Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Krugman’

Keynesian Checkers versus Monetarist Three Dimensional Chess

April 28, 2013 1 comment

spock-chess-2

You can almost smell the frustration pouring off Paul Krugman these days, as he once again proclaims the latest in a series of victories of Keynesian economic theory over its monetarists opponents.

Says Krugman:

“Sorry, guys, but as a practical matter the Fed – while it should be doing more – can’t make up for contractionary fiscal policy in the face of a depressed economy.”

Krugman’s argument, which is a continuation and expansion on a more extensive argument by Mike Konczal can be simplified: Keynesian policies are better at generating an overworked working class than monetarist policies.

Read more…

Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: When a dollar was real money

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment

From Wikipedia: A picture of a pre-1933 gold certificate currency

I apologize for this part of the series, because it is hopelessly geeky. Unfortunately, I see no way to move forward without getting into the weeds of Marx’s unique contribution to the theory of money at this point. Please bear with me on this. As I really need to explain the difference, before 1933, between a token currency and the commodity money that underpinned its value. Without understanding this relationship, it is impossible to truly understand what happened when the dollar was removed from the gold standard in 1933. Nor is it possible to understand why ex nihilo dollars can’t tell us anything about anything.

*****

As I explained in the previous post, to become capital, a quantity of gold must be exchanged for ex nihilo currency, but this exchange also strips the capital of the value it contained when it was in the form of gold. This requires a bit of digression: In Marx’s labor theory of value, when a currency of a state no longer has a fixed exchange rate with gold, the value contained in a unit of gold no longer has any definite relationship with the use value of the currency as medium of circulation. This has a radical implication for political-economy that has been long overlooked by both Marxist and bourgeois economists. I will try to explain the implications of going off the gold standard using as little jargon as possible.

Background: Prior to debasement dollars served in the United States both as a measure of value contained in an individual commodity, and the medium of circulation for commodities. By the term “value”, I mean the labor time required by producers on average to produce any object. If an automobile takes as much time on average as a ounce of gold to be produced, we can say that the value of the car is equal to one ounce of gold. Gold acts as a socially valid measure of the value of other commodities when it is used as money. Before money was debased, the value of any good was loosely bound to some definite quantity of money because both the money and the commodity were the product of some definite expenditure of socially necessary labor time. The movement of market prices over a period of time worked to align the socially necessary labor time of a good with the quantity of money containing the same amount of socially necessary labor time. The two functions of money are closely connected: the price of any commodity, when this price was denominated in a currency that observed the gold standard, followed the general rule that, on average and over a period of time, this price was also a measure of the value contained in the commodity.

A token (e.g., paper) currency only could serve as measure of value contained in the commodity if it was fixed to a definite quantity of gold — for instance, prior to the Great Depression law stated one ounce of gold could be exchanged for 20.67 dollars. Since an ounce of gold always had a definite quantity of value (socially necessary labor time required to produce it) fixing the token currency to this definite amount of gold served to fix the currency itself to a definite amount of socially necessary labor time. Token currency, therefore, could only serve as the material expression of socially necessary labor time, because it was itself tied to gold.

We could say the term “dollar” was not only the name of the official currency, it was also the “name” established by law of some definite quantity of gold.

On the other hand, when used directly in circulation, a gold coin served as medium of circulation of commodities in such a way that its actual use in any particular exchange for commodties was very brief; the coin constantly moved from one person to another in the course of commerce — rarely, if ever, staying in one hand for long, since it would almost immediately be used in the next transaction. Marx argued gold in this function was, for several reasons, merely a token of itself used to facilitate the circulation of commodities.

One particular example of this token role was the use of a coin that had been eroded by use over a period of time and was now no longer of legal weight. Although the coin carried a legal definition of one dollar, its weight now no longer adhered to the standard of legal definition of a dollar. Since the coin was legally a dollar, but did not actually contain a dollar’s weight, if it continued in circulation it had been reduced to a token of itself. As a practical matter, this meant, within certain limits, the gold coin could be replaced in circulation by a token currency provided this token was redeemable for a definite quantity of gold. Thus, a token currency like the dollar could serve as money only because it had a fixed and definite relation with some commodity money.

*****

So, when the dollar was debased from gold, there was more at stake than a simple legal redefinition of money. The Roosevelt and Nixon administrations were severing the currency from the only thing that gave it the ability to express in price form the value contained in a commodity. This legal redefinition of what was officially called money, concealed within itself an unprecedented break in the role of prices in a modern economy. It would not be an exaggeration to say Roosevelt and Nixon, through their executive orders, chopped off Adam Smith’s invisible hand, and replaced it with the iron fist of Fascist State economic policy.

With the debasement of the currency, the two functions of money — measure of value contained in an individual commodity, and the medium of circulation for commodities — devolved on different objects whose relationship was no longer fixed and given. As the material to express the value contained in each commodity, gold no longer played a role as a medium of circulation of these commodities; while token currency, as medium for circulation of commodities, could no longer serve as the material to express their values in the prices we paid for goods.

But, the crises which produced this change offer an even more profound argument about why this debasement occurred. Every commodity is both a useful object and an object containing a definite amount of value (socially necessary labor time to produce it.) Debasement suggests that the routine exchange of commodities is now fundamentally at loggerheads with the routine production of these commodities. As an object containing value — i.e., a definite amount of socially necessary labor time — the commodity cannot circulate; as a particular useful object in circulation its value cannot be expressed. The solution adopted by the two administrations essentially severed rules governing  exchange from the rules governing production.

On the one hand, this means commodities no longer circulate as objects containing value, but only as particular useful objects differentiated only by their particular useful qualities. This conclusion will be both startling and controversial, because it also implies Marx’s law of value no longer determines exchange. The fact that currency has been debased from gold must force the conclusion that prices no longer express the values of the commodities to which they are attached.

By exchange, we can only mean the exchange of qualitatively different objects having equal values — so many pairs of shoes for so many pairs of pants — but the ex nihilo currency now serving as the medium of circulation has no value of its own, and, therefore, the price denominated in units of the currency cannot express the value of either the shoes or the pants.

After the debasement of the dollar, in any transaction between the seller of a commodity and the buyer with an ex nihilo currency, the seller of the commodity gives it to the holder of ex nihilo currency and receives in return nothing but a piece of paper. She gives away not only the particular use value she has, but also the value contained in this particular use value as well. While receiving ex nihilo currency in return for her commodity, she receives nothing in return for the value contained in her commodity. Although it appears otherwise, the exchange is not determined by the quantitative equivalence of the values contained in the two objects, but by qualitative differences in their respective use values alone.

On the other hand, things having no value at all — for instance, Predator drones — can now circulate alongside shoes and pants, the latter of which have both use value and value. This is already given in the successive transactions involving an ex nihilo currency and commodities, or in the exchange between any two ex nihilo currencies. The state can, for instance, produce a quantity of ex nihilo currency simply by crediting it to the account of a defense contractor and receive in return Predator drones to kill kids in Afghanistan. While the purchase of the drone by Washington using newly created ex nihilo currency looks like just another simple market transaction, and even shows up in measures of gross domestic product side by side with purchases like groceries or a new car — this appearance is really quite deceiving.

The most significant implication of the debasement of the currency that is completely overlooked by Marxist and bourgeois economists is this: once gold was removed as the standard of price by the Fascist State, not only did the currency lose its capacity to express the value of an individual commodity, the market as a whole lost the capacity to distinguish between productive labor and wasted unproductive labor. Rather than limiting society to the productive and efficient employment of labor power, the stage was set for something truly unprecedented: the relentless expansion of superfluous labor time and the attendant secular inflation of prices.

Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: The Price of Everything, The Value of Nothing

September 17, 2011 Leave a comment

“The mode of production is in rebellion against the mode of exchange.” — Frederick Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1880

Krugman confuses the superficial relations of exchange for a deeper analysis of the capitalist mode of production. This failing might help him when he wishes to ignore the likely results of this sort of examination, but when he actually tries to understand how capitalism works — for instance, why rising gold prices might be a warning sign of a deflationary event — his inability to get beyond the superficial appearances lead him straight into a dead end.

Had Krugman looked at data from the 1980s and 1990s, he would have immediately noticed the slide in the price of gold over that period, and the incongruity of this decline for his argument. His hypothesis turned things exactly upside down — associating a negative so-called real interest rate with a period of general expansion. This is at odds with historical evidence to the contrary: prior to 1934 rising prices and generally rising interest rates and profit have always been associated with economic growth.

Speaking of the impact of Fed’s current counter-cyclical strategy on the price of gold, Krugman writes:

…there has been a dramatic plunge in real interest rates…What effect should a lower real interest rate have on the Hotelling path? The answer is that it should get flatter: investors need less price appreciation to have an incentive to hold gold…if the price path is going to be flatter…it’s going to have to start from a higher initial level…And this says that the price of gold should jump in the short run…with lower interest rates, it makes more sense to hoard gold now…which means higher prices in the short run and the near future.

Krugman is arguing Federal Reserve policy over the last three years is responsible for more than a decade of persistently rising gold price. He wants to explain gold price movements by interest rates, when it is clear he should be explaining interest rates by the movement in gold prices. The data suggests he has the situation exactly reversed. Moreover, if the connection I have made between generally falling gold price and economic expansion is correct, logic suggests the Federal Reserve is not trying to reduce real interest rates, but working feverishly to raise them. The real interest rates is only the change in the price of dollars over a period of time measured in gold (or some other commodity serving as money). If, at the beginning of the year, the price of dollars is such that one ounce of gold can buy 1400 dollars, but at the end of the year this price has changed so that one ounce of gold can now only purchase 1260 dollars, the real price of dollars has increased by 10 percent — restated in conventional terms, the “price” of gold has fallen from $1400 an ounce to $1260 an ounce.

Since, as Krugman argues, the rising price of gold is a sign of a depressed economy, it follows that a falling annual average price of gold must be evidence, at least, that this depression may be lifting. When the price of gold is falling, as during the 1980s and 1990s, it is a sign that real interest rates are positive, not negative. Moreover, it is a sign that the purchasing power of gold, as measured in dollars, is falling. Which is just what I would expect based on Marx’s theory of value.

All of this forces me to conclude the question of whether there is a persistent inflation or deflation hinges not on the general price level as measured in dollars or some other ex nihilo currency, but on the real price level — the purchasing power of gold (the purest commodity money) as measured in the sum of dollars or other ex nihilo currency a definite unit of this commodity money can purchase. When the quantity of dollars a troy ounce of gold can purchase is increasing, deflation is positive; when the quantity of dollars a troy ounce of gold is falling, deflation is negative. But, from the standpoint of the ex nihilo currency the situation is reversed: as the price of a troy ounce of gold decreases, the so-called real interest rate is positive; when the price of a troy ounce of gold increases, the so-called real interest rate is negative.

Rather than removing the change in the general price level from the equation of nominal interest rates, so-called real interest rates are only a measure of the change in the price of ex nihilo currency.

*****

As we stated in the previous part of this series, gold is money, dollars are not — this is also true for all ex nihilo currencies in the world market, they are not money. The object serving as money is the material expression of the value contained in commodities solely because it is itself a product of a definite quantity of human labor. However, the value contained in a single dollar bill is the same as that contained in a one hundred dollar bill — or that contained in $700 billion created with a few keystrokes in a computer terminal at the Federal Reserve Bank in Washington; namely, zero. Once this is understood, it is possible to see that holders of ex nihilo currencies do not buy gold — that dollars are not here serving in the exchange as the money pole in the transaction, but as something else. Rather the situation precisely is the reverse: the holders of ex nihilo currencies are sellers who auction off their currencies to the highest bidder, while the holders of gold buy these worthless currencies from their holders.

Although it appears otherwise on the surface — that we must explain why, and under what circumstances, the holders of currency will choose to place their savings in gold — the case is exactly opposite of appearances: the fact that gold is exchanged for a valueless currency requires us to explain not why the holder of an ex nihilo currency would want to get out of her holdings of dollars or euros, but why the holders of gold would want to exchange their gold for these worthless currencies.

To be sure, since the ex nihilo currencies have no value, they are not purchased for their value. If dollars are not purchased for their value, the motivation for the exchange on the part of the holder of gold cannot be the value contained in the ex nihilo currency but the use value of the currency to the holders of gold. While gold serves especially well as a store of value, as a form of riskless savings, these saving can only become capital if this gold can be turned into land, machinery, factories, and other elements of fixed and circulating capital, and, above all, into a mass of labor power that is the source of surplus value and what makes real capital out of capital. For the owner of a hoard of gold to actually become the owner of a mass of capital, this gold must be converted into one or another currency, allowing it to assume the form of money-capital. This conversion is nothing more than the conversion of money into capital once removed.

The conditions determining this conversion are established by laws in each nation, which determine what is and is not to be used as money within the borders of that particular nation. If the laws of a nation establish that its currency shall exchange with an ounce of gold for, say, $20.67 per ounce, then the owner of gold can use his hoard to purchase 20.67 dollars for each ounce of gold he is willing to give in exchange. If the laws of the nation should suddenly change, so that now an ounce of gold will exchange for $35, then the owner of gold use his hoard to purchase 35 dollars for each ounce of gold he is willing to give in exchange. Finally, if the laws of a nation establish that its currency will have no fixed exchange rate with an ounce of gold, then the owner of gold must search in the market for the best exchange rate for the currency concerned. All other things equal, in the first two cases, the capacity of the state to issue currency is more or less severely constrained by the need to maintain the proper balance between the quantity of currency in circulation and the quantity of gold it must represent. In the final case, this constraint is relaxed.

If the point of the exchange of an ounce of gold for any quantity of dollars was a mere commodity transaction, the owner of the gold would be giving her gold away for free, no matter the quantity of dollars she received in return. Since the dollars contain no value, were the exchange regulated by the law of value, it would require an infinite quantity of dollars to equal the value in one ounce of gold. It should be obvious that equal exchange plays no role in this transaction, but only the laws of the state concerned. The state has determined that its ex nihilo currency is money; should the capitalist wish to turn his hoard of gold into capital, and become a real not imaginary capitalist, he must purchase this ex nihilo currency. He, therefore, purchases not the value contained in the dollars, but the use value of the dollars: its capacity to become capital.

It is the use value of the currency — its capacity to become capital — that serves as the basis for determining the exchange ratio of an ounce of gold with the currency, i.e., that determines the price of dollars expressed in units of gold, or, in the eyes of simpleton economists like Paul Krugman — whose point of view is determined by the needs of Fascist State monetary and fiscal policies, as “essentially a capitalist machine” — determines the price of gold. The use value of currency consists entirely of its use as capital, as self-expanding value, as value set in motion for the purpose of creating more value. From the point of view of the owner of gold, the ex nihilo currency is but the form his gold must take on, before it can take the form of capital — of fixed and circulating capital, and of labor power. Far from being something mysterious, it is actually no more mysterious than the need to exchange dollars for euros in order to purchase fixed and circulating capital and labor power in the Eurozone. What motivates this latter exchange is not the exchange rate of dollars for euros, but the specific use to which these euros can be put as capital.

There is, however, a problem with this that might throw a monkey wrench into the gears of capitalist production: to assume the form of capital, our would be capitalist must exchange his gold, containing real value, for a currency containing no value of its own. To expand the value of his gold holding, the capitalist must first strip off the value of the gold. What does he get in exchange for this quantity of gold? He receives in return some quantity of use value in the form of so many dollars, which, despite their usefulness as capital, contain not a single jot of value. The capitalist places this quantity of dollars in motion as a capital, and, after some period of time, withdraws it plus an additional quantity of dollars which make up the profit on his activity. But, it is not until he has reconverted this quantity of dollars back into gold, and assured himself that, indeed, the new quantity of gold is greater than the original quantity, will he know that, in fact, his gold became capital.

When there is a fixed exchange rate between a definite unit of gold and a definite unit of dollars, it is not at all complicated to assess whether the capitalist currency profit is also a definite quantity of surplus value. However, when the exchange rate between a definite unit of gold and a definite quantity of dollars is subject to fluctuations within the world market, assessing whether some profit in currency form is actually surplus value is complicated by the fluctuations in the rate of exchange itself.

The capitalist exchanges 100 ounces of gold for dollars at a given rate of 1000 dollars per ounce of gold. He then places this total capital of $100,000 in motion as capital; later drawing out of it a new sum of $150,000 — $100,000 is his initial capital plus a profit of $50,000. However, upon reconverting his $150,000 back into gold, he is surprised to find that his 100 ounces of gold is now only 50 ounces of gold, or, alternately, has grown to 200 ounces of gold. In the first case, this is because the new exchange rate of gold has changed from 1000 dollars to an ounce of gold to 3000 dollars to an ounce of gold. In the second instance, the exchange rate has changed from 1000 dollars to an ounce of gold to 750 dollars to an ounce of gold. In the first instance, he has lost fifty percent of his capital; while, in the second instance, he has doubled his capital.

Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: Why gold is money and dollars are kindling

September 12, 2011 Leave a comment

I have a simple hypothesis for how Krugman managed to reach the correct conclusion regarding the relationship between the price of gold and the general level of economic activity: he probably started with his conclusion and tried to work backward. He needed an argument for why the rising price of gold might signal deflation rather than inflation. So, he took his conclusion and looked for some argument on which he might hang this conclusion.

Hey, it happens sometimes — that is how intuition works. The problem in this case is that Krugman’s argument requires us to ignore so many facts it is clear he did not think the problem through completely.

The upward sloping demand curve for gold (2001-2011)

The most vital empirical fact Krugman overlooks is the rather jarring upward slope of the demand curve for gold. This means increasing demand for gold is driven by its increasing price (if not completely insensitive to price altogether). If this seems bizarre, that’s because the actual relationship between gold and currency is reversed in the demand schedule. The demand schedule for gold can be restated thus: the quantity of dollars demanded in the market is the inverse function of its price in ounces of gold. In other words, if the observation of our gold-bug in China can be believed, ex nihilo dollars is the “commodity”, and gold is its price. I am not the first person to note this. The writer, FOFOA, often quotes another anonymous writer from 1998, who observed:

It is gold that denominates currency.

FOFOA, commenting on this argument, states:

Gold bids for dollars. If gold stops bidding for dollars (low gold velocity), the price (in gold) of a dollar falls to zero.

The upward slope of the demand curve for gold can be seen in the above chart for the years 2001 to 2010, using data, supplied by the World Gold Council, of demand for gold in the form of bars and coin plus gold purchased by exchange traded funds. The pronounced upward slope is unmistakable. This curve suggests that the story of gold as just another commodity is wildly off-base.

To put this in terms that might be less opaque, when CNBC states an ounce of gold is going for $1400, they are not telling you the value of an ounce of gold, but the value represented by 1,400 dollars, using an ounce of gold as the unit of measure. Gold is money by reason of its natural (physical) properties; while dollars are money only through the fiction of a state law that says they must be accepted as payment for transactions. Having no value of their own, the value represented by a quantity of dollars is solely dependent on the ratio between this quantity of dollars and a definite quantity of gold (or, some other commodity that can serve as money in the relationship). So, when Krugman proposes to explain the “real price of gold” in this situation, he is employing a meaningless term. Unbeknownst to him, he is merely asking what quantity of gold can be used to purchase that quantity of gold. If, instead, he had asked what determines the “real price” of a dollar in gold terms, it would immediately have been obvious that the price of a dollar is the physical quantity of gold that can purchase it. Moreover, it would have been obvious that the change in the price of the dollar is identical to the change in the quantity of gold with which it can be purchased — in other words, that the so-called “real interest rate” of dollars is equal to the change in the quantity of dollars that gold can buy over some period of time.

*****

Average annual price of gold (1980-2011)

Now that we solved the riddle of the unusual demand curve for gold, we can resolve, as well, the paradox of ex nihilo currency real interest rates in the United States over the long period from 1980 until now. As I stated in the last post, Krugman’s argument implied interest rates were negative for most of the 1980s and 1990s, and that interest rates have been positive since 2001.  Now, it is obvious that the case must have been the exact opposite of Krugman’s implicit argument: For most of the 1980s and 1990s, as the average annual price of gold fell, the real interest rate averaged +5% per year. This is because the quantity of gold necessary to purchase a given quantity of dollars — i.e., the real price of dollars — was increasing over that 20 year period by 5% per year. In 1980, an ounce of gold could purchase $595, but by 2001, it could only purchase $271. By the same token, as the average annual gold price has risen at an average rate of 15% per year for the entire period from 2001 to 2011, this implies the real interest rate has been -15% per year over the period.

Since, gold is money (a specific money commodity at least), we can explain its use as a store of value. When gold serves as a store of value, it is merely serving as a form of savings for its holders. In this case it becomes clear why gold is a preferred form of saving. First, it has an unlimited shelf-life; but, second, and more important, Washington cannot devalue gold as it can dollars, by printing dollars indiscriminately.

We can also explain the relation between gold and dollars: gold is money, and ex nihilo currency is not. Gold has value but no purchasing power — you can’t use it to buy groceries — since it is not legally recognized as money and it does not serve as the standard of prices. On the other hand, while ex nihilo currency has no value, it does have purchasing power, since it is officially recognized as money and serves as the standard of prices. However, despite the legal definition of the dollar as official money in the United States, money is not just whatever the state says it is. It is a real relation between members of society that exists independent of the thing government legally defines as money (or, even the commodity serving as money).

What else dollars might be is not our concern right now.

When a worthless ex nihilo currency has a floating exchange rate against gold, it doesn’t represent any real value itself but only that expressed in its actual exchange rate with gold over a period of time. Based on this, it is now clear that the “real price” of a good is not its ex nihilo currency price — as measured in so many dollars — but the definite quantity of gold that can purchase this quantity of dollars. Even if it is not obvious to us in our daily shopping activities, the “real price” of a commodity is derived from the quantity of gold that can be used to purchase the quantity of money listed as the price of the commodity.

*****

We have examined the relation between gold and ex nihilo dollars, showing that gold is money while dollars are not. We also showed why the value represented by any quantity of dollars is only an expression of the value contained in a definite quantity of gold that can purchase this definite quantity of dollars.

So, for example, the value of the price of a 42 inch, wide-screen, high definition, plasma television at Best Buy, with a price of $1400, has the value of one ounce of gold when that ounce of gold can purchase 1,400 dollars. If that ounce of gold can purchase 2,800 dollars, then the television has the value equal to one half ounce of gold. And, if,  If that ounce of gold can purchase only 700 dollars, then the television has the value equal to two ounces of gold. In any case, the price of the television only reflects the value of the quantity of gold that can purchase a quantity of dollars equal to that price.

It might appear, at first, that the value of the television could be doubled simply by doubling its price, but this would be an error. As we stated above, the dollars used in such a transaction have no value of their own, and, therefore, cannot express the value of either the television or gold. So, if the prices of all goods were suddenly doubled, this would not result in the doubling of the value of the total output; it would simply double the dollar price of the existing output — leaving the value of the output unchanged. The relationship between the value contained in the commodity and the corresponding value contained in a unit of gold is determined not by the price paid for the commodity, but their respective socially necessary labor times of production. As long as these respective socially necessary labor times do not change relative to each other, the change in dollar price of either is of no consequence.

This statement has implications for both calculating inflation and nominal interest rates, as we will see in the next post.

Paul Krugman on interest rates and gold: “Mr. Magoo, you’ve done it again”

September 10, 2011 Leave a comment

"ROAD HOG!!"

Once again, Paul Krugman manages to stumble Mr. Magoo-like to his analytical destination through a series of comical errors.

Krugman’s argument on gold and deflation is actually an argument on gold and depressions. Krugman begins by explaining that rising gold price has been popularly linked to the prospect of inflation created by the monetary policies of the Federal Reserve Bank. He has ignored this argument, because he thinks Fed policy is far too restrictive to create inflation — deflation is his worry. He has, in fact, brushed rising gold prices aside as something caused by gold-bugs and the like — until now.

Now, he thinks, he can explain why rising gold price may actually be an expected outcome of a deflation, not inflation. I know Krugman’s argument here is flawed, but coincidentally on the right side of the relation: rising gold price implies the economy is experiencing a depression but this real contraction of economic activity does not necessarily lead to a general fall of prices — the deflation Krugman thinks he can explain. So, I want to examine his argument to locate the fallacy in it.

In the model Krugman is using, gold is an ordinary commodity like oil or coal; i.e., without any significant monetary properties. Gold is used primarily for its industrial applications:

Imagine that there’s a fixed stock of gold available right now, and that over time this stock gradually disappears into real-world uses like dentistry. (Yes, gold gets mined, and there’s a more or less perpetual demand for gold that just sits there; never mind for now).

At this point, we need to make explicit what Krugman wants to dismiss in the set up of his argument: First, he is dismissing what is undeniably the most important use of gold: its use as money, as measure of value and as standard of prices. The use of gold as a way to store value — as gold “that just sits there” — does not consume the gold; it simply sits in a bank vault or some other storage facility and is rarely if ever moved, except to be transferred to the ownership of another person. What makes gold ideal for this is that it has a shelf-life that is unlimited — because it does not corrode or otherwise decompose. Even as standard of price gold does not necessarily get consumed. If it is used as currency it may be eroded during the course of circulation. But if it is not directly used as currency, this is not true — again, it simply sits in a bank vault until it is exchanged for paper tokens of itself.

Second, Krugman wants us to ignore the fact that the existing stock of gold is constantly being added to by production of new gold from sources deep in the earth. Most of this new gold also does not enter into production, but is used for its principal purpose as money — as a store of value (savings). Production of gold has to be important in any explanation because of a unique characteristic this gold production has: the production of gold does not appear to be significantly affected by the laws of supply and demand. While the price of gold may rise or fall, the amount of gold produced manages to remain in a very narrow band; rarely, if ever falling out of this narrow limit — e.g. between 2001 and 2010 production ranged between 2400 to 2650 tons per year, while prices quadrupled. As a commodity, gold behaves very curiously in a non-commodity fashion

These two objections are enough to raise serious questions about Paul’s entire model, but, for the moment, we will set them aside and continue to examine Paul’s argument:

The rate at which gold disappears into teeth — the flow demand for gold, in tons per year — depends on its real price

We have a fixed stock of gold that is gradually being consumed by various uses in production. Krugman argues that the rate this stock of gold is consumed will depend on its “real” price. What is the “real” price of gold, and how does this differ from the nominal currency price of gold? Krugman does not tell me. He simply throws the term out there and expects me to figure it out for myself. Since, I can only price gold in an existing currency, I assume by “real” price, Krugman means its currency, e.g. dollar, price. We will see why my assumption is not be correct — gold, it turns out, does not have a price, “real” or otherwise. For now, let’s continue:

Crucially, at least for tractability, there is a “choke price” — a price at which flow demand goes to zero. As we’ll see next, this price helps tie down the price path.

Krugman is arguing there is a price at which the “flow demand” (the money demand for a good over time) for gold in the market goes to zero. He slips this assumption into his argument without discussing it, but I am forced to wonder how he arrives at this statement. Certainly, for use as an ordinary commodity, as a commodity used in industrial processes, we can assume there is a point at which the price of gold might become prohibitive. But, as money — as store of value, or as the standard of prices — is there any evidence that gold has a price point at which demand for its goes to zero? Well, no and yes. One of the paradoxes of gold is that demand tends to increase along with the price. Here is just one example taken from a gold-bug (he even calls himself “Mr. Gold”) doing research on China’s demand for gold:

When at the beginning of this century I studied the elasticity of gold demand to incomes, I was stunned by how steep the demand curve was in China.  PRC gold demand was unlike in any other country because, precisely, it was upward sloping – the more expensive the gold, the more the Chinese bought of it.  The trend has not changed since then…

Note, how this gold-bug asserts the demand curve for gold is “unlike in any other country because, precisely, it was upward sloping.” This is hardly true, as we can see at least in the anecdotal evidence with demand for gold in the United States — the hysteria for gold increases as the price of the metal increases here as well. This pattern of behavior is not unusual if we assume gold is exhibiting the kind of money-like qualities associated with appreciating currencies. As a currency appreciates, demand for it increases. This suggests that price is driving demand, not vice-versa, that the demand curve for gold is upward sloping — which is to say, the higher the price rises, the greater the demand for gold. Moreover, there is no evidence of a price point, no matter how high, where the demand for gold goes to zero.

To argue this another way: In the real world, economists argue that deflation reduces the willingness of individuals to part with their money for commodities. They hold onto it as they anticipate even lower prices in the future. It is clear that gold is behaving in this fashion — as its price increases — which is to say, as its purchasing power increases — people want to hold onto it, and hold more of it. A hypothesis which does not account for this money-like behavior is not a hypothesis at all.

However, even if there is no price point where the demand for gold goes to zero, this does not mean there is no price point where “flow” goes to zero. If gold does indeed exhibit money-like qualities with an upward sloping ‘demand curve’, this would imply gold can fall to some price below which it no longer circulates as money. We can return to this point later as well.

Krugman now turns to the core question of his post:

So what determines the price of gold at any given point in time? Hotelling models say that people are willing to hold onto an exhaustible resources because they are rewarded with a rising price.

At this point we should say something about this “Hotelling model”. Harold Hotelling developed an economic model to describe how cartels act to restrain the supply of a commodity in the market in order to maximize profit, that is, the return on their investment in the production of the commodity. The Wikipedia has this to say about Hotelling’s Rule regarding scarcity rent — excess profit derived by creating scarcity in the supply of a product:

Hotelling’s rule defines the net price path as a function of time while maximising economic rent in the time of fully extracting a non-renewable natural resource. The maximum rent is also known as Hotelling rent or scarcity rent and is the maximum rent that could be obtained while emptying the stock resource. In an efficient exploitation of a non-renewable and non-augmentable resource, the percentage change in net-price per unit of time should equal the discount rate in order to maximise the present value of the resource capital over the extraction period.

Simply stated, if I have a commodity that will eventually be exhausted, I will manage its production so that, over the lifetime of its production, the amount of money I can charge for it will be maximized. Think about, for instance, OPEC, who wants to be sure they produce no more oil each year than is demanded by the market when the price of oil is the highest and the amount demand is the greatest.

The problem with applying this rule to a stock of gold is that, as we saw above, gold exhibits the characteristic features of a money, not of an ordinary commodity. This will seem to be a non sequitur to Krugman’s core argument — until you realize the aim of maximizing rent on the production of a commodity is to maximize the quantity of money one receives in return for that commodity. Essentially, Krugman is arguing that owners of a lifeless hoard of gold sitting in a vault seek to maximize rent on that lifeless hoard of gold sitting in a vault.

Since the gold never moves from the vault, never enters into circulation, never exchanges with other commodities, and, thereby, become the form of the profits sought by producers of commodities, its role in its own price appreciation or depreciation must be completely passive — it is a mere victim of circumstance, a bystander to events. Whatever the change in the price of gold that occurs must be the result of other processes in the economy that impose themselves on the price of gold, causing this price to vary over time.

So, whatever is happening with the price of gold is not the result of any change in the behavior of the owners of the commodity, nor of any rent maximizing effort on their part. In fact, from what we have seen above, there is no reason to assume the owners of gold do anything with this gold except hold onto it. The entire point of having the gold is to hold it irrespective of any change in its price. While there may be some fluctuations of willingness to hold gold at the margins — of interest in supplies of newly produced gold — the great bulk of gold is likely no more traded than do people trade their savings in any other form. The question raised by this is obvious:

What determines the preference of individuals to hold their savings in the form of gold as opposed to some other form? But, we will leave this to the side as well for now.

Krugman next states:

Abstracting from storage costs, this says that the real price [of gold] must rise at a rate equal to the real rate of interest.

As with the “real price” of gold, I am at a loss at to what the “real rate of interest” refers. So, I went looking for a definition of the term on Wikipedia and found this:

“The nominal interest rate is the amount, in money terms, of interest payable.

For example, suppose a household deposits $100 with a bank for 1 year and they receive interest of $10. At the end of the year their balance is $110. In this case, the nominal interest rate is 10% per annum.

The real interest rate, which measures the purchasing power of interest receipts, is calculated by adjusting the nominal rate charged to take inflation into account. (See real vs. nominal in economics.)

If inflation in the economy has been 10% in the year, then the $110 in the account at the end of the year buys the same amount as the $100 did a year ago. The real interest rate, in this case, is zero.”

Krugman is arguing that the price of gold will rise or fall to reflect interest rates once inflation has been stripped out of the equation. If the real interest rate is positive, gold will tend to appreciate relative to currency. If the real interest rate is negative, gold will tend to depreciate relative to currency. If, at the end of a year $100 in your savings account has increased to $110, and inflation that year is zero, an ounce of gold will appreciate by a proportional amount — say, from $1400 to $1540.  If, at the end of a year $100 in your savings account has decreased to $90, and inflation that year is zero, an ounce of gold will depreciate by a proportional amount — say, from $1400 to $1260.

This latter example would likely cause some difficulties: you would go storming into your local bank branch to inquire why you were being charged an astonishing ten percent a year to keep your money in the bank. Once informed that the current interest rate charge by your bank was now -10% per year, you would promptly withdraw your funds — triggering what, in time, will grow into a run on the bank, as everyone withdraws their saving in the face of stiff new negative interest rates.

Why might this cause some difficulties? Between 1980 and 2001, the average annual price of gold fell on average by 5 percent per year; while, since 2001, the average annual price of gold has risen on average by 15 percent per year. The surprising result of Krugman’s argument is that, after accounting for inflation, real interest rates were negative for most of the 80s and 90s, but have been decidedly positive since then.

We will leave this for later examination as well.

Krugman concludes the recent jump in the price of gold is the result of the Federal Reserve Bank’s zero interest rate policy:

Now ask the question, what has changed recently that should affect this equilibrium path? And the answer is obvious: there has been a dramatic plunge in real interest rates, as investors have come to perceive that the Lesser Depression will depress returns on investment for a long time to come:

What effect should a lower real interest rate have on the Hotelling path? The answer is that it should get flatter: investors need less price appreciation to have an incentive to hold gold.

There are two things I question about this reasoning. First, the price of a troy ounce of gold has been increasing since 2001, when it hit bottom at an annual average price of $271. That means, for whatever reason having nothing to do with the Fed’s zero interest rate policy, investors have had an incentive to hold gold as its purchasing power, measured in dollars, has been rising for a decade now. Second, since in my argument, gold is playing only a passive role, the historical evidence suggests the Fed’s zero interest rate policy is being driven by the same forces that are also causing gold to appreciate in price and investors to hoard it.

Rather than driving events, the Fed’s zero interest rate policy is completely reactive. Simply stated, based on Krugman’s argument, the Fed’s zero interest rate policy is not sending capitals scurrying into gold and driving gold price higher, rather it is responding to whatever economic forces are doing this, and, driving real interest rates to an average 15% a year for the last decade — it is trying to drive real interest rates negative to reverse those forces, and to reverse the depressed return on investment.

We will show why this argument falls flat on its face as well

Says Krugman:

The logic, if you think about it, is pretty intuitive: with lower interest rates, it makes more sense to hoard gold now and push its actual use further into the future, which means higher prices in the short run and the near future.

The evidence is, in fact, the exact opposite: the behavior of gold indicates the Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy is a failure so far (along with all the fiscal stimulus and backdoor bailouts) since, despite the effort and unprecedented scale of the various policy actions, the price of gold indicates interest rates remain stubbornly high at levels not seen since the 1970s depression. And, moreover, still increasing.

Nevertheless his string of errors in reasoning, Krugman manages to end up, Mr. Magoo-like, at what is somewhat close to the right conclusion:

…this is essentially a “real” story about gold, in which the price has risen because expected returns on other investments have fallen; it is not, repeat not, a story about inflation expectations. Not only are surging gold prices not a sign of severe inflation just around the corner, they’re actually the result of a persistently depressed economy stuck in a liquidity trap — an economy that basically faces the threat of Japanese-style deflation, not Weimar-style inflation. So people who bought gold because they believed that inflation was around the corner were right for the wrong reasons.

Krugman is correct to state rising gold price is a sign of an economy in a depression, where returns on investment have fallen flat. He is also correct to state gold is not signalling future inflation. But, Krugman arrives the correct conclusion only by making a series of Mr. Magoo-like blunders that just manage to offset each other — blunders, which, when stripped out of his argument, allow a simpler explanation for the relation between gold and real interest rates.

In the next part of this series, I will show why Krugman’s model, although arriving at something close to the truth of the matter, is nevertheless wholly wrong.

Inflation, the negative rate of profit, and the Fascist State (Part six)

April 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I need to digress for a moment to set everything I have discussed so far regarding inflation in the context of the world market. As will become clear, it is difficult, if not impossible to discuss inflation without taking into account the relation between the two. Inflation, as I have argued, can be understood as the chronic secular rise of prices for commodities, yet, it can also be understood as the chronic fall in the general level of consumption in an economy over a period of time. These two expressions of inflation do not simply exist as poles of a definition of inflation, but first and foremost as poles of the actually existing relation of production within the world market — a chronic, secular rise in prices of commodities on the one hand, and a chronic fall in the general level of consumption — of wages — on the other.

Inflation and the faux political battle over Austerity

One way to begin this is to look at the current faux political struggle unfolding in Washington over deficit spending by the Fascist State, since this faux struggle touches on one of the most glaring expressions of the imbalances within the world market. So, let’s examine the argument of the advocates of Austerity from the standpoint of Marx’s labor theory of value:

According to these sober persons, the United States must pay its debts. Since it must pay its debts — for instance, the US owes China $3 trillion — it must contain spending to a level consistent with this goal. Of course, the statement that the United States owes China $3 trillion is a non-sequitur in relation to domestic spending and taxes, since the US doesn’t pay China with revenues raised through taxes. It creates the money out of nothing. If China is concerned about getting its money, a faceless bureaucrat at the Treasury simply goes to a computer terminal and enters a 3 followed by 12 zeroes into an account designated by China. Now the PRC has its $3 trillion and we need not talk about Austerity. They get what we promised them: $3 trillion, and nothing more.

As the economist advocates of Modern Monetary Theory argue, this process is no different than what occurs when you withdraw cash from your savings account at the bank or transfer cash from your savings account to your checking account. US treasuries are simply China’s own savings account.

Now, what does China do with the $3 trillion? They have absolutely no domestic use for it, since the yuan serves as the domestic currency, not dollars. The PRC could use the money to import wage commodities to raise the material standard. But if they had any intention of doing this, the $3 trillion would not have been loaned to the United States in the first place. The PRC could also use the money to import capital commodities to increase the rate of domestic economic growth. However, even if they used the money this way. it would only result in more exports and even greater trade surpluses denominated in dollars. We have to assume that China has absolutely no use for the dollars — that the dollars are excess capital, which, since the PRC has no use for it, ends up being lent to the United States. And, since the United States can create as many dollars as they want, they have no use for it either.

The $3 trillion is valueless. And, if it is valueless, this implies all the crap they sold us is valueless as well. China sold us all this crap knowing we were giving them valueless dollars in return. We must assume they exchanged these commodities for American ex nihilo dollars because it couldn’t be sold otherwise. Since the crap was valueless unless they sold it to us for equally valueless dollars, the terms of the trade were met. Crap for crap; superfluous commodities, which, therefore, are not commodities at all, since they have no value, exchanged for a quantity of ex nihilo money that also has no value.

But, by the same token, the savings from austerity sought by the Austerians to repay China must also be valueless, since it consists entirely of these same ex nihilo dollars. Which implies that current expenditures by the Fascist State are also valueless, since the money spent domestically is the same as that to be paid to China. The money isn’t valueless because we owe it to China, it was valueless already — just as China’s crap is valueless unless it is sold. Whether it is used to repay China or spent on National Health Care, the money is completely valueless. Which means, not only is all that crap in China valueless, national health care is valueless as well. You cannot buy something with nothing unless that something is also nothing, i.e., has the same value as your means of purchasing it.

On the other hand, health care is definitely something, but so are socks made in China and sold at WalMart. By saying a thing exchanged for nothing must be nothing as well clearly has nothing to do with whether it is useful or necessary. The socks are useful, and so is an annual checkup. But, when exchanged for valueless dollars, they must also be valueless. It is not a question of whether these valueless dollars will go to pay China or to pay for health care.

The real question is why all of these useful goods continue to circulate in the form of commodities despite the valuelessness of the money? If we removed the valueless money from the equation entirely and allowed the goods to move as society demanded, nothing will have changed. Which is to say, if the goods were free, from the standpoint of value, nothing has changed. The fact that money serves as an intermediary in exchange here has no impact on the value of the things. Rather money is announcing, “These things for which I am exchanged have no value themselves. They, like me, are valueless in an economic sense, and, therefore, are no longer actually commodities.”

The absurdity of ex nihilo money

The absurdity is apparent: Money in this case only expresses that, from the standpoint of the law of value, there is no need for money. But this monetary expression takes the form of a valueless money. The sheer stupidity that money expresses its own superfluousness is already given in ex nihilo money. At the same time, this absurdity can only arise because, as a practical matter, the superfluousness of money appears absurd itself. Or, what is the same thing, a society founded on exchange of commodities has nevertheless come to be dominated by directly social production. This directly social production, for which exchange of commodities is entirely absurd, must nonetheless appear in the form of exchange – fictitious exchange. To accomplish this fictitious exchange requires a money form that is itself fictitious — ex nihilo money.

Although the exchanges taking place are fictitious, and use a currency that is entirely fictitious, the need for these fictions are real. The premise of all these fictions is that completely social conditions of production are nevertheless split up among the members of society. On the one hand, this division presupposes exchange of commodities, yet, on the other hand, this commodity exchange is entirely superfluous to the production of these commodities. The conflict between the conditions governing exchange and those governing production must be resolved; and they are, by fictions. But this “resolution” of the conflict between the conditions of exchange and the conditions of production can only intensify the antagonism between the two, and develop it to its most extreme limit.

Every nation attempts to resolve the conflict between the conditions of production and the conditions of exchange by issuing its own ex nihilo money. However, the limit of any nation to issue ex nihilo money rests on its ability to export more than it imports. According to Paul Krugman (2010) a nation can issue ex nihilo money only if it can run an export surplus and accepts a depreciation of its money. Moreover, in a flexible exchange rate system the export surplus becomes possible because issuing the ex nihilo money itself creates a tendency toward this depreciation of its currency. Thus, in a flexible exchange rate system, creating money ex nihilo produces a tendency toward export surpluses by depreciating the purchasing power of the ex nihilo money. The creation of fictitious money depresses the ability of the community to consume what it produces; it reduces the ratio of domestic consumption to domestic production — increased export is realized through the relative impoverishment of the community.

Since, in Krugman’s 2010 model every nation seeks a trade surplus by impoverishing itself — i.e., by reducing the portion of domestic production that is consumed domestically — who is consuming all of this now excess crap? Krugman’s 2010 model implies either the existence of a designated importer nation, or, the planet ends up with massive quantities of unsold excess commodities. What role does this designated importer play? If every other nation is running a trade surplus, the designated importer must run a trade deficit equal to the total surplus commodities produced by all the other nations. i.e., equal to the sum of excess capital in the form of excess commodities.

If the designated importer nation is running a chronic and growing export deficit, how does it pay for these imports? This designated importer has a fictitious currency every other nation must accumulate as payment for its exports. By law, only the State can create ex nihilo money. The responsibility of creating sufficient quantities of fictional money falls to it. The creation of ex nihilo money, however, is nothing more than the creation of fictitious profits — to the penny. If this creation is accomplished by issuing public debt, this public debt amounts to the fictional profits of private capitals. By increasing the public debt the owner of the world reserve currency can print money and buy all the crap. On the other hand, there is a tendency for the excess capital of the world market to be denominated in the world reserve currency.

However, since we are dealing with an actual material conflict between the conditions of production and the conditions of exchange under condition of absolute over-accumulation of capital, this conflict doesn’t disappear. It now appears as poles of international trade in the form of many net exporters on one side, who are accumulating fictitious dollar assets, and a net importer on the other side, who is accumulating a growing public debt; thus, the excess capital of the world market is increasingly denominated in the world reserve currency. This division of the world market into many net exporters and a single net importer has consequences for ex nihilo money creation itself: The capacity to grow export surpluses by creating ex nihilo money does indeed increase, but this increased capacity is only true for the designated importer nation. The export surplus nations actually end up with less capacity to create ex nihilo money, even as the designated importer nation gains in this capacity. Eventually, the export surplus nations must absolutely constrict their respective money supplies to contain inflation — producing, as a consequence, a growing surplus population of starving laborers. Although this conclusion is obvious, Krugman has not a hint of it in his 2010 paper.

Ex nihilo money, labor time, and the World Market

The problem is that directly social production abolishes the law of value, while exchange takes place only on the basis of this law. Under the capitalist mode of production, production is only undertaken with the eye to profit, i.e., to realization of surplus value. Yet, under conditions of absolute over-accumulation of capital, no additional surplus value can be realized, i.e., the profit rate is zero, if not negative. If the fiction of profits could not be maintained, production would cease entirely. To maintain this fiction, you need fictitious money.

To put this another way, under conditions of over-accumulation, directly social production limits the total labor time of the community to socially necessary labor time. And, what is the measure of this socially necessary labor time? Here is the somewhat surprising answer:

Socially Necessary Labor Time = Value = Wages.

Under conditions of over-accumulation of capital, the absolute limit of total socially necessary labor time is the value of the wages of the working class. Any value created in addition to this necessary limit — i.e., surplus value — cannot be realized as profit — it is wasted (or, superfluous) labor time. Profits realized under this regime must, by definition, be fictitious; hence the fiction of ex nihilo money.

If the production of surplus value no longer takes place, profit can be “realized” through exchange only on condition there is a continuous and pervasive unequal exchange of values within the world market. If labor power cannot be exploited to create surplus value, it must be constantly and artificially devalued — that is, purchased at a price below its actual value. This artificial (purely monetary) devaluation of labor power is a natural consequence of Fascist State ex nihilo money expenditures. This purely monetary devaluation of labor power goes hand in hand with a purely monetary devaluation of the fixed and circulating constant capital.

However, although labor power and the fixed and circulating constant capital are artificially devalued, this does not, by any means, imply a fall in the prices of these commodities — rather the situation is precisely the reverse. Under the conditions I am describing, the purely monetary devaluation is expressed inversely as rising ex nihilo prices for these commodities. They become dearer in ex nihilo money terms as their prices are held well over their actual values; in turn, society is compelled by generally rising prices denominated in the world reserve currency to consume fewer of these commodities.

However, it should not be understood by this that generally rising prices cause declining consumption of commodities; nor, does this imply that either or both result from the huge quantities of ex nihilo money created by the state. Rather, each of these is called forth by the growing conflict between the conditions of production and the conditions of exchange under circumstance of chronic or absolute over-accumulation of capital. Over-accumulation of capital means precisely over-accumulation of commodities — of fixed and circulating constant capital, and, of variable capital, i.e., labor power. Moreover, we have to assume that this over-accumulation of capital exists not simply in one or a few nations, but universally throughout the world market. Hence, export of capital no longer serves to resolve the contradictions inherent to capital.

Those who are following my reasoning so far immediately recognize the logical contradiction in the above paragraphs: I have made the absurd assumption that commodities sell at prices below their values and, simultaneously, above their values. On the surface, it would appear that these two paradoxical assumptions could not exist, or, if they did exist, would bring social production to a halt entirely. As a practical matter, however, these two assumptions, although occurring side by side during the circulation of commodities, nevertheless only occur serially in any given example and in two different directions: the capitalist purchases labor power where the average wage is priced below its value, and sells wage commodities where prices of these commodities are above their values. Which is to say, the world reserve currency, despite massive ex nihilo creation that should force its exchange rate against other currencies down precipitously, actually exchanges against these other currencies at a higher rate than would otherwise be expected — it enjoys what economists refer to as an “exorbitant privilege”.

As a result, there is a tendency for production to move toward the least developed regions of the world market, where labor power can be purchased for a fraction of its value, while the resultant output is sold in the most developed consumer markets. Capital denominated in the world reserve currency, since this currency can be exchanged for any local currency, can simultaneously purchase labor power in those places where wages are below their values, and sell the produced commodities in those places where prices are above their values. Productive employment of capital in the home market of the world reserve currency holder grows increasingly unprofitable and commodities produced there suffer from uncompetitive world market prices. Capital, therefore, takes flight to the less developed regions of the world market. This event is accompanied by loud public pronouncements by politicians and the business community on the liberating effects of free trade; and by angry denunciations on the part of those capitals who, because of their size or circumstances, cannot shift their capital to take advantage of this process and are driven to ruin or speculation.

This has implications for the development of the world market, which, rather than slowing because of the general over-accumulation of capital within the world market, now increases at an astonishing rate and geometrically: Capital denominated in the world reserve currency can not only take advantage of the price disequilibrium between labor power and wage goods, it can further exploit the “exorbitant privilege” of the world reserve currency. This must accelerate the export of capital to less developed regions of the world market to take advantage of extremely favorable terms on which labor power can be exploited in the local currency, and, simultaneously, lead to the expansion of the portion of the total social capital denominated in dollars at the expense of the portion denominated in other currencies.

The problem I spoke of in an earlier post in this series — that wages are too high, and yet too low — resolves itself naturally into accelerated export of productively employed capital to those places where labor power can be had for a fraction of its value, to produce goods destined for markets where commodities are priced many times their actual value. This arbitrage, which can only continue so long as new sources of ever cheaper labor power can be found, must be expressed in a growing volume of Fascist State ex nihilo money creation, which, moreover, must not simply increase, but increase geometrically.

How quantitative easing works — or doesn’t (Part Seven: The contradictions inherent in QE2)

November 12, 2010 Leave a comment

Quantitative easing embodies a number of insoluble contradictions. First, that too much work expresses itself as too little employment; second, that unprecedented abundance expresses itself as scarcity; third that the capacity to produce far in excess of human needs expresses itself as poverty; fourth that too much debt expresses itself as too little money.

There is not too little employment, but too much of the labor employed is wasted on unproductive and superfluous activity. There is not a scarcity of goods, but a scarcity of profitable demand for those goods. There is not too few means of production, but too little of it is employed to meet human needs. There is not too little money, but too little of it is created in the form of dollar denominated debt.

Quantitative easing, allegedly undertaken to eliminate unemployment, poverty, scarcity, and debt, must result not in the diminution of these evils, but in their aggressive expansion.

Since, in the simple-minded world of economists, economic growth is induced by the expansion of the quantity of money in circulation — and since this new money enters circulation only as a reflex of the same process by which it is created, i.e., by the creation of new debts — the elimination of poverty is irrationally predicated on its further expansion; on the further indebtedness of the mass of society.

In the same Orwellian fashion, the economist explains that poverty can be eliminated by progressively diverting present public and private income to the servicing of previously accumulated debts; and, that the scarcity of goods can be eliminated so long as companies relentlessly shutter their factories and eviscerate their workforces.

The stupidity of economic policy reaches its logical expression in the mind-numbing, logic defeating, assertion by Saint Paul Krugman that these social evils can be remedied only if the money held by the great mass of society is relentlessly devalued by Washington:

The Case For Higher Inflation

Olivier Blanchard, normally at MIT but currently the chief economist at the IMF, has released an interesting and important paper on how the crisis has changed, or should have changed, how we think about macroeconomic policy. The most surprising conclusion, presumably, is the idea that central banks have been setting their inflation targets too low:

Higher average inflation, and thus higher nominal interest rates to start with, would have made it possible to cut interest rates more, thereby probably reducing the drop in output and the deterioration of fiscal positions.

To be a bit more precise, I’m not that surprised that Olivier should think that; I am, however, somewhat surprised that the IMF is letting him say that under its auspices. In any case, I very much agree.

I would add, however, that there’s another case for a higher inflation rate — an argument made most forcefully by Akerlof, Dickens, and Perry (pdf). It goes like this: even in the long run, it’s really, really hard to cut nominal wages. Yet when you have very low inflation, getting relative wages right would require that a significant number of workers take wage cuts. So having a somewhat higher inflation rate would lead to lower unemployment, not just temporarily, but on a sustained basis.

The irrationality of the post-war capitalist economic system is presented in its unvarnished form by our Saint Paul in this excerpt: Employment can only increase under conditions of exchange whereby workers receive nothing for their additional hours of work; output can only rise if this output does not result in any additional consumption by the great mass of society; economic growth can be achieved through a massive infusion of new money into the economy only if that new money reduces the purchasing power of the existing money in circulation.

Quantitative easing meets these three conditions. Washington injects billions of new dollars into the economy which does not create any new output but only drives up money demand for the existing output — thereby reducing the purchasing power of money already in circulation. To the extent this new money actually increases employment, the new wages paid out are only money or nominal wages, since this money does not imply the creation of any new goods. Since no new output accompanies the creation of this new money, and since the successful injection of money into the economy presupposes the expansion of new debt, whatever new output emerges from this new employment rests on the absolute capacity of the worker to convert an increasing portion of his wages into a mere income stream to service this new debt.

Quantitative easing, therefore, is not a new policy, but the expression of the failure of the existing policy whereby the  value of wages is continuously depreciated as capitals seek to forestall the fall in the rate of profit. It presupposes the debt saturation of the existing labor force, whose wages have already been exhausted by debt service. It is no longer merely the expansion of debt that Washington seeks, it is the expansion of debt denominated in dollars — to the exclusion of the debt, and, therefore, of the creation of monies, denominated in all other currencies.

Thus, from Tim Duy at the blog Fed Watch, we read this:

The Final End of Bretton Woods 2?

The inability of global leaders to address global current account imbalances now truly threatens global financial stability.  Perhaps this was inevitable – the dollar has not depreciated to a degree commensurate with the financial crisis.  Moreover, as the global economy stabilized the old imbalances made a comeback, sucking stimulus from the US economy and leaving US labor markets crippled.  The latter prompts the US Federal Reserve to initiate a policy stance that will undoubtedly resonate throughout the  globe.  As a result we could now be standing witness to the final end of Bretton Woods 2.  And a bloody end it may be.

Rather than a reliance on US financial institutions to intermediate the channel between foreign savers and US households, a modified Bretton Woods 2 – Bretton Woods 2.1 – relied on the US government to step into the void created by the financial mess and become the intermediary, either by propping up mortgage markets via the takeover of Freddie and Fannie, or the fiscal stimulus, or a dozen of other programs initiated during the financial crisis.

In essence, a nasty surprise awaited US policymakers – after two years of scrambling to find the right mix of policies, including an all out effort to prevent a devastating collapse of financial markets and a what Administration officials believed to be a substantial fiscal stimulus, the US economy remains mired at a suboptimal level as stimulus flows out beyond US borders.  The opportunity for a smooth transition out of Bretton Woods 2 was lost.

How has it come to this?  To understand the challenge ahead, we need to begin with two points of general agreement.  The first is that the US has a significant and persistent current account deficit, which implies that domestic absorption of goods and services, by all sectors, exceeds potential output.  In other words, we rely on a steady inflow of goods and services to satisfy our excess demand, a situation we typically find acceptable during a high growth phase when domestic investment exceeds domestic saving.  The second point of agreement is that high unemployment implies that actual output is far below potential output.  We clearly have unused capacity.

The collapse of Bretton Woods 2 was predictable once American workers became saturated with debt, and were unable to service existing obligations, much less expand them. But, this debt sustained the off-shoring of American industry to the low wage exports platforms of China, Brazil and Asia — which, in turn, created the trade deficit. With the debt saturation of the American worker, the entire underpinning of the system, whereby American companies moved their facilities overseas and imported their goods back to the United States to sell to an increasingly impoverished population, is now threatened by the ever declining consumption power of now jobless Americans.

The breathtaking absurdity of the systematic impoverishment of the very population whose consumption is essential to the functioning of the economy — wherein the worker is let go, his job is moved to China, yet he is expected to have the means to then purchase the product he now no longer makes — which rest on conditions that are clearly the product of a psychotic mind — that his wages are to be substituted by extension of easy credit — can only be explained by the incomprehensible delegation of the management of the process of social production to madmen who believe real wealth can be created by changing the quantity of dancing electrons at a computer terminal.

But, this is where the madmen have their last laugh: “Who,” they respond, “is talking about real wealth? We are not talking about real wealth, but social wealth, and this social wealth — this power over billions, expressed as the power to command labor — is denominated in many different currencies. It is not our intention to create real wealth, but merely social wealth!”

We are, it appears, not in the real world, but trapped in the nightmarish world of the insane, the sociopath:

Put simply, the Federal Reserve is positioned to declare war on Bretton Woods 2.  November 3, 2010.  Mark it on your calendars.

So perhaps Bretton Woods does not end because foreign governments are unwilling to bear ever increasing levels of currency and interest rate risk or due to the collapse of private intermediaries in the US, but because it has delivered the threat of deflation to the US, and that provokes a substantial response from the Federal Reserve.  A side effect of the next round of quantitative easing is an attack on the strong dollar policy.

The rest of the world is howling.  The Chinese are not alone; no one wants it to end.  From Bloomberg:

Leaders of the world economy failed to narrow differences over currencies as they turned to the International Monetary Fund to calm frictions that are already sparking protectionism….

….Days after Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega set the tone for the gathering by declaring a “currency war” was underway, officials held their traditional battle lines. U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and European Central Bank President Jean-Claude Trichet were among those to signal irritation that China is restraining the yuan to aid exports even as its economy outpaces those of other G-20 members.

“Global rebalancing is not progressing as well as needed to avoid threats to the global economic recovery,” Geithner said. “Our initial achievements are at risk of being undermined by the limited extent of progress toward more domestic demand- led growth in countries running external surpluses and by the extent of foreign-exchange intervention as countries with undervalued currencies lean against appreciation.”

At the same time, officials from emerging economies including China complained that low interest rates in the U.S. and its developed-world counterparts mean investors are pouring capital into their markets, threatening growth by forcing up currencies and inflating asset bubbles. The MSCI Emerging Markets Index of stocks has soared 13 percent since the start of September…

…“Near-zero interest rates and rapid monetary expansion are geared at stimulating domestic demand but also tend to produce a weakening of their currencies,” Mantega said Oct. 9. As a result, developing countries will continue to build up reserves in foreign currency to avoid “volatility and appreciation.”

Consider the enormity of the situation at hand.  The Federal Reserve is poised to crank up the printing press for the sake of satisfying their domestic mandate.  One mechanism, perhaps the only mechanism, by which we can expect meaningful, sustained reversal from the current set of imbalances is via a significant depreciation of the dollar.  The rest of the world appears prepared to fight the Fed because they know no other path.

Bad things happen when you fight the Fed.  You find yourself on the wrong side of a whole bunch of trades.  In this case, I suspect it means that Bretton Woods 2 finally collapses in a disorderly mess.  There may really be no other way for it to end, because its end yields clear winners and losers.  And the losers, in this case largely emerging markets, [are] not prepared to accept their fate.

Stated simply, the collapse of all other currencies is being engineered by Washington, because Washington has no other choice. If it is to continue feeding off the unpaid labor of others, the cartel in Washington must expand the pool of potential debtors. The inherent contradiction expressed in QE can be temporarily held at bay only by the collapse of the dollar’s competitors.

Bottom Line:  The time may finally be at hand when the imbalances created by Bretton Woods 2 now tear the system asunder.  The collapse is coming via an unexpected channel; rather than originating from abroad, the shock that sets it in motion comes from the inside, a blast of stimulus from the US Federal Reserve.  And at the moment, the collapse looks likely to turn disorderly quickly.  If the Federal Reserve is committed to quantitative easing, there is no way for the rest of the world to stop to flow of dollars that is already emanating from the US.  Yet much of the world does not want to accept the inevitable, and there appears to be no agreement on what comes next.  Call me pessimistic, but right now I don’t see how this situation gets anything but more ugly.

If we are generally accurate in the analysis presented above, the coming period will see a series of currency crises sweeping the globe, as one currency after another falls victim to the Federal Reserve Bank’s quantitative easing program. The unsustainable trade deficits of Bretton Woods 2, which were only made possible by the now unsustainable debts borne by American working people, can only be resolved one of two ways: either these imbalances must give way to a global depression centered in China and other surplus generating exporters and the accompanying devaluation of their dollar denominated assets. Or, they must accept the increasing dollarization of their economies.

They do not have much time to decide.