IN THIS EDITION
the keynesians’ new clothes
Since early 2010 I have been arguing in these pages against the core neo-Keynesian precepts of the economic and monetary policy mainstream. In general I have not been optimistic that, notwithstanding their abject failure to foresee the global financial crisis, and their ongoing, failed responses thereto, the mainstream would reconsider its views. But some interesting developments on multiple fronts indicate that they are doing just that. So does this represent the beginning of the end of the flawed neo-Keynesian policies that treat debt rather than savings as real wealth; consumption rather than investment as sustainable growth; and money as something to be manipulated to ‘manage’ the economy? Sadly, no. While they may realise that their policies are failing, what they are now contemplating is an even more radical programme of outright debt monetisation, wealth confiscation and vastly expanded central planning. Investors must take appropriate actions to protect themselves now, before such policies are implemented.
A BRIEF WORD ON THE US ELECTIONS
Naturally there is all manner of comment out there at present about the investment implications of the US elections. My thoughts have already been expressed in previous Amphora Reports. I will reprint two excerpts here and leave it at that. The first is from November 2010, when I briefly discussed the impact of a divided Congress, which will remain so divided for at least the next two years:
[G]ridlock, it would seem, makes it all the more likely that the government is going to go right on doing more or less as it has done during the past few years. This is made all the simpler by the fact that the vast bulk of the US federal budget is non-discretionary. Yes, that’s right: All the time and money spent lobbying and lawmaking in Washington may keep the local economy booming and fill the newspapers with all manner of suspenseful headlines but, in reality, it is increasingly irrelevant with respect to the overwhelming portion of the federal budget, which grows automatically and is no longer just chronically in deficit, but amidst weak economic growth, exponentially so.
So for all those out there who believe that somehow gridlock is good, think again. The US is on the path to economic ruin... Après nous, le déluge.
And more recently, during the just-concluded campaign, I had this to say:
President v Congress, Republicans v Democrats, left v right: If there is anything the post-WWII history of US monetary and fiscal policy should teach us, it should be that when it
comes to growing the money supply and the federal debt, Washington DC is run by a single branch of government, a single party and a single point on the left-right spectrum. And this branch, the party that controls it and its political orientation is not something that changes with elections. It is a national political pathology.
So now, with the US elections settled, let’s step back and take in the larger, global picture. It isn’t pretty.
THE FAILURE OF ‘AUSTERITY’
It might seem like yesterday to some but it was already in 2009 that politicians in Europe began to talk about ‘austerity’, a concept that quickly became the new black in European political fashion. In brief, austerity in Europe is based on the idea that the accumulated sovereign debts are now dangerously large and need to be reduced by some combination of temporary (so they claim) tax increases and spending cuts. Once the debt is reduced to a more manageable level, so the thinking goes, taxes can be cut and spending restored to the previous level.
Sounds oh-so reasonable now, doesn’t it? The problem is, however, it isn’t working. As we approach the end of 2012, in every instance of austerity being applied, economic growth is weaker and government deficits higher than projected, the result being that the accumulated debt burdens continue to grow. Indeed, they are growing more rapidly than prior to the onset of austerity!
Now one key reason for this is that, concerned about the dire state of the economies in question, the financial markets have dramatically driven up their
governments’ borrowing costs. Private sector investors seem unwilling to underwrite the risk that austerity might not work. To a small extent, the European Central Bank (ECB) has stepped in to fill the funding gap, purchasing selective clips of bonds from distressed euro-area governments, but this provides only temporary support.
The simple math of the matter is that unless borrowing costs fall substantially, austerity will fail. But how to bring down borrowing costs when private investors are not convinced austerity is going to work? Why, have the ECB take a much larger role. Hence the showdown between the German Bundesbank, opposed to open-ended bank and sovereign bail-outs, and, well, just about every euro-area politician, policy maker and Eurocrat involved. Let’s briefly explore this important tangent.
AUFTRITT DER UNBEUGSAME WEIDMANN (ENTER THE UNYIELDING WEIDMANN)
To outside observers, this situation may seem rather odd. Following the introduction of the euro, the Bundesbank ceded power over German monetary policy and, by extension of the German mark’s previous role as anchor currency, over euro-area monetary policy as well. (The Bundesbank retains an important regulatory and supervisory role with respect to German financial institutions.) So how is it, exactly, that the Bundesbank is somehow in a position to resist what has now become a near universal euro-area march toward some form of debt monetisation?
Well, as it happens, the German public hold the Bundesbank in rather high regard. Most Germans recall how the Bundesbank long presided over Europe’s largest economy, maintaining price stability and fostering a sustained relative economic outperformance. Many Germans probably recall how, on multiple occasions, the Bundesbank successfully resisted inflationary government policy initiatives. Older Germans recall how the Bundesbank contributed to the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the 1950s and 1960s. And Germans know that the ECB was supposedly modelled on the Bundesbank and the euro on the German mark.
So when the Bundesbank speaks, Germans listen. And when the Bundesbank voices concern over ECB or German government policy, Germans become concerned. And so it is today. It has been widely reported in the German press that Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann has threatened to resign at least once in protest over potential German government participation in inflationary bail outs of distressed euro-area banks and governments. Apparently Chancellor Merkel has pleaded for Weidmann to remain at the helm and so far she has succeeded.
But what if she should fail? What if Weidmann does indeed resign in protest at some point? His former colleagues Axel Weber and Juergen Stark have already done so (In Stark’s case, from the ECB, not the Bundesbank). What if some of his Bundesbank board colleagues join him?
I can’t emphasise this point enough: The institution of the Bundesbank is held in such high regard among the German public that should Weidmann and any portion of his colleagues resign in formal protest of bailouts in whatever form, it may well bring down the German government, throw any bailout arrangement into complete chaos, spark a huge rout in distressed euro-area sovereign and bank debt and quite possibly result in a partial or even complete breakup of the euro-area. The Bundesbank thus represents the normally unseen foundation on which the entire euro project rests. Should it remove its support, it may all come crashing down.
But why would the Bundesbank ever do such a thing? Isn’t it just a bureaucracy like any other, expected to serve the government? Well, no. Consider the unique role of the Bundesbank under German Law. It is not answerable to the government. It is its own regulator. Its board members are appointed by the president—the head of state—not the chancellor, the head of the government. Its employees are sworn to secrecy during both their active service and in retirement. The Bundesbank alone determines whether its employees have infringed its code of conduct and determines what disciplinary actions, if any, should be taken.
Weidmann’s intransigence is thus entirely in line with German law and tradition. The Bundesbank, by design, will confront the government if it believes that such action is necessary to carry out its mandate. And what is that mandate? As per the original Bundesbank Act, “The preservation of the value of German currency.” Previously the mark, the euro is now the German currency and the Bundesbank’s mandate