by Alasdair Macleod, GoldMoney:
Monetary policy, we are told, is all about staving off recession and stimulating economic growth.
However, not only is monetary debasement in any form counterproductive and destroys the personal wealth of the masses, but the economists who devised today’s monetarism have completely lost their way.
This article addresses the confusion surrounding this subject, and concludes the real reason for today’s global monetary policies is an ultimately futile attempt to prevent a systemic and economic crisis.
Wrong tools for wrong targets
Central banks set themselves targets, such as unemployment that is deemed to be “full”, in other words the optimal low rate that will not lead to a pick-up in price inflation. CPI is the second target, typically set at 2% per annum. The hope is that these targets will lead to sustainable growth in GDP.
Unfortunately, estimates of unemployment do not tell us whether or not people are being employed productively. The term productive conjures up questions as to whether or not a government employee who is not customer-driven is economically productive, or whether or not a temporary barman should be deemed properly employed. There is also considerable tension between low rates of official unemployment, and near-record levels of the labour force not in work.
Recorded price inflation is even more flaky, with large discrepancies between official CPI and independent estimates, such as those of Shadowstats.com and the Chapwood Index in America. Their independent statistics record a far higher rate of price inflation in the US than the official CPI, and there is little doubt people are experiencing the higher rate. Assuming the GDP deflator should approximate to the actual rate of price inflation, independent estimates tell us that the US economy has been in recession every year since the dot-com bubble burst.
The statistical tools are obviously useless, and so is the principal target. GDP is a money-total, no more, no less. Imagine an economy where the total quantities of money and credit never vary, and all credit is fully backed by money instead of conjured up out of thin air. Prices for individual goods and services are free to change, but the total money deployed cannot. Credit shifts from the failures to the successes. But because credit is wholly backed by sound money, if the credit is extinguished, the money lives on. Therefore, GDP does not increase or decrease.
Alternatively, imagine you construct a balance sheet of the economy, and you introduce some more money. The balance sheet totals will increase accordingly, but it does not tell you how productively the extra money is deployed. What we seek in GDP is not found there: what we really want to know is whether or not economic conditions for the vast majority of people are improving. The only evidence of this would be increasing average wealth for all employed classes, and we are not talking about measures of wealth denominated in unsound currencies, nor are we talking about the apparent wealth that results from credit inflation. It has to be real.
Equally, it cannot be measured, but framed that way, we can begin to get a better sense of perspective as to what economic policy should attempt to achieve.
Take the example of helicopter money, which is increasingly talked about. It would undoubtedly boost nominal GDP. But if we think in terms of economic progress, we quickly realise that helicopter money is actually economically destructive as can be easily demonstrated.
Let us assume that a central bank distributes money through the banking system to the bank accounts of consumers, who will undoubtedly spend most of this windfall. The immediate effect will be to increase the GDP total, as described above. But it creates a shortage of goods, so prices can be expected to quickly rise, nullifying any perceived benefit. And because the distribution is so well telegraphed, no sensible manufacturer is going to respond by increasing his production significantly for a one-off benefit. Therefore, as the money is spent its purchasing power will decline fairly rapidly, the costs of production will rise, and a slump will ensue. Unless, that is, there are continuing helicopter drops, but that, everyone can agree, is the path to wealth destruction through hyperinflation, and therefore the end of all economic progress.
Just by rephrasing the question, from fostering GDP growth to fostering economic progress, leads to some diametrically opposed answers, as the helicopter money example illustrates. In this vein, I shall now address four of the most destructive fallacies about the relationship between money, credit, and economic progress.
Fallacy 1: Monetary debasement benefits the economy
Modern economists mistakenly ignore the intertemporal effects of changes in the quantity of money. When money or credit is expanded, the first receivers of it get to spend it on existing products before anyone else. Therefore, they benefit from the extra money before prices have risen to reflect its addition into general circulation. The second receivers have a similar advantage, but incrementally less so. Therefore, after this new money has progressed through many hands with a tendency to drive up prices every time, the last receivers of the additional money find that prices for nearly all goods have already risen and the purchasing power of their wages and savings has effectively fallen.
This is known as the Cantillon effect. It amounts to a wealth transfer from the poorest in society, the unskilled workers, pensioners and small savers, to the government and its agents. Bankers, licensed to produce credit out of thin air at no cost, thrive. The second receivers, the businesses that benefit from bank credit and unfunded government contracts, do almost as well. The result is government, banks and their close supporters enjoy a wealth benefit at the expense of ordinary people.
It is therefore hardly surprising the establishment and its lobbyists strongly favour monetary expansion, but the Cantillon effect cannot be denied, in theory or empirically. It is the single most important reason why inflating money and credit will always be counterproductive. We see this effect today, with the gap between rich and poor widening dramatically. It is monetary policy that impoverishes the masses, more surely than anything else.
Fallacy 2: Low interest rates are beneficial
The emotional appeal of low interest rates has its origin in the old religious association of interest with usury. Keynes promoted this view, not expressed so blatantly in moral terms, but by conjuring up an image of work-shy capitalists profiting from the deployment of their money for interest. His term for these capitalists, rentiers, condemned them in his followers’ minds.
Keynes’s view is consistent with the idea that it is the rentiers who set the price for money, holding the entrepreneur to ransom, when in fact it is the other way round. In a free market where interest rates are set by consenting parties, it is the entrepreneur that sets the savings rate by bidding up the interest rate. It is this phenomenon that resulted in the long-held correlation between the price level and interest rates, demonstrated in Gibson’s paradox, which Keynes, Fischer and Friedman were all unable to explain.
The fact that this correlation demonstrably existed from 1730 up to the 1970s is clear evidence that entrepreneurs were prepared to pay a rate of interest that related to the one thing they knew better than anything else, and that was the price they expected to obtain for their product in the market. There can be no other credible explanation. Equally, it shows that central bank attempts to manage price inflation by varying the interest rate are doomed to fail, because there is no natural correlation between the two.
This was certainly the case until the late 1970s, when the Fed raised interest rates to the point where normal business activity could not be financed profitably. Since then, monetary policy has taken over control of interest rates to the point where they ignore market forces entirely. The idea that central banks can manage unemployment, price inflation and GDP by varying interest rates has also been disproved by experience, yet they still persist in this crazy quest.
The expansion of bank credit that accompanies suppressed interest rates will increase GDP, assuming the credit expansion is not aimed at non-GDP items, such as financial assets. But that is a very different matter from fostering economic progress, which requires an interest rate that correlates with the price level, and not the rate of price inflation.
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