09/01/2015 archive

The Case for Higher Inflation

First of all, “money” is not a store of value.  Your baked mud Ur cow tokens are in fact less useful than Confederate dollars because those at least can be used to start fires or as wallpaper, cat box liners, and fish wrap.  Ur is no more, the cows are dead, and the market has been closed for thousands of years.

What does have value are income producing properties and enterprises.  These throw off a net positive revenue stream in whatever the current medium of exchange is from Yap stones to electrons.  By ‘medium of exchange’ we mean anything that can be used to arbitrarily facilitate the transfer of assets from one person to another and then reused to obtain goods or services from another party that was not initially involved.

Most people think of ‘money’ in terms of a pile of commodities or potential pile that can be measured against other piles.  If your pile is bigger, you win!  The problem with actual piles is that their economic utility can change.

Say for instance that you controlled 98% of the world’s supply of oil.  Surely that must be worth something.  Well, it depends.  Before the advent of the Industrial Revolution (and a good time after that) the economic utility of oil was primarily as a lubricant.  Handy if you had a lot of ox cart axels to grease, a smelly puddle of goo otherwise.

Nor does scarcity dictate value.  Your Orange Toaster that belonged to one of the developers of Exec (complete with manuals and beta code) may well be unique, but it should be in a museum next to the cow tokens because you’d probably have to pay to have it hauled away.

In fact cow tokens look better and better because in addition to the milk and meat and little cows, there’s also the fertilizer.  People pay you to haul it away.

Forty-six years ago, I started lending money in Larry Bingham’s back room. My first customer was a drover named Penny. He wanted two dollars on a Brindle cow at six percent interest. He said she gave six quarts of milk a day. You know what I made him do? I made him move that cow into my back yard for a whole week. And I watched him milk her every day. Sure enough, she gave an average of six and a half quarts a day, so I gave him the money at six and half percent interest. Not only that, I kept the 60 pounds of manure she left behind. When you show me collateral, madam, you better make sure it’s good collateral. For forty-six years, I’ve been lending money on good, old-fashioned principles. I stand here now to tell you one and all that I’ve never been offered a better piece of collateral that I hold in my hand now!

The big scary negative about inflation is that it takes your ‘money’ which is not invested in income producing properties and enterprises (like cows) and erodes its ‘store of value’ relative to its ability to be exchanged for assets.

This is actually a good thing because it encourages money to be put to productive use instead of being hoarded in the expectation that assets will become cheaper over time.  You can buy a heck of a computer today for what that Poly-88 cost in 1977 but you would have been without one for 40 years.

When is inflation not good?  Why, when prices are rising faster than wages and productivity,  This creates an incentive to consume instead of saving and accumulating capital.

So the important factor is net inflation.  If GDP (to the extent that it’s a valid measure of total economic activity which is questionable at best) is rising at 10% annually you can sustain annual inflation of 10% indefinitely with no problem at all except for the math challenged people who have a hard time dealing with zeros.  The same is true for any other point of equilibrium be it 2 or 200%.

When you hear about a Weimar or a Zimbabwe you are looking at exceptional cases that prove the rule.  Because of foolish adherence to the Gold Standard in which their War Reparations were denominated, Weimar was not a sovereign currency that could seek relative international trading value through devaluation, except domestically- thus hyperinflation.  In Zimbabwe 90% of the nation’s wealth was held by corrupt plutocrats who promptly converted it at a fixed rate into foreign currencies so there was domestic devaluation and- hyperinflation.

In a post-Bretton Woods system global devaluation of sovereign currencies results in national competitive advantages that increase trade and promote GDP growth until inflation reaches an equilibrium state.

What makes this relevant is that the Federal Reserve is looking to raise interest rates, making it more attractive to hoard money as opposed to investing it in productive enterprise despite the fact that there is virtually no inflation at all and the economy has not yet recovered from the productivity lost during the Lesser Depression.

The Federal Reserve is about to make a terrible mistake

by David Dayen, Salon

Tuesday, Sep 1, 2015 05:58 AM EST

(T)he Fed is experiencing a fallacy of schedule momentum. They want like to raise rates in September, by God, and a little stumble won’t stand in their way. Aside from stocks, however, the bigger problem is that the Fed’s rush to tighten is absent any conditions necessitating it – and is mostly being done out of concern with being “serious,” which has created nothing but pain this millennium.

The stubbornness was on display last weekend at Jackson Hole, Wyo., site of the Fed’s annual policy conference. Fed vice chair Stan Fischer made the case that inflation will soon move upwards, a key indicator that the central bank will soon raise interest rates. The idea is that falling unemployment will create tightening in the labor market, leading to increased wages and eventually rising prices. To stop prices from running out of control, the Fed needs to slow the economy by increasing interest rates.

There are a few problems with this reasoning. First of all, who exactly thinks the economy is running too hot right now? While unemployment has dropped, wages have been stagnant for the vast majority of workers for 35 years. Somewhat faster wage growth may be on the way, but it’s not here yet, and the idea that the moment when workers get a bit more in their paychecks, the Fed has to take away the punch bowl and make their lives worse doesn’t make much sense.

Because wages have been so low for so long, it would take up to 14 years of above-trend wage growth to rebalance the economy so that workers get their proper share. Rebalancing would transfer money to those who would spend it and have a significant economic impact.

Translation: We shouldn’t fear faster wage growth, we should embrace it.

This brings us to higher inflation, which Fischer and several other major central bankers assure us is just around the corner. In reality, the economy has been running below the Fed’s 2 percent inflation target for over three years. And it’s been missing by wider margins as the year has progressed. That’s partially due to low oil prices, which have a powerful effect on inflation because they lower the cost of shipping goods. And we should expect oil to either stay at the current level or drop even more over the next year.

In fact, Since the economic recovery hasn’t surged under the current policy framework, there’s a case for a higher inflation target. But for too long, 2 percent has not been a target but a ceiling; even if we’ve run below it for three years, the thinking goes, we must never go above it.

It’s even worse than that, actually. As Kevin Drum noticed, Fischer said this over the weekend: “Because monetary policy influences real activity with a substantial lag, we should not wait until inflation is back to 2 percent to begin tightening.” So just the threat of getting to 2 percent is a ceiling. This attitude ensures inflation will remain well below target forever.

All this adds up to the fact that there’s no urgency to raise rates. The Fed is reaching for a reason to do so, and it’s puzzling to understand why. Some have charged that a pervasive low-rate environment could trigger a “reach for yield” by investors, and create financial bubbles. That’s a concern, but harming the economy isn’t the Fed’s only tool to ameliorate that; they could actually monitor financial institutions to ensure stability.

Others have claimed that the Fed must hike rates because what if they get caught with near-zero rates during a recession, and have no tools to spur a recovery? This is a funny idea, that the Fed must raise rates now so they can lower them later. If we had a functioning Congress willing to use fiscal policy to counteract recessions, this wouldn’t even be a question. But even still, the Fed has additional steps they could take in a downturn, and should probably confine themselves to addressing the policy of today, not hypotheticals some years down the road.

The real reason for increasing rates appears to be coming from outside groups, whether members of Congress or international colleagues, who just want the Fed to “get on with it.” There’s too much drama in thinking about the proper policy, and the central bankers should just rip off the Band-Aid and “return to normalcy.” According to this take, we’re in an “abnormal” rate environment, and central bankers are responsible, sober, normal people. Rates should be higher because rates should be higher. Current economic conditions have nothing to do with it.

These important questions shouldn’t be driven by some elite sense of what is “normal.” If the data were allowed to dictate decision-making, there’s no way we’d be talking about a rate hike. The Fed’s biases, only talking to other very serious people and not those affected by its policies, really show here. Workers need the Fed’s help, and central bankers should listen to them.

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

Follow us on Twitter @StarsHollowGzt

Dean Baker: The China Syndrome: Bubble Trouble

The financial markets have been through some wild and crazy times over the last two weeks, although it appears that they have finally stabilized. The net effect of all the gyrations is that a serious bubble in China’s market seems to have been at least partially deflated. After hugely overreacting to this correction, most other markets have largely recovered. Prices are down from recent peaks, but in nearly all cases well above year-ago levels.

But the stock market is really a sideshow; after all, back in 1987 the U.S. market fell by almost 25 percent for no obvious reason, with little noticeable effect on the U.S. economy. The more serious question is what is happening with the underlying economy, and there are some real issues here.

Oliver Burkeman: Credit cards with chips are coming to the US, but I promise it’ll be fine

To a European, the fact that chip-enabled credit cards make their official debut in the US next month might prompt a similar reaction to last week’s news that Walmart will stop selling assault rifles: wait, you mean this wasn’t already the case?

But it wasn’t. And, actually, cards with embedded microchips won’t become ubiquitous here just yet. October 1 merely marks the “liability shift”, when retailers that continue to allow transactions using the old magnetic stripe will have to assume responsibility for any fraud that happens as a consequence. [..]

But the times are changing – and I’m here, as a condescending British expat, to assure you, America, that it’s all going to be OK. There’s no need to be scared. By the end of the year, it’s estimated, around 50% of US cards in circulation will have chips. Soon enough, it’ll be all of them. And then, eventually, the conversion to chip-and-pin will come – doubtless just in time to be rendered obsolete by the latest version of Apple Pay, or Bitcoin-enabled contact lenses that enable you to purchase things by staring at them meaningfully.

One day – one shining, glorious day – it might even be possible to transfer $40 from one bank to another bank in less than a week. Dare I let myself dream? If anyone reading this works at a US bank and knows when such a time might come, please hasten to see your company’s head of carrier-pigeon messaging, and let me have the answer before the year is out.

David Ferguson: Required gun insurance would put two powerful lobbies at odds. We’d benefit

If you alone are not strong enough to vanquish your opponent, you must find someone who is – and then find a way to set them against each other. Neither, probably, will ever be your friend. However, once they have occupied each other’s attentions, one is generally once again at liberty to roam the school halls unmolested while dressed like Siouxsie Sioux’s sparkly kid brother.

This tactic works beyond the cafeteria – and it’s how we as Americans should finally fight back against the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the other pro-gun lobbies keeping our country armed to the teeth and unwilling to hear any sense regarding gun safety laws, even as gun violence in the US remains disproportionately high: we must find something big, ugly and ruthless enough to take on the NRA. [..]

I believe the insurance industry may be our only hope.

Let everyone in this country keep their guns, but force them to insure those guns. It seems so obvious when you think about it. We insure our cars, our houses, our boats and bodies, even our plane tickets and rental cars. And some of those policies are legally mandated. We should absolutely require gun owners to pay against the indemnity they might incur when their gun does what it is statistically most likely to do – kills or injures them, or someone else.

John Atcheson: The Paris Climate Conference: Playing Craps With Our Planet’s Future

The climate change talks to be held in Paris this December (COP 21 in UN lingo) are all about how much risk to the livability of our planet we’re willing to accept.

And the dirty little secret is, we’re accepting a hell of a lot right now, and we’re imposing even more on our children and future generations. [..]

It’s the physics, stupid:  If we want a reasonable margin of safety for the world, we have to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible, preferably within the next five or six years.

Impractical? No more impractical than pretending it makes sense to adopt a carbon budget that risks global catastrophe simply because we failed take the action we needed to take in the past.

The amount of GHG we can emit without ushering in Armageddon is determined by physics, not politics.  And as I said back in July, the approach we’re adopting in COP 21, poses an existential threat to humanity and the global ecosystem because “… in a clash between physics and politics, physics always wins.”

C. Robert Gibson: Cutting Pentagon pork could fund free childcare in the US

The cost of childcare is bankrupting America’s parents. But providing free, universal childcare for all parents is easily affordable by simply cutting a small handful of military programs whose absence almost nobody would notice. [..]

One solution for funding free childcare for all parents could be found by simply cutting out Pentagon waste that nobody would notice.

To find out how much free, universal childcare would cost for all American children under age 5, I calculated the median cost of childcare in all 50 states using data published by The Boston Globe in 2014. The Globe’s research showed the estimated cost of full-time childcare for one child in all 50 states in 2012 dollars. The cheapest was Mississippi ($4,863 per year for an infant), while the most expensive was Washington, D.C. ($21,948 per year for an infant). The median figure was $9,230 – the halfway point between 26th-most expensive (Wyoming, $9,100 per year for an infant) and 25th-most expensive (Maine, $9,360 per year for an infant). By multiplying that figure by the estimated 21,005,852 children in the U.S. under age 5, I estimated the total cost for providing childcare to all of these children to be $193.8 billion.

Jeff Bryant: People Don’t Like Current Education Policies, So Why Do Policy Leaders?

The big annual poll on how Americans view public schools and education policy is out, and people who are eager to don the mantle of “education reform” might want to rethink their wardrobe.

As education journalist Valerie Strauss reports the news from her blog at The Washington Post, “The 47th annual PDK-Gallup poll, the longest continuously running survey of American attitudes toward public education … finds that a majority of Americans, as well as a majority of American public school parents, object to some of the key tenets of modern school reform.”

What is particularly jarring about the findings of this year’s PDK-Gallup poll is how much those results contrast to the pronouncements of current policy leaders from the Democratic Party and Republicans who are vying for their party’s presidential nomination.

The Breakfast Club (Rhythm)

Welcome to The Breakfast Club! We’re a disorganized group of rebel lefties who hang out and chat if and when we’re not too hungover  we’ve been bailed out we’re not too exhausted from last night’s (CENSORED) the caffeine kicks in. Join us every weekday morning at 9am (ET) and weekend morning at 10:30am (ET) to talk about current news and our boring lives and to make fun of LaEscapee! If we are ever running late, it’s PhilJD’s fault.

 photo 807561379_e6771a7c8e_zps7668d00e.jpg

This Day in History

Nazi Germany invades Poland, start of World War II; Beslan hostage crisis begins in Russia; Bobby Fischer beats Boris Spassky for world chess crown; Boxer Rocky Marciano and singer Gloria Estefan born.

Breakfast Tunes

Something to Think about over Coffee Prozac

It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.

Eleanor Roosevelt

On This Day In History September 1

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour a cup of your favorite morning beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

September 1 is the 244th day of the year (245th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. There are 121 days remaining until the end of the year.

On this day in 1897, the Boston subways opens, becoming the first underground rapid transit system in North America. It was the inspiration for this song by the Kingston Trio.