US INFLATION

May 27, 2008 at 6:17 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 11 Comments

The U.S. economy is in an intensifying inflationary recession that eventually will evolve into a hyperinflationary great depression. Hyperinflation could be experienced as early as 2010, if not before, and likely no more than a decade down the road. The U.S. government and Federal Reserve already have committed the system to this course through the easy politics of a bottomless pocketbook, the servicing of big-moneyed special interests, and gross mismanagement.

The U.S. has no way of avoiding a financial Armageddon. Bankrupt sovereign states most commonly use the currency printing press as a solution to not having enough money to cover their obligations. The alternative would be for the U.S. to renege on its existing debt and obligations, a solution for modern sovereign states rarely seen outside of governments overthrown in revolution, and a solution with no happier ending than simply printing the needed money. With the creation of massive amounts of new fiat (not backed by gold) dollars will come the eventual complete collapse of the value of the U.S. dollar and related dollar-denominated paper assets.

What lies ahead will be extremely difficult and unhappy times for many. Ralph T. Foster, in his “Fiat Paper Money” closes his book’s preface with a particularly poignant quote from a 1993 interview of Friedrich Kessler, a law professor at Harvard and University of California Berkeley, who experienced the Weimar Republic hyperinflation:

“It was horrible. Horrible! Like lightning it struck. No one was prepared. You cannot imagine the rapidity with which the whole thing happened. The shelves in the grocery stores were empty. You could buy nothing with your paper money.”

This Special Report updates and expands upon the three-part Hyperinflation Series that began with the December 2006 SGS Newsletter, exploring: (1) the causes and background of the evolving hyperinflation and great depression; (2) why circumstances will differ from the deflationary Great Depression of the 1930s; (3) implications for politics and the financial markets; (4) considerations for individuals and businesses.

The broad outlook has not changed during the last year. More generally, though, developments in the economy and the financial markets have been in line with projections and have tended to confirm the unfolding disaster. Specifically, the current inflationary recession has gained much broader recognition, while the still-unfolding banking solvency crisis has confirmed the Fed’s and the U.S. government’s willingness to spend whatever money they have to create in order to keep the financial system from imploding. While the dollar has taken a heavy hit — down roughly 20% against key currencies from last year — selling of the U.S. currency still has been far short of the outright dollar dumping that eventually will lead to flight to safety outside of the U.S. dollar. That event is important to the shorter-term timing of the pending hyperinflation.

Defining the Components of a Hyperinflationary Great Depression

Deflation, Inflation and Hyperinflation. Inflation generally is defined in terms of a rise in general prices due to an increase in the amount of money in circulation. The inflation/deflation issues defined and discussed here are as applied to goods and services, not to the pricing of financial assets.

In terms of hyperinflation, there have been a variety of definitions used over time. The circumstance envisioned ahead is not one of double- or triple- digit annual inflation, but more along the lines of seven- to 10-digit inflation seen in other circumstances during the last century. Under such circumstances, the currency in question becomes worthless, as seen in Germany (Weimar Republic) in the early 1920s, in Hungary after World War II and in the dismembered Yugoslavia of the early 1990s.

The historical culprit generally has been the use of fiat currencies — currencies with no asset backing such as gold — and the resulting massive printing of currency that the issuing authority needed to support its system, when it did not have the ability, otherwise, to raise enough money for its perceived needs, through taxes or other means.

Foster details the history of fiat paper currencies from 11th century Szechwan, China, to date, and their consistent collapses, time-after-time, due to what appears to be the inevitable, irresistible urge of issuing authorities to print too much of a good thing. The United States is no exception, already having obligated itself to liabilities well beyond its ability ever to pay off.

Here are the definitions:

Deflation. A decrease in the prices of goods and services, usually tied to a contraction of money in circulation.

Inflation. An increase in the prices of goods and services, usually tied to an increase of money in circulation.

Hyperinflation: Extreme inflation, minimally in excess of four-digit annual percent change, where the involved currency becomes worthless. A fairly crude definition of hyperinflation is a circumstance, where, due to extremely rapid price increases, the largest pre-hyperinflation bank note ($100 bill in the United States) becomes worth more as functional toilet paper/tissue than as currency.

If you look at the plot of the level of economic activity during a downturn, you will see something that looks like a bowl, with activity recessing on the downside and recovering on the upside. The term used to describe this bowl-shaped circumstance before World War II was “depression,” while the downside portion of the cycle was called “recession.” Before World War II, all downturns simply were referred to as depressions. In the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s, however, a euphemism was sought for future economic contractions so as to avoid evoking memories of that earlier, financially painful time.

Accordingly, a post-World War II downturn was called “recession.” Officially, the worst post-World War II recession was from November 1973 through March 1975, with a peak-to-trough contraction of 5%. Such followed the Vietnam War, Nixon’s floating of the U.S. dollar and the Oil Embargo. The double-dip recession in the early-1980s may have seen a combined contraction of roughly 6%. I contend that the current double-dip recession that began in late-2000 already is rivaling the 1980s double-dip as to depth. (See the Reporting/Market Focus of the October 2006 SGS for further detail.) Please note that the definition for “great depression” below has been revised to a contraction in excess of 25% (from 20% stated in the March 16, 2008 newsletter), in order to be consistent with the usage in last year’s Series.

Here are the definitions:

Recession:Two or more consecutive quarters of contracting real (inflation-adjusted) GDP, where the downturn is not triggered by an exogenous factor such as a truckers’ strike. The NBER, which is the official arbiter of when the United States economy is in recession, attempts to refine its timing calls, on a monthly basis, through the use of economic series such as payroll employment and industrial production, and it no longer relies on the two quarters of contracting GDP rule.

Depression:A recession, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 10%.

Great Depression:A depression, where the peak-to-trough contraction in real growth exceeds 25%.

On the basis of the preceding, there has been the one Great Depression, in the 1930s. Most of the economic contractions before that would be classified as depressions. All business downturns since World War II — as officially reported — have been recessions. Using the somewhat broader “great depression” definition of a contraction in excess of 20% (instead of 25%), the depression of 1837 to 1843 would be considered “great,” as technically would be the war-time production shut-down in 1945.

The current economic contraction is about halfway towards being classified as a “depression,” based on my definitions and GDP accounting. As the Great War became World War I with the advent of World War II, so too may the Great Depression become Great Depression I, as the current crisis reaches its full, terrible potential. As with the two world wars, what may become known as Great Depression II had its roots in Great Depression I.

Current Environment

Before examining how the current circumstance can evolve from an inflationary recession to a hyperinflationary depression and then great depression, it is worth defining the nature of the current economic and inflation conditions in the United States, and likely near-term developments.

Based on the regular material discussed in the SGS Newsletter, the U.S. economy is in an inflationary recession as will be reported in official statistics. Real (inflation-adjusted) fourth-quarter 2007 GDP, in July’s benchmark revision, and/or first-quarter 2008 GDP should be in contraction, with most underlying economic series showing distressed levels of activity consistent with a recession. Annual CPI inflation is at 4.0% and headed higher. Oil prices remain over $100 per barrel, weakness in the dollar is just beginning to impact the CPI, and the inflationary effects of soaring broad money growth should start to surface around mid-year. Official CPI could be running in double-digits by year-end 2008.

Net of gimmicked methodologies that have reduced CPI inflation reporting and inflated GDP reporting, the U.S. economy has been in a recession since late-2006, entering the second down-leg of a multiple-dip economic contraction, where the first downleg was the recession of 2001 that really began back in late-1999. Annual CPI inflation currently is running around 11.6%, again, facing further upside pressures.

The current outlook does not exclude further bounces and dips in economic activity. As was seen during the Great Depression, in severe contractions the economy can hit bottom and then bounce briefly until it falls again, finding a new bottom. As discussed in the Depression/Great Depression section, the current economic downturn reflects a structural shift, which increasingly has constrained consumer activity during the last several decades, and which cannot be turned quickly. The current downturn, by my numbers, already is halfway to qualifying as a depression. The evolving depression quickly will move to great depression status, when the hyperinflation hits, as such will be extremely disruptive to the conduct of normal commerce.

The efforts by the federal government and the Federal Reserve to prevent a systemic collapse as a result of the banking solvency crisis has started to spike broad money growth, as measured by the SGS-Ongoing M3 measure, which currently shows a record annual growth rate of 17.3%. While the Fed has not been formally creating new money — yet — by adding to reserves, it has had the effect of creating new money by re-liquefying otherwise illiquid banks, by lending liquid assets versus illiquid assets. As a result, a number of banks have been able to resume more normal functioning, lending money and creating new money supply. As the systemic bailout proceeds, formal money creation will follow and already may be starting to show up in official accounting.

In response to the rapidly deteriorating fundamentals underlying the value of the U.S. dollar, selling of the greenback has been intense, but contained, with brief periods of stability as seen at the moment. In the near future, dollar selling should build towards an extreme, with heavy foreign investment in the dollar fleeing the U.S. currency for safety elsewhere. With the domestic financial markets and U.S. Treasuries so heavily dependent on foreign capital for liquidity, the Federal Reserve — now touted as the formal financial market stabilizer — will be forced increasingly to monetize federal debt. That process will build over time, given the federal government’s effective bankruptcy, as discussed in the section U.S. Government Cannot Cover Existing Obligations. Therein lies the ultimate basis for the pending hyperinflation.

Again, the current circumstance will evolve into a hyperinflationary depression, then great depression. Although such is not likely much before 2010, or after 2018, that financial end game for the current markets will tend to come sooner rather than later and will break with surprising speed when it hits. As discussed later, this likely will not be a deflationary environment as seen during the Great Depression.

What lies ahead for the current year will be severe enough and financially painful enough to affect the outcome of the 2008 presidential election. Historically, the concerns of the electorate have been dominated by pocketbook issues. Prior to gimmicked methodologies making the reporting of disposable personal income largely meaningless, that measure was an excellent predictor of presidential elections.

In every presidential race since 1908, in which consistent, real (inflation-adjusted) annual disposable income growth was above 3.3%, the incumbent party holding the White House won every time. When income growth was below 3.3%, the incumbent party lost every time. Again, with redefinitions to the national income accounts in the last two decades, a consistent measure of disposable income as reported by the government has disappeared. Yet, even with official reporting, the current annual growth in real disposable income is at 2.2%, well below the traditional 3.3% limit.

Accordingly, odds are quite high that the numbers for 2008 will favor an incumbent party loss, i.e. a victory for the Democrats. Where I always endeavor to keep my political persuasions separate from my analyses, for purposes of full disclosure, my background is as a conservative Republican with a libertarian bent.

What follows or coincides politically with a hyperinflationary depression offers a wide variety of possibilities, but the political status quo likely would not continue. Times would be financially painful enough to encourage the development of a third party that could move the Republicans or Democrats to third-party status in the 2010 mid-term or 2012 presidential elections.

Historical U.S. Inflation: Why Hyperinflation Instead of Deflation

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

– Robert Frost

As to the fate of the developing U.S. great depression, it will encompass the fire of a hyperinflation, instead of the ice of deflation seen in the major U.S. depressions prior to World War II. What promises hyperinflation this time is the lack monetary discipline formerly imposed on the system by the gold standard, and a Federal Reserve dedicated to preventing a collapse in the money supply and the implosion of the still, extremely over-leveraged domestic financial system.

The price levels shown prior to 1913 were constructed by Robert Sahr of Oregon State University. Price levels since 1913 either are Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) or SGS based, as indicated.

The magnitude of the increase in price levels in the last 50 years or so, however, visually masks in the first graph the inflation volatility of the earlier years. That volatility becomes evident in the second graph, with inflation history shown only through 1960.

that up through the Great Depression, regular periods of inflation — usually seen around wars — have been offset by periods of deflation. Particular inflation spikes can be seen at the time of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I and World War II.

The inflation peaks and the ensuing post-war depressions and deflationary periods tied to the War of 1812, the Civil War and World War I show close to 60-year cycles, which is part of the reason some economists and analysts have been expecting a deflationary depression in the current period. There is some reason behind 30- and 60-year financial and business cycles, as the average difference in generations in the U.S. is 30 years, going back to the 1600s. Accordingly, it seems to take two generations to forget and repeat the mistakes of one’s grandparents. Similar reasoning accounts for other cycles that tend to run in multiples of 30 years.

Aside from minor average annual price level declines in 1944 and 1955, the United States has not seen a deflationary period in consumer prices since before World War II. The reason for this is the same as to why there has not been a formal depression since before World War II: the abandonment of the gold standard and recognition by the Federal Reserve of the impact of monetary policy — free of gold-standard system restraints — on the economy.

The gold standard was a system that automatically imposed and maintained monetary discipline. Excesses in one period would be followed by a flight of gold from the system and a resulting contraction in the money supply, economic activity and prices.

Faced with the Great Depression, and unable to stimulate the economy, partially due to the monetary discipline imposed by the gold standard, Franklin Roosevelt used those issues as an excuse to abandon gold and to adopt close to a fully fiat currency under the auspices of what I call the debt standard, where the government effectively could print and spend whatever money it wanted to.

Roosevelt’s actions were against the backdrop of the banking system being in a state of collapse. The Fed stood by twiddling its thumbs as banks failed and the money supply imploded. A depression collapsed into the Great Depression, with intensified price deflation. Importantly, a sharp decline in broad money supply is a prerequisite to goods and services price deflation. Messrs Greenspan and Bernanke are students of the Great Depression period. As did Mr. Greenspan before him, “Helicopter Ben” has vowed not to allow a repeat of the 1930s money supply collapse.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke picked up his various helicopter nicknames and references as the result of a November 21, 2002 speech he gave as a Fed Governor to the National Economists Club entitled “Deflation: Making Sure ‘It’ Doesn’t Happen Here.” The phrase that the now-Fed Chairman Bernanke likely wishes he had not used was a reference to “Milton Friedman’s famous ‘helicopter drop’ of money.”

Attempting to counter concerns of another Great Depression-style deflation, Bernanke explained in his remarks: “I am confident that the Fed would take whatever means necessary to prevent significant deflation in the United States …” As a quick point of clarification, Mr. Bernanke’s actions to address the current banking system’s solvency issues are still in the preventative phase. The money supply is not in collapse, and the Fed has not started dropping cash from helicopters, yet, but the choppers are in the air and remain at the ready.

As expounded upon by Mr. Bernanke, “Indeed, under a fiat (that is, paper) money system, a government (in practice, the central bank in cooperation with other agencies) should always be able to generate increased nominal spending and inflation, even when the short-term nominal interest rate is at zero.”

“Like gold, U.S. dollars have value only to the extent that they are strictly limited in supply. But the U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press (or, today, its electronic equivalent), that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. By increasing the number of U.S. dollars in circulation, or even by credibly threatening to do so, the U.S. government can also reduce the value of a dollar in terms of goods and services, which is equivalent to raising the prices in dollars of those goods and services. We conclude that, under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending and hence positive inflation.” The full text of then-Fed Governor Bernanke’s remarks can be found at: http://federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/speeches/2002/20021121/default.htm.

Where Franklin Roosevelt abandoned the gold standard and its financial discipline for the debt standard, eleven successive administrations have pushed the debt standard to the limits of its viability, as seen now in the ongoing threat of possible systemic collapse. The effect of these policies has been a slow-motion destruction of the U.S. dollar’s purchasing power, as seen in the accompanying table, since the gold standard was abandoned in 1933.

Loss of U.S. Dollar Purchasing Power through March 2008
—-Since January of —-
Versus: 1914 1933 1970
Swiss franc -80.4% -80.4% -76.5%
CPI-U -95.1% -94.0% -82.3%
Gold -97.9% -97.9% -93.4%
SGS-Alternate CPI -98.2% -97.8% -93.6%
Note: Gold and Swiss franc values were held constant
by the gold standard versus coins in 1914 and 1933.
Sources: Shadow Government Statistics, Federal Reserve,

The limits to the unlimited abuse of the debt standard are particularly evident in the GAAP-based financial statements of the U.S. government, which show the actual federal deficit at $4.0-plus trillion for 2007, alone, with total federal obligations standing at $62.6 trillion. With no ability to honor these obligations, the government effectively is bankrupt.

At such debt levels, the markets soon will recoil from lending Uncle Sam whatever he needs. Major buyers of U.S. Treasuries from outside the United States, including a number of central banks, already are balking. These investors have funded nearly all net U.S. Treasury debt issuance of the last five years, putting to use the excess dollars flushed into the global markets by the United States’ excessive and ever-expanding trade deficit. This practice, however, generated liquidity for the U.S. markets that has helped to depress long-term Treasury yields as well as to boost equity prices, in general.

Although the U.S, government faces ultimate insolvency, it has the same way out taken by most countries faced with bankruptcy. It can print whatever money it needs to create, in order to meet its obligations. The effect of such action is a runaway inflation — a hyperinflation — with a resulting, effective full debasement of the U.S. dollar, the world’s reserve currency. The magnitude of the loss of the U.S. dollar’s purchasing power in the last 75 years now has the potential of being replicated within a few days or weeks.

In the present environment, the chances for the collapse in money supply needed to generate a consumer price deflation are nil. First, the discipline of the gold standard that helped trigger historical deflations is gone. Second, both from the standpoint of the government’s fiscal irresponsibility and from the Fed’s standpoint of providing the financial system with whatever liquidity is needed to keep it afloat, the U.S. central bank already is pushing broad money growth to new extremes, not containing it.

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Oil

May 22, 2008 at 11:30 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

“There’s a few hedge fund managers out there who are masters at knowing how to exploit the peak [oil] theories and hot buttons of supply and demand and by making bold predictions of shocking price advancements to come, they only add more fuel to the bullish fire in a sort of self fulfilling prophecy.” — National Gas Week, Sept. 5, 2005 as reprinted in the US Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations’ report, “The Role of Market Speculation in Rising Oil and Gas Prices,” June 27, 2006

Fiddling While We Burn

There it is in plain sight for everyone to see, exactly what I’ve been reporting for the past few years: Many individuals who are investing in oil and natural gas futures are going out in the media and trying to convince the American public that either we are out of oil or there is a serious supply shortage of crude against worldwide demand. The question is: Does it surprise you to discover that the US Senate investigated the rigging of the oil market by speculators in the summer of 2006 – and concluded that there was no supply and demand problem with oil? Did you know that their conclusion was that speculators were responsible for a 70 percent overcharge in the price of oil in the months leading up to the summer of 2006?

This from page 1 of the Executive Summary of that Senate investigation, there is this one troubling line: “Today, U.S. oil inventories are at an eight-year high, and OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) oil inventories are at a 20-year high.”

That’s odd because, in 2006, just like today, the media reporting covered the serious international shortage of oil and justified oil’s high price. Even more troubling is that the House of Representatives held a hearing this past December, ominously titled “Energy Speculation and Price Manipulation.” How did it pass under the radar that both the Senate and the House studied the issue of price manipulation in our energy markets and both concluded that it was unregulated, massive trading in one futures market that was really driving up the price of oil and natural gas? And given that conclusion, why has Congress done nothing about it?

Investors Make the News, Literally

A week ago Goldman Sachs issued a new investor note, suggesting that somewhere between six months to two years, the price of oil could go into a “super spike” and prices jump as high as $200 per barrel. It became the major story of the night. Ignored in the reporting frenzy was that many legitimate and well-respected oil analysts dismissed Goldman Sachs’ prediction as groundless.

Get ready for the next shock to your system. In the past month we have added 11.9 million barrels of oil into our stock reserves, giving us 32.3 million more barrels of oil than we had on hand January 1. On May 5, we found out that for the second time in as many years, Iran was storing its excess crude oil on tankers in the Persian Gulf, because it had run out of storage space in the desert and was awaiting buyers for its heavy crude. That same day Saudi Arabia cut the discount price for its Arabian Heavy crude to $7.45, hoping to entice more buyers for immediate delivery. We didn’t hear that news, either.

While researching my third article for BusinessWeek online about the world’s oil situation in 2008, I asked for the most current report from Oil Movements. Because the oil industry is not transparent, Oil Movements tracks every tanker at sea, from both OPEC and non-OPEC oil countries, along with their cargoes’ final destinations. Anne O’Shea responded immediately to my request with their report dated May 8, 2008. Just so you will know, oil shipments are up from a year ago in almost every class, including Middle East oil in transit and Non-OPEC in Transit. The only class of oil shipment that has declined is covered on page 3 of that report. That chart is labeled, “4-Week Changes in Westbound Oil at Sea.”

That’s right, shipments of oil headed west have shown serious declines during the month of April, down 800,000 barrels per day in the week before the publication of the report. Now, let me give you the first line from under the Westbound Oil shipments chart: “In the west, a big share of any [oil] stock building done this year has happened offshore, out of sight.”

Could this be true? Oil Movements, the unimpeachable source for finding the real world situation on oil transits, is saying that oil is being hidden offshore, not declared in inventories? Yes, that is exactly what they are saying.

That same week our refineries cut their production runs back to 85 percent, down from 89 percent a year ago, to trim more gasoline out of our stock reserves, to increase their profits per gallon.

National Short-Term Memory Loss

It’s amazing how quickly we forget our recent history. Congressional hearings in 2001, blasting certain Wall Street executives for using the media to sell the public on stocks in order to bid up the price – so their firm could divest of its shares without taking a beating. Meanwhile, other trusted advisors pushed stocks that were fundamentally worthless, because their affiliated banks had large loan agreements with those companies.

The year before Enron had been caught manipulating the California energy market, even forcing rolling blackouts across the northern part of their state apparently just for effect – to support their claim that there just wasn’t enough electricity to go around. Again, we now know that claim was untrue. It was Enron shutting down certain power generation plants, while placing bets on their unregulated energy futures market. The net cost to California consumers was almost $8 billion.

It didn’t end there. Amaranth Advisors, a hedge fund, literally was cornering the market on natural gas futures, to make it appear that there was a shortage of natural gas, when the Commodities Futures Trading Commission told Amaranth to liquidate its position on the NYMEX because its bidding had already moved natural gas prices far beyond the reasonable limits of supply and demand. Now, remember this name: ICE, short for Intercontinental Exchange – the “dark futures lookalike market.”

Once the CFTC told it to back off its natural gas futures contracts, Amaranth simply shifted gears, got out of the NYMEX, placed its massive bets outside of government regulation in ICE and managed to drive natural gas futures to $8.50 per MBtu.

As the Senate investigation into the manipulation of the energy markets showed, “Amaranth – the day before they failed, natural gas was about $8.50; the day after it failed, it went to $4.46 MBtu.” That’s right, one major hedge fund managed to double the price of natural gas simply by loading up on futures contracts; when the government told them their bets were unwarranted, they simply moved their monies to a futures exchange that was unregulated. Only when Amaranth failed did natural gas prices fall back to what was considered normal for supply and demand.

Sadly, like oil today, when this was happening we were being told that natural gas supplies were tight worldwide. That statement simply wasn’t true.

Dark Future

Likewise, British Petroleum was busted for manipulating the propane market in the winter of 2004 and fined $373 million. Of course, in Texas, under deregulation of our public utilities, our electric rates can be set using the futures market for natural gas, so the manipulation of the natural gas market spelled trouble for us. Consider this, by 2006, according to http://www.powertochoose.org, electricity rates for us had climbed to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour due to the high cost of natural gas. But, that was the exact same time period that Amaranth was proven to be manipulating the market and sending natural gas futures through the roof. Two months later the hedge fund collapsed and natural gas prices fell. Therefore, most Texans paid higher electric bills for Amaranth’s manipulation of the natural gas market.

Professor Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland, a former board member of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, testified in front of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on December 14 of last year. Under discussion that day was the manipulation of the energy markets and prices, but Professor Greenberger added these comments: “Three, four months from now, you’re going to have a hearing on the subprime meltdown, and you’re going to find that the very same legislation [deregulating energy] deregulated something called collateralized debt obligations, CDOs.” That legislation, friends, directly ties the mortgage meltdown to the high price of energy today.

It was called H.R. 5660, the Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000. At first this bill went nowhere in the House, not even up for debate. Then, a few months later, late one night a 242-page bill written by Wall Street lawyers, with the exact same name as the former House bill, was quietly added to an 11,000-page appropriations bill, and the Enron loophole was created. The power behind that bill was one Texas Senator, one Texas Congressman and their wives.

Austrian Business Cycle Theory

May 2, 2008 at 4:04 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Austrian Business Cycle Theory was developed by the economist Ludwig von Mises to explain the phenomenon of business cycles. It provides crucial insight for understanding the cause of cyclical boom/bust cycles and their connection the government’s manipulation of the economy. To understand the Austrian Business Cycle Theory, an analogy is helpful:

Imagine an economy with just one actor: Robinson Crusoe on an island. Crusoe loves fish, so he spends half of each day fishing so he can enjoy fish in the evenings. Additionally, Crusoe spends Friday mornings maintaining his fishing dinghy and nets. In order to have fish on Friday, he must fish for an extra hour every other day of the week. In economic terms, Crusoe has a savings rate of one hour per day, or 22.5%. His savings rate is also his investment rate, or the percentage of present income he sets aside to maintain or increase future consumption.

Crusoe doesn’t have a fridge, so he preserves his catch by throwing it in a small, dark pond. He can’t see how many fish are in the pond, so he keeps a stack of small rocks near it. Every time he adds a fish, he adds a rock, and every time he eats one, he removes one. The rocks are his money supply.

Suppose that Crusoe shares the island with some mischievous monkeys, who see Crusoe adding rocks to his pile. They decide to imitate him, so every time Crusoe ads a rock, they sneak in and add one as well. The monkeys are inflating the money supply by injecting currency into Crusoe’s investment fund.

One day, Crusoe suddenly notices that his “savings rate” of fish is double the usual. He decides to compensate by eating some of the fish he catches during the “savings hour.” This is the consumption-side of the boom phase of the business cycle. Crusoe also decides to take some extra time each day to start building himself a new hut. This is the investment-side of the boom phase of the business cycle.

Crusoe now believes that the cost of saving fish is half the usual, while in fact his savings rate is too low for the investments he is planning.

Before long, Friday comes around. When it comes time to eat his midday meal, Crusoe suddenly realizes that he’s out of fish – despite having a surplus of rocks. He’s exhausted his investment capital because the additional currency snuck into his money supply did not represent a real increase in his productivity or savings rate. He doesn’t have the capital (fish) to maintain his previous consumption rate, much less increase it. He is forced to cut his investment rate (he must spend some of his Friday fishing) just to have some fish for Friday’s dinner. He must also abandon his incomplete hut because he does not have the time to finish it. The abandoned hut is an extravagant expenditure that represents a loss of capital. This is the bust phase of the business cycle.

To review, here’s the overall impact of the monkey’s trickery: Sunday-Friday, Crusoe catches the same number of fish, but consumes more, and therefore saves less. That’s the boom period. Friday, Crusoe consumes less fish, and spends less time for maintaining his nets (capital). Some of his investment/consumption time must now be spent in production. That’s the bust period. If Crusoe’s initial savings rate allows him to just break even each week, his nets will gradually get worse and worse and he will eventually go hungry.

Notes

  1. Crusoe prefers to enjoy his fish sooner rather than later, but he is willing to put aside some of his catch to get more fish later. The discount he gives to eating a fish Friday is his time preference, or his originary interest rate. (To that, he adds the risk that the fish will spoil by Friday to get the market or “real” interest rate.)
  2. As long as the monkeys keep contributing one stone for every fish, Crusoe can account for their trickery. But if the monkeys are unpredictable, it will be impossible for Crusoe to set the proper savings rate.In the real world, the originary interest rate reflects the average time preference of all savers. If someone starts monkeying around with the interest rates, it becomes impossible for investors (or the monkeys at the Fed) to know what the real rate of savings is even if they know that the rate is being manipulated.
  3. That abandoned hut represents investments which exceed the ability of the actual savings rate to complete. The resources it takes to build compete with worthwhile investments (such as repairing the fishing nets) by raising the prices for all capital. Ridiculous business models and sky-high salaries during the dot-com boom, as well as over-extended sub-prime mortgages likewise compete with legitimate business models, salaries, and mortgages. Manipulating the money supply makes it difficult to distinguish bad investments from good ones, so no one can escape the inevitable crunch.
  4. That is, zero net profit, an equilibrium rate of savings, or “the evenly rotating economy” in Mises’ terminology.
  5. Suppose Crusoe decides to ignore his hunger and work on his nets all Friday. In other words, he trades current production (and therefore consumption) for higher future consumption (that is, economic growth). If he does so voluntarily, there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s nothing inherently more desirable or efficient in spending some of one’s time starving just to increase future production (that is, in valuing economic growth over present consumption.) Note that the longer Crusoe delays the shift back to production, the more severe the miss-allocation of resources (and his hunger) becomes. The monkey’s trickery does not actually make Crusoe to become a better saver – he is more likely to start saving less because of uncertainty over the future.

Bangs Canyon Luna

May 2, 2008 at 4:01 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment



Bangs Canyon Luna

Originally uploaded by Fantastic Media Labs

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