Broken Down

First published as ‘If it’s Broke, Don’t Fix it!’, 12th August, 2011

The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possessions of modern peoples is their national debt. Hence, as a necessary consequence, the modern doctrine that a nation becomes the richer the more deeply it is in debt. Public credit becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven…

Modern fiscality, whose pivot is formed by taxes on the most necessary means of subsistence (thereby increasing their price), thus contains within itself the germ of automatic progression. Overtaxation is not an incident, but rather a principle… The destructive influence that it exercises on the condition of the wage labourer concerns us less however, here, than the forcible expropriation, resulting from it, of peasants, artisans, and in a word, all elements of the lower middle class. On this there are not two opinions, even among the bourgeois economists.

Karl Marx, ‘Das Kapital’, Vol I, Ch 31

In Elgin Groseclose’s magisterial ‘Money and Man’, the following, eerily contemporary quote appears in his chapter on paper money:-

The administration of the finances appears to have practised a subtle and ingenious tactic… [and] by modifications in the monetary unit, attempted to influence economic phenomena. Changes… were made to prepare for the issue of loans or to audit the circulation of the treasury notes, or to regulate exchange, to modify the balance of trade… to effect a redistribution of wealth, to influence the price level of commodities, perhaps to attenuate economic crises and famines…”

So, we are told, wrote Albert Despaux of the practices of the French regime under Louis XIV during the final, disastrous twenty-five years of his reign. Indeed, upon first examining the accounts, after seven decades of chronic warfare and costly ritual, the incoming administration was to discover that matters were even more dire than they had originally been led to believe – even without a helpful Wall St. broker-dealer to help anyone cook the books beforehand.

As the Duc de Noailles – the new chief of the Council of Finance– wrote to the dead king’s chief concubine, in the autumn of 1715:

We have found matters in a more terrible state than can be described; both the king [i.e., the ‘public sector’] and his subjects ruined; nothing paid for several years; confidence entirely gone. Hardly ever has the monarchy been in such a condition, though it has several times been near its ruin.”

Plus ça change, one cannot refrain from remarking.

Though we must factor a larger margin of error into his accounts than we must apply to even our own governments’ dubious estimates, it seems that the sunset of le Roi Soleil was accompanied by an annual expenditure of the order of 236 million livres – of which some 86 million was interest payable on the debt – against which revenues of only some 150 million livres could be found. Total debt amounted to perhaps 3 billion livres, implying an average interest rate just south of 3% which is, ironically, much the same as that enjoyed by Uncle Sam today.

The annual deficit, therefore, amounted to some 43% of revenue, or 30% of outlays – still below the Bernholz accelerating inflation threshold of 66% and 40%, respectively, even if not exactly a testimony of rude fiscal health. Things had been deteriorating for quite some time before this, so that, overall, the grand Bourbon’s debt rose twentyfold in thirty years. By way of comparison, the imperial presidency in Washington has allowed its own count of obligations to climb a not wholly incomparable fifteenfold in a like period of time.

It is of note, then, that the abject financial state to which Louis’ vainglory had reduced his realm compares fairly favourably with that produced by a similar threescore years-and-ten of military welfarism in his successors’ populist republic, where the latest €150bln deficit represents 54% of receipts and 35% of expenditures – and the old satyr‘s performance looks even more attractive beside the newly ex-AAA United States’ tally of 60% and 38%.

Moreover, whereas the currency doctoring of which Despaux so disapproved was the culmination of a 66-year process during which the livre was devalued 40% in terms of gold and 35% in terms of silver (for a mean inflation rate of 0.8%!), that same proportionate loss of gold value has occurred to the livre’s paper descendants in just the last sixteen-eighteen months – much less the last six-seven decades. Moreover, in the same, two-generation period up to the present, the US dollar has lost 98% of its gold and over 99% of its silver value, with the franc putting up an even poorer showing beside it.

Even in CPI terms, the US dollar buys only 8% of what it did in 1945, a 3.8% annualized drop whose overall extent it has taken successive French governments something of the order of fifty years to accomplish at the compounded 4.7% rate prevailing in l’Hexagone.

The consequences of the penury of the early eighteenth-century French state are well known to students of human folly, for these were the all-too familiar circumstances in which the regent, the personally extravagant Duc d’Orleans – eschewing both politically unpalatable alternatives of swingeing austerity or outright default – turned to the twisted, Scots genius of John Law, that patron saint of underconsumptionist currency quacks and the honorary founding-father of latter-day central banking.

The broad thrust of the insanity and wastefulness unleashed by this pecuniary Pandora are perhaps too well known to bear overmuch repetition here, but what should be emphasised is that Law – like Bernanke – at first tried to argue that he was not some crude inflationist, but that he was merely arranging an asset-swap of paper money for mortgages. He also held, like all of his ilk who have succeeded him, that the panacea for a nation groaning under an insupportable burden of debt and famished for a lack of productive capital was the emission of more and more money.

This age old error of confusing the medium of exchange with the object of exchange is one we continue to commit. It as if a man’s thirst can be slaked by giving him a box of drinking straws or his appetite sated by kitting him out with a shopping basket.

Soon, enough, for all his astuteness, the malign side-effects of Law’s scheme made themselves felt, not the least of them, the distress occasioned to the ordinary household by the rising price of necessities in a world simultaneously subject to the blatant vulgarities of the rising mob of instant, speculative ‘millionaires’ (as the new phrase had it). Just as we have learned all over again, such disadvantages came rapidly to overwhelm the largely incidental fillip the inflation accorded to genuine economic activity.

Unabashed, our Caledonian conjuror could only plunge ever further into a maze of bewildering – and often contradictory – expedients of his own construction. In a flurry of on-the-hoof policy-making of the kind so eagerly practiced today, he unavailingly sought to remedy his earlier mistakes by blurring the lines between state debt and public equity, between common stock and bank money; by banning, then re-instating the use of gold and silver and altering their official parities with mind-numbing speed until all trust in his System – its specious virtues so recently extolled to the heavens – collapsed and France lay broken alongside it.

So, too, do we – the voluntary legatees of John Law – face a world which is seemingly broken, in its turn.

Sauve qui peut!

With the PR-man’s trained ear for a catchy phrase, that emptiest of empty suits, UK PM David Cameron declared, in the aftermath of this week’s appalling display of mass barbarism, that society in the unhappy land over which he shakily exercises power was ‘broken’ – to the ill-concealed schadenfreude of much of the continental press, many of whose own cities still bear the scars of similar irruptions of the Noble Savages whom their Provider States have so successfully reared in the moral wasteland of their sprawling favelas and seething bainlieues.

Painted in oscillating shades of red and green on our dealing screens, we can also see the full, epileptic frenzy of our broken financial markets, no longer evidence of the rational allocation of hard-spared capital to the enriching process of patient and diligent entrepreneurship, but a wild, computer-driven video arena where countless billions swarm into and out of the sea of tickers from one micro-second to the next, with each successive ebb and flow of this leveraged flood further reducing the informational content of the associated prices and so defeating the very purpose of the capital market itself.

Many disparate classes of ‘assets’ had spent eight months trading ever more closely bound to one another on the wave of Bernanke’s last, fatuous, Rooseveltian ‘experiment’ of QEII. So it was that the expiry of that nakedly cynical programme, at a time when the underlying macro-data had rather predictably started to turn sour, left a vacuum behind the broken-record promises of the stock promoters. Unfortunately, much like Nature herself, the milling Herd in charge of Other People’s Money – to whose members the projectors exist solely to whisper their blandishments –– absolutely abhors a vacuum.

A long time ago, we first wrote about what we had come to recognise as the bipolar tendency of financial orthodoxy to undergo opposing, Kuhnian revolutions of its Groupthink every six to twelve months, or so.

Typically, the players first persuade themselves of the validity of an often arbitrary, but usually bullish, scenario which, by dint of constant repetition and uncritical mimicry comes not only to serve as a dogma, but one which each believer professes to have discovered for himself. Along the way, all objective data and governmental statistics which can possibly be construed to support this scenario are talked up and re-transmitted in confirmation of the first idea: those which cannot be so re-interpreted are simply ignored as ‘outliers’ by all except the small cluster of much-derided contrarians and habitual Cassandras.

Eventually, as the trend matures and its espousal becomes near universal, it begins to lose its onward momentum. Now, for the first time, the dissonant evidence, which has long been accumulating, begins to excite a certain uneasiness in the Jungian mass consciousness.

Finally, the trend turns – sometimes to, but often absent, the accompaniment of some unanimously-recognised trigger event – and the first losses start to be taken by those latecomers caught in the reversal. As each successively lesser, Greater Fool sells out, cursing himself that he always buys the top, as he does, he encourages another of this time’s Smart(er) Money men to quit while he’s ahead, too. So, each initial trickle dislodges more and more of those clinging precariously to the edges of a now-vertiginous slope below, until the first, trivial setback snowballs its way into a screaming avalanche of head-in-the-hands liquidation.

Now, at this point of maximum dislocation and mental discomfort, all those inconvenient developments which should have long since called the move into question are suddenly rediscovered and – lo! – they crystallise instantly into the foundational themes of a counter-trend of equal and opposite conviction.

Sadly for them, the earlier naysayers will find no belated applause for being right, being despised for their pusillanimous refusal to play the game if they say, ‘I told you so’ and being anyway doomed to seeing their premature insights co-opted shamelessly – and without the slightest attribution – by the post hoc rationalisations of a consensus-hugging crowd soon avidly blowing themselves an anti-bubble to replace the inflated soapskin of ill-starred hope which has just imploded all around them.

So it has been here, too, with the Shock! Horror! Hoocoodanode? of the downwardly-revised US GDP numbers; the farce of the WWE Smackdown which was the Federal budget dispute; and the ritual slaying of the sacred cow of that nation’s

undeserved prime credit rating.

Up until that point even the yawning cracks opening up around the foundations of the Eurozone could largely be ignored in the eagerness to buy a small section of Blue Sky, but, once sufficient self-doubt was ignited in some corner of that Gordian tangle of correlated and cross-margined trade in which the near-free leverage of QE-II had enmeshed everyone, that ongoing turmoil also became one of the defining features of the new bearishness and its expression in market pricing became violently intensified as a result.

So the first sparks of panic were struck to find a ready kindling among the garish paraphernalia of illusion piled high behind the flats and tableaus which comprised the backstage clutter in the Theatre of the Absurd where the ‘Great Global Recovery’ play had been enjoying its unbroken, 15-month run.

In time-honoured fashion, a mad rush for the exits soon followed.

The Wasteland

So, here we stand, exactly eighty years on from the collapse of CreditAnstalt, the run on the Danat bank, and the disastrous abrogation of Britain of sterling’s gold standard status which turned an earlier stock market setback into an enervating slough of Depression.

Here, we stand, almost forty years to the day from Nixon’s abandonment of the dollar’s pivotal membership of the bastardized gold-exchange standard and the horrifying decade of rampant inflation which followed.

And here we stand, a week shy of four years after the Fed’s first, tentative response to the looming CDO/wholesale funding disaster which would threaten to sweep away not just those hocked up to the eyeballs in America’s grotesque sub-prime bubble itself, but feckless borrowers and risk-insensitive lenders – both public and private – right around the globe.

So let us take stock of what exactly we have wrought in the meanwhile by following mainstream economic exhortations to emulate what we think the hallowed FDR may have enacted or the venerable Keynes may have ordained, were these two leading lights of cynical expedience and wilful interventionism each alive today.

With over $2 trillion in excess reserves parked with the Fed, the ECB, and the BoE; with unsecured, interbank loans for anything other than the shortest of terms all but impossible to obtain; with the thirst for security sporadically driving rates on T-bills, general collateral – even deposits – below zero; with the benchmark LIBOR rates increasingly inoperative and their replacement OIS rates barely standardised – with the spread between the two varying widely and with the latter diverging from supposedly stable official base rates which thy are supposed to reflect – it is clear that the money market is broken.

With even short-date basis swaps between the major currencies wandering far, far from their near-zero, normal levels; with countries like Brazil attracting peer group interest for imposing taxes on inflows into and bets on the appreciation of its currency; with the Swiss trying to stem a 7.8 sigma, one-in-300-trillion, two-week move in the currency by aiming to swell sight deposits by 10% of GDP and by showering hapless East European carry-traders with precious francs; with EUR-USD risk reversals at their most extreme ever, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of underlying volatility – what can we say but that the FX market is broken?

With the DAX – for example – undergoing its own, 6.3 sigma, 7-in-a-billion chance, two-week move – one only exceeded in its compressed magnitude during the Crash of ’87; with the peak five days of frantic selling seeing record volume, thanks in part to the less-than-benign influence of the high-frequency trading which hummed along the fibre-optic cabling at triple the normal rate and accounted for up to 75% of overall trades, according to the Nasdaq’s biggest execution broker, it is no wonder the VIX doubled in only four days, a jump only exceeded by last May’s HFT-led ‘flash crash’. No wonder either that several European and Asian authorities saw fit to intervene, either to prop up prices or to outlaw short selling, or both. The only inference to be had – the equity market is broken

With the ECB being forced to take drastic – and arguably illegitimate – action to cap the 3-month, 225bps rise in the Spanish-Bund and the concomitant 270bps rise in the Italy-Bund spread; with US Treasury bonds plunging amid the rout to record low nominal and negative implied real yields, all the way out to 10-years; with record low mortgage rates forcing duration-hungry investors and hedgers to receive long-dated swaps at minus-40bps; with record levels of junk issuance having been conducted at record low yields, before a frozen market saw spreads explode a 5.6sigma, 218bps to stand 50bps wider in just ten days – to cite just a few instances of a widespread disruption – it is fairly evident that the bond market is also broken.

With the ratio between the two main oil benchmarks – WTI and Brent – having crashed from its well-behaved, long-term, pre-crisis ratio of 1.07:1 +/-0.2, to hit 0.79:1; with gold trading to a 5% premium to platinum for only the second time in at least the past quarter-century; with base metals showing less and less correlation between price, curve shape, and visible inventory as funding games and warehouse manipulations distort trading patterns; with industrial commodities being driven more by CB inflationary-‘Risk On’ considerations than by the specifics of usage and production – perhaps we must admit that the commodity market is broken, too.

With the widespread frustration of the masses spilling out onto the streets of the Maghreb, Egypt, the Levant, the Gulf, Spain, Greece, Eastern Africa, Bangladesh, Chile, and others; with even the mighty Chinese Communist Party quailing before the popular wrath excited by the divisive symbolism of the high-speed rail crash; with 80% of surveyed US voters saying the country is ‘heading down the wrong track’; with the widespread unease in Germany at the executive’s dismissal of the citizens’ understandable reluctance to bankroll the wider EU; with the emerging realisation that three generations of an ever-encroaching, ‘tutelary deity’ welfarism have not only sapped the vitality out of the economic organism, but have bred out all vestige of responsibility and self-restraint from the teeming, unweanable mass of perennial dole-puppies it has whelped – it is therefore undeniable that politics-as-usual is broken, too.

With the glaring failure to predict even the possibility – much less the circumstance – of the recent Crash and with the even more foreseeable failure of its tired old, rehashed nostrums of ending the slump by means of an inequitable programme of corporate welfare, inflationary ‘unorthodoxy’, and the unleashing of the debt-spewing monster of the state to gorge itself upon such things as individuals and private concerns no longer care to consume, it should hardly be controversial to assert that mainstream macroeconomics – and the reputations of the many panderers to power who practice it – are equally broken.

Breaking the mould

Whatever our individual pre-occupations with the specifics of this collapse, we must bear in mind that, amid all the wreckage, there are countless millions of hard–pressed souls, each trying to earn an honest living by first identifying and then satisfying the needs of their fellow men in the best, most cost–effective manner they can accomplish. In the attempt to do so, the overwhelming majority of these strivers cannot fail to provide a living to others, too – whether by employing their labour directly in their own factories and offices, or indirectly, by buying in the goods and services these latter work to supply at the workbenches and computer docks of other hirers of their effort.

In their constant struggle to peer into an uncertain future so as to estimate whether anyone will buy their output and, if so, at what price; and then to decide what they can afford to pay in turn for the necessary means to meet this potential market, they cannot in any way be assisted by the ramifications of all the multiple breakages outlined above.

If they cannot trust the signals being sent to them about the cost of inputs or the acceptable charge for outputs; if they cannot assume a certain stability in the rent and availability of working capital, or rely on the calculus of securing longer term funding; if they and everyone with whom they deal are being subject to wild swings in currency rates and commodity prices; if there is no clarity about the framework of regulation, the structure of legislation, or the outlook for taxation – but only a well-founded pessimism that none of these are likely to change for the better; if they begin to see themselves as the targets both of material expropriation and Pharisaic condemnation – are they then likely to give full reign to their innate spirit of enterprise, to fully express their characteristic get-up-and-go and, by so doing, give the rest of us a greater opportunity to sell our wares in the marketplace for skill and sweat?

Hardly and therein lies the rub. For if we are to pull ourselves out of the quagmire into which we have stumbled, it will be to little purpose to take three short, backward steps before hurling ourselves deeper into the morass, not just with renewed energy, but while carrying the growing weight of mud which clings to our clothes as the result of each previous failed attempt.

Debt cannot be the cure for over indebtedness, nor a more rapidly debased currency the antidote to its ongoing debasement. We must forgo the intellectual conceit that we can impose some higher order on the seeming chaos of the world and instead we must simply smooth the way so that its own emergent properties can seek out a better constellation of interconnections, all by itself.

We must recognise that there are no workable macroeconomic solutions which can be laid down: that everything is a matter of functioning microeconomics building things up; that the diamond takes on its lustrous geometry, atom by atom; that the masterpiece hanging in the Louvre came into being brushstroke by painstaking brushstroke.

Only get the microeconomics right and all else will follow.

Make labour once more affordable and its terms no longer an indentured servitude for the employer. Ensure that entrepreneurship is no more risky than it has to be and that it reaps the full fruits of its success – as well as seeing that it bears the full responsibility for its failure – by clarifying law, minimising red tape, and, once this is achieved, by resisting the bureaucratic urge to tinker any further. Set prices free to perform their function, insist that markets are able to clear, and see to it that titles to property are both secure and simple to transfer.

Under such conditions, we will each help to build a lasting recovery for the other, one job and one company at a time, much more certain of our success – however much patience will be required in its achievement – than if we were to heed the thundering decree of some sweeping, Collectivist Five-Year Plan emanating from the mouths of the tin gods who frequent the Platonic centres of world power.

Financial markets may be broken, politics and mainstream economics may be broken, but, fortunately the economy of men is a robust, highly redundant network, furnished with its own immune system and self-repair mechanism, consisting of unhampered entrepreneurial search and action.

As Adam Smith famously remarked, ‘there’s a lot of ruin in a country’ – though, contrary to what our present rulers seem to believe, he was not issuing a challenge to them to seek to quantify its limits.

If we are to avoid that final ruin, if we are to properly rectify much of what is broken and not merely smother it in an inflationary balm and patch it over with a plaster of false accounting for a further, brief, electoral half-life, there are three things which we could and should usefully add to the list of the downcast and destroyed.

These are, namely: that unsound money which is truly the root of all evil; the unfunded mountains of government debt with which such bad money engages in a poisonous symbiosis of executive tyranny and political corruption; the duty-free but rights-encrusted, all-pervading Provider State which waxes fat on that unholy alliance of illusory finance and which not only robs Peter piecemeal to pay Paul, but empowers Pericles to oversee the theft, and so suffuses the commonwealth with a miasma of perverse incentives, ethical degeneracy, and irreconcilable conflicts of interest.

What lies broken, we can surely fix, but only if we break in turn the habits of mind and the tyranny of the man-made institutions which we first allowed to break the things we value – our freedom of association, our independence of action, and our individual chance of prosperity.