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Henry Thornton - Contributors: A discussion of economic, social and political issues Blogs
The age of restraint
Date: Friday, December 05, 2008
Author: Henry Thornton

We may come to call this the age of restraint.


Retailers are going broke, boomtime financiers are in deep trouble, car sales and housing approvals are plummeting, manufacturing activity is plunging, business investment intentions are cooling.


All of these comments apply to Australia, previously described (perhaps with deep irony) as 'the miracle economy' or 'the nirvana economy'.


They apply with even greater force to most other economies.


The euphoria of last week in equity markets is long gone, and the correction of asset values goes on despite massive interest rate cuts and promised fiscal expansion.


From the USA comes the latest gloomy bulletin: 'General Motors acted as a hefty drag on the Dow Jones Industrial Average, falling US79 cents, or 16 per cent, to 4.11 after the company's chief executive told lawmakers that sales of GM vehicles have already begun to dip because of speculation that the company is on the verge of bankruptcy.


'The Senate hearing appeared to leave plenty of doubt about whether the auto maker will get the government loans it seeks to avoid collapsing in coming weeks. Ford, which says it doesn't need immediate aid, lost US19c, or 6.7 per cent, to $US2.66.


'Overall, the Dow lost 215.45, or 2.51 per cent, to 8376.24. The broad S&P 500 index fell 25.52 points, or 2.93 per cent, to 845.22. The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite declined 46.82 points, or 3.14 per cent, to 1445.56.


And in global commodity markets: 'Oil prices tumbled 6.7 per cent to settle below $US44 a barrel, hitting their lowest point since January 2005, as traders ratcheted up their bets that fuel usage will suffer a steep pullback in the months ahead'.


The Economist explains why the plunging price of oil may not be all good news.


'The price of oil would ideally reflect not only its demand and supply but take into account the damage that its use inflicts on the environment. But when oil is cheap, the hard decisions about investing in alternatives, inventing more energy-efficient plants and machinery, or changing consumer behaviour, all of which would help the world can wean itself off oil, become that much easier to postpone'.


Meanwhile, in the land of Oz, the Rudd government reportedly is going soft on its much heralded emissions trading scheme.


Clearly hard times call for a softer approach, but if climate change is the catastrophe we are led to believe, just maybe we should be tightening belts another notch and getting on with saving the planet.


Henry ventures the judgment that the only way to do this is to change the habits of a century and think 'restraint' rather than consumerism and over-stimulated growth.


We have become used to buying houses with no equity ('subprime borrowing'), buying expensive consumer goods with credit cards or with greatly delayed payment and generally expecting instant or even premature rather than delayed gratification.


Henry recalls companies he has tried to help setting growth targets of 20 %, even in mature industries where growing at the economy average of, say, 5 to 8 % might be considered heroic.


Maybe the massive cuts in equity values are reflecting sober realisation that the world has changed and it will be sensible restraint rather than unsustainable expansionism that will be valued in the twenty-first century.


There is a more general reason to consider the benefits of restraint.


What if massive interest rate cuts and fiscal expansion turn out to be like 'pushing on a string'?


This is clearly possible if businesses and consumers decide to save any windfalls and/or to pay off debt rather than resume the spending habits of a lifetime.


People might just read the unusual actions of central banks and governments as indicating panic, and this might lead them to tighten belts even more than if policy was not so obviously trying to restore business as usual.


In the immediate aftermath of the current crisis, this seems to be many people's plan.  Whether the philosophy of restraint survives the recovery that will come, whether or not it is actually helped by current policy actions, is the big question.


We may be living through one of the global culture's great turning points.




Henry in Russia - never to be the same
Date: Friday, June 13, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

St Petersburg is a place Mrs Thornton has long wished to visit. Naturally this led eventually to the idea of Henry and his sweet lady flying to the former Russian capital city, captured by Peter the Great from Sweden, a once serious player in Northern Europe's wars and in European politics generally.


As usual, Henry feels constrained to provide reports for his faithful readers, who no doubt are missing the usual trenchent commentary on matters economic and political. And travel broadens the mind, so it is to be hoped that Henry returns to Australia - that miracle economy - freshly reinvigorated andwith a mind broadened if not deepened.


Time will tell but, in the meantime, here is an index of Henry's reports from St Petersburg.  It will be updated each time a new report is posted, with the latest on top so no-one can feel she is being tricked into reading any report twice.


(If coming new to this e-journal, consider starting from the bottom and moving up.)


Military might and reflections on departing.


Is the Russian Empire experiencing a slow, ultimately false, sunset or is it toward the end of  a long decline that is destined to turn Russia into a poor, undeveloped nation whose great days are steadily fading further into history? That question is beyond my current pay grade, gentle readers but, as previously noted, there is a lot of room for improvement in matters economic.


We leave Morther Russia with great memories, but with this question seriously on our minds. Very likely, we shall not pass this way again


The Hermitage


The Hermitage will blow you mind, and even the digital tour may cause you to buy a ticket to St Petersburg


Gilded palaces, forests and public transport.


Henry masters (!) St Petersburg's public transport and visits more gilded palaces and their grounds.


White nights in St Petersburgh - Peterhof


Henry makes only his second visit to Russia. In 1973, he briefly visited Tashkent, on route to the socialist finishing school known as the London School of Economics. Sadly for the socialist cause, almost all the teachers at the LSE proclaimed the power of capitalism. Much to Henry's father's delight, Henry returned with a totally different outlook on life.


US jobs data boosts share prices - que?
Date: Monday, June 09, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Finally, after six long years, US jobs have surpassed the previous peak in January 2006. In previous post-war recessions, the previous peak has been exceeded in just a few years, often only one or two years.  The latest result came after four months of over 200 K new jobs created in a row, the best result for 14 years.The rate of unemployment held steady at 6.2 %.  The US share market hit a new record.


There is a catch, of course. During the Great Recession, as the post-GFC downturn has been labelled, a lot of American workers dropped out of the workforce, and the data suggests that many will not be back.  This is the outcome in many countries, and suggests that future economic capacity will be limited compared with pre-GFC estimates. This is an issue that has been discussed by Gavyn Davies of FT fame, in an article just posted,


Davies says that central bankers, especially in the USA and UK, strongly believe that the damage of the GFC can be repaired, in the sense that pre-GFC trendlines for GDP can eventually be recovered. After all, 'none of the growth fundamentals in the system – the state of technological knowledge, the available labour force, and the amount of fixed investment that is profitable to deploy – has been permanently destroyed by the Great Recession', although the loss of skilled and experienced workers might take a long time to replace.


'A more pessimistic view is that the Great Recession has resulted in a permanent (or at least very long lasting) loss of economic capacity, in which case it would be inflationary to attempt to re-attain previous trendlines. On this view, the global economy has now locked on to a different path, with its effective capacity being much lower than previous trends might imply. The latest estimates of capacity published by the IMF and OECD, who should be able to do this sort of work better than most, clearly imply this'.


A reason, apart from loss of skilled labor, is the debt overhang that helps to explain the very slow recovery of US jobs already noted. Japan is the example that people who worry about debt fuelled economic bubbles point to, perhaps an extreme example due to the size if its asset bust and the extreme aging of its declining population.


The Economist, like the FT another venerable newspaper, has a proud record of warning that the debt-driven  market bubble of the 1990s, which crashed and was revived twice by near zero interest rates, would eventually create serious economic mayhem. Henry is with the pessimists on this issue, and has asked his asset management to begin reducing his risk profile.


Despite the causes for caution - possible permanant loss of economic capacity, new share price records and the clear challenge of returning US monetary policy to a sensible neutral position - Wall Street's “fear gauge” has fallen to a seven-year low. This is a clear warning sign, suggesting a new take on the old adge about the time to sell being when the lift drivers are at their most enthusiastic.


Saturday Sanity Break, 7 June 2014
Date: Saturday, June 07, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

Greetings, gentle readers, from Dubai airport, en route to St Petersburg. The airport at Dubai is growing before one's eyes and is full of Airbus 380s. As we sit in the lounge we hear announcements of flights to just about every destination one could imagine, New York, London, Sydney, Toronto, Seattle, Entebbe, Venice, Muscat, Houston, Colombo, Dusseldorf, Kabul, Algeirs, ...


Australia is (almost) at the end of the road, although we were on a flight that started in New Zealand. This is the mini-state that already has a freer trade deal with China and no budgetary problems despite being derided with sheep jokes.  When we checked in at Melbourne we found the Qantas first class lounge was closing for the night, although we were on a joint Qantas-Emirates flight.  The Emirates first class lounge in Melbourne is far more modest that the Qantas equivalent, but we were welcomed and Henry was, gasp, upgraded, due presumably to his long and dedicated work as a Qantas travellor.


In Dubai the equivalent lounge reaches Qantas standards but is built on an industrial scale. More evidence that Qantas international is doomed, and one reads in the Weekend Australian that we are still debating the easier visa regulations for brikkies and chefs, fruit picking is almost all done by kids from overseas and unions are fighting hard for 200 % loadings for work on Sunday.


One is everyday reminded there is a lot of ruin in a nation, and that successive governments just do not get what is needed for Australia to reach its potential.  We shall travel on to Mother Russia, and look forward to young Henry's take on the issues of the week. We already know that Russia has even more onerous regulations than Oz, given the amount of paperwork that is required to get a visa so we can inject somw vital dollars (little dollars, but still hardish currency) into the Russian economy.


Foot'n'cricket'n'stuff.


Caaaarlton! went down to Geelong by 5 points overnight, but Henry has still not found a balanced discussion of the game. Did they fight the game out or throw it away by f**kwit brain snaps as they did last week?


Clearly it was a great game. But seems it was umpire brainsnaps, as suggested here.


Delicious to learn that ASADA's star witness has been pinched by the plod for allegedly dealing in drugs, and that Mr Dank is on their list also. The supplements saga gets more farcical every week, and it is surely time for ASADA to apologise to those whose reputations have been trashed and get its act  together .


We wish the lads well who are about to take on the might of world futball.  Just one win and two draws/small losses would be likely to see us all watching the games in the wee hours. Great pity about renewed allegatons about briberygate.


Image of the week


Courtesy The Australian


 


Australian monetary policy and where does it come from?
Date: Thursday, June 05, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

A response from reader Paul Schefe to Henry's blog on Tuesday June 3, 2014.


Thanks Henry for comments on the interaction between Monetary Policy, goods and services inflation and asset booms. I like your work.


In my view these are all related.


Since about 2000 when interest rates started to decline, house prices started to rise, (we then witnessed a large number of TV shows promoting DIY renos and the corresponding jump in house prices).


At this time there was a wholesale push on behalf of banks etc. to make use of this new found wealth. A massive number of overseas holidays, new cars, shares and more property were all financed by rising levels of home equity.


Mortgage interest rates are by far cheaper than personal loans or credit cards.


There are even bank products out there that encourage people to cost every purchase on the credit card and at the end of the month clear the card with house finance.


As time has moved on house prices have continued to increase mostly due to lower interest rates (ratios of income to house price increased from abt 3 times to 5 times, partially offset by interest rates decreasing from about 12% to about 6%), whereas banks required equity levels have stayed almost constant. (About 10%) give or take. Therefore most people that have a $40k deposit will purchase a $400,000 house before they purchase a $200,000 house as they aspire to a better house.


As the standard house-owner is now carrying much larger amounts of personal and mortgage debt. A say 10% correction in house prices downwards will wipe the equity of a large number of people. I believe that this will wipe the spending power in more luxury goods of a great many people. (say a 10% correction on a $400k house results in $40k of spendable equity disappearing).


I believe that it’s the ability of consumers to access house equity finance that has led to this correlation between monetary policy and goods and services inflation.


Secondly I believe that the share price boom is a domestic version of the “Carry Trade” Borrow from the house or the super fund at relatively cheap finance to invest in higher returning assets.


In conclusion I believe that this positive correlation between house equity, purchase of goods and services and share price booms works best when interest rates are low and house prices are increasing.


However I believe that when house prices decline (dependent on a number of factors, employment, interest rates etc.) the whole shebang might be in trouble.


Anyway these are my own thoughts on this matter.


regards,


Paul Schefe


 


Thanks for your note Paul,


you make some very salient points in regards to the greater access to finance for the prime purpose of purchasing a house - and the fact lower interest rates encourage greater speculation into property, and in turn larger and larger mortgages - and higher and higher house prices. Which allows greater financing on the spending of goods to fill up these houses.


A consumer boom. There is little doubt Australia has been living in an unprecdented boom in household consumption and consumer spending for the better part of 15 years now. It is almost as if Australia has been following the playbook we've observed from across the Pacific in the United States about how to inflate a property bubble and create this spending power....


There is no doubt that the United States went down the path of ultra low interest rates more than a decade ago - in response to the bursting of the so-called 'Dotcom Bubble Boom' of the late 1990s. US interest rates dipped below 3% for the first time in many decades in October 2001, and below 2% for the first time only two months later in December 2001.


Except for a brief period in 2006-07, when former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan (who retired from the post in January 2006) and his successor Ben Shalom Bernanke raised interest rates in an effort to deflate the US housing bubble, US interest rates have spent most of the last 12 years below 4%, and indeed a majority of that period below 2%.


Analysing the recent history of US interest rates on a monthly basis shows that since first dipping below 2% in December 2001 US interest rates have averaged only 1.6%. Of the 150 months since then there have been 106 months with US interest rates below 2% (106/150 = 70.7%) and only 44 months with US interest rates at 2% or above (44/150 = 29.3%).


It should be abundantly clear that the low interest rates that have existed in the US for a dozen years have done little to create a 'sustainable' US housing bubble - which indeed heavily deflated half-a-decade ago and remains well below its 2006-07 highs.


It appears Australian policymakers have learnt little from the lesson provided by the US and the Australian experiment with low interest rates which began just over a year ago (Australian interest rates dipped below 3% for the first time since the independence of the Reserve Bank in May 2013), may well have many more years to run to try and keep the Australian housing market properly 'inflated'.


Is it sustainable? One would have to expect at some point it will prove unsustainable, but the other lesson from across the Pacific, and indeed from our neighbour to the North, Japan, is that policies that appear unsustainable can persist for a significant amount of time due to the great deal of inherent 'buy-in' to the system by an assortment of varied and vested interests - most significantly - the humble Aussie mortgagee and the politicians he elects to protect his nest egg.


Henry


Monetary policy reform #3
Date: Tuesday, June 03, 2014
Author: PD Jonson

The RBA board meets today and is widely expected to deliver a firm 'no change' outcome.  With goods and services inflation under control,  house prices taking a breather, economic forecasts having been revised down and the fierce debate over a modestly tough but badly explained budget, this is an acceptable outcome. This writer remains concerned, however, that there is a deep problem in how central banks respond to asset inflation and this is doubly concerning in a small open economy whose share price inflation comes 'made in America'.


Loads of research have proved that goods and services inflation is influenced, even determined, by the setting of monetary policy.  With fixed exchange rates it is US monetary policy that matters most, and a floating dollar gives more weight to domestic monetary policy.  There is a problem in defining monetary policy - is it cash rates, growth of money supply (with different definitions of money to play with) or 'Chairman's discretion', which can more respectfully be defined as 'the narrative'.


'The narrative' is the outcome of a diligent management group (the board of the RBA in Australia's case). This group, we know, considers the whole set of actual economic data, forecasts of key variables, especially goods and services inflation, growth of credit, behaviour of asset prices, the labor market, GDP, etc, etc. Such a group will take account of relationships established by economic research, such as that between growth of money and goods and services inflation, seeking to make allowance for known changes in these relationships. The clearest of these changes in this writer's direct experience was when the relationship between growth of M3 and goods and services inflation broke down and Australia had to abandon the 'conditional projections' for M3 growth. (This came as no great blow to the RBA governors at the time, as they were deeply suspicous about the supposed relationship - remember Goodhart's law.)


At the time, RBA's replacement of this relationship was called 'the checklist' which it is fair to say was not well received at the time by academics and journos. Naturally I regret that I did not propose 'the narrative', including with primary emphasis on actual and expected goods and services inflation. (A senior journo said recently that my views had not changed and finally I was in the right camp again.) However, confession of past inadequacies, while good for the soul perhaps, is no substitute for hard analysis.


My recent research investigates what Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwartz might have discovered if they had included share price inflation in their masterful A Monetary History of the United States, published in 1962.  My analysis, with two colleagues, is available here. It shows that share price inflation usually moves in line with monetary growth, consistent with behaviour of goods and services inflation. But there are a number of key anomolies involving the war years but also times when monetary policy (as measured by money growth) was firm and under control, as was goods and services inflation, when massive share booms occurred. In US monetary history, these episodes were the 1920s, the 1950s, extending into the 1960s, and the 1990s. Japan in the 1980s is another similar 'aberrant' episode.


In three of the four aberrant episodes, the massive booms were followed by sickening crashes leading to depression or deep recession and slow recovery. The world is still recovering from the crash of 2000, despite the US Fed dropping interest rates to near zero, followed by a resumption of share inflation, another share crash, fresh near zero interest rates and slow recovery with US share prices again hovering at record highs.  I fear this drama has not yet reached its finale.


Galbraith in his analysis of the Great Depression of the 1930s, hinted that with a separate policy, reducing allowable margin of bank lending for speculative purposes, the US Fed could have restrained the share boom of the 1920s without harning the general state of the economy.  Such action, perhaps, might have limited the devastation after a (smaller) share crash in 1929.


Merely tightening monetary policy might have done the job, at the cost of creating a temporary check to growth, and seeing the Fed blamed for an (earlier, smaller) share crash, since 'Monetary policy cannot serve two masters'. Because the big, out-of-control share booms coincide with normal money growth and low goods and services inflation, tightening monetary policy to head of a share price boom would seem a very blunt instrument indeed. This logic is the basic cause of the 'Greenspan/ Bernanke put' - ie let the boom run and clean-up later (with very low interest rates).


I am happy to debate this matter with anyone, and have offered the following challenge, so far not accepted.


'Economic management needs flexible, ultimately automatic, variable bank asset ratios to lean into asset booms and to limit asset bubbles. Such an approach would leave variable cash rates to control overall economic conditions, with an ultimate focus on controlling goods and services inflation. Monetary policy would serve one master and bank prudential policy (as we might call variable bank lending ratios) would prevent runaway asset inflation.


'Tell me how I am wrong, central bankers, or stand condemned when you next bungle an asset boom and bust'.


More here.


For a small open economy, the exchange rate regime plays a large role in the narrative.  For Australia to avoid catching share price fever from Wall Street, or perhaps in a decade or so, the Bund, I have concluded we need a variable tax on capital inflow.


I am aware of the standard way to handle dissidents in central banking circles - maintain a lofty silence, later make adverse comments about the dissident, and still later say 'we knew this all along'.


In the age of the internet, dissidents can go directly to the public  - 'the great uwashed' in central banker speak - or to the politicians.


Read this and ponder, Joe Hockey, and friends from the G20.


Professor David Laidler comments: 'I don't have much to say that adds to your persuasive arguments. I agree that low and stable inflation is a good target for monetary policy, and that bitter experience shows that is it not sufficient to deliver asset market stability in a reliable way. I also agree that the best way to deal with this is to turn to regulatory tools to deal with the latter, but just what they should be, and who should be in charge - the central bank or some other agency - surely has to depend on local institutions and experience, which I think you'd also agree to'.


Saturday Sanity Break, 1 June 2014
Date: Sunday, June 01, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

'Australian wages are too high and will have to come down'. Henry heard this heretical statement on, wait for it, ABC radio yesterday morning. 'I don't know if this will happen in one year, ten years or 50 years', Continued the voice, 'but it will have to happen'. After a bit more in this vein, the breathless young interviewer signed off and thanked Nobel Laureate economist, Sir James Mirrlees, for his views. Gor Blimey, comrades, this is pretty grim.


Shortly after, Henry was asked to discuss the state of a home renovation project with the relevant builder.  Un-prompted, our conversation drifted to the state of the nation, as this particular builder is a bright bloke with a deep interest in that subject. 'Wages are going to have to fall', John said. 'In the end it is Chinese wages that will decide what we can pay ourselves'.  I mentioned that a Noble Laureate agreed with this view. 'Most Australians know this, but they are hoping it does not happen too quickly or too savagely. The budget has made a start, but there is an awful long way to go'.


I was gob-smacked, comrades.  I knew that John was a bright bloke running a superb small business, but to find he agreed with James Mirrlees, and for that matter Henry (one of whose statements on this matter is available here) was literally mind-blowing. If is it is true that most Australians understand the problem, and are resigned to the remedy, what a pity there is no way to have a sensible national discussion and agree on the least disruptive answer.  The point made by Charles Dickens is relevant here, generalised as follows.


'National competitiveness strong, economic bliss.
National competitiveness weak, economic hell'.


Being experts in fighting for lost causes, the Australian Labor party will do its best to ensure we achieve the latter outcome.  The current government will get progressively braver, but will be distracted, naturally enough, by the need to get re-elected. As a start, Henry suggests that the pollsters find a way to begin asking relevant questions.


Global monetary policy


Last week, Henry strayed onto turf that is the responsibility of major central banks, with the RBA perhaps allowed a brief statement.


The relevant blogs are here and here.


The conclusion of part 2 is as follows: 'Friedman, curiously to this writer, says that the Fed could have nipped the 1920s share boom in the bud with a strategic rate hike, but this approach ignores his own 'two masters' advice.


Galbraith implies that in the 1920s, raising margins for share trading could have prevented the bubble and therefore made the share price crash less damaging. The same issue arose during the 1990s share boom, with The Economist saying the Fed should have raised interest rates sooner to prevent the share price bubble.


Raising margins for lending against shares, a seperate action to raising interest rates, could have prevented the bubble in the 1920s. An equivalent action in the 1990s, containing bank lending, could have reduced the  extreme share price action in the 1990s, and the subsequent drop to near zero in Fed fund rates.


Let me be absolutely clear.  Economic management needs flexible, ultimately automatic, variable bank asset ratios to lean into asset booms and to limit asset bubbles. Such an approach would leave variable cash rates to control overall economic conditions, with an ultimate focus on controlling goods and services inflation. Monetary policy would serve one master and bank prudential policy (as we might call variable bank lending ratios) would prevent runaway asset inflation.


Tell me how I am wrong, central bankers, or stand condemned when you next bungle an asset boom and bust.


Geopolitical musings


Tiresias provides a splendid expose of the geoploitical consequences of the mad situation in the Ukraine.


On the potential costs to Australia: 'Make no mistake about it – the Zhongnanhai will very quickly move to strengthen relations with their one-time friends and one-time rivals in the Kremlin. The hardliners in China, especially the officer corps of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, will be strengthened immensely, as will the Chinese secret services. Those elements inside the Chinese leadership that might have been sympathetic to seeking an accommodation with the US will now be greatly weakened. The potential cost of defence spending in Australia in the ensuing decades may well be colossal'.


Read on here.


Footy'n'Futball'n'stuff


The Swans, with their multimillionaire forward line, blew away a young Geelong team on Thursday night.  This afternoon, Caaaarlton! struggled all day against bottom side Brisbane and then squandered a 16 point lead with a few minutes to go. Result - there goes the season. Sigh! Lots of time to attend to the garden, gentle readers. Offsiders waw speculating darkly about changes yet to come at Princes Park.  Bring back Rats seems to be the cry.


The Futball team are in Brazil and were filmed attending a beach. Sun, surf and s*x, there could be no better preparation for an upset goal, even a scoreless draw or (gasp!) a win in the Group of Death. Trouble is, the Italian, probably a previous Australian immigrant with a chip on his shoulder, who ended our run at the last World Cup is probably still plying his trade.


Our two national hockey teams have hit form at the right time and are aiming for two world titles in Holland, or is it the Netherlands? Go girls and go boys.


Image of the week (And then there was this, demanding extra staff ... Did no one tell Mr Palmer the Age of Entitlement is over ... OVER.)


Monetary policy reform #2
Date: Thursday, May 29, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

The longest and strongest boom in American share prices ended in two stages. Stage one was the peak in Tech stocks.  In April 2000 the Nasdaq collapsed, losing one quarter of its value in a few days. Investors, previously ‘exuberant’, became cautious.  The broader indices fell in sympathy, but by August, both the Dow and S&P were inching their way back toward their earlier peaks.  Investors expected rates to stay on hold when The Fed met on 22 August.


Evidence for a slowdown was still not strong. First quarter growth was 5 %, and, while preliminary estimates of second quarter growth were similar, but mainly into inventories,  it was widely believed that risks were still tilted toward inflation.


Complicating matters, healthy pay rises had not yet translated into increases in unit labor costs, and inflation seemed to have slowed.


The Economist asserted that the economic arguments were 'finely balanced'. The venerable mag added:


* Politics says do not hike rates during a (presidential ) election; however
* Psychology suggests a 25 point rate hike – investors think it is going to be ‘no increase’ and absent a rate hike shares may surge, reigniting the powerful boom.
 
Bob Shiller's book appeared, and presented some worrying arguments.  The bottom line, the take-away message, was that every previous technological revolution had created a speculative bubble, and there is no reason it should be different now.


Shiller tracked the Price-earnings (Pe) ratio through 120 years, a period covering huge technological change.
*  Nineteenth century was a period of great invention, with prosperity helped along by massive gold discoveries, and these factors drove the Pe ratio to peak in 1900.
* The 1920s were another time of rapid devlopment in which the Pe hit its peak in 1929, then tumbled by 80 % in next three years.
* Ominously, share prices in 2000 were higher in relation to profits than in 1929.


A comment on the the Fed’s performance
* If inflation (traditional indicator) is correct, Fed has done a superb job.  Low inflation has combined with strong growth.
* The Fed has argued that faster growth is due to strong productivity increases and has allowed economy to run faster.  This has allowed share prices to rise further, into bubble territory.
*Some say either higher productivity or higher share prices justifies rate hike, and so the Fed should have done more.


(From almost 10 % in 1989, the effective Fed Funds rate had fallen to a low of around 3 % in 1993, risen to a peak of 6.5 % in mid 1995. Subsequently, there was a fall to 4.8 % in early 1999 followed by a gradual rise toward 6.5 % in late 2000.)


In a powerful article in December 2000, The Economist pointed out that '… four years on, to the very day, and with stockmarkets considerably higher than in 1996, Mr Greenspan injected some irrational exuberance of his own. With a reassuring speech that was taken to imply that the next move in interest rates would be downwards, and that the Fed was ready to ease if the economy slowed too sharply. Mr Greenspan lifted shares by almost $600 billion in a single day. The Nasdaq rose by 10 %, its biggest-ever daily gain.


Markets were now discounting a half-point cut in interest rates in the first half of 2001. But that would only happen if consumer spending falls.  If instead it rises, rates may need to rise.


History showed, The Economist asserted, that central banks very rarely steer economies to a soft landing.  ‘The borrowing binge that has taken place in America on the assumption of ever-rising profits and share prices may seem especially unwise as growth slows. And pessimism can be as contagious as exuberance’.


In another end-year reflection, The Economist asserted that cutting rates in 1987 and after the 1998 LTCM affair may have created an enduring problem.


‘The risk is that the Fed has created a classic moral hazard problem: it has encouraged investors to take more risks in the belief that interest rates will always be cut if share prices slump or the economy slows. That may engineer a soft landing now, but it also runs the risk of an even harder landing in the future when the markets and the debt overhang have climbed even more’.


‘The fate of the whole world hangs on America.  The American economy may get its soft landing. But only a fool would take this for granted: the risk of a much bumpier downturn is real’.


Alan Greenspan quickly cut Fed Funds rate to one percent.  The Greenspan put was now firmly in place.  The Economist's hard landing was avoided, for the moment. Yet within a decade, Greenspan's successor had cut Fed funds virtually to zero, banks had to be bailed out and 'quantitative easing' invented.


In this writer's view, there is a fundamental flaw that is inherent in almost every central bank's view of how to control an economy.  Milton Friedman said that 'Monetary policy cannot serve two masters'. The 'Greenspan put', with Ben Bernanke's endorsement, agrees with this judgment in the booms but abandons that view when the share bubble bursts.


Friedman, curiously to this writer, says that the Fed could have nipped the 1920s share boom in the bud with a strategic rate hike, but this approach ignores his own 'two masters' advice.


Galbraith implies that in the 1920s, raising margins for share trading could have prevented the bubble and therefore made the share price crash less damaging. The same issue arose during the 1990s share boom, with The Economist saying the Fed should have raised interest rates sooner to prevent the share price bubble.


Raising margins for lending against shares, a seperate action to raising interest rates, could have prevented the bubble in the 1920s. An equivalent action in the 1990s, containing bank lending, could have reduced the  extreme share price action in the 1990s, and the subsequent drop to near zero in Fed fund rates.


Let me be absolutely clear.  Economic management needs flexible, ultimately automatic, variable bank asset ratios to lean into asset booms and to limit asset bubbles. Such an approach would leave variable cash rates to control overall economic conditions, with an ultimate focus on controlling goods and services inflation. Monetary policy would serve one master and bank prudential policy (as we might call variable bank lending ratios) would prevent runaway asset inflation.


Tell me how I am wrong, central bankers, or stand condemned when you next bungle an asset boom and bust.


Monetary policy reform #1
Date: Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

After a severe global recession, the year 1993 provided new start and fresh hope. The economic outlook was for slow recovery for those OECD economies that were first into the recession (America, Britain, Canada), while some of the others continue to slow down (Germany, France, Italy).


Bond markets are usually a better guide than economists’ forecasts. Bond markets gave no support to the ideas of doomsters that the 1990s would be a rerun of the 1930s. ...  If any of that was more than just talk, money would be rushing out of real assets (land, machinery, offices) and into government paper; bond yields would have collapsed. Despite three years of disinflation, yields in the world’s seventh largest economies had barely fallen.


The mood of most companies and many individuals in the 1980s was to borrow, spend and hope. It turned rather suddenly to repay, save, fear.


Average inflation in OECD countries had fallen to 2.5%, lowest in 30 years. The Economist said: 'The battle against inflation has been won: the industrial world has entered a golden age of stable prices'.


US GDP growth was just short of 6 % in the fourth qtr 1993, so the ball was in Chairman Greenspan's court.  He had to act before inflation started to increase, so the US Fed was expected soon to begin raising cash interest rates.  The first rate hike for five years came in early February of 1994. Instead of falling, bond yields rose, in Western Europe and Japan, sharply.


America kept growing fast, rapidly running out of spare capacity, unemployment was at levels that had sparked inflation in the past and another bond market rout followed a bigger than expected rise of employment in March.  Kaufman - Dr Doom - said bond yields could easy reach 9-10 % from current 7.25 %.  But inflation was not yet rising.


President Clinton's budget was described as 'verging on the miraculous'. There were no cuts to Education, Social Security and Medicare, but tax cuts were promised while  the deficit was to be reduced.
 
One expert said the budget 'raises the white flag at the red ink of government spending'. The budget was ‘profoundly cynical’, the president leaving budget cuts to Republicans.


There were fears Mexico will not be able to pay its debts and that  Mexico’s crisis would further swell America’s $150 billion CAD.


In Europe, the strength of the D-mark was producing 'renewed chaos' in Europe’s currency markets.


Gordon Brown, the UK's shadow Chancellor, promised tough targets on spending, borrowing and inflation. Good economics, a newspaper said, but would it prove good politics?


The US dollar’s 'dizzy descent' further  unnerved the world’s currency markets. Chairman Greenspan (finally) said it was 'unwelcome and troublesome'. But Americans seemed untroubled.  Market players predicted that interest rates would need to rise.


On April fools day of 1995, The Economist pontificated:  ‘It is no coincidence that the countries that have seen the biggest falls in their exchange rate in the past year, and the sharpest rise in bond yields, have been those that are the most heavily indebted’.


‘Beyond a certain level', continued the venerable mag, 'indebtedness can cause a vicious circle: rising debt boosts interest payments, which leads to higher borrowing, and so on’.  This was a theme to worry many nations, but it did not seem to worry the mighty USA.


One of many discussions of US budgetary policy concluded in a manner Mr Abbott might recognise: 'Draft budgets of some courage have been put forward by the Republicans in Congress.


'Butchering corporate pork will not balance the budget, for the big cash is in middle class entitlements …’


‘A program of fundamental reform requires congressional courage, presidential vision and – not to be forgotten – considerable public sacrifice’.


Still America did not seem to care about the budget games. The Standard and Poors share index rose by 34 % in 1995 and experts concluded 1996 would be more subdued. After moderate falls in January, steep increases resumed, faster than in 1995. 'So far, the pundits ‘have been gloriously wrong’.


At the end of 1996, Greenspan 'fretted' about 'irrational exuberance' but thereafter went quiet on the issue of share price inflation.  Ordinary inflation remained benign despite continued, suprising to many, strong real growth and low unemployment.  As Galbraith said of the final stages of the share boom of the 1920s, when the Fed's feeble attempt at restoring sanity was defeated: 'For now, free at last from all threat of government reaction or retribution, the market sailed off into the wild blue yonder.' 


President Clinton was reelected – the budget still a big issue. Amazingly little discussion of highly favourable economic conditions in a time that became called the 'great moderation'.  In early 1997, The Economist pointed out that there was great diversity in setting monetary policy.


The Bank of England uses an inflation target.The Bundesbank keeps its eyes on various measures of money. Others prefer growth of nominal GDP.


A  paper from the Fed of New York ‘suggests that heavy reliance on money-supply measures is a bad idea’. 


'Experience from Canada to New Zealand suggested inflation targets are best'.


The Asian crisis in 1998 raised in some minds the issue of 'moral hazard' - if debtor nations are bailed out, won't they be tempted again to get into the same trouble?


America’s continuing stock market boom created great wealth, and also discussion of the 'virtuous circle' - strong low-inflationary growth boosts share prices, which boosts investment and hence productivity.  This, in turn, helps to sustain growth …


But there could be too much of a good thing - an 'overheated' stock market could cause overheated economy and push up inflation.


The question was posed - perhaps the Fed should already have raised interest rates. But in a sentance that could have been recycled from Galbraith's The Great Crash, it was pointed out that if the Fed did this now, it would to be blamed. From about now, expert discussion spent less time and space on budgets and more time and space on the boom in share markets - was the boom in danger of becoming a 'bubble' and, since bubbles always end badly (think 1929), what could be done to head off bubbles?


A comment from 1928 was dug out and reproduced: 'There is no means of knowing beyond question how far this recent rise in stock prices represents excess speculation and how far a real adjustment of values to increased industrial efficiency … and … larger profits'. So far as we know, this was the sentiment that Chairman Greenspan adopted. Do nothing and cut interest rates after the crash to minimise the damage. This was later described as 'The Greenspan Put'.


The Economist added: 'The two big investment-led recoveries this century – America’s in the 1920s and Japan’s in the late 1980s – ended in deep recessions. The risk is that over-investment, encouraged by a booming sharemarket, could lead to overcapacity, declining profits and – eventually – to a nasty contraction’.  It knew what should be done - 'pop the bubble, now', a mantra repeated with some regularity and ignored with perfect regularity by Chairman Greenspan.


Mr Greenspan adopted the  view there was a new age of IT driven productivity increases to explain low inflation, strong investment and strong growth generally with booming share prices. Experts said there were similar periods in the late nineteenth century, in the 1920s and the 1990s was a welcome action replay.


For a while in 1999 and 2000, demand ran well beyond any sensible estimate of enhanced product growth fuelled by productivity increases, and the Fed raised interest rates.  Then there was a rabid debate about the possibility of recession.


Thomas Meyer, hawk from US Fed Open Market Committee, said with US unemployment only 4.1 % more rate hikes would be needed. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) ‘issued a blistering warning of a global hard-landing – led by the United States’.  There were articles about the possibility of bank failures.


Continued here.



Saturday Sanity Break, 24 May 2014
Date: Saturday, May 24, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

What about debt asks one of Australia's leading businessman, Don Argus of NAB, BHP Billiton and Brambles fame.Don Argus is also concerned at the creation of asset bubbles, especially the stock price bubbles emerging from the USA, as the US Fed pumps money into a severely recessed economy. The money pumped in has gone dispropionately to raising share prices, not lifting the boats of a recessed real economy.


Debt and bubbles are two great risks to australia's economic well-being.  In Henry's view, lack of competitiveness is an even larger problem, one that Don Argus recognises but does not seem to rate too highly as a risk to prosperity. 


Here is a link to this important article.


A feature of Mr Argus' analysis is his focus on total (gross) debt - debt of governments, households and companies. Here is the table, which will repay study.



Don Argus says current debt levels will stifle growth: '... government debt is relatively low by global standards but total debt is quite high, and it is more skewed towards households than in the past. We cannot ignore household debt in our national discourse since the bulk of the Australian stockmarket and economy is exposed to the consumer wallet.


'At best this debt burden portends a long period of low growth for Australia because as you rack up debt you are bringing forward consumption'.  Note Bob Hawke's bold attempt earlier this week to help Australia become seriously rich while helping the world to drown in its own pollution. Linked here.


A constant theme in political commentary since the budget concerns the government's poorly explained attempts to rein in a budget out of control, 'the narrative'.


Henry tried to get this point over - linked here - before the budget was locked in stone, but got a dusty reception from the economic advisor to Mr Hockey, while Mr Abbott's economic advisor was too busy to respond.  Pollies really do need to interact with people like Don Argus with grey hair and battle scars.  Was the Abbott-Hockey economic narrative even road-tested with John Howard, one is forced to ask?


We are where we are, and one hopes that the Australian people will give Tony Abbott a second term.  It is worth recalling that we gave even Gough Whitlam and Rudd'n'Gillard'Rudd a second chance, so there is precedent.


Post-budget polling has emphatically confirmed a second major shift in public opinion since the election, the first being a strikingly early dip in the new government’s fortunes in November, leaving the opposition with a narrow lead when the dust had settled.


The latest landslip looks even bigger than the first, says William Bowe, Crikey's polling analyst and The Poll Bludger blogger, and it sends the Coalition into territory that was all too familiar to Labor during its tumultuous second term in office.


See Image of the Week below, which shows opinion polls that look absolutely horrific for the Abbott government.


Kulture


Fiona Prior finds Hidden Treasure from Kabul at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Gold, garnet, torquoise ... and treasures from 2200 BCE to 200 CE! Enjoy her overview here.


Footy'n'futball'n'other stuff


The socceroos are to have a young captain for the futball World Cup, and a bias to youth in team selection. Good luck to them, and if the team can survive the group of death many Aussies will be burning the midnight oil.


Caaaarlton! faces Adelaide this weekend, and we shall no doubt tune in to the telecast with limited expectations. 


The competition seems to have settled down to the best - Hawthorn, Geelong, Port Adelaide and Freo - and the rest. The big improvers are the Goldcoast Suns, and the Giants are also looking good.  Like Sydney in its day, it is always possible by offering extra help to boost a new team, and that has unbalanced the competition.


Melbournians with allegiances to their old suburban teams are beginning to wonder what is going on. Soon there will be two divisions and a new aim, to avoid relegation.  Works for Futball in other places, so it is another way for the AFL to make money.


Image of the week



Australia can be (seriously) rich ...
Date: Thursday, May 22, 2014
Author: Henry Thornton

... says Australia's great reforming PM, Bob Hawke.


There was a special poignancy in the speech by RJ (Bob) Hawke at the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) conference this week.  Here was the Prime Minister who introduced the CRC program on the advice of his Chief Scientist, Ralph Slatyer, just a week after the Abbott government slashed 12 % from the CRC program.  This was done despite the proven effectiveness of the CRC program, as demonstrated by several rigorous reviews, most recently by the Allen consulting Group in 2012. The summary of that study is: 'Between 1991 and 2017 CRCs produced technologies, products and processes that were estimated to have a direct value of almost $14.5 billion'. And also: 'Relative to the funds committed to the CRC program by the Australian Government, the CRC program has generated a net economic benefit to the community, which has exceeded its costs by a factor of 3.1'.


(This latest of several studies of the CRC program is available here.)


In introducing Mr Hawke, CRC Association Chairman, Tony Staley described Mr Hawke as 'one of Australia's great Prime ministers'. He added that he knew his friend, John Howard, agreed with that evaluation. I can add here that, as a 'sherpa' at Mr Hawke's Economic Summit held shortly after the Hawke government was installed, I was greatly impressed with the political good sense of the summit, and (of course) even more impressed as the economic reforms began to flow, including the float of the Australian dollar. (This writer's account of that key reform is available here.)


At the CRCA conference, Mr Hawke delivered a dramatic speech, that so far has received only minor coverage by the mainstream press. (Here is a short example.)


The first part of the speech was about that formation and performance of the CRC program. Mr Hawke had appointed Australia's first Chief Scientist early in his time in government. Professor Ralph Slatyer was a former school friend of Mr Hawke, at the famous Perth Modern school.  He was 'quiet, studious and obviously brilliant' and went on to have a brilliant scientific career. Hawke and Slatyer shared 'wonderment' at the pace of change in the modern world, and Mr Hawke quoted the economist Kenneth Boulding who said something like (my notes might be defective): 'The world today is as different to the world in which I was born as that world is to the world of Julius Caesar'.


Clearly, if Australia is to have any chance of being on the pace we have to be smart enough to understand, and contribute to, the driver of the world's rapid change, which is global Reaearch & Development (R&D). And to maintain our place at the table of leading nations, even mid-level nations, we shall have to be a whole lot better at turning R&D into commercial outcomes.  That is the purpose of the CRC program, to provide taxpayer's cash to encourage scientists to work to solve real problems for end-users, be they companies or government agencies. This program is much admired by, and copied in, other countries, including China where this writer had some practical input to the relevant transfer of ideas.


The guts of Mr Hawke's speech was his announcement about the importance of nuclear power as a major way to solve the problem of global environmental pollution.  (He said 'climate change' but I believe 'pollution' is both more general and equally important to the asserted problem of global warming that is so passionately believed by climate change activists.)


In short, Mr Hawke wants Australia to enrich our plentiful stocks of uranium (40 % of known global stocks in some estimates), sell it others to provide fuel for the many nuclear reactors now being built (notably in China, where pollution is a major issue) and then take back the waste for safe storage.  Australia is the ideal place for such storage as it is geologically stable, and it was time for Australia to consider the idea with 'calm consideration of facts'.


During his time in government, Mr Hawke said, he had identified places in Western Australia and the Northern Territory that were ideal for safe long-term storage. Mr Hawke said that he had more recently spoken to relevant aboriginal groups, who were willing to consider the proposal provided only trhat they received their fair share of the fees involved.  He also said that he had spoken with the Northern Territory's Chief minister, who was keen on the idea.  Mr Hawke was also confident that Western Australia's premier would support the idea.


Enhancing uranium and storing waste would provide great wealth to Australia, and would solve the great fiscal constraints now causing such angst. More importantly, it would make Australia a 'responsible global citizen' and (I would add) make us easily able to provide for our defense.  Mr Hawke added that the facilities for enrichment and storage should be owned and run by government, a proposition which this writer totally endorses.


Concerns of some, Mr Hawke asserted, about China's future as a global power were wrong.  China has always been a peaceful power, and is deeply engaged in solving its own problems, including the massive problem of pollution. China is busy building modern nuclear power stations, and would regard Australia's involvement as proposed as a 'win-win'.


I think it is fair to say that the proposal was greeted by many present with shock, perhaps even shock and awe. Certainly the applause that accompanied the first part of Mr Hawke's speech dried up, and pins could be heard dropping in the vast lecture theatre. I was moved to say it might well be the most important of Mr Hawke's many contributions to Australia's welfare and place in the world. It deserves widespread discussion and deep consideration.


Mr Hawke's full address is available on the CRC Association website.


Disclosure: This writer is a former Chairman of the Federal government's CRC Committee, and a current Chair of CRC Care, a leader in remediation of polluted sites. 


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