Submitted by Gonzalo Lira
Talk About A Big Gap In Logic!—Slicing Up Rick Ackerman
So Rick Ackerman posted a piece that I spotted on Zero Hedge—which surprised the hell out of me. Either Tyler and his gang of merry pranksters are losing their nerve about the downward trajectory they think the U.S. economy and monetary policy is headed in—or they ran the piece for shits and giggles.
Ackerman’s piece said, in effect, that dollar hyperinflation was
impossible. His post was titled “Big Gap in Logic Weakens Hyperinflation
I’ve got a rep for being a hyperinflationist—which isn’t exactly true: I’m a dollar hyperinflationist, but a euro deflationist. A friend called me an economic agnostic, which is pretty accurate (and kinda cool, actually): I look at the data, look at the political realities influencing macro-economics, look at the arguments, then make up my mind, regardless of what the various sects of the religion known as Economics deem orthodox.
I suppose my heterodoxy comes from my education: I was trained in philosophy, with emphasis in epistemology (theories of knowledge), Hegel’s political philosophy, and formal logic. That background makes you not want to join a crowd—any crowd. And it makes you willing to question even your most prized assumptions.
So when Ackerman said he had proof positive that hyperinflation in America was impossible—that he had, as he claimed, found a “big gap in logic”—I was like, “Cool: Show me.”
So Ackerman . . . well, he tries. In his piece, he writes:
Hyperinflation occurs when people, fearing their money is about to become worthless, panic out of currency and into physical goods. This is highly unlikely to happen in the U.S. for several reasons, to wit: 1) Whereas Germany’s hyperinflation took several years to ramp up, today’s financial markets are primed for a catastrophic collapse that could conceivably run its course in a week, if not mere hours; 2) under the circumstances, there would be no shifting of financial assets into hard goods simply because any financial assets one holds at the time of the collapse would become worthless before one could sell them; and, 3) at that point, there would be insufficient currency available to drive a hyperinflation, since mattress money is likely to be scarce and because branch banks keep only about $25,000-$50,000 in cash on hand. All of which implies we will go straight to deflation without the emancipating, hyperinflationary interlude that some mortgage debtors might be hoping for.Then Ackerman adds:
My argument is simple, and I will not yield ground to any hyperinflationist who fails to explain, if the system collapses, where the money will come from to bid tangible assets skyward.For situations like this, never use a hatchet to chop somebody down—always use a long, fine, sharp knife. After all, you don’t gut a fish with a hatchet—you have to slice it up thin as a ribbon. And for that, you need a long, fine, sharp knife . . .
To begin: Ackerman’s argument in the above paragraph looks like a valid argument—only it’s just not sound.
Sorry to get all philosophy geek-speak—let me quickly explain: The classic deductive argument “All men are mortal, Socrates was a man, therefore Socrates was mortal” is both a valid argument (in that the premises follow one another to the conclusion) and a sound argument (in that each of the premises is true, and therefore the conclusion is true).
But the argument “All toilets are television sets, all television sets make you stupid, therefore using the toilet makes you stupid” is an example of a valid argument that is unsound: The two premises lead to the conclusion, even though all the statements are false. (FYI: An unsound argument can arrive at a true conclusion. For instance, “All parrots are a type of beaver, all beavers have wings, therefore all parrots have wings.” Such an argument—though it arrives at a true conclusion—is an unsound argument, and therefore fails.)
Ackerman’s “argument” is completely unsound: Once you begin to unpack it, it’s really quite obvious.
His very first sentence which he uses to set up his argument—“Hyperinflation occurs when people, fearing their money is about to become worthless, panic out of currency and into physical goods.”—is actually more or less correct—but only insofar as the end stages of hyperinflation are concerned. And this fleeing from the currency is not the cause of hyperinflation—it’s merely an effect, when the population as a whole has realized that the jig is up, with regards the currency.
But although Ackerman is partly right in the first sentence, his second sentence? That it’s “highly unlikely that this will happen in the United States”?
Brother, a panic in the dollar that leads people to exit it for commodities has happened already—and not that long ago: In 1979-’80, when inflation crossed the double digits but before Volcker slammed the brakes via interest rate hikes, people were beginning to get out of the dollar and into anything else, especially commodities, especially gold and silver.
But be that as it may, Ackerman goes on with his “argument” and puts up his first premise: “1) Whereas Germany’s hyperinflation took several years to ramp up, today’s financial markets are primed for a catastrophic collapse that could conceivably run its course in a week, if not mere hours.”
The reference to Germany is of course the Weimar Republic. Ackerman has a handy list included with his piece, showing the price of gold in German marks from January 1919 to November 1923. Let me reproduce his list:
Right away, his own chart betrays him: The charts that he cites says that gold went from 170 marks per ounce in January 1919 to 499 marks in September 1919—that’s a trebling of its price, a 200% rise in nine months. Repeat after me: Triple in price in nine months. Then by January 1920—a mere three months later—the price of gold had trebled yet again. Weimar was able to hold off more hyper-i during 1920—call it a pause in the moonshot—but by 1921 it was off to the ionosphere: Gone, baby, gone.
“Several years”? By Ackerman’s own data, Weimar Germany’s slide into hyperinflation started the second the Great War ended.
(By the way, deflationistas always point solely to Weimar Germany, as if it were the only country to have ever experienced hyperinflation. Or rather, as if the Weimar experience is the only way by which hyperinflation can happen. Very irritating. That’s like saying that there is exactly one and only one route from Los Angeles to New York, a route that necessarily passes through Miami—patently untrue. But I digress.)
In Ackerman’s first “premise”, the Weimar reference is actually a subordinate clause to the whopper he springs on us, the poor reader: “[T]oday’s financial markets are primed for a catastrophic collapse that could conceivably run its course in a week, if not mere hours.”
Who says this? How is this very wild conjecture—nay, this very wild guess—suddenly a statement of fact? Last I checked, in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008—the last real market panic—the fall took about six to eight weeks: And that was a full-on, the-world-is-ending—save-yourselves-now! panic with a capital-P—a panic to put hair on your chest, especially as that particular panic was outfitted with all the latest technological trimmings of high-speed trading and various computer accesories. And it still took about six weeks, from peak to trough (depending, of course, on where you set the interim peak).
Ackerman boldly—and without a shred of proof or even a modicum of evidence—claims that the “financial markets are primed for a catastrophic collapse!” Okay, there was no exclamation mark in his original piece—but there might as well been one. Such an inflamatory premise begs at least some proof—some reasonable argumentation.
Alas, there is none. And since Ackerman’s entire argument rests on this particular . . . creative outburst if you will, then the rest of his argument pretty much goes out the window right here and now.
Even if we grant that Ackerman is somehow right about this baseless, brazen claim, we have to ask the obvious: How is a market crash relevant to hyperinflation? What—if stocks fall you can’t have hyperinflation, or vice-versa? Because that is simply, empirically not true: I can point to three separate cases of hyperinflation—Chile in ’73, Brazil in the ’90’s, Argentina in 2001—where the stock markets all collapsed, even as hyperinflation was rampant. Ditto with real estate—here I explained how housing prices can collapse even in the midst of high- or hyperinflation.
That pretty much gives lie to Ackerman’s seemingly formidable paper-tiger premise one.
So let’s go on to his second premise—to quote: “2) under the circumstances, there would be no shifting of financial assets into hard goods simply because any financial assets one holds at the time of the collapse would become worthless before one could sell them.”
Ackerman is supposed to be a trader—or at least someone who teaches people how to trade. (Those who can’t do . . .) Anyway, as any trader knows, no asset—be it stocks or bonds—suddenly has a valuation of zero. It might well trade all the way down to zero—but it takes time, because even if an asset is suddenly discounted by, say, 20%—rather, especially when an asset is suddenly discounted by a big double-digit chunk—there are always buyers who think that this drastic fall is a momentary panic, and that the asset will rebound.
Great traders have met their ruin, chasing a market to the bottom.
By the way, practical experience shows that what Ackerman is positing simply isn’t true: Even when a specific stock collapses—say because a teetering company didn’t get FDA approval for some crucial drug, or because a seemingly solid company was discovered grossly cooking its books—there are always traders willing to take on the asset, even as it slides all the way to zero. And that slide is never instantaneous—it always takes time.
So premise 2? Fuhgedaboudit!
Finally, Ackerman hits us with this whopper: “3) at that point, there would be insufficient currency available to drive a hyperinflation, since mattress money is likely to be scarce and because branch banks keep only about $25,000-$50,000 in cash on hand.”
My knife-hand is dithering: Where to begin to slice! Where to begin to slice!
First off, to dispute an obvious error of fact: As anyone with even a passing knowledge about commercial banking knows, most branches carry $200K to $1 million in cash—and that’s the small branches. For crying out loud, the lobby ATM carries a hundred G’s, easy.
Second, the amount of currency in circulation is not the issue, in a hyperinflationary crisis: It’s how hot that cash becomes to its holders.
Thirdly—and most importantly—hyperinflation is a pricing issue: Prices are rising in hyperinflation (obviously), so buyers have to find the cash to buy what they need. If food for your family goes up from $1,000 a month to $5,000 a month, by golly you’ll find the money somewhere—and if you have to sell your $20,000 Harley Davidson for a paltry $2,000 in order to get cash to buy groceries? Well, you’ll do it, of course: You can’t eat a Harley, but you sure can starve to death.
Ackerman’s premise 3? Unsound.
So to recapitulate: Ackerman’s argument is: 1) There’s going to be a sudden collapse of all financial markets, all of them happening simultaneously and instantaneously. 2) The collapse will be so sudden and complete that no one will have time to exit financial assets and find safe haven in commodities or other hard assets. 3) There simply won’t be enough money to make hyperinflation possible, because banks don’t have that much cash.
Strictly speaking, of course, this isn’t an argument: This is just a series of premises without a conclusion. The conclusion Ackerman does posit in his post, as I quote above—“[W]e will go straight to deflation without the emancipating, hyperinflationary interlude that some mortgage debtors might be hoping for”—does not at all follow from these three premises: First of all, these three premises don’t argue for deflation—they just argue against hyperinflation. So the first part of his conclusion is invalid from the premises he presents.
And even if we allow for the weaker, implicit conclusion that Ackerman is positing—“There will never be hyperinflation in America”—it’s not at all clear that that follows from these three premises he presents.
Besides, these three premises are all incorrect, as I think I’ve shown.
Notice, by the way, that Ackerman doesn’t present an argument for deflation: He just claims at the last minute, “No hyperinflation—therefore deflation!” But that’s no argument—that’s simply a false dichotomy that is demonstrably untrue. After all, you can have an economy where there is neither deflation nor hyperinflation—obviously. But Ackerman seems to think that “proving” hyperinflation can’t happen is the very same thing as proving deflation will happen—which is of course nonsense.
I had the privilege and pleasure of arguing with Nicole “Stoneleigh” Foss about deflation. I didn’t agree with her, but at least she had an argument for her position. But Ackerman has none—and really doesn’t have an argument against hyperinflation either, as I think I’ve shown.
Ah, but Ackerman does throw down a gauntlet at the end of his piece. He wrote, as I quoted above: “My argument is simple, and I will not yield ground to any hyperinflationist who fails to explain, if the system collapses, where the money will come from to bid tangible assets skyward.”
Apart from the obvious fact that he presented no sound argument against hyperinflation—or even a valid argument—the answer to his “challenge” is simple: The money will come from the Federal Reserve by way of the Federal government.
In fact, the money is coming right now from the Federal Reserve to the wider economy, by way of the Federal government’s spending.
As I have shown elsewhere—and this isn’t controversial or anything anyone seriously debates—the Fed is monetizing roughly 50% of the Federal government’s FY 2011 deficit by way of QE-lite and QE-2. That’s roughly $100 billion a month that the Fed provides, $75 billion of which it is printing out of thin air.
The Federal government needs this money printing—as I’ve said repeatedly, Washington is a junkie, and the Fed is its friendly neighborhood dealer. Washington can’t afford to go off the horse—the Federal government would go broke if it did. Broke as in bankrupt—broke as in full government shut-down. Broke as in no more money to pay for entitlements, the military, or regular government services.
Broke as in broke.
Think it through: If the Fed suddenly cut off it’s $100 billion monthly purchases of Treasuries, where would the Federal government get its funding? From China? They’re selling Treasuries and getting into commodities. From Japan? They’ve got Fukushima to deal with. From Europe? They’ve got Portugal on deck, Spain and Italy warming up.
There’s no one to buy the massive amounts of Treasuries the Federal government needs to sell in order to fund its deficit. The Federal Reserve is the Treasury Department’s buyer of last resort. Scratch that—buyer of only resort.
That’s why QE-2 will never end, come June when it’s supposed to end—it’ll just keep on going: The Bernank and the Fools at the Fed will just keep on printing money, month after month, propping up a literally bankrupt government, because they have no other choice.
This bankrupt government, of course, will spend this money—it’ll get this paper from the Fed, and then go pump it out into the wider economy: And this is how the Federal government will be helping to raise prices across the whole economy. That $800 billion that the Fed is printing out of thin air, and then ramming up the economy? That $800 billion of new money—which is close to 6% of total GDP? That is what is bidding up stuff.
That is where the money is coming from right now. And that is how prices will rise—are rising right now.
And that is how I answer Ackerman’s “argument”, and his challenge: That is how we will get hyperinflation.
If you’re interested, you can check out my recorded presentation, “Hyperinflation in America”, where I discuss the specifics of how I think the dollar will crash.
My!, but that was a delightful meal! Been a while since I had fish.