The Fed Grasps At Straws (#economics, #theFed, #RateDebate)

Here is a really stupid headline and story summary from the WSJ, which I believe is worth saving for posterity as it is indicative of the times in so many ways:

Federal Officials Say No Thanks to Negative Rates
Fed officials don’t think negative rates are needed in the U.S. because the economy and job market are improving and they are hoping they will never have to use them in the future given their uncertainty about whether the policy works.

They claim they don’t “need” negative rates because things are improving, but they won’t raise rates, which is what typically happens when they’re done subsidizing with monetary policy.

But despite their present judgment, they’re simply “hoping” they wont have to use them in the future, which suggests they’re not confident about their present judgment.

Meanwhile, the reason they’re hoping they won’t have to use them is because they don’t know if they work. So, they’d be willing to try something that has some chance of making things worse, in order to see if it has a chance of making things better.

So this is the era we live in: the central bank refuses to return things to “normal” while insisting things are on the mend, is open to conducting monetary science experiments on the economy despite initial misgivings, and reporters write stories about this chicanery as if these are all serious and respectable ideas to entertain. Couldn’t a bunch of Fed chimpanzees at the trading consoles have a reasonably good chance at improving upon this model?

Review – The Panic Of 1819 (#history, #economics, #banking)

The Panic of 1819: Reactions and Policies

by Murray Rothbard, published 1962, 2007

Please note, this book is also available as a free PDF on the Mises.org website, which is how I read it [PDF]

Introduction

Rothbard’s “The Panic of 1819” is a lot of things, but the thing it is most is yet another reminder of the old dictum “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”. Contained in this approximately 250-page reporting of the causes, consequences and social responses to the Panic of 1819 are the same behaviors and political programs that could be found in today’s headlines about corrupt Chinese banking practices, Chicago-school monetarism and Keynesian pump priming, including early recognition that attempts to kickstart “idle resources” logically implies a totalitarian command economy where the government manages all resources (and all people) at all times.

It’s all here, and more. There is nothing new under the sun.

How the business cycle gets started

Early on page 16 the reader is entreated to an excerpt from private correspondence between Pennsylvania politician Condy Raguet and European economist Richard Cantillon in which Raguet tries to clear Cantillon’s confusion as to how fractional reserve banking manages to operate to the point of a catastrophic bubble instead of wobbling and crashing under its own confusing weight:

You state in your letter that you find it difficult to comprehend, why person who had a right to demand coin from the Banks in payment of their notes, so long forebore to exercise it. This no doubt appears paradoxical to one who resides in a country where an act of parliament was necessary to protect a bank, but the difficulty is easily solved. The whole of our population are either stockholders of banks or in debt to them. It is not the interest of the first to press the banks and the rest are afraid. This is the whole secret. An independent man, who was neither a stockholder or debtor, who would have ventured to compel the banks to do justice, would have been persecuted as an enemy of society.

Today’s full reserve Austrian economists, caught between clueless and complacent bank executives, a massively indebted “ownership society” public, Keynesian and monetarist adherents and “free banking” friends who are anything but, simply has no place to turn for safety. He defaults to “enemy of society” status in the ensuing confusion though he seeks only to point out the folly of these fractional reserve systems which inevitably injure all in tying their fates by one string.

The Panic of 1819 followed the War of 1812. During the war, imports and exports came to a halt due to the sea being a battleground and many products which would’ve been imported were kept in their home (overseas) markets to furnish the war effort. As a result, the young States United of America saw the development and growth of domestic manufactures and exportable industries. However, when the war ended and international trade resumed, many domestic manufacturers found they weren’t actually competitive facing world markets (this makes sense because if they had been they probably would’ve developed before the war, not during it in a period of “isolationism”). This created a nascent strain of “protectionist” thinking and monied interests who saw a benefit to adding tariffs on imported products.

The end of the war and the resumption of trade saw a banking boom (fractional reserve) which finally ended in 1819 with the panic. From about 1819-1823 the country was in and out of what could be termed depressed economic conditions. In many ways the early country’s experience mirrored the present day experience from 2008-2009 onward, especially the contentious economic and political debates about how to respond.

Something I found fascinating was what happened to various “macro” economic metrics during the Panic (what we’d call a crash):

The credit contraction also caused public land sales to drop sharply, falling from $13.6 million in 1818 to $1.7 million in 1820, and to $1.3 million in 1821. Added to a quickened general desire for a cash position, it also led to high interest rates and common complaint about the scarcity of loanable funds.

That last bit is especially fascinating to me. I don’t know what the state of federal funded debt was in this time period as Rothbard doesn’t really go into the concept or existence of a “risk free rate” but it is interesting to see “deflation” leading to HIGHER rather than LOWER interest rates. In today’s topsy turvy world, low rates are supposed to be the result of the flight to safety during a depression while high rates are supposed to herald an economic recovery. However, it seems it was just the opposite in 1819.

I found myself charmed by the ability of so many in 1819 to see what was the cause of the bubble and the collapse, even politicians. For example, in an address supporting a “relief bill”, Illinois Senator Ninian Edwards observed:

The debtors, like the rest of the country, had been infatuated by the short-lived, “artificial and fictitious prosperity.” They thought that the prosperity would be permanent. Lured by the cheap money of the banks, people were tempted to engage in a “multitude of the wildest projects and most visionary speculations,” as in the case of the Mississippi and South Sea bubbles of previous centuries.

I enjoyed learning that even medical analogies to describe the cause and effect of monetary expansion and collapse were popular in 1819. One government committee, the Hopkinson Committee, arguing against “debt relief” legislation, noted:

palliatives which may suspend the pain for a season, but do not remove the disease, are not restoratives of health; it is worse than useless to lessen the present pressure by means which will finally plunge us deeper into distress.

I thought that pain pill and hangover analogies were something recent and peculiar to adherents of the Austrian school but critics knew of these rhetorical flourishes even two hundred years ago, at least!

On the topic of “flight to safety”, I did make note of one paragraph which seemed to suggest that while interest rates on bank debt and other commercial lending may have risen, interest rates fell dramatically on tax-backed (ie, “guaranteed”) government issues, for example:

“A Pennsylvanian” pointed to United States and City of Philadelphia 6 percent bonds being currently at 3 percent about par– indicating a great deal of idle capital waiting for return of public confidence before being applied to the relief of commerce and manufacturing. Thus, in the process of criticizing debtors’ relief legislation, the “Pennsylvanian” was led beyond a general reference to the importance “confidence” to an unusually extensive analysis of the problems of investment, idle capital, and the rate of interest.

This theme of “idle capital” was remarked on more than once in the text and by various parties with differing viewpoints. This is a particular fetish of Keynesians and monetarists who cite the existence of “idle capital” as an excuse for government to raise public spending to “put it to work.” It is fascinating to see these early Americans predicted Keynesianism by almost 150 years!

Another thing I found remarkable was the prevalence of either state-owned banks (federal, with the Bank of the United States, or individual states) or strong political pushes to establish these banks in response to the ensuing depression and the stress this created on the banking system. In other words, nationalization of the banking industry as a political prop to collapsing FRB institutions is nothing new:

The Alabama experience highlights the two basic measures for monetary expansion advocated or effected in the states: (1) measures to bolster the acceptance of private bank notes, where the banks had suspended specie payment and where the notes were tending to depreciate; and (2) creation of state-owned banks to issue inconvertible paper notes on a large scale. Of course, the very fact of permitting non-specie paying banks to continue in operation, was a tremendous aid to the banks.

People refer to the United States economy and monetary system at various points in time being “free market”, and while it’s true that tax rates and business regulations were generally less cumbersome near the nation’s founding than today, it is also true that there has been a virulent strain(s) of interventionist thinking and policy-making from very early on. It wasn’t until 1971 with Richard Nixon’s closing of the gold window that the US currency finally went fully inconvertible, and yet already in 1820 (if not earlier), people were calling for inconvertible paper currencies issued by state-owned banks. Some free market!

The whole episode seems to beg a question that, sadly, Rothbard did not explicitly address or explore, namely, Why did banks need to be chartered by the government in the first place? Although there were calls during the response to the economic crisis for various forms of occupational licensing and business regulation (aimed at stemming the flood of superior imports damaging local industries), the reality is that any other business but banking, such as butchering, baking, sawmilling, leather tanning, import/export, etc., did not require special permission granted by a session of the local legislature, state or federal. Why was banking different, requiring an act of congress to get the enterprise going?

Besides the fact that many such banks seemed to be public-private partnerships which included state “capital” injected into them, the only answer I have managed to come up with so far that makes any sense is that the banks were all set up on a fractional reserve basis, and a blessing by the government served to either 1.) grant legitimacy to an illegitimate institution or 2.) create the pretense and wishful thinking of providing some kind of “legal oversight” to what everyone at the outset understood to be an essentially criminal organization operating with a special legal privilege or 3.) both.

Because every bank had to be chartered, when the FRB system inevitably hit a bump in the road as it did in 1819 and many banks wished to suspend redeemability of their bank notes to stem outflows of specie, their status as creatures of the public legal mechanism meant they could run to the legislature for permission to violate their own contracts– and they almost always got the permission granted. Now, for example, if angry pitchfork-wielding townsfolk show up to break into the vault, take their gold and lynch the bankers, the Sheriff might step in with his posse to make sure everyone remembered their role.

Keynesians and monetarists and Chinese bankers

Continuing the theme of “everything new is old”, I was struck by commentary from a Pennsylvanian congressman named Henry Jarrett suggesting that government relief money might serve to prime the pump of the economy:

An inconsiderable sum of money, for which the most ample security could be given, being loaned to a single individual in a neighborhood, by passing in quick succession, would pay perhaps a hundred debts.

Kind of sounds like George W. Bush urging Americans to go shopping after 9/11, in order to get confidence in the economy back. It’s a crass Keynesian tactic inspired by a confused understanding of the relationship between production, consumption and the role of money in the economy.

It was also interesting to see how many people back then could sense there was a problem with the way the banking system operated, but were confused into thinking banking in and of itself was illegitimate, rather than simply the practice of issuing a greater supply of banknotes than the amount of specie held in reserve. Consider a campaign circular for a candidate for Congress from mid-Tennessee, who said:

banking in all its forms, in every disguise is a rank fraud upon the laboring and industrious part of society; it is in truth a scheme, whereby in a silent and secret manner, to make idleness productive and filch from industry, the hard produce of its earnings

If you substitute “banking in all its forms” with “fractional reserve banking”, you’ve got a pretty accurate description of the nature of the problem.

It’s also worth quoting at length the argument of “An Anti-Bullionist”, who thought that the economic crisis of 1819 was caused by specie money specifically, rather than abuse of specie money via fractional reserves. In its place he sought to create a fully inconvertible paper currency issued by the government which would of course be “well regulated” and serve to protect the economy from the inevitable deflationary death spiral of the specie system he believed he was witnessing. Shades of later monetarist thinking abound:

His goal was stability in the value of money; he pointed out that specie currency was subject to fluctuation, just as was paper. Moreover, fluctuations in the value of specie could not be regulated; they were dependent on export, real wages, product of mines, and world demand. An inconvertible paper, however, could be efficiently regulated by the government to maintain its uniformity. “Anti-Bullionist” proceeded to argue that the value of money should be constant and provide a stable standard for contracts. It is questionable, however, how much he wished to avoid excessive issue, since he also specifically called a depreciating currency a stimulus to industry, while identifying an appreciating currency with scarcity of money and stagnation of industry. One of the particularly desired effects of an increased money supply was to lower the rate of interest, estimated by the writer as currently 10 percent. A lowering would greatly increase wealth and prosperity. If his plan were not adopted, the writer could only see a future of ever-greater contractions by the banking system and ever-deeper distress.

Even chartalists will be happy to see that early proponents of the “American System” of nationalist public-private industry were representing their views in the debates of the early 1820s, for example:

Law pointed to the great amount of internal improvements that could be effected with the new money. He decried the slow process of accumulating money for investment out of profits. After all, the benefit was derived simply from the money, so what difference would the origin of the money make? And it would be easy for the government to provide the money, because the government “gives internal exchangeable value to anything it prefers.”

Why even have a private industry? Or money, for that matter?

Luckily, advocates of laissez-faire existed in this time period, too, and they were not silent. Commenting on one proposal to deal with “idle capital” by Matthew Carey, the “Friends of Natural Rights” wrote:

The people of the United States being in a very unenlightened condition, very indolent and much disposed to waste their labor and their capital… the welfare of the community requires that all goods, wares, mechandise and estates… should be granted to the government in fee simple, forever… and should be placed under the management of the Board of Trustees, to be styled the Patrons of Industry. The said Board should thereupon guarantee to the people of the United States that thenceforth neither the capital nor labor of this nation should remain for a moment idle.

[…]

It is a vulgar notion that the property which a citizen possesses, actually belongs to him; for he is a mere tenant, laborer or agent of the government, to whom all the property in the nation legitimately belongs. The government may therefore manage this property according to its own fancy, and shift capitalists and laborers from one employment to another.

Finally, I don’t seem to have made a good note of the specific passage that caught my attention in this regard but I chuckled when reading the description of the operations of the average bank before collapse. These bankers would set up a new bank and pay only a fraction of capital with specie, the rest would be constituted by additional promissory notes from other banking institutions (which were themselves fractional). The bankers would pay themselves dividends, in specie, while the bank operated, and issue themselves and their friends enormous loans with which they’d purchase real goods and services, all while the real specie capital of their bank depleted. When crisis hit and they could not redeem their depositors’ money, they’d get legal permission to suspend redemption, ask for infusions of new capital from state authorities and/or set up a brand new bank whose purpose was to steady the previous institution. Ultimately, the bank would collapse and this too would work in their interest because they’d already hauled off the specie via dividends to themselves, and many of them were debtors of the bank who now had loans due in a worthless currency that was easy to obtain.

It reminded me a lot of the present Chinese state capitalist model.

Conclusion

“The Panic of 1819” is not light reading and for some readers it may not even be interesting reading. It depends a lot on how fascinating you find in depth examinations of “minor” historical economic events.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t surprising, well-written (for all the facts and data, Rothbard still manages to weave together a narrative that helps the reader appreciate the nuances of the various factions and viewpoints of the time) and at times, depressingly relevant. People who care about economic and financial history and unique, formative episodes in the early history of this country, will find a lot of insights and curiosities in this work. I strongly recommend it.

4/5

Notes – The Great Deformation, Part III, “New Deal Legends” (#economics, #newdeal #FDR)

The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman, published 2013

Chapter 8
Stockman doesn’t go into much detail on where the boom ending in 1929 came from, but he does provide an interpretation of why the bust lasted so long and went so deep– the forcible closing off of international trade via protectionist policies and the undermining of the global gold-backed monetary regime by American and European governments alike.

In Stockman’s telling, American president Herbert Hoover was a mostly free enterprise and sound money kind of guy who wanted to avoid inflationist solutions to the economic slump. By 1932 the economy had liquidated the bulk of the malinvestments in excess inventories and capital assets and was ready to turn toward genuine recovery. This process only took as long as it did because ill-reasoned policies like the Smoot-Hawley Act in the United States and similar nationalistic policies in European states along with uncertainty about the British plans to keep the gold-backed pound sterling in place hampered international trade flows. According to Stockman, the United States between 1914 and 1929 had become, much like China circa 1994-2012, a major exporter of capital and consumer goods to the rest of the world particularly in response to trade and economic disruptions of industry and agriculture in European economies during the First World War. The US economy was geared up to provide steel, cotton, cereal grains and other commodities to the rest of the world and had a hard time adjusting output to meet domestic demand when the collapse came in 1929.

Then came FDR and his unique brand of economically inane autarkic nationalist policy. Stockman faults FDR for prolonging, nay, creating, the actual Depression singlehandedly. First, FDR began his presidency by fomenting a banking crisis and declaring a major bank holiday which Stockman saw as unnecessary. As Stockman tells it, the 12,000 some bank failures in the United States during this period mostly occurred in over leveraged regional/rural banks centered around the agricultural and export-oriented areas of the economy representing at most 3% of banking system deposits. Major money center banks in financial centers such as New York never faced a solvency crisis, making FDRs response a solution to a nonexistent problem and therefore a serious problem-creating blunder itself.

Second, FDR torpedoed the London Conference on international monetary mechanisms, throwing the whole system into chaos and instigating another round of protectionist measures at home and abroad. Third, he arbitrarily decided to undermine the USs own commitment to a constant redeemability ratio for the dollar, creating further fear and uncertainty in the economy. And finally, he created a cartel system (National Recovery Administration) which served to freeze prices, arbitrarily shift capital around the economy and buy votes as necessary but did nothing to create the kind of stable conditions preferred by business people and entrepreneurs attempting to make capital investments to serve anticipated consumer demand.

The Depression was a recession that was working itself out despite the protectionist political measures put in place which made adjusting the structure of production to domestic rather than foreign needs, but then FDR came along and made the economy his plaything as he tinkered according to his whims and played power broker on the side. That’s what turned the recession into a true Depression.

Chapter 9
Fannie Mae, which was envisioned as a way to revitalize a moribund middle class housing market during the Great Depression by creating a “secondary market” for uneconomic 30 year mortgages at subsidized interest rates, has in the 75 years since its founding led to the total corruption and now nationalization of the home loan market. The creation of the secondary market divorced mortgage underwriting from mortgage servicing as it allowed for mortgages to be easily issued, packaged up and sold to investors as government-backstopped financial products. Further, it resulted in local savings funding local housing investments being transformed into a national and now international market, with the final result being that “Red China” bankrolls $1T+ of the federal home loan market due to balance of payment issues tied to competitive currency issuance.

Social Security, rather than being the crowning social achievement of the New Deal, was its greatest fiscal folly and has created an embarrassing Ponzi legacy that is with us even today. The systems actuarial projections were based on an impossible 5% continual GDP growth rate. The payroll tax used to fund it has proved “regressive” and continues to grow over time, with a current 6.5% of GDP consumed by the tax. The $3T of “trust fund reserves” have been lent out and spent by other parts of the government and represent nothing more than future taxes due.

In so many words, the innovation of deposit insurance combined with the Glass-Steagall act, a bout of inflationary monetary policy which destroyed the profitability of traditional deposit lending under Glass-Steagall and then a round of “deregulations” designed to create new areas of profitability for banks at the expense of growing moral hazard resulted in the utter corruption of the system and the inevitability of a major financial meltdown as witnessed in 2008.

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 and the initiation of a war loan program by the United States government, US farms became the breadbasket of the world. They took on massive debt to expand capital machinery and bring additional acreage into cultivation which resulted in growing farm output prices. When the war ended, the capital investments, including the debt overhang, remained. The financial collapse in the 1930s further exacerbated the situation, leaving farmers as a desperate coalition looking for a political solution to their contractual obligations.

With the nations farmers the hardest hit by the twin spikes of failing cash flow and high debt burdens, they became a powerful voting bloc that got FDR elected which allowed for the cartelization of the farming industry to take place. The thought was that cartelizing the industry and pushing up farm and farm output prices would result in a return to prosperity as rural buyers bought manufactured products from city centers. With their programs in place, the farming lobby was then willing to trade votes for growth and maintenance of these subsidies and controls going forward into the future.

The “Thomas Amendment” created four options for expanding the money supply via currency issuance or gold or silver content debauchery. This inflationary response was seen as the proper antidote to too much debt and too little money and political authorities of the day figured it would give them a free pass to avoid the pains of the bust following the ill-gotten gains of the boom.

FDR channeled the $2.8B windfall from his emergency dollar “revaluation” against gold into his Exchange Stabilization Fund, which the Secretary of the Treasury was then able to disburse at his discretion, turning him into what Stockman calls a “money czar” much like Hank Paulson and Neil Kashkari during TARP.

Chapter 10
In this chapter, Stockman argues that World War II and the Korean War were the last wars to be mostly financed by current taxation in the US. WWII in particular saw a rise in household saving and a decline in household indebtedness that offset the massive rise in public indebtedness. He attributes this in part to the fact that wartime command economy measures dictated that there was little to consume on store shelves, in part to the fact that the government’s propaganda campaigns for war bond drives were a success and in part because the government had adopted an arbitrary bond yield peg that lowered investment returns in competing assets and made government bonds more attractive as a conservative savings vehicle.

Stockman claims that William McChesney Martin, who headed the Fed through the 1950s, was a “tribune of sound money” and saw it as his mission to restrain credit expansion and tame the inflation rate, rather than to stoke it like modern Fed heads. He also claims that the Fed only lent on liquid commercial receivables during this era, compared with the present where the Fed has become a warehouse for illiquid claims on real assets.

Chapter 11
Stockman argues that President Eisenhower was the “last of the fiscal Mohicans” dedicated to trimming federal budgets and making government spending respectful of tax revenue means. At the same time, a growing chorus of voices on the right and the left begin arguing for a “new economics”, Keynesian government planning of the macro economy, to not only fight recessions but “fine tune potential GDP” during recoveries and booms. This theory comes at the expense of sound money and has a pro-inflation bias.

Chapter 12
Following World War I, Great Britain attempted to return to the pre-war parity between the pound Sterling, gold and the US dollar despite a massive inflation during the war years. At the same time, the British government embarked on an expansion of its domestic welfare programs which ultimately broke the back of the pound culminating in the London gold conference in 1931 which proved the futility of maintaining the old exchange ratios in the face of inflationary chaos.

At the end of World War II, the United States attempted to take the lead with a gold-backed dollar as the world’s reserve currency in a new arrangement, the gold exchange standard, engineered at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944. Of course, the architect of this scheme was the exact same architect of the doomed British plan (monetary and social policy), the imperious Lord Keynes. And rather than a true gold standard, what Keynes wrought was a feeble attempt to hide dollar inflation by creating a scheme where foreign exchange was to be exchanged for dollars, not gold, which was ostensibly suppose to allow additional credit and currency to be pyramided atop the same amount of gold reserves at formal exchange rates.

For a time, this precarious system seemed to work, helped along by the US-led international “gold pool” which sought to exchange gold against currency to calm price increases in the private London gold market.

However, the decision to engage in fiscal expansionism in the US via welfare spending increases and costly wars abroad (ie, Vietnam) all financed by deficit spending rather than real tax increases led to an unhinged inflation and a boiling London gold market. The international gold pool was quickly depleted in a series of panics in the late 1960s, eventually culminating in Nixon’s infamous closing of the US gold window.

This “guns and butter” policy, led by the intellectual disciples of Keynes ensconced in major US universities, was the final nail in the coffin of sound money in the US, and perhaps even the world, and ushered in a new era of freely floating currencies, chronic deficits, massive credit expansion and a seemingly never-ending series of financial and economic bubbles that we are all living with the consequences of today– ironically, the media at the time was fooled into believing this “enlightened” policy had permanently tamed the (government-policy induced) business cycle.

Chapter 13
Milton Friedman, hailed as a staunch libertarian and champion of small government politics and free market economics, gave intellectual blessing to the greatest economic bastardization of all time– the transformation of the gold standard US dollar, once and for all, into the “T-bill Standard”.

Friedman’s erroneous analysis of the cause of the Great Depression — a crashing M1 money supply caused by an overly tight Federal Reserve — led him to faith in a new standard for monetary policy, a simple inflation targeting of 3% per annum, with the market smoothing out the rest. Friedman believed that if the Fed could credibly adhere to a uniform rate of inflation over time, the business cycle could be banished and the economy would be free to grow without abatement and without the restrictive context of a gold-backed currency.

This new policy proved its danger almost immediately with the out of control inflation of the 1970s and opened the door for unending deficit finance by the federal government. And while Friedman had hoped for a series of Fed chairmen who would objectively guide the M1 money supply along this path (a strategy destined to failure because it turns out the Fed doesn’t control M1, market demand for loanable funds does) instead the office has been inhabited by activist acolytes since the tight money days of Volcker.

The current global monetary regime of competitive free floating currencies is truly without precedent and much of the modern US’s largesse was financed by willing mercantilist politicians in foreign trading partner nations. It remains to be seen what happens to this system when one or more countries reach the end of their rope, domestically, and are not longer willing to import the United States’ inflation as they export their wealth to foreigners for consumption.

Notes – The Great Deformation – Part I, The Blackberry Panic Of 2008

The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman, published 2013

I received a copy of David Stockman’s 2013 analysis of the mechanics of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath as a gift from a friend and sat down to read the first 50 pages, Part I.

I think Stockman attempts to make several key points as a set up to the remainder of this lengthy tome:
-the mainstream/regime narrative of an incipient economic crisis catalyzed by a financial collapse originating in Wall Street credit markets controlled by major Wall Street institutions (such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs) is one part baseless lie and one part clueless ignorance of facts on the ground at the time
-there was a crisis, for these particular institutions, which was a result of years of non-value adding financial and accounting chicanery enabled by Fed Chairman Greenspan’s infamous “put” and the crisis would’ve resulted in the liquidation of these firms assets (and the termination of their managers) into abler hands which would’ve been a good thing for competitive financial markets and the capitalist economy as a whole
-this crisis was not only averted by the frantic lobbying of connected officials in Congress, the Treasury and other regulatory agencies by crony executives in the affected firms, but these same executives and officials worked in concert to turn the bailout moment into a massive payday/profit opportunity; most of the people making decisions about this in the government, particularly in the Treasury and the Fed, were inexperienced, miseducated or otherwise rankish amateurs with little understanding of the context of their decisions or their consequences beyond the immediate moment
-the scale of the bailouts in terms of pure dollars was completely without precedent or connection to actual costs and risks present in the system at the time
-memoirs of officials and executives involves in the bailout discussions published extemporaneously do not make a substantial case for their decisions based off of data available about the period years later
-much of the decision-making at the time, by concerned executives as well as captured officials, seems to be dominated by the twin desire to avoid taking responsibility for mistakes made in the past (thereby looking foolish) and to continue the illusion of the viability of the system based on these mistakes going forward

“All the rest,” as it has been said, “is illustration.”

There were parts of the narrative I found confusing to follow at times. Its possible I didn’t read clearly, but in several instances it seemed like on one page or at the beginning of a chapter Stockman would be arguing that the potential capital losses of a particular company were small enough relative to their total balance sheet that they could easily sweat the loss from a survival standpoint and then on the next page or at the end of the chapter, he seemed to suggest the same loss was so sizeable that it would threaten the viability of the enterprise itself.

I think there was a lot of question-begging in the narrative as well. Stockman builds a decent logical case for why there was no “contagion” that could spread from Wall Street (the financial markets) to Main Street (the rest of the economy) that would result in a general economic depression. But his argument always rests on the costs being shifted to various government backstop agencies and funding sources which could make things like commercial lending and payroll finance markets “money good”. It isn’t explained where these institutions would come by the required funds necessary to remain in operation without a bout of money printing (bailouts) and how this is different than the bailouts Wall Street received.

That leads to another concern I have with the overall thesis, which is that somehow, what happens on Wall Street is arbitrary and doesn’t affect greater economic outcomes. While I agree with the notion that purging the financial system of bad debts and bad business models during periods of crisis is a process of economic health rather than economic illness, I so far fail to see how the repricing and reorganization of economic capital taking place in these markets would not result in similar repricings and reorganizations of capital investment throughout the economy as a whole. Stockman details several multi billion dollar examples of ” predatory financial practices” in which members of Main Street America were able to finance lifestyles they couldn’t prudently afford the costs of and it seems like these are prime (or subprime, as it were) examples of assets that would need to be repriced and reorganized into abler hands. The gutters of both Streets would be filled with the purged excess, and it would eventually drain.

Annoyingly, Stockman repeatedly exalts “our political democracy” and even conflates its goodness and functioning with free market capitalism. For me, this is a fundamental flaw in reasoning and defining terms that throws his entire analysis into suspicion, at least from the standpoint of his analytical framework operant and his own agenda in terms of desired social outcomes. I don’t think Stockman and I are on the same page, in other words.

So far, Stockman’s book expects a lot of prior knowledge on behalf of the reader. He doesn’t begin the book outlining his economic or financial theories, nor his concept of the purpose of government. We intuit bits and pieces of it as he proclaims this bad, that person good, this event horrid, etc. But he never really says “I’m from the School of X” or gives a summary of the key principles necessary to follow his analysis. Therefore, it comes off as strenuously assertive rather than rigorously logical. And I think part of Stockman’s goal is to spread blame in a bipartisan fashion, while building bridges and giving accolades in an “independent” manner. So far, though, it seems arbitrary due to this lack of explanation about his framework.

Four Views On Gold And Gold Miners (#gold, #investing, @atyantcapital, @valresproj)

1.) Atyant Capital, “What is gold saying?”:

Gold stocks lead gold and gold leads currencies and currency moves correlate with stocks and bonds. Gold stocks have been declining for two or so years now. This is in part due to unavailability of capital and credit for gold mining projects, but in our assessment, not the whole story. We believe gold stocks are also correctly forecasting lower gold prices.

Long term readers know my gold pricing model puts fair value at $1100 per ounce (Alpha Magazine Aug 24, 2011). So at $1700-$1800, gold was about 60% overvalued, floating on a sea of credit. Gold declining now tells me the sea of credit is receding here and now. This should translate to a higher US Dollar and pressure on asset prices globally.

2.) Value Restoration Project, “Gold miners – Back in the Abyss – An Update“:

Gold mining stocks remain cheap by almost any objective measure.

One way to look at mining stocks is to compare them to the price of gold itself.

Comparing miners to the price of gold itself, show miners are cheaper today than they have been in decades.

[…]

Today, gold appears undervalued relative to the growth in the monetary base that has occurred up to now, and in light of the monetary expansion the Fed and other central banks are currently undertaking, gold appears more undervalued. The Fed’s current quantitative easing program probably won’t be curtailed until households stop deleveraging and the government can handle the rising interest expense on its expanding debt.

Yet, in the face of all this, many gold mining stocks are now selling at valuations that suggest the market has priced in a decline in the price of gold back to 2007 levels, before the Fed began expanding its balance sheet during the financial crisis. Many gold mining stocks are now selling near or below their book value, which is the market’s way of saying that these businesses won’t be able to add shareholder value in the coming years by mining gold and silver. If the price of gold were to decline below $700 or so, it would certainly be the case that most mining companies wouldn’t be able to profitably sell gold. Yet such a decline in gold is the main implied assumption being priced in by the market today, and this has sent valuations of gold mining stocks to their lowest levels since the current bull market began.

3.) Robert Blumen, “What is the key for the price formation of gold?“:

The gold price is set by investor preferences, which cannot be measured directly. But I think that we understand the main factors in the world that influence investor preferences in relation to gold. These factors are the growth rate of money supply, the volume and quality of debt, political uncertainty, confiscation risk, and the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of other possible assets. As individuals filter these events through their own thoughts they form their preferences. But that’s not something that’s measurable.

I suspect that the reason for the emphasis on quantities is that they that can be measured. Measurement is the basis of all science. And if we want our analysis to be rigorous and objective, so the thinking goes, we had better start with numbers and do a very fine job at measuring those numbers accurately. If you are an analyst you have to write a report for your clients, after all they have paid for it, so they have to come up with things that can be measured and the quantity is the only thing that can be measured so they write about quantities.

And in the end this is the problem for gold price analysts, you’re talking about a market in which it’s difficult to really quantify what’s going on. I think that looking at some broad statistical relationships over a period of history, like gold price to money supply, to debt, things like that, might give some idea about where the price is going. Or maybe not, maybe you run into the problem I mentioned about synchronous correlations that are not predictive.

Part of the problem is that statistics work better the more data you have. But we really don’t have a lot of data about how the gold price behaves in relation to other things. The unbacked global floating exchange rate system has never been tried before our time. How many complete bull and bear cycles has the gold/fiat market gone through? My guess is that when we look back we will see that we are now still within the first cycle. Our sample size is one.

[…]

I do think we will have a bubble in gold, although it may take the form of a collapse of the monetary and a return to some form of gold as money in which case, the bubble will not end, it would simply transition over to the new system in which gold would go from being a non-money asset to money.

I have been following this market since the late 90s. I remember reading that gold was in a bubble at every price above 320 dollars. I very much like the writings of William Fleckenstein, an American investment writer. He has pointed out how often you read in the financial media that gold is already in a bubble, a point he quite rightly disputes. Fleckenstein has pointed out that the people who say this did not identify the equity bubble, did not believe that we had a housing bubble, nor have they identified the current genuine bubble, which in the bond market. But now these same people are so good at spotting bubbles that they can tell you that gold is in one.

Most of them did not identify gold as something which was worth buying at the bottom, have never owned a single ounce of gold, have missed the entire move up over the last dozen years, and now that they’re completely out of the market, they smugly tell us for our own good that gold is in a bubble and we should sell.

So, I don’t know that we need to listen to those people and take them very seriously.

4.) Me:

I don’t know what the intrinsic value of gold is. I don’t think gold mines are good businesses (on the whole) because they combine rapidly depleting assets with high capital intensitivity and they are constantly acquiring other businesses (mines) sold by liars and dreamers and schemers. And I don’t think this will end well, whatever the case may be. So, I am happy to own a little gold and wait and see what happens.

I wonder what the short interest is on gold miners?

The Best Interview On Gold, The Gold Market And Investment Implications I’ve Ever Read (#gold, #economics)

In “What is the key for the price formation of gold?” at GoldSwitzerland.com, SF-based software developer Robert Blumen covers a lot of fascinating and, to my eyes, original ground in an interview with the site’s host.

This has got to be the best interview on the subject of gold in general, the functioning of the gold market and the implications for investors that I’ve ever come across. Blumen not only covers these specific subjects related to gold, but also discusses the Chinese economy, the US economy and the state of monetary and fiscal affairs and even the attitudes of value investors, demonstrating thoughtful familiarity with all he touches. Blumen is well-versed in Austrian economic philosophy and applies this theory to the various practical considerations resulting in surprising new perspectives on common themes.

It’s a long interview and it will only fully reward those determined to dive all the way in. Here’s an excerpt:

There are two different kinds of commodities and we need to understand the price formation process differently for each one. The first one I’m going to call, a consumption commodity and the other type I’m going to call an asset.

A consumption commodity is something that in order to derive the economic value from it, it must be destroyed. This is a case not only for industrial commodities, but also for consumer products. Wheat and cattle, you eat; coal, you burn; and so on. Metals are not destroyed but they’re buried or chemically bonded with other elements making it more difficult to bring them back to the market. Once you turn copper into a pipe and you incorporate it hull of a ship, it’s very costly to bring it back to the market.

People produce these things in order to consume them. For consumption goods, stockpiles are not large. There are, I know, some stockpiles copper and oil, but measured in terms of consumption rates, they consist of days, weeks or a few months.

Now for one moment I ask you to forget about the stockpiles. Then, the only supply that could come to the market would be recent production. And that would be sold to buyers who want to destroy it. Without stockpiles, supply is exactly production and demand is exactly consumption. Under those conditions, the market price regulates the flow of production into consumption.

Now, let’s add the stockpiles back to the picture. With stockpiles, it is possible for consumption to exceed production, for a short time, by drawing down stock piles. Due to the small size of the stocks, this situation is necessarily temporary because stocks will be depleted, or, before that happens, people will see that the stocks are being drawn down and would start to bid the price back up to bring consumption back in line with production.

Now let’s look at assets. An asset is a good that people buy it in order to hold on to it. The value from an asset comes from holding it, not from destroying it. The simplest asset market is one in which there is a fixed quantity that never changes. But it can still be an asset even when there is some production and some consumption. They key to differentiating between consumption and asset is to look at the stock to production ratio. If stocks are quite large in relation to production, then that shows that most of the supply is held. If stocks are small, then supply is consumed.

Let me give you some examples: corporate shares, land, real property. Gold is primarily an asset. It is true that a small amount of gold is produced and a very small amount of gold is destroyed in industrial uses. But the stock to annual production ratio is in the 50 to 100:1 range. Nearly all the gold in the world that has ever been produced since the beginning of time is held in some form.

Even in the case of jewelry, which people purchase for ornamental reasons, gold is still held. It could come back to the market. Every year people sell jewelry off and it gets melted and turned into a different piece of jewelry or coins or bars, depending on where the demand is. James Turk has also pointed out that a lot of what is called jewelry is an investment because in some parts of the world there’s a cultural preference for people to hold savings in coins or bars but in other areas by custom people prefer to hold their portable wealth as bracelets or necklaces. Investment grade jewelry differs from ornamental jewelry in that it has a very small artistic value-added on top of the bullion value of the item.

So, now that I’ve laid out this background, the price of a good in a consumption market goes where it needs to go in order to bring consumption in line with production. In an asset market, consumption and production do not constrain the price. The bidding process is about who has the greatest economic motivation to hold each unit of the good. The pricing process is primarily an auction over the existing stocks of the asset. Whoever values the asset the most will end up owning it, and those who value it less will own something else instead. And that, in in my view, is the way to understand gold price formation.

Many of the people who follow and write about this market look at it as if it were a consumption market and they look at mine supply and industrial fabrication as the drivers of the price as if it were tin, or coal, or wheat. People who look at gold as if it were a consumption market are looking at it the wrong way. But now you can see where the error comes from. In many financial firms gold is in the commodities department, so a commodities analyst gets assigned to write the gold report. If the same guy wrote the report about tin and copper, he might think that gold is just the same as tin and copper. And he starts by looking at mine supply and industrial off-take.

I wonder if more equity analysts or bond analysts were active in the gold area, if they would be more likely to look at it the same way they look at those assets.

Video – Hugh Hendry Visits The Milken Institute (#macro)

Hugh Hendry interviewed in a panel discussion at the 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Global economy is “grossly distorted” by two fixed exchange regimes: the Euro (similar to the gold standard of the 1920s) and the Dollar-Renminbi
  • China is attempting to play the role of the “bridge”, just as Germany did in the 1920s, to help the global economy spend its way into recovery
  • Two types of leverage: operational and financial; Germany is a country w/ operational leverage; Golden Rule of Operational Leverage, “Never, never countenance having financial leverage”, this explains Germany’s financial prudence and why they’ll reject a transfer union
  • Transfer of economic rent in Europe; redistribution of rents within Europe, the trade is short the financial sector, long the export sector
  • Heading toward Euro parity w/ the dollar, if not lower; results in profound economic advantage especially for businesses with operational leverage
  • “The thing I fear” is confiscation: of client’s assets, my assets; we are 1 year away from true nationalization of French banks
  • Theme of US being supplanted as global leader, especially by Chinese, is overwrought
  • Why US will not be easily overtaken: when US had its “China moment”, it was on a gold standard…
    • implication, as an entrepreneur, you had one chance– get it right or you’re finished
    • today is a world of mercantilism, money-printing, the  entrepreneur has been devalued because you get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th chance
    • when the US had its emergence on a hard money system, it built foundations which are “rock solid”
    • today, this robust society has restructured debt, restructured the cost of labor, has cleared property at market levels
    • additionally, “God has intervened”, w/ progress in shale oil extraction technology; US paying $2, Europe $10, Asians $14-18
  • Dollar is only going to go one way, higher; this is like early 1980/82
  • “I haven’t finished Atlas Shrugged, I can’t finish it”: it’s too depressing; it reads like non-fiction, she’s describing the world of today
  • The short sale ban was an attack on free thought; people have died in wars for the privilege to stand up and say “The Emperor has no clothes”; banned short selling because truth is unpalatable to political class; the scale and magnitude of the problem is greater than their ability to respond
  • We are single digit years away from a most profound market-clearing moment, on the order of 1932 or 1982, where you don’t need smarts, you just need to be long
  • Hard-landing scenario in Asia combined w/ recession in Europe would result in “bottoming” process, at which point all you need is courage to go long

Notes – Gary North On Inflation, Deflation And Japan (@DrGaryNorth, #inflation, #deflation, #japan, #money)

The following notes cover Austrian economist Gary North’s views on the chances of inflation and deflation in the US and Japanese monetary systems, derived from a 5-part article series on the subject found at LewRockwell.com:

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 1: John Exeter’s Mistake

  • Fed will attempt to stabilize money supply before hyperinflation; “mass inflation, yes; hyperinflation, no. Then deflation.”
  • Deflation will not take place unless the CB stops making new money
  • When prices fall, you are richer, but you pay no income tax on your profits (deflation is good)
  • Not-money: if you pay a commission to exchange, the asset is not truly liquid
  • Gold is a mass inflation hedge, not a deflation hedge
  • According to Exter/deflationists, gold is supposedly both an inflation hedge and a deflation hedge– the only asset possessing this virtue
  • We have never been able to test Exter’s theory of gold as a hedge against price deflation because there has never been a single year in which CPI has fallen (Q: what did gold price of Yen do in 2009 Japanese CPI decrease?)
  • Consumer price indexes should be based upon goods and services that are rapidly consumed; not price of homes and other prices of “markets for dreams”
  • Central banks inflate, they do not deflate
  • “When housing is bought on the basis of ‘I’ll get rich,’ the market begins to resemble a stock market. When it is bought on the basis of ‘I can live here for what I can rent,’ it is more like the toilet paper market”
  • The skyrocketing price of housing under Greenspan was not reflected in the CPI; the collapsing price of housing under Bernanke was not reflected in the CPI
  • Consumer prices did not fall during the 2008-09 crisis because the money supply did not fall; if the money supply shrinks, there will be price deflation; watch the monetary statistics

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 2: The Deflationists’ Myth of Japan

  • The money supply shrank in the US 1930-33 (Q: Why did the Fed allow money supply to shrink? Does this weaken North’s argument that the Fed will always inflate rather than deflate going forward?)
  • The US and Japan had similar CB policies until late 2008, when the Fed “went berserk”
  • Japan’s M2 was mildly inflationary from 1992-2009; CPI was slightly deflationary over the same period of time but never worse than 1% in any 12mo period; prices rose 2% 1997 and 2008
  • There has been no systemic price deflation in Japan
  • Japan is more Chicago School than Austrian
  • Statistical conclusions about Japan:
    • CPI in Japan fell little 1992-2009, no more than 1% per annum
    • BoJ did not inflate the currency to overcome systemic price deflation, because it didn’t exist
    • Collapse of Japanese RE prices did not affect CPI
    • Collapse of Japanese stock market prices did not affect CPI

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 3: Why Currency Withdrawals Don’t Matter

  • The Japanese economy is starting to become price competitive; this will have ramifications higher up the corporate command chain
  • Estimates of US currency held outside the United States range from 50-70%
  • Rise of credit transactions such as credit cards have minimized the role paper currency plays in everyday transactions
  • Currency withdrawals from the banking system which are not later redeposited are deflationary due to the reserve ratio mechanism
  • Monetary deflation can occur as a result of deliberate Fed policy:
    • increase legal reserve requirement
    • sell assets
    • allow bank collapse to occur by not funding FDIC with new money to offset withdrawals

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 4: High Bid Wins

  • All economics systems are governed by principles of:
    • supply and demand
    • high bid wins
  • The increase in the Fed’s balance sheet (monetary base) has been offset by increase in excess reserves held at banks; thus, no price increases
  • Deflationists’ claim: “Commercial banks will not start lending until the recovery is clear. The recovery is a myth. So, banks will not start lending, no matter what the FED does. The largest banks remain over-leveraged. They will not be able to find borrowers at any rate of interest, so the capital markets will collapse (except gold), and then consumer prices will fall.”
  • North’s response: “the largest banks are making money hand over fist. It is the local banks that are failing. The FED has done what it was set up to do in 1913: protect the largest banks.”
  • Inflationists’ claim: “Commercial banks will start lending when the recovery is clear. The FED will probably not contract the monetary base all the way back to August 2008, because this would bring on another crisis comparable to September 2008. The FED will not risk bankrupting the still highly leveraged megabanks. It will therefore not fully offset the decrease in excess reserves. It will not “wind down” all the way, if at all. Bernanke fears 1930—33 more than anything else. So, the money supply will rise. Prices will follow.”
  • “The increase in excess reserves has been voluntary. The bankers are afraid to lend, even to the U.S. Treasury.” (Q: Why are bankers afraid to lend, even to the Treasury?)
  • “The FED is in complete control over excess reserves. It pays banks a pittance to maintain these reserves. It is legally authorized to impose fees.”
  • Why the Fed maintains its current policy:
    • doesn’t have to sell assets
    • doesn’t have to face rising long-term interest rates due to expanding money supply
    • doesn’t have to worry about collapsing housing market as interest rates go to 25-40%
    • doesn’t face a corporate bond market collapse
  • Monitoring money supply changes is key to predicting consumer price increases

Why Deflation Is Not Inevitable (Sadly), Part 5: Conclusion

  • J Irving Weiss and his son Martin, recommended 100% T-Bills since 1967; it takes $6400 to buy what $1000 bought in 1967
  • Deflationists confuse asset prices with consumer prices
  • Deflationists believe low interest rates lead to debt build up but lower ones won’t stabilize; cost of capital can fall to zero and no one will borrow
  • This is John Maynard Keynes theory, who therefore recommended the government should borrow and spend to avoid this fate
  • There is not a shortage of borrowers today, corporate bond rates are around 6%, not 0%, implying there are people looking to borrow at positive rates of interest
  • Capital markets — markets for dreams, priced accordingly
  • Consumer prices rise comparably to increases in M1 in the US and M2 in Japan
  • Deflationists confuse money (in a bank account) with dreams (imputed asset prices in capital markets)
  • At the supermarket, prices are slowly rising in the US and slowly falling in Japan

Personal Dilemmas Of The Immoral Economy (#investing, #trading, #intervention)

The WSJ.com has just posted an article, “Buy, Sell, Fret: Retail Traders Swing Into Action“, that is ripe for commentary from the twin perspectives of value investing and Austrian economics. With any luck, we may even venture into the philosophic territory by the end of this episode. Let’s get started:

In a throwback to the day-trading era, the market’s stomach-churning gyrations are creating a new class of stock obsessives hanging on every dip and rebound.

Average investors are scrambling to stay ahead of the massive swings—often via mobile devices like iPads and smart-phones, leading to sharp spikes in trading volumes at many brokerages.

“I am distracted and frankly unnerved,” says Andy Lavin, a public-relations executive in Port Washington, N.Y., who manages about $800,000 of his own money.

Mr. Lavin says he has been checking his iPad regularly during meetings and on his way to work. On Monday, he bought $15,000 in futures on the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index. After President Barack Obama addressed the decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade long-term U.S. debt, Mr. Lavin dashed to monitor the market reaction.

“If you look away for a second, you lose,” Mr. Lavin says.

One of the themes I’d like to explore here is perception versus reality. For example, Mr. Lavin’s perception is that it is his inability to keep up with the markets, tick by tick, that expose him to potential ruination. The reality is that it is his decision to split his attention and capabilities between his professional job and daytrading which exposes him to ruination.

As a value investor, daytrading is obviously an intellectually bankrupt strategy detached from an understanding of fundamental reality because the economic value of companies do not change as often, rapidly or dramatically as their security prices might. So, anyone who becomes obsessive about the frequent changing of security prices without any regard to the underlying economic value of the company the securities belong to is engaging in a speculative gamble, not trying to keep up with an investment portfolio. Daytrading while at work is as absurd as playing online poker at work, or visiting a virtual blackjack table on your iPad while sitting in a meeting. The illusion (delusion?) of control is precisely the same, as is the inappropriateness of the simultaneity.

As an Austrian economist, this appears to be an outstanding example of some of the many unintended consequences of Federal Reserve monetary policies as well as federal government interventionist policies.

In terms of monetary policy, Ben Bernanke’s reckless inflationary mandate creates new malinvestment in the economy by distorting entrepreneurs’ and other economic actors’ view of the true supply of savings in the economy. Interest rates are driven down below their free market equilibrium levels providing the illusion of wealth that doesn’t actually exist. Entrepreneurs (and daytraders are entrepreneurs, though they’re a variety more ephemeral than a butterfly) usually end up in grossly speculative activities because with the new supply of money in their hands and the lowered cost of borrowing at their backs it pays to do so, or so they think.

Similarly we can see the broad effects of an interventionist, regulatory political framework. Such a superstructure creates so many obstacles and added costs for “normal” economic activity that the productively-eager are pushed into enterprises with the lowest cost of entry and the least number of hoops to jump through before one can nominally start making money. Does it get any easier than opening up an electronic brokerage account and ACHing a large deposit?

At the nexus of these two philosophies, economics and investing, we see another tragedy unfolding– where is the comparative advantage (economist) or the analytical edge (investor) in a public relations professional-turned-daytrader? Why has this man, who appears to be quite successful at his chosen career given the size of his gambling stake — I mean, accumulated personal savings — which amounts to $800,000, investing this money on his own in the financial markets?

Why isn’t he putting that $800,000 of capital to work in his own business, where he seems to be demonstrating an ability to earn outsize returns on capital? Assuming this individual is reasonable and not merely gambling, what might this say about the condition of the economy as a whole that he has not chosen this seemingly obvious alternative?

Continuing:

The high-stakes drama is also making once-calm investors jittery. Richard Chaifetz, chief executive of Chicago-based ComPsych Corp., which provides mental-health counseling for 13,000 companies, says his firm has seen a 15% increase in calls from stressed out employees who are watching the stock markets from their desks.

This is another unintended consequence of inflationary monetary policies and, as a certain French economist of the 19th century might say, “that which is unseen”.

The Federal Reserve and its army of statisticians can only (attempt to) calculate that which is priced in units of money. But that which is not priced in money (until it ends up as a psychotherapist or pharmaceutical bill, anyway) can not be calculated.

What kind of effect on national productivity must this be having with so many people so distracted and made anxious by volatility in the financial markets?

Even some 401(k) investors are getting more active. Before this week, Ryan Jones rarely monitored his investment accounts. Now the 30-year old advertising strategist checks his phone several times a day for market reports and devotes his lunch time to rejiggering his portfolio.

“I’m just a regular guy who started the month with a 401(K) balance, and am trying to make sure it’s still there next month,” he says.

I look at quotes like the one above as proof positive that the 401(K) is not as good a tax-reduced deal as it is marketed as, and especially not for all the “regular guys” trying to manage them on their own with limited allocation options, to boot.

There’s just no way for these people to manage their money intelligently in a 401(K). And yet again, it transforms every saver into a part-time stock analyst and investor. This is not where the average person’s comparative advantage is located. Seeing how widespread the 401(K)-miracle wealth thesis is, I’d even call it something of a mania. Rather than taking their savings and investing in something local, tangible and familiar, many people have learned to wish upon a stock market star, cast their savings into a 401(K) like a penny into a fountain and then attempt to patiently wait the duration of their professional career until they can all cash out easy millionaires and retire to Florida or wherever.

But for that reality to become a reality, someone has to do a lot of work in the meantime because, contrary to what people might’ve thought George S. Clayson was adovcating in his book, the money doesn’t multiply itself unaided. Do people really believe that they can unintelligently, haphazardly and especially as in present times, anxiously invest their money in the stock markets and thereby wind up rich by retirement?

Another confused “investor”:

Andrew Schrage, a 24-year-old website editor, shifted the allocations in his $50,000 portfolio, away from equities and further into bonds, selling some of his technology stocks on Tuesday after announcements by the Federal Reserve that the central bank planed to keep interest rates near zero.

Mr. Schrage, who lives in Chicago, says he is planning to plow the money back into stocks, but is waiting for the right opportunity.

“This volatility has forced me to adopt a day-trading mentality,” Mr. Schrage says.

Wrong. The volatility hasn’t forced you to do anything, Mr. Schrage. It is your adoption of the fallacious belief that volatility is risk that has forced you into an uncomfortable position where you suddenly find yourself daytrading to try to avoid it.

The language of this article is curious. This 24-year-old website editor has $50,000 of capital in a financial market portfolio. Does he have $50,000 of capital in his website business? It almost sounds like he is a 24-year-old financial trader, who does some website editing on the side.

I don’t mean to heap scorn on age but it is fascinating that this young man has managed, in only 24 years on this earth so far, to not only find time to educate himself on how to edit websites but also on how to watch the Fed and trade accordingly. And this is, yet again, demonstration of the principle that this activity is pseudo-economic. It is not connected to real economic activity and any derivatives thereof but rather is driven by the moves and anticipation of moves by the central bank.

This is a centrally-planned economy, with centrally-planned financial markets. The trouble for most people is that the central planning aspect is too subtle for them to notice, being obscured under numerous layers of propagandistic “this is free market capitalism” rhetoric.

Nearly finished:

Dan Nainan, a 30-year-old comedian, spent Tuesday in his New York office fixated by the market fluctuations, refreshing the screen on his online brokerage account every couple of minutes throughout the day. About a half-hour before the close of trading, Mr. Nanian sold $120,000 worth of his Apple stock. “I felt a tremendous sense of relief,” he says, “and I’m not buying again.”

In a choppy market like this one, a single lunch meeting or conference call that results in missed trading opportunities can translate into thousands of dollars in losses. Andrew Clark, a 30-year old, real-estate consultant in Birmingham, Ala., sold about half of his Apple Inc. stock on Monday morning after it opened 3.2% down. During a client meeting, he missed a brief rally when the stock went up 1.7%.

“I would have bought those back at that point,” Mr. Clark says. “If you aren’t glued to these movements, you miss so much.”

What other times and places have seen 30-year-old comedians with $120,000+ stock portfolios? These are interesting and unusual times.

Andrew Clark’s comment is instructive because he believes he knows what he has missed when he really hasn’t got a clue. He’s missed Ben Graham. He’s missed out on observing the impact of frequent trading commissions on his bottom line. He’s missed out on the fact that his whole investment strategy revolves, admittedly, around the sure-fire failure of selling low and buying high.

Millions of people like this are born in every generation. They have no way to learn their lessons except by experience. Even then, if their experiences aren’t severe and near-death enough, they’re prone to forget them. They drift idly around during their blissfully ignorant existences like gnats above the highway. If the macroeconomic conditions are just right and they’re presented with the opportunity, they’ll launch themselves straight into the windshield of a market panic and spend the rest of the cruise down the motorway of life wondering how they got there and bemoaning the loss of their more innocent days.

These are people who would probably do just fine managing their personal affairs in more humble, honest economic settings. That’s part of the true villainy of the Bernanke-ite economy, to tempt all these people with fleeting prosperity at the risk of utter ruin, and to do it all at the point of a gun.

After all, who would play these games and take this farcical economic structure seriously if they were free to leave at any time without threat of going to jail, or worse?

Here we arrive at the moral, and the conclusion.