Tuesday, 6 July 2010

us like 1932/gs and hunger/economics isn't science


With the US trapped in depression, this really is starting to feel like 1932

The US workforce shrank by 652,000 in June, one of the sharpest contractions ever. The rate of hourly earnings fell 0.1pc. Wages are flirting with deflation.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
04 Jul 2010

People queue for a job fair in New York
People queue for a job fair in New York. The share of the US working-age population with jobs in June fell from 58.7pc to 58.5pc. The ratio was 63pc three years ago. Photo: EPA

"The economy is still in the gravitational pull of the Great Recession," said Robert Reich, former US labour secretary. "All the booster rockets for getting us beyond it are failing."

"Home sales are down. Retail sales are down. Factory orders in May suffered their biggest tumble since March of last year. So what are we doing about it? Less than nothing," he said.

California is tightening faster than Greece. State workers have seen a 14pc fall in earnings this year due to forced furloughs. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is cutting pay for 200,000 state workers to the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to cover his $19bn (£15bn) deficit.

Can Illinois be far behind? The state has a deficit of $12bn and is $5bn in arrears to schools, nursing homes, child care centres, and prisons. "It is getting worse every single day," said state comptroller Daniel Hynes. "We are not paying bills for absolutely essential services. That is obscene."

Roughly a million Americans have dropped out of the jobs market altogether over the past two months. That is the only reason why the headline unemployment rate is not exploding to a post-war high.

Let us be honest. The US is still trapped in depression a full 18 months into zero interest rates, quantitative easing (QE), and fiscal stimulus that has pushed the budget deficit above 10pc of GDP.

The share of the US working-age population with jobs in June actually fell from 58.7pc to 58.5pc. This is the real stress indicator. The ratio was 63pc three years ago. Eight million jobs have been lost.

The average time needed to find a job has risen to a record 35.2 weeks. Nothing like this has been seen before in the post-war era. Jeff Weniger, of Harris Private Bank, said this compares with a peak of 21.2 weeks in the Volcker recession of the early 1980s.

"Legions of individuals have been left with stale skills, and little prospect of finding meaningful work, and benefits that are being exhausted. By our math the crop of people who are unemployed but not receiving a check amounts to 9.2m."

Republicans on Capitol Hill are filibustering a bill to extend the dole for up to 1.2m jobless facing an imminent cut-off. Dean Heller from Nevada called them "hobos". This really is starting to feel like 1932.

Washington's fiscal stimulus is draining away. It peaked in the first quarter, yet even then the economy eked out a growth rate of just 2.7pc. This compares with 5.1pc, 9.3pc, 8.1pc and 8.5pc in the four quarters coming off recession in the early 1980s.

The housing market is already crumbling as government props are pulled away. The expiry of homebuyers' tax credit led to a 30pc fall in the number of buyers signing contracts in May. "It is cataclysmic," said David Bloom from HSBC.

Federal tax rises are automatically baked into the pie. The Congressional Budget Office said fiscal policy will swing from
a net +2pc of GDP to -2pc by late 2011. The states and counties may have to cut as much as $180bn.

Investors are starting to chew over the awful possibility that America's recovery will stall just as Asia hits the buffers. China's manufacturing index has been falling since January, with a downward lurch in June to 50.4, just above the break-even line of 50. Momentum seems to be flagging everywhere, whether in Australian building permits, Turkish exports, or Japanese industrial output.

On Friday, Jacques Cailloux from RBS put out a "double-dip alert" for Europe. "The risk is rising fast. Absent an effective policy intervention to tackle the debt crisis on the periphery over coming months, the European economy will double dip in 2011," he said.

It is obvious what that policy should be for Europe, America, and Japan. If budgets are to shrink in an orderly fashion over several years – as they must, to avoid sovereign debt spirals – then central banks will have to cushion the blow keeping monetary policy ultra-loose for as long it takes.

The Fed is already eyeing the printing press again. "It's appropriate to think about what we would do under a deflationary scenario," said Dennis Lockhart for the Atlanta Fed. His colleague Kevin Warsh said the pros and cons of purchasing more bonds should be subject to "strict scrutiny", a comment I took as confirmation that the Fed Board is arguing internally about QE2.

Perhaps naively, I still think central banks have the tools to head off disaster. The question is whether they will do so fast enough, or even whether they wish to resist the chorus of 1930s liquidation taking charge of the debate. Last week the Bank for International Settlements called for combined fiscal and monetary tightening, lending its great authority to the forces of debt-deflation and mass unemployment. If even the BIS has lost the plot, God help us.



How Goldman gambled on starvation

Speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of millions. What does it say about our system that we can so casually inflict so much pain?

Johann Hari
2 July 2010

By now, you probably think your opinion of Goldman Sachs and its swarm of Wall Street allies has rock-bottomed at raw loathing. You're wrong. There's more. It turns out that the most destructive of all their recent acts has barely been discussed at all. Here's the rest. This is the story of how some of the richest people in the world – Goldman, Deutsche Bank, the traders at Merrill Lynch, and more – have caused the starvation of some of the poorest people in the world.

It starts with an apparent mystery. At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 per cent, maize by 90 per cent, rice by 320 per cent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn't afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in more than 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, calls it "a silent mass murder", entirely due to "man-made actions."

see: jean ziegler: un nuremberg pour les speculateurs

Earlier this year I was in Ethiopia, one of the worst-hit countries, and people there remember the food crisis as if they had been struck by a tsunami. "My children stopped growing," a woman my age called Abiba Getaneh, told me. "I felt like battery acid had been poured into my stomach as I starved. I took my two daughters out of school and got into debt. If it had gone on much longer, I think my baby would have died."

Most of the explanations we were given at the time have turned out to be false. It didn't happen because supply fell: the International Grain Council says global production of wheat actually increased during that period, for example. It isn't because demand grew either: as Professor Jayati Ghosh of the Centre for Economic Studies in New Delhi has shown, demand actually fell by 3 per cent. Other factors – like the rise of biofuels, and the spike in the oil price – made a contribution, but they aren't enough on their own to explain such a violent shift.

To understand the biggest cause, you have to plough through some concepts that will make your head ache – but not half as much as they made the poor world's stomachs ache.

For over a century, farmers in wealthy countries have been able to engage in a process where they protect themselves against risk. Farmer Giles can agree in January to sell his crop to a trader in August at a fixed price. If he has a great summer, he'll lose some cash, but if there's a lousy summer or the global price collapses, he'll do well from the deal. When this process was tightly regulated and only companies with a direct interest in the field could get involved, it worked.

Then, through the 1990s, Goldman Sachs and others lobbied hard and the regulations were abolished. Suddenly, these contracts were turned into "derivatives" that could be bought and sold among traders who had nothing to do with agriculture. A market in "food speculation" was born.

So Farmer Giles still agrees to sell his crop in advance to a trader for £10,000. But now, that contract can be sold on to speculators, who treat the contract itself as an object of potential wealth. Goldman Sachs can buy it and sell it on for £20,000 to Deutsche Bank, who sell it on for £30,000 to Merrill Lynch – and on and on until it seems to bear almost no relationship to Farmer Giles's crop at all.

If this seems mystifying, it is. John Lanchester, in his superb guide to the world of finance, Whoops! Why Everybody Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, explains: "Finance, like other forms of human behaviour, underwent a change in the 20th century, a shift equivalent to the emergence of modernism in the arts – a break with common sense, a turn towards self-referentiality and abstraction and notions that couldn't be explained in workaday English." Poetry found its break with realism when T S Eliot wrote "The Wasteland". Finance found its Wasteland moment in the 1970s, when it began to be dominated by complex financial instruments that even the people selling them didn't fully understand.

So what has this got to do with the bread on Abiba's plate? Until deregulation, the price for food was set by the forces of supply and demand for food itself. (This was already deeply imperfect: it left a billion people hungry.) But after deregulation, it was no longer just a market in food. It became, at the same time, a market in food contracts based on theoretical future crops – and the speculators drove the price through the roof.

Here's how it happened. In 2006, financial speculators like Goldmans pulled out of the collapsing US real estate market. They reckoned food prices would stay steady or rise while the rest of the economy tanked, so they switched their funds there. Suddenly, the world's frightened investors stampeded on to this ground.

So while the supply and demand of food stayed pretty much the same, the supply and demand for derivatives based on food massively rose – which meant the all-rolled-into-one price shot up, and the starvation began. The bubble only burst in March 2008 when the situation got so bad in the US that the speculators had to slash their spending to cover their losses back home.

When I asked Merrill Lynch's spokesman to comment on the charge of causing mass hunger, he said: "Huh. I didn't know about that." He later emailed to say: "I am going to decline comment." Deutsche Bank also refused to comment. Goldman Sachs were more detailed, saying they sold their index in early 2007 and pointing out that "serious analyses ... have concluded index funds did not cause a bubble in commodity futures prices", offering as evidence a statement by the OECD.

How do we know this is wrong? As Professor Ghosh points out, some vital crops are not traded on the futures markets, including millet, cassava, and potatoes. Their price rose a little during this period – but only a fraction as much as the ones affected by speculation. Her research shows that speculation was "the main cause" of the rise.

So it has come to this. The world's wealthiest speculators set up a casino where the chips were the stomachs of hundreds of millions of innocent people. They gambled on increasing starvation, and won. Their Wasteland moment created a real wasteland. What does it say about our political and economic system that we can so casually inflict so much pain?

If we don't re-regulate, it is only a matter of time before this all happens again. How many people would it kill next time? The moves to restore the pre-1990s rules on commodities trading have been stunningly sluggish. In the US, the House has passed some regulation, but there are fears that the Senate – drenched in speculator-donations – may dilute it into meaninglessness. The EU is lagging far behind even this, while in Britain, where most of this "trade" takes place, advocacy groups are worried that David Cameron's government will block reform entirely to please his own friends and donors in the City.

Only one force can stop another speculation-starvation-bubble. The decent people in developed countries need to shout louder than the lobbyists from Goldman Sachs. The World Development Movement is launching a week of pressure this summer as crucial decisions on this are taken: text WDM to 82055 to find out what you can do.

The last time I spoke to her, Abiba said: "We can't go through that another time. Please – make sure they never, never do that to us again."




Time to shut down the US Federal Reserve?

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
June 29th, 2010

Like a mad aunt, the Fed is slowly losing its marbles.

Kartik Athreya, senior economist for the Richmond Fed, has written a paper condemning economic bloggers as chronically stupid and a threat to public order.

Matters of economic policy should be reserved to a priesthood with the correct post-doctoral credentials, which would of course have excluded David Hume, Adam Smith, and arguably John Maynard Keynes (a mathematics graduate, with a tripos foray in moral sciences).

Adam Smith didn't have an economics PhD

Adam Smith didn't have an economics PhD

“Writers who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department (and passed their PhD qualifying exams), cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy.”

Don’t you just love that throw-away line “decent”? Dr Athreya hails from the University of Iowa.

“The response of the untrained to the crisis has been startling. The real issue is that there is an extremely low likelihood that the speculations of the untrained, on a topic almost pathologically riddled by dynamic considerations and feedback effects, will offer anything new. Moreover, there is a substantial likelihood that it will instead offer something incoherent or misleading.”

You couldn’t make it up, could you?

“Economics is hard. Really hard. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mind-boggingly hard it is. I mean you may think doing the Sunday Times crossword is difficult, but that’s just peanuts to economics. And because it is so hard, people shouldn’t blithely go shooting their mouths off about it, and pretending like it’s so easy. In fact, we would all be better off if we just ignored these clowns.”

I hold my hand up Dr Athreya and plead guilty. I am grateful to Bruce Krasting’s blog for bringing this stinging rebuke to my attention.

However, Dr Athreya’s assertions cannot be allowed to pass. The current generation of economists have led the world into a catastrophic cul de sac. And if they think we are safely on the road to recovery, they still fail to understand what they did.

Central banks were the ultimate authors of the credit crisis since it is they who set the price of credit too low, throwing the whole incentive structure of the capitalist system out of kilter, and more or less forcing banks to chase yield and engage in destructive behaviour.

They ran ever-lower real interests with each cycle, allowed asset bubbles to run unchecked (Ben Bernanke was the cheerleader of that particular folly), blamed Anglo-Saxon over-consumption on excess Asian savings (half true, but still the silliest cop-out of all time), and believed in the neanderthal doctrine of “inflation targeting”. Have they all forgotten Keynes’s cautionary words on the “tyranny of the general price level” in the early 1930s? Yes they have.

They allowed the M3 money supply to surge at double-digit rates (16pc in the US and 11pc in euroland), and are now allowing it to collapse (minus 5.5pc in the US over the last year). Have they all forgotten the Friedman-Schwartz lessons on the quantity theory of money? Yes, they have. Have they forgotten Irving Fisher’s “Debt Deflation causes of Great Depressions”? Yes, most of them have. And of course, they completely failed to see the 2007-2009 crisis coming, or to respond to it fast enough when it occurred.

The Fed has since made a hash of quantitative easing, largely due to Bernanke’s ideological infatuation with “creditism”. QE has been large enough to horrify everybody (especially the Chinese) by its sheer size – lifting the balance sheet to $2.4 trillion – but it has been carried out in such a way that it does not gain full traction. This is the worst of both worlds. So much geo-political capital wasted to such modest and distorting effect.

The error was for the Fed to buy the bonds from the banking system (and we all hate the banks, don’t we) rather than going straight to the non-bank private sector. How about purchasing a herd of Texas Longhorn cattle? That would do it. The inevitable result of this is a collapse of money velocity as banks allow their useless reserves to swell.

And now the Fed tells us all to shut up. Fie to you sir.

The 20th Century was a horrible litany of absurd experiments and atrocities committed by intellectuals, or by elite groupings that claimed a higher knowledge. Simple folk usually have enough common sense to avoid the worst errors. Sometimes they need to take very stern action to stop intellectuals leading us to ruin.

The root error of the modern academy is to pretend (and perhaps believe, which is even less forgiveable), that economics is a science and answers to Newtonian laws.

In any case, Newton was wrong. He neglected the fourth dimension of time, as Einstein called it, and that is exactly what the new classical school of economics has done by failing to take into account the intertemporal effects of debt – now 360pc of GDP across the OECD bloc, if properly counted.

There has been a cosy self-delusion that rising debt is largely benign because it is merely money that society owes to itself. This is a bad error of judgement, one that the intuitive man in the street can see through immediately.

Debt draws forward prosperity, which leads to powerful overhang effects that are not properly incorporated into Fed models. That is the key reason why Ben Bernanke’s Fed was caught flat-footed when the crisis hit, and kept misjudging it until the events started to spin out of control.

Economics should never be treated as a science. Its claims are not falsifiable, which is why economists can disagree so violently among themselves: a rarer spectacle in science, where disputes are usually resolved one way or another by hard data.

It is a branch of anthropology and psychology, a moral discipline if you like. Anybody who loses sight of this is a public nuisance, starting with Dr Athreya.

As for the Fed, I venture to say that a common jury of 12 American men and women placed on the Federal Open Market Committee would have done a better job of setting monetary policy over the last 20 years than Doctors Bernanke and Greenspan.

Actually, Greenspan never got a Phd. His honourary doctorate was awarded later for political reasons. (He had been a Nixon speech-writer). But never mind.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard has covered world politics and economics for 25 years, based in Europe, the US, and Latin America. He joined the Telegraph in 1991, serving as Washington correspondent and later Europe correspondent in Brussels. He is now International Business Editor in London.

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