Perhaps the first great lesson of economics, as emphasized by Henry Hazlitt, is that there is no free lunch. The second, courtesy of Frederic Bastiat, is that if it sometimes appears that there is one, it means that we simply have not looked deeply enough into the consequences of our attempt to enjoy it. The third, the joint insight of several generations of Austrians, is that the attempt to buy one for ourselves by resort to monetary manipulation is eventually doomed to fail. A cynic might say that the fourth and final lesson is that no-one ever wishes to abide by the strictures inherent in the first three rules. Continue reading
It is now largely overlooked, but the 19th century had its own precursor to EMU in the shape of the Latin Monetary Union, set up principally to try to solve the hoary problems of silver:gold bimetallism. But, if much of the Union’s history was dogged by the narrow technical issues of how, firstly, to structure its members’ own monetary system and, thereafter, to align it more closely with those of the non-members, there were other features, too, which are still very much germane today.
Unrealistic expectations, short-term politics, and – as ever – too much debt plagued both Greece and Italy in those days, too, with repercussions for the other LMU members as well as for their trading partners in the wider world.
[The following appears as Chapter II in my book ‘Santayana’s Curse’ available on Kindle]
When even the eminent lawyer, Christine Lagarde, interrrupts her incessant calls for more ‘stimulus’ to confess that yes, peut-être, we ought to be on the look out for a bubble or two, you know things have reached a pretty pass.
In truth, the awful effects of monetary overkill on the part of the major central banks seems finally to have reached a critical juncture, with asset markets everywhere spiralling rapidly out of control. We can only shudder to think what will await us if the inflationary spark ever manages to jump the firebreak of bad banks, zombiefied overcapacity, and ruined balance sheets and sets light to the markets for goods and services, too.
Between Li Keqiang, Mario Draghi, and the BLS, markets everywhere had a wild ride into the weekend.
Starting east and working west, the upshot of the Chinese ‘Twin Sessions’ was a perseverance with the so-called ‘New Normal’ theme – namely, with the idea that headline, GDP-style growth should be lower in future with the emphasis shifting from brute volume to the encouragement of a shift in the productive structure towards the provision of higher-value added, more technology-rich goods, towards service in place of smokestacks, aall the better to spread the benefits of industrialization to the domestic populace.
Taken over a forty year history, US gasoline is trading in its 3rd percentile – 1.8 sigmas from the mean – when expressed as a ratio of the price of heating oil. In seasonal terms, this makes sense as the winter draw for space heating coincides with the consumption lull in (discretionary) road transport and the anticipatory change of emphasis by the refiners. Given the severe weather being endured Stateside these past several weeks, it should surprise no-one to learn that stocks of heat are more than 8% below the mean for thetime of year, while those for mogas are 4.3% above that norm. Hence the wider price differential.
Avoiding for now all comment on the ongoing Eurozone schism, we start by taking a look at the UK where, conveniently in the run-up to the May election, everything seem to be coming up roses for the incumbents. Retail sales are strong, CBI output intentions are comfortably back inside the upper decile of the last 20 years’ readings and – perhaps most politically heartening of all – real wages are at last rising while both numbers employed and hours worked are making new, all-time highs with the ratio between the two suggesting the proportion of those working full-time is back at pre-crisis highs.
More than half a century ago, in his role as an advisor to the men responsible for trying to set Taiwan on the road to prosperity, a redoubtable economist called Sho-Chie Tsiang argued that the monetary authorities should stop suppressing interest rates and directly rationing credit and should move instead toward a more market-oriented system where real rates were sufficiently elevated to encourage productive saving.
His reasoning was that the existing combination of what we might call Z(Real)IRP with ‘macro-prudential’ control was plagued with several significant drawbacks.
Wracked by the actions of the various central banks – which gave us another key reminder that volatility does not equate to risk – yet not wishing to start rethinking their entire thesis, a characteristic loss confidence has started to set in among those who were telling themselves over the Christmas trukey just what geniuses they were. We could have an interesting couple of weeks in store – not helped by the fact that we are about to enter the great Chinese data avoid as the lunar new year approaches.
In the wake of the SNB decision last week to remove its infamous 1.20 euro floor rate, the ever ingenious – and no less self-assured – Willem Buiter has been expressing his outrage that any central banker might dare to deviate from a consensus which shares three articles of faith, each engraved by the Deity on the tablets he handed down to His prophets at MIT.
On Wednesday, we were all utterly not shocked to learn that the Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice, Pedro Cruz Villalón, had decided that he could see no major objections to Mario Draghi’s Fed-wannabe programme of so-called Outright Monetary Transactions – a decision upon the legality of which was earlier referred to that august body by the German Constitutional Court like the hot potato it was.
Though Snr. Cruz Villalón’s decision is not binding – a decision of the full body sometime in the middle of the year is needed for that to occur – it was nevertheless highly suggestive of the way the court might rule and was therefore seized upon by stimulus junkies everywhere as a result.