Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dylan Grice on money printing, inflation, and $10,000 gold

Via ZeroHedge:

So let me explain why I believe printing money to be a fundamentally dishonest endeavour. Think about how it works. When the central bank, at zero cost, increases the monetary base by 1%, where does that money go? Answer: into the market for government bonds. Since printing the money to buy government bonds costs nothing, government revenues are obtained ostensibly for free. Of course, it buys those bonds in the secondary market rather than from the government directly, and the pretense of an arm’s length transaction between government and central bank is thus maintained, with all parties claiming a separation of monetary and fiscal policy. But it’s only a pretense.

By issuing bonds to itself the government seems to have miraculously raised revenue without burdening anyone else. This is probably why the mechanism is universally adopted throughout the world’s financial system. Yet free money does not, and cannot, exist. Since there can be no such thing as a government, or anyone else for that matter, raising revenue "at no cost" simple logic tells us that someone, somewhere has to pay.

But who? This is where the subtle dishonesty resides, because the answer is that no-one knows. If the money printing creates inflation in the product market, the consumers in that product market will pay. If the money printing creates inflation in asset markets, the purchaser of the more elevated asset price pays. Of course, if the printed money ends up in asset markets even less is known about who ultimately pays for the government’s ‘free lunch’, because in this case the money printing sets off its own dynamic via the perpetual Ponzi machine that is the global financial system. The ‘free lunch’ providers will be the late entrants into whatever asset-bubble or investment fad the money printing inflates.

The point is we can’t know who will pay, only that someone will pay. Thus the government has raised revenues without even knowing upon whom the burden falls, let alone telling them. Compare this to raising explicit ‘honest’ taxes, which are at least transparent. We know who levied the sales tax or the income tax, when it was levied, when it is payable, and how much has to be paid. The burden of this money printing, in contrast, seeps silently into the economy, falling indiscriminately but indubitably on unseen, unknowing victims.

The economic hardships this clandestine tax operation imposes are real and keenly felt. But because no one knows from where it comes the enemy is unseen. Thus, during great inflations, societies turn on themselves with each faction blaming another for its malaise: the third century inflation crisis in ancient Rome coincided with Diocletian’s infamous persecution of the Christians; the medieval European debasements coincided with surging witchcraft trials; the extreme Central European hyperinflations following WW1 saw whole societies blaming their Jewish communities. More recently, the aftermath of the historically modest asset inflations in the tech market and the US real estate market have seen society turn on "fat-cat CEOs" and "greedy bankers" respectively.

By now, some of you might feel this all to be irrelevant. Surely, you might be thinking, the plain fact is that there is no inflation. I disagree. To see why, think about what inflation is in the light of the above thinking. I know economists define it as changes in the price of a basket of consumer goods, the CPI. But why should that be the definitive measure, given that it’s only one of the many possible destinations in money’s Brownian journey from the printing presses? Why ignore other destinations, such as asset markets? Isn’t asset price inflation (or bubbles as they are more commonly known) more distortionary and economically inefficient than product price inflation?


By now, the more polite economists among those still reading may be thinking something like: “What utter drivel you are full of Grice! When there is a recession/depression on and the pressure faced by an economy is deflation, which can become self-fulfilling, the only correct thing to do is to create inflation to protect jobs.”

To this I would reply that every right thinking person wants to see job creation. Those advocating the creation of inflation, or fiscal stimulus are doing so because that’s what the system of logic known as ‘theoretical macroeconomics’ teaches. Yet this system of logic with its deeply flawed epistemological foundations is what brought us here in the first place! The macroeconomic body of knowledge represents no such thing – a cacophony of faiths would be more accurate. The instruments and gauges it recommends policy makers rely on – CPI, trend growth, output gaps, NAIRUs, budget deficits, debt/GDP – are subject to such wide conceptual ambiguity, not to mention estimation error, as to render them utterly meaningless. The fact is the captains of our ship have no reliable gauges. They have no understanding of what a yank of this lever, or a push on that button will ultimately achieve. They just think they do. Intoxicated by trumped up notions of what they know and understand, the drunk driving of macroeconomists is what led us to where we are today.

Of course, this begs the question of why we continue to listen to them. I believe it’s for the same reason that Quintus Cicero thought his famous brother was such a successful politician two millennia ago: people prefer a false promise to a flat refusal.

Believe it or not, for all this talk of honesty and dishonesty I’m not actually passing any judgment on the ethics of this state of affairs. The simple fact is that as a species we’re liars. One of the most famous recent experiments was carried out by Robert Feldman who recorded students talking to strangers for ten minutes, and then asked the students to watch the recordings again, making notes of the number of lies they told. Fully 60% owned up to lying at least once, with an average of 2.9 lies (to be precise) told per person. As a species, our capacity for conceptual thought makes us better at it than other animals, but other animals do it too. When a Kildeer’s nest is threatened, it feigns a broken wing to lure its predator away. There are firm evolutionary foundations for the tendency towards untruth. However, societies work on trust too, and there are equally firm evolutionary foundations for honesty. I know honest economists, honest investors, honest journalists, even … deep breath … honest bankers. Indeed, there is a demand for honesty. There is a demand for honest brokers, fund managers, lawyers, dentists, doctors, plumbers etc. And there is a demand for honest currency.

That demand has overwhelmed the Swiss. But their actions merely narrow the universe of honest destinations for flight capital with which gold has historically competed. For gold has no export sector, no pop-economists to be swayed by, and no populists to pander to. Gold might be a mere lump of dense, useless shiny metal, but it’s one which crackpot central bankers can’t print. Indeed, benchmarked against the printing of The Ben Bernak, the price of gold at which the US dollar would be fully gold-backed is now $10,000. You might think such a ‘price target’ is far-fetched (and I might agree with you). But bear in mind that the last time honesty was perceived to be so scarce – in the 1970s gold mania – the dollar was over-backed by gold (see chart below). If it happened then, why not again?