The Fed Grasps At Straws

Here is a really stupid headline and story summary from the WSJ, which I believe is worth saving for posterity as it is indicative of the times in so many ways:

Federal Officials Say No Thanks to Negative Rates
Fed officials don’t think negative rates are needed in the U.S. because the economy and job market are improving and they are hoping they will never have to use them in the future given their uncertainty about whether the policy works.

They claim they don’t “need” negative rates because things are improving, but they won’t raise rates, which is what typically happens when they’re done subsidizing with monetary policy.

But despite their present judgment, they’re simply “hoping” they wont have to use them in the future, which suggests they’re not confident about their present judgment.

Meanwhile, the reason they’re hoping they won’t have to use them is because they don’t know if they work. So, they’d be willing to try something that has some chance of making things worse, in order to see if it has a chance of making things better.

So this is the era we live in: the central bank refuses to return things to “normal” while insisting things are on the mend, is open to conducting monetary science experiments on the economy despite initial misgivings, and reporters write stories about this chicanery as if these are all serious and respectable ideas to entertain. Couldn’t a bunch of Fed chimpanzees at the trading consoles have a reasonably good chance at improving upon this model?

The Thousand-Year Reich Fallacy

Nothing is more permanent than “temporary” arrangements, deficits, truces, and relationships; and nothing is more temporary than “permanent” ones.

~Nassim Taleb

The Nazi regime in Germany, which was early on referred to as the “Third Reich”, was also popularly referred to as the “Thousand-Year Reich”, the implication being that it was a regime which would stand the test of time and last over a period of many multiple generations.

An intellectual problem I’ve always had with this is that the seemingly ever-lasting circumstance has an explicit, definite end point. In the case of the Thousand-Year Reich, that end point is 1,000 years from the time it was established– and then what? More importantly, why only 1,000 years? If the Thousand-Year Reich represents some kind of political ideal, how would it be possible for the society underneath it to transcend these arrangements over any conceivable period of time? And what changes in circumstance would lead them to do so?

As an observer of financial markets and business cycles for going on a decade, I see the “Thousand-Year Reich Fallacy” with some frequency. For example, a market prognostication might be made in the following form: “Earnings growth is strong and sustainable, rather than seeing the S&P 500 tail off from current levels, I believe it will continue to rise and will be ten or fifteen years before we see a correction.”

Ignoring even the problematic metaphor of a “correction” in this context, I always find myself thinking in these circumstances– and then what? And what is it, 10 or 15 years from now, that finally precipitates this change in price?

The most obvious example of the Thousand-Year Reich Fallacy (which is really just a variant of the hot hand fallacy) lately is the specious reasoning we hear about about Zero-Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP), its longevity and the “new normal” economic paradigm it engenders. Many people, simpleton and sophisticate alike, have reasoned that central banks have painted themselves into a corner with their ZIRP attempts and having arrived at this corner, there is no way out that will not impose enormous social costs to exit, which they are beyond reluctant to effect as a result. The implication is that interest rates will not rise because they can not rise without grave disruption to economic activity.

The incentives of ZIRP and even NIRP (Negative-) are intuitively perverse. Under ZIRP, borrowers pay no costs and lenders earn no return for parting with their money, meaning lenders have become indifferent from the standpoint of time preference, preferring a dollar today equally to a dollar tomorrow. Under NIRP, borrowers are rewarded for borrowing and lenders are glad to pay them for their privilege, meaning that lenders prefer a fraction of their dollar tomorrow to their whole dollar today. Anyone who listens to this realizes that this is not a sustainable arrangement, ceteris paribus, and that studied in isolation they would not willingly behave that way as a lender.

So, the Thousand-Year Reich must come to an end. But when? And why? Here is where the fallacy rears its ugly head, as people will project an arbitrary time frame which seems sufficiently long to hedge against immediate uncertainty, ie, 20 years, 30 years, but they will not then reason about what changes must occur 20 years or 30 years from now that bring ZIRP/NIRP to an end.

For ZIRP/NIRP to truly be the “new normal”, there can not be any end point to it. But it is not anticipated to be the new normal, but only a Twenty-Year Reich. But what then? And why will it remain stable along the way?

The funny thing about the Thousand-Year Reich fallacy is how short of the initial timeline events end up, and how violently the trend unravels. In the case of Nazi Germany, a regime slated to last 1,000 years in fact lasted 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. Of course, it was a horrible 12 years, punctuated by a ghastly death toll, gross destruction of capital and property in Germany and abroad, and enormous political ramifications that reverberated outward from Berlin and into the present day. All the martial glory, all the eternal recognition and all the national greatness imagined at its inception was dashed to the rocks in just over a decade which, for those experiencing it, must’ve seemed like 1,000 plus forever years.

The ZIRP/NIRP paradigm is a similarly crowded trade from a social expectations standpoint. Anecdotally, I have seen that it is believed from shady, proletarian used car lot operators in Appalachian Tennessee, to educated, middle-aged professional bankers on the West Coast. Everyone knows it can’t go on forever, but they can’t see how it will end in the next five, ten or even fifteen years and certainly no one wants to try to imagine what it might be like. It will be truly unprecedented. But it will end, because it must end, and since it will end it’s worth thinking about what it is that will deliver the finishing blow, and why it could be a much shorter Reich than one could anticipate right this very moment.

Review – The Panic Of 1819

The Panic of 1819: Reactions and Policies

by Murray Rothbard, published 1962, 2007

Please note, this book is also available as a free PDF on the Mises.org website, which is how I read it [PDF]

Introduction

Rothbard’s “The Panic of 1819” is a lot of things, but the thing it is most is yet another reminder of the old dictum “Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”. Contained in this approximately 250-page reporting of the causes, consequences and social responses to the Panic of 1819 are the same behaviors and political programs that could be found in today’s headlines about corrupt Chinese banking practices, Chicago-school monetarism and Keynesian pump priming, including early recognition that attempts to kickstart “idle resources” logically implies a totalitarian command economy where the government manages all resources (and all people) at all times.

It’s all here, and more. There is nothing new under the sun.

How the business cycle gets started

Early on page 16 the reader is entreated to an excerpt from private correspondence between Pennsylvania politician Condy Raguet and European economist Richard Cantillon in which Raguet tries to clear Cantillon’s confusion as to how fractional reserve banking manages to operate to the point of a catastrophic bubble instead of wobbling and crashing under its own confusing weight:

You state in your letter that you find it difficult to comprehend, why person who had a right to demand coin from the Banks in payment of their notes, so long forebore to exercise it. This no doubt appears paradoxical to one who resides in a country where an act of parliament was necessary to protect a bank, but the difficulty is easily solved. The whole of our population are either stockholders of banks or in debt to them. It is not the interest of the first to press the banks and the rest are afraid. This is the whole secret. An independent man, who was neither a stockholder or debtor, who would have ventured to compel the banks to do justice, would have been persecuted as an enemy of society.

Today’s full reserve Austrian economists, caught between clueless and complacent bank executives, a massively indebted “ownership society” public, Keynesian and monetarist adherents and “free banking” friends who are anything but, simply has no place to turn for safety. He defaults to “enemy of society” status in the ensuing confusion though he seeks only to point out the folly of these fractional reserve systems which inevitably injure all in tying their fates by one string.

The Panic of 1819 followed the War of 1812. During the war, imports and exports came to a halt due to the sea being a battleground and many products which would’ve been imported were kept in their home (overseas) markets to furnish the war effort. As a result, the young States United of America saw the development and growth of domestic manufactures and exportable industries. However, when the war ended and international trade resumed, many domestic manufacturers found they weren’t actually competitive facing world markets (this makes sense because if they had been they probably would’ve developed before the war, not during it in a period of “isolationism”). This created a nascent strain of “protectionist” thinking and monied interests who saw a benefit to adding tariffs on imported products.

The end of the war and the resumption of trade saw a banking boom (fractional reserve) which finally ended in 1819 with the panic. From about 1819-1823 the country was in and out of what could be termed depressed economic conditions. In many ways the early country’s experience mirrored the present day experience from 2008-2009 onward, especially the contentious economic and political debates about how to respond.

Something I found fascinating was what happened to various “macro” economic metrics during the Panic (what we’d call a crash):

The credit contraction also caused public land sales to drop sharply, falling from $13.6 million in 1818 to $1.7 million in 1820, and to $1.3 million in 1821. Added to a quickened general desire for a cash position, it also led to high interest rates and common complaint about the scarcity of loanable funds.

That last bit is especially fascinating to me. I don’t know what the state of federal funded debt was in this time period as Rothbard doesn’t really go into the concept or existence of a “risk free rate” but it is interesting to see “deflation” leading to HIGHER rather than LOWER interest rates. In today’s topsy turvy world, low rates are supposed to be the result of the flight to safety during a depression while high rates are supposed to herald an economic recovery. However, it seems it was just the opposite in 1819.

I found myself charmed by the ability of so many in 1819 to see what was the cause of the bubble and the collapse, even politicians. For example, in an address supporting a “relief bill”, Illinois Senator Ninian Edwards observed:

The debtors, like the rest of the country, had been infatuated by the short-lived, “artificial and fictitious prosperity.” They thought that the prosperity would be permanent. Lured by the cheap money of the banks, people were tempted to engage in a “multitude of the wildest projects and most visionary speculations,” as in the case of the Mississippi and South Sea bubbles of previous centuries.

I enjoyed learning that even medical analogies to describe the cause and effect of monetary expansion and collapse were popular in 1819. One government committee, the Hopkinson Committee, arguing against “debt relief” legislation, noted:

palliatives which may suspend the pain for a season, but do not remove the disease, are not restoratives of health; it is worse than useless to lessen the present pressure by means which will finally plunge us deeper into distress.

I thought that pain pill and hangover analogies were something recent and peculiar to adherents of the Austrian school but critics knew of these rhetorical flourishes even two hundred years ago, at least!

On the topic of “flight to safety”, I did make note of one paragraph which seemed to suggest that while interest rates on bank debt and other commercial lending may have risen, interest rates fell dramatically on tax-backed (ie, “guaranteed”) government issues, for example:

“A Pennsylvanian” pointed to United States and City of Philadelphia 6 percent bonds being currently at 3 percent about par– indicating a great deal of idle capital waiting for return of public confidence before being applied to the relief of commerce and manufacturing. Thus, in the process of criticizing debtors’ relief legislation, the “Pennsylvanian” was led beyond a general reference to the importance “confidence” to an unusually extensive analysis of the problems of investment, idle capital, and the rate of interest.

This theme of “idle capital” was remarked on more than once in the text and by various parties with differing viewpoints. This is a particular fetish of Keynesians and monetarists who cite the existence of “idle capital” as an excuse for government to raise public spending to “put it to work.” It is fascinating to see these early Americans predicted Keynesianism by almost 150 years!

Another thing I found remarkable was the prevalence of either state-owned banks (federal, with the Bank of the United States, or individual states) or strong political pushes to establish these banks in response to the ensuing depression and the stress this created on the banking system. In other words, nationalization of the banking industry as a political prop to collapsing FRB institutions is nothing new:

The Alabama experience highlights the two basic measures for monetary expansion advocated or effected in the states: (1) measures to bolster the acceptance of private bank notes, where the banks had suspended specie payment and where the notes were tending to depreciate; and (2) creation of state-owned banks to issue inconvertible paper notes on a large scale. Of course, the very fact of permitting non-specie paying banks to continue in operation, was a tremendous aid to the banks.

People refer to the United States economy and monetary system at various points in time being “free market”, and while it’s true that tax rates and business regulations were generally less cumbersome near the nation’s founding than today, it is also true that there has been a virulent strain(s) of interventionist thinking and policy-making from very early on. It wasn’t until 1971 with Richard Nixon’s closing of the gold window that the US currency finally went fully inconvertible, and yet already in 1820 (if not earlier), people were calling for inconvertible paper currencies issued by state-owned banks. Some free market!

The whole episode seems to beg a question that, sadly, Rothbard did not explicitly address or explore, namely, Why did banks need to be chartered by the government in the first place? Although there were calls during the response to the economic crisis for various forms of occupational licensing and business regulation (aimed at stemming the flood of superior imports damaging local industries), the reality is that any other business but banking, such as butchering, baking, sawmilling, leather tanning, import/export, etc., did not require special permission granted by a session of the local legislature, state or federal. Why was banking different, requiring an act of congress to get the enterprise going?

Besides the fact that many such banks seemed to be public-private partnerships which included state “capital” injected into them, the only answer I have managed to come up with so far that makes any sense is that the banks were all set up on a fractional reserve basis, and a blessing by the government served to either 1.) grant legitimacy to an illegitimate institution or 2.) create the pretense and wishful thinking of providing some kind of “legal oversight” to what everyone at the outset understood to be an essentially criminal organization operating with a special legal privilege or 3.) both.

Because every bank had to be chartered, when the FRB system inevitably hit a bump in the road as it did in 1819 and many banks wished to suspend redeemability of their bank notes to stem outflows of specie, their status as creatures of the public legal mechanism meant they could run to the legislature for permission to violate their own contracts– and they almost always got the permission granted. Now, for example, if angry pitchfork-wielding townsfolk show up to break into the vault, take their gold and lynch the bankers, the Sheriff might step in with his posse to make sure everyone remembered their role.

Keynesians and monetarists and Chinese bankers

Continuing the theme of “everything new is old”, I was struck by commentary from a Pennsylvanian congressman named Henry Jarrett suggesting that government relief money might serve to prime the pump of the economy:

An inconsiderable sum of money, for which the most ample security could be given, being loaned to a single individual in a neighborhood, by passing in quick succession, would pay perhaps a hundred debts.

Kind of sounds like George W. Bush urging Americans to go shopping after 9/11, in order to get confidence in the economy back. It’s a crass Keynesian tactic inspired by a confused understanding of the relationship between production, consumption and the role of money in the economy.

It was also interesting to see how many people back then could sense there was a problem with the way the banking system operated, but were confused into thinking banking in and of itself was illegitimate, rather than simply the practice of issuing a greater supply of banknotes than the amount of specie held in reserve. Consider a campaign circular for a candidate for Congress from mid-Tennessee, who said:

banking in all its forms, in every disguise is a rank fraud upon the laboring and industrious part of society; it is in truth a scheme, whereby in a silent and secret manner, to make idleness productive and filch from industry, the hard produce of its earnings

If you substitute “banking in all its forms” with “fractional reserve banking”, you’ve got a pretty accurate description of the nature of the problem.

It’s also worth quoting at length the argument of “An Anti-Bullionist”, who thought that the economic crisis of 1819 was caused by specie money specifically, rather than abuse of specie money via fractional reserves. In its place he sought to create a fully inconvertible paper currency issued by the government which would of course be “well regulated” and serve to protect the economy from the inevitable deflationary death spiral of the specie system he believed he was witnessing. Shades of later monetarist thinking abound:

His goal was stability in the value of money; he pointed out that specie currency was subject to fluctuation, just as was paper. Moreover, fluctuations in the value of specie could not be regulated; they were dependent on export, real wages, product of mines, and world demand. An inconvertible paper, however, could be efficiently regulated by the government to maintain its uniformity. “Anti-Bullionist” proceeded to argue that the value of money should be constant and provide a stable standard for contracts. It is questionable, however, how much he wished to avoid excessive issue, since he also specifically called a depreciating currency a stimulus to industry, while identifying an appreciating currency with scarcity of money and stagnation of industry. One of the particularly desired effects of an increased money supply was to lower the rate of interest, estimated by the writer as currently 10 percent. A lowering would greatly increase wealth and prosperity. If his plan were not adopted, the writer could only see a future of ever-greater contractions by the banking system and ever-deeper distress.

Even chartalists will be happy to see that early proponents of the “American System” of nationalist public-private industry were representing their views in the debates of the early 1820s, for example:

Law pointed to the great amount of internal improvements that could be effected with the new money. He decried the slow process of accumulating money for investment out of profits. After all, the benefit was derived simply from the money, so what difference would the origin of the money make? And it would be easy for the government to provide the money, because the government “gives internal exchangeable value to anything it prefers.”

Why even have a private industry? Or money, for that matter?

Luckily, advocates of laissez-faire existed in this time period, too, and they were not silent. Commenting on one proposal to deal with “idle capital” by Matthew Carey, the “Friends of Natural Rights” wrote:

The people of the United States being in a very unenlightened condition, very indolent and much disposed to waste their labor and their capital… the welfare of the community requires that all goods, wares, merchandise and estates… should be granted to the government in fee simple, forever… and should be placed under the management of the Board of Trustees, to be styled the Patrons of Industry. The said Board should thereupon guarantee to the people of the United States that thenceforth neither the capital nor labor of this nation should remain for a moment idle.

[…]

It is a vulgar notion that the property which a citizen possesses, actually belongs to him; for he is a mere tenant, laborer or agent of the government, to whom all the property in the nation legitimately belongs. The government may therefore manage this property according to its own fancy, and shift capitalists and laborers from one employment to another.

Finally, I don’t seem to have made a good note of the specific passage that caught my attention in this regard but I chuckled when reading the description of the operations of the average bank before collapse. These bankers would set up a new bank and pay only a fraction of capital with specie, the rest would be constituted by additional promissory notes from other banking institutions (which were themselves fractional). The bankers would pay themselves dividends, in specie, while the bank operated, and issue themselves and their friends enormous loans with which they’d purchase real goods and services, all while the real specie capital of their bank depleted. When crisis hit and they could not redeem their depositors’ money, they’d get legal permission to suspend redemption, ask for infusions of new capital from state authorities and/or set up a brand new bank whose purpose was to steady the previous institution. Ultimately, the bank would collapse and this too would work in their interest because they’d already hauled off the specie via dividends to themselves, and many of them were debtors of the bank who now had loans due in a worthless currency that was easy to obtain.

It reminded me a lot of the present Chinese state capitalist model.

Conclusion

“The Panic of 1819” is not light reading and for some readers it may not even be interesting reading. It depends a lot on how fascinating you find in depth examinations of “minor” historical economic events.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t surprising, well-written (for all the facts and data, Rothbard still manages to weave together a narrative that helps the reader appreciate the nuances of the various factions and viewpoints of the time) and at times, depressingly relevant. People who care about economic and financial history and unique, formative episodes in the early history of this country, will find a lot of insights and curiosities in this work. I strongly recommend it.

Recession Risk, The Ultimate Risk Paradigm Of Modern Business Operations

The business cycle rotates periodically between boom and bust. This is one of the inevitable consequences of centrally planning the economy’s interest rates and forcing them below their market equilibrium levels. Because it is inevitable, it is “predictable” and thus every business person must conduct their affairs in light of the fact that at some point in the future they will be faced with a recession. The key measure of risk for a business person operating in a central bank-managed economy, then, is “How will I feel when the recession comes?”

If a recession poses no risk to the financial structure of his holdings and he is positioned in his operations to weather a storm, he may be termed “low risk.” If instead a recession represents an existential threat and/or the potential for severe hardship for his operations, he may be termed “high risk.”

As an ideal, a sufficiently low risk operator should eagerly anticipate a recession as it will represent a cheap buying opportunity during which he will consolidate the failing enterprises of his competitors, scooping up their assets at bargain prices and thereby leap ahead of them without the use of leverage or cheap competitive tactics. Conversely, a sufficiently high risk operator will find the economic Sword of Damocles plunging through his neck in a recession, permanently severing the connection between himself and his former assets. How then to manage financial and operational risk so that continued growth can occur in a manner that is sustainable in all possible economic environments?

In terms of financial risk, we could sort our assets in two ways, by asset quality and by financing quality. The asset with the highest asset quality is the one which has the largest earnings yield relative to its current value. The asset with the highest financing quality is the one which is cheapest to own (ie, annual interest cost).

Practically speaking, sorting assets by asset quality and financing quality and then selling low quality assets and paying down outstanding debt would move an organization toward a more favorable balance between asset quality and finance quality, with an emphasis on equity in the balance sheet. The capital that is freed up in the process is now available to purchase a higher quality asset in the future.

In a recession, the cash flows from low quality assets dwindle while the finance charges on debt remain fixed; not only does such a mixture create a problem in a recession but it falsifies the true “free cash” position of the company in a boom because, to operate prudently, extra cash must be maintained on the balance sheet to offset the risk this low quality asset and debt represent should a recession appear.

The insistence on focusing on the management of financial risk first offers us clues as to a sound growth strategy overall. To be successful and sustainable through all potential economic conditions, growth must be purposeful and planned and should only occur when three conditions are met: there is abundant free cash on the balance sheet, the organization has people “on the bench” and ready for new opportunities and a good buying opportunity (represented by a fair or discount to fair value price) presents itself.

A debt-laden balance sheet is not cash rich because the cash which may be present is actually encumbered by the debt as an offset in a recessionary environment. When we are talking about a cash rich balance sheet, we’re by implication talking about an unlevered balance sheet. Otherwise, the cash is not “free” but rather is “phantom” cash– it will disappear the moment adverse economic conditions present themselves.

The organizational bench condition may be harder to evaluate objectively, but there is a decent rule of thumb. When people in each position in the organization are sufficiently organized to handle their own responsibilities with time to spare, there is organizational bandwidth to spend on promotions and new responsibilities, such as management of newly acquired assets. In contrast, when people in relatively higher positions within the organizational hierarchy are spending their time doing the work of people relatively lower in the organizational hierarchy, it indicates that there is a shortage of quality personnel to fill all positions and that those personnel available are necessarily being “mismanaged” with regards to how they are spending their time as a result.

Further, it implies the risk that growth in such a state might further dilute and weaken the culture and management control of both legacy assets and those newly acquired. This is a risky situation in which every incremental growth opportunity ends up weakening the organization as a whole and creating hardships to come in the next recession. If it’s hard to find good people, inside the organization or without, and there is a general attitude of complacency about what could go wrong in a recession, it is a strong indicator that underperforming assets should be sold and the balance sheet delevered to reduce organizational risk in the event of a recession.

Growth should be fun, exciting and profitable. If it’s creating headaches operationally, or nightmares financially, it should be avoided. You shouldn’t own or acquire assets you don’t love owning. Perhaps the best rule of thumb overall is to ask oneself, “Does owning this asset bring us joy?” If yes, look for opportunities to buy more. If no, sell, sell, sell!

Ultimately, there are three ways to get rich: randomly, with dumb luck and unpredictable market euphoria for the product or service offered (billion-dollar tech startups); quickly, with a lot of leverage, a lot of luck in terms of market cycles and a lot of risk that you could lose it all with poor timing (private equity roll-up); and slowly, with a lot of cash, a lot of patience and a lot less risk while taking advantage of the misery of others during inevitable downward cycles in the economy.

If you were fearful in the last economic cycle, it suggests your financial and organizational structures were not as conservative as you might have believed. It may be an ideal, but it’s one worth reaching for: a recession represents a golden buying opportunity for a cash rich organization to leap ahead of the competition and continue its story of sustainable growth and success.

Doing The Hugh Hendry

Below is some commentary from Hugh Hendry I found in an FT.com editorial I since can not access as I don’t have a login. But I thought it was interesting when I first read it awhile back and I still think it’s interesting now. I meant to post it earlier. Rectifying my mistake:

For the moment, let us forget the chances of a hard landing in China. Forget the drama of Europe’s circus of politically inspired economic incompetency. Forget that the good news of the US economy’s succession of positive economic surprises is really bad news as fixed income managers have sold copious amounts of too cheap volatility and because it has made equity investors turn bullish, sending stock market volatility back to 2007 levels. This is dangerous. Improved US data may represent a classic short-term cyclical upturn amid a profound global deleveraging cycle.

Such moves have been commonplace for the past three years and have yet to prove a harbinger of any structural upswing. I worry that the pathological course of the last several years will see volatility rise sharply once again. Even so, there exists, in terms of my parochial world of hedge fund investing, a bigger issue.

I fear that my no longer small community has been compromised. Last year was generally very tough for long/short strategies and I commiserate with all concerned. But last year world class funds lost more than 15 per cent in just two months. Today they are celebrated again for making double digit returns in the last quarter even though they still languish below high water marks and their reputation for risk management, at least to those clients who have poured over their copious due diligence statements, has been sorely compromised.

You can probably live with that if you are a pension scheme or a large, sophisticated fund-of-fund because you have a global macro sub-sector that can benefit from short-term shifts in volatility. But the unfortunate thing is that this group exercised its stop losses somewhere between the great stock market rallies of 2009 and 2010. That is to say, they honoured the pact they had with clients. They adhered to the terms of their risk budget: they lost money and they reduced their positions. I fear that owing to this nasty experience the financial world is in danger of harvesting a monoculture of fund returns that could prove less than robust should the global economy suffer another deflationary reversal.

To my mind the situation has parallels with the plight of the banana. Today the world eats predominately just one type of banana, the Cavendish, but it is being wiped out by a blight known as Tropical Race 4, which encourages the plant to kill itself. Scientists refer to it as programmed death cell destruction. In stressful situations bananas fortify themselves by dropping leaves, killing off weaker cells so that stronger ones may live to fight anew. They operate a stop-loss system.

But modern mass production of single type bananas has replaced jungle diversity with commercial monocultural fields that provide more hosts to harbour the blight. The economy keeps producing stressful volatility events. Good managers keep shedding risk and monetising losses and are duly fired, leaving us with a monoculture of brazen managers who will never stop loss because they are convinced central banks will print more money.

Diversification has proven the most robust survival mechanism against failures of judgment by any one society, hedge fund manager or style. But what if we are now a single global hedge fund community afraid to take stop losses and convinced of an inflationary outcome to be all short US Treasuries and long real assets?

This is pertinent as I have always been fascinated by that second rout in US Treasuries in 1984, long after the inflation of the 1970s was met head on by Paul Volcker’s monetary vice and a deep recession. How could 10-year Treasury yields have soared back to 14 per cent and how could so many investment veterans have been convinced that a second even more virulent inflation wave was to hit the global economy?

Psychologists tell us the explanation is embedded deep in the mind. They refer to the “availability heuristic”. Goaded by the proximity to the last dramatic event, investors overreacted to the news that the US economy was pulling out of recession in 1984. They saw high inflation where there was none.

With this in mind, I would contend that it may take several more years before the threat of debt and deflation can be successfully exorcised from investors’ minds, even if the global economy were not set on such a perilous course. Such is the potency and memory of 2008’s crash that anything remotely challenging to the economic consensus could be met by a sudden and severe reappraisal to the downside.

Should such an event send 30-year Treasury yields back to their 2008 low of 2.5 per cent, we believe enlightened investors might better be served by thinking the opposite. Only then might it prove rewarding to short the government bond market and embrace what may turn out to be a much promised once in a lifetime buying opportunity for risk assets.

 

Personal Dilemmas Of The Immoral Economy

The WSJ.com has just posted an article, “Buy, Sell, Fret: Retail Traders Swing Into Action“, that is ripe for commentary from the twin perspectives of value investing and Austrian economics. With any luck, we may even venture into the philosophic territory by the end of this episode. Let’s get started:

In a throwback to the day-trading era, the market’s stomach-churning gyrations are creating a new class of stock obsessives hanging on every dip and rebound.

Average investors are scrambling to stay ahead of the massive swings—often via mobile devices like iPads and smart-phones, leading to sharp spikes in trading volumes at many brokerages.

“I am distracted and frankly unnerved,” says Andy Lavin, a public-relations executive in Port Washington, N.Y., who manages about $800,000 of his own money.

Mr. Lavin says he has been checking his iPad regularly during meetings and on his way to work. On Monday, he bought $15,000 in futures on the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index. After President Barack Obama addressed the decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade long-term U.S. debt, Mr. Lavin dashed to monitor the market reaction.

“If you look away for a second, you lose,” Mr. Lavin says.

One of the themes I’d like to explore here is perception versus reality. For example, Mr. Lavin’s perception is that it is his inability to keep up with the markets, tick by tick, that expose him to potential ruination. The reality is that it is his decision to split his attention and capabilities between his professional job and daytrading which exposes him to ruination.

As a value investor, daytrading is obviously an intellectually bankrupt strategy detached from an understanding of fundamental reality because the economic value of companies do not change as often, rapidly or dramatically as their security prices might. So, anyone who becomes obsessive about the frequent changing of security prices without any regard to the underlying economic value of the company the securities belong to is engaging in a speculative gamble, not trying to keep up with an investment portfolio. Daytrading while at work is as absurd as playing online poker at work, or visiting a virtual blackjack table on your iPad while sitting in a meeting. The illusion (delusion?) of control is precisely the same, as is the inappropriateness of the simultaneity.

As an Austrian economist, this appears to be an outstanding example of some of the many unintended consequences of Federal Reserve monetary policies as well as federal government interventionist policies.

In terms of monetary policy, Ben Bernanke’s reckless inflationary mandate creates new malinvestment in the economy by distorting entrepreneurs’ and other economic actors’ view of the true supply of savings in the economy. Interest rates are driven down below their free market equilibrium levels providing the illusion of wealth that doesn’t actually exist. Entrepreneurs (and daytraders are entrepreneurs, though they’re a variety more ephemeral than a butterfly) usually end up in grossly speculative activities because with the new supply of money in their hands and the lowered cost of borrowing at their backs it pays to do so, or so they think.

Similarly we can see the broad effects of an interventionist, regulatory political framework. Such a superstructure creates so many obstacles and added costs for “normal” economic activity that the productively-eager are pushed into enterprises with the lowest cost of entry and the least number of hoops to jump through before one can nominally start making money. Does it get any easier than opening up an electronic brokerage account and ACHing a large deposit?

At the nexus of these two philosophies, economics and investing, we see another tragedy unfolding– where is the comparative advantage (economist) or the analytical edge (investor) in a public relations professional-turned-daytrader? Why has this man, who appears to be quite successful at his chosen career given the size of his gambling stake — I mean, accumulated personal savings — which amounts to $800,000, investing this money on his own in the financial markets?

Why isn’t he putting that $800,000 of capital to work in his own business, where he seems to be demonstrating an ability to earn outsize returns on capital? Assuming this individual is reasonable and not merely gambling, what might this say about the condition of the economy as a whole that he has not chosen this seemingly obvious alternative?

Continuing:

The high-stakes drama is also making once-calm investors jittery. Richard Chaifetz, chief executive of Chicago-based ComPsych Corp., which provides mental-health counseling for 13,000 companies, says his firm has seen a 15% increase in calls from stressed out employees who are watching the stock markets from their desks.

This is another unintended consequence of inflationary monetary policies and, as a certain French economist of the 19th century might say, “that which is unseen”.

The Federal Reserve and its army of statisticians can only (attempt to) calculate that which is priced in units of money. But that which is not priced in money (until it ends up as a psychotherapist or pharmaceutical bill, anyway) can not be calculated.

What kind of effect on national productivity must this be having with so many people so distracted and made anxious by volatility in the financial markets?

Even some 401(k) investors are getting more active. Before this week, Ryan Jones rarely monitored his investment accounts. Now the 30-year old advertising strategist checks his phone several times a day for market reports and devotes his lunch time to rejiggering his portfolio.

“I’m just a regular guy who started the month with a 401(K) balance, and am trying to make sure it’s still there next month,” he says.

I look at quotes like the one above as proof positive that the 401(K) is not as good a tax-reduced deal as it is marketed as, and especially not for all the “regular guys” trying to manage them on their own with limited allocation options, to boot.

There’s just no way for these people to manage their money intelligently in a 401(K). And yet again, it transforms every saver into a part-time stock analyst and investor. This is not where the average person’s comparative advantage is located. Seeing how widespread the 401(K)-miracle wealth thesis is, I’d even call it something of a mania. Rather than taking their savings and investing in something local, tangible and familiar, many people have learned to wish upon a stock market star, cast their savings into a 401(K) like a penny into a fountain and then attempt to patiently wait the duration of their professional career until they can all cash out easy millionaires and retire to Florida or wherever.

But for that reality to become a reality, someone has to do a lot of work in the meantime because, contrary to what people might’ve thought [amazon text=George S. Clayson was adovcating in his book&asin=1897384343], the money doesn’t multiply itself unaided. Do people really believe that they can unintelligently, haphazardly and especially as in present times, anxiously invest their money in the stock markets and thereby wind up rich by retirement?

Another confused “investor”:

Andrew Schrage, a 24-year-old website editor, shifted the allocations in his $50,000 portfolio, away from equities and further into bonds, selling some of his technology stocks on Tuesday after announcements by the Federal Reserve that the central bank planed to keep interest rates near zero.

Mr. Schrage, who lives in Chicago, says he is planning to plow the money back into stocks, but is waiting for the right opportunity.

“This volatility has forced me to adopt a day-trading mentality,” Mr. Schrage says.

Wrong. The volatility hasn’t forced you to do anything, Mr. Schrage. It is your adoption of the fallacious belief that volatility is risk that has forced you into an uncomfortable position where you suddenly find yourself daytrading to try to avoid it.

The language of this article is curious. This 24-year-old website editor has $50,000 of capital in a financial market portfolio. Does he have $50,000 of capital in his website business? It almost sounds like he is a 24-year-old financial trader, who does some website editing on the side.

I don’t mean to heap scorn on age but it is fascinating that this young man has managed, in only 24 years on this earth so far, to not only find time to educate himself on how to edit websites but also on how to watch the Fed and trade accordingly. And this is, yet again, demonstration of the principle that this activity is pseudo-economic. It is not connected to real economic activity and any derivatives thereof but rather is driven by the moves and anticipation of moves by the central bank.

This is a centrally-planned economy, with centrally-planned financial markets. The trouble for most people is that the central planning aspect is too subtle for them to notice, being obscured under numerous layers of propagandistic “this is free market capitalism” rhetoric.

Nearly finished:

Dan Nainan, a 30-year-old comedian, spent Tuesday in his New York office fixated by the market fluctuations, refreshing the screen on his online brokerage account every couple of minutes throughout the day. About a half-hour before the close of trading, Mr. Nanian sold $120,000 worth of his Apple stock. “I felt a tremendous sense of relief,” he says, “and I’m not buying again.”

In a choppy market like this one, a single lunch meeting or conference call that results in missed trading opportunities can translate into thousands of dollars in losses. Andrew Clark, a 30-year old, real-estate consultant in Birmingham, Ala., sold about half of his Apple Inc. stock on Monday morning after it opened 3.2% down. During a client meeting, he missed a brief rally when the stock went up 1.7%.

“I would have bought those back at that point,” Mr. Clark says. “If you aren’t glued to these movements, you miss so much.”

What other times and places have seen 30-year-old comedians with $120,000+ stock portfolios? These are interesting and unusual times.

Andrew Clark’s comment is instructive because he believes he knows what he has missed when he really hasn’t got a clue. He’s missed Ben Graham. He’s missed out on observing the impact of frequent trading commissions on his bottom line. He’s missed out on the fact that his whole investment strategy revolves, admittedly, around the sure-fire failure of selling low and buying high.

Millions of people like this are born in every generation. They have no way to learn their lessons except by experience. Even then, if their experiences aren’t severe and near-death enough, they’re prone to forget them. They drift idly around during their blissfully ignorant existences like gnats above the highway. If the macroeconomic conditions are just right and they’re presented with the opportunity, they’ll launch themselves straight into the windshield of a market panic and spend the rest of the cruise down the motorway of life wondering how they got there and bemoaning the loss of their more innocent days.

These are people who would probably do just fine managing their personal affairs in more humble, honest economic settings. That’s part of the true villainy of the Bernanke-ite economy, to tempt all these people with fleeting prosperity at the risk of utter ruin, and to do it all at the point of a gun.

After all, who would play these games and take this farcical economic structure seriously if they were free to leave at any time without threat of going to jail, or worse?

Here we arrive at the moral, and the conclusion.