say entitlement instead of taxing Peter to pay Paul and Social Security trust fund when we mean just another ordinary government account at the Department of Debt. (There is no trust fund because there is no division of assets, no accounts containing funds earmarked for you, the citizen, who so faithfully “contributed” your payroll taxes.)

Today’s miniature interest rates constitute another form of public sedation. You’d suppose the doubling of the debt would jack up the cost of servicing the debt. Nothing of the kind. As the debt has doubled, the rate of interest has halved.

In 2007, we owed $5 trillion and paid an average interest rate of 4.8%. Net interest expense: $237 billion. In 2016 we’ll owe $14.1 trillion and pay the average interest rate I already mentioned: 1.8%. Net interest expense: $240 billion. It’s a wonder we didn’t think of this financial perpetual-motion machine about a thousand years ago.

Debt per se is neither good nor bad, though less is usually better than more. How it’s priced and how it’s used are what tips the scales. If chocolate cake cost a penny a slice, the best of us would be tempted to break our diets. Well, government debt is priced at less than 2%, and Washington fell off the wagon years ago.

The public debt will fall due someday. (Some of it falls due just about every day.) It will have to be repaid or refinanced. If repaid, where would the money come from? It would come from you, naturally. The debt is ultimately a deferred tax. You can calculate your pro rata obligation on your smartphone. Just visit the Treasury website, which posts the debt to the penny, then the Census Bureau’s website, which reports the up-to-the-minute size of the population. Divide the latter by the former and you have the scary truth: $42,998.12 for every man, woman and child, as I write this.

In the short term, the debt would no doubt be refinanced, but at which interest rate? At 4.8%, the rate prevailing as recently as 2007, the government would pay more in interest expense–$654 billion–than it does for national defense. At a blended rate of 6.7%, the average prevailing in the 1990s, the net federal-interest bill would reach $913 billion, which very nearly equals this year’s projected outlay on Social Security.

We always need protection against cockeyed economic experimentation. Once a national consensus on money and debt furnished this protective armor. Money was gold and debt was bad, Americans assumed. Most credentialed economists today will smile at these ancient prejudices. Allow me to suggest that our forebears knew something.

Keynes himself would recoil at 0% bank-deposit rates, chronically low economic growth and the towering trillions that we have so generously pledged to one another. (All we have to do now is earn the money to pay them.)

How do we escape from our self-constructed fiscal jail? According to the Government Accountability Office, unpaid taxes add up to more than $450 billion a year. Even so, according to the Tax Foundation, Americans spend6.1 billion hours and $233.8 billion each tax season complying with a federal tax code that runs to 10 million words. Are we quite sure we want no part of the flat-tax idea? An identical low rate on most incomes. No deductions, no H&R Block. Impractical? So is the debt.

So is the spending (and the promises to spend more down the road). We need to stop the squandermania. How? By resuming the principled fight that Vivien Kellems waged against the IRS during the Truman Administration. It enraged Kellems, a doughty Connecticut entrepreneur, that she was forced to withhold federal taxes from her employees’ wages. She called it involuntary servitude, and she itched to make her constitutional argument in court. She never got that chance, but she published her plan for a peaceful revolution.

She asked her readers–I ask mine–to really examine the stub of their paycheck. Observe how much your employer pays you and how much less you take home. Notice the dollars withheld for Medicare, Social Security and so forth. If you are like most of us, you stopped looking long ago. You don’t miss the income that you never get to touch.

Picking up where Kellems left off, I propose a slight alteration in payday policy. Let each wage-earning citizen hold the whole of his or her untaxed earnings–actually touch them. Then let the government pluck its taxes.

“Such a payroll policy,” wrote Kellems in her memoir, Taxes, Toil and Trouble, “is entirely legal and if it were universally adopted, in six months we would have either a tax revolution or a startling contraction of the budget!”

Black ink, sound money and the spirit of Vivien Kellems are the way forward. “Make America solvent again” is my credo and battle cry. You can fit it on a cap.

“That Central Bankers Have Lost Their Marbles” by James Grant

April 15 comes and goes but the federal debt stays and grows. The secrets of its life force are the topics at hand— that and some guesswork about how the upsurge in financial leverage, private and public alike, may bear on the value of the dollar and on the course of monetary affairs. Skipping down to the bottom line, we judge that the government’s money is a short sale.

Diminishing returns is the essential problem of the debt: Past a certain level of encumbrance, a marginal dollar of borrowing loses its punch. There’s a moral dimension to the problem as well. There would be less debt if people were more angelic. Non-angels, the taxpayers underpay, the bureaucrats over-remit and everyone averts his gaze from the looming titanic cost of future medical entitlements. Topping it all is 21st-century monetary policy, which fosters the credit formation that leads to the debt dead end. The debt dead end may, in fact, be upon us now. A monetary dead end could follow.

As to sin, Americans surrender, in full and on time, 83% of what they owe, according to the IRS—or they did between the years 2001 and 2006, the latest period for which America’s most popular federal agency has sifted data. In 2006, the IRS reckons, American filers, both individuals and corporations, paid $450 billion less than they owed. They underreported $376 billion, underpaid $46 billion and kept mum about (“nonfiled”) $28 billion. Recoveries, through late payments or enforcement actions, reduced that gross deficiency to a net “tax gap” of $385 billion.

This was in 2006, when federal tax receipts footed to $2.31 trillion. Ten  years later, the U.S. tax take is expected to reach $3.12 trillion. Proportionally, the 2006 gross tax gap would translate to $607.7 billion, and the net tax gap to $520 billion. To be on the conservative side, let us fix the 2016 net tax gap at $500 billion.

Then there’s squandermania. According to the Government Accountability Office, the federal monolith “misdirected” $124.7 billion in fiscal 2014, up from $105.8 billion in fiscal 2013. Medicare, Medicaid and earned income tax credits accounted for 75% of the misspent funds—i.e., of those wasted payments to which government bureaus confessed. “[F]or fiscal year 2014,” the GAO relates, “two federal agencies did not report improper payment estimates for four risk-susceptible programs and five programs with improper payment estimates greater than $1 billion were noncompliant with federal requirements for three consecutive years.” It seems fair to conclude that more than $125 will go missing in fiscal 2016.

Add the misdirected $125 billion to the unpaid $500 billion, and you arrive at a sum of money that far exceeds the projected fiscal 2016 deficit of $534 billion.

Which brings us to intergenerational self-deception. The fiscal outlook would remain troubled even if the taxpayers paid in full and the bureaucrats stopped wiring income-tax refunds to phishers from Nigeria. Not even a step-up in the current trudging pace of economic growth would put right the long-term fiscal imbalance. So-called non-discretionary spending, chiefly on Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act, is the beating heart of the public debt. It puts even the welladvertised problems of Social Security in the shade.

Fiscal balance is the 3D approach to public-finance accounting. It compares the net present value of what the government expects to spend versus the net present value of what the government expects to take in. It’s a measure of today’s debt plus the present value of the debt that will pile up if federal policies remain the same. To come up with an estimate of balance or—as is relevant today, imbalance—you make lots of assumptions about life in America over the next 75 years. Critical, especially, is the interest rate at which you discount future streams of outlay and intake. Jeffrey Miron has performed these fascinating calculations over the span from 1965 to 2014.

 

 

The director of economic studies at the Cato Institute and the director of undergraduate studies in the Harvard University economics department, Miron has projected that, over the next 75 years, the government will take in $152.5 trillion and pay out $252.7 trillion —each discounted by an assumed 3.22% average real rate of interest. Add the gross federal debt outstanding in 2014, and—voila!—he has his figure: a fiscal imbalance on the order of $120 trillion. Compare and contrast today’s net debt of $13.9 trillion, GDP of $18.2 trillion, gross debt of $19.2 trillion and household net worth of $86.8 trillion. Compare and contrast, too, the estimated present value of 75 years’ worth of American GDP. Miron ventures that $120 trillion  represents something more than 5% of that gargantuan concept.

There’s nothing so exotic about the idea of fiscal balance. In calculating the familiar-looking projection of debt relative to GDP, the Congressional Budget Office uses assumed rates of growth in spending and revenue, which it also discounts by an assumed rate of interest. It’s fiscal-balance calculus by another name, as Miron notes.

Nor is the fiscal-balance idea very new. Laurence J. Kotlikoff, now a chaired professor of economics at Boston University, has been writing about it at least since 1986, when he shocked the then deficit-obsessed American intelligentsia with the contention that the federal deficit is a semantic construct, not an economic one. This is so, said he, because the size of the deficit is a function of the labels which the government arbitrarily attaches to such everyday concepts as receipts and outlays. Thus, the receipts called “taxes” lower the deficit, whereas receipts called “borrowing” raise it. The dollars are the same; only the classification is different.

Be that as it may, Miron observes that the deficit and the debt tell nothing about the fiscal future. Each is backward-looking. “The debt,” he points out, “. . . takes no account of what current policy implies for future expenditures or revenue. Any surplus reduces the debt, and any deficit increases the debt, regardless of whether that deficit or surplus consists of high expenditure and high revenues or low expenditure and low revenues. Similarly, whether a given ratio of debt to output is problematic depends on an economy’s growth prospects.”

Step back in time to 2007, Miron beckons. In that year before the flood, European ratios of debt to GDP varied widely, even among the soon-to-be crisis-ridden PIIGS. Greece’s ratio stood at 112.8% and Italy’s at 110.6%, though Ireland’s weighed in at just 27.5%, Spain’s at 41.7% and Portugal’s at 78.1% (not very different from America’s 75.7%). “These examples do not mean that debt plays no role in fiscal imbalance,” Miron says, “but they illustrate that debt is only one component of the complete picture and therefore a noisy predictor of fiscal difficulties.”

So promises to pay, rather than previously incurred indebtedness, tell the tale. Social Security, a creation of the New Deal, did no irretrievable damage to the intergenerational balance sheet. It was the Great Society that turned the black ink red. Prior to 1965, the United States, while it  had run up plenty of debts related to war or—in the 1930s—depression, never veered far from fiscal balance. Then came the Johnson administration with its guns and butter and Medicare and Medicaid. From a fiscal balance of $6.9 trillion in 1965, this country has arrived at the previously cited $120 trillion imbalance recorded in 2014. And there are “few signs of improvement,” Miron adds, “even if GDP growth accelerates or tax revenues increase relative to historic norms. Thus, the only viable way to restore fiscal balance is to scale back mandatory spending policies, particularly on large health-care programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act.”

We asked Miron about the predictive value of these data. Could you tell that Greece was on the verge by examining its fiscal imbalance? And might not Japan be the tripwire to any future developed-country debt crisis, since Japan—surely—has the most adverse debt, demographic and entitlement spending profile? Miron replied that comparative statistics on fiscal imbalance among the various OECD countries don’t exist. And even if they did, it’s not clear that they would tell when a certain country would lose the confidence of its possibly inattentive creditors. The important thing to bear in mind, he winds up, is that the imbalances— not just in America or Japan or Greece but throughout the developed world—are “very big and very bad.”

Of course, government debt is only one flavor of nonfinancial encumbrance. The debt of households, businesses and state and local governments complete the medley of America’s nonfinancial liabilities. The total grew in 2015 by $1.9 trillion, which the nominal GDP grew by $549 billion. In other words, we Americans borrowed $3.46 to generate a dollar of GDP growth.

We have not always had to work the national balance sheet so hard. The marginal efficiency of debt has fallen as the growth in borrowing has accelerated. Thus, at year end, the ratio of nonfinancial debt to GDP reached a record high 248.6%, up from 245.4% in 2014 and from the previous record of 245.5% set in 2009. In the long sweep of things, these are highly elevated numbers.

 

In the not-quite half century between 1952 and 2000, $1.70 of nonfinancial borrowing sufficed to generate a dollar of GDP growth. Since 2000, $3.30 of such borrowing was the horsepower behind the same amount of growth. Which suggests, conclude Van Hoisington and Lacy Hunt in their first-quarter report to the clients of Hoisington Investment Management Co., “that the type and efficiency of the new debt is increasingly nonproductive.”

 

 

What constitutes a “nonproductive” debt? Borrowing to maintain a fig leaf of actuarial solvency would seem to fill the bill. Steven Malanga, who writes for the Manhattan Institute, reports that state and municipal pension funds boosted their indebtedness to at least $1 trillion from $233 billion between 2003 and 2013. Yet, Malanga observes, “All but a handful of state systems have higher unfunded liabilities today than in 2003.”

Neither does recent business borrowing obviously answer the definition of productive. To quote the Hoisington letter: “Last year business debt, excluding off-balance-sheet liabilities, rose $793 billion, while total gross private domestic investment (which includes fixed and inventory investment) rose only $93 billion. Thus, by inference, this debt increase went into share buybacks, dividend increases and other financial endeavors, [although] corporate cash flow declined by $224 billion. When business debt is allocated to financial operations, it does not generate an income stream to meet interest and repayment requirements. Such a usage of debt does not support economic growth, employment, higherpaying jobs or productivity growth.”

The readers of Grant’s would think less of a company that generated its growth by bloating its balance sheet. The composite American  enterprise would seem to answer that unwanted description. Debt of all kinds—financial and foreign as well as nonfinancial— leapt by $1.97 trillion last year, or by $1.4 trillion more than the growth in nominal GDP; the ratio of total debt (excluding off-balance-sheet liabilities) to GDP squirted to 370%.

The United States is far from the most overextended nation on earth. Last year, Japan showed a ratio of total debt (again, excluding off-balancesheet items) to GDP of 615%; China and the eurozone, ratios of 350% and 457%. Hoisington and Hunt, who dug up the data, posit that overleverage spells subpar growth. In support of this proposition (a familiar one in the academic literature), they observe thataggregate  nominal GDP growth for the four debtors rose by just 3.6% in 2015. It was the weakest showing since 1999 except for the red-letter year of 2009.

The now orthodox reaction to substandard growth is hyperactive monetary policy. Yet the more the central bankers attempt, the less they seem to accomplish. ZIRP and QE may raise asset prices and P/E ratios, but growth remains anemic. What’s wrong?

Debt is wrong, we and Hoisington and Hunt agree. With the greatest of ease do the central bankers whistle new digital money into existence. What they have not so far achieved is  the knack of making this scrip move briskly from hand to hand. Among the big four debtors, the rate of monetary turnover, or velocity—“V” to the adepts— has been falling since 1998.

“Functionally, many factors influence V, but the productivity of debt is the key,” Hoisington and Hunt propose. “Money and debt are created simultaneously. If the debt produces a sustaining income stream to repay principal and interest, then velocity will rise because GDP will eventually increase by more than the initial borrowing. If the debt is a mixture of unproductive or counterproductive debt, then V will fall.

Financing consumption does not generate new funds to meet servicing obligations. Thus, falling money growth and velocity are both symptomsof extreme over-indebtedness and nonproductive debt.”

Which is why, perhaps, radical monetary policy seems to beget still more radical monetary policy. Insofar as QE and ultra-low interest rates foster credit formation, they likewise chill growth and depress the velocity of turnover in money. What then? Why, policies still newer, zippier, zanier.

Ben S. Bernanke, the former Fed chairman turned capital-introduction professional for Pimco, keeps his hand in the policy-making game with periodic blog posts. He’s out with a new one about “helicopter money,” the phrase connoting the idea that, in a deflationary crisis, the government could drop currency from the skies to promote rising prices and brisker spending. Attempting to put the American mind at ease, Bernanke assures his readers that, while there will be no need for such a gambit in “the foreseeable future,” the Fed could easily implement a “money-financed fiscal program” in the hour of need.

No helicopters would be necessary, of course, Bernanke continues. Let the Fed simply top off the Treasury’s checking account—filling it with new digital scrip. The funds would not constitute debt; they would be more like agift. Or the Fed might accept the Treasury’s IOU, which it would hold “indefinitely,” as Bernanke puts it, rebating any interest received—a kind of zero coupon perpetual security. The Treasury would then spread the wealth by making vital public investments, filling potholes and whatnot. The key, notes Bernanke, is that such outlays would be “money-financed, not debt-financed.” The “appealing aspect of an MFFP,” says he, “is that it should influence the economy through a number of channels, making it extremely likely to be effective—even if existing government debt is already high and/or interest rates are zero or negative [the italics are his].”

Thus, the thought processes of Janet Yellen’s predecessor. Reading him, we are struck, as ever, by his clinical detachment. Does the deployment of helicopter money not entail some meaningful risk of the loss of confidence in a currency that is, after all, undefined, uncollateralized and infinitely replicable at exactly zero cost? Might trust be shattered by the visible act of infusing the government with invisible monetary pixels and by the subsequent exchange of those images for real goods and services? The former Fed chairman seems not to consider the question— certainly, he doesn’t address it.

To us, it is the great question. Pondering it, as we say, we are bearish on the money of overextended governments. We are bullish on the alternatives enumerated in the Periodic table. It would be nice to know when the rest of the world will come around to the gold-friendly view that central bankers have lost their marbles. We have no such timetable. The road to confetti is long and winding.

Bonus track: Druckenmiller Loads Up on Gold, Saying Bull Market Exhausted 

Bloomberg, by Katherine Burton

Stan Druckenmiller, the billionaire investor with one of the best long-term track records in money management, said the bull market in stocks has “exhausted itself” and that gold is his largest currency allocation.

Druckenmiller, speaking at the Sohn Investment Conference in New York on Wednesday, said while he’s been critical of Federal Reserve policy for the last three years he expected at that time it would lead to higher asset prices.

“I now feel the weight of the evidence has shifted the other way; higher valuations, three more years of unproductive corporate behavior, limits to further easing and excessive borrowing from the future suggest that the bull market is exhausting itself,” said Druckenmiller, who averaged annual returns of 30 percent from 1986 through 2010 at his Duquesne Capital Management. He’s up 8 percent this year, according to a person familiar with the matter. 

As bankers experiment with “the absurd notion of negative interest rates,” Druckenmiller said, he’s wagering on gold. “Some regard it as a metal, we regard it as a currency and it remains our largest currency allocation,” he said, without naming the metal.

Metal Gains

Gold futures climbed 20 percent this year in the best start since 2006, helped by speculation that the U.S. Federal Reserve will be slow to tighten monetary policy amid global risks to growth and as lending rates in the euro area and Japan fell below zero.

On the Fed, Druckenmiller said the central bank has borrowed more “from future consumption than ever before.”

“By most objective measures, we are deep into the longest period ever of excessively easy monetary policies,” he said. “Despite finally ending QE, the Fed’s radical dovishness continues today. By most objective measures, we are deep into the longest period ever of excessively easy monetary policies. In other words, and quite ironically, this is the least ‘data dependent’ Fed we have had in history.”

Druckenmiller said “volatility in global equity markets over the past year, which often precedes a major trend change, suggests that their risk/reward is negative without substantially lower prices and/or structural reform. Don’t hold your breath for the latter.”