Sean Corrigan On The Central Bankers' "Mine's-Bigger-Than-Yours Contest" And Other Musings

From Sean Corrigan of Diapason Securities

Money, Macro and Markets

For several long months now, the market has been treated to an unadulterated diet of such gross monetary irresponsibility, both concrete and conceptual, from what seems like the four corners of the globe and it has reacted accordingly by putting Other People's Money where the relevant central banker's mouth is. Sadly, it seems we are not only past the point where what was formerly viewed as a slightly risqué "unorthodoxy" has become almost trite in its application, but that like the nerdy kid who happens to have done something cool for once in his life, your average central banker has begun to revel in what he supposes to be his new-found daring – a behaviour in whose prosecution he is largely free from any vestige outside control or accountability.

Indeed, this attitude has become so widespread that he and his speck-eyed peers now appear to be engaged in some kind of juvenile, mine's -bigger-than-yours contest to push the boundaries of what both historical record and theoretical understanding tell us to be advisable. After all, it was sixty years ago now that Mises was telling people, in an article decrying the malign influence of Keynes, that:

“The economists did not contest the fact that a credit expansion in its initial stage makes business boom. But they pointed out how such a contrived boom must inevitably collapse after a while and produce a general depression. This demonstration could appeal to statesmen intent on promoting the enduring well-being of their nation. It could not influence demagogues who care for nothing but success in the impending election campaign and are not in the least troubled about what will happen the day after tomorrow. But it is precisely such people who have become supreme in the political life of this age of wars and revolutions. In defiance of all the teachings of the economists, inflation and credit expansion have been elevated to the dignity of the first principle of economic policy. Nearly all governments are now committed to reckless spending, and finance their deficits by issuing additional quantities of unredeemable paper money and by boundless credit expansion.”

In this vein and though we should by now have become numbed to displays of such insistent folly, we cannot but find it a touch ludicrous that the Fed’s Jeremy Stein could give a speech warning about the utterly undeniable dangers of ‘overheating in credit markets’ – presumably with a straight face – only to be pooh-poohed a week or so later by his boss when similar concerns were raised at that latter's regular meeting with the pampered, corporate welfare insiders at the Treasury Advisor Borrowing Committee.

The wise will take cold comfort from this, being all too cognisant of the fact that our esteemed Fed Chairman – much like his once-revered predecessor in office – has clearly demonstrated, both in the record of his public pronouncements and the belatedly-published transcripts of what he said in camera as the late crisis unfolded, that he is dispositionally unable to recognise the signs of a bubble in a beer glass, much less in a bond price or a balance sheet, since such a phenomenon plays no role in either his dogmatic and mechanistic model of the real world while the possibility that he may be personally in error finds no place in his monumental intellectual conceit.

Adding to the sense that nothing will dissuade these quacks from bleeding and cupping their poor patient until he expires under their assault, in a speech (delivered before a union audience, no less!) that Madame Defarge of the rentier class, Janet Yellen, also vouchsafed the hint that the Fed’s newly-adopted ‘Evans Rule’ – of continued, massive intervention until such time as unemployment subsides below 6 1/2%, assuming that CPI ‘projections’ (Oh, I d-o-o-o love a hard, independently-verifiable, objective target) likewise remain below 2 ½% - was not to be seen so much a ‘threshold’ for restriction as a gentle reminder that a rethink might soon be in order.

Not that the Fed Vice Chair was alone in her infamy. The week’s earlier publication of the Bank of England minutes revealed that there are other central bankers itching to help Wall St. and the City make their bogey for the year. Indeed, it seems that the outgoing Governor had wanted to pre-empt his hubristic successor-elect by easing now and not waiting for said Canadian newcomer to make good his less than modestly declared mission to ‘refound’ the three hundred year-old institution over which he will be suzerain, as part of his personal goal to show the whole of Europe how to ‘get those economies going and fix those financial systems’.

Not content with this, up stepped Kings’ fellow dove, David Miles, to set out a ‘model’ (roll of the eye-balls) which, by dint of equating the propensity to ‘inflation’ (i.e., to ongoing price rises) not to the supply of money in the system (thereby denying three centuries of theorising) nor with any  consideration for the demand for said money (so ignoring the whole 140-odd year history of subjective marginal economics), but solely to the  estimated degree of physical and human ‘slack’ in the economy, gave us a QED in favour of more QE.

Having set up the metrics of his toy universe, Mr. Miles told us proudly that he then gave it over to the silicon gods to perform 20,000 iterations with it and arrived – Hey Presto! – at the precise conclusion that the Bank needed to be 16% (sic) more accommodative, in other words, to buy another £60 billion gilts, even though, as our Great Engineer himself admitted:

“The model does not say that asset purchases are the only way this should be achieved. If there are monetary policy tools that are more reliably effective in boosting demand, they should be used. But it is not clear what these are, which is why I have calibrated the model to reflect my own assessment of the evidence of the impact of asset purchases”!

As every right thinking person should know (and hence climateers excepted), the principle problem of mathematical computation is encapsulated in the phrase GIGO – Garbage in, Garbage Out. One of the parameters Miles adopts in his latter-day difference engine is that UK GDP ‘should’ run at a  steady 3% rate of increase. Since this was roughly the experience of the laughingly-dubbed ‘Great Moderation’ which stretched from the economic travails of the early 90s to the eve of the Crash, this superficially seems to be a reasonable assumption.

What he has overlooked, however, is that while real GDP currently lies some 20% below where an extrapolation of that trend would otherwise  suggest, the reckoning of total hours worked in the economy has fully recouped its intervening losses, while, for the past five years of slump and sub-par growth, the RPIX measure of price changes has risen by an average 3.9% p.a. which is the worst performance in 17 years (a ‘remit’-busting failure of policy which, if the yields on gilts maturing in 2055 are any guide, is expected to persist for the entirety of the next four decades!)

Putting these gross aggregates charily together, we can see that, whereas GDP per hour worked rose, with only minor variations, at a trend of 2.5% per annum for the first 37-years of the floating rate era, in the succeeding five years of the crisis, it has declined by 0.8% a year – a fall of a duration and severity unprecedented in the modern record despite the Bank’s fivefold, £325 billion intervention (equivalent to 25% of average GDP over the period and to more than half the state’s cumulative deficit).

So, here’s a question: is it just possible that the long misrule of NeuenArbeiterPartei under the leadership of RobespiBlaire and Culpability Brown (as we always used to refer to them) led to a progressive stultification of the system to the point that the country effectively now lies broken? Sapping entrepreneurial endeavour, burdening the economy with costs and with a mare’s nest of legal and regulatory hindrances, swelling the tax-sucking ranks of patronage amid both the Apparat and the welfare proletariat, this was reign during which people desperately tried to maintain the illusion of a progressive rise in living standards by incurring crushing levels of debt and relying for nourishment on the bitter fruits of property speculation.

Couple this with the uncomprehending inability of the successor ConDem(n)s to tackle the problems they inherited – as well as with the political elite’s right-on, Davos-man fetish for needlessly driving up energy prices in the service of that jealous pagan deity, Mother Gaia – and you have a nation about whose prospects it is all too easy to despair.

Never mind though, Mr Miles: just run the printing presses a little more – nay! 16% more - prolifically and we have no doubt that all will soon be well again!

How far we are from the pellucid wisdom of Ludwig von Mises can be gathered from what he told a lay audience, just as the groundwork was being laid for the Great Inflation which would ravage the 1970s and early 80s, viz.:

“The nineteenth century the slogan of those excellent British economists who were titans at criticizing socialistic enthusiasts was: ‘There is but one method of relieving the conditions of the future generations of the masses, and that is to accelerate the formation of capital as against the increase of population.’ Since then, there has taken place a tremendous increase in population, for which the silly term ‘population explosion’ was invented. However, we are not having a ‘capital explosion’, only an ‘explosion’ of wishes and an ‘explosion’ of futile attempts to substitute something else—fiat money or credit money—for money.”

Meanwhile, Perfidious Albion is left with the sorry combination of activist central bankers, weak growth, a soaring visible trade gap, a record current account deficit, and a scramble to exit positions from those who had previously seen the country as something of a safe haven. With technical   indicators already flashing red (if also a touch oversold, at present), is there any floor beneath a currency which its own supposed guardians would dearly love to depreciate further?

Such problems are not confined to the oceanic side of the Channel, of course, as has been highlighted in the deliciously barbed correspondence between the CEO of US tyre company Titan, Morry Taylor, and French industry minister Arnaud Montebourg over that country’s industrial outlook and business climate.

Without getting too deeply into the spat, it should be noted that Eurostat data suggest that the French government typically spends (not including
"investment") two-thirds more on its almost 63 million citoyens than does the Italian on its 61 million, yet it is the latter who bear the brunt of the criticism.

(In the interests of fair disclosure, the same source shows that we virtuous 62 million Brits enjoy the dubious benefits of 45% more state largesse than do our Italian cousins, if 15% less than our French neighbours and even the ostensibly hard-core Dutch splurge as much on their 17 million as do the afflicted Spanish on their 47 million).

In Spain itself, we have had another failed property lender and the rather cheerless message from embattled Premier Rajoy that ‘there are no greenshoots, there is no spring’. On the Western littoral of the peninsula, Portugal has also had to downgrade its forecasts to encompass a deeper shrinkage than was first pencilled in - as a result, by some unforeseeable mischance, of the deeper than anticipated slump which has ravaged the rest of the continent, to which it dispatches 70% of its exports and from which it receives the bulk of its tourists.

In Italy, the chorus of disquiet at the prospect that Il Cavaliere might just attract more votes than anyone else in the weekend elections is swelling to a Verdi-like crescendo (remember that democratic choice is all well and good as long as you vote for the candidate preferred by the global hegemons). More broadly, the signs are not good here either. Retail sales last year were at their lowest level in a decade, while industrial orders fell to their fewest (and at their fastest pace) since the slump, taking them down almost a quarter from their 2007 peak and landing them back where they stood at the  very launch of the single currency. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the project!

Thankfully, Germany is potentially providing an offset. We use the qualifier because even if the IfO survey is beginning to show its typical lagged  response to a surge in local liquidity, this has yet to translate into business revenues and hence, one has to fear, into earnings. Nonetheless, let’s take cheer where we can: Eurozone biflation is bringing a much-needed cheer to the bosses of the Mittelstand.

Abroad in Asia more attention is suddenly being paid to the fact that Shinzo Abe – after being mugged in the corridors of the recent G20 summit (and possibly warned there that he might need to cultivate some wider good will if he wishes to enlist third-party support in his ongoing dispute with China) - is having to back-pedal a touch in Japan as rumours circulate that he might not even get to appoint the most unredeemed, the wildest-eyed inflationist to the top spot at the BoJ next month.

J is for Japan, but J is also for J-curve – that unfortunate constellation whereby the effects of a lowered currency exert more of an upward influence on the import bill than on contemporaneous export revenues. Hence why the country suffered a record trade deficit last month. The fact that LNG prices in the Pacific basin surged to more than $19/mmbtu this month, even as the yen was shedding 10% of its value vis-à-vis the dollar is but one adverse side-effect of Abe’s quackery.

In the near-term, it may be that the accounts of a number of Japanese corporates are unduly flattered by the translation effect, but we doubt they themselves will be fooled by such transitory gains into a radical alteration of their business plans. What should be made clear here is that in volume terms Japanese exports are 10% lower than they were at the post-Fukushima rebound, one sixth lower than the last, pre-Crash spike, and no greater than they were in early 2006 (on a priceadjusted basis, the trajectory of imports is not wholly dissimilar).

Nor has the return from the Lunar New Year break seen China add any further fuel to the flames, either. To the contrary, yet another ‘decisive’ edict has been issued in the (so far vain) attempt to crack down on the nation’s re-inflating property bubble. Adding to a growing presentiment that the central bank may act to head off what looks like an outpouring of new credit from the banks these past 8 weeks, it has this week withdrawn a record CNY910 billion from the market. The smart money now has it that current PBOC chief Zhou Xiaochuan will be promoted to a level of party seniority sufficient to obviate the need to retire now that he has celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, implying that there will be no radical loosening of policy on that account, either.

He might need to act soon: the new vogue measure of ‘total social financing’ recorded a 160% yoy jump in January while the pace of boring old bank lending so far this year has been similarly robust and could come in as much as 40%-50% above the combined Jan-Feb total for 2011. At this rate, there will be no notable diminution to the already incredible CNY110 trillion in reported urban fixed-asset investment undertaken these past four years - an amount equal to 145% of the US private economy and a number which has risen more than tenfold in a decade and which accounts for three-fifths of ‘national-scale’ industrial profits.

Whether this will be complicated by the problematical local government debt pile remains to be seen, but one sign that this is becoming a hot button  issue is that the China Banking Regulatory Commission has just issued a directive insisting that any new loans extended to LGFVs must be covered by existing cash flows and that the projects for which the funds are intended must generate returns, while what it termed "irregular" lending to these vehicles was henceforth prohibited. That will be fun, given that the recently published provincial budget outlooks suggests the fact that more than
half of their loans are due to mature this year.

In response to worries that the regime might act to rein in such developments, the Shanghai Comp underwent its biggest single-day plunge in 15 months, steel futures slipped to complete a 6% drop on the week, copper gapped lower to its weakest close of 2013, and rubber suffered further,making a 10% peak-trough decline from its pe-holiday highs. The FTSE A600 Bank index has, meanwhile, dropped 14%. With Komatsu telling us sales of diggers halved in the last ninemonths of 2012 and rivals Caterpillar reporting its worst 3-month regional sales performance (-12% YOY) outside of either the GFC or the Asian Contagion of 1997-8, and with Foxconn announcing a hiring freeze, what little anecdotal evidence we can muster in this period of news blackout is not overwhelmingly positive.

On a broader front, ahead of the all-important National People’s Congress next month, the local press is positively buzzing with assorted calls for ongoing reform – even to the point of positing the formation of a new super-bureaucracy to supersede the NDRC in this task. President Xi and his allies have presumably had something to do with this campaign and the man himself has naturally been very active in trying to secure his power base in the run up to his full inauguration, but much will remain up in the air until the proceedings have been completed and we get a first look at his first full exercise of power.

Never mind, ever alert to the people’s needs, the planners have just announced that they are taking forceful steps to counter the awful quality of the air in China’s choking megalopolises – they have issued a fatwah banning urban barbeques!


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