Towards A Nationalist Economic Policy

Suggesting that managed inflation and currency devaluation are pathways to greater national prosperity is bound to invite howls of derision. But critics may be ignoring factors, which, if acknowledged, might point towards consensus. At the least, it might provoke a more useful discussion.

With that in mind, here are four economic realities in America today:

1 – Despite that the word “fiat” is often used as a term of derision, all currencies are fiat unless backed by redeemable commodities. China is stockpiling gold amidst rumors they may try to tie the Renminbi to gold. Good luck with that.

2 – Throughout history, nations with the ability to sustain capital formation through financial innovation are the ones that succeeded. Prudently managed fractional reserve lending, a financial innovation, enables far more liquidity in the economy.

3 – The biggest engine of liquidity is not printing currency – there’s only about five trillion in actual printed US dollars extant in the world – it is debt formation, backed by collateral, that finances massive projects and asset acquisitions.

4 – American has been on a borrowing binge since the 1980s and total market debt – consumer, commercial and government – now stands at nearly 3.5 times GDP. This level of debt is unsustainable.

On this final axiom there should be agreement. As for the others, concerned observers might agree to disagree. Suffice to say that the economic disruption, and unintended consequences, that would accompany transition to a commodity backed currency […] Read More

Inflation vs Deflation – Only One Choice

Critics of government deficit spending correctly point out that perpetual debt accumulation is not sustainable. They’re right. But before they criticize an economic policy that aims to use inflation to whittle away the real value – and hence the actual burden – of accumulated debt, they’d be wise to consider the alternatives. Because there aren’t any.

Deficit spending has been touted as a potential driver of inflation, because only with devalued (inflated) currency can Americans hope to erode the real value of mounting levels of government debt. Continuing to print U.S. dollars, it is claimed, can only lead to too many dollars in the system, and hence a devalued dollar. We should be so lucky.

When American households join the Federal Government in spending more than they make, the only way to keep this up is to lower interest rates and increase the value of the underlying collateral. This second factor, the value of collateral, is particularly important for the American consumer, who has relied on home equity appreciation to enable ongoing borrowing which in-turn enabled ongoing spending beyond their means. The so-called financialization of the American economy over the past few decades has been specifically aimed at increasing the value of assets in order to stimulate more borrowing and spending.

The deflationary risk caused by debt accumulation becomes most acute if and when this asset-price bubble bursts. When the market value of the collateral suddenly becomes worth less than the amount of the loans outstanding, banks cannot extend new […] Read More

National Debt and Rates of Return

Over the past few weeks it has been clear that another exploration of deflationary risk is in order. Having already published Inflation vs. Deflation (3-15-10) and Avoiding Global Deflation (7-18-10), as well as The China Bubble (6-8-10) there seemed no point in compiling additional alarming, but anecdotal information. Nothing has changed. Debt is too high almost everywhere, certainly in the U.S. and the Eurozone, and even if Chinese debt ratios appear low, the information available could be misleading because China’s banking system is opaque, and much of their collateral may be grossly overvalued.

Because for the past thirty years the global economy has relied on rising debt to fuel rapid economic growth, as debt levels become unsustainable, economic growth slows. When that occurs, asset values drop, meaning that outstanding loans are no longer backed by sufficient collateral. Even in a mildly deflationary environment – which for now, thankfully, is all we are dealing with – real rates of return on large investment funds cannot realistically be projected at levels that cause total interest payments to consume an inordinate percentage of GDP. The more debt exists as a percentage of GDP, the more a burden interest payments become, and the more imperative it becomes to keep interest rates low to maintain solvency – whether that is solvency of government, business, or household entities.

As an aside, when considering levels of debt, what level is deemed sustainable will affect the […] Read More

The Razor’s Edge – Inflation vs. Deflation

Deficit spending has been touted as a potential driver of inflation, because only with devalued (inflated) currency can we hope to erode the real value of our mounting levels of government debt. Continuing to print U.S. dollars, it is claimed, can only lead to too many dollars in the system, and hence a devalued dollar. We should be so lucky.

A few years ago, in Sept. 2007, in a post entitled “Inflation vs. Deflation,” I cited a recent (at the time) quote from Paul Kasriel, an economist with The Northern Trust Co. in Chicago. He explained the danger of deflation quite well, describing what happened in Japan:

“Japan experienced a deflation in recent years because the bursting of its asset-price bubble in the early 1990s created huge losses in its banking system. The Japanese banks had financed the asset-price bubble. When it burst, the debtors could not keep current on their loans to the banks and therefore were forced to turn back the collateral to the banks. The market value of the collateral, of course, was less than the amount of the loans outstanding, thereby inflicting huge losses of capital to the Japanese banks. With the decline in bank capital, the Japanese banks could not extend new credit to the private sector even though the Bank of Japan was offering credit to the banks at very low nominal rates of interest.”

Another way to put this is as follows: Liquidity is a function of two factors, […] Read More