The Thousand-Year Reich Fallacy (#economics, #politics, #InterestRates)

The Thousand-Year Reich Fallacy (#economics, #politics, #InterestRates)

Nothing is more permanent than “temporary” arrangements, deficits, truces, and relationships; and nothing is more temporary than “permanent” ones.

~Nassim Taleb

The Nazi regime in Germany, which was early on referred to as the “Third Reich”, was also popularly referred to as the “Thousand-Year Reich”, the implication being that it was a regime which would stand the test of time and last over a period of many multiple generations.

An intellectual problem I’ve always had with this is that the seemingly ever-lasting circumstance has an explicit, definite end point. In the case of the Thousand-Year Reich, that end point is 1,000 years from the time it was established– and then what? More importantly, why only 1,000 years? If the Thousand-Year Reich represents some kind of political ideal, how would it be possible for the society underneath it to transcend these arrangements over any conceivable period of time? And what changes in circumstance would lead them to do so?

As an observer of financial markets and business cycles for going on a decade, I see the “Thousand-Year Reich Fallacy” with some frequency. For example, a market prognostication might be made in the following form: “Earnings growth is strong and sustainable, rather than seeing the S&P 500 tail off from current levels, I believe it will continue to rise and will be ten or fifteen years before we see a correction.”

Ignoring even the problematic metaphor of a “correction” in this context, I always find myself thinking in these circumstances– and then what? And what is it, 10 or 15 years from now, that finally precipitates this change in price?

The most obvious example of the Thousand-Year Reich Fallacy (which is really just a variant of the hot hand fallacy) lately is the specious reasoning we hear about about Zero-Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP), its longevity and the “new normal” economic paradigm it engenders. Many people, simpleton and sophisticate alike, have reasoned that central banks have painted themselves into a corner with their ZIRP attempts and having arrived at this corner, there is no way out that will not impose enormous social costs to exit, which they are beyond reluctant to effect as a result. The implication is that interest rates will not rise because they can not rise without grave disruption to economic activity.

The incentives of ZIRP and even NIRP (Negative-) are intuitively perverse. Under ZIRP, borrowers pay no costs and lenders earn no return for parting with their money, meaning lenders have become indifferent from the standpoint of time preference, preferring a dollar today equally to a dollar tomorrow. Under NIRP, borrowers are rewarded for borrowing and lenders are glad to pay them for their privilege, meaning that lenders prefer a fraction of their dollar tomorrow to their whole dollar today. Anyone who listens to this realizes that this is not a sustainable arrangement, ceteris paribus, and that studied in isolation they would not willingly behave that way as a lender.

So, the Thousand-Year Reich must come to an end. But when? And why? Here is where the fallacy rears its ugly head, as people will project an arbitrary time frame which seems sufficiently long to hedge against immediate uncertainty, ie, 20 years, 30 years, but they will not then reason about what changes must occur 20 years or 30 years from now that bring ZIRP/NIRP to an end.

For ZIRP/NIRP to truly be the “new normal”, there can not be any end point to it. But it is not anticipated to be the new normal, but only a Twenty-Year Reich. But what then? And why will it remain stable along the way?

The funny thing about the Thousand-Year Reich fallacy is how short of the initial timeline events end up, and how violently the trend unravels. In the case of Nazi Germany, a regime slated to last 1,000 years in fact lasted 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. Of course, it was a horrible 12 years, punctuated by a ghastly death toll, gross destruction of capital and property in Germany and abroad, and enormous political ramifications that reverberated outward from Berlin and into the present day. All the martial glory, all the eternal recognition and all the national greatness imagined at its inception was dashed to the rocks in just over a decade which, for those experiencing it, must’ve seemed like 1,000 plus forever years.

The ZIRP/NIRP paradigm is a similarly crowded trade from a social expectations standpoint. Anecdotally, I have seen that it is believed from shady, proletarian used car lot operators in Appalachian Tennessee, to educated, middle-aged professional bankers on the West Coast. Everyone knows it can’t go on forever, but they can’t see how it will end in the next five, ten or even fifteen years and certainly no one wants to try to imagine what it might be like. It will be truly unprecedented. But it will end, because it must end, and since it will end it’s worth thinking about what it is that will deliver the finishing blow, and why it could be a much shorter Reich than one could anticipate right this very moment.

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