NGDP, NGO and total expenditures

I did not think that my post on NGO versus NGDP would gather attention, but it did (so, I am happy). Nick Rowe of Carleton University and the (always relevant) blog Worthwhile Canadian Initiative responded to my post with the following post (I was very happy to see a comment by Matt Rognlie in there).

Like Mr. Rowe, I prefer to speak about trade cycles as well. I do not know how the shift from “transactions” to “output” occurred, but I do know that as semantic as some may see it, it is crucial. While a transaction is about selling a unit of output, the way we measure output does not mean that we focus on all transactions.  I became aware of this when reading Leland Yeager (just after reading about the adventures on Lucas’ Islands). However, Nick (if I may use first names) expresses this a thousand times better than I did in my initial post. When there is a shift of the demand for money, this will affect all transactions, not only those on final goods. Thus, my first point: gross domestic product is not necessarily the best for monetary transaction.

In fact, as an economist who decided to spend his life doing economic history, I do not like gross domestic product for measuring living standards as well (I’ll do a post on this when I get my ideas on secular stagnation better organized). Its just the “least terrible tool”. However, is it the “least terrible” for monetary policy guidance?

My answer is “no” and thus my proposition to shift to gross output or a measure of “total spending”. Now, for the purposes of discussion, let’s see what the “ideal” statistic for “total spending” would be. To illustrate this, let’s take the case of a change in the supply of money (I would prefer using a case with the demand for money, but for blogging purposes, its easier to go with supply)

Now unless there is a helicopter drop*, changes in the money supply generate changes in relative prices and thus the pattern (and level) of production changes too. Where this occurs depends on the entry point of the increased stock of money. The entry point could be in sectors producing intermediary goods or it could closer to the final point of sale. The closer it is to the point of sale, the better NGDP becomes as a measure of total spending. The further it is, the more NGDP wavers in its efficiency at any given time. This is because, in the long-run, NGDP should follow the same trend at any measure of total spending but it would not do so in the very short-run. If monetary policy (or sometimes regulatory changes affecting bank behavior “cough Dodd-Frank cough”) causes an increase in the production of intermediary goods, the movements the perfect measure of total spending would be temporarily divorced from the movements of NGDP. As a result, we need something that captures all transaction. And in a way, we do have such a statistic: input-output tables. Developed by the vastly underrated (and still misunderstood in my opinion) Wassily Leontief, input-output tables are the basis of any measurement of national income you will see out there. Basically, they are matrixes of all “trades” (inputs and outputs) between industries. What this means is that input-output tables are tables of all transactions. That would be the ideal measure of total spending.  Sadly, these tables are not produced regularly (in Canada, I believe there are produced every five years). Their utility would be amazing: not only would we capture all spending (which is the goal of a NGDP target), but we could capture the transmission mechanism of monetary policy and see how certain monetary decisions could be affecting relative prices.** If input-output tables could be produced on a quarterly-basis, it would be the amazing (but mind-bogglingly complex for statistical agencies).

The closest thing, at present, to this ideal measure is gross output. It is the only quarterly statistic of gross output (one way to calculate total spending) that exists out there. The closest things are annual datasets. Yet, even gross output is incomplete as a measure of total spending. It does not include wholesale distributors (well, only a part of their activities through value-added). This post from the Cobden Centre in England details an example of this. Mark Skousen in the Journal of Private Enterprise published a piece detailing other statistics that could serve as proxies for “total spending”. One of those is Gross Domestic Expenditures and it is the closest thing to the ideal we would get. Basically, he adds wholesale and retail sales together.  He also looks at business receipts from the IRS to see if it conforms (the intuition being that all sales should imitate receipts claimed by businesses). His measure of domestic expenditure is somewhat incomplete for my eyes and further research would be needed. But there is something to be said for Skousen’s point: total nominal spending did drop massively during the recession (see the fall of wholesale, gross output and retail) while NGDP barely moved while, before the recession, total nominal spending did increase much faster than NGDP.

NGONGDP1

In all cases, I think that it is fair to divide my claim into three parts: a) business cycles are about the deviation from trends in total volume of trades/transactions, thus the core variable of interest is nominal expenditures b) NGDP is not a measure of total nominal spending whose targeting the market monetarist crowd aims to follow; c) since we care about total nominal spending, what we should have is an IO table … every month and d) the imperfect statistics for total spending show that the case made that central banks fueled spending above trend and then failed to compensate in 2008-2009 seems plausible.

Overall, I think that the case for A, B and C are strong, but D is weak…

* I dislike the helicopter drop analogy. Money is never introduced in an equal fashion leading to a uniform price increase. It is always introduced through a certain number of entry points which distort relative prices and then the pattern of trade (which is why there is a positive short-term relation between real output and money supply). The helicopter drop analogy is only useful for explaining the nominal/real dichotomy for introductory macro classes.
** Funny observation here: if I am correct, this means that Hayek’s comments about the structure of production would have been answered by using Leontief’s input-output table. Indeed, the Austrians and Neoclassicals of the RBC school after them have long held that monetary policy’s real effects are seen through changes in the structure of production (in the Austrian jargon) or by inciting more long-term projects to be undertaken creating the “time to build” problem (in the RBC jargon). Regardless of which one you end up believing (I confess to a mixed bag of RBC/Austrian views with a slight penchant to walk towards Rochester), both can be answered by using input-output tables. The irony is that Hayek actually debated “planning” in the 1970s and castigated Leontief for his planning views. Although I am partial (totally) to Hayek’s view on planning, it is funny that the best tool (in my opinion) in support of Hayek is produced by an intellectual adversary

Blaming Finance, Ignoring Real Causes

The fall 2014 Cato Journal has an article, ‘The Financial Crisis: Why the Conventional Wisdom Has It All Wrong,” [pdf] by Richard Kovacevich, Chairman Emeritus of Wells Fargo. The author is correct in saying that the conventional wisdom is wrong in blaming the slow recovery on the “uniqueness of a financially led economic recession.” The US economy recovered from the severe 1980 recession within two years, while now the economy is creeping like a turtle.

The economic cause of recovery and growth is simple. Economic investment – the production of capital goods – drives the business cycle. Recessions are caused by a sharp fall in investment. Then, as the prices of raw materials fall, and as land rent drops, a depression reduces these costs of production, therefore increasing profits, so investment recovers. Government can boost the recovery by further reducing the costs of production, by decreasing the taxes and regulations it imposed previously. This is the “supply side” policy of increasing investment and production by reducing the costs of regulations and taxes.

But this time around, the federal government did the opposite. Costly regulations have magnified, with an anti-supply-side effect. Every year, there are thousands more regulations that hamper enterprise, and finally, regulations plus taxes have achieved the tipping point of making it too costly for enterprise to invest and hire labor.

After the Crash of 2008, the federal government had two basic policy options: it could help the economy recover with market-enhancing supply-side policies, or else the government could enact the welfare-state agenda of greatly increased governmental medical services. The government chose the latter option, which imposed even greater costs on enterprise and labor.

When the recession hit the economy in 2008, one of the responses was TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program. As the article states, one of the problems with TARP was that it did not focus on the troubled banks, but imposed the policy on all banks. The banks that were not troubled had to obtain the funds and then pay interest on them. TARP imposed the impression that all banks were in trouble, which destroyed confidence, and then Congress responded to the turmoil by imposing 25,000 pages of Dodd-Frank regulations.

None of the financial regulations, going back to the Great Depression, confront the causes of the boom and bust. The fundamental cause is massive subsidies to land values. The Cato article focused on the financial industry, but the more fundamental issue is government policy regarding real estate. The problems of the financial industry originate in their financing of real estate.

The history of the Americas has been that of grabbing land and enslaving labor. In the American colonies, the British government promoted European settlement to control land and to profit from trade. After the defeat of the French in 1763, the United Kingdom changed policy to avoid conflict with the people of Quebec and with the Indians, by restricting western speculation and migration. That annoyed the landed interests enough to declare independence, and to establish a constitution that would better extend and protect land speculation. Huge grants of land were given to railroads, veterans, colleges, and speculators.

After the public domain was disposed of, the government continued the subsidy of the large landed interests with implicit policies that are invisible to the public and to most economists. The provision of public works, welfare to the poor and elderly, and artificially cheap credit, all generate greater land rent and land value. This amounts to a vast redistribution of wealth from workers, tenants, and enterprise owners, to landowners, especially the concentrated owners of commercial and farm land.

With a fixed supply of land, much of the gains from an economic expansion is captured by higher land rent and land value, which then attracts speculation that carries real estate prices to unsustainable heights. When land values crash, they bring down with them the financial system that provided the loans. None of the financial regulations touch this basic cause, and land-value seeking is so deeply ingrained in American culture that people favor it even at the price of high taxes, high unemployment, and the destruction of liberty.

Ask a typical American, “Would you favor a tax reform that eliminates taxes on your wages, on interest from your financial assets, and on buildings, replaced by a tax only on land values?” The answer is, “No! I would rather suffer unemployment, insecurity, crime, poverty, and loss of liberty, than have my precious land taxed!”

“OK, then, would you favor the complete replacement of government’s public goods with private, contractual, provision that eliminates the subsidy to land values?” “No! We need government to provide these things!”

Then you ask, “So why do you want the word ‘liberty’ put on our coins?” The answer is, “I want liberty so long as it is not put into practice!”

And that is why government deals with the superficial financial appearances, and not the implicit reality that causes the booms and busts.

Where the World’s Unsold Cars Go To Die [Zerohedge]

I don’t have time to comment a ton on this (Life has just been absurd lately) but wanted to make sure more people saw this.

The guys over at Zerohedge noticed a surprising sight on google maps in the city of Sheerness, United Kingdom. West coast, below the River Thames and next to River Medway. Left of A249, Brielle Way. A car lot full of unsold, brand new cars. Zerohedge claims these are all new cars that cannot fit on overcapacity dealer lots. If true this would be a prime example of malinvestment spurred on by government bailout and subsidies. Quite literally a textbook case of the Austrian Business Cycle.

Further research is needed since I do not know whether these lots are standard practice or a new feature of our post-2008 crash world. It is possible that these are merely staging grounds for cars before they ship to dealers but at first glance I tend to agree with Zerohedge’s conclusion that “There is proof that the worlds recession is still biting and wont let go. All around the world there are huge stockpiles of unsold cars and they are being added to every day. They have run out of space to park all of these brand new unsold cars and are having to buy acres and acres of land to store them.”  

Something to keep an eye on regardless.

Is China running out of cash?

Is China running out of cash?

China Halts Bank Cash Transfers

“The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, has just ordered commercial banks to halt cash transfers.”

Could we be seeing the start of total economic collapse? The answer, ceteris paribus, is yes and the Austrian Business Cycle Theory (ABCT) explains why.

To quote Ludwig Von Mises’ explanation of the final act of the ABCT:

Ludwig von Mises stated that the “crisis” (or “credit crunch“) arrives when the consumers come to reestablish their desired allocation of saving and consumption at prevailing interest rates.[12][

This means that when consumers finally realize that the money they have invested has actually been malinvested in the economy they then seek to acquire as much of their money as possibly from said investments. Most of which take the form of bank deposits.

The linked article reminds us that this is the numerous such time that China has adopted this policy saying:

“So what’s really going on?  This crunch follows similar incidents in June and December of last year.  In June, for instance, the central bank used the excuseof a “system upgrade” to allow banks to shut down their ATMs and online banking platforms.  As a result, they conserved cash and thereby avoided a nationwide meltdown.”

Other instances, such as this one in England where “[s]ome HSBC customers have been prevented from withdrawing large amounts of cash because they could not provide evidence of why they wanted it,” show that this problem may not be contained to China and may be spreading to the international market.

What does Murray Rothbard say will happen when this “credit crunch” inevitably occurs?

Wasteful projects, as we have said, must either be abandoned or used as best they can be. Inefficient firms, buoyed up by the artificial boom, must be liquidated or have their debts scaled down or be turned over to their creditors. Prices of producers’ goods must fall, particularly in the higher orders of production—this includes capital goods, lands, and wage rates […]

this means a fall in the prices of the higher-order goods relative to prices in the consumer goods industries. Not only prices of particular machines must fall, but also the prices of whole aggregates of capital, e.g., stock market and real estate values. In fact, these values must fall more than the earnings from the assets, through reflecting the general rise in the rate of interest return […]

“Since factors must shift from the higher to the lower orders of production, there is inevitable “frictional” unemployment in a depression, but it need not be greater than unemployment attending any other large shift in production. In practice, unemployment will be aggravated by the numerous bankruptcies, and the large errors revealed, but it still need only be temporary […]

Another common secondary feature of depressions is an increase in the demand for money. This “scramble for liquidity” is the result of several factors: (1) people expect falling prices, due to the depression and deflation, and will therefore hold more money and spend less on goods, awaiting the price fall; (2) borrowers will try to pay off their debts, now being called by banks and by business creditors, by liquidating other assets in exchange for money; (3) the rash of business losses and bankruptcies makes businessmen cautious about investing until the liquidation process is over.

With the supply of money falling, and the demand for money increasing, generally falling prices are a consequent feature of most depressions. A general price fall, however, is caused by the secondary, rather than by the inherent, features of depressions.

So is the massive failure of all economies imminent? Well not necessarily because the government can take some steps to prevent the immediate failure.

According to Mises:  

“Continually expanding bank credit can keep the borrowers one step ahead of consumer retribution (with the help of successively lower interest rates from the central bank). In the theory, this postpones the “day of reckoning” and defers the collapse of unsustainably inflated asset prices.[12][14] It can also be temporarily put off by price deflation or exogenous events such as the “cheap” or free acquisition of marketable resources by market participants and the banks funding the borrowing (such as the acquisition of land from local governments, or in extreme cases, the acquisition of foreign land through the waging of war).[15]

The “false” monetary boom ends when bank credit expansion finally stops – when no further investments can be found which provide adequate returns for speculative borrowers at prevailing interest rates”

These steps only “kick the can down the road” and delay the inevitable since “the longer the “false” monetary boom goes on, the bigger and more speculative the borrowing, the more wasteful the errors committed and the longer and more severe will be the necessary bankruptcies, foreclosures and depression readjustment.”

We may be seeing the beginning of the next great depression here but only time will tell.  One thing is certain though, a massive economic readjustment is coming and the central banks of the world have only been aggravating the problem.  When it will hit is anyone’s guess but in this author’s opinion we are either looking at a repeat of the early 30’s or a repeat of the early 40’s and I can only hope we can avoid going through both.

Around the Web

  1. A university in Malaysia has awarded an economics doctorate to North Korea’s communist dictator
  2. Ian Bremmer asks, in the pages of the National Interest, if China is in the middle of a big bubble
  3. The Diffusion of Responsibility: a short piece on government employees, the rest of us, and some implications of the drug war
  4. How laissez-faire made Sweden rich by Johan Norberg
  5. Why do banks keep going bankrupt? Kirby Cundiff answers this question in the pages of the Freeman
  6. Mud People and Super Farmers: Creatively adapting to the lack of land rights in Africa

Another Housing Bubble?

Last year I wandered down the street to an open house for sale. Even though I announced myself as a looky-loo, the agent welcomed me. We sat around talking and eating cookies for an hour; no prospects showed up.

It was a nice day today and I decided to walk to another open house thinking I’d again look around and chat with the agent. Hardly – the place was mobbed! It looks great in this picture but the reality is it’s stuck way up on a hill with a steep driveway and no garage. It’s 80 years old and although it’s been fixed up cosmetically it’s nothing to write home about; not in my book anyway. Nevertheless, I’m betting they’ll have multiple offers before this first day on the market is over.

This is the San Francisco Peninsula which is by no means representative of the whole country but I hear that Las Vegas has turned around too, as have tony places in New York. Why? Although I can’t prove it, I believe a good part the gusher of money that the Fed has been printing is now making its way into housing. The stock market has stalled, the bond market is in retreat, gold has plummeted, and that pretty much leaves housing.

So although the basic premise of monetary stimulus is plausible, it just doesn’t work. The new money seems to go careening around the economy in search of the Next Big Thing. Bubbles form and collapse, malinvestments are revealed and the cycle starts anew. What’s different this time is that it’s been such a short time since the collapse of the previous housing bubble to what looks like the start of another.

If these wasteful cycles of boom and bust are to end, the Fed must cease its stimulus programs. But it can’t. When the Fed dropped just a hint last week that it might start “tapering” off its bond-buying (money-printing) program, the bond market panicked. Why should we care about the bond market? For one thing, the average maturity of the federal debt is just a couple of years. Maturing debt must be rolled over into new debt, and if the new debt carries higher interest rate, the total annual interest payment could quickly swell from a “mere” $345 billion for the current fiscal year toward a trillion dollars per year, swamping any efforts to contain spending, like the $80 billion sequester that just took effect. We could end up needing a bailout from China.

The Fed will very likely continue or even accelerate its bond buying, depending on who occupies Bernanke’s seat come January. We should expect continuing cycles of bubbles and busts and the real possibility of some very nasty fiscal consequences.