Europe’s Achilles Heel

europe's achilles heel

This is sub-chapter #15, of Chapter #4, Economics (Three-Quarters of the way there), of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, follow this link.


EUROPE’S ACHILLES HEEL

The Euro, the official currency of the European Monetary Union (EMU) has been in place since 1999, and up until 2008/09 was functioning pretty smoothly. Countries that participated in the EMU (seventeen countries out of twenty-seven countries in the European Union) saw their overall GDP during that decade rise, everybody got along, and politicians were celebrating their grand experiment in unification and big government.

Of course, this wasn’t because bigger government is better, but because economically weaker parts of the EU, like Greece and Portugal were able to borrow more money with the ‘apparent’ credit of Germany, allowing for debt-based growth, which is always short-lived. Another factor was in part the removal of congestion and barriers between the EMU nations that facilitated the exchange of goods. There were no more borders and the free flow of goods and people was accelerated, saving huge amounts of time and money.

That party came to a close during the Global Financial Crisis and a fundamental flaw was exposed. To understand the flaw, first we need to understand the EMU.

As part of the makeup of the EMU, national governments keep their national sovereignty, but allow an open border policy with other EU nations and give up their sovereignty to print new money. That last point is the crux of the flaw. You have seventeen nations that make up the EMU that must all use the centrally issued Euro.

Now, the manner in which a central bank sets the price of money, aka the interest rate, goes much like this: The central bank (CB) takes into account the fiscal habits of the nation’s people, and enacts policies that can have the greatest benefit to the economy for the well-being of all, in relation to those spending habits. They do this by setting the price of money (the interest rate).

For example, a nation of savers would have a low-interest rate, and a nation of spenders would have a high interest rate—a drastic simplification, but for the purposes of this example, fitting and easier to digest.

Digging a little deeper: a nation of savers would create excess capital; which can be used to create new businesses, industries, and jobs. Access to new capital from the CB would not be as necessary, and when it would be, the resulting inflation would be manageable growing with economic expansion in the process creating prosperity by naturally increasing as required by the new jobs and businesses brought into existence with the money multiplier effect—win-win for everybody. Another way to look at it is, the low-interest rate is an indicator that the necessary sacrifice and thrift have been achieved that shows that long-term investments can be funded with minimal risk by borrowing; hence the price of money is cheap (low-interest rates).

On the other hand, a nation of spenders could not have such a low price of money as spenders in such an environment would spend beyond their means and create lots of private debt, and pay off that existing debt with new loans and more debt—which is what our governments are currently doing, ramming it into your skull for the forty-fourth time (it’s simple mathematics that is cannot go on forever). In a low-interest environment, this creates a vicious cycle that creates lots of inflation and economic pain for everyone, without increasing the jobs and business that go with it, as it does in a nation of savers, so inflation spins out of control and everyone who hasn’t diversified into commodities (and even they often get the short-end of the stick due to reactive government policies) are worse off. It is in this scenario where totalitarianism usually arises; such was the case with Hitler in the aftermath of the Weimar Hyperinflation. So a nation of spenders would need a higher central bank interest rate to disincentive new loans and the money creation that goes with it.

Here we come to the crux of the problem. There are seventeen countries together in this economic union; countries like Germany, a nation of productive savers who couldn’t imagine life without work, and whom work until the age of sixty-five before retirement. And at the opposite end of the spectrum is a country like Greece, a nation of spenders, some of who retire at fifty, and the majority at sixty, the lowest rate in Europe. Yet both have access to the same line of credit from the European Central Bank, and nobody saw this disaster coming, why? The subprime mortgage in the US that triggered the Global Financial Crisis was due in part, to giving anyone and everyone interest-free loans without even bothering to do credit checks or even see paperwork. Many argued that it was immoral or unfair to not provide such credit, but is it unfair and immoral now that the entire nation (perhaps even world) is worse off?

This caused huge distortions and misallocations of capital, which can’t now be paved over with the current round of bailout after bailout after European Central Bank bailout (not that it stops them from trying), but a problem can’t begin to be solved without solving the underlying cause that begot it.

This gaping, foundational crack in the base of the EU isn’t even being looked at. Brussels is just throwing money at it, hoping it disappears (which it won’t and cannot), essentially trying to solve the problem by doing the same thing that the problem caused in the first place, a misallocation of capital that is only being magnified by these suit-wearing monkeys, further misallocating current savings, and creating future debt burdens in the name of keeping the status quo.

The solution is, or would have been, to charge a variable interest to the varying countries that make up the monetary union depending on the macro-economic behaviors of their people. That is, what would an individual central bank in each of the countries set its interest rates at, so that, to the best of its ability, prices remain stable and the economy remains strong? Then charge that interest rate to each country. Sure, they will cry foul and whine like babies as politicians have a habit of doing, but so what? Let them bitch and cry until their cheeks turn coarse, and eventually they will swallow it up or they’ll end up in their own currency, which may just happen anyway with the current system.

Is it fairer that the now richer, more prudent countries that produced excess capital now have to essentially give free money to these countries whose politicians and people had the foresight of five-year olds at a candy store? It’s fairer to get what you have shown the world you are responsible with. Anything more puts the wellbeing of other people into irresponsible hands, which potential outcomes worse than people or nations making do with what they have. Anything else simply perverts and distorts incentives without the necessary financial intelligence (learned slowly and surely), which all too often, creates more problems than what one (person, country, or supra-bloc) began with, except now they have less wealth with which to deal with the problem, not to mention that it only renews calls for the cycle to begin anew, which again, all too often, historically at least, ends up in totalitarianism. (With the internet-connected world we live in today, this scenario is extremely unlikely but it is enough that economic well-being is so connected to livelihood, quality of life, and cost of living that to embark on such a path regardless of the social cost is utter folly.)

On an individual level, you have to earn other people’s trust before you can be trusted with their friendship, babysitting their child, or taking a loan. The same should be true on an international level, but politicians are the most self-serving people on this planet and they think they deserve everything because we have put them on a pedestal.

Perhaps the monetary union would never have gotten off the ground in the first place, as such legislation required unanimous support from all countries involved. The poorer countries, always wishing to spend beyond their means, would have struck it down immediately. But that would’ve been the first warning sign.

An equal-across-the-board interest rate might seem fair to the socialist-leaning tendencies of the left-dominated societies of Europe, but remember in the real world, life isn’t fair. A wolf isn’t guaranteed a rabbit to eat, the slowest antelope will be eaten, and injured birds are met with the fatal clasp of a cat’s fang.

The only institution we are equal under (or should be, since in practice its fuzzy) is the law. Whether poor or rich, we are to be treated equally in justice. But try going to a bank for a loan with bad credit. You can’t, and for good reason; the likelihood of you paying it back is slim, and the bank, a vital component in society, loses money that than can’t be loaned to a business to build a bakery, a clinic, or an apartment complex that would otherwise increase economic activity, prosperity, and quality of life.

The advancement of society comes only when capital, created in excess [savings], is used to create new businesses, investments, jobs, and the consumption of more products. It may come for a while under such liberal make-believe equality, but that doesn’t last long, and the economic reality of such decisions eventually rears its ugly head and we, the people, usually suffer.

Everything comes down to economics, one-way or the other, whether you acknowledge, understand it, or don’t. Everybody will one day reap the fruit of their economic decisions and if not, then the burden falls to the next generation, much as it is being done so today.

Governments can only temporarily alter this balance, and only to our detriment (by borrowing from the future). This is a big reason communism doesn’t work, as capital is squandered and we are too shortsighted to work for the common good while subsisting on beets.

It’s a European Union of economic failure, of mass unemployment and of low growth.” ~ Nigel Farage (Politician)


Debt Crisis 101

debt crisis 101

This is sub-chapter #14, of Chapter #4, Economics, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the full PDF of the book, then you can download it by clicking here—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published. If you wish to read the previous chapters in one convenient place online, follow this link.

 


DEBT CRISIS 101

Imagine an eighteen-year-old rich college kid named Jack whose parents are rich. He goes to an Ivy League college with a credit card, and spends his college years buying everything he needs and wants: big screen TV’s, nice furniture, etc. He has his share of parties and his generous parents pay for all of it, no questions asked because their emotions get in the way of their rationality.

Four-to-six years later, he graduates college and becomes an apprentice lawyer, not earning much money at the beginning, though now he has his own credit card and is on his own. What do you think his spending habits are going to be like?

We all realize that most young kids would continue their spending habits as before, and rack up a bit of debt. Even adults do it now. “Oh, he’s just trying to keep up with the Jones, lame.” So Jack racks up a bit of debt, but because he wants to seem independent and show his parents he can take care of himself, he makes the minimum payments each month, which is all he can afford.

Now after a payment or two, he might think his debts are under control; he’s confident and proved that he is independent (to himself.) Jack goes on another spending spree to celebrate. Same process—he might make the minimum payments again or get a second credit card and pay off the first credit card. Rinse and repeat.

Eventually, his initial debts, still accruing interest each month, will no longer be affordable, and he won’t be able to make those minimum payments. Or he might not be able to get a third card due to bad credit. He is not yet making enough money and might not for a few years, but he’s confident that one day he will, so there’s no immediate problem, and he maintains the status quo. Imagine that…

Now look at the American and European governments and ask yourself, what’s the difference? You will realize there is very little difference in how fiscal responsibility works in an individual or in a government. In order to lend to governments; investors, other countries, central banks, or big institutions, need some assurance they can get their capital back with a bit of interest above inflation to turn a profit. If there is no assurance, foreign capital will slowly dry up, as is beginning to happen today.

The credit crisis we found ourselves in a few years ago was, of course, the precursor to this debt crisis we find ourselves in now. As during the credit crisis, all that toxic debt carried by private companies was going to sink the ‘too big to fail companies,’ and so governments bought it all up and carried it onto their books, increasing their own debt portfolio dramatically. But these governments were swimming in debt to begin with and were already running deficits every month of every year, and of course, paying the minimum repayments on their interest and paying off existing debt with new debt. At the prior levels, however, it was manageable, and there was no cause for immediate concern.

Then the constant stimulus and bailouts began, and they continued to accrue ever more debt. When they couldn’t sell enough debt, they printed it. Even money printed out of nowhere is loaned at interest—right now from the Federal Reserve at between 0 and 0.25% and in the EU at 1.5%, as of Jan 2013—and that extra money inflates the currency, robbing people who had the prudence of saving of their purchasing power, and worsening income inequality.

So with all this extra debt streaming in, plus the already running deficits that governments were, and still are running, you begin to see how similar they are to our dear and stupid Jack. Eventually, they will not be able to repay even the minimum repayments as interest rates eventually rise. And then what happens?

This moment could be happening soon. Japan is over 225% debt-to-GDP ratio, the USA is above 100% and climbing each month, and some of the European ratios are well over 100%. What’s going to happen when these governments can’t pay back their debts? That will be a major strike in the confidence of the global economic system, where trillions of dollars of government debt are held around the world in pensions and other benefits.

Trillions upon trillions of dollars are invested in these government debt traps, and the global economy is going to sink if anything ever happens to them. That capital needs somewhere to go, and when it doesn’t have any place to go to, bad things are going to happen (and a lot of it will disappear).

I’m sure that politicians know this; they have legions of economists and other smart people working for them. There is no way for them not to know. Yet, because the global financial system is based on confidence, no politician can tackle any of these problems for the following reasons:

1:

An electorate that will immediately vote them out of office. People know cuts have to be made—well some do—but no one can touch their entitlements, so of course nothing is cut.

2:

Their comrades won’t support them for fear of their electorate voting them out of office, too, which again shows the self-serving nature of politicians. Rather than taking one for the team, they pretend they don’t know.

3:

The global economy and all the stock markets in it, are based on confidence. A company can have great financials, profits to earnings (P/E), and other good financial indicators but still have a poor stock price. Or it can be the other way around; Enron, Lehman Brothers, and Facebook (when it first IPO’ed) make fine examples. Stock earnings and prices are based on future expected growth, so today matters less than tomorrow, or in economic parlance, the (theoretical) present value of discounted future cash flow. The same goes on an international basis and for fiat currencies. The value of a dollar today is based on future value it can bring, with next year’s expected tax revenue to repay that borrowed dollar with interest, along with demand for its bonds; and to make matters worse, emotion plays just as large a part, if not larger, than logic, which throws common sense even further into the black hole of financial markets.

This is a fundamental flaw in fiat currencies and the stock market; confidence is essentially a zero-sum game. There are very few things that we can remain confident in over a long-span of time: the moon, the sun, the stars, the comings and goings of the seasons, our need of food and water and sexual urges. What else can you say with absolute confidence will be around for all time?

So when confidence disappears, and the biggest economies are unable to borrow enough money to fund themselves and their entitlement programs, what will happen?

Look what happened in 2008. Lehman Brothers, which insured America’s mortgages, went belly up, and the global economy was brought to its knees because all the fancy derivative packages they sold couldn’t cover the payouts when growth in the housing market stopped, because the price of oil was too high.

Then western governments picked up all that debt, so what will happen when the government stops being able to absorb that toxic debt? Currently the US government pays $220 billion in debt repayments per year (six-percent of the government budget), and this number may rise to $1 trillion by  2020. (Note: the repayments are artificially small because the Federal Reserve has set its interest rate between 0 − 0.25%. If these rates ever rise, and they must once, or perhaps if, the economy starts recovering, the repayments will become even larger. Keeping interest rates at 0% is not possible forever, so sooner or later, those rates must rise.) In such a scenario, that of the government being unable to finance its obligations; stock, bond, and derivatives markets will tank everywhere. Politicians have shown us repeatedly that they will do everything to keep the status quo going. History is replete with such examples. Thus, we can almost be assured that no course of action will be taken to prevent this calamity until it’s too late to do anything, not that they have many options at this point anyway, short of political suicide, and an economic reset.

At the end of the day, it’s not the government’s fault alone. While they hold their fair share of blame in this circle of madness, we are equally to blame for allowing them to do as they please. Politicians are an extension of the society they represent. They are paid too much, get freebies others slave for, are put on a pedestal, are allowed to receive bribes in the form of lobbying, and are rewarded by the masses for saying what they want to hear instead of the hard truth they need to hear (this is really the only problem that needs fixing). So at the end of the day, the types of people who are attracted to these positions tend to be more leeches than public servants, paint rosy pictures where roses don’t exist and aren’t afraid to lie for the perceived “public good.”

All lies and half-truths eventually see the light of day; it is inevitable (especially with the internet). Lying for the sake of short-term stability forsakes the long-term march of human progress. This is what our civilization is seemingly transforming into: a self-serving, shortsighted engine of crony capitalism barely capable of thinking past the next quarter, long-term prosperity be damned. Our economics, so rooted in political dogma and ideology can, and should do better, but only if politics loosens it grip. As in the past, the separation of Church and State heralded a new era in human civilization, so to will (for the second time no less), a separation of Bank and State. (You’ll notice that the conjoining of Bank and State abbreviate neatly and poetically to BS. Indeed, BS is exactly what follows when the orgy of political malfeasance meets the relentless greed of Wall St.)

If I owe you a pound, I have a problem; but if I owe you a million, the problem is yours” ~ John Maynard Keynes (Economist)


Infinite Growth Fantasies

infinite growth fantasies

This is sub-chapter #13, of Chapter #4, Economics, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World. Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


INFINITE GROWTH FANTASIES

Keynesian economics, upon which most public economic policy is based upon (despite it being a distortion of what Keynes himself stipulated),  carries with it, in the hearts and minds of our politicians and central bankers, an illusion of continuous economic growth year upon year. These public officials believe that government intervention only results in prosperity, and that without growth or government intervention, big problems will abound—the latter being true, but only within this model they have created for us. This is not the width and breadth of Keynesianism, but it’s all we need to dissect to realize its futility.

We’ll get into the ridiculousness of the infinite growth fantasy in a little while, but first let’s go over a few things; such as where money comes from, fractional reserve banking, why governments are bailing out the big banks, and why growth is so vitally important in today’s economic model.

Money, as I’m sure everyone knows, doesn’t just pop out of nowhere. Before we had the printing press and Wall Street, we used gold, silver, and various other tangible goods such as tea in Siberia or cheese in parts of Italy way back when. Though they differ to todays fiat standard, as they are naturally occurring and unable to be created at will.

Once the printing press arrived and we moved to the modern incarnation of the fiat standard at the beginning of the last century, we had to have a limit on our ability to create this money, otherwise what was to stop the printing rendering the value of its own money worthless (inflation)? The era of debt-based growth was born.

The modern economic debt instrument was born out of a need to put a limit on how much money could be put into circulation. For a government or private bank to borrow credit from the central bank, it had to be borrowed at interest, whether that interest was one-percent or five-percent made no matter.

So what effect does this interest rate have in restricting the money supply? As we all know, a loan has to be repaid eventually, so you don’t keep taking and taking: the principal and the interest. As the more astute among you may have figured out by now—I didn’t until it was shoved in my face—is that the principal plus interest is greater than the original loan amount of just the principal, and since all money can only come from the central bank, the amount to be repaid is always greater than the amount of money in the economy.

Compounding this, private banks that borrow this centrally issued credit can re-loan and multiply that credit via the process of fractional reserve banking to citizens and private businesses at further interest.

Fractional reserve banking works on the premise that not all people need access to their money all the time. So the bank loans out ninety-percent of your money to other people and businesses while you keep it parked in a savings account—this is where your interest comes from, other people’s interest repayments. This theoretically allows the efficient use of money to expand an economy, and is also why a run on a bank ends in bankruptcy of the bank, as there isn’t enough money to cover all the deposits. This is where confusion sets in as the average person sees terms such as M1, M2, and M3 bundled about in reference to this. Let me briefly explain them: M1 is the total amount of cash/coins outside the private banking system (there is also M0 which includes cash/coins inside the banking system), plus travelers cheques and other checkable deposits. Then there is M2, which is M1 plus savings accounts, money-market accounts, and some term deposits. Lastly, there is M3, which is M2, plus all other term deposits, institutional money market mutual funds, though M3 has not been used in economic analysis since 2006.

As they loan out part of your deposit, the new loan holder deposits his or her new money into another bank account, where it is regarded as an increase in the money supply (M2). This is called the money multiplier effect and is used as one of many signals in assessing the health of an economy. It is theoretically possible to turn $10 into $90 (not that the limit is always reached), which is a reflection of added credit into M2 over M1. (Only central banks can add to, or subtract from, M1 as that is minted cash and coins, and not electronic cash which a bank can create.)

When the money supply is being multiplied, the economy is seen to be expanding, and when it is not, it is perceived as contracting. This is why in a lot of recessions, money seems to disappear, it actually is disappearing. This is also why wealth has become extremely consolidated in the 1%. The fiat system is literally, accidentally or not, a way to funnel money upwards. The poor pay off their loans for their entire lives, while the rich park their money into savings accounts, and the interest from the lower and middle classes flows into it. Of course, they are good economic reasons to do this, but it is easily abused.

Generally, this system works well if left to its independent vices and machinations, as even the money multiplier effect only comes into effect when new businesses and consumption is required, but it can’t work forever, especially with the human desire to meddle. Since the dawn of time, people have always tried to bend their surroundings to their own will, and this may help you to understand why politicians and bankers manipulate the system to favor their friends, donors, and families—worse still, this susceptibility is actually magnified in a position of power, where they delude themselves into believing they deserve such power. (This probably explains why there are so few good politicians, and why politicians are caught, figuratively and often literally, with their pants down.)

The number-one abuse (or distortion) is the bailout system, even when given as a loan. Inflation has a twelve-to eighteen-month lag time once new credit is introduced into the system and all other currency units are affected. So the big banks that get bailout money are essentially getting a portion of it for free (if it isn’t free to begin with), and can turn around and use it to pay down debt, buy smaller banks, etc., before the inflationary effects of this new funny money erodes the purchasing power of every other currency unit in circulation. By the time it has circulated its way to the lower classes, it has lost some of its value as prices have risen while wages have not, hitting the poor especially hard.

The monetary system isn’t fair by nature, and that’s normal because life isn’t fair. Not all lions will be the head of a pride, not all trees will receive the same quantity of sunlight, and some Gazelles are unlucky enough to feel a cheetah’s jaw clenched around their necks. Some people are tall, some have brown eyes, others blue, and a few are born in rich countries, while most are born in poor countries. Nature isn’t fair, and since we are a part of nature, neither are we. (Though we are gradually overcoming this bias, but we shouldn’t try to do it via economics, more on this in Technology.)

This cruelty, if you can call it that, is part of the diversity of life, and without this diversity there wouldn’t be any life to begin with, since diverse conditions are what allowed for the formation of life, and its continuance is an underlying driver of evolution, never allowing the rot of stagnation to creep up. Fairness is not an inherent quality of nature. Although this extra kick in the face to the poor and middle class in a fiat currency system is a step beyond Mother Nature’s system of fairness, which begets change and freshness of ideas through diverse and unequal opportunities. It amounts to a cruel joke making the poor poorer and the rich richer in a system rigged beyond necessity to the upper echelon, and as history has shown us, is one of the biggest contributors to social unrest and revolution, and that’s where we are now. A recent study out of Cambridge has correlated the price of food, as the foundational issue (affected by politics, regulations, and inflation) which has instigated riots all over the world, most evidently in the recent Arab Spring, allowing them in a sense, to be predicted. (It was first published four-days before the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia.) The study stipulated that when the price of food, by the FAO food prince index is above 210, conditions are fertile for social unrest (Of course, there are dozens of other factors that people will point to; such as freedom, censorship, jobs et al, but a hungry public is, in the words of the lead economist Bar-Yam, leads to the “range of conditions in which the tiniest spark can lead to riots.”)

Moving on to necessity of growth, there is a very specific reason that economies must constantly keep growing. Recessions happen when economies stop growing, or contract due to burst bubbles.

Here I must briefly digress. Sometimes central banks try to preemptively boost the economy in anticipation of worsening economic indicators by lowering interest rates and encouraging increased borrowing, but it only delays the recession, as the new funny money creates a further misallocation of capital, which requires a recession to fix (a bigger one now) than would have otherwise happened. The reason why is it gives false signals to businesses, imbuing them with a false outlook on things like consumer confidence and spending. Lower interest rates allow riskier projects, many of which, in the false environment, are more reliant on increased consumer confidence, and when the delayed recession hits, results in more money lost if the new project/s, contingent on a false outlook, breaks down. In this way, government, or central bank intervention, only delays and intensifies the problem. Just as we saw before with drugs, making them illegal only pushed the market underground and squeezed its undesirable effects invisibly onto a smaller subsets of the population, with larger negative ramifications for all.

This is why governmental intervention into an economy is a drag instead of a boost, as Keynesians boast. How could it be anything but? The politically connected rich get free money, while the purchasing power of the poor and middle class erodes. So left-leaning parties try to redistribute tax-money to the poor to compensate for the rising inequality, coupled with the inefficiency of the government wasting a portion of it. Simultaneous to this, increasingly, money is consolidated in the upper classes vis-a-vie interest, thereby restricting honest economic opportunities for the middle-class and poor, making them dependent on the handouts, which elevates the party politics of handouts for votes, and making the situation ever worse—and round and round the Ferris wheel we go.

The reason that an economy needs to grow is so that new credit can be issued and circulated throughout the economy to pay down the debt of the old credit. Every currency unit in every economy is owed to someone by someone else. So if you have no growth, when loans come due, there is not enough money to pay them down. You must always borrow more new to pay down the old. Depressions happen otherwise.

The Great Depression is the only recession in modern history in which the central bank restricted the money supply thereafter (note that they didn’t do nothing as they should have, but restricted), and the American poor welcomed with open arms the thirty-percent unemployment that came with it. This action, coupled with many other government interventionist policies at the time: confiscation of private property such as gold, constriction of money supply, new tax increases, and a plethora of regulations increasing business uncertainty and thus their reluctance to hire and expand workers, coupled with extreme investor uncertainty, exacerbated the situation and turned what would have been a normal recession into the Great Depression. Gross Private Investment during the thirties did not reach pre-depression levels until 1946-1950. In fact, from 1930 to 1940, net private investment was negative $3.1 billion. This is why the money supply must always grow in order to pay down the old debt, whilst still having an increased money supply—and Keynesians today boast the government saved us from the depression! As the economist Benjamin Anderson wrote in 1949, “The impact of these multitudinous measures—industrial, agricultural, financial, monetary, and other—upon a bewildered industrial and financial community was extraordinarily heavy.”

Finally, we arrive at infinite growth. Most economists’ wet dream is continual five-percent year-on-year expansion, and since humans have the funny habit of thinking that they live at the apex of civilization, especially those of us in the West, as a result we tend to project that our institutions and economic models will be around for all time. So let’s play with the numbers of compounded economic growth and see what happens. The results will definitely surprise you.

For the following example I am going to use two-percent year-on-year growth. Just try to imagine five-percent growth. (Hint: it will be an exponentially higher exponential increase.)

If we had an economy of $1,000,000 at the time of the crusades, approximately 1,000 years ago, and it grew at two-percent compounded year-on-year. Today, that economy would have grown ‘5,368,709,120,000’ its original size. Remember, this is an economy  only 0.00000015% of current world GDP (approximately seventy-trillion dollars). I’m afraid to even run the numbers for today. That’s a five-trillion percent expansion. Today, that seventy-trillion dollars of global wealth is supported by just three-percent equity.

Compound Growth Methodology:

To arrive at that number, you take seventy and divide it by the percentage growth per year, in this case two-percent, so seventy divided by two gets us thirty-five; this is logarithmic math and beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss, but it’s can easily be googled. Therefore, at two-percent yearly growth, the economy will double every thirty-five years. One-thousand years divided by thirty-five doublings means that the economy doubles 28.6 times. Then it’s a simple matter of algebra.

Just to further nail the point home, the following is from an essay by Jeremy Grantham, a hedge fund manager with $97 billion in assets. The scenario he describes is a fictional re-telling on what would’ve happened to the ancient Egyptians if they’d had the same economic fantasy as us.

Let’s try 1% compound growth in either their wealth or their population. In 3,000 years the original population of Egypt —let’s say 3 million—would have been multiplied 9 trillion times! There would be nowhere to park the people, let alone the wealth.”

Raise your hand if you still think we are at apex of human civilization? The very way our economy is designed to work ensures that it either destroys us, or the planet, or both. Though more likely, and luckily one might say, is that it simply fails before either of those scenarios takes place. This model guarantees eventual failure: that’s how not smart we are.

Both Option Status Quo and Option Yes We Can stand in stark contrast to reality. As it stands today, we are reaching the limits of this economic expansion. That’s why, one way or the other, the current status quo of bailing out the banks with taxpayer money is only going to hurt us in the end, and the banks are still going to collapse eventually. So…what’s the point? Why not just reset the system now and save us all the bother. This Keynesianism of public policy is delusional. When people talk about having—or needing rather—a sustainable economy, how about we listen to them instead of calling them tree huggers. Our future well-being depends on it. Without economic well-being, nothing else matters. (Note, this does not mean big numbers in a bank account, but the real, productive capacity of a society to make food, deliver clean water, build shelters, and everything else that contributes to well-being.)

“Depressions and mass unemployment are not caused by the free market but by government interference in the economy.” ~ Ludwig Von Mises (Economist)


Are We Responsible Enough to Govern Ourselves?

I want to talk about responsibility. Personal as well as social responsibility.

Let’s talk about social responsibility. The majority of us are part of society. We enter into a social contract with our fellow citizens and our government to give up some of our liberties in exchange for certain conveniences. For example, we allow the government to tax us in exchange for them to build infrastructure such as roads, communication and utilities that we can use. We expect them to pass laws, regulations and statutes that will protect us from others who would do us harm, and to look out for our best interests on the international stage.

Has anyone ever heard of the Bystander Effect?

Continue reading “Are We Responsible Enough to Govern Ourselves?”

Debt Crisis 101

Lets imagine a 18 yr old rich college kid. His parents have tons of money, they send him to an Ivy league college with a credit card. He spends his college years buying everything he wants, big screen tv’s, nice furniture and having big parties and his parents pay for all of it, no questions asked.

4 years later, he graduates college and becomes some apprentice lawyer, not making much money at the beginning. He has his own credit card now, and is on his own. What do you think his spending habits are going to be like? I think we all realise that most young kids would continue their spending habits as before, and rack up a bit of debt. Hell, adults do it now; its called ‘Keeping up with the Jones’. So our college kid racks up a bit of debt, and because he wants to seem independent and wants to show his parents he can take care of himself without their help, so he makes the minimum payments each month.

Now after a payment or two, he might think his debts are under control and that he’s proved to his parents that he’s financially capable. Then goes on another spending spree to celebrate. Same process, he might make the minimum payments again, or get a second credit card and pay off the first credit card. Rinse and repeat. Eventually, his initial debts which are accruing interest each month, will no longer be affordable and he won’t be able to make those minimum payments, or he might not be able to get a third credit card due to bad credit. He is not yet making enough money and might not for a year or two, but he’s confident that one day he will so there’s no immediate problem. Imagine that…

Now look at American and European governments, and ask yourself what’s different. Seriously, there is very little difference in how the way fiscal responsibility works. In order to lend to governments, investors which are usually other countries, central banks or big institutional investors need some assurance they can get their capital back with interest also. If there is no assurance, people will stop lending to them.

The credit crisis was of course, the precursor to this debt crisis. As during the credit crisis, all that toxic debt carried by private companies (debt which was subsided by government) was going to sink these too big too fail companies, so the governments just bought it all up and carried it onto their books, increasing their debt portfolio dramatically.

But, these countries governments were swimming in debt to begin with and already running deficits every month and every year, and of course paying the minimum repayments on their interest and paying off existing debt with new debt. At the previous levels however, it was manageable and there was no cause for immediate concern. Then started all the constant stimulus and bailouts, the governments continued to accrue ever more debt. When they couldn’t sell enough debt, they just printed it. Even money printed out of nowhere is loaned at interest from a private central bank to its government. Right now at the fed, between 0 – 0.25% and in the EU, at 1.5% and that extra money inflates the currency robbing people who save their money of purchasing power.

So with all this extra debt streaming in, the already running deficits that governments are running and you begin to see how similar it is to that college kid. Eventually, they will not be able to repay even the minimum repayments and then what happens?

This moment is happening soon. Japan is at 200% debt to GDP ratio, the USA is around 100% and climbing each month, some of the European ratios are over 100%. What’s going to happen when these governments can’t pay back their debt? That will be a major strike in the confidence of the global economic system, where trillions of dollars of government debt are held around the world in pensions and other benefits.

Trillions upon trillions of dollars are invested in these government debt traps, and the global economy is going to sink. That capital needs somewhere to go, and when it doesn’t have any place, bad things are going to happen, and a lot of it will disappear.

I’m sure that politicians know this, they have legions of economists and other smart people working for them, there is no way for them not to know. Yet, because the Global financial system is based on confidence, no politician can tackle any of these problems for the following reasons:

Reason 1:

They will immediately be voted out of office by an electorate that refuses cuts. People know cuts have to be made, but no one can touch their entitlements, so of course nothing gets cut. There goes the myth of politicians being public servants. The majority are in it for themselves and nothing more.

Reason 2:

Their comrades won’t support them for fear of their electorate voting them out of office. Again, politicians are self-serving.

Reason 3:

The global economy, and all the stock markets in it is based on confidence. A company can have great financials , P/E and other good financial indicators but still have a poor stock price, or it can be the other way around. Think Enron, Lehman brothers before they collapsed. Stock earnings and prices are based on future expected growth, so today matters less than tomorrow. The same goes on an international basis and for fiat currencies. The value of a dollar today is based on future value it can bring, and next years expected tax revenue to repay that borrowed dollar with a wee bit of interest.

I think this exposes a fundamental flaw in fiat currencies, confidence is essentially a zero sum game. There are very few things that we can remain confident in being consistent over a long span of time. The moon, sun and stars, coming and goings of the seasons, our need of food and water, and the resources that power our civilisations. What else can you say with absolute confidence will be around for all time?

So when confidence disappears, and the biggest economies are unable to borrow enough money to fund themselves and their entitlement programs, what’s going to happen? I’m not looking forward to that day. Look what happened in 2008. Lehman Brothers, which insures America’s mortgages, went belly up. The global economy was bought to its knees, because all the fancy shmancy derivative packages they sold couldn’t cover the payouts when growth in the housing market stopped. The governments picked up all that debt, so what happens when the government stops being able to absorb that toxic debt, as they call it. The stock markets are going to tank everywhere. Even though stock markets aren’t a real world functional aspect of economies, and they are casino’s basically that are better traversed with human psychology than P / E and other financial jargon, they represent everything on the economic stage.

Politicians have shown us repeatedly that they will do everything to keep the status quo going. History is full of examples. Thus, we can almost be assured that no course of action will be taken to prevent until its too late to do anything, not that they have many options at this point, short of politician genocide.

At the end of the day though, it’s not the government’s fault alone. while they bear some of the blame in this circle of madness. We are equally to blame for allowing them to do as they please. The way our democracies are structured, it’s a recipe for corruption and disaster. Politicians are an extension of the society which they represent. They are paid too much, get freebies others slave for, are put on a pedestal, are allowed to receive bribes in the form of lobbying and are rewarded by the masses for saying what they want to hear, instead of the hard truth they should hear. Thus at the end of the day, the types of people who are attracted to these positions tend to more leeches than public servants, tend to paint rosy pictures where there aren’t any roses and aren’t afraid to lie for the perceived ‘public good’.

All lies eventually come out, it is inevitable. Lying for the sake of short them stability forsakes the longer term viewpoint. This is what our civilisation is transforming into. Short term capitalism, never thinking more than a quarter or two ahead. Long term economics be damned. Such a shame.