Apr 232017
 
 April 23, 2017  Posted by at 8:30 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  1 Response »
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How we got here

 


Disintegrating Left-Right Divide Sets Stage For French Political Upheaval (G.)
The Main Issue in the French Presidential Election: National Sovereignty (CP)
ECB Stands Ready to Support Banks If Needed After France Vote (BBG)
It Is Time To Break Up The Fed (IFT)
China’s Credit Excess Is Unlike Anything The World Has Ever Seen (Brown)
The US Retail Bubble Has Now Burst (ZH)
UK Retail Sales Volumes Fall At Fastest Rate In Seven Years (Ind.)
BHS Crash Sets Trend For A Chain Of Store Closures On UK High Streets (G.)
German Intelligence Spied On Interpol In Dozens Of Countries (R.)
Pope Likens Refugee Holding Centers To ‘Concentration Camps’ (G.)

 

 

This is a global issue, the left has moved so far right it has no identity left. Nice detail: The Parti Socialiste of the current president could be bankrupted by its dismal campaign.

Disintegrating Left-Right Divide Sets Stage For French Political Upheaval (G.)

Do they vote for or against? Do they choose a candidate who represents their politics or one who, opinion polls suggest, is most likely to defeat the woman whose presence as one of two candidates in the second-round runoff in a fortnight seems a given, but whose name still provokes a frisson of fear for many: the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, with her anti-Europe, anti-immigration, “French-first” programme? As election day has approached, and with the added complication of the terrorist threat following the shooting of a police officer on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, the dilemma has caused particular anguish for France’s mainstream leftwing voters, whose candidate is trailing in fifth place.

There are no certainties, but barring all other candidates “dropping from a nasty virus”, as one political analyst put it, Benoît Hamon is facing a crushing defeat in the first round, ending his leadership dreams and putting the future of the country’s Socialist party (PS) in question. In a decline that mirrors that of Britain’s Labour party, the PS is facing years in a political desert, if it survives. If Hamon finishes last among the leading candidates, as polls predict, the party’s only hope of salvaging a thread of power will lie in winning enough parliamentary seats in the legislative elections that follow to form an influential group in the national assembly. Even then it will most likely be part of a coalition rather than a fully functioning opposition.

Even worse, and even more unthinkable, if leftwing voters turn en masse to Jean-Luc Mélenchon as their best hope of a place in the second round against the frontrunners – independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, Le Pen or the conservative François Fillon – and Hamon polls less than 5%, none of Hamon’s campaign expenses will be reimbursed, bankrupting the PS. “Under 5% and the situation is really catastrophic,” Marc-Olivier Padis, of the Paris-based thinktank Terra Nova, told the Observer. “And it’s possible. We are hearing many socialists wondering if they should vote Mélenchon or Macron. The only thing that can save the party in this election is if enough socialists vote for Hamon out of loyalty.”

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It’s about the economy, guys. Too many people are left with too little. That’s when they choose to be their own boss -again-.

The Main Issue in the French Presidential Election: National Sovereignty (CP)

The 2017 French Presidential election marks a profound change in European political alignments. There is an ongoing shift from the traditional left-right rivalry to opposition between globalization, in the form of the European Union (EU), and national sovereignty. Standard media treatment sticks to a simple left-right dualism: “racist” rejection of immigrants is the main issue and that what matters most is to “stop Marine Le Pen!” Going from there to here is like walking through Alice’s looking glass. Almost everything is turned around. On this side of the glass, the left has turned into the right and part of the right is turning into the left. Fifty years ago, it was “the left” whose most ardent cause was passionate support for Third World national liberation struggles.

The left’s heroes were Ahmed Ben Bella, Sukarno, Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, and above all Ho Chi Minh. What were these leaders fighting for? They were fighting to liberate their countries from Western imperialism. They were fighting for independence, for the right to determine their own way of life, preserve their own customs, decide their own future. They were fighting for national sovereignty, and the left supported that struggle. Today, it is all turned around. “Sovereignty” has become a bad word in the mainstream left. National sovereignty is an essentially defensive concept. It is about staying home and minding one’s own business. It is the opposite of the aggressive nationalism that inspired fascist Italy and Nazi Germany to conquer other countries, depriving them of their national sovereignty.

The confusion is due to the fact that most of what calls itself “the left” in the West has been totally won over to the current form of imperialism – aka “globalization”. It is an imperialism of a new type, centered on the use of military force and “soft” power to enable transnational finance to penetrate every corner of the earth and thus to reshape all societies in the endless quest for profitable return on capital investment. The left has been won over to this new imperialism because it advances under the banner of “human rights” and “antiracism” – abstractions which a whole generation has been indoctrinated to consider the central, if not the only, political issues of our times.

The fact that “sovereignism” is growing in Europe is interpreted by mainstream globalist media as proof that “Europe is moving to the right”– no doubt because Europeans are “racist”. This interpretation is biased and dangerous. People in more and more European nations are calling for national sovereignty precisely because they have lost it. They lost it to the European Union, and they want it back. That is why the British voted to leave the European Union. Not because they are “racist”, but primarily because they cherish their historic tradition of self-rule.

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French government debt could become ineligible as collateral if Le Pen and/or Melenchon do too well.

ECB Stands Ready to Support Banks If Needed After France Vote (BBG)

ECB officials signaled that their liquidity facilities remain available to counter any market tension that may arise in the aftermath of France’s presidential election, the first round of which takes place Sunday. “The central bank should be ready for any shocks that should materialize,” Governing Council member Ignazio Visco said at a press conference during the IMF spring meetings in Washington on Saturday. “And if there were to be such a shock, the instruments are the instruments that a central bank should use, which are liquidity provision, refinancing when needed. And intervening very quickly is really very easy now given the instruments we have.” Like the U.K.’s vote on whether to continue its membership of the EU in June, central bank readiness to support the banking system has been sought given the potential for such political events to create market turmoil.

In this case, a strong showing in the first round by anti-euro candidate Marine Le Pen could cast doubt over the future of the single currency. Visco argued that the presence of central bank facilities makes it less likely they’ll actually be needed. [..] The euro area has years of experience with banking freeze-ups and has multiple instruments to address liquidity shortages that strike otherwise solvent banks. In particular, in the event a sudden credit-rating downgrade made French government debt ineligible as collateral for normal ECB refinancing operations, so-called Emergency Liquidity Assistance may be available from the Bank of France. “If there should be problems for specific French banks, liquidity-wise, then the ECB has instruments to help solvent banks with liquidity problems,” Governing Council member Ewald Nowotny said on Saturday. “This is ELA, emergency liquidity assistance. That could be given of course. But we don’t expect any special movements.”

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“Donald Trump and the GOP need an easy, highly visible legislative victory. Breaking up the Fed meets this criteria.”

It Is Time To Break Up The Fed (IFT)

Donald Trump and the GOP need an easy, highly visible legislative victory. Breaking up the Fed meets this criteria. In the aftermath of the Great Financial Crisis, policymakers rushed out the Dodd-Frank Act. This Act increased the Fed’s responsibilities. However, policymakers did this without examining the Fed’s performance in the run-up to the financial crisis. Had they done so, they would have seen the Fed failed as a bank supervisor and regulator. This failure alone mandates breaking up the Fed. After all, why should the Fed be given a second chance given how much its failure hurt the global real economy and taxpayers? Furthermore, this failure strongly suggests policymakers shouldn’t have rewarded the Fed with additional responsibilities. After all, there is no reason to believe the Fed’s failure as a bank supervisor and regulator won’t be repeated with any new responsibilities.

To the extent these new responsibilities exist in the Dodd-Frank Act, they too should be stripped away. What the Fed should be left with is responsibility for monetary policy and the payment system. All of the Fed’s bank supervision and regulatory responsibility should be transferred to the FDIC. There are many significant benefits from doing this including it reinforces market discipline on the banks. Unlike the Fed, the FDIC is responsible for protecting the taxpayers and has the authority to close a bank. The FDIC’s primary responsibility is minimizing the risk of loss by the taxpayer backed deposit insurance fund. It achieves this initially through regulation and supervision, but more importantly by a willingness to step in and close a bank that threatens to cause a loss to the fund.

Shareholders and unsecured bank creditors are keenly aware they are likely to lose their entire investment should the FDIC step up and close the bank they are invested in. As a result, they have an incentive to exert discipline on bank management to limit its risk taking so the bank is never taken over by the FDIC. For those who would argue that it is important to keep bank supervision and regulation together with monetary policy, I would point out there is no evidence showing this produces a better outcome. In the run-up to the Great Financial Crisis, the Bank of England and the ECB did not have supervision and regulation responsibility. The Fed did. Talk about a perfect controlled experiment.

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China needs more than $13 to create $1 of growth.

China’s Credit Excess Is Unlike Anything The World Has Ever Seen (Brown)

From a global macroeconomic perspective, we encourage readers to consider that the world is experiencing an extended, rolling process of deflating its credit excesses. It is now simply China’s turn. For context, Japan started deflating their credit bubble in the early 1990s, and has now experienced more than 20 years of deflation and very little growth since. The US began its process in 2008, and after eight years has only recently been showing signs of sustainable recovery. The euro zone entered this process in 2011 and is still struggling six years onward. We believe China is now entering the early stages of this process. Having said that, we believe that Chinese authorities have a viable plan for deflating their credit excess in an orderly fashion.

Please stay posted as we will review this multi-pronged, market-based approach in our next column. For now, let’s turn our attention to the size of the credit excess that China created and why we estimate it to be the largest in the world. A credit excess is created by the speed and magnitude of credit that is created – if too much is created in too short a time period, excesses inevitably occur and non-performing loans (NPLs) emerge. To illustrate the credit excess that has been created in China, let’s review several key indicators, including the: 1) flow of new credit; 2) stock of outstanding credit; 3) credit deviation ratio (i.e., excess credit); 4) incremental capital output ratio (efficiency of credit allocation).

The US created 58% of GDP between 2002-07, and the global financial crisis followed. Japan created credit equivalent to the entire size of its economy between 1985-90 and subsequently experienced more than 20 years of deflation (admittedly reflecting the lack of restructuring). Thailand created a significant real estate bubble between 1992-97 and ended up with about 45% NPL ratios. Spain created credit equivalent to 116% of GDP between 2002-07 and still is trying to address a 20% unemployment rate. China created 139% of GDP in new credit between the first quarter of 2009 and the third quarter of 2014 (when GDP growth peaked), far greater than what was created in other major credit bubbles globally.

[..] Another important measure to assess the amount of credit in the economy which is “excessive” is the credit-to-GDP gap, as reported by the Bank of International Settlements. This ratio measures the difference between the current credit-to-GDP ratio in an economy against its long-term trend of what is necessary to optimally support long-term GDP growth. It is akin to measuring the amount of credit that is productively deployed into an economy. This metric is used by the Basel III framework in determining countercyclical capital buffers for a country’s banking system when credit creation becomes too fast (i.e., high credit growth requires higher capital ratios for banks).

Finally, to show that the pace of credit creation will necessarily slow, thereby exposing misallocated credit and driving the emergence of new NPL formation, we turn to the deterioration in China’s incremental capital output ratio. This ratio is the measure of the number of units of input required to produce one unit of GDP. For the 15 years prior to the credit impulse in 2009-14, China’s incremental capital output ratio has been consistently between two and four. Meaning that two to four yuan in fixed asset investment created one yuan in GDP. But as a result of the credit-driven economic growth model, and the excessive credit that has been created (and the subsequent excess capacity in the industrial economy), China’s investment efficiency has deteriorated to the point that its incremental capital output ratio is now over 13. Said another way, every 1 yuan in new fixed asset investment is now creating only 7 fen in GDP.

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Full employment, anyone?

The US Retail Bubble Has Now Burst (ZH)

The devastation in the US retail sector is accelerating in 2017, and in addition to the surging number of brick and mortar retail bankruptcies, it is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the soaring number of store closures. While the shuttering of retail stores has been a frequent topic on this website, most recently in the context of the next “big short”, namely the ongoing deterioration in the mall REITs and associated Commercial Mortgage-Backed Securities and CDS, here is a stunning fact from Credit Suisse:”Barely a quarter into 2017, year-to-date retail store closings have already surpassed those of 2008.”

According to the Swiss bank’s calculations, on a unit basis, approximately 2,880 store closings were announced YTD, more than twice as many closings as the 1,153 announced during the same period last year. Historically, roughly 60% of store closure announcements occur in the first five months of the year. By extrapolating the year-to-date announcements, CS estimates that there could be more than 8,640 store closings this year, which will be higher than the historical 2008 peak of approximately 6,200 store closings, which suggests that for brick-and-mortar stores stores the current transition period is far worse than the depth of the credit crisis depression.

As the WSJ calculates, at least 10 retailers, including Limited Stores, electronics chain hhgregg and sporting-goods chain Gander Mountain have filed for bankruptcy protection so far this year. That compares with nine retailers that declared bankruptcy, with at least $50 million liabilities, for all of 2016. On Friday, women’s apparel chain Bebe Stores said it would close its remaining 170 shops and sell only online, while teen retailer Rue21 Inc. announced plans to close about 400 of its 1,100 locations. Another striking fact: on a square footage basis, approximately 49 million square feet of retail space has closed YTD. Should this pace persist by the end of the year, total square footage reductions could reach 147M square feet, another all time high, and surpassing the historical peak of 115M in 2001.

There are several key drivers behind the avalanche of “liquidation” signs on store fronts. The first is the glut of residual excess retail space. As the WSJ writes, the seeds of the industry’s current turmoil date back nearly three decades, when retailers, in the throes of a consumer-buying spree and flush with easy money, rushed to open new stores. The land grab wasn’t unlike the housing boom that was also under way at that time. “Thousands of new doors opened and rents soared,” Richard Hayne, chief executive of Urban Outfitters Inc., told analysts last month. “This created a bubble, and like housing, that bubble has now burst.”

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No matter how you try to explain it away, in the end it’s just people having less to spend.

UK Retail Sales Volumes Fall At Fastest Rate In Seven Years (Ind.)

Retail sale volumes slumped in March, seeming to confirm doubts about the robustness of the consumer-led economy in the wake of last summer’s Brexit vote. According to the Office for National Statistics, sales were down 1.8% in the month, against City expectations of a 0.2% decline. The monthly data can be volatile and March’s decline follows a 1.7% spike in February, but the ONS itself highlighted the weakening trend this year and noted that over the three months to March there was the first quarterly decline in volumes since 2013. In the first quarter of 2017 sales were down 1.4%, the biggest decline since the first three months of 2010 when they fell 2%.

Retail sales performed much better than expected in the immediate wake of last June’s Brexit vote, helping to boost overall GDP growth and confounding widespread expectations that the economy would fall into recession. But economists said the latest data suggested gravity was now asserting itself as inflation, stemming from the sharp depreciation of the pound since last June, eats into incomes and wage growth remains chronically weak. “We should see these retail sales figures as the start of a period of much weaker consumer spending growth – which will act as a drag on the overall progress of the UK economy over this year and next,” said Andrew Sentance, senior economic adviser at PwC.

“This is the clearest indication yet that the expected slowdown in the UK economy has begun, and we should expect to see this confirmed in other economic data over the next few months.” James Knightley, an economist at ING described the figures as “dreadful”. “The story for the household sector isn’t great right now. Inflation is eating into household spending power with wages once again failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living. There is also a growing sense of job insecurity highlighted in some surveys, which may also be making households a little nervous,” he said. The household saving ratio, the gap between the sector’s aggregate income and spending, fell to just 3.3% in the final quarter of 2016, the weakest on record, prompting questions about the sustainability of the rate of consumer spending. Retail sales account for around 30% of household consumption, which in turn accounts for 60% of UK GDP.

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“..1.5 million people work in low-paid UK retail jobs..” They can’t afford the products they sell. Henry Ford had a solution to that.

BHS Crash Sets Trend For A Chain Of Store Closures On UK High Streets (G.)

The fact that Britain’s unemployment rate has fallen to its joint lowest level since 1975 belies the experience of thousands of BHS staff, who have struggled to find an equivalent job with a contract and regular hours. The jobless rate may be just 4.7% but official records show the number of people on zero-hours contracts hit a record high of 905,000 in the final three months of 2016. That was an increase of 101,000, or 13%, compared with the same period a year earlier. Last year, research by industry trade body the British Retail Consortium (BRC) identified a “lost generation” of predominantly female shop workers who – as thousands of BHS staff would find out – risk losing their jobs as structural change chews up the high street. It estimated there were nearly 500,000 retail workers, aged between 26 and 45, many of whom have children and need to work close to their family home, who would find it hard to find alternative jobs.

Using the benchmark of those earning less than £8.05 an hour, the BRC says 1.5 million people work in low-paid UK retail jobs. About 70% are female and one in five receive means-tested working age tax credits. Norman Pickavance, chair of the Fabian Society taskforce on the future of retail, says the majority of companies in the sector are trying to save money by moving towards less secure employment models. “There are more and more zero-hours-type contracts and self employment,” he says. “A year on from the demise of BHS, most retailers are continuing down that route of flexibility but there is a risk to them from Brexit. They have only been able to use these methods because of the abundance of labour and might have to rethink.”

[..] This trend is writ larger in the US, where analysts are talking about a “retail apocalypse”, as main street veterans like Macy’s and Sears line up to announce major store closure programmes. With American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch and JCPenney also axing stores, hundreds of American shopping mall outlets are closing for good. The cost in job terms has been stark, with more than 89,000 retail positions eliminated over the last six months. New York-based Global Data analyst Neil Saunders says the US and UK retail markets are not mirror images, with the American woes resulting from the fallout from a belated move by store chiefs to address the threat posed by the internet.

With more than five times more retail square footage per person than the UK, American store chiefs have also got a bigger problem on their hands than their British counterparts. “In terms of online penetration, the US is where the UK was five or so years ago,” continues Saunders. “What we are seeing is large US retailers scrabbling to adjust.” He adds: “Generally, UK retail is at a much later evolutionary stage than the US. There has already been quite a lot of adjustment in terms of the closure and adaptation of physical space.

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Everyone spies on everyone. Growth industry.

German Intelligence Spied On Interpol In Dozens Of Countries (R.)

Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency spied on the Interpol international police agency for years and on the group’s country liaison offices in dozens of countries such as Austria, Greece and the United States, a German magazine said. Der Spiegel magazine, citing documents it had seen, said the BND had added the email addresses, phone numbers and fax numbers of the police investigators to its sector surveillance list. In addition, the German spy agency also monitored the Europol police agency Europol which is based in The Hague, the magazine said. Der Spiegel reported in February that the BND also spied on the phones, faxes and emails of several news organizations, including the New York Times and Reuters.

The BND’s activities have come under intense scrutiny during a German parliamentary investigation into allegations that the US National Security Agency conducted mass surveillance outside of the United States, including a cellphone used by Chancellor Angela Merkel. Konstantin von Notz, a Greens party member who serves on the investigative committee, described the latest report about the BND’s spying activities as “scandalous and unfathomable.” “We now know that parliaments, various companies and even journalists and publishers have been targeted, as well as allied countries,” von Notz said in a statement. He said the latest reports showed how ineffective parliamentary controls had been thus far, despite new legislation aimed at reforming the BND. “It represents a danger to our rule of law,” he said.

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So what as the Pope done to alleviate the issue? How has he used the Vatican’s opulent riches to make life better for refugees?

Pope Likens Refugee Holding Centers To ‘Concentration Camps’ (G.)

Pope Francis urged governments on Saturday to get migrants and refugees out of holding centers, saying many had become “concentration camps”. During a visit to a Rome basilica, where he met migrants, Francis told of his visit to a camp on the Greek island of Lesbos last year. There he met a Muslim refugee from the Middle East who told him how “terrorists came to our country”. Islamists had slit the throat of the man’s Christian wife because she refused to throw her crucifix the ground. “I don’t know if he managed to leave that concentration camp, because refugee camps, many of them, are of concentration (type) because of the great number of people left there inside them,” the pope said.

Francis praised countries helping refugees and thanked them for “bearing this extra burden, because it seems that international accords are more important than human rights”. He did not elaborate but appeared to be referring to agreements that keep migrants from crossing borders. In February, the European Union pledged to finance migrant camps in Libya as part of a wider European Union drive to stem immigration from Africa. Humanitarian groups have criticized efforts to stop migrants in Libya, where – according to a U.N. report last December – they suffer arbitrary detention, forced labor, rape and torture.

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Apr 102017
 
 April 10, 2017  Posted by at 8:21 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  9 Responses »
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Todd Webb Rue des Plantes, Paris 1950

 


Americans Are Becoming Obsessed With Putting Everything On Credit (MW)
Cash Is Dead. Long Live Cash. (WSJ)
A Change In The Change Of Change (Peters)
Great Debt Unwind: Bankruptcies Surge (WS)
Trump’s Rollback of Bank Regulations Risks a Bondholder Backlash (Street)
Syria Strike Designed To Intimidate North Korea: China State Newspaper (G.)
Is Globalisation Dead? (Pettifor)
Housing Costs Are Pushing People Further Out of Sydney (BBG)
Toronto Mayor Says He’s Open to Sale of City Real Estate Assets
Secret Recording Implicates Bank of England In Libor Manipulation (BBC)
The Fire In The Hold Of The Doomed Euro (Ward)
Tsipras: Debt Relief Prerequisite to Legislate New Measures (GR)
Great Barrier Reef at ‘Terminal Stage’ (G.)
John Clarke has Died

 

 

We need a war on plastic, not cash.

Americans Are Becoming Obsessed With Putting Everything On Credit (MW)

It’s more likely that the last time you bought a pack of gum or a can or soda, you used a credit card. People like their credit cards so much they’re using them even for the tiniest purchases, according to a new survey released Monday from the credit cards site CreditCards.com. Among people with credit cards, 17% said they use them to buy items in brick-and-mortar stores that cost less than $5, up from 11% last year. CreditCards.com surveyed about 1,000 U.S. adults in March 2017. After a lull in the wake of the Great Recession, credit cards are once again being used with increased frequency. The Federal Reserve reported last week that collective credit card debt in the U.S. had reached $1 trillion.

Credit-card debt and auto loan debt balances for people ages 60 and older have also risen since 2008, that Fed data showed, whereas credit-card debt for those 59 and younger has fallen. The Fed, when describing that phenomenon, said lending standards have tightened since the recession, and those who are older may also be more creditworthy. But when consumers can pay their balances each month, turning to credit cards for small purchases isn’t a bad thing, said Matt Schulz, a senior industry analyst for CreditCards.com. Putting more charges on a credit card may indicate consumers feel more optimistic about their financial picture for the future, he said. “People who are chasing rewards realize that those little purchases can add up to a lot of rewards over the course of a year,” he added.

Indeed, several high-profile credit cards offer cash back and perks for spending. For example, Amazon introduced a credit card this year for Prime members that gives 5% cash back on Amazon purchases (Prime itself costs $99 per year.) Some retailers, however, prohibit credit-card purchases below a certain amount to avoid paying transaction fees to the credit-card issuers for such purchases. That said, cash and debit cards still are the go-to options for making small purchases, despite the speed with which credit cards are gaining on them. Of those surveyed, 24% said they use debit cards for small purchases, and 55% said they use cash. It appears younger consumers are behind at least some of the growth in credit card use: Some 70% of baby boomers and their older cohorts, the Silent Generation, still choose cash for small purchases versus 43% of those under 53.

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A little incoherent article, but point taken. Countries that try to go cashless should be careful.

Cash Is Dead. Long Live Cash. (WSJ)

[..] the push to get rid of cash is hitting speed bumps all over. India, for example, is already partly reintroducing its 500- and 1000-rupee bills after the government’s abrupt demonetization program drew sharp criticism for hurting its cash-dependent rural population. The U.S. shows no inclination to pare back its notes. “I’m very conscious of the $100 bill being the world’s reserve currency, and every central bank around the world has stacks of $100 bills where they used to have gold,” Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal shortly before he left office in January. One reason it’s a non-starter in the U.S.: About 8% of people don’t have a checking or savings account, making it all-but-impossible for them to participate in a cashless economy.

Banning cash “would bring the economy and many people to their knees if enforced,” said Hoover Institution economist John Cochrane. In the aboveground economy, card-based and digital payment systems offering ever-greater speed, safety and convenience have been steadily encroaching on paper money, even for small consumer transactions. Euromonitor International, a market-research firm, said the volume of global cash payments in 2016 for the first time fell below payments on credit and debit cards. Some of the growth in cash can be attributed to the financial crisis and the aftermath, when people lost faith in banks, and when ultralow interest rates and anemic investment returns reduced the opportunity costs of holding savings in cash. The number of $100 bills in circulation, worth $1.15 trillion in December, has surged 76% since 2009, according to Federal Reserve data.

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“Brexit was a joke. Trump was a joke..”

A Change In The Change Of Change (Peters)

“The change of change is now negative,” said the CIO. “Global growth is still rising, but the rate of improvement is slowing,” he explained. “Same holds true for global inflation, oil prices, copper, iron ore. Credit growth is slowing in the US, Europe, Japan, China.” If these things were all contracting, we’d plunge into recession, but we’re not there. We’re simply at the point in the cycle where the rate of acceleration is slowing – which is both evidence of a pause, and a precondition for every major turn. “The last time we had a major shift in the change of change was a year ago.” In Jan/Feb 2016, China was imploding. Commodity prices were tanking with equity markets, the dollar soared alongside volatility. Then China unleashed explosive credit stimulus, while the Fed blinked, guiding forward interest rates dramatically lower. Within a short time, the change of change turned positive.

Which is not to say things immediately accelerated, it’s just that they started contracting more slowly. And that marked the time to buy. “Pretty much everything that happened in 2016 can be explained by two things; China and oil prices,” he said. “Literally, that’s it.” China’s stimulus-induced rebound and the oil price recovery is all that mattered. “Brexit was a joke. Trump was a joke. In fact, the only real significance of those events was that they provided investors with opportunities to jump on board the reflation trade at back near Q1 prices.” The reflation trade quietly began in the Q1 collapse, and accelerated off the extreme post-Brexit summer lows in global interest rates. That’s what made last year remarkable. Even investors who missed the first opportunity, had two chances to make a lot of money.” You see, that reward is usually reserved for those who act on the first signs of a change in the change of change.

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Credit shrinks, the Zombies fall.

Great Debt Unwind: Bankruptcies Surge (WS)

Commercial bankruptcy filings, from corporations to sole proprietorships, spiked 28% in March from February, the largest month-to-month move in the data series of the American Bankruptcy Institute going back to 2012. They’re up 8% year-over-year. Over the past 24 months, they soared 37%! At 3,658, they’re at the highest level for any March since 2013. Commercial bankruptcy filings skyrocketed during the Financial Crisis and peaked in March 2010 at 9,004. Then they fell sharply until they reached their low point in October 2015. November 2015 was the turning point, when for the first time since March 2010, commercial bankruptcy filings rose year-over-year.

Bankruptcy filings are highly seasonal, reaching their annual lows in December and January. Then they rise into tax season, peak in March or April, and zigzag lower for the remainder of the year. The data is not seasonally or otherwise adjusted – one of the raw and unvarnished measures of how businesses are faring in the economy. Note that there is no “plateauing” in this chart: since the low-point in September 2015, commercial bankruptcies have soared 65%! That red spike is the mega-increase in March:

At first, they blamed the oil bust. The price of oil began to collapse in mid-2014. By 2015, worried bankers put their hands on the money spigot, and a number of companies in that sector, along with their suppliers and contractors, threw in the towel and started filing for bankruptcy protection. But now the price of oil has somewhat recovered, banks have reopened the spigot, Wall Street has once again the hots for the sector, new money is gushing into it, and oil & gas bankruptcy filings have abated. So now they blame brick-and-mortar retail which is in terminal decline, given the shift to online sales. I have reported extensively on the distress of the larger chain stores, but brick-and-mortar retailers include countless smaller operations and stores that no ratings agency follows because they’re too small and can’t issue bonds, and many of them are even more distressed.

[..] Now come the consumers – not all consumers, but those with mounting piles of debt and stagnating or declining real incomes, of which there are many. They’d been hanging on by their teeth, with bankruptcy filings consistently declining since 2010. But that ended in November 2016. In December, bankruptcy filings rose 4.5% from a year earlier. In January they rose 5.4%. It was the first time consumer bankruptcies rose back-to-back since 2010. I called it “a red flag that’ll be highlighted only afterwards as a turning point.” In March, consumer bankruptcy filings rose 4% year-over-year, to 77,900, the highest since March 2015, when 79,000 filings occurred, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute data. The turning point has now been confirmed. Total US bankruptcy filings by consumers and businesses in March spiked 40% from February and rose 4% year-over-year to 81,590, the highest since March 2015:

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Trust at risk.

Trump’s Rollback of Bank Regulations Risks a Bondholder Backlash (Street)

President Donald Trump’s pledge to roll back regulations on U.S. banks could face resistance from an influential constituency: bondholders. While stockholders of firms like JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs have cheered Trump’s plans to repeal or soften rules imposed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, bond-rater Standard & Poor’s is warning that such a move could undermine the industry’s creditworthiness. Measures like “stress testing,” in which regulators evaluate banks annually to determine if they’re sufficiently prepared to withstand a deep economic or market downturn, have made the firms safer, according to S&P. And so-called resolution planning – the practice of planning in advance how big banks would be wound down following a Lehman Brothers-style collapse – also has contributed to the industry’s resilience, the ratings firm wrote in a March 20 report.

The timetable for any such changes isn’t yet clear, however. Trump in February signed an executive order directing U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to identify any laws that might impede economic growth or vibrant markets. Those could include the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, signed by former President Barack Obama to curb risky activities like using excessive borrowings to fuel earnings growth and allowing in-house traders to speculate on markets with proprietary capital. “An overhaul of Dodd-Frank could be detrimental for bank creditors,” S&P wrote in the report. “If changes to Dodd-Frank watered down these features, and if banks reacted to such changes by weakening their financial management, we could lower ratings.” The fresh concerns could contribute to a shift in investor sentiment that’s been mostly positive toward banks since Trump’s surprise election on Nov. 8.

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Xi responds after he’s left Mar-a-Lago.

Syria Strike Designed To Intimidate North Korea: China State Newspaper (G.)

Donald Trump’s decision to attack Syria had also been designed to intimidate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a Chinese newspaper has claimed, as G7 foreign ministers meet to discuss the fallout from last week’s missile incursion. The state-run Global Times said a US strike against North Korea would unleash carnage on the Korean peninsula. The US navy has deployed a strike group towards the western Pacific Ocean, to provide a presence near the Korean peninsula. South Korean officials suspect Kim may be planning to hold his country’s sixth nuclear test later this week to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-sung on 15 April, an event a number of foreign journalists have been invited to cover.

In an editorial entitled: ‘After Syria strikes, will North Korea be next?’, the Global Times suggested the US might now be preparing to launch “similar actions” against Pyongyang and warned of catastrophic consequences if it did. “A symbolic strike against North Korea by the US would bring a disaster to the people in Seoul,” the newspaper said, claiming a “decapitation attack” on North Korea was now “highly possible”. Such a strike would “very likely evolve into large-scale bloody war on the peninsula”. The Global Times noted the decision to deploy a strike force to the Western Pacific over the weekend and cautioned Pyongyang against doing anything that might further inflame the situation.

“New nuclear tests will meet with unprecedented reactions from the international community, even to a turning point.” The warnings came after the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, claimed that the situation in North Korea had “reached a certain level of threat that action has to be taken”. Asked if the attack on Syria could be seen as a message to Pyongyang, Tillerson told ABC: “The message that any nation can take is: ‘If you violate international norms, if you violate international agreements, if you fail to live up to commitments, if you become a threat to others, at some point a response is likely to be undertaken.”

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“Hayek: state regulation leads to totalitarianism. But instead self-regulating markets led to today’s authoritarians.”

Is Globalisation Dead? (Pettifor)

In the BBC’s brief and pressured half-hour I wanted to get across that globalisation had not delivered on its promise – to make ‘the market’ the main driver of a more effective, more productive economy; to transform societies into nations of ‘shareholders’; to ensure a revolution in homeownership, and to avoid what Hayek called the threat of a totalitarian state. Instead financial globalisation has been an era largely fuelled by carbon (oil and coal) – as had been the case for over a century. However, unlike the Bretton Woods era, post 1970s de-regulated financial globalisation was built on mountains of private and public debt. The first – private debt – led to recurring financial crises, and the second – public debt – rose as private sector activity weakened, and tax revenues fell.

The consequences of these recurring financial crises in ‘advanced’ economies included ‘austerity’, the removal of employment protection, rising housing and education costs, the return of deflationary pressures, high unemployment, falling real wages, low productivity and rising inequality. These crises have led to increased insecurity and over-rapid social and economic change- as well as the greatest financial and economic crisis since 1929 (itself a product of excessive laissez-faire ideology). More widely, the insecurities and dislocations generated by financial globalisation have led whole populations to seek the ‘protection’ of a strong man (e.g. Presidents Trump, Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Erdogan in Turkey, Putin in Russia).

Not that this worries the extreme adherents of laissez-faire – recall how Hayek supported the murderous dictator Pinochet in Chile for his brutal imposition of deregulatory ‘reform’. And so, contrary to Hayek’s expectations, financial globalisation has proved that it is market fundamentalism, and not the regulatory state that is leading the world into an era of authoritarianism and totalitarianism – in the US, Eastern Europe, India and China.

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But politicians will keep saying that it’s all because not enough is being built. Why don’t you raise rates first and see what happens?

Housing Costs Are Pushing People Further Out of Sydney (BBG)

New South Wales has taken over as Australia’s economic engine as the mining investment boom tails off, with central Sydney contributing almost a quarter of the nation’s growth last fiscal year. That success has come with a price. As workers flock to Sydney, an under-supply of housing, coupled with record-low interest rates, has made the city the world’s second-most expensive property market. Home prices jumped 19 percent in the past 12 months, stoking concern home ownership is increasingly beyond the reach of younger people. That’s a big political problem for the state’s new Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who made housing affordability one of her priorities when she took the job in late January. Housing affordability is “a barbecue stopper,” Berejiklian, 46, said in an interview in her Sydney office on Thursday.

“We are convinced if we put downwards pressure on prices through supply, that’s the best way we can solve it as a state government.” Sydney’s housing completions reached a 15-year high in 2016, though Berejiklian says the state is only now playing catch-up after “a decade of under-investment.” “There are about 100,000 dwellings we are behind on in terms of really digging into the demand,” she said. [..] There are several barriers to boosting housing supply in Sydney. The city is bordered by mountains to the west, the ocean to the east and rivers and national parks to the north and south, restricting the supply of new land, while moves to increase housing density in established suburbs have run into opposition from residents. That’s meant in the past three years, almost 70 percent of new detached houses have been built more than 30 kilometers from Sydney’s central business district…

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“..the Canadian government has been trying to find ways to “crystallize” the value in some of its property assets…”

Toronto Mayor Says He’s Open to Sale of City Real Estate Assets

Toronto’s mayor won’t rule out selling some of the city’s prime downtown real estate as he looks to make better use of assets amid an unprecedented property boom. “Would I take that off the table? No, I wouldn’t,” Mayor John Tory said in an interview last week at Bloomberg’s Toronto office. Selling buildings in the city’s costly downtown market probably wouldn’t be “quite as politically charged” as divesting other types of assets, such as the parking authority or power utility Toronto Hydro, he said. The need for North America’s fourth-largest city to fund critical transit upgrades and housing improvements coincides with skyrocketing property prices in the region. Toronto’s real estate portfolio includes 6,976 buildings with 106.3 million square feet (9.9 million square meters), almost half of which is multifamily, according to a Dec. 6 report on the city’s assets.

With all of the demands on the city to raise money for building transit lines and repairing existing housing, then “might you be looking at the business case for handling real estate in a different way? Because this is the most expensive downtown real estate you could possibly have,” said the mayor, elected in 2014. The report, commissioned by the city and conducted by Deloitte, estimates the value of municipal real estate including community housing, parks and forestry is C$27 billion ($20 billion), while the annual operating costs in “core” real estate and facilities management is C$1.1 billion. Tory said he watched with passing interest the federal government’s sale earlier this year of the Dominion Public Building. The historic downtown property beside Toronto’s Union Station sold for about C$275 million ($205 million), according to newspaper reports.

The property was “super underutilized,” BMO analyst Heather Kirk said in an interview, adding the Canadian government has been trying to find ways to “crystallize” the value in some of its property assets. “What a building is worth to the government in current form is totally different than the value to a developer,” Kirk said. “They are buying density.” When asked how any properties might be sold, Tory stressed he didn’t currently have any specific recommendations to make to the city council, although “I just know those are things that sit out there still as options that are in front of the city government to raise money to do the things we have to do,” he said.

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Ehh.. how do you lock up the Bank of England?

Secret Recording Implicates Bank of England In Libor Manipulation (BBC)

A secret recording that implicates the Bank of England in Libor rigging has been uncovered by BBC Panorama. The 2008 recording adds to evidence the central bank repeatedly pressured commercial banks during the financial crisis to push their Libor rates down. Libor is the rate that banks lend to each other and it sets a benchmark for mortgages and loans for ordinary customers. The Bank of England said Libor was not regulated in the UK at the time. The recording calls into question evidence given in 2012 to the Treasury select committee by former Barclays boss Bob Diamond and Paul Tucker, the man who went on to become the deputy governor of the Bank of England. Libor, the London Interbank Offered Rate, tracks how much it costs banks to borrow money from each other.

As such it is a big influence on the cost of mortgages and other loans. Banks setting artificially low Libor rates is called lowballing. In the recording, a senior Barclays manager, Mark Dearlove, instructs Libor submitter Peter Johnson, to lower his Libor rates. He tells him: “The bottom line is you’re going to absolutely hate this… but we’ve had some very serious pressure from the UK government and the Bank of England about pushing our Libors lower.” Mr Johnson objects, saying that this would mean breaking the rules for setting Libor, which required him to put in rates based only on the cost of borrowing cash. Mr Johnson says: “So I’ll push them below a realistic level of where I think I can get money?” His boss Mr Dearlove replies: “The fact of the matter is we’ve got the Bank of England, all sorts of people involved in the whole thing… I am as reluctant as you are… these guys have just turned around and said just do it.”

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The warnings have always been there. Totally ignored.

The Fire In The Hold Of The Doomed Euro (Ward)

The more basic stuff goes back at least twenty years, to the period where trouble was stored up for the future by fanatical federalists cutting every corner and pulling out all the stops to get EMU (the prototype single currency) up and running. Several eminent economists on continents ranging from Australia and the US to the UK and Europe itself made very sound predictions at the time about coming disaster, and they did so saying two related things: 1) It would offer Germany a cheap, fixed currency leading inevitably to its economic dominance, 2) It would point up the economic consequences of imposing one rigid means of exchange on 18 varietal cultures, leading generally to Southern/South Eastern Europe falling behind.

Just to add more weedkiller to the poisonous formulation, the key European leaders not only ignored the advice; they also first, ignored all the data showing that several member States were nowhere near ready to join the eurozone based on agreed criteria; and then second, were implicated in several corrupt deals on commodities – as varied as German butter, Italian wines and Greek olive oil – to cloud the existence of stark differentials in both export and industrial development. For once, the economic naysayers proved to be soothsayers. Messrs Hollande and Muscovici shrink from the limelight about their own book on the subject of cultural difference (fancy that) but it proved to be spot on….as did the musings of Lawson and Thatcher et al in relation to Germany’s dominance.

The Mark from around 1963 until the creation of EMU was the most reliable, performance-related currency on the planet. But only massive debt forgiveness by the victors after the Second World War enabled that outcome. Both the realities in that last paragraph explain why lectures from Hollande and Merkel today – when joined by hypocrisy from Draghi at the ECB – evoke so much hatred of the EU’s prime movers among the so-called ClubMed nations….and those of us Brits in the Brexit camp. I make these points not to be nihilistic, but rather to level the playing field of media coverage that has been so bombed, excavated, deliberately over-watered and then tilted for good luck by Brussels, Wall Street and Berlin obfuscation and mendacity since 2010. A very real outcome of nihilism is being encouraged (and indeed made inevitable) by the EC’s refusal to recognise that – even as the SS Eunatic set sail – there was a raging fire in the hold.

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Big words.

Tsipras: Debt Relief Prerequisite to Legislate New Measures (GR)

The mid-term debt relief measures so that Greece can enter the quantitative easing program is the prerequisite to vote for the new measures, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said on Sunday. Addressing the SYRIZA Central Committee, the party leader spoke about the new austerity measures his administration has agreed to with creditors. He spoke of a compromise that had to be made so that measures had to be counter-balanced by social relief measures of equal fiscal value and aid that the Greek negotiating team. “There are measures that are neither necessary, nor are they the ones we would ever choose, but the compromise achieved would have counter-measures that would counterbalance the fiscal impact and generate zero fiscal balance, and both will be legislated and implemented simultaneously,” Tsipras said.

Speaking on the initial agreement reached at the Malta Eurogroup on Friday, the prime minister said that, “After Malta the way for the identification of the medium-term measures for the debt is open. This will send a clear message to the markets that the uncertainty is over.” “Now we will be the ones to decide the fiscal path the country will follow after the end of the program,” Tsipras said, explaining the strategy for the next round of negotiations. He stressed that without medium-term measures for debt relief that would allow Greece to enter the QE program, he would not implement the new measures.

The prime minister also unleashed an indirect attack against main opposition New Democracy claiming that, “Some were scheming so that the evaluation would not close, because they didn’t want us to be the ones who will pull Greece out of the crisis.” He also attacked ND leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis accusing him of “rushing to meet with the German finance minister to get his blessing and undermine the negotiations.” He also said that the conservative party espouses extreme neoliberalism.

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It was a big mistake to put the Great Barrier Reef near Australia.

Great Barrier Reef at ‘Terminal Stage’ (G.)

Back-to-back severe bleaching events have affected two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, new aerial surveys have found. The findings have caused alarm among scientists, who say the proximity of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events is unprecedented for the reef, and will give damaged coral little chance to recover. Scientists with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies last week completed aerial surveys of the world’s largest living structure, scoring bleaching at 800 individual coral reefs across 8,000km. The results show the two consecutive mass bleaching events have affected a 1,500km stretch, leaving only the reef’s southern third unscathed. Where last year’s bleaching was concentrated in the reef’s northern third, the 2017 event spread further south, and was most intense in the middle section of the Great Barrier Reef.

This year’s mass bleaching, second in severity only to 2016, has occurred even in the absence of an El Niño event. Mass bleaching – a phenomenon caused by global warming-induced rises to sea surface temperatures – has occurred on the reef four times in recorded history. Prof Terry Hughes, who led the surveys, said the length of time coral needed to recover – about 10 years for fast-growing types – raised serious concerns about the increasing frequency of mass bleaching events. “The significance of bleaching this year is that it’s back to back, so there’s been zero time for recovery,” Hughes told the Guardian. “It’s too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year’s bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km south of last year’s bleaching.”

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A really funny man died over the weekend.

John Clarke has Died

We featured quite a few Clarke and Dawe videos through the years. Here’s a few favorites:

How does the financial system work?

European Debt Crisis

The Greek Economy

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Apr 092017
 
 April 9, 2017  Posted by at 8:32 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »
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Paul Gauguin Avenue de Clichy 1889

 


Central Banks “Took Over” Markets In 2009; In December “Unwind” Begins (ZH)
‘No Bubble, No Pop’: Why Banks Are As Safe As Houses (WAus)
Greek Gloom As Economy Stalls Amid Latest Bout Of EU Wrangling (G.)
The Picture Of Our Economy Looks A Lot Like A Rorschach Test (NYT)
Steve Keen And Michael Hudson: Fixing The Economy (EI)
Trump’s ‘Wag the Dog’ Moment (Robert Parry)
Former DIA Colonel: “US Strikes On Syria Based On A Lie” (IntelT)
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard On Syria (Fox)
How Marine Le Pen Could Win (Pol.)
Privacy Experts Say CIA Left Americans Open To Cyber Attacks (IBT)
Rising Waters Threaten China’s Rising Cities (NYT)

 

 

“What do credit traders look at when they mark their books? Well, these days it is fair to say that they have more than one eye on the equity market.”

Central Banks “Took Over” Markets In 2009; In December “Unwind” Begins (ZH)

Citigroup’s crack trio of credit analysts, Matt King, Stephen Antczak, and Hans Lorenzen, best known for their relentless, Austrian, at times “Zero Hedge-esque” attacks on the Fed, and persistent accusations central banks distort markets, all summarized best in the following Citi chart… have come out of hibernation, to dicuss what comes next for various asset classes in the context of the upcoming paradigm shift in central bank posture. In a note released by the group’s credit team on March 27, Lorenzen writes that credit’s “infatuation with equities is coming to an end.” “What do credit traders look at when they mark their books? Well, these days it is fair to say that they have more than one eye on the equity market.”

Understandable: after all, as the FOMC Minutes revealed last week, even the Fed now openly admits its policy is directly in response to stock prices. As the credit economist points out, “statistically, over the last couple of years both markets have been influencing (“Granger causing”) each other. But considering the relative size, depth and liquidity of (not to mention the resources dedicated to) the equity market, we’d argue that more often than not, the asset class taking the passenger seat is credit. Yet the relationship was not always so cosy. Over the long run, the correlation in recent years is actually unusual. In the two decades before the Great Financial Crisis, three-month correlations between US credit returns and the S&P 500 returns tended to oscillate sharply and only barely managed to stay positive over the long run..

Rudolf E. [email protected]
Replying to @zerohedge
Here is a chart of the well being of the American middle-class and poor over the same period.

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“Tell a European you think there’s a housing bubble and you’ll have a reasonable discussion,” Grantham said. “Tell an Australian and you’ll have World War III…”

‘No Bubble, No Pop’: Why Banks Are As Safe As Houses (WAus)

The housing sector is therefore picking up the slack, and as far as the Westpac chair can discern the underlying demand is real. “That’s why I believe there is no bubble — there is huge demand from local and offshore buyers,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not looking at things like the capacity to pay interest and repay principal, so we don’t have any issues with the measures announced (on March 31). “APRA has its mandate; we have ours. But we have no interest in lending to people who can’t repay.” That’s the reasoned analysis from Norris and Maxsted, and Henry mostly concurs. If you’re after the full Catherine wheel experience, try taking the alternative position as a market-leading fund manager or economist and warning the public about an inflating property bubble. Legendary US investor Jeremy Grantham did just that, vowing in 2012 he would never do it again. “Tell a European you think there’s a housing bubble and you’ll have a reasonable discussion,” Grantham said. “Tell an Australian and you’ll have World War III. Been there, done that!”

Local economist Steve Keen entered the fray in 2009, likening the experience to “having my genitals cut off”, while hedge fund managers have lost so much money short-selling Australian banks because they expected the bubble to pop that it’s been called the “widow maker’s” trade. True to his word, Grantham failed to respond to an email inviting him to trigger World War III. Keen, who has relocated to Britain but was in Australia this week, has no such hesitation, saying it is abundantly clear that we’re in a debt-fuelled housing bubble that has only a year or two to run before it pops. “We’re in hock to the banks and we depend on endless rising levels of credit,” the economics professor says. “Credit can continue rising but eventually you reach a peak and the gas runs out.”

Denmark, according to Keen, reached its world-record peak in 2010 at a household debt-to-GDP ratio of 139 per cent. While Australia is currently at 123 per cent, the country has some headroom because the corporate sector has deleveraged and the RBA still has some policy ammunition with the 1.5 per cent cash rate. Keen reckons we have two years, at most, before unravelling in a similar, catastrophic way to Ireland in the financial crisis. However Phil Ruthven, the experienced forecaster and founder of IBISWorld, says low interest rates mean that debt servicing is the lowest it’s been in 50 years. “But we do need to increase supply, and we do need to warn home buyers of the dangers of going too deep into debt when interest rates are rising,” Ruthven says.

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“They no longer have the means to meet basic needs, with consumption of milk and bread right down and payment of electricity bills at an all-time low.”

Greek Gloom As Economy Stalls Amid Latest Bout Of EU Wrangling (G.)

Eight years into Greece’s ordeal to escape bankruptcy, thousands of Communist party sympathisers packed into Syntagma Square in Athens on Friday to protest at the latest concessions made by Alexis Tsipras’s leftist government to keep the country afloat. Massed before parliament in the fading light of day, they did what they had come to do: rail against the cuts that loom in return for further disbursement of the emergency aid now needed to avert economic collapse. The serial drama of Greece’s debt repayments will reach a climax again when loans of €7.5bn mature in July. That communist-aligned unionists can still muster such protests is testament to the party’s zealous determination to make itself heard. Most Greeks gave up demonstrating long ago.

Two years short of a decade in freefall, and with little prospect of recovery, the nation has succumbed to protest fatigue. With the exception of pensioners – the great losers in Greece’s assault by austerity – anger has been replaced by malaise, the lassitude that strikes when loss becomes commonplace. Friday’s protest, one of more than 60 nationwide, came within hours of Europe escaping another dose of Greek drama after eurozone finance ministers announced that bailout talks – stalled as Athens bickered over the terms of its latest compliance review with lenders – could finally resume. International auditors representing the bodies behind the three bailout packages the country has received since May 2010 are expected to return to Greece on Monday. Once technical issues are addressed, the delayed bailout payment will be disbursed, ensuring default is averted in July.

In exchange, the once fiercely anti-austerity Tsipras has signed up to further reforms worth €3.6bn, the equivalent of 2% of GDP, to be put into effect once the current programme ends next year. “It is in the nature of every agreement for there to be compromises,” said Greek finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos, who faces the thankless task of having to sell the prospect of more pension cuts and tax rises to sceptical leftists in the ruling Syriza party when it convenes on Sunday. “There are things that will upset … the Greek people.” After more than a year of hard talk and bluster – the review was meant to have been concluded in February 2016 – the government once again conceded on its own red lines, reflecting Athens’s overarching policy of keeping Greece in the heart of the eurozone. Tsipras, who fought hard to ensure countermeasures can also be taken to offset losses if economic indicators are better than expected, was quick to sound optimistic. “The Greek economy,” he announced, “is ready to leave the crisis behind it.”

But the breakthrough falls far short of the all-inclusive package the government was hoping for. Once again, promises of reducing the country’s staggering debt pile – at 180% of GDP, the biggest impediment to real economic recovery – will have to wait. [..] Unemployment has increased from 23.2% to 23.5%, with investors – the only guarantee of soaking up such an oversupply of labour – staying away. In a repeat of the chaos that beset the country’s financial system at the height of the crisis in 2015, an estimated €2.5bn of deposits left Greek banks in January and February. Consumption is also down. “The 37% of Greeks at risk of poverty and social exclusion really cannot make ends meet,” said Aliki Mouriki, a leading Greek sociologist. “They no longer have the means to meet basic needs, with consumption of milk and bread right down and payment of electricity bills at an all-time low.”

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That’s what you get for publishing made-up reports all the time, NYT.

The Picture Of Our Economy Looks A Lot Like A Rorschach Test (NYT)

Economics has a foundation in hard numbers – employment, inflation, spending – that has largely allowed it to sidestep the competing partisan narratives that have afflicted American politics and culture. But not anymore. Since Donald J. Trump’s victory in November, consumer sentiment has diverged in an unprecedented way, with Republicans convinced that a boom is at hand, and Democrats foreseeing an imminent recession. “We’ve never recorded this before,” said Richard Curtin, who directs the University of Michigan’s monthly survey of consumer sentiment. Although the outlook has occasionally varied by political party since the survey began in 1946, “the partisan divide has never had as large an impact on consumers’ economic expectations,” he said.

At the same time, familiar economic data points have become Rorschach tests. That was evident after the government’s monthly jobs report on Friday; Republicans’ talking points centered on a 10-year low in the unemployment rate, while Democrats focused on a sharp decline in job creation. “I find it stunning, to be honest. It’s unreal,” said Michael R. Strain, director of economic policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “Things that were less politicized in the past, like how you feel about the economy, have become more politicized now.” Indeed, the night-and-day views underscore yet another front on which Americans remain polarized five months after the election, and with President Trump nearing his 100th day in office.

[..] The University of Michigan researchers have their own way of measuring the gulf between the two viewpoints and how quickly it has flipped. Among Republicans, the Michigan consumer expectations index was at 61.1 in October, the kind of reading typically reported in the depths of a recession. Confident that Mrs. Clinton would win, Democrats registered a 95.4 reading, close to the highs reached when her husband was in office in the late 1990s and the economy was soaring. By March, the positions were reversed, with an even more extreme split. Republicans’ expectations had soared to 122.5, equivalent to levels registered in boom times. As for Democrats, they were even more pessimistic than Republicans had been in October.

As at the voting booth, the split in perceptions could have real-world consequences. If behavior tracks the recession-era sentiment among Democrats, who account for 32% of respondents in the survey, prophecies could quickly become self-fulfilling by affecting spending and investing decisions. “If one-third of the population cut their consumer spending by 5%, you get a recession,” said Alan Blinder, a Princeton economist who served in the Clinton administration and advised Al Gore and Hillary Clinton on economic policy during their Democratic presidential campaigns. “I don’t think it will happen, but it’s not beyond the realm of the possible.”

To be sure, even if Democratic consumers pulled back, that wouldn’t necessarily bring on a recession. A burst of spending by bullish Republicans, who equal 27% of those polled by the Michigan researchers, could counteract much of that drag. And independents, who are the largest cohort in the survey, at 41%, remain fairly optimistic about future growth. It is rare for “rising optimism to coexist with increasing uncertainty,” said Mr. Curtin, the Michigan expert. “The current level of optimism clearly indicates that no economywide spending retrenchment is underway, but the prevailing level of uncertainty will limit growth in discretionary spending.”

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Great conversation between two great economists. Very much worth a full read.

Steve Keen And Michael Hudson: Fixing The Economy (EI)

Michael Hudson: If you don’t cancel the debts, they’re going to keep growing, and all of the growth and national income is going to go to the creditors. So the fact is that the debts aren’t owed to the “we” – the 99%. The debts are owed to the 1%. 1% of the population has 75% of the financial assets. All their growth has occurred since 1980. So the question is, who are you going to save? The economy or the banks? If you don’t cancel the debts, they’re going to keep growing, and all of the growth and national income is going to go to the creditors. When President Obama came in, he promised that he was going to write down the debts – especially the junk mortgages – to the actual real value of the homes that the junk mortgage people had taken out.

Or and set the debt service – the money you have to pay every month to pay the mortgage, amortization, and principal, and interest to what the normal rental value of this would be. Well, as soon as he was elected, he dropped it all. He invited the bankers to the White House and said, boys, I’m the only guy standing between you and the pitchforks out there. Don’t worry, I can deliver my constituency to you. So, basically, the Democratic Party broke its voters into a black constituency, a women’s constituency, a LGBTQ constituency, and they’re all for Wall Street. Instead of saving the economy, Obama bailed out and saved the banks by keeping the debts in place. And once you have to pay that, it’s curtains. In the end, everybody’s going to end up in Greece. Greece is where you’re going, if you don’t.

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“I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.”

“People in both the agency [the CIA] and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he already should have known – but maybe he didn’t – and they’re afraid that this is moving toward a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict..”

Trump’s ‘Wag the Dog’ Moment (Robert Parry)

On Thursday night, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. intelligence community assessed with a “high degree of confidence” that the Syrian government had dropped a poison gas bomb on civilians in Idlib province. But a number of intelligence sources have made contradictory assessments, saying the preponderance of evidence suggests that Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels were at fault, either by orchestrating an intentional release of a chemical agent as a provocation or by possessing containers of poison gas that ruptured during a conventional bombing raid. One intelligence source told me that the most likely scenario was a staged event by the rebels intended to force Trump to reverse a policy, announced only days earlier, that the U.S. government would no longer seek “regime change” in Syria and would focus on attacking the common enemy, Islamic terror groups that represent the core of the rebel forces.

The source said the Trump national security team split between the President’s close personal advisers, such as nationalist firebrand Steve Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner, on one side and old-line neocons who have regrouped under National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, an Army general who was a protégé of neocon favorite Gen. David Petraeus. In this telling, the earlier ouster of retired Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser and this week’s removal of Bannon from the National Security Council were key steps in the reassertion of neocon influence inside the Trump presidency. The strange personalities and ideological extremism of Flynn and Bannon made their ousters easier, but they were obstacles that the neocons wanted removed.

[..] Alarm within the U.S. intelligence community about Trump’s hasty decision to attack Syria reverberated from the Middle East back to Washington, where former CIA officer Philip Giraldi reported hearing from his intelligence contacts in the field that they were shocked at how the new poison-gas story was being distorted by Trump and the mainstream U.S. news media. Giraldi told Scott Horton’s Webcast: “I’m hearing from sources on the ground in the Middle East, people who are intimately familiar with the intelligence that is available who are saying that the essential narrative that we’re all hearing about the Syrian government or the Russians using chemical weapons on innocent civilians is a sham.” Giraldi said his sources were more in line with an analysis postulating an accidental release of the poison gas after an Al Qaeda arms depot was hit by a Russian airstrike.

“The intelligence confirms pretty much the account that the Russians have been giving … which is that they hit a warehouse where the rebels – now these are rebels that are, of course, connected with Al Qaeda – where the rebels were storing chemicals of their own and it basically caused an explosion that resulted in the casualties. Apparently the intelligence on this is very clear.” Giraldi said the anger within the intelligence community over the distortion of intelligence to justify Trump’s military retaliation was so great that some covert officers were considering going public. “People in both the agency [the CIA] and in the military who are aware of the intelligence are freaking out about this because essentially Trump completely misrepresented what he already should have known – but maybe he didn’t – and they’re afraid that this is moving toward a situation that could easily turn into an armed conflict,” Giraldi said before Thursday night’s missile strike. “They are astonished by how this is being played by the administration and by the U.S. media.”

Read more …

The picture is pretty clear by now.

Former DIA Colonel: “US Strikes On Syria Based On A Lie” (IntelT)

Donald Trump’s decision to launch cruise missile strikes on a Syrian Air Force Base was based on a lie. In the coming days the American people will learn that the Intelligence Community knew that Syria did not drop a military chemical weapon on innocent civilians in Idlib. Here is what happened.

• The Russians briefed the United States on the proposed target. This is a process that started more than two months ago. There is a dedicated phone line that is being used to coordinate and deconflict (i.e., prevent US and Russian air assets from shooting at each other) the upcoming operation.

• The United States was fully briefed on the fact that there was a target in Idlib that the Russians believes was a weapons/explosives depot for Islamic rebels.

• The Syrian Air Force hit the target with conventional weapons. All involved expected to see a massive secondary explosion. That did not happen. Instead, smoke, chemical smoke, began billowing from the site. It turns out that the Islamic rebels used that site to store chemicals, not sarin, that were deadly. The chemicals included organic phosphates and chlorine and they followed the wind and killed civilians.

• There was a strong wind blowing that day and the cloud was driven to a nearby village and caused casualties.

• We know it was not sarin. How? Very simple. The so-called “first responders” handled the victims without gloves. If this had been sarin they would have died. Sarin on the skin will kill you. How do I know? I went through “Live Agent” training at Fort McClellan in Alabama.

• There are members of the U.S. military who were aware this strike would occur and it was recorded. There is a film record. At least the Defense Intelligence Agency knows that this was not a chemical weapon attack. In fact, Syrian military chemical weapons were destroyed with the help of Russia.

This is Gulf of Tonkin 2. How ironic. Donald Trump correctly castigated George W. Bush for launching an unprovoked, unjustified attack on Iraq in 2003. Now we have President Donald Trump doing the same damn thing. Worse in fact. Because the intelligence community had information showing that there was no chemical weapon launched by the Syrian Air Force. Here’s the good news. The Russians and Syrians were informed, or at least were aware, that the attack was coming. They were able to remove a large number of their assets. The base the United States hit was something of a backwater. Donald Trump gets to pretend that he is a tough guy. He is not. He is a fool.

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Tulsi is being drowned out by the trigger happy Democrats. But she actually served in the Middle East.

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard On Syria (Fox)

The cost of war is profound. I’m opposed to the escalation of the counterproductive regime change war in Syria because it will lead to the deaths of more innocent men, women and children. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS, the strongest forces on the ground in Syria, will continue to increase their strength and influence over the region in the vacuum of a central government.

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The French detest their political system even more than Americans do theirs. It’s very possible abstentions will decide the elections. And Le Pen voters WILL go to the ballot box.

How Marine Le Pen Could Win (Pol.)

Could Marine Le Pen become France’s next president? A quick look at polling trends suggests that at first blush at least, the answer is “no.” [..] But for Serge Galam, a French physicist who predicted Donald Trump’s election in the United States, polls are missing out on an important factor: abstention — and specifically, how it affects voter turnout for different candidates. He argues that abstention, which a poll by CEVIPOF showed could be as high as 30%, is likely to be decisive in a “dirty” campaign dominated by scandals. “Obviously, nothing is done yet but her election is becoming very likely,” said Galam, a researcher with the French National Center for Scientific Research who also studies public opinion at the CEVIPOF political science institute. “I’m taking a scientific view of this — she needs a turnout differential of about 20% to win.”

[..] If Le Pen is projected to lose the runoff by 41 to 59%, for example, Galam argues that Le Pen could still win if the turnout rate for her voters is 90% versus 70% for her rival, for an overall turnout rate of 79%. In other words, the National Front leader could benefit because a substantial number of people who say they will vote for her rival may not actually go to the polls. Equally, if Le Pen is projected to lose by 45 to 55% in the runoff, she could win if turnout for her is 85% versus 70% for her rival, for an overall turnout of 77%. If overall turnout is 76%, then Le Pen would need a turnout of 90% versus 65% for her rival, and so on.

Some polls have Le Pen lagging behind Macron or Fillon by more than 30 percentage points, which would make her victory near impossible. But others show her within striking distance, with a lag of less than 20 points. If she can shrink the gap, then the challenge for Le Pen will be to mobilize a greater proportion of her supporters than her rivals. In this regard, Galam argues that Le Pen has a shot. For different reasons, he says, both Macron and Fillon aroused intense feelings of “aversion” among some voters, with a large proportion of Macron voters saying they could change their mind on election day. Negative or ambivalent feelings could translate into weaker turnout for them on election day.

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Newsweek wakes up to a 2 week old report from IBT.

Privacy Experts Say CIA Left Americans Open To Cyber Attacks (IBT)

WikiLeaks release of the latest cache of confidential C.I.A. documents as part of an ongoing “Vault 7” operation exposed some of the U.S. government’s hacking and digital espionage capabilities—this time having to do with iPhones and other smart devices used by hundreds of millions of people across the globe. But cyber security experts and computers scientists are raising concerns over the C.I.A.’s disregard of safety measures put in place for discovering these dangerous flaws in smart gadgets. The federal agency has kept its discovery of many exploits (software tools targeting flaws in products, typically used for malicious hacking purposes) a secret, “stockpiling” that information rather than reporting it to multinational corporations, throwing millions of Americans into the crosshairs of a dangerous, intergovernmental spying game in the process.

“What’s critical to understand is that these vulnerabilities can be exploited not just by our government but by foreign governments and cyber criminals around the world, and that’s deeply troubling,” said Ashley Gorski, an American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney working on the civil rights group’s national security project. “Our government should be working to help the companies patch vulnerabilities when they are discovered, not stockpiling them.” The C.I.A. knew its own classified documents had been floating around the dark web for at least a year and was well aware the hacking capabilities it was using to break into everyday tech could also have been employed by hostile foreign networks. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin reportedly orchestrated a sprawling governmental operation in an attempt to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which featured several cyber attacks on email servers and devices used by members of the Democratic Party.

The government enacted the Vulnerabilities Equities Process to reduce the unnecessary stockpiling of exploits. The procedure was meant to provide guidelines for agencies like the C.I.A. for notifying companies when dangerous issues are discovered in their devices. The measure was put in place during the Obama administration to prevent cyber attacks from terrorist networks and foreign governments, including Russia and China. But the C.I.A. completely ignored the Vulnerabilities Equity Process, instead exploring ways to use exploits for their own purposes, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an international nonprofit digital rights group that reviewed a copy of the practice after filing a Freedom of Information Act request. “It appears the CIA didn’t even use the [Vulnerabilities Equity Process],” said Cindy Cohn, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “That’s worrisome, because we know these agencies overvalue their offensive capabilities and undervalue the risk to the rest of us.”

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There is so much wrong in China’s urbanization it’s hard to decide where to start.

Rising Waters Threaten China’s Rising Cities (NYT)

The rains brought torrents, pouring into basements and malls, the water swiftly rising a foot and a half. The city of Dongguan, a manufacturing center here in the world’s most dynamic industrial region, was hit especially hard by the downpour in May 2014. More than 100 factories and shops were inundated. Water climbed knee-high in 20 minutes, wiping out inventory for dozens of businesses. Next door in Guangzhou, an ancient, mammoth port city of 13 million, helicopters and a fleet of 80 boats had to be sent to rescue trapped residents. Tens of thousands lost their homes, and 53 square miles of nearby farmland were ruined. The cost of repairs topped $100 million. Chen Rongbo, who lived in the city, saw the flood coming. He tried to scramble to safety on the second floor of his house, carrying his 6-year-old granddaughter. He slipped. The flood swept both of them away.

Flooding has been a plague for centuries in southern China’s Pearl River Delta. So even the rains that May, the worst in the area in years, soon drifted from the headlines. People complained and made jokes on social media about wading through streets that had become canals and riding on half-submerged buses through lakes that used to be streets. But there was no official hand-wringing about what caused the floods or how climate change might bring more extreme storms and make the problems worse. A generation ago, this was mostly farmland. Three vital rivers leading to the South China Sea, along with a spider’s web of crisscrossing tributaries, made the low-lying delta a fertile plain, famous for rice. Guangzhou, formerly Canton, had more than a million people, but by the 1980s, China set out to transform the whole region, capitalizing on its proximity to water, the energy of its people, and the money and port infrastructure of neighboring Hong Kong.

Rushing to catch up after decades of stagnation, China built a gargantuan collection of cities the size of nations with barely a pause to consider their toll on the environment, much less the future impact of global warming. Today, the region is a goliath of industry with a population exceeding 42 million. But while prosperity reshaped the social and cultural geography of the delta, it didn’t fundamentally alter the topography. Here, as elsewhere, breakneck development comes up against the growing threat of climate change. Economically, Guangzhou now has more to lose from climate change than any other city on the planet, according to a World Bank report. Nearby Shenzhen, another booming metropolis, ranked 10th on that World Bank list, which measured risk as a percentage of GDP.


Shenzhen was transformed in a few decades from a small fishing village into a city of millions.

Read more …

Mar 302017
 
 March 30, 2017  Posted by at 2:40 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  9 Responses »
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Rene Magritte Memory 1948

 

We are witnessing the demise of the world’s two largest economic power blocks, the US and EU. Given deteriorating economic conditions on both sides of the Atlantic, which have been playing out for many years but were so far largely kept hidden from view by unprecedented issuance of debt, the demise should come as no surprise.

The debt levels are not just unprecedented, they would until recently have been unimaginable. When the conditions for today’s debt orgasm were first created in the second half of the 20th century, people had yet to wrap their minds around the opportunities and possibilities that were coming on offer. Once they did, they ran with it like so many lemmings.

The reason why economies are now faltering invites an interesting discussion. Energy availability certainly plays a role, or rather the energy cost of energy, but we might want to reserve a relatively larger role for the idea, and the subsequent practice, of trying to run entire societies on debt (instead of labor and resources).

 

 

It almost looks as if the cost of energy, or of anything at all really, doesn’t play a role anymore, if and when you can borrow basically any sum of money at ultra low rates. Sometimes you wonder why people didn’t think of that before; how rich could former generations have been, or at least felt?

The reason why is that there was no need for it; things were already getting better all the time, albeit for a briefer period of time than most assume, and there was less ‘want’. Not that people wouldn’t have wanted as much as we do today, they just didn’t know yet what it was they should want. The things to want were as unimaginable as the debt that could have bought them.

It’s when things ceased getting better that ideas started being floated to create the illusion that they still were, and until recently very few people were not fooled by this. While this will seem incredible in hindsight, it still is not that hard to explain. Because when things happen over a period of decades, step by step, you walk headfirst into the boiling frog analogy: slowly but surely.

 

At first, women needed to start working to pay the bills, health care and education costs started rising, taxes began to rise. But everyone was too busy enjoying the nice slowly warming water to notice. A shiny car -or two, three-, a home in the burbs with a white picket fence, the American -and German and British etc.- Dream seemed to continue.

Nobody bothered to think about the price to pay, because it was far enough away: the frog could pay in installments. In the beginning only for housing, later also for cars, credit card debt and then just about anything.

Nobody bothered to look at external costs either. Damage to one’s own living environment through a huge increase in the number of roads and cars and the demise of town- and city cores, of mom and pop stores, of forest land and meadows, basically anything green, it was all perceived as inevitable and somehow ‘natural’ (yes, that is ironic).

 

 

Damage to the world beyond one’s own town, for instance through the exploitation of domestic natural resources and the wars fought abroad for access to other nations’ resources, only a very precious few ever cared to ponder these things, certainly after the Vietnam war was no longer broadcast and government control of -or cooperation with- the media grew exponentially.

Looking at today’s world in a sufficiently superficial fashion -the way most people look at it-, one might be forgiven for thinking that debt, made cheap enough, tapers over all other factors, economic and otherwise, including thermodynamics and physics in general. Except it doesn’t, it only looks that way, and for a limited time at that. In the end, thermodynamics always beats ‘financial innovation’. In the end, thermodynamics sets the limits, even those of economics.

 

That leads us into another discussion. If not for the constraints, whether they emanate from energy and/or finance, would growth have been able to continue at prior levels? Both the energy and the finance/political camps mostly seem to think so.

The energy crowd -peak oilers- appear to assume that if energy would have been more readily available, economic growth could have continued pretty much unabated. Or they at least seem to assume that it’s the limits of energy that are responsible for the limits to economic growth.

The finance crowd mostly seems to think that if we would have followed different economic models, growth would have been for the taking. They tend to blame the Fed, or politics, loose regulation, the banking system.

Are either of them right? If they are, that would mean growth can continue de facto indefinitely if only we were smart enough to either make the right economic and political decisions, or to find or invent new sources of energy.

But what kind of growth do both ‘fields’ envision? Growth to what end, and growth into what? 4 years ago, I wrote What Do We Want To Grow Into? I have still never seen anyone else ask that question, before or since, let alone answer it.

We want growth by default, we want growth for growth’s sake, without caring much where it will lead us. Maybe we think unconsciously that as long as we can secure growth, we can figure out what to do with it later.

But it doesn’t work that way: growth changes the entire playing field on a constant basis, and we can’t keep up with the changes it brings, we’re always behind because we don’t care to answer that question: what do we want to grow into. Growth leads us, we don’t lead it. Next question then: if growth stops, what will lead us?

Because we don’t know where we want growth to lead us, we can’t define it. The growth we chase is therefore per definition blind. Which of necessity means that growth is about quantity, not quality. And that in turn means that the -presupposed- link between growth and progress falls apart: we can’t know if -the next batch of- growth will make us better off, or make our lives easier, more fulfilling. It could do the exact opposite.

 

And that’s not the only consequence of our blind growth chase. We have become so obsessed with growth that we have turned to creative accounting, in myriad ways, to produce the illusion of growth where there is none. We have trained ourselves and each other to such an extent to desire growth that we’re all, individually and collectively, scared to death of the moment when there might not be any. Blind fear brought on by a blind desire.

As we’ve also seen, we’ve been plunging ourselves into ever higher debt levels to create the illusion of growth. Now, money (debt) is created not by governments, as many people still think, but by -private- banks. Banks therefore need people to borrow. What people borrow most money for is housing. When they sign up for a mortgage, the bank creates a large amount of money out of nothing.

So if the bank gets itself into trouble, for instance because they lose money speculating, or because people can’t pay their mortgages anymore that they never could afford in the first place, the only way out for that bank, other than bailouts, is to sign more people up for mortgages -or car loans-, preferably bigger ones all the time.

 

 

What we have invented to keep big banks afloat for a while longer is ultra low interest rates, NIRP, ZIRP etc. They create the illusion of not only growth, but also of wealth. They make people think a home they couldn’t have dreamt of buying not long ago now fits in their ‘budget’. That is how we get them to sign up for ever bigger mortgages. And those in turn keep our banks from falling over.

Record low interest rates have become the only way that private banks can create new money, and stay alive (because at higher rates hardly anybody can afford a mortgage). It’s of course not just the banks that are kept alive, it’s the entire economy. Without the ZIRP rates, the mortgages they lure people into, and the housing bubbles this creates, the amount of money circulating in our economies would shrink so much and so fast the whole shebang would fall to bits.

That’s right: the survival of our economies today depends one on one on the existence of housing bubbles. No bubble means no money creation means no functioning economy.

 

What we should do in the short term is lower private debt levels (drastically, jubilee style), and temporarily raise public debt to encourage economic activity, aim for more and better jobs. But we’re doing the exact opposite: austerity measures are geared towards lowering public debt, while they cut the consumer spending power that makes up 60-70% of our economies. Meanwhile, housing bubbles raise private debt through the -grossly overpriced- roof.

This is today’s general economic dynamic. It’s exclusively controlled by the price of debt. However, as low interest rates make the price of debt look very low, the real price (there always is one, it’s just like thermodynamics) is paid beyond interest rates, beyond the financial markets even, it’s paid on Main Street, in the real economy. Where the quality of jobs, if not the quantity, has fallen dramatically, and people can only survive by descending ever deeper into ever more debt.

 

 

Do we need growth? Is that even a question we can answer if we don’t know what we would need or use it for? Is there perhaps a point, both from an energy and from a financial point of view, where growth simply levels off no matter what we do, in the same way that our physical bodies stop growing at 6 feet or so? And that after that the demand for economic growth must necessarily lead to The Only Thing That Grows Is Debt?

It’s perhaps ironic that the US doesn’t appear to be either first or most at risk this time around. There are plenty other housing markets today with what at least look to be much bigger bubbles, from London to China and from Sydney to Stockholm. Auckland’s bubble already looks to be popping. The potential consequences of such -inevitable- developments are difficult to overestimate. Because, as I said, the various banking systems and indeed entire economies depend on these bubbles.

The aftermath will be chaotic and it’s little use to try and predict it too finely, but it’ll be ‘interesting’ to see what happens to the banks in all these countries where bubbles have been engineered, once prices start dropping. It’s not a healthy thing for an economy to depend on blowing bubbles. It’s also not healthy to depend on private banks for the creation of a society’s money. It’s unhealthy, unnecessary and unethical. We’re about to see why.

 

Mar 272017
 
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Ray K. Metzker Chicago 1958

 


Sharpest Credit Plunge Since 2008 Could Spell Disaster For US Economy (AEP)
Paper Wealth In US Stocks Reaches $32 Trillion (Fed)
Rich Chinese Race to Apply for a US Golden Visa (BBG)
Russia’s Banking System Has SWIFT Alternative Ready (RT)
Erdogan Setting Back Integration In Germany By Years: Schaeuble (R.)
France’s Le Pen Says The EU ‘Will Die’, Globalists To Be Defeated (R.)
Populism Is The Result Of Global Economic Failure (G.)
The West is Becoming Irrelevant (Vltchek)
The US Will Lose Control Of The Global Internet (Morozov)
Circular Runways Proposed For Airport Efficiency (Curbed)
Trump Presidency “Opens Door” To Planet-Hacking Geoengineer Experiments (G.)
UN’s Famine Appeal Is Billions Shy of Goal (NYT)
‘We Reached Our Limits’: Greece To Stop Taking Back Refugees (RT)
Greek-US Ties Set To Strengthen Significantly (K.)
Greece Considers Capital Control Tightening (K.)

 

 

The Telegraph changed the title of this Ambrose article overnight to “Fading Trump Rally Threatened By Rare Contraction Of US Credit”.

Sharpest Credit Plunge Since 2008 Could Spell Disaster For US Economy (AEP)

Credit strategists are increasingly disturbed by a sudden and rare contraction of US bank lending, fearing a synchronised slowdown in the US and China this year that could catch euphoric markets badly off guard. One key measure of US corporate borrowing is falling at the fastest rate since the onset of the Lehman Brothers crisis. Money supply growth in the US has also slowed markedly. These monetary and credit signals tend to be leading indicators for the real economy. Data from the US Federal Reserve shows that the $2 trillion market for commercial and industrial loans peaked in December. The sector has weakened abruptly as lenders tighten credit, especially for non-residential property. Over the last three months it has dropped at a rate of 5.4pc on annual basis, a pace of decline not seen since December 2008.

The deterioration in the broader $9 trillion market for loans and leases has been less dramatic but it too is shrinking, falling at a 1.6pc rate on a three-month basis. “Corporate lending has ground to a halt and I am staggered that the Fed is raising rates. They have made a very big mistake,” said Patrick Perret-Green from AD Macro. Credit experts at several big US banks have issued warnings over recent days, albeit sotto voce. “We’ve been surprised how little attention the slowdown in US bank lending has garnered,” said Matt King, global credit strategist at Citigroup.

While they are not yet alarmed, their concerns are worth heeding. Credit has tended to pick up signs of trouble several weeks before equity markets in recent episodes of financial stress. “Without another big dose of momentum, the cracks in the global reflationary consensus are liable to grow bigger. All around, existing trends are being called into question,” he said. Net corporate bond issuance has also stalled, indicating that borrowing by US firms as a whole is in decline. “So much for a Trump-driven expansion. Beneath the surface, we think a seismic battle is taking place,” he said.

Elga Bartsch and Chetan Ahya from Morgan Stanley said the credit squeeze is a warning sign and needs watching closely. “On our estimates, the credit impulse turned negative at the end of 2016. We have not seen such a sharp deceleration in bank lending to US corporates since the Great Financial Crisis,” they said. “Historically, credit downturns have led recessions. The plunge could reignite concerns that a highly leveraged US corporate sector may react strongly to even limited interest rates increases,” they said.

[..] Money and credit are certainly not flashing warnings of an imminent crisis, but they are hard to square with the exuberant view of investors that the world is on the cusp of an accelerating economic boom. That boom may already have peaked. The massive stimulus injected by the global authorities last year to counter the Chinese currency scare and any fall-out from Brexit is by now fading, and it is too early to tell whether business will pick up the baton. Any soft patch could all too easily combine with a slowdown in China as the country taps the brakes after an extreme episode of fiscal prime-pumping in 2016. Regulators are clamping down on property speculation and trying to rein in forms of pyramid lending, causing a sharp rise in Shibor lending rates. The worry in China is a maturity mismatch. Huge sums have been borrowed on the short-term markets. These debts have to be rolled over constantly to cover long-term liabilities. It was this sort of mismatch that brought down Northern Rock and Lehman Brothers.

[..] Weak US indicators are clearly at odds with the Trump rally on Wall Street, which has pushed equity valuations to nose-bleed levels. Kevin Gaynor from Nomura says his model of asset pricing suggests markets are in effect assuming global growth of 5pc and earnings increases of 30pc a year. These are heroic. “There is a time decay on this new temporary equilibrium,” he notes acidly. What is so disturbing is that each extra dollar of new debt now generates just $0.17 of extra GDP in the US, down from around $0.75 in the 1960s. Much of the corporate debt built up in this cycle has been to buy back stock or pay dividends.

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“Half could be erased and still exceed historical valuation norms.” Fall 50% and still be overvalued. But not a bubble?!

Paper Wealth In US Stocks Reaches $32 Trillion (Fed)

John Hussman comments: “Paper wealth in U.S. stocks reaches $32 trillion. Half could be erased and still exceed historical valuation norms.”

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They can take out $50,000 per year but need ten times that for a golden visa.

Rich Chinese Race to Apply for a US Golden Visa (BBG)

As members of Congress in Washington debate raising the minimum required to obtain a U.S. immigrant investor visa from $500,000 to $1.35 million, concern about the hike has set off a scramble among wealthy would-be participants in China. “Some clients are demanding that we make sure their applications are submitted before April 28,” the date the program expires unless extended or amended by Congress, said Judy Gao, director of the U.S. program at Can-Reach (Pacific), a Beijing-based agency that facilitates so-called EB-5 Immigrant Investor visas. “We’re working overtime to do that.” China’s wealthy, using not-always-legal means to skirt capital controls to get their money out and at the same time gain residency in the U.S., are continuing to dwarf all others as the largest participants in the EB-5 program, despite heightened measures by the Chinese government.

[..] Because Chinese individuals are limited to exchanging $50,000 worth of yuan a year, a 10th of what the EB-5 program requires, some agents are advising clients who don’t already have assets offshore to use a means nicknamed “smurfing” to move their money. “Our suggestion to the client is to open three to four personal accounts in the U.S. or line up three to four friends’ accounts, so they can split the money and wire it to different personal accounts without being put on a blacklist by the Chinese authorities,” said a Shanghai-based real estate agent who gave the surname Dong. “It may require a trip to the States to do so to facilitate the process.” [..] While the government in Beijing spent much of 2016 working to stop its citizens sending money abroad in order to stabilize its declining currency and foreign reserves, Chinese investors’ use of EB-5 continued anyway, totaling $3.8 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

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The sanctions and hysteria allow and force Russia to break the chains and be creative.

Russia’s Banking System Has SWIFT Alternative Ready (RT)

If the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) is shut down in Russia, the country’s banking system will not crash, according to Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina. Russia has a substitute. “There were threats that we can be disconnected from SWIFT. We have finished working on our own payment system, and if something happens, all operations in SWIFT format will work inside the country. We have created an alternative,” Nabiullina said at a meeting with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. She also added that 90% of ATMs in Russia are ready to accept the Mir payment system, a domestic version of Visa and MasterCard. Izvestia daily reported that as of January 2016, 330 Russian banks had been connected to the SWIFT alternative, the system for transfer of financial messages (SPFS).

In 2014 and 2015, when the crisis in relations between Russia and the West were at their peak over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, some Western politicians urged disconnecting Russia from SWIFT. In November 2015, Nabiullina said the SPFS was close to being completed. The central bank’s website says the system was established “as an alternative channel for interbank cooperation with the aim of ensuring the guaranteed and uninterrupted provision of services for the transmission of electronic messages on financial transactions.” At present, the system has some drawbacks. It doesn’t work from 9pm to 5am Moscow time and costs up to five cents per wire transfer, which is regarded expensive.

Read more …

Schäuble is not all stupidity.

Erdogan Setting Back Integration In Germany By Years: Schaeuble (R.)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who accuses Chancellor Angela Merkel of using “Nazi methods” against Turks in Germany, is setting back their integration by years, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said. Berlin is growing increasingly frustrated about Erdogan repeatedly accusing it of applying “Nazi methods” by banning rallies aimed at drumming up support among Turks in Germany for a referendum that would strengthen the power of his presidency. Turks workers began moving to Germany in the 1960s and the country now has about 3 million people of Turkish background. Some are fully integrated while others live in ethnic communities with less contact with the majority population.

“Erdogan’s rhetoric makes me stunned,” Schaeuble, a veteran member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic (CDU) party, told the Welt am Sonntag weekly newspaper. “In a short time, it wilfully destroys the integration that has grown over years in Germany. The repair of the damage will take years,” he said. Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul on Sunday: “You call the president of the Turkish Republic a dictator. When we call them fascists, they get annoyed. When we call them Nazis, they get annoyed.” “You are fascists, you are. Be annoyed as much as you want with Nazi practices. If you draw swastikas on the walls of our mosques and don’t hold anyone accountable, you cannot take off this stain,” Erdogan said.

Read more …

According to Le Monde, one third of French (43% under 35) doesn’t know if they’re going to vote at all. And half still don’t know who to vote for. Beware the polls.

France’s Le Pen Says The EU ‘Will Die’, Globalists To Be Defeated (R.)

The European Union will disappear, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen told a rally on Sunday, aiming to re-enthuse core supporters in the final four weeks before voting gets underway. Buoyed by the unexpected election of Donald Trump in the United States and by Britain’s vote to leave the EU, the leader of the anti-EU and anti-immigrant National Front (FN) party, told the rally in Lille that the French election would be the next step in what she called a global rebellion of the people. “The European Union will die because the people do not want it anymore,” Le Pen said to loud cheers and applause. “The time has come to defeat globalists,” she said, adding: “My message is one of emancipation, of liberation … a call for all the patriots to gather behind our flag.”

Opinion polls forecast that Le Pen will do well in the April 23 first round of the presidential election only to lose the May 7 run-off to centrist Emmanuel Macron. Its anti-EU, anti-euro stance is one of the FN’s standard-bearing policies, both a mark of its anti-establishment stance that pleases grass-roots supporters and attracts voters angry with globalization, and a likely obstacle to its quest for power in a country where a majority oppose a return to the franc. Le Pen has over the past few months tried to accommodate this opposition to leaving the euro by continuing to criticize the unpopular EU while telling voters she would not abruptly pull France out of the bloc or the euro but instead hold a referendum after six months of renegotiating the terms of France’s EU membership.

On Sunday she told the rally she would seek to replace the EU by “another Europe,” which she called “the Europe of the people,” based on a loose cooperative of nations. “It must be done in a rational, well-prepared way,” she told Le Parisien in an interview published earlier on Sunday. “I don’t want chaos. Within the negotiation calendar I want to carry out … the euro would be the last step because I want to wait for the outcome of elections in Germany in the fall before renegotiating it.”

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But is the economic failure caused only by wrong policies?

Populism Is The Result Of Global Economic Failure (G.)

The rise of populism has rattled the global political establishment. Brexit came as a shock, as did the victory of Donald Trump. Much head-scratching has resulted as leaders seek to work out why large chunks of their electorates are so cross. The answer seems pretty simple. Populism is the result of economic failure. The 10 years since the financial crisis have shown that the system of economic governance which has held sway for the past four decades is broken. Some call this approach neoliberalism. Perhaps a better description would be unpopulism. Unpopulism meant tilting the balance of power in the workplace in favour of management and treating people like wage slaves. Unpopulism was rigged to ensure that the fruits of growth went to the few not to the many.

Unpopulism decreed that those responsible for the global financial crisis got away with it while those who were innocent bore the brunt of austerity. Anybody seeking to understand why Trump won the US presidential election should take a look at what has been happening to the division of the economic spoils. The share of national income that went to the bottom 90% of the population held steady at around 66% from 1950 to 1980. It then began a steep decline, falling to just over 50% when the financial crisis broke in 2007. Similarly, it is no longer the case that everybody benefits when the US economy is doing well. During the business cycle upswing between 1961 and 1969, the bottom 90% of Americans took 67% of the income gains. During the Reagan expansion two decades later they took 20%.

During the Greenspan housing bubble of 2001 to 2007, they got just two cents in every extra dollar of national income generated while the richest 10% took the rest. The US economist Thomas Palley* says that up until the late 1970s countries operated a virtuous circle growth model in which wages were the engine of demand growth. “Productivity growth drove wage growth which fueled demand growth. That promoted full employment, which provided the incentive to invest, which drove further productivity growth,” he says.

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China doesn’t want war. Neither does Russia.

The West is Becoming Irrelevant (Vltchek)

China, one of the oldest and greatest civilizations on Earth, went through the terrible period of ‘humiliation’. Divided, occupied and plundered by the West, it has never forgotten nor forgiven. Now the Chinese Communist state and its mixed economy are helping countries in virtually all parts of the world, from Oceania and Latin America, to the Middle East and especially Africa, to survive and to finally stand on their own feet. Despite all the vitriolic propaganda regurgitated by the West (those people in Europe or North America who know close to zero about Africa or China,habitually passing ‘confident’ and highly cynical ‘judgments’ about China’s involvement in the poor world; judgments based exclusively on the lies and fabrications produced by the Western media), China has been gaining great respect and trust in virtually all corners of the globe.

The Chinese people and their government are now standing firmly against Western imperialism. They will not allow any recurrence of the disgraceful and dreary past. The West is provoking this mighty and optimistic nation, pushing it into a terrible confrontation. China doesn’t want any military conflict. It is the most peaceful, the most non-confrontational large nation on Earth. But it is becoming clear that if pushed against the wall, this time it will not compromise: it will fight. In the last years I have spoken to many Chinese people, as I traveled to all corners of the country, and I’m convinced that by now the nation is ready to meet strength with strength. Such determination gives hope to many other countries on our Planet. The message is clear: the West cannot do whatever it wants, anymore. If it tries, it will be stopped. By reason or by force!

Russia is ready again, too. It is standing next to China, enormous and indignant. Go to Novosibirsk or Tomsk, to Khabarovsk, Vladivostok or Petropavlovsk in Kamchatka. Talk to Russian people and you will soon understand: almost nobody there believes or respects the West, anymore. Throughout history, Russia was attacked and ransacked from the West. Millions, tens of millions of its people were murdered, literally exterminated. And now, the nation is facing what some consider to be yet another imminent attack. Like the Chinese people, Russians are unwilling to compromise, anymore. The old Russian forecast is once again alive, that very one professed by Alexander Nevsky: Go tell all in foreign lands that Russia lives! Those who come to us in peace will be welcome as a guest. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and forever will we stand!

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By dismantling domestic privacy laws, ….

The US Will Lose Control Of The Global Internet (Morozov)

The numerous paradoxes that will haunt Donald Trump in the coming months were on full display during the recent Senate vote to undo privacy legislation that was passed in the last few years of the Obama administration. As part of a broader effort to treat internet service providers and telecoms operators as utility companies, Obama imposed restrictions on what these companies could do with all the user data from browsers and apps. Emboldened by Trump, the Republicans have just allowed these businesses to collect, sell and manipulate such data without user permission. From the short-sighted domestic perspective, it seems like a boon to the likes of Verizon and AT&T, especially as they increasingly find themselves confronting their data-rich counterparts in Silicon Valley.

Telecoms companies have been complaining (not entirely without reason) that the Obama administration favoured the interests of Google and Facebook which, invoking the lofty rhetoric of “keeping the internet free” only to defend their own business agenda, have traditionally faced somewhat lighter regulation. The Democrats, always happy to attack Trump, have jumped on the issue, warning that the Senate vote would foster ubiquitous and extensive surveillance by the telecoms industry – and Silicon Valley, of course, would never commit such sins. Under the new rules, complained Bill Nelson, a senator from Florida, “your broadband provider may know more about your health – and your reaction to illness – than you are willing to share with your doctor”.

Never mind that Google and Facebook already know all this – and much more – and generate little outrage from the Democrats. The Democrats, of course, only have themselves to blame for such ineptitude. From the early 1980s onwards, centre-left movements on both sides of the Atlantic no longer discussed technology policy in terms of justice, fairness or inequality. Instead, they preferred to emulate their neoliberal opponents and frame choices – about technology policy, but also about many other domains – in terms of just one goal that rules supreme above all other: innovation. The problem with building a political programme on such flimsy economistic foundations is that it immediately opens the door to competing narratives of just what kind of policy produces more innovation.

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I watch the increase in global aviation with a very heavy heart. But this is smart.

Circular Runways Proposed For Airport Efficiency (Curbed)

While airport terminal architecture has a solid history of style and innovation, rarely is a proposal put forth to utterly redesign the runway. But that’s precisely the aim of Henk Hesselink, a Dutch scientist working with the Netherlands Aerospace Centre. Dubbed the “endless runway”, Hesselink’s brainchild is a 360-degree landing strip measuring more than two miles in diameter. Since airplanes would be able to approach and take off from any direction around the proposed circle, they wouldn’t have to fight against crosswinds.

And three planes would be able to take off or land at the same time. Hesselink’s team uses flight simulators and computerized calculations to test the unconventional design, and have determined that round airports would be more efficient than existing layouts. With a central terminal, the airport would only use about a third of the land of the typical airport with the same airplane capacity. And there’s an added benefit to those living near airports: Flight paths could be more distributed, and thereby making plane noise more tolerable. So far, there have been no plans to actually build a circular runway, but Hesselink’s research continues on.

 

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The Better Than God crowd is not done with you just yet.

Trump Presidency “Opens Door” To Planet-Hacking Geoengineer Experiments (G.)

Harvard engineers who launched the world’s biggest solar geoengineering research program may get a dangerous boost from Donald Trump, environmental organizations are warning. Under the Trump administration, enthusiasm appears to be growing for the controversial technology of solar geo-engineering, which aims to spray sulphate particles into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s radiation back to space and decrease the temperature of Earth. Sometime in 2018, Harvard engineers David Keith and Frank Keutsch hope to test spraying from a high-altitude balloon over Arizona, in order to assess the risks and benefits of deployment on a larger scale. Keith cancelled a similar planned experiment in New Mexico in 2012, but announced he was ready for field testing at a geoengineering forum in Washington on Friday.

“The context for discussing solar geoengineering research has changed substantially since we planned and funded this forum nearly one year ago,” a forum briefing paper noted. While geoengineering received little favour under Obama, high-level officials within the Trump administration have been long-time advocates for planetary-scale manipulation of Earth systems. David Schnare, an architect of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, has lobbied the US government and testified to Senate in favour of federal support for geoengineering. He has called for a multi-phase plan to fund research and conduct real-world testing within 18 months, deploy massive stratospheric spraying three years after, and continue spraying for a century, a duration geoengineers believe would be necessary to dial back the planet’s temperature.

“Clearly parts of the Trump administration are very willing to open the door to reckless schemes like David Keith’s, and may well have quietly given the nod to open-air experiments,” said Silvia Riberio, with technology watchdog ETC Group. “Worryingly, geoengineering may emerge as this administration’s preferred approach to global warming. In their view, building a big beautiful wall of sulphate in the sky could be a perfect excuse to allow uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction. We need to be focussing on radical emissions cuts, not dangerous and unjust technofixes.” [.] “Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year,” he said in 2008, before helping launch a geoengineering unit while he ran the right-wing think tank American Economic Enterprise. “We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.”

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We need to do Bob Geldof all over again? We are a disgrace.

UN’s Famine Appeal Is Billions Shy of Goal (NYT)

A month ago, the secretary general of the United Nations, António Guterres, warned that 20 million people would fall into famine if his aid agencies could not corral $4.4 billion by the end of March. It is almost the end of March, and so far, the United Nations has received less than a tenth of the money – $423 million, according to its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The funding appeal, and the paltry response, comes as the Trump administration is poised to make sharp cuts to its foreign aid budget, including for the United Nations. Historically, the United States has been the agency’s largest single donor for humanitarian aid. For all four countries at risk — Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen – the United States has given $277 million so far this year, not all of it for famine relief.

The conditions for famine are specific and not easy to meet, which is why the last time a famine was declared was in Somalia in July 2011, after 260,000 had died of hunger and related complications. The three criteria for declaring a famine are when one in five households in a certain area face extreme food shortages; more than 30% of the population is acutely malnourished; and at least two people for every 10,000 die each day. A famine has already been declared in a swath of South Sudan. A similar risk looms over Somalia, still reeling from years of conflict, and Yemen, where Houthi insurgents are battling a Saudi-led coalition supported by the United States and Britain. In northern Nigeria, a famine could already be underway, according to an early warning system funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

But the security situation is so bad there that aid workers have been unable to assess levels of hunger. On Thursday, Somalia’s newly elected president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, told the Security Council by videolink from Mogadishu that half the population faces acute food shortages. The United Nations says it needs the $4.4 billion to deliver food, clean water and basic medicine like oral rehydration salts to avert diarrhea deaths among children. Only 8% of the money the agency needs for Yemen has been funded; for Nigeria, 9%; for South Sudan, 18%; and for Somalia, 32%. Of the 20 million who are at risk of famine are 1.4 million children, who are most vulnerable. To put the $4.4 billion appeal in perspective, Britain has made slightly less, $4.1 billion, from weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in the two years since the war began in Yemen.

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The most insane idea to come out of the EU yet. And there’s a lot of competition for that.

‘We Reached Our Limits’: Greece To Stop Taking Back Refugees (RT)

Greece will cease taking back refugees under the controversial Dublin Regulation, as the country’s limited capacities to host people are already on the brink of collapse, the Greek migration minister announced in an interview. As the European Commission pressures Athens to re-implement the Dublin Regulation – stipulating that refugees can be returned to the first EU state they arrived in – the Greek migration minister told Spiegel his country is not in a position to do so. The agreement was put on hold for Greece back in 2011 over problems in the country’s asylum system. “Greece is already shouldering a heavy burden,” Ioannis Mouzalas, the migration minister, said. “We accommodate 60,000 refugees… and it would be a mistake to make Greece’s burden heavier by the revival of the Dublin agreement,” he said, also adding that Germany, the primary destination for most refugees, “wants countries where refugees arrive first to bear a large portion of the burden.”

Under the Dublin Regulation, the European state where the asylum-seeker first arrives in the EU is responsible for examining an asylum claim. Refugees are fingerprinted in their first country of arrival to ensure irrefutable evidence of their entry. However, rights groups warn that imminent transfers from other EU countries back to Greece in line with the regulations are likely to cause more refugees than ever to go underground in western European countries, as many are desperate to stay there because of family links or successful attempts to start a new life. The scheme also adds even greater pressure to existing refugee facilities in Greece and beyond. Asked if Athens is ruling out implementation of the Dublin Regulation, Mouzalas answered in the affirmative, adding, “I want the Germans to understand that this is not because of political or ideological reasons, or failure to appreciate Germany’s assistance.” “Greece simply has no capacities to cope with additional arrival of refugees,” he said.

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Erdogan will not like this. And the US must realize that the EU squeezing Greece bone dry does not help such proposals. For good cooperation, you need strong and stable partners.

Greek-US Ties Set To Strengthen Significantly (K.)

Greece is examining US proposals for military cooperation which would widen ties to an extent not seen in the last three decades, Kathimerini understands. According to sources, Washington’s desire for stronger ties stems from its view that Greece has a significant geopolitical role to play as a pillar of stability in a volatile region. More specifically, Washington has proposed the participation of a Greek military vessel in a carrier battle group (CVBG), which consists of an aircraft carrier and a large number of escort vessels. According to the US proposals, the participation of a Greek vessel in the CVBG will be accompanied by the renewal of the Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) between the two countries.

The MDCA is of utmost significance as it is through this pact that American military forces are permitted to use the Souda naval base on Crete. During a meeting last week US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Defense Minister Panos Kammenos discussed the option of renewing the agreement for five to 10 years instead of each year, as has been the case to date. The Americans reportedly want to renew the deal every five years, as they want to expand the scope of their activities at the base. Sources have told Kathimerini that the only possible obstacle to the deal’s renewal on a five-year basis is that it must receive approval in Parliament, and the leftist-led coalition fears the possibility of dissent emanating from lawmakers of ruling SYRIZA.

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And why not: recovery is not possible anyway.

Greece Considers Capital Control Tightening (K.)

The capital controls were originally supposed to be a one-off measure that would be removed in a matter of months, with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras stating in September 2015 that they would be lifted in early 2017. Today, 21 months since they were imposed, the capital controls are still here, and with the drop in bank deposits, it appears more likely they will be tightened than relaxed or lifted. The truth is that a full Greek recovery will not be possible as long as the capital controls remain, but the economy remains mired in uncertainty and the banks have not seen their CCC+ credit rating improve.

Bank officials note it will be a long time before the restrictions are removed, and this will require the consolidation of a basic sense of confidence among citizens that the worst is over. This is particularly difficult today given that few bailout reviews have been completed according to schedule in the last seven years – and the ongoing second review of the third bailout program was supposed to have finished 13 months ago, in February 2016. Banks therefore fear that if deposit outflow continues as it has done in the first quarter of the year, further controls are quite likely.

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Sep 192016
 
 September 19, 2016  Posted by at 1:25 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  Comments Off on China Relies On Property Bubbles To Prop Up GDP
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Carl Mydans Sharecropper’s family in Mississippi County, Missouri 1936

Lots of China again today. Most of it based on warnings, coming from the BIS, about the country’s financial shenanigans. I’m getting the feeling we have gotten so used to huge and often unprecedented numbers, viewed against the backdrop of an economy that still seems to remain standing, that many don’t know what to make of this anymore.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard ties the BIS report to Hyman Minsky’s work, which is kind of funny, because our good friend and Minsky adept Steve Keen is the economist who most emphasizes the need to differentiate between public and private debt, in particular because public debt is not a big risk whereas private debt certainly is.

And that happens to be the main topic where people seem to get confused about China. To quote Ambrose: “..Outstanding loans have reached $28 trillion, as much as the commercial banking systems of the US and Japan combined. The scale is enough to threaten a worldwide shock if China ever loses control. Corporate debt alone has reached 171pc of GDP..”

The big Kahuna question then becomes: should Chinese outstanding loans and corporate debt be seen as public debt or private debt, given that the dividing line between state and corporations is as opaque and shifting as it is? Even the BIS looks confused. I’ll address that below. First, here’s Ambrose:

BIS Flashes Red Alert For a Banking Crisis in China

The Bank for International Settlements warned in its quarterly report that China’s “credit to GDP gap” has reached 30.1%, the highest to date and in a different league altogether from any other major country tracked by the institution. It is also significantly higher than the scores in East Asia’s speculative boom on 1997 or in the US subprime bubble before the Lehman crisis.

Studies of earlier banking crises around the world over the last sixty years suggest that any score above ten requires careful monitoring. The credit to GDP gap measures deviations from normal patterns within any one country and therefore strips out cultural differences. It is based on work the US economist Hyman Minsky and has proved to be the best single gauge of banking risk, although the final denouement can often take longer than assumed.

[..] Outstanding loans have reached $28 trillion, as much as the commercial banking systems of the US and Japan combined. The scale is enough to threaten a worldwide shock if China ever loses control. Corporate debt alone has reached 171pc of GDP, and it is this that is keeping global regulators awake at night. The BIS said there are ample reasons to worry about the health of world’s financial system. Zero interest rates and bond purchases by central banks have left markets acutely sensitive to the slightest shift in monetary policy, or even a hint of a shift.

Bloomberg commented on the same BIS report:

BIS Warning Indicator for China Banking Stress Climbs to Record

[..] the state’s control of the financial system and limited levels of overseas debt may mitigate against the risk of a banking crisis. In a financial stability report published in June, China’s central bank said lenders would be able to maintain relatively high capital levels even if hit by severe shocks.

While the BIS says that credit-to-GDP gaps exceeded 10% in the three years preceding the majority of financial crises, China has remained above that threshold for most of the period since mid-2009, with no crisis so far. In the first quarter, China’s gap exceeded the levels of 41 other nations and the euro area. In the U.S., readings exceeded 10% in the lead up to the global financial crisis.

 

Why am I getting the feeling that the BIS thinks perhaps just this one time ‘things will be different’? If the credit-to-GDP gap (difference with long-term trend) anywhere exceeded 10%, that was a harbinger of the majority of financial crisis. But in China to date, with a 30.1% print, ‘the state’s control of the financial system and limited levels of overseas debt may mitigate against the risk of a banking crisis’. That sounds like someone’s afraid to state the obvious out loud.

If you ask me there’s a loud and clear writing on the Great Wall. But regardless, I didn’t set out to comment on the BIS, I just used that to introduce something else. That is to say, early today, CNBC ran an article on the Chinese property market, seen through the eyes of Donna Kwok, senior China economist at UBS.

Donna sees some light in fast rising home prices (an ‘improvement’..) but also acknowledges they constitute a challenge. She mentions bubbles – she even sees ‘uneven bubbles’, a lovely term, and ‘selective pockets of bubbles’-, but she does seem to understand what’s going on, even if she doesn’t put it in the stark terminology that seems to fit the issue.

CNBC names the article “China Faces Policy Dilemma As Home Prices Jump In GDP Boost”, an ambiguous enough way of putting things. A second title that pops up but has apparently been rejected by the editor is: “Chinese Property Market Is Improving: UBS”. That would indeed have been a bit much. Because calling a bubble an improvement is like tempting the gods, or worse.

I adapted the title to better fit the contents:

China Relies on Housing Bubble to Keep GDP Numbers Elevated (CNBC)

Policymakers in China were facing the dilemma of driving growth while preventing the property market from overheating, an economist said Monday as prices in the world’s second largest economy jumped in August. Average new home prices in China’s 70 major cities rose 9.2% in August from a year earlier, accelerating from a 7.9% increase in July, an official survey from the National Bureau of Statistics showed Monday. Home prices rose 1.5% from July. But according to Donna Kwok, senior China economist at UBS, the importance of the property sector to China’s overall economic health, posed a challenge.

It contributes up to one-third of GDP as its effects filter through to related businesses such as heavy industries and raw materials. “On the one hand, they need to temper the signs of froth that we are seeing in the higher-tier cities. On the other hand, they are still having to rely on the (market’s) contribution to headline GDP growth that property investment as the whole—which is still reliant on the lower-tier city recovery—generates…so that 6.5 to 7% annual growth target is still met for this year,” Kwok told CNBC’s “Street Signs.”

The data showed prices in the first-tier cities of Shanghai and Beijing prices rose 31.2% and 23.5%, respectively. Home prices in the second tier cities of Xiamen and Hefei saw the larges price gains, rising 43.8% and 40.3% respectively, from a year ago. Earlier, the Chinese government introduced measures aimed at boosting home sales to reduce large inventories in an effort to limit an economic slowdown. While the moves have boosted prices in top-tier cities with some spillover in lower-tier cities, there were still concerns of uneven bubbles in the market.

“We are seeing potential signs of selective pockets of bubbles appearing again, especially in tier 1 and tier 2 cities,” Kwok said. The Chinese government in the meantime was rolling out selective cooling measures in these cities to try to even out growth. “If it’s navigated in a such a way that the (positive) spillover to the adjacent tier 3 cities continues to spread further, then maybe that’s where you may get a first or second best outcome resulting,” she added.

To summarize: China can only achieve its 6.5 to 7% annual GDP growth target if the housing bubble(s) persist, and that’s the one thing bubbles never do.

If housing makes up -directly and indirectly, after ‘filtering through’- one third of Chinese GDP, which is officially still growing at more than 6.5%, then the effects of a housing crash in the Middle Kingdom should become obvious. That is, if the property market merely comes to not even a crash but just a standstill, GDP growth will be close to 4%. And that is before we calculate how that in turn will also ‘filter through’, a process that would undoubtedly shave off another percentage point of GDP growth.

So then we’re at 3% growth, and that’s optimistic, that would require just a limited ‘filtering through’. If the Chinese housing sector shrinks or even collapses, and given that there is a huge property bubble -intentionally- being built on top of the latest -recent- bubble, shrinkage is the least that should be expected, then China GDP growth will fall below that 3%.

And arguably down the line even in a best case scenario both GDP growth and GDP -the economy itself-, will flatline if not fall outright. Since China’s entire economic model has been built to depend on growth, negative growth will hammer its economy so hard that the Communist Party will face protests from a billion different corners as its citizens will see their assets crumble in value.

What at some point will discourage Beijing from keeping on keeping blowing more bubbles to replace the ones that deflate, as it has done for years now, is that China desperately seeks for the renminbi/yuan to be a reserve currency, it’s aiming to be included in ‘the’ IMF basket as soon as October 1 this year.

That is not a realistic prospect if and when the currency continues to be used to prop up the economy, housing, unprofitable industries etc. Neither the IMF nor the other reserve currencies in the basket can allow for the addition of the yuan if its actual value is put at risk by trying to deflect the most basic dynamics of markets, not to that extent. And not at that price either.

The Celestial Empire will be forced to choose, but it’s not clear if it either acknowledges, or is willing to make, such a choice. Still, it won’t be able to absorb all private debt and make it public, and still play in the big leagues, even if other major countries and central banks play fast and loose with the system too.

Sep 112016
 
 September 11, 2016  Posted by at 1:20 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  Comments Off on Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (Full Article)
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The Statue of Liberty at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair

 

 

This article by Nicole Foss was published earlier at the Automatic Earth in 4 chapters.

Part 1 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

Part 2 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (2)

Part 3 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (3)

Part 4 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (4)

 

 

Nicole Foss: As momentum builds in the developing deflationary spiral, we are seeing increasingly desperate measures to keep the global credit ponzi scheme from its inevitable conclusion. Credit bubbles are dynamic — they must grow continually or implode — hence they require ever more money to be lent into existence. But that in turn requires a plethora of willing and able borrowers to maintain demand for new credit money, lenders who are not too risk-averse to make new loans, and (apparently effective) mechanisms for diluting risk to the point where it can (apparently safely) be ignored. As the peak of a credit bubble is reached, all these necessary factors first become problematic and then cease to be available at all. Past a certain point, there are hard limits to financial expansions, and the global economy is set to hit one imminently.

Borrowers are increasingly maxed out and afraid they will not be able to service existing loans, let alone new ones. Many families already have more than enough ‘stuff’ for their available storage capacity in any case, and are looking to downsize and simplify their cluttered lives. Many businesses are already struggling to sell goods and services, and so are unwilling to borrow in order to expand their activities. Without willingness to borrow, demand for new loans will fall substantially. As risk factors loom, lenders become far more risk-averse, often very quickly losing trust in the solvency of of their counterparties. As we saw in 2008, the transition from embracing risky prospects to avoiding them like the plague can be very rapid, changing the rules of the game very abruptly.

Mechanisms for spreading risk to the point of ‘dilution to nothingness’, such as securitization, seen as effective and reliable during monetary expansions, cease to be seen as such as expansion morphs into contraction. The securitized instruments previously created then cease to be perceived as holding value, leading to them being repriced at pennies on the dollar once price discovery occurs, and the destruction of that value is highly deflationary. The continued existence of risk becomes increasingly evident, and the realisation that that risk could be catastrophic begins to dawn.

Natural limits for both borrowing and lending threaten the capacity to prolong the credit boom any further, meaning that even if central authorities are prepared to pay almost any price to do so, it ceases to be possible to kick the can further down the road. Negative interest rates and the war on cash are symptoms of such a limit being reached. As confidence evaporates, so does liquidity. This is where we find ourselves at the moment — on the cusp of phase two of the credit crunch, sliding into the same unavoidable constellation of conditions we saw in 2008, but on a much larger scale.

 

From ZIRP to NIRP

 

Interest rates have remained at extremely low levels, hardly distinguishable from zero, for the several years. This zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) is a reflection of both the extreme complacency as to risk during the rise into the peak of a major bubble, and increasingly acute pressure to keep the credit mountain growing through constant stimulation of demand for borrowing. The resulting search for yield in a world of artificially stimulated over-borrowing has lead to an extraordinary array of malinvestment across many sectors of the real economy. Ever more excess capacity is being built in a world facing a severe retrenchment in aggregate demand. It is this that is termed ‘recovery’, but rather than a recovery, it is a form of double jeopardy — an intensification of previous failed strategies in the hope that a different outcome will result. This is, of course, one definition of insanity.

Now that financial crisis conditions are developing again, policies are being implemented which amount to an even greater intensification of the old strategy. In many locations, notably those perceived to be safe havens, the benchmark is moving from a zero interest rate policy to a negative interest rate policy (NIRP), initially for bank reserves, but potentially for business clients (for instance in Holland and the UK). Individual savers would be next in line. Punishing savers, while effectively encouraging banks to lend to weaker, and therefore riskier, borrowers, creates incentives for both borrowers and lenders to continue the very behaviour that set the stage for financial crisis in the first place, while punishing the kind of responsibility that might have prevented it.

Risk is relative. During expansionary times, when risk perception is low almost across the board (despite actual risk steadily increasing), the risk premium that interest rates represent shows relatively little variation between different lenders, and little volatility. For instance, the interest rates on sovereign bonds across Europe, prior to financial crisis, were low and broadly similar for many years. In other words, credit spreads were very narrow during that time. Greece was able to borrow almost as easily and cheaply as Germany, as lenders bet that Europe’s strong economies would back the debt of its weaker parties. However, as collective psychology shifts from unity to fragmentation, risk perception increases dramatically, and risk distinctions of all kinds emerge, with widening credit spreads. We saw this happen in 2008, and it can be expected to be far more pronounced in the coming years, with credit spreads widening to record levels. Interest rate divergences create self-fulfilling prophecies as to relative default risk, against a backdrop of fear-driven high volatility.

Many risk distinctions can be made — government versus private debt, long versus short term, economic centre versus emerging markets, inside the European single currency versus outside, the European centre versus the troubled periphery, high grade bonds versus junk bonds etc. As the risk distinctions increase, the interest rate risk premiums diverge. Higher risk borrowers will pay higher premiums, in recognition of the higher default risk, but the higher premium raises the actual risk of default, leading to still higher premiums in a spiral of positive feedback. Increased risk perception thus drives actual risk, and may do so until the weak borrower is driven over the edge into insolvency. Similarly, borrowers perceived to be relative safe havens benefit from lower risk premiums, which in turn makes their debt burden easier to bear and lowers (or delays) their actual risk of default. This reduced risk of default is then reflected in even lower premiums. The risky become riskier and the relatively safe become relatively safer (which is not necessarily to say safe in absolute terms). Perception shapes reality, which feeds back into perception in a positive feedback loop.

 

 

The process of diverging risk perception is already underway, and it is generally the states seen as relatively safe where negative interest rates are being proposed or implemented. Negative rates are already in place for bank reserves held with the ECB and in a number of European states from 2012 onwards, notably Scandinavia and Switzerland. The desire for capital preservation has led to a willingness among those with capital to accept paying for the privilege of keeping it in ‘safe havens’. Note that perception of safety and actual safety are not equivalent. States at the peak of a bubble may appear to be at low risk, but in fact the opposite is true. At the peak of a bubble, there is nowhere to go but down, as Iceland and Ireland discovered in phase one of the financial crisis, and many others will discover as we move into phase two. For now, however, the perception of low risk is sufficient for a flight to safety into negative interest rate environments.

This situation serves a number of short term purposes for the states involved. Negative rates help to control destabilizing financial inflows at times when fear is increasingly driving large amounts of money across borders. A primary objective has been to reduce upward pressure on currencies outside the eurozone. The Swiss, Danish and Swedish currencies have all been experiencing currency appreciation, hence a desire to use negative interest rates to protect their exchange rate, and therefore the price of their exports, by encouraging foreigners to keep their money elsewhere. The Danish central bank’s sole mandate is to control the value of the currency against the euro. For a time, Switzerland pegged their currency directly to the euro, but found the cost of doing so to be prohibitive. For them, negative rates are a less costly attempt to weaken the currency without the need to defend a formal peg. In a world of competitive, beggar-thy-neighbour currency devaluations, negative interest rates are seen as a means to achieve or maintain an export advantage, and evidence of the growing currency war.

Negative rates are also intended to discourage saving and encourage both spending and investment. If savers must pay a penalty, spending or investment should, in theory, become more attractive propositions. The intention is to lead to more money actively circulating in the economy. Increasing the velocity of money in circulation should, in turn, provide price support in an environment where prices are flat to falling. (Mainstream commentators would describe this as as an attempt to increase ‘inflation’, by which they mean price increases, to the common target of 2%, but here at The Automatic Earth, we define inflation and deflation as an increase or decrease, respectively, in the money supply, not as an increase or decrease in prices.) The goal would be to stave off a scenario of falling prices where buyers would have an incentive to defer spending as they wait for lower prices in the future, starving the economy of circulating currency in the meantime. Expectations of falling prices create further downward price pressure, leading into a vicious circle of deepening economic depression. Preventing such expectations from taking hold in the first place is a major priority for central authorities.

Negative rates in the historical record are symptomatic of times of crisis when conventional policies have failed, and as such are rare. Their use is a measure of desperation:

First, a policy rate likely would be set to a negative value only when economic conditions are so weak that the central bank has previously reduced its policy rate to zero. Identifying creditworthy borrowers during such periods is unusually challenging. How strongly should banks during such a period be encouraged to expand lending?

However strongly banks are ‘encouraged’ to lend, willing borrowers and lenders are set to become ‘endangered species’:

The goal of such rates is to force banks to lend their excess reserves. The assumption is that such lending will boost aggregate demand and help struggling economies recover. Using the same central bank logic as in 2008, the solution to a debt problem is to add on more debt. Yet, there is an old adage: you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make him drink! With the world economy sinking into recession, few banks have credit-worthy customers and many banks are having difficulties collecting on existing loans.
Italy’s non-performing loans have gone from about 5 percent in 2010 to over 15 percent today. The shale oil bust has left many US banks with over a trillion dollars of highly risky energy loans on their books. The very low interest rate environment in Japan and the EU has done little to spur demand in an environment full of malinvestments and growing government constraints.

Doing more of the same simply elevates the already enormous risk that a new financial crisis is right around the corner:

Banks rely on rates to make returns. As the former Bank of England rate-setter Charlie Bean has written in a recent paper for The Economic Journal, pension funds will struggle to make adequate returns, while fund managers will borrow a lot more to make profits. Mr Bean says: “All of this makes a leveraged ‘search for yield’ of the sort that marked the prelude to the crisis more likely.” This is not comforting but it is highly plausible: barely a decade on from the crash, we may be about to repeat it. This comes from tasking central bankers with keeping the world economy growing, even while governments have cut spending.

 

Experiences with Negative Interest Rates

 

The existing low interest rate environment has already caused asset price bubbles to inflate further, placing assets such as real estate ever more beyond the reach of ordinary people at the same time as hampering those same people attempting to build sufficient savings for a deposit. Negative interest rates provide an increased incentive for this to continue. In locations where the rates are already negative, the asset bubble effect has worsened. For instance, in Denmark negative interest rates have added considerable impetus to the housing bubble in Copenhagen, resulting in an ever larger pool over over-leveraged property owners exposed to the risks of a property price collapse and debt default:

Where do you invest your money when rates are below zero? The Danish experience says equities and the property market. The benchmark index of Denmark’s 20 most-traded stocks has soared more than 100 percent since the second quarter of 2012, which is just before the central bank resorted to negative rates. That’s more than twice the stock-price gains of the Stoxx Europe 600 and Dow Jones Industrial Average over the period. Danish house prices have jumped so much that Danske Bank A/S, Denmark’s biggest lender, says Copenhagen is fast becoming Scandinavia’s riskiest property market.

Considering that risky property markets are the norm in Scandinavia, Copenhagen represents an extreme situation:

“Property prices in Copenhagen have risen 40–60 percent since the middle of 2012, when the central bank first resorted to negative interest rates to defend the krone’s peg to the euro.”

This should come as no surprise: recall that there are documented cases where Danish borrowers are paid to take on debt and buy houses “In Denmark You Are Now Paid To Take Out A Mortgage”, so between rewarding debtors and punishing savers, this outcome is hardly shocking. Yet it is the negative rates that have made this unprecedented surge in home prices feel relatively benign on broader price levels, since the source of housing funds is not savings but cash, usually cash belonging to the bank.

 

 

The Swedish property market is similarly reaching for the sky. Like Japan at the peak of it’s bubble in the late 1980s, Sweden has intergenerational mortgages, with an average term of 140 years! Recent regulatory attempts to rein in the ballooning debt by reducing the maximum term to a ‘mere’ 105 years have been met with protest:

Swedish banks were quoted in the local press as opposing the move. “It isn’t good for the finances of households as it will make mortgages more expensive and the terms not as good. And it isn’t good for financial stability,” the head of Swedish Bankers’ Association was reported to say.

Apart from stimulating further leverage in an already over-leveraged market, negative interest rates do not appear to be stimulating actual economic activity:

If negative rates don’t spur growth — Danish inflation since 2012 has been negligible and GDP growth anemic — what are they good for?….Danish businesses have barely increased their investments, adding less than 6 percent in the 12 quarters since Denmark’s policy rate turned negative for the first time. At a growth rate of 5 percent over the period, private consumption has been similarly muted. Why is that? Simply put, a weak economy makes interest rates a less powerful tool than central bankers would like.

“If you’re very busy worrying about the economy and your job, you don’t care very much what the exact rate is on your car loan,” says Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank’s chief international economist in New York.

Fuelling inequality and profligacy while punishing responsible behaviour is politically unpopular, and the consequences, when they eventually manifest, will be even more so. Unfortunately, at the peak of a bubble, it is only continued financial irresponsibility that can keep a credit expansion going and therefore keep the financial system from abruptly crashing. The only things keeping the system ‘running on fumes’ as it currently is, are financial sleight-of-hand, disingenuous bribery and outright fraud. The price to pay is that the systemic risks continue to grow, and with it the scale of the impacts that can be expected when the risk is eventually realised. Politicians desperately wish to avoid those consequences occurring in their term of office, hence they postpone the inevitable at any cost for as long as physically possible.

 

The Zero Lower Bound and the Problem of Physical Cash

 

Central bankers attempting to stimulate the circulation of money in the economy through the use of negative interest rates have a number of problems. For starters, setting a low official rate does not necessarily mean that low rates will prevail in the economy, particularly in times of crisis:

The experience of the global financial crisis taught us that the type of shocks which can drive policy interest rates to the lower bound are also shocks which produce severe impairments to the monetary policy transmission mechanism. Suppose, for example, that the interbank market freezes and prevents a smooth transmission of the policy interest rate throughout the banking sector and financial markets at large. In this case, any cut in the policy rate may be almost completely ineffective in terms of influencing the macroeconomy and prices.

This is exactly what we saw in 2008, when interbank lending seized up due to the collapse of confidence in the banking sector. We have not seen this happen again yet, but it inevitably will as crisis conditions resume, and when it does it will illustrate vividly the limits of central bank power to control financial parameters. At that point, interest rates are very likely to spike in practice, with banks not trusting each other to repay even very short term loans, since they know what toxic debt is on their own books and rationally assume their potential counterparties are no better. Widening credit spreads would also lead to much higher rates on any debt perceived to be risky, which, increasingly, would be all debt with the exception of government bonds in the jurisdictions perceived to be safest. Low rates on high grade debt would not translate into low rates economy-wide. Given the extent of private debt, and the consequent vulnerability to higher interest rates across the developed world, an interest rate spike following the NIRP period would be financially devastating.

The major issue with negative rates in the shorter term is the ability to escape from the banking system into physical cash. Instead of causing people to spend, a penalty on holding savings in a banks creates an incentive for them to withdraw their funds and hold cash under their own control, thereby avoiding both the penalty and the increasing risk associated with the banking system:

Western banking systems are highly illiquid, meaning that they have very low cash equivalents as a percentage of customer deposits….Solvency in many Western banking systems is also highly questionable, with many loaded up on the debts of their bankrupt governments. Banks also play clever accounting games to hide the true nature of their capital inadequacy. We live in a world where questionably solvent, highly illiquid banks are backed by under capitalized insurance funds like the FDIC, which in turn are backed by insolvent governments and borderline insolvent central banks. This is hardly a risk-free proposition. Yet your reward for taking the risk of holding your money in a precarious banking system is a rate of return that is substantially lower than the official rate of inflation.

In other words, negative rates encourage an arbitrage situation favouring cash. In an environment of few good investment opportunities, increasing recognition of risk and a rising level of fear, a desire for large scale cash withdrawal is highly plausible:

From a portfolio choice perspective, cash is, under normal circumstances, a strictly dominated asset, because it is subject to the same inflation risk as bonds but, in contrast to bonds, it yields zero return. It has also long been known that this relationship would be reversed if the return on bonds were negative. In that case, an investor would be certain of earning a profit by borrowing at negative rates and investing the proceedings in cash. Ignoring storage and transportation costs, there is therefore a zero lower bound (ZLB) on nominal interest rates.

Zero is the lower bound for nominal interest rates if one would want to avoid creating such an incentive structure, but in a contractionary environment, zero is not low enough to make borrowing and lending attractive. This is because, while the nominal rate might be zero, the real rate (the nominal rate minus negative inflation) can remain high, or perhaps very high, depending on how contractionary the financial landscape becomes. As Keynes observed, attempting to stimulate demand for money by lowering interest rates amounts to ‘pushing on a piece of string‘. Central authorities find themselves caught in the liquidity trap, where monetary policy ceases to be effective:

Many big economies are now experiencing ‘deflation’, where prices are falling. In the euro zone, for instance, the main interest rate is at 0.05% but the “real” (or adjusted for inflation) interest rate is considerably higher, at 0.65%, because euro-area inflation has dropped into negative territory at -0.6%. If deflation gets worse then real interest rates will rise even more, choking off recovery rather than giving it a lift.

If nominal rates are sufficiently negative to compensate for the contractionary environment, real rates could, in theory, be low enough to stimulate the velocity of money, but the more negative the nominal rate, the greater the incentive to withdraw physical cash. Hoarded cash would reduce, instead of increase, the velocity of money. In practice, lowering rates can be moderately reflationary, provided there remains sufficient economic optimism for people to see the move in a positive light. However, sending rates into negative territory at a time pessimism is dominant can easily be interpreted as a sign of desperation, and therefore as confirmation of a negative outlook. Under such circumstances, the incentives to regard the banking system as risky, to withdraw physical cash and to hoard it for a rainy day increase substantially. Not only does the money supply fail to grow, as new loans are not made, but the velocity of money falls as money is hoarded, thereby aggravating a deflationary spiral:

A decline in the velocity of money increases deflationary pressure. Each dollar (or yen or euro) generates less and less economic activity, so policymakers must pump more money into the system to generate growth. As consumers watch prices decline, they defer purchases, reducing consumption and slowing growth. Deflation also lifts real interest rates, which drives currency values higher. In today’s mercantilist, beggar-thy-neighbour world of global trade, a strong currency is a headwind to exports. Obviously, this is not the desired outcome of policymakers. But as central banks grasp for new, stimulative tools, they end up pushing on an ever-lengthening piece of string.

 

 

Japan has been in the economic doldrums, with pessimism dominant, for over 25 years, and the population has become highly sceptical of stimulation measures intended to lead to recovery. The negative interest rates introduced there (described as ‘economic kamikaze’) have had a very different effect than in Scandinavia, which is still more or less at the peak of its bubble and therefore much more optimistic. Unfortunately, lowering interest rates in times of collective pessimism has a poor record of acting to increase spending and stimulate the economy, as Japan has discovered since their bubble burst in 1989:

For about a quarter of a century the Japanese have proved to be fanatical savers, and no matter how low the Bank of Japan cuts rates, they simply cannot be persuaded to spend their money, or even invest it in the stock market. They fear losing their jobs; they fear a further fall in shares or property values; they have no confidence in the investment opportunities in front of them. So pathological has this psychology grown that they would rather see the value of their savings fall than spend the cash. That draining of confidence after the collapse of the 1980s “bubble” economy has depressed Japanese growth for decades.

Fear is a very sharp driver of behaviour — easily capable of over-riding incentives designed to promote spending and investment:

When people are fearful they tend to save; and when they become especially fearful then they save even more, even if the returns on their savings are extremely low. Much the same goes for businesses, and there are increasing reports of them “hoarding” their profits rather than reinvesting them in their business, such is the great “uncertainty” around the world economy. Brexit obviously only added to the fears and misgivings about the future.

Deflation is so difficult to overcome precisely because of its strong psychological component. When the balance of collective psychology tips from optimism, hope and greed to pessimism and fear, everything is perceived differently. Measures intended to restore confidence end up being interpreted as desperation, and therefore get little or no traction. As such initiatives fail, their failure becomes conformation of a negative bias, which increases the power of that bias, causing more stimulus initiatives to fail. The resulting positive feedback loop creates and maintains a vicious circle, both economically and socially:

There is a strong argument that when rates go negative it squeezes the speed at which money circulates through the economy, commonly referred to by economists as the velocity of money. We are already seeing this happen in Japan where citizens are clamouring for ¥10,000 bills (and home safes to store them in). People are taking their money out of the banking system to stuff it under their metaphorical mattresses. This may sound extreme, but whether paper money is stashed in home safes or moved into transaction substitutes or other stores of value like gold, the point is it’s not circulating in the economy. The empirical data support this view — the velocity of money has declined precipitously as policymakers have moved aggressively to reduce rates.

Physical cash under one’s own control is increasingly seen as one of the primary escape routes for ordinary people fearing the resumption of the 2008 liquidity crunch, and its popularity as a store of value is increasing steadily, with demand for cash rising more rapidly than GDP in a wide range of countries:

While cash’s use is in continual decline, claims that it is set to disappear entirely may be premature, according to the Bank of England….The Bank estimates that 21pc to 27pc of everyday transactions last year were in cash, down from between 34pc and 45pc at the turn of the millennium. Yet simultaneously the demand for banknotes has risen faster than the total amount of spending in the economy, a trend that has only become more pronounced since the mid-1990s. The same phenomenon has been seen internationally, in the US, eurozone, Australia and Canada….

….The prevalence of hoarding has also firmed up the demand for physical money. Hoarders are those who “choose to save their money in a safety deposit box, or under the mattress, or even buried in the garden, rather than placing it in a bank account”, the Bank said. At a time when savings rates have not turned negative, and deposits are guaranteed by the government, this kind of activity seems to defy economic theory. “For such action to be considered as rational, those that are hoarding cash must be gaining a non-financial benefit,” the Bank said. And that benefit must exceed the returns and security offered by putting that hoarded cash in a bank deposit account. A Bank survey conducted last year found that 18pc of people said they hoarded cash largely “to provide comfort against potential emergencies”.

This would suggest that a minimum of £3bn is hoarded in the UK, or around £345 a person. A government survey conducted in 2012 suggested that the total number might be higher, at £5bn….

…..But Bank staff believe that its survey results understate the extent of hoarding, as “the sensitivity of the subject” most likely affects the truthfulness of hoarders. “Based on anecdotal evidence, a small number of people are thought to hoard large values of cash.” The Bank said: “As an illustrative example, if one in every thousand adults in the United Kingdom were to hoard as much as £100,000, this would account for around £5bn — nearly 10pc of notes in circulation.” While there may be newer and more convenient methods of payment available, this strong preference for cash as a safety net means that it is likely to endure, unless steps are taken to discourage its use.

 

 

 

Closing the Escape Routes

 

History teaches us that central authorities dislike escape routes, at least for the majority, and are therefore prone to closing them, so that control of a limited money supply can remain in the hands of the very few. In the 1930s, gold was the escape route, so gold was confiscated. As Alan Greenspan wrote in 1966:

In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through monetary inflation. There is no safe store of value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding illegal, as was done in the case of gold. If everyone decided, for example, to convert all his bank deposits to silver or copper or any other good, and thereafter declined to accept checks as payment for goods, bank deposits would lose their purchasing power and government-created bank credit would be worthless as a claim on goods.

The existence of escape routes for capital preservation undermines the viability of the banking system, which is already over-extended, over-leveraged and extremely fragile. This time cash serves that role:

Ironically, though the paper money standard that replaced the gold standard was originally meant to empower governments, it now seems that paper money is perceived as an obstacle to unlimited government power….While paper money isn’t as big impediment to government power as the gold standard was, it is nevertheless an impediment compared to a society with only electronic money. Because of this, the more ardent statists favor the abolition of paper money and a monetary system with only electronic money and electronic payments.

We can therefore expect cash to be increasingly disparaged in order to justify its intended elimination:

Every day, a situation that requires the use of physical cash, feels more and more like an anachronism. It’s like having to listen to music on a CD. John Maynard Keynes famously referred to gold (well, the gold standard specifically) as a “barbarous relic.” Well the new barbarous relic is physical cash. Like gold, cash is physical money. Like gold, cash is still fetishized. And like gold, cash is a costly drain on the economy. A study done at Tufts in 2013 estimated that cash costs the economy $200 billion. Their study included the nugget that consumers spend, on average, 28 minutes per month just traveling to the point where they obtain cash (ATM, etc.). But this is just first-order problem with cash. The real problem, which economists are starting to recognize, is that paper cash is an impediment to effective monetary policy, and therefore economic growth.

Holding cash is not risk free, but cash is nevertheless king in a period of deflation:

Conventional wisdom is that interest rates earned on investments are never less than zero because investors could alternatively hold currency. Yet currency is not costless to hold: It is subject to theft and physical destruction, is expensive to safeguard in large amounts, is difficult to use for large and remote transactions, and, in large quantities, may be monitored by governments.

The acknowledged risks of holding cash are understood and can be managed personally, whereas the substantial risk associated with a systemic banking crisis are entirely outside the control of ordinary depositors. The bank bail-in (rescuing the bank with the depositors’ funds) in Cyprus in early 2013 was a warning sign, to those who were paying attention, that holding money in a bank is not necessarily safe. The capital controls put in place in other locations, for instance Greece, also underline that cash in a bank may not be accessible when needed.

The majority of the developed world either already has, or is introducing, legislation to require depositor bail-ins in the event of bank failures, rather than taxpayer bailouts, in preparation for many more Cyprus-type events, but on a very much larger scale. People are waking up to the fact that a bank balance is not considered their money, but is actually an unsecured loan to the bank, which the bank may or may not repay, depending on its own circumstances.:

Your checking account balance is denominated in dollars, but it does not consist of actual dollars. It represents a promise by a private company (your bank) to pay dollars upon demand. If you write a check, your bank may or may not be able to honor that promise. The poor souls who kept their euros in the form of large balances in Cyprus banks have just learned this lesson the hard way. If they had been holding their euros in the form of currency, they would have not lost their wealth.

 

 

Even in relatively untroubled countries, like the UK, it is becoming more difficult to access physical cash in a bank account or to use it for larger purchases. Notice of intent to withdraw may be required, and withdrawal limits may be imposed ‘for your own protection’. Reasons for the withdrawal may be required, ostensibly to combat money laundering and the black economy:

It’s one thing to be required by law to ask bank customers or parties in a cash transaction to explain where their money came from; it’s quite another to ask them how they intend to use the money they wish to withdraw from their own bank accounts. As one Mr Cotton, a HSBC customer, complained to the BBC’s Money Box programme: “I’ve been banking in that bank for 28 years. They all know me in there. You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

In France, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks there, several anti-cash measures were passed, restricting the use of cash once obtained:

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin brazenly stated that it was necessary to “fight against the use of cash and anonymity in the French economy.” He then announced extreme and despotic measures to further restrict the use of cash by French residents and to spy on and pry into their financial affairs.

These measures…..include prohibiting French residents from making cash payments of more than 1,000 euros, down from the current limit of 3,000 euros….The threshold below which a French resident is free to convert euros into other currencies without having to show an identity card will be slashed from the current level of 8,000 euros to 1,000 euros. In addition any cash deposit or withdrawal of more than 10,000 euros during a single month will be reported to the French anti-fraud and money laundering agency Tracfin.

Tourists in France may also be caught in the net:

France passed another new Draconian law; from the summer of 2015, it will now impose cash requirements dramatically trying to eliminate cash by force. French citizens and tourists will only be allowed a limited amount of physical money. They have financial police searching people on trains just passing through France to see if they are transporting cash, which they will now seize.

This is essentially the Shock Doctrine in action. Central authorities rarely pass up an opportunity to use a crisis to add to their repertoire of repressive laws and practices.

However, even without a specific crisis to draw on as a justification, many other countries have also restricted the use of cash for purchases:

One way they are waging the War on Cash is to lower the threshold at which reporting a cash transaction is mandatory or at which paying in cash is simply illegal. In just the last few years.

  • Italy made cash transactions over €1,000 illegal;
  • Switzerland has proposed banning cash payments in excess of 100,000 francs;
  • Russia banned cash transactions over $10,000;
  • Spain banned cash transactions over €2,500;
  • Mexico made cash payments of more than 200,000 pesos illegal;
  • Uruguay banned cash transactions over $5,000

Other restrictions on the use of cash can be more subtle, but can have far-reaching effects, especially if the ideas catch on and are widely applied:

The State of Louisiana banned “secondhand dealers” from making more than one cash transaction per week. The term has a broad definition and includes Goodwill stores, specialty stores that sell collectibles like baseball cards, flea markets, garage sales and so on. Anyone deemed a “secondhand dealer” is forbidden to accept cash as payment. They are allowed to take only electronic means of payment or a check, and they must collect the name and other information about each customer and send it to the local police department electronically every day.

The increasing application of de facto capital controls, when combined with the prevailing low interest rates, already convince many to hold cash. The possibility of negative rates would greatly increase the likelihood. We are already in an environment of rapidly declining trust, and limited access to what we still perceive as our own funds only accelerates the process in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. More withdrawals lead to more controls, which increase fear and decrease trust, which leads to more withdrawals. This obviously undermines the perceived power of monetary policy to stimulate the economy, hence the escape route is already quietly closing.

In a deflationary spiral, where the money supply is crashing, very little money is in circulation and prices are consequently falling almost across the board, possessing purchasing power provides for the freedom to pursue opportunities as they present themselves, and to avoid being backed into a corner. The purchasing power of cash increases during deflation, even as electronic purchasing power evaporates. Hence cash represents freedom of action at a time when that will be the rarest of ‘commodities’.

Governments greatly dislike cash, and increasingly treat its use, or the desire to hold it, especially in large denominations, with great suspicion:

Why would a central bank want to eliminate cash? For the same reason as you want to flatten interest rates to zero: to force people to spend or invest their money in the risky activities that revive growth, rather than hoarding it in the safest place. Calls for the eradication of cash have been bolstered by evidence that high-value notes play a major role in crime, terrorism and tax evasion. In a study for the Harvard Business School last week, former bank boss Peter Sands called for global elimination of the high-value note.

Britain’s “monkey” — the £50 — is low-value compared with its foreign-currency equivalents, and constitutes a small proportion of the cash in circulation. By contrast, Japan’s ¥10,000 note (worth roughly £60) makes up a startling 92% of all cash in circulation; the Swiss 1,000-franc note (worth around £700) likewise. Sands wants an end to these notes plus the $100 bill, and the €500 note – known in underworld circles as the “Bin Laden”.

 

 

Cash is largely anonymous, untraceable and uncontrollable, hence it makes central authorities, in a system increasingly requiring total buy-in in order to function, extremely uncomfortable. They regard there being no legitimate reason to own more than a small amount of it in physical form, as its ownership or use raises the spectre of tax evasion or other illegal activities:

The insidious nature of the war on cash derives not just from the hurdles governments place in the way of those who use cash, but also from the aura of suspicion that has begun to pervade private cash transactions. In a normal market economy, businesses would welcome taking cash. After all, what business would willingly turn down customers? But in the war on cash that has developed in the thirty years since money laundering was declared a federal crime, businesses have had to walk a fine line between serving customers and serving the government. And since only one of those two parties has the power to shut down a business and throw business owners and employees into prison, guess whose wishes the business owner is going to follow more often?

The assumption on the part of government today is that possession of large amounts of cash is indicative of involvement in illegal activity. If you’re traveling with thousands of dollars in cash and get pulled over by the police, don’t be surprised when your money gets seized as “suspicious.” And if you want your money back, prepare to get into a long, drawn-out court case requiring you to prove that you came by that money legitimately, just because the courts have decided that carrying or using large amounts of cash is reasonable suspicion that you are engaging in illegal activity….

….Centuries-old legal protections have been turned on their head in the war on cash. Guilt is assumed, while the victims of the government’s depredations have to prove their innocence….Those fortunate enough to keep their cash away from the prying hands of government officials find it increasingly difficult to use for both business and personal purposes, as wads of cash always arouse suspicion of drug dealing or other black market activity. And so cash continues to be marginalized and pushed to the fringes.

Despite the supposed connection between crime and the holding of physical cash, the places where people are most inclined (and able) to store cash do not conform to the stereotype at all:

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens responding rationally to monetary policy. The Swiss National Bank introduced negative interest rates in December 2014. The aim was to drive money out of banks and into the economy, but that only works to the extent that savers find attractive places to spend or invest their money. With economic growth an anemic 1%, many Swiss withdrew cash from the bank and stashed it at home or in safe-deposit boxes. High-denomination notes are naturally preferred for this purpose, so circulation of 1,000-franc notes (worth about $1,010) rose 17% last year. They now account for 60% of all bills in circulation and are worth almost as much as Serbia’s GDP.

Japan, where banks pay infinitesimally low interest on deposits, is a similar story. Demand for the highest-denomination ¥10,000 notes rose 6.2% last year, the largest jump since 2002. But 10,000 Yen notes are worth only about $88, so hiding places fill up fast. That explains why Japanese went on a safe-buying spree last month after the Bank of Japan announced negative interest rates on some reserves. Stores reported that sales of safes rose as much as 250%, and shares of safe-maker Secom spiked 5.3% in one week.

In Germany too, negative interest rates are considered intolerable, banks are increasingly being seen as risky prospects, and physical cash under one’s own control is coming to be seen as an essential part of a forward-thinking financial strategy:

First it was the news that Raiffeisen Gmund am Tegernsee, a German cooperative savings bank in the Bavarian village of Gmund am Tegernsee, with a population 5,767, finally gave in to the ECB’s monetary repression, and announced it’ll start charging retail customers to hold their cash. Then, just last week, Deutsche Bank’s CEO came about as close to shouting fire in a crowded negative rate theater, when, in a Handelsblatt Op-Ed, he warned of “fatal consequences” for savers in Germany and Europe — to be sure, being the CEO of the world’s most systemically risky bank did not help his cause.

That was the last straw, and having been patient long enough, the German public has started to move. According to the WSJ, German savers are leaving the “security of savings banks” for what many now consider an even safer place to park their cash: home safes. We wondered how many “fatal” warnings from the CEO of DB it would take, before this shift would finally take place. As it turns out, one was enough….

….“It doesn’t pay to keep money in the bank, and on top of that you’re being taxed on it,” said Uwe Wiese, an 82-year-old pensioner who recently bought a home safe to stash roughly €53,000 ($59,344), including part of his company pension that he took as a payout. Burg-Waechter KG, Germany’s biggest safe manufacturer, posted a 25% jump in sales of home safes in the first half of this year compared with the year earlier, said sales chief Dietmar Schake, citing “significantly higher demand for safes by private individuals, mainly in Germany.”….

….Unlike their more “hip” Scandinavian peers, roughly 80% of German retail transactions are in cash, almost double the 46% rate of cash use in the U.S., according to a 2014 Bundesbank survey….Germany’s love of cash is driven largely by its anonymity. One legacy of the Nazis and East Germany’s Stasi secret police is a fear of government snooping, and many Germans are spooked by proposals of banning cash transactions that exceed €5,000. Many Germans think the ECB’s plan to phase out the €500 bill is only the beginning of getting rid of cash altogether. And they are absolutely right; we can only wish more Americans showed the same foresight as the ordinary German….

….Until that moment, however, as a final reminder, in a fractional reserve banking system, only the first ten or so percent of those who “run” to the bank to obtain possession of their physical cash and park it in the safe will succeed. Everyone else, our condolences.

The internal stresses are building rapidly, stretching economy after economy to breaking point and prompting aware individuals to protect themselves proactively:

People react to these uncertainties by trying to protect themselves with cash and guns, and governments respond by trying to limit citizens’ ability to do so.

If this play has a third act, it will involve the abolition of cash in some major countries, the rise of various kinds of black markets (silver coins, private-label cash, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin) that bypass traditional banking systems, and a surge in civil unrest, as all those guns are put to use. The speed with which cash, safes and guns are being accumulated — and the simultaneous intensification of the war on cash — imply that the stress is building rapidly, and that the third act may be coming soon.

Despite growing acceptance of electronic payment systems, getting rid of cash altogether is likely to be very challenging, particularly as the fear and state of financial crisis that drives people into cash hoarding is very close to reasserting itself. Cash has a very long history, and enjoys greater trust than other abstract means for denominating value. It is likely to prove tenacious, and unable to be eliminated peacefully. That is not to suggest central authorities will not try. At the heart of financial crisis lies the problem of excess claims to underlying real wealth. The bursting of the global bubble will eliminate the vast majority of these, as the value of credit instruments, hitherto considered to be as good as money, will plummet on the realisation that nowhere near all financial promises made can possibly be kept.

Cash would then represent the a very much larger percentage of the remaining claims to limited actual resources — perhaps still in excess of the available resources and therefore subject to haircuts. Not only the quantity of outstanding cash, but also its distribution, may not be to central authorities liking. There are analogous precedents for altering legal currency in order to dispossess ordinary people trying to protect their stores of value, depriving them of the benefit of their foresight. During the Russian financial crisis of 1998, cash was not eliminated in favour of an electronic alternative, but the currency was reissued, which had a similar effect. People were required to convert their life savings (often held ‘under the mattress’) from the old currency to the new. This was then made very difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people, and many lost the entirety of their life savings as a result.

 

A Cashless Society?

 

The greater the public’s desire to hold cash to protect themselves, the greater will be the incentive for central banks and governments to restrict its availability, reduce its value or perhaps eliminate it altogether in favour of electronic-only payment systems. In addition to commercial banks already complicating the process of making withdrawals, central banks are actively considering, as a first step, mechanisms to impose negative interest rates on physical cash, so as to make the escape route appear less attractive:

Last September, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, openly pondered ways of imposing negative interest rates on cash — ie shrinking its value automatically. You could invalidate random banknotes, using their serial numbers. There are £63bn worth of notes in circulation in the UK: if you wanted to lop 1% off that, you could simply cancel half of all fivers without warning. A second solution would be to establish an exchange rate between paper money and the digital money in our bank accounts. A fiver deposited at the bank might buy you a £4.95 credit in your account.

 

 

To put it mildly, invalidating random banknotes would be highly likely to result in significant social blowback, and to accelerate the evaporation of trust in governing authorities of all kinds. It would be far more likely for financial authorities to move toward making official electronic money the standard by which all else is measured. People are already used to using electronic money in the form of credit and debit cards and mobile phone money transfers:

I can remember the moment I realised the era of cash could soon be over. It was Australia Day on Bondi Beach in 2014. In a busy liquor store, a man wearing only swimming shorts, carrying only a mobile phone and a plastic card, was delaying other people’s transactions while he moved 50 Australian dollars into his current account on his phone so that he could buy beer. The 30-odd youngsters in the queue behind him barely murmured; they’d all been in the same predicament. I doubt there was a banknote or coin between them….The possibility of a cashless society has come at us with a rush: contactless payment is so new that the little ping the machine makes can still feel magical. But in some shops, especially those that cater for the young, a customer reaching for a banknote already produces an automatic frown. Among central bankers, that frown has become a scowl.

In some states almost anything, no matter how small, can be purchased electronically. Everything down to, and including, a cup of coffee from a roadside stall can be purchased in New Zealand with an EFTPOS (debit) card, hence relatively few people carry cash. In Scandinavian countries, there are typically more electronic payment options than cash options:

Sweden became the first country to enlist its own citizens as largely willing guinea pigs in a dystopian economic experiment: negative interest rates in a cashless society. As Credit Suisse reports, no matter where you go or what you want to purchase, you will find a small ubiquitous sign saying “Vi hanterar ej kontanter” (“We don’t accept cash”)….A similar situation is unfolding in Denmark, where nearly 40% of the paying demographic use MobilePay, a Danske Bank app that allows all payments to be completed via smartphone.

Even street vendors selling “Situation Stockholm”, the local version of the UK’s “Big Issue” are also able to take payments by debit or credit card.

 

 

Ironically, cashlessness is also becoming entrenched in some African countries. One might think that electronic payments would not be possible in poor and unstable subsistence societies, but mobile phones are actually very common in such places, and means for electronic payments are rapidly becoming the norm:

While Sweden and Denmark may be the two nations that are closest to banning cash outright, the most important testing ground for cashless economics is half a world away, in sub-Saharan Africa. In many African countries, going cashless is not merely a matter of basic convenience (as it is in Scandinavia); it is a matter of basic survival. Less than 30% of the population have bank accounts, and even fewer have credit cards. But almost everyone has a mobile phone. Now, thanks to the massive surge in uptake of mobile communications as well as the huge numbers of unbanked citizens, Africa has become the perfect place for the world’s biggest social experiment with cashless living.

Western NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks, telecom companies and local authorities to replace cash with mobile money alternatives. The organizations involved include Citi Group, Mastercard, VISA, Vodafone, USAID, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In Kenya the funds transferred by the biggest mobile money operator, M-Pesa (a division of Vodafone), account for more than 25% of the country’s GDP. In Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, the government launched a Mastercard-branded biometric national ID card, which also doubles up as a payment card. The “service” provides Mastercard with direct access to over 170 million potential customers, not to mention all their personal and biometric data. The company also recently won a government contract to design the Huduma Card, which will be used for paying State services. For Mastercard these partnerships with government are essential for achieving its lofty vision of creating a “world beyond cash.”

Countries where electronic payment is already the norm would be expected to be among the first places to experiment with a fully cashless society as the transition would be relatively painless (at least initially). In Norway two major banks no longer issue cash from branch offices, and recently the largest bank, DNB, publicly called for the abolition of cash. In rich countries, the advent of a cashless society could be spun in the media in such a way as to appear progressive, innovative, convenient and advantageous to ordinary people. In poor countries, people would have no choice in any case.

Testing and developing the methods in societies with no alternatives and then tantalizing the inhabitants of richer countries with more of the convenience to which they have become addicted is the clear path towards extending the reach of electronic payment systems and the much greater financial control over individuals that they offer:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in its 2015 annual letter, adds a new twist. The technologies are all in place; it’s just a question of getting us to use them so we can all benefit from a crimeless, privacy-free world. What better place to conduct a massive social experiment than sub-Saharan Africa, where NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks and telecom companies to replace cash with mobile money alternatives? So the annual letter explains: “(B)ecause there is strong demand for banking among the poor, and because the poor can in fact be a profitable customer base, entrepreneurs in developing countries are doing exciting work – some of which will “trickle up” to developed countries over time.”

What the Foundation doesn’t mention is that it is heavily invested in many of Africa’s mobile-money initiatives and in 2010 teamed up with the World Bank to “improve financial data collection” among Africa’s poor. One also wonders whether Microsoft might one day benefit from the Foundation’s front-line role in mobile money….As a result of technological advances and generational priorities, cash’s days may well be numbered. But there is a whole world of difference between a natural death and euthanasia. It is now clear that an extremely powerful, albeit loose, alliance of governments, banks, central banks, start-ups, large corporations, and NGOs are determined to pull the plug on cash — not for our benefit, but for theirs.

Whatever the superficially attractive media spin, joint initiatives like the Better Than Cash Alliance serve their founders, not the public. This should not come as a surprise, but it probably will as we sleepwalk into giving up very important freedoms:

As I warned in We Are Sleepwalking Towards a Cashless Society, we (or at least the vast majority of people in the vast majority of countries) are willing to entrust government and financial institutions — organizations that have already betrayed just about every possible notion of trust — with complete control over our every single daily transaction. And all for the sake of a few minor gains in convenience. The price we pay will be what remains of our individual freedom and privacy.

 

 

 

Promoters, Mechanisms and Risks in the War on Cash

 

Bitcoin and other electronic platforms have paved the way psychologically for a shift away from cash, although they have done so by emphasising decentralisation and anonymity rather than the much greater central control which would be inherent in a mainstream electronic currency. The loss of privacy would no doubt be glossed over in any media campaign, as would the risks of cyber-attack and the lack of a fallback for providing liquidity to the economy in the event of a systems crash. Electronic currency is much favoured by techno-optimists, but not so much by those concerned about the risks of absolute structural dependency on technological complexity. The argument regarding greatly reduced socioeconomic resilience is particularly noteworthy, given the vulnerability and potential fragility of electronic systems.

There is an important distinction to be made between official electronic currency – allowing everyone to hold an account with the central bank — and private electronic currency. It would be official currency which would provide the central control sought by governments and central banks, but if individuals saw central bank accounts as less risky than commercial institutions, which seems highly likely, the extent of the potential funds transfer could crash the existing banking system, causing a bank run in a similar manner as large-scale cash withdrawals would. As the power of money creation is of the highest significance, and that power is currently in private hands, any attempt to threaten that power would almost certainly be met with considerable resistance from powerful parties. Private digital currency would be more compatible with the existing framework, but would not confer all of the control that governments would prefer:

People would convert a very large share of their current bank deposits into official digital money, in effect taking them out of the private banking system. Why might this be a problem? If it’s an acute rush for safety in a crisis, the risk is that private banks may not have enough reserves to honour all the withdrawals. But that is exactly the same risk as with physical cash: it’s often forgotten that it’s central bank reserves, not the much larger quantity of deposits, that banks can convert into cash with the central bank. Both with cash and official e-cash, the way to meet a more severe bank run is for the bank to borrow more reserves from the central bank, posting its various assets as security. In effect, this would mean the central bank taking over the funding of the broader economy in a panic — but that’s just what central banks should do.

A more chronic challenge is that people may prefer the safety of central bank accounts even in normal times. That would destroy private banks’ current deposit-funded model. Is that a bad thing? They would still have a role as direct intermediators between savers and borrowers, by offering investment products sufficiently attractive for people to get out of the safety of e-cash. Meanwhile, the broad money supply would be more directly under the control of the central bank, whereas now it’s a product of the vagaries of private lending decisions. The more of the broad money supply that was in the form of official digital cash, the easier it would be, for example, for the central bank to use tools such as negative interest rates or helicopter drops.

As an indication that the interests of the private banking system and public central authorities are not always aligned, consider the actions of the Bavarian Banking Association in attempting to avoid the imposition of negative interest rates on reserves held with the ECB:

German newspaper Der Spiegel reported yesterday that the Bavarian Banking Association has recommended that its member banks start stockpiling PHYSICAL CASH. The Bavarian Banking Association has had enough of this financial dictatorship. Their new recommendation is for all member banks to ditch the ECB and instead start keeping their excess reserves in physical cash, stored in their own bank vaults. This is officially an all-out revolution of the financial system where banks are now actively rebelling against the central bank. (What’s even more amazing is that this concept of traditional banking — holding physical cash in a bank vault — is now considered revolutionary and radical.)

There’s just one teensy tiny problem: there simply is not enough physical cash in the entire financial system to support even a tiny fraction of the demand. Total bank deposits exceed trillions of euros. Physical cash constitutes just a small percentage of that sum. So if German banks do start hoarding physical currency, there won’t be any left in the financial system. This will force the ECB to choose between two options:

  1. Support this rebellion and authorize the issuance of more physical cash; or

  2. Impose capital controls.

Given that just two weeks ago the President of the ECB spoke about the possibility of banning some higher denomination cash notes, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Advantages of official electronic currency to governments and central banks are clear. All transactions are transparent, and all can be subject to fees and taxes. Central control over the money supply would be greatly increased and tax evasion would be difficult to impossible, at least for ordinary people. Capital controls would be built right into the system, and personal spending information would be conveniently gathered for inspection by central authorities (for cross-correlation with other personal data they possess). The first step would likely be to set up a dual system, with both cash and electronic money in parallel use, but with electronic money as the defined unit of value and cash subject to a marginally disadvantageous exchange rate.

The exchange rate devaluing cash in relation to electronic money could increase over time, in order to incentivize people to switch away from seeing physical cash as a store of value, and to increase their preference for goods over cash. In addition to providing an active incentive, the use of cash would probably be publicly disparaged as well as actively discouraged in many ways. For instance, key functions such as tax payments could be designated as by electronic remittance only. The point would be to forced everyone into the system by depriving them of the choice to opt out. Once all were captured, many forms of central control would be possible, including substantial account haircuts if central authorities deemed them necessary.

 

 

The main promoters of cash elimination in favour of electronic currency are Willem Buiter, Kenneth Rogoff, and Miles Kimball.

Economist Willem Buiter has been pushing for the relegation of cash, at least the removal of its status as official unit of account, since the financial crisis of 2008. He suggests a number of mechanisms for achieving the transition to electronic money, emphasising the need for the electronic currency to become the definitive unit of account in order to implement substantially negative interest rates:

The first method does away with currency completely. This has the additional benefit of inconveniencing the main users of currency-operators in the grey, black and outright criminal economies. Adequate substitutes for the legitimate uses of currency, on which positive or negative interest could be paid, are available. The second approach, proposed by Gesell, is to tax currency by making it subject to an expiration date. Currency would have to be “stamped” periodically by the Fed to keep it current. When done so, interest (positive or negative) is received or paid.

The third method ends the fixed exchange rate (set at one) between dollar deposits with the Fed (reserves) and dollar bills. There could be a currency reform first. All existing dollar bills and coin would be converted by a certain date and at a fixed exchange rate into a new currency called, say, the rallod. Reserves at the Fed would continue to be denominated in dollars. As long as the Federal Funds target rate is positive or zero, the Fed would maintain the fixed exchange rate between the dollar and the rallod.

When the Fed wants to set the Federal Funds target rate at minus five per cent, say, it would set the forward exchange rate between the dollar and the rallod, the number of dollars that have to be paid today to receive one rallod tomorrow, at five per cent below the spot exchange rate — the number of dollars paid today for one rallod delivered today. That way, the rate of return, expressed in a common unit, on dollar reserves is the same as on rallod currency.

For the dollar interest rate to remain the relevant one, the dollar has to remain the unit of account for setting prices and wages. This can be encouraged by the government continuing to denominate all of its contracts in dollars, including the invoicing and payment of taxes and benefits. Imposing the legal restriction that checkable deposits and other private means of payment cannot be denominated in rallod would help.

In justifying his proposals, he emphasises the importance of combatting criminal activity…

The only domestic beneficiaries from the existence of anonymity-providing currency are the criminal fraternity: those engaged in tax evasion and money laundering, and those wishing to store the proceeds from crime and the means to commit further crimes. Large denomination bank notes are an especially scandalous subsidy to criminal activity and to the grey and black economies.

… over the acknowledged risks of government intrusion in legitimately private affairs:

My good friend and colleague Charles Goodhart responded to an earlier proposal of mine that currency (negotiable bearer bonds with legal tender status) be abolished that this proposal was “appallingly illiberal”. I concur with him that anonymity/invisibility of the citizen vis-a-vis the state is often desirable, given the irrepressible tendency of the state to infringe on our fundamental rights and liberties and given the state’s ever-expanding capacity to do so (I am waiting for the US or UK government to contract Google to link all personal health information to all tax information, information on cross-border travel, social security information, census information, police records, credit records, and information on personal phone calls, internet use and internet shopping habits).

In his seminal 2014 paper “Costs and Benefits to Phasing Out Paper Currency.”, Kenneth Rogoff also argues strongly for the primacy of electronic currency and the elimination of physical cash as an escape route:

Paper currency has two very distinct properties that should draw our attention. First, it is precisely the existence of paper currency that makes it difficult for central banks to take policy interest rates much below zero, a limitation that seems to have become increasingly relevant during this century. As Blanchard et al. (2010) point out, today’s environment of low and stable inflation rates has drastically pushed down the general level of interest rates. The low overall level, combined with the zero bound, means that central banks cannot cut interest rates nearly as much as they might like in response to large deflationary shocks.

If all central bank liabilities were electronic, paying a negative interest on reserves (basically charging a fee) would be trivial. But as long as central banks stand ready to convert electronic deposits to zero-interest paper currency in unlimited amounts, it suddenly becomes very hard to push interest rates below levels of, say, -0.25 to -0.50 percent, certainly not on a sustained basis. Hoarding cash may be inconvenient and risky, but if rates become too negative, it becomes worth it.

However, he too notes associated risks:

Another argument for maintaining paper currency is that it pays to have a diversity of technologies and not to become overly dependent on an electronic grid that may one day turn out to be very vulnerable. Paper currency diversifies the transactions system and hardens it against cyber attack, EMP blasts, etc. This argument, however, seems increasingly less relevant because economies are so totally exposed to these problems anyway. With paper currency being so marginalized already in the legal economy in many countries, it is hard to see how it could be brought back quickly, particularly if ATM machines were compromised at the same time as other electronic systems.

A different type of argument against eliminating currency relates to civil liberties. In a world where society’s mores and customs evolve, it is important to tolerate experimentation at the fringes. This is potentially a very important argument, though the problem might be mitigated if controls are placed on the government’s use of information (as is done say with tax information), and the problem might also be ameliorated if small bills continue to circulate. Last but not least, if any country attempts to unilaterally reduce the use of its currency, there is a risk that another country’s currency would be used within domestic borders.

Miles Kimball’s proposals are very much in tune with Buiter and Rogoff:

There are two key parts to Miles Kimball’s solution. The first part is to make electronic money or deposits the sole unit of account. Everything else would be priced in terms of electronic dollars, including paper dollars. The second part is that the fixed exchange rate that now exists between deposits and paper dollars would become variable. This crawling peg between deposits and paper currency would be based on the state of the economy. When the economy was in a slump and the central bank needed to set negative interest rates to restore full employment, the peg would adjust so that paper currency would lose value relative to electronic money. This would prevent folks from rushing to paper currency as interest rates turned negative. Once the economy started improving, the crawling peg would start adjusting toward parity.

This approach views the economy in very mechanistic terms, as if it were a machine where pulling a lever would have a predictable linear effect — make holding savings less attractive and automatically consumption will increase. This is actually a highly simplistic view, resting on the notions of stabilising negative feedback and bringing an economy ‘back into equilibrium’. If it were so simple to control an economy centrally, there would never have been deflationary spirals or economic depressions in the past.

Assuming away the more complex aspects of human behaviour — a flight to safety, the compulsion to save for a rainy day when conditions are unstable, or the natural response to a negative ‘wealth effect’ — leads to a model divorced from reality. Taxing savings does not necessarily lead to increased consumption, in fact it is far more likely to have the opposite effect.:

But under Miles Kimball’s proposal, the Fed would lower interest rates to below zero by taxing away balances of e-currency. This is a reduction in monetary base, just like the case of IOR, and by itself would be contractionary, not expansionary. The expansionary effects of Kimball’s policy depend on the assumption that households will increase consumption in response to the taxing of their cash savings, rather than letting their savings depreciate.

That needn’t be the case — it depends on the relative magnitudes of income and substitution effects for real money balances. The substitution effect is what Kimball has in mind — raising the price of real money balances will induce substitution out of money and into consumption. But there’s also an income effect, whereby the loss of wealth induces less consumption and more savings. Thus, negative interest rate policy can be contractionary even though positive interest rate policy is expansionary.

Indeed, what Kimball has proposed amounts to a reverse Bernanke Helicopter — imagine a giant vacuum flying around the country sucking money out of people’s pockets. Why would we assume that this would be inflationary?

 

 

Given that the effect on the money supply would be contractionary, the supposed stimulus effect on the velocity of money (as, in theory, savings turn into consumption in order to avoid the negative interest rate penalty) would have to be large enough to outweigh a contracting money supply. In some ways, modern proponents of electronic money bearing negative interest rates are attempting to copy Silvio Gesell’s early 20th century work. Gesell proposed the use of stamp scrip — money that had to be regularly stamped, at a small cost, in order to remain current. The effect would be for money to lose value over time, so that hoarding currency it would make little sense. Consumption would, in theory, be favoured, so money would be kept in circulation.

This idea was implemented to great effect in the Austrian town of Wörgl during the Great Depression, where the velocity of money increased sufficiently to allow a hive of economic activity to develop (temporarily) in the previously depressed town. Despite the similarities between current proposals and Gesell’s model applied in Wörgl, there are fundamental differences:

There is a critical difference, however, between the Wörgl currency and the modern-day central bankers’ negative interest scheme. The Wörgl government first issued its new “free money,” getting it into the local economy and increasing purchasing power, before taxing a portion of it back. And the proceeds of the stamp tax went to the city, to be used for the benefit of the taxpayers….Today’s central bankers are proposing to tax existing money, diminishing spending power without first building it up. And the interest will go to private bankers, not to the local government.

The Wörgl experiment was a profoundly local initiative, instigated at the local government level by the mayor. In contrast, modern proposals for negative interest rates would operate at a much larger scale and would be imposed on the population in accordance with the interests of those at the top of the financial foodchain. Instead of being introduced for the direct benefit of those who pay, as stamp scrip was in Wörgl, it would tax the people in the economic periphery for the continued benefit of the financial centre. As such it would amount to just another attempt to perpetuate the current system, and to do so at a scale far beyond the trust horizon.

As the trust horizon contracts in times of economic crisis, effective organizational scale will also contract, leaving large organizations (both public and private) as stranded assets from a trust perspective, and therefore lacking in political legitimacy. Large scale, top down solutions will be very difficult to implement. It is not unusual for the actions of central authorities to have the opposite of the desired effect under such circumstances:

Consumers today already have very little discretionary money. Imposing negative interest without first adding new money into the economy means they will have even less money to spend. This would be more likely to prompt them to save their scarce funds than to go on a shopping spree. People are not keeping their money in the bank today for the interest (which is already nearly non-existent). It is for the convenience of writing checks, issuing bank cards, and storing their money in a “safe” place. They would no doubt be willing to pay a modest negative interest for that convenience; but if the fee got too high, they might pull their money out and save it elsewhere. The fee itself, however, would not drive them to buy things they did not otherwise need.

People would be very likely to respond to negative interest rates by self-organising alternative means of exchange, rather than bowing to the imposition of negative rates. Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies would be one possibility, as would using foreign currency, using trading goods as units of value, or developing local alternative currencies along the lines of the Wörgl model:

The use of sheep, bottled water, and cigarettes as media of exchange in Iraqi rural villages after the US invasion and collapse of the dinar is one recent example. Another example was Argentina after the collapse of the peso, when grain contracts priced in dollars were regularly exchanged for big-ticket items like automobiles, trucks, and farm equipment. In fact, Argentine farmers began hoarding grain in silos to substitute for holding cash balances in the form of depreciating pesos.

 

 

For the electronic money model grounded in negative interest rates to work, all these alternatives would have to be made illegal, or at least hampered to the point of uselessness, so people would have no other legal choice but to participate in the electronic system. Rogoff seems very keen to see this happen:

Won’t the private sector continually find new ways to make anonymous transfers that sidestep government restrictions? Certainly. But as long as the government keeps playing Whac-A-Mole and prevents these alternative vehicles from being easily used at retail stores or banks, they won’t be able fill the role that cash plays today. Forcing criminals and tax evaders to turn to riskier and more costly alternatives to cash will make their lives harder and their enterprises less profitable.

It is very likely that in times of crisis, people would do what they have to do regardless of legal niceties. While it may be possible to close off some alternative options with legal sanctions, it is unlikely that all could be prevented, or even enough to avoid the electronic system being fatally undermined.

The other major obstacle would be overcoming the preference for cash over goods in times of crisis:

Understanding how negative rates may or may not help economic growth is much more complex than most central bankers and investors probably appreciate. Ultimately the confusion resides around differences in view on the theory of money. In a classical world, money supply multiplied by a constant velocity of circulation equates to nominal growth.

In a Keynesian world, velocity is not necessarily constant — specifically for Keynes, there is a money demand function (liquidity preference) and therefore a theory of interest that allows for a liquidity trap whereby increasing money supply does not lead to higher nominal growth as the increase in money is hoarded. The interest rate (or inverse of the price of bonds) becomes sticky because at low rates, for infinitesimal expectations of any further rise in bond prices and a further fall in interest rates, demand for money tends to infinity.

In Gesell’s world money supply itself becomes inversely correlated with velocity of circulation due to money characteristics being superior to goods (or commodities). There are costs to storage that money does not have and so interest on money capital sets a bar to interest on real capital that produces goods. This is similar to Keynes’ concept of the marginal efficiency of capital schedule being separate from the interest rate. For Gesell the product of money and velocity is effective demand (nominal growth) but because of money capital’s superiority to real capital, if money supply expands it comes at the expense of velocity.

The new money supply is hoarded because as interest rates fall, expected returns on capital also fall through oversupply — for economic agents goods remain unattractive to money. The demand for money thus rises as velocity slows. This is simply a deflation spiral, consumers delaying purchases of goods, hoarding money, expecting further falls in goods prices before they are willing to part with their money….In a Keynesian world of deficient demand, the burden is on fiscal policy to restore demand. Monetary policy simply won’t work if there is a liquidity trap and demand for cash is infinite.

During the era of globalisation (since the financial liberalisation of the early 1980s), extractive capitalism in debt-driven over-drive has created perverse incentives to continually increase supply. Financial bubbles, grounded in the rediscovery of excess leverage, always act to create an artificial demand stimulus, which is met by artificially inflated supply during the boom phase. The value of the debt created collapses as boom turns into bust, crashing the money supply, and with it asset price support. Not only does the artificial stimulus disappear, but a demand undershoot develops, leaving all that supply without a market. Over the full cycle of a bubble and its aftermath, credit is demand neutral, but within the bubble it is anything but neutral. Forward shifting the demand curve provides for an orgy of present consumption and asset price increases, which is inevitably followed by the opposite.

Kimball stresses bringing demand forward as a positive aspect of his model:

In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.)

That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory. But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.

This is, however, a short-sighted assessment. Stimulating demand today means a demand undershoot tomorrow. Kimball names long term price stability as a primary goal, but this seems unlikely. Large scale central planning has a poor track record for success, to put it mildly. It requires the central authority in question to have access to all necessary information in realtime, and to have the ability to respond to that information both wisely and rapidly, or even proactively. It also assumes the ability to accurately filter out misinformation and disinformation. This is unlikely even in good times, thanks to the difficulties of ‘organizational stupidity’ at large scale, and even more improbable in the times of crisis.

 

 

 

Financial Totalitarianism in Historical Context

 

In attempting to keep the credit bonanza going with their existing powers, central banks have set the global financial system up for an across-the-board asset price collapse:

QE takes away the liquidity preference choice out of the hands of the consumers, and puts it into the hands of central bankers, who through asset purchases push up asset prices even if it does so by explicitly devaluing the currency of price measurement; it also means that the failure of NIRP is — by definition — a failure of central banking, and if and when the central bank backstop of any (make that all) asset class — i.e., Q.E., is pulled away, that asset (make that all) will crash.

It is not just central banking, but also globalisation, which is demonstrably failing. Cross-border freedoms will probably be an early casualty of the war on cash, and its demise will likely come as a shock to those used to a relatively borderless world:

We have been informed with reliable sources that in Germany where Maestro was a multi-national debit card service owned by MasterCard that was founded in 1992 is seriously under attack. Maestro cards are obtained from associate banks and can be linked to the card holder’s current account, or they can be prepaid cards. Already we find such cards are being cancelled and new debit cards are being issued.

Why? The new cards cannot be used at an ATM outside of Germany to obtain cash. Any attempt to get cash can only be as an advance on a credit card….This is total insanity and we are losing absolutely everything that made society function. Once they eliminate CASH, they will have total control over who can buy or sell anything.

The same confused, greedy and corrupt central authorities which have set up the global economy for a major bust through their dysfunctional use of existing powers, are now seeking far greater central control, in what would amount to the ultimate triumph of finance over people. They are now moving to tax what ever people have left over after paying taxes. It has been tried before. As previous historical bubbles began to collapse, central authorities attempted to increase their intrusiveness and control over the population, in order to force the inevitable losses as far down the financial foodchain as possible. As far back as the Roman Empire, economically contractionary periods have been met with financial tyranny — increasing pressure on the populace until the system itself breaks:

Not even the death penalty was enough to enforce Diocletian’s price control edicts in the third century.

Rome squeezed the peasants in its empire so hard, that many eventually abandoned their land, reckoning that they were better off with the barbarians.

Such attempts at total financial control are exactly what one would expect at this point. A herd of financial middle men are used to being very well supported by the existing financial system, and as that system begins to break down, losing that raft of support is unacceptable. The people at the bottom of the financial foodchain must be watched and controlled in order to make sure they are paying to support the financial centre in the manner to which it has become accustomed, even as their ability to do so is continually undermined:

An oft-overlooked benefit of cash transactions is that there is no intermediary. One party pays the other party in mutually accepted currency and not a single middleman gets to wet his beak. In a cashless society there will be nothing stopping banks or other financial mediators from taking a small piece of every single transaction. They would also be able to use — and potentially abuse — the massive deposits of data they collect on their customers’ payment behavior. This information is of huge interest and value to retail marketing departments, other financial institutions, insurance companies, governments, secret services, and a host of other organizations….

….So in order to save a financial system that is morally beyond the pale and stopped serving the basic needs of the real economy a long time ago, governments and central banks must do away with the last remaining thing that gives people a small semblance of privacy, anonymity, and personal freedom in their increasingly controlled and surveyed lives. The biggest tragedy of all is that the governments and banks’ strongest ally in their War on Cash is the general public itself. As long as people continue to abandon the use of cash, for the sake of a few minor gains in convenience, the war on cash is already won.

Even if the ultimate failure of central control is predictable, momentum towards greater centralisation will carry forward for as long as possible, until the system can no longer function, at which point a chaotic free-for-all is likely to occur. In the meantime, the movement towards electronic money seeks to empower the surveillance state/corporatocracy enormously, providing it with the tools to observe and control virtually every aspect of people’s lives:

Governments and corporations, even that genius app developer in Russia, have one thing in common: they want to know everything. Data is power. And money. As the Snowden debacle has shown, they’re getting there. Technologies for gathering information, then hoarding it, mining it, and using it are becoming phenomenally effective and cheap. But it’s not perfect. Video surveillance with facial-recognition isn’t everywhere just yet. Not everyone is using a smartphone. Not everyone posts the details of life on Facebook. Some recalcitrant people still pay with cash. To the greatest consternation of governments and corporations, stuff still happens that isn’t captured and stored in digital format….

….But the killer technology isn’t the elimination of cash. It’s the combination of payment data and the information stream that cellphones, particularly smartphones, deliver. Now everything is tracked neatly by a single device that transmits that data on a constant basis to a number of companies, including that genius app developer in Russia — rather than having that information spread over various banks, credit card companies, etc. who don’t always eagerly surrender that data.

Eventually, it might even eliminate the need for data brokers. At that point, a single device knows practically everything. And from there, it’s one simple step to transfer part or all of this data to any government’s data base. Opinions are divided over whom to distrust more: governments or corporations. But one thing we know: mobile payments and the elimination of cash….will also make life a lot easier for governments and corporations in their quest for the perfect surveillance society.

Dissent is increasingly being criminalised, with legitimate dissenters commonly referred to, and treated as, domestic terrorists and potentially subjected to arbitrary asset confiscation:

An important reason why the state would like to see a cashless society is that it would make it easier to seize our wealth electronically. It would be a modern-day version of FDR’s confiscation of privately-held gold in the 1930s. The state will make more and more use of “threats of terrorism” to seize financial assets. It is already talking about expanding the definition of “terrorist threat” to include critics of government like myself.

The American state already confiscates financial assets under the protection of various guises such as the PATRIOT Act. I first realized this years ago when I paid for a new car with a personal check that bounced. The car dealer informed me that the IRS had, without my knowledge, taken 20 percent of the funds that I had transferred from a mutual fund to my bank account in order to buy the car. The IRS told me that it was doing this to deter terrorism, and that I could count it toward next year’s tax bill.

 

 

The elimination of cash in favour of official electronic money only would greatly accelerate and accentuate the ability of governments to punish those they dislike, indeed it would allow them to prevent dissenters from engaging in the most basic functions:

If all money becomes digital, it would be much easier for the government to manipulate our accounts. Indeed, numerous high-level NSA whistleblowers say that NSA spying is about crushing dissent and blackmailing opponents. not stopping terrorism. This may sound over-the-top. but remember, the government sometimes labels its critics as “terrorists”. If the government claims the power to indefinitely detain — or even assassinate — American citizens at the whim of the executive, don’t you think that government people would be willing to shut down, or withdraw a stiff “penalty” from a dissenter’s bank account?

If society becomes cashless, dissenters can’t hide cash. All of their financial holdings would be vulnerable to an attack by the government. This would be the ultimate form of control. Because — without access to money — people couldn’t resist, couldn’t hide and couldn’t escape.

The trust that has over many years enabled the freedoms we enjoy is now disappearing rapidly, and the impact of its demise is already palpable. Citizens understandably do not trust governments and powerful corporations, which have increasingly clearly been acting in their own interests in consolidating control over claims to real resources in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals and institutions:

By far the biggest risk posed by digital alternatives to cash such as mobile money is the potential for massive concentration of financial power and the abuses and conflicts of interest that would almost certainly ensue. Naturally it goes without saying that most of the institutions that will rule the digital money space will be the very same institutions….that have already broken pretty much every rule in the financial service rule book.

They have manipulated virtually every market in existence; they have commodified and financialized pretty much every natural resource of value on this planet; and in the wake of the financial crisis they almost single-handedly caused, they have extorted billions of dollars from the pockets of their own customers and trillions from hard-up taxpayers. What about your respective government authorities? Do you trust them?…

….We are, it seems, descending into a world where new technologies threaten to put absolute power well within the grasp of a select group of individuals and organizations — individuals and organizations that have through their repeated actions betrayed just about every possible notion of mutual trust.

Governments do not trust their citizens (‘potential terrorists’) either, hence the perceived need to monitor and limit the scope of their decisions and actions. The powers-that-be know how angry people are going to be when they realise the scale of their impending dispossession, and are acting in such a way as to (try to) limit the power of the anger that will be focused against them. It is not going to work.

Without trust we are likely to see “throwbacks to the 14th century….at the dawn of banking coming out of the Dark Ages.”. It is no coincidence that this period was also one of financial, socioeconomic and humanitarian crises, thanks to the bursting of a bubble two centuries in the making:

The 14th Century was a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control. Historian Barbara Tuchman entitled her book on this period A Distant Mirror because many of our modern problems had counterparts in the 14th Century.

Few think of the trials and tribulations of 14th century Europe as having their roots in financial collapse — they tend instead to remember famine and disease. However, the demise of what was then the world banking system was a leading indicator for what followed, as is always the case:

Six hundred and fifty years ago came the climax of the worst financial collapse in history to date. The 1930’s Great Depression was a mild and brief episode, compared to the bank crash of the 1340’s, which decimated the human population. The crash, which peaked in A.C.E. 1345 when the world’s biggest banks went under, “led” by the Bardi and Peruzzi companies of Florence, Italy, was more than a bank crash — it was a financial disintegration….a blowup of all major banks and markets in Europe, in which, chroniclers reported, “all credit vanished together,” most trade and exchange stopped, and a catastrophic drop of the world’s population by famine and disease loomed.

As we have written many times before at The Automatic Earth, bubbles are not a new phenomenon. They have inflated and subsequently imploded since the dawn of civilisation, and are in fact en emergent property of civilisational scale. There are therefore many parallels between different historical episodes of boom and bust:

The parallels between the medieval credit crunch and our current predicament are considerable. In both cases the money supply increased in response to the expansionist pressure of unbridled optimism. In both cases the expansion proceeded to the point where a substantial overhang of credit had been created — a quantity sufficient to generate systemic risk that was not recognized at the time. In the fourteenth century, that risk was realized, as it will be again in the 21st century.

What we are experiencing now is simply the same dynamic, but turbo-charged by the availability of energy and technology that have driven our long period of socioeconomic expansion and ever-increasing complexity. Just as in the 14th century, the cracks in the system have been visible for many years, but generally ignored. The coming credit implosion may appear to come from nowhere when it hits, but has long been foreshadowed if one knew what to look for. Watching more and more people seeking escape routes from a doomed financial system, and the powers-that-be fighting back by closing those escape routes, all within a social matrix of collapsing trust, one cannot deny that history is about to repeat itself yet again, only on a larger scale this time.

The final gasps of a bubble economy, such as our own, are about behind-the-scenes securing of access to and ownership of real assets for the elite, through bailouts and other forms of legalized theft. As Frédéric Bastiat explained in 1848,

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

The bust which follows the last attempt to kick the can further down the road will see the vast majority of society dispossessed of what they thought they owned, their ephemeral electronic claims to underlying real wealth extinguished.

 

The Way Forward

 

The advent of negative interest rates indicates that the endgame for the global economy is underway. In places at the peak of the bubble, negative rates drive further asset bubbles and create ever greater vulnerability to the inevitable interest rate spike and asset price collapse to come. In Japan, at the other end of the debt deflation cycle, negative rates force people into ever more cash hoarding. Neither one of these outcomes is going to lead to recovery. Both indicate economies at breaking point. We cannot assume that current financial, economic and social structures will continue in their present form, and we need to prepare for a period of acute upheaval.

Using cash wherever possible, rather than succumbing to the convenience of electronic payments, becomes an almost revolutionary act. So other forms of radical decentralisation, which amount to opting out as much as possible from the path the powers-that-be would have us follow. It is likely to become increasingly difficult to defend our freedom and independence, but if enough people stand their ground, establishing full totalitarian control should not be possible.

To some extent, the way the war on cash plays out will depend on the timing of the coming financial implosion. The elimination of cash would take time, and only in some countries has there been enough progress away from cash that eliminating it would be at all realistic. If only a few countries tried to do so, people in those countries would be likely to use foreign currency that was still legal tender.

 

 

Cash elimination would really only work if it it were very broadly applied in enough major economies, and if a financial accident could be postponed for a few more years. As neither of these conditions is likely to be fulfilled, a cash ban is unlikely to viable. Governments and central banks would very much like to frighten people away from cash, but that only underlines its value under the current circumstances. Cash is king in a deflation. The powers-that-be know that, and would like the available cash to end up concentrated in their own hands rather than spread out to act as seed capital for a bottom-up recovery.

Holding on to cash under one’s own control is still going to be a very important option for maintaining freedom of action in an uncertain future. The alternative would be to turn to hard goods (land, tools etc) from the beginning, but where there is a great deal of temporal and spatial uncertainty, this amounts to making all one’s choices up front, and choices based on incomplete information could easily turn out to be wrong. Making such choices up front is also expensive, as prices are currently high. Of course having some hard goods is also advisable, particularly if they allow one to have some control over the essentials of one’s own existence.

It is the balance between hard goods and maintaining capital as liquidity (cash) that is important. Where that balance lies depends very much on individual circumstances, and on location. For instance, in the European Union, where currency reissue is a very real threat in a reasonably short timeframe, opting for goods rather than cash makes more sense, unless one holds foreign currency such as Swiss francs. If one must hold euros, it would probably be advisable to hold German ones (serial numbers begin with X).

 

US dollars are likely to hold their value for longer than most other currencies, given the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency. Reports of its demise are premature, to put it mildly. As financial crisis picks up momentum, a flight to safety into the reserve currency is likely to pick up speed, raising the value of the dollar against other currencies. In addition, demand for dollars will increase as debtors seek to pay down dollar-denominated debt. While all fiat currencies are ultimately vulnerable in the beggar-thy-neighbour currency wars to come, the US dollar should hold value for longer than most.

Holding cash on the sidelines while prices fall is a good strategy, so long as one does not wait too long. The risks to holding and using cash are likely to grow over time, so it is best viewed as a short term strategy to ride out the deflationary period, where the value of credit instruments is collapsing. The purchasing power of cash will rise during this time, and previously unforeseen opportunities are likely to arise.

Ordinary people need to retain as much of their freedom of action as possible, in order for society to function through a period of economic seizure. In general, the best strategy is to hold cash until the point where the individual in question can afford to purchase the goods they require to provide for their own needs without taking on debt to do so. (Avoiding taking on debt is extremely important, as financially encumbered assets would be subject to repossession in the event of failure to meet debt obligations.)

One must bear in mind, however, that after price falls, some goods may cease to be available at any price, so some essentials may need to be purchased at today’s higher prices in order to guarantee supply.

Capital preservation is an individual responsibility, and during times of deflation, capital must be preserved as liquidity. We cannot expect either governments or private institutions to protect our interests, as both have been obviously undermining the interests of ordinary people in favour of their own for a very long time. Indeed they seem to feel secure enough of their own consolidated control that they do not even bother to try to hide the fact any longer. It is our duty to inform ourselves and act to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. If we do not, no one else will.

 

 

This article by Nicole Foss was earlier published at the Automatic Earth in 4 chapters.

Part 1 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

Part 2 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (2)

Part 3 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (3)

Part 3 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (4)

 

 

 

 

Sep 082016
 
 September 8, 2016  Posted by at 12:55 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  27 Responses »
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AlfredEisenstaedt View of Midtown Manhattan NYC 1939

 

 

This is part 4 of a 4-part series by Nicole Foss entitled “Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash”.

Part 1 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

Part 2 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (2)

Part 3 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (3)

We will soon publish the entire piece in one post.

Here is Nicole:

 

 

 

Financial Totalitarianism in Historical Context

 

Nicole Foss: In attempting to keep the credit bonanza going with their existing powers, central banks have set the global financial system up for an across-the-board asset price collapse:

QE takes away the liquidity preference choice out of the hands of the consumers, and puts it into the hands of central bankers, who through asset purchases push up asset prices even if it does so by explicitly devaluing the currency of price measurement; it also means that the failure of NIRP is — by definition — a failure of central banking, and if and when the central bank backstop of any (make that all) asset class — i.e., Q.E., is pulled away, that asset (make that all) will crash.

It is not just central banking, but also globalisation, which is demonstrably failing. Cross-border freedoms will probably be an early casualty of the war on cash, and its demise will likely come as a shock to those used to a relatively borderless world:

We have been informed with reliable sources that in Germany where Maestro was a multi-national debit card service owned by MasterCard that was founded in 1992 is seriously under attack. Maestro cards are obtained from associate banks and can be linked to the card holder’s current account, or they can be prepaid cards. Already we find such cards are being cancelled and new debit cards are being issued.

Why? The new cards cannot be used at an ATM outside of Germany to obtain cash. Any attempt to get cash can only be as an advance on a credit card….This is total insanity and we are losing absolutely everything that made society function. Once they eliminate CASH, they will have total control over who can buy or sell anything.

The same confused, greedy and corrupt central authorities which have set up the global economy for a major bust through their dysfunctional use of existing powers, are now seeking far greater central control, in what would amount to the ultimate triumph of finance over people. They are now moving to tax what ever people have left over after paying taxes. It has been tried before. As previous historical bubbles began to collapse, central authorities attempted to increase their intrusiveness and control over the population, in order to force the inevitable losses as far down the financial foodchain as possible. As far back as the Roman Empire, economically contractionary periods have been met with financial tyranny — increasing pressure on the populace until the system itself breaks:

Not even the death penalty was enough to enforce Diocletian’s price control edicts in the third century.

Rome squeezed the peasants in its empire so hard, that many eventually abandoned their land, reckoning that they were better off with the barbarians.

Such attempts at total financial control are exactly what one would expect at this point. A herd of financial middle men are used to being very well supported by the existing financial system, and as that system begins to break down, losing that raft of support is unacceptable. The people at the bottom of the financial foodchain must be watched and controlled in order to make sure they are paying to support the financial centre in the manner to which it has become accustomed, even as their ability to do so is continually undermined:

An oft-overlooked benefit of cash transactions is that there is no intermediary. One party pays the other party in mutually accepted currency and not a single middleman gets to wet his beak. In a cashless society there will be nothing stopping banks or other financial mediators from taking a small piece of every single transaction. They would also be able to use — and potentially abuse — the massive deposits of data they collect on their customers’ payment behavior. This information is of huge interest and value to retail marketing departments, other financial institutions, insurance companies, governments, secret services, and a host of other organizations….

….So in order to save a financial system that is morally beyond the pale and stopped serving the basic needs of the real economy a long time ago, governments and central banks must do away with the last remaining thing that gives people a small semblance of privacy, anonymity, and personal freedom in their increasingly controlled and surveyed lives. The biggest tragedy of all is that the governments and banks’ strongest ally in their War on Cash is the general public itself. As long as people continue to abandon the use of cash, for the sake of a few minor gains in convenience, the war on cash is already won.

Even if the ultimate failure of central control is predictable, momentum towards greater centralisation will carry forward for as long as possible, until the system can no longer function, at which point a chaotic free-for-all is likely to occur. In the meantime, the movement towards electronic money seeks to empower the surveillance state/corporatocracy enormously, providing it with the tools to observe and control virtually every aspect of people’s lives:

Governments and corporations, even that genius app developer in Russia, have one thing in common: they want to know everything. Data is power. And money. As the Snowden debacle has shown, they’re getting there. Technologies for gathering information, then hoarding it, mining it, and using it are becoming phenomenally effective and cheap. But it’s not perfect. Video surveillance with facial-recognition isn’t everywhere just yet. Not everyone is using a smartphone. Not everyone posts the details of life on Facebook. Some recalcitrant people still pay with cash. To the greatest consternation of governments and corporations, stuff still happens that isn’t captured and stored in digital format….

….But the killer technology isn’t the elimination of cash. It’s the combination of payment data and the information stream that cellphones, particularly smartphones, deliver. Now everything is tracked neatly by a single device that transmits that data on a constant basis to a number of companies, including that genius app developer in Russia — rather than having that information spread over various banks, credit card companies, etc. who don’t always eagerly surrender that data.

Eventually, it might even eliminate the need for data brokers. At that point, a single device knows practically everything. And from there, it’s one simple step to transfer part or all of this data to any government’s data base. Opinions are divided over whom to distrust more: governments or corporations. But one thing we know: mobile payments and the elimination of cash….will also make life a lot easier for governments and corporations in their quest for the perfect surveillance society.

Dissent is increasingly being criminalised, with legitimate dissenters commonly referred to, and treated as, domestic terrorists and potentially subjected to arbitrary asset confiscation:

An important reason why the state would like to see a cashless society is that it would make it easier to seize our wealth electronically. It would be a modern-day version of FDR’s confiscation of privately-held gold in the 1930s. The state will make more and more use of “threats of terrorism” to seize financial assets. It is already talking about expanding the definition of “terrorist threat” to include critics of government like myself.

The American state already confiscates financial assets under the protection of various guises such as the PATRIOT Act. I first realized this years ago when I paid for a new car with a personal check that bounced. The car dealer informed me that the IRS had, without my knowledge, taken 20 percent of the funds that I had transferred from a mutual fund to my bank account in order to buy the car. The IRS told me that it was doing this to deter terrorism, and that I could count it toward next year’s tax bill.

 

 

The elimination of cash in favour of official electronic money only would greatly accelerate and accentuate the ability of governments to punish those they dislike, indeed it would allow them to prevent dissenters from engaging in the most basic functions:

If all money becomes digital, it would be much easier for the government to manipulate our accounts. Indeed, numerous high-level NSA whistleblowers say that NSA spying is about crushing dissent and blackmailing opponents. not stopping terrorism. This may sound over-the-top. but remember, the government sometimes labels its critics as “terrorists”. If the government claims the power to indefinitely detain — or even assassinate — American citizens at the whim of the executive, don’t you think that government people would be willing to shut down, or withdraw a stiff “penalty” from a dissenter’s bank account?

If society becomes cashless, dissenters can’t hide cash. All of their financial holdings would be vulnerable to an attack by the government. This would be the ultimate form of control. Because — without access to money — people couldn’t resist, couldn’t hide and couldn’t escape.

The trust that has over many years enabled the freedoms we enjoy is now disappearing rapidly, and the impact of its demise is already palpable. Citizens understandably do not trust governments and powerful corporations, which have increasingly clearly been acting in their own interests in consolidating control over claims to real resources in the hands of fewer and fewer individuals and institutions:

By far the biggest risk posed by digital alternatives to cash such as mobile money is the potential for massive concentration of financial power and the abuses and conflicts of interest that would almost certainly ensue. Naturally it goes without saying that most of the institutions that will rule the digital money space will be the very same institutions….that have already broken pretty much every rule in the financial service rule book.

They have manipulated virtually every market in existence; they have commodified and financialized pretty much every natural resource of value on this planet; and in the wake of the financial crisis they almost single-handedly caused, they have extorted billions of dollars from the pockets of their own customers and trillions from hard-up taxpayers. What about your respective government authorities? Do you trust them?…

….We are, it seems, descending into a world where new technologies threaten to put absolute power well within the grasp of a select group of individuals and organizations — individuals and organizations that have through their repeated actions betrayed just about every possible notion of mutual trust.

Governments do not trust their citizens (‘potential terrorists’) either, hence the perceived need to monitor and limit the scope of their decisions and actions. The powers-that-be know how angry people are going to be when they realise the scale of their impending dispossession, and are acting in such a way as to (try to) limit the power of the anger that will be focused against them. It is not going to work.

Without trust we are likely to see “throwbacks to the 14th century….at the dawn of banking coming out of the Dark Ages.”. It is no coincidence that this period was also one of financial, socioeconomic and humanitarian crises, thanks to the bursting of a bubble two centuries in the making:

The 14th Century was a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control. Historian Barbara Tuchman entitled her book on this period A Distant Mirror because many of our modern problems had counterparts in the 14th Century.

Few think of the trials and tribulations of 14th century Europe as having their roots in financial collapse — they tend instead to remember famine and disease. However, the demise of what was then the world banking system was a leading indicator for what followed, as is always the case:

Six hundred and fifty years ago came the climax of the worst financial collapse in history to date. The 1930’s Great Depression was a mild and brief episode, compared to the bank crash of the 1340’s, which decimated the human population. The crash, which peaked in A.C.E. 1345 when the world’s biggest banks went under, “led” by the Bardi and Peruzzi companies of Florence, Italy, was more than a bank crash — it was a financial disintegration….a blowup of all major banks and markets in Europe, in which, chroniclers reported, “all credit vanished together,” most trade and exchange stopped, and a catastrophic drop of the world’s population by famine and disease loomed.

As we have written many times before at The Automatic Earth, bubbles are not a new phenomenon. They have inflated and subsequently imploded since the dawn of civilisation, and are in fact en emergent property of civilisational scale. There are therefore many parallels between different historical episodes of boom and bust:

The parallels between the medieval credit crunch and our current predicament are considerable. In both cases the money supply increased in response to the expansionist pressure of unbridled optimism. In both cases the expansion proceeded to the point where a substantial overhang of credit had been created — a quantity sufficient to generate systemic risk that was not recognized at the time. In the fourteenth century, that risk was realized, as it will be again in the 21st century.

What we are experiencing now is simply the same dynamic, but turbo-charged by the availability of energy and technology that have driven our long period of socioeconomic expansion and ever-increasing complexity. Just as in the 14th century, the cracks in the system have been visible for many years, but generally ignored. The coming credit implosion may appear to come from nowhere when it hits, but has long been foreshadowed if one knew what to look for. Watching more and more people seeking escape routes from a doomed financial system, and the powers-that-be fighting back by closing those escape routes, all within a social matrix of collapsing trust, one cannot deny that history is about to repeat itself yet again, only on a larger scale this time.

The final gasps of a bubble economy, such as our own, are about behind-the-scenes securing of access to and ownership of real assets for the elite, through bailouts and other forms of legalized theft. As Frédéric Bastiat explained in 1848,

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

The bust which follows the last attempt to kick the can further down the road will see the vast majority of society dispossessed of what they thought they owned, their ephemeral electronic claims to underlying real wealth extinguished.

 

The Way Forward

 

The advent of negative interest rates indicates that the endgame for the global economy is underway. In places at the peak of the bubble, negative rates drive further asset bubbles and create ever greater vulnerability to the inevitable interest rate spike and asset price collapse to come. In Japan, at the other end of the debt deflation cycle, negative rates force people into ever more cash hoarding. Neither one of these outcomes is going to lead to recovery. Both indicate economies at breaking point. We cannot assume that current financial, economic and social structures will continue in their present form, and we need to prepare for a period of acute upheaval.

Using cash wherever possible, rather than succumbing to the convenience of electronic payments, becomes an almost revolutionary act. So other forms of radical decentralisation, which amount to opting out as much as possible from the path the powers-that-be would have us follow. It is likely to become increasingly difficult to defend our freedom and independence, but if enough people stand their ground, establishing full totalitarian control should not be possible.

To some extent, the way the war on cash plays out will depend on the timing of the coming financial implosion. The elimination of cash would take time, and only in some countries has there been enough progress away from cash that eliminating it would be at all realistic. If only a few countries tried to do so, people in those countries would be likely to use foreign currency that was still legal tender.

 

 

Cash elimination would really only work if it it were very broadly applied in enough major economies, and if a financial accident could be postponed for a few more years. As neither of these conditions is likely to be fulfilled, a cash ban is unlikely to viable. Governments and central banks would very much like to frighten people away from cash, but that only underlines its value under the current circumstances. Cash is king in a deflation. The powers-that-be know that, and would like the available cash to end up concentrated in their own hands rather than spread out to act as seed capital for a bottom-up recovery.

Holding on to cash under one’s own control is still going to be a very important option for maintaining freedom of action in an uncertain future. The alternative would be to turn to hard goods (land, tools etc) from the beginning, but where there is a great deal of temporal and spatial uncertainty, this amounts to making all one’s choices up front, and choices based on incomplete information could easily turn out to be wrong. Making such choices up front is also expensive, as prices are currently high. Of course having some hard goods is also advisable, particularly if they allow one to have some control over the essentials of one’s own existence.

It is the balance between hard goods and maintaining capital as liquidity (cash) that is important. Where that balance lies depends very much on individual circumstances, and on location. For instance, in the European Union, where currency reissue is a very real threat in a reasonably short timeframe, opting for goods rather than cash makes more sense, unless one holds foreign currency such as Swiss francs. If one must hold euros, it would probably be advisable to hold German ones (serial numbers begin with X).

 

US dollars are likely to hold their value for longer than most other currencies, given the dollar’s role as the global reserve currency. Reports of its demise are premature, to put it mildly. As financial crisis picks up momentum, a flight to safety into the reserve currency is likely to pick up speed, raising the value of the dollar against other currencies. In addition, demand for dollars will increase as debtors seek to pay down dollar-denominated debt. While all fiat currencies are ultimately vulnerable in the beggar-thy-neighbour currency wars to come, the US dollar should hold value for longer than most.

Holding cash on the sidelines while prices fall is a good strategy, so long as one does not wait too long. The risks to holding and using cash are likely to grow over time, so it is best viewed as a short term strategy to ride out the deflationary period, where the value of credit instruments is collapsing. The purchasing power of cash will rise during this time, and previously unforeseen opportunities are likely to arise.

Ordinary people need to retain as much of their freedom of action as possible, in order for society to function through a period of economic seizure. In general, the best strategy is to hold cash until the point where the individual in question can afford to purchase the goods they require to provide for their own needs without taking on debt to do so. (Avoiding taking on debt is extremely important, as financially encumbered assets would be subject to repossession in the event of failure to meet debt obligations.)

One must bear in mind, however, that after price falls, some goods may cease to be available at any price, so some essentials may need to be purchased at today’s higher prices in order to guarantee supply.

Capital preservation is an individual responsibility, and during times of deflation, capital must be preserved as liquidity. We cannot expect either governments or private institutions to protect our interests, as both have been obviously undermining the interests of ordinary people in favour of their own for a very long time. Indeed they seem to feel secure enough of their own consolidated control that they do not even bother to try to hide the fact any longer. It is our duty to inform ourselves and act to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. If we do not, no one else will.

Sep 072016
 
 September 7, 2016  Posted by at 1:03 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  10 Responses »
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Lou Stoumen Going to work 8am Times Square, NYC 1940

 

 

This is part 3 of a 4-part series by Nicole Foss entitled “Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash”.

Part 1 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

Part 2 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (2)

Part 4 will follow soon, and at the end we will publish the entire piece in one post.

Here is Nicole:

 

 

 

Promoters, Mechanisms and Risks in the War on Cash

 

Nicole Foss: Bitcoin and other electronic platforms have paved the way psychologically for a shift away from cash, although they have done so by emphasising decentralisation and anonymity rather than the much greater central control which would be inherent in a mainstream electronic currency. The loss of privacy would no doubt be glossed over in any media campaign, as would the risks of cyber-attack and the lack of a fallback for providing liquidity to the economy in the event of a systems crash. Electronic currency is much favoured by techno-optimists, but not so much by those concerned about the risks of absolute structural dependency on technological complexity. The argument regarding greatly reduced socioeconomic resilience is particularly noteworthy, given the vulnerability and potential fragility of electronic systems.

There is an important distinction to be made between official electronic currency – allowing everyone to hold an account with the central bank — and private electronic currency. It would be official currency which would provide the central control sought by governments and central banks, but if individuals saw central bank accounts as less risky than commercial institutions, which seems highly likely, the extent of the potential funds transfer could crash the existing banking system, causing a bank run in a similar manner as large-scale cash withdrawals would. As the power of money creation is of the highest significance, and that power is currently in private hands, any attempt to threaten that power would almost certainly be met with considerable resistance from powerful parties. Private digital currency would be more compatible with the existing framework, but would not confer all of the control that governments would prefer:

People would convert a very large share of their current bank deposits into official digital money, in effect taking them out of the private banking system. Why might this be a problem? If it’s an acute rush for safety in a crisis, the risk is that private banks may not have enough reserves to honour all the withdrawals. But that is exactly the same risk as with physical cash: it’s often forgotten that it’s central bank reserves, not the much larger quantity of deposits, that banks can convert into cash with the central bank. Both with cash and official e-cash, the way to meet a more severe bank run is for the bank to borrow more reserves from the central bank, posting its various assets as security. In effect, this would mean the central bank taking over the funding of the broader economy in a panic — but that’s just what central banks should do.

A more chronic challenge is that people may prefer the safety of central bank accounts even in normal times. That would destroy private banks’ current deposit-funded model. Is that a bad thing? They would still have a role as direct intermediators between savers and borrowers, by offering investment products sufficiently attractive for people to get out of the safety of e-cash. Meanwhile, the broad money supply would be more directly under the control of the central bank, whereas now it’s a product of the vagaries of private lending decisions. The more of the broad money supply that was in the form of official digital cash, the easier it would be, for example, for the central bank to use tools such as negative interest rates or helicopter drops.

As an indication that the interests of the private banking system and public central authorities are not always aligned, consider the actions of the Bavarian Banking Association in attempting to avoid the imposition of negative interest rates on reserves held with the ECB:

German newspaper Der Spiegel reported yesterday that the Bavarian Banking Association has recommended that its member banks start stockpiling PHYSICAL CASH. The Bavarian Banking Association has had enough of this financial dictatorship. Their new recommendation is for all member banks to ditch the ECB and instead start keeping their excess reserves in physical cash, stored in their own bank vaults. This is officially an all-out revolution of the financial system where banks are now actively rebelling against the central bank. (What’s even more amazing is that this concept of traditional banking — holding physical cash in a bank vault — is now considered revolutionary and radical.)

There’s just one teensy tiny problem: there simply is not enough physical cash in the entire financial system to support even a tiny fraction of the demand. Total bank deposits exceed trillions of euros. Physical cash constitutes just a small percentage of that sum. So if German banks do start hoarding physical currency, there won’t be any left in the financial system. This will force the ECB to choose between two options:

  1. Support this rebellion and authorize the issuance of more physical cash; or

  2. Impose capital controls.

Given that just two weeks ago the President of the ECB spoke about the possibility of banning some higher denomination cash notes, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Advantages of official electronic currency to governments and central banks are clear. All transactions are transparent, and all can be subject to fees and taxes. Central control over the money supply would be greatly increased and tax evasion would be difficult to impossible, at least for ordinary people. Capital controls would be built right into the system, and personal spending information would be conveniently gathered for inspection by central authorities (for cross-correlation with other personal data they possess). The first step would likely be to set up a dual system, with both cash and electronic money in parallel use, but with electronic money as the defined unit of value and cash subject to a marginally disadvantageous exchange rate.

The exchange rate devaluing cash in relation to electronic money could increase over time, in order to incentivize people to switch away from seeing physical cash as a store of value, and to increase their preference for goods over cash. In addition to providing an active incentive, the use of cash would probably be publicly disparaged as well as actively discouraged in many ways. For instance, key functions such as tax payments could be designated as by electronic remittance only. The point would be to forced everyone into the system by depriving them of the choice to opt out. Once all were captured, many forms of central control would be possible, including substantial account haircuts if central authorities deemed them necessary.

 

 

The main promoters of cash elimination in favour of electronic currency are Willem Buiter, Kenneth Rogoff, and Miles Kimball.

Economist Willem Buiter has been pushing for the relegation of cash, at least the removal of its status as official unit of account, since the financial crisis of 2008. He suggests a number of mechanisms for achieving the transition to electronic money, emphasising the need for the electronic currency to become the definitive unit of account in order to implement substantially negative interest rates:

The first method does away with currency completely. This has the additional benefit of inconveniencing the main users of currency-operators in the grey, black and outright criminal economies. Adequate substitutes for the legitimate uses of currency, on which positive or negative interest could be paid, are available. The second approach, proposed by Gesell, is to tax currency by making it subject to an expiration date. Currency would have to be “stamped” periodically by the Fed to keep it current. When done so, interest (positive or negative) is received or paid.

The third method ends the fixed exchange rate (set at one) between dollar deposits with the Fed (reserves) and dollar bills. There could be a currency reform first. All existing dollar bills and coin would be converted by a certain date and at a fixed exchange rate into a new currency called, say, the rallod. Reserves at the Fed would continue to be denominated in dollars. As long as the Federal Funds target rate is positive or zero, the Fed would maintain the fixed exchange rate between the dollar and the rallod.

When the Fed wants to set the Federal Funds target rate at minus five per cent, say, it would set the forward exchange rate between the dollar and the rallod, the number of dollars that have to be paid today to receive one rallod tomorrow, at five per cent below the spot exchange rate — the number of dollars paid today for one rallod delivered today. That way, the rate of return, expressed in a common unit, on dollar reserves is the same as on rallod currency.

For the dollar interest rate to remain the relevant one, the dollar has to remain the unit of account for setting prices and wages. This can be encouraged by the government continuing to denominate all of its contracts in dollars, including the invoicing and payment of taxes and benefits. Imposing the legal restriction that checkable deposits and other private means of payment cannot be denominated in rallod would help.

In justifying his proposals, he emphasises the importance of combatting criminal activity…

The only domestic beneficiaries from the existence of anonymity-providing currency are the criminal fraternity: those engaged in tax evasion and money laundering, and those wishing to store the proceeds from crime and the means to commit further crimes. Large denomination bank notes are an especially scandalous subsidy to criminal activity and to the grey and black economies.

… over the acknowledged risks of government intrusion in legitimately private affairs:

My good friend and colleague Charles Goodhart responded to an earlier proposal of mine that currency (negotiable bearer bonds with legal tender status) be abolished that this proposal was “appallingly illiberal”. I concur with him that anonymity/invisibility of the citizen vis-a-vis the state is often desirable, given the irrepressible tendency of the state to infringe on our fundamental rights and liberties and given the state’s ever-expanding capacity to do so (I am waiting for the US or UK government to contract Google to link all personal health information to all tax information, information on cross-border travel, social security information, census information, police records, credit records, and information on personal phone calls, internet use and internet shopping habits).

In his seminal 2014 paper “Costs and Benefits to Phasing Out Paper Currency.”, Kenneth Rogoff also argues strongly for the primacy of electronic currency and the elimination of physical cash as an escape route:

Paper currency has two very distinct properties that should draw our attention. First, it is precisely the existence of paper currency that makes it difficult for central banks to take policy interest rates much below zero, a limitation that seems to have become increasingly relevant during this century. As Blanchard et al. (2010) point out, today’s environment of low and stable inflation rates has drastically pushed down the general level of interest rates. The low overall level, combined with the zero bound, means that central banks cannot cut interest rates nearly as much as they might like in response to large deflationary shocks.

If all central bank liabilities were electronic, paying a negative interest on reserves (basically charging a fee) would be trivial. But as long as central banks stand ready to convert electronic deposits to zero-interest paper currency in unlimited amounts, it suddenly becomes very hard to push interest rates below levels of, say, -0.25 to -0.50 percent, certainly not on a sustained basis. Hoarding cash may be inconvenient and risky, but if rates become too negative, it becomes worth it.

However, he too notes associated risks:

Another argument for maintaining paper currency is that it pays to have a diversity of technologies and not to become overly dependent on an electronic grid that may one day turn out to be very vulnerable. Paper currency diversifies the transactions system and hardens it against cyber attack, EMP blasts, etc. This argument, however, seems increasingly less relevant because economies are so totally exposed to these problems anyway. With paper currency being so marginalized already in the legal economy in many countries, it is hard to see how it could be brought back quickly, particularly if ATM machines were compromised at the same time as other electronic systems.

A different type of argument against eliminating currency relates to civil liberties. In a world where society’s mores and customs evolve, it is important to tolerate experimentation at the fringes. This is potentially a very important argument, though the problem might be mitigated if controls are placed on the government’s use of information (as is done say with tax information), and the problem might also be ameliorated if small bills continue to circulate. Last but not least, if any country attempts to unilaterally reduce the use of its currency, there is a risk that another country’s currency would be used within domestic borders.

Miles Kimball’s proposals are very much in tune with Buiter and Rogoff:

There are two key parts to Miles Kimball’s solution. The first part is to make electronic money or deposits the sole unit of account. Everything else would be priced in terms of electronic dollars, including paper dollars. The second part is that the fixed exchange rate that now exists between deposits and paper dollars would become variable. This crawling peg between deposits and paper currency would be based on the state of the economy. When the economy was in a slump and the central bank needed to set negative interest rates to restore full employment, the peg would adjust so that paper currency would lose value relative to electronic money. This would prevent folks from rushing to paper currency as interest rates turned negative. Once the economy started improving, the crawling peg would start adjusting toward parity.

This approach views the economy in very mechanistic terms, as if it were a machine where pulling a lever would have a predictable linear effect — make holding savings less attractive and automatically consumption will increase. This is actually a highly simplistic view, resting on the notions of stabilising negative feedback and bringing an economy ‘back into equilibrium’. If it were so simple to control an economy centrally, there would never have been deflationary spirals or economic depressions in the past.

Assuming away the more complex aspects of human behaviour — a flight to safety, the compulsion to save for a rainy day when conditions are unstable, or the natural response to a negative ‘wealth effect’ — leads to a model divorced from reality. Taxing savings does not necessarily lead to increased consumption, in fact it is far more likely to have the opposite effect.:

But under Miles Kimball’s proposal, the Fed would lower interest rates to below zero by taxing away balances of e-currency. This is a reduction in monetary base, just like the case of IOR, and by itself would be contractionary, not expansionary. The expansionary effects of Kimball’s policy depend on the assumption that households will increase consumption in response to the taxing of their cash savings, rather than letting their savings depreciate.

That needn’t be the case — it depends on the relative magnitudes of income and substitution effects for real money balances. The substitution effect is what Kimball has in mind — raising the price of real money balances will induce substitution out of money and into consumption. But there’s also an income effect, whereby the loss of wealth induces less consumption and more savings. Thus, negative interest rate policy can be contractionary even though positive interest rate policy is expansionary.

Indeed, what Kimball has proposed amounts to a reverse Bernanke Helicopter — imagine a giant vacuum flying around the country sucking money out of people’s pockets. Why would we assume that this would be inflationary?

 

 

Given that the effect on the money supply would be contractionary, the supposed stimulus effect on the velocity of money (as, in theory, savings turn into consumption in order to avoid the negative interest rate penalty) would have to be large enough to outweigh a contracting money supply. In some ways, modern proponents of electronic money bearing negative interest rates are attempting to copy Silvio Gesell’s early 20th century work. Gesell proposed the use of stamp scrip — money that had to be regularly stamped, at a small cost, in order to remain current. The effect would be for money to lose value over time, so that hoarding currency it would make little sense. Consumption would, in theory, be favoured, so money would be kept in circulation.

This idea was implemented to great effect in the Austrian town of Wörgl during the Great Depression, where the velocity of money increased sufficiently to allow a hive of economic activity to develop (temporarily) in the previously depressed town. Despite the similarities between current proposals and Gesell’s model applied in Wörgl, there are fundamental differences:

There is a critical difference, however, between the Wörgl currency and the modern-day central bankers’ negative interest scheme. The Wörgl government first issued its new “free money,” getting it into the local economy and increasing purchasing power, before taxing a portion of it back. And the proceeds of the stamp tax went to the city, to be used for the benefit of the taxpayers….Today’s central bankers are proposing to tax existing money, diminishing spending power without first building it up. And the interest will go to private bankers, not to the local government.

The Wörgl experiment was a profoundly local initiative, instigated at the local government level by the mayor. In contrast, modern proposals for negative interest rates would operate at a much larger scale and would be imposed on the population in accordance with the interests of those at the top of the financial foodchain. Instead of being introduced for the direct benefit of those who pay, as stamp scrip was in Wörgl, it would tax the people in the economic periphery for the continued benefit of the financial centre. As such it would amount to just another attempt to perpetuate the current system, and to do so at a scale far beyond the trust horizon.

As the trust horizon contracts in times of economic crisis, effective organizational scale will also contract, leaving large organizations (both public and private) as stranded assets from a trust perspective, and therefore lacking in political legitimacy. Large scale, top down solutions will be very difficult to implement. It is not unusual for the actions of central authorities to have the opposite of the desired effect under such circumstances:

Consumers today already have very little discretionary money. Imposing negative interest without first adding new money into the economy means they will have even less money to spend. This would be more likely to prompt them to save their scarce funds than to go on a shopping spree. People are not keeping their money in the bank today for the interest (which is already nearly non-existent). It is for the convenience of writing checks, issuing bank cards, and storing their money in a “safe” place. They would no doubt be willing to pay a modest negative interest for that convenience; but if the fee got too high, they might pull their money out and save it elsewhere. The fee itself, however, would not drive them to buy things they did not otherwise need.

People would be very likely to respond to negative interest rates by self-organising alternative means of exchange, rather than bowing to the imposition of negative rates. Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies would be one possibility, as would using foreign currency, using trading goods as units of value, or developing local alternative currencies along the lines of the Wörgl model:

The use of sheep, bottled water, and cigarettes as media of exchange in Iraqi rural villages after the US invasion and collapse of the dinar is one recent example. Another example was Argentina after the collapse of the peso, when grain contracts priced in dollars were regularly exchanged for big-ticket items like automobiles, trucks, and farm equipment. In fact, Argentine farmers began hoarding grain in silos to substitute for holding cash balances in the form of depreciating pesos.

 

 

For the electronic money model grounded in negative interest rates to work, all these alternatives would have to be made illegal, or at least hampered to the point of uselessness, so people would have no other legal choice but to participate in the electronic system. Rogoff seems very keen to see this happen:

Won’t the private sector continually find new ways to make anonymous transfers that sidestep government restrictions? Certainly. But as long as the government keeps playing Whac-A-Mole and prevents these alternative vehicles from being easily used at retail stores or banks, they won’t be able fill the role that cash plays today. Forcing criminals and tax evaders to turn to riskier and more costly alternatives to cash will make their lives harder and their enterprises less profitable.

It is very likely that in times of crisis, people would do what they have to do regardless of legal niceties. While it may be possible to close off some alternative options with legal sanctions, it is unlikely that all could be prevented, or even enough to avoid the electronic system being fatally undermined.

The other major obstacle would be overcoming the preference for cash over goods in times of crisis:

Understanding how negative rates may or may not help economic growth is much more complex than most central bankers and investors probably appreciate. Ultimately the confusion resides around differences in view on the theory of money. In a classical world, money supply multiplied by a constant velocity of circulation equates to nominal growth.

In a Keynesian world, velocity is not necessarily constant — specifically for Keynes, there is a money demand function (liquidity preference) and therefore a theory of interest that allows for a liquidity trap whereby increasing money supply does not lead to higher nominal growth as the increase in money is hoarded. The interest rate (or inverse of the price of bonds) becomes sticky because at low rates, for infinitesimal expectations of any further rise in bond prices and a further fall in interest rates, demand for money tends to infinity.

In Gesell’s world money supply itself becomes inversely correlated with velocity of circulation due to money characteristics being superior to goods (or commodities). There are costs to storage that money does not have and so interest on money capital sets a bar to interest on real capital that produces goods. This is similar to Keynes’ concept of the marginal efficiency of capital schedule being separate from the interest rate. For Gesell the product of money and velocity is effective demand (nominal growth) but because of money capital’s superiority to real capital, if money supply expands it comes at the expense of velocity.

The new money supply is hoarded because as interest rates fall, expected returns on capital also fall through oversupply — for economic agents goods remain unattractive to money. The demand for money thus rises as velocity slows. This is simply a deflation spiral, consumers delaying purchases of goods, hoarding money, expecting further falls in goods prices before they are willing to part with their money….In a Keynesian world of deficient demand, the burden is on fiscal policy to restore demand. Monetary policy simply won’t work if there is a liquidity trap and demand for cash is infinite.

During the era of globalisation (since the financial liberalisation of the early 1980s), extractive capitalism in debt-driven over-drive has created perverse incentives to continually increase supply. Financial bubbles, grounded in the rediscovery of excess leverage, always act to create an artificial demand stimulus, which is met by artificially inflated supply during the boom phase. The value of the debt created collapses as boom turns into bust, crashing the money supply, and with it asset price support. Not only does the artificial stimulus disappear, but a demand undershoot develops, leaving all that supply without a market. Over the full cycle of a bubble and its aftermath, credit is demand neutral, but within the bubble it is anything but neutral. Forward shifting the demand curve provides for an orgy of present consumption and asset price increases, which is inevitably followed by the opposite.

Kimball stresses bringing demand forward as a positive aspect of his model:

In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.)

That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory. But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.

This is, however, a short-sighted assessment. Stimulating demand today means a demand undershoot tomorrow. Kimball names long term price stability as a primary goal, but this seems unlikely. Large scale central planning has a poor track record for success, to put it mildly. It requires the central authority in question to have access to all necessary information in realtime, and to have the ability to respond to that information both wisely and rapidly, or even proactively. It also assumes the ability to accurately filter out misinformation and disinformation. This is unlikely even in good times, thanks to the difficulties of ‘organizational stupidity’ at large scale, and even more improbable in the times of crisis.

Sep 052016
 
 September 5, 2016  Posted by at 1:16 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  13 Responses »
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Berenice Abbott Broad St., NYC 1936

 

 

This is part 2 of a 4-part series by Nicole Foss entitled “Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash”.

Part 1 is here: Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

Parts 3 and 4 will follow in the next few days, and at the end we will publish the entire piece in one post.

Here, once again, is Nicole:

 

 

 

Closing the Escape Routes

 

Nicole Foss: History teaches us that central authorities dislike escape routes, at least for the majority, and are therefore prone to closing them, so that control of a limited money supply can remain in the hands of the very few. In the 1930s, gold was the escape route, so gold was confiscated. As Alan Greenspan wrote in 1966:

In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through monetary inflation. There is no safe store of value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding illegal, as was done in the case of gold. If everyone decided, for example, to convert all his bank deposits to silver or copper or any other good, and thereafter declined to accept checks as payment for goods, bank deposits would lose their purchasing power and government-created bank credit would be worthless as a claim on goods.

The existence of escape routes for capital preservation undermines the viability of the banking system, which is already over-extended, over-leveraged and extremely fragile. This time cash serves that role:

Ironically, though the paper money standard that replaced the gold standard was originally meant to empower governments, it now seems that paper money is perceived as an obstacle to unlimited government power….While paper money isn’t as big impediment to government power as the gold standard was, it is nevertheless an impediment compared to a society with only electronic money. Because of this, the more ardent statists favor the abolition of paper money and a monetary system with only electronic money and electronic payments.

We can therefore expect cash to be increasingly disparaged in order to justify its intended elimination:

Every day, a situation that requires the use of physical cash, feels more and more like an anachronism. It’s like having to listen to music on a CD. John Maynard Keynes famously referred to gold (well, the gold standard specifically) as a “barbarous relic.” Well the new barbarous relic is physical cash. Like gold, cash is physical money. Like gold, cash is still fetishized. And like gold, cash is a costly drain on the economy. A study done at Tufts in 2013 estimated that cash costs the economy $200 billion. Their study included the nugget that consumers spend, on average, 28 minutes per month just traveling to the point where they obtain cash (ATM, etc.). But this is just first-order problem with cash. The real problem, which economists are starting to recognize, is that paper cash is an impediment to effective monetary policy, and therefore economic growth.

Holding cash is not risk free, but cash is nevertheless king in a period of deflation:

Conventional wisdom is that interest rates earned on investments are never less than zero because investors could alternatively hold currency. Yet currency is not costless to hold: It is subject to theft and physical destruction, is expensive to safeguard in large amounts, is difficult to use for large and remote transactions, and, in large quantities, may be monitored by governments.

The acknowledged risks of holding cash are understood and can be managed personally, whereas the substantial risk associated with a systemic banking crisis are entirely outside the control of ordinary depositors. The bank bail-in (rescuing the bank with the depositors’ funds) in Cyprus in early 2013 was a warning sign, to those who were paying attention, that holding money in a bank is not necessarily safe. The capital controls put in place in other locations, for instance Greece, also underline that cash in a bank may not be accessible when needed.

The majority of the developed world either already has, or is introducing, legislation to require depositor bail-ins in the event of bank failures, rather than taxpayer bailouts, in preparation for many more Cyprus-type events, but on a very much larger scale. People are waking up to the fact that a bank balance is not considered their money, but is actually an unsecured loan to the bank, which the bank may or may not repay, depending on its own circumstances.:

Your checking account balance is denominated in dollars, but it does not consist of actual dollars. It represents a promise by a private company (your bank) to pay dollars upon demand. If you write a check, your bank may or may not be able to honor that promise. The poor souls who kept their euros in the form of large balances in Cyprus banks have just learned this lesson the hard way. If they had been holding their euros in the form of currency, they would have not lost their wealth.

 

 

Even in relatively untroubled countries, like the UK, it is becoming more difficult to access physical cash in a bank account or to use it for larger purchases. Notice of intent to withdraw may be required, and withdrawal limits may be imposed ‘for your own protection’. Reasons for the withdrawal may be required, ostensibly to combat money laundering and the black economy:

It’s one thing to be required by law to ask bank customers or parties in a cash transaction to explain where their money came from; it’s quite another to ask them how they intend to use the money they wish to withdraw from their own bank accounts. As one Mr Cotton, a HSBC customer, complained to the BBC’s Money Box programme: “I’ve been banking in that bank for 28 years. They all know me in there. You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

In France, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks there, several anti-cash measures were passed, restricting the use of cash once obtained:

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin brazenly stated that it was necessary to “fight against the use of cash and anonymity in the French economy.” He then announced extreme and despotic measures to further restrict the use of cash by French residents and to spy on and pry into their financial affairs.

These measures…..include prohibiting French residents from making cash payments of more than 1,000 euros, down from the current limit of 3,000 euros….The threshold below which a French resident is free to convert euros into other currencies without having to show an identity card will be slashed from the current level of 8,000 euros to 1,000 euros. In addition any cash deposit or withdrawal of more than 10,000 euros during a single month will be reported to the French anti-fraud and money laundering agency Tracfin.

Tourists in France may also be caught in the net:

France passed another new Draconian law; from the summer of 2015, it will now impose cash requirements dramatically trying to eliminate cash by force. French citizens and tourists will only be allowed a limited amount of physical money. They have financial police searching people on trains just passing through France to see if they are transporting cash, which they will now seize.

This is essentially the Shock Doctrine in action. Central authorities rarely pass up an opportunity to use a crisis to add to their repertoire of repressive laws and practices.

However, even without a specific crisis to draw on as a justification, many other countries have also restricted the use of cash for purchases:

One way they are waging the War on Cash is to lower the threshold at which reporting a cash transaction is mandatory or at which paying in cash is simply illegal. In just the last few years.

  • Italy made cash transactions over €1,000 illegal;
  • Switzerland has proposed banning cash payments in excess of 100,000 francs;
  • Russia banned cash transactions over $10,000;
  • Spain banned cash transactions over €2,500;
  • Mexico made cash payments of more than 200,000 pesos illegal;
  • Uruguay banned cash transactions over $5,000

Other restrictions on the use of cash can be more subtle, but can have far-reaching effects, especially if the ideas catch on and are widely applied:

The State of Louisiana banned “secondhand dealers” from making more than one cash transaction per week. The term has a broad definition and includes Goodwill stores, specialty stores that sell collectibles like baseball cards, flea markets, garage sales and so on. Anyone deemed a “secondhand dealer” is forbidden to accept cash as payment. They are allowed to take only electronic means of payment or a check, and they must collect the name and other information about each customer and send it to the local police department electronically every day.

The increasing application of de facto capital controls, when combined with the prevailing low interest rates, already convince many to hold cash. The possibility of negative rates would greatly increase the likelihood. We are already in an environment of rapidly declining trust, and limited access to what we still perceive as our own funds only accelerates the process in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. More withdrawals lead to more controls, which increase fear and decrease trust, which leads to more withdrawals. This obviously undermines the perceived power of monetary policy to stimulate the economy, hence the escape route is already quietly closing.

In a deflationary spiral, where the money supply is crashing, very little money is in circulation and prices are consequently falling almost across the board, possessing purchasing power provides for the freedom to pursue opportunities as they present themselves, and to avoid being backed into a corner. The purchasing power of cash increases during deflation, even as electronic purchasing power evaporates. Hence cash represents freedom of action at a time when that will be the rarest of ‘commodities’.

Governments greatly dislike cash, and increasingly treat its use, or the desire to hold it, especially in large denominations, with great suspicion:

Why would a central bank want to eliminate cash? For the same reason as you want to flatten interest rates to zero: to force people to spend or invest their money in the risky activities that revive growth, rather than hoarding it in the safest place. Calls for the eradication of cash have been bolstered by evidence that high-value notes play a major role in crime, terrorism and tax evasion. In a study for the Harvard Business School last week, former bank boss Peter Sands called for global elimination of the high-value note.

Britain’s “monkey” — the £50 — is low-value compared with its foreign-currency equivalents, and constitutes a small proportion of the cash in circulation. By contrast, Japan’s ¥10,000 note (worth roughly £60) makes up a startling 92% of all cash in circulation; the Swiss 1,000-franc note (worth around £700) likewise. Sands wants an end to these notes plus the $100 bill, and the €500 note – known in underworld circles as the “Bin Laden”.

 

 

Cash is largely anonymous, untraceable and uncontrollable, hence it makes central authorities, in a system increasingly requiring total buy-in in order to function, extremely uncomfortable. They regard there being no legitimate reason to own more than a small amount of it in physical form, as its ownership or use raises the spectre of tax evasion or other illegal activities:

The insidious nature of the war on cash derives not just from the hurdles governments place in the way of those who use cash, but also from the aura of suspicion that has begun to pervade private cash transactions. In a normal market economy, businesses would welcome taking cash. After all, what business would willingly turn down customers? But in the war on cash that has developed in the thirty years since money laundering was declared a federal crime, businesses have had to walk a fine line between serving customers and serving the government. And since only one of those two parties has the power to shut down a business and throw business owners and employees into prison, guess whose wishes the business owner is going to follow more often?

The assumption on the part of government today is that possession of large amounts of cash is indicative of involvement in illegal activity. If you’re traveling with thousands of dollars in cash and get pulled over by the police, don’t be surprised when your money gets seized as “suspicious.” And if you want your money back, prepare to get into a long, drawn-out court case requiring you to prove that you came by that money legitimately, just because the courts have decided that carrying or using large amounts of cash is reasonable suspicion that you are engaging in illegal activity….

….Centuries-old legal protections have been turned on their head in the war on cash. Guilt is assumed, while the victims of the government’s depredations have to prove their innocence….Those fortunate enough to keep their cash away from the prying hands of government officials find it increasingly difficult to use for both business and personal purposes, as wads of cash always arouse suspicion of drug dealing or other black market activity. And so cash continues to be marginalized and pushed to the fringes.

Despite the supposed connection between crime and the holding of physical cash, the places where people are most inclined (and able) to store cash do not conform to the stereotype at all:

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens responding rationally to monetary policy. The Swiss National Bank introduced negative interest rates in December 2014. The aim was to drive money out of banks and into the economy, but that only works to the extent that savers find attractive places to spend or invest their money. With economic growth an anemic 1%, many Swiss withdrew cash from the bank and stashed it at home or in safe-deposit boxes. High-denomination notes are naturally preferred for this purpose, so circulation of 1,000-franc notes (worth about $1,010) rose 17% last year. They now account for 60% of all bills in circulation and are worth almost as much as Serbia’s GDP.

Japan, where banks pay infinitesimally low interest on deposits, is a similar story. Demand for the highest-denomination ¥10,000 notes rose 6.2% last year, the largest jump since 2002. But 10,000 Yen notes are worth only about $88, so hiding places fill up fast. That explains why Japanese went on a safe-buying spree last month after the Bank of Japan announced negative interest rates on some reserves. Stores reported that sales of safes rose as much as 250%, and shares of safe-maker Secom spiked 5.3% in one week.

In Germany too, negative interest rates are considered intolerable, banks are increasingly being seen as risky prospects, and physical cash under one’s own control is coming to be seen as an essential part of a forward-thinking financial strategy:

First it was the news that Raiffeisen Gmund am Tegernsee, a German cooperative savings bank in the Bavarian village of Gmund am Tegernsee, with a population 5,767, finally gave in to the ECB’s monetary repression, and announced it’ll start charging retail customers to hold their cash. Then, just last week, Deutsche Bank’s CEO came about as close to shouting fire in a crowded negative rate theater, when, in a Handelsblatt Op-Ed, he warned of “fatal consequences” for savers in Germany and Europe — to be sure, being the CEO of the world’s most systemically risky bank did not help his cause.

That was the last straw, and having been patient long enough, the German public has started to move. According to the WSJ, German savers are leaving the “security of savings banks” for what many now consider an even safer place to park their cash: home safes. We wondered how many “fatal” warnings from the CEO of DB it would take, before this shift would finally take place. As it turns out, one was enough….

….“It doesn’t pay to keep money in the bank, and on top of that you’re being taxed on it,” said Uwe Wiese, an 82-year-old pensioner who recently bought a home safe to stash roughly €53,000 ($59,344), including part of his company pension that he took as a payout. Burg-Waechter KG, Germany’s biggest safe manufacturer, posted a 25% jump in sales of home safes in the first half of this year compared with the year earlier, said sales chief Dietmar Schake, citing “significantly higher demand for safes by private individuals, mainly in Germany.”….

….Unlike their more “hip” Scandinavian peers, roughly 80% of German retail transactions are in cash, almost double the 46% rate of cash use in the U.S., according to a 2014 Bundesbank survey….Germany’s love of cash is driven largely by its anonymity. One legacy of the Nazis and East Germany’s Stasi secret police is a fear of government snooping, and many Germans are spooked by proposals of banning cash transactions that exceed €5,000. Many Germans think the ECB’s plan to phase out the €500 bill is only the beginning of getting rid of cash altogether. And they are absolutely right; we can only wish more Americans showed the same foresight as the ordinary German….

….Until that moment, however, as a final reminder, in a fractional reserve banking system, only the first ten or so percent of those who “run” to the bank to obtain possession of their physical cash and park it in the safe will succeed. Everyone else, our condolences.

The internal stresses are building rapidly, stretching economy after economy to breaking point and prompting aware individuals to protect themselves proactively:

People react to these uncertainties by trying to protect themselves with cash and guns, and governments respond by trying to limit citizens’ ability to do so.

If this play has a third act, it will involve the abolition of cash in some major countries, the rise of various kinds of black markets (silver coins, private-label cash, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin) that bypass traditional banking systems, and a surge in civil unrest, as all those guns are put to use. The speed with which cash, safes and guns are being accumulated — and the simultaneous intensification of the war on cash — imply that the stress is building rapidly, and that the third act may be coming soon.

Despite growing acceptance of electronic payment systems, getting rid of cash altogether is likely to be very challenging, particularly as the fear and state of financial crisis that drives people into cash hoarding is very close to reasserting itself. Cash has a very long history, and enjoys greater trust than other abstract means for denominating value. It is likely to prove tenacious, and unable to be eliminated peacefully. That is not to suggest central authorities will not try. At the heart of financial crisis lies the problem of excess claims to underlying real wealth. The bursting of the global bubble will eliminate the vast majority of these, as the value of credit instruments, hitherto considered to be as good as money, will plummet on the realisation that nowhere near all financial promises made can possibly be kept.

Cash would then represent the a very much larger percentage of the remaining claims to limited actual resources — perhaps still in excess of the available resources and therefore subject to haircuts. Not only the quantity of outstanding cash, but also its distribution, may not be to central authorities liking. There are analogous precedents for altering legal currency in order to dispossess ordinary people trying to protect their stores of value, depriving them of the benefit of their foresight. During the Russian financial crisis of 1998, cash was not eliminated in favour of an electronic alternative, but the currency was reissued, which had a similar effect. People were required to convert their life savings (often held ‘under the mattress’) from the old currency to the new. This was then made very difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people, and many lost the entirety of their life savings as a result.

 

A Cashless Society?

 

The greater the public’s desire to hold cash to protect themselves, the greater will be the incentive for central banks and governments to restrict its availability, reduce its value or perhaps eliminate it altogether in favour of electronic-only payment systems. In addition to commercial banks already complicating the process of making withdrawals, central banks are actively considering, as a first step, mechanisms to impose negative interest rates on physical cash, so as to make the escape route appear less attractive:

Last September, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, openly pondered ways of imposing negative interest rates on cash — ie shrinking its value automatically. You could invalidate random banknotes, using their serial numbers. There are £63bn worth of notes in circulation in the UK: if you wanted to lop 1% off that, you could simply cancel half of all fivers without warning. A second solution would be to establish an exchange rate between paper money and the digital money in our bank accounts. A fiver deposited at the bank might buy you a £4.95 credit in your account.

 

 

To put it mildly, invalidating random banknotes would be highly likely to result in significant social blowback, and to accelerate the evaporation of trust in governing authorities of all kinds. It would be far more likely for financial authorities to move toward making official electronic money the standard by which all else is measured. People are already used to using electronic money in the form of credit and debit cards and mobile phone money transfers:

I can remember the moment I realised the era of cash could soon be over. It was Australia Day on Bondi Beach in 2014. In a busy liquor store, a man wearing only swimming shorts, carrying only a mobile phone and a plastic card, was delaying other people’s transactions while he moved 50 Australian dollars into his current account on his phone so that he could buy beer. The 30-odd youngsters in the queue behind him barely murmured; they’d all been in the same predicament. I doubt there was a banknote or coin between them….The possibility of a cashless society has come at us with a rush: contactless payment is so new that the little ping the machine makes can still feel magical. But in some shops, especially those that cater for the young, a customer reaching for a banknote already produces an automatic frown. Among central bankers, that frown has become a scowl.

In some states almost anything, no matter how small, can be purchased electronically. Everything down to, and including, a cup of coffee from a roadside stall can be purchased in New Zealand with an EFTPOS (debit) card, hence relatively few people carry cash. In Scandinavian countries, there are typically more electronic payment options than cash options:

Sweden became the first country to enlist its own citizens as largely willing guinea pigs in a dystopian economic experiment: negative interest rates in a cashless society. As Credit Suisse reports, no matter where you go or what you want to purchase, you will find a small ubiquitous sign saying “Vi hanterar ej kontanter” (“We don’t accept cash”)….A similar situation is unfolding in Denmark, where nearly 40% of the paying demographic use MobilePay, a Danske Bank app that allows all payments to be completed via smartphone.

Even street vendors selling “Situation Stockholm”, the local version of the UK’s “Big Issue” are also able to take payments by debit or credit card.

 

 

Ironically, cashlessness is also becoming entrenched in some African countries. One might think that electronic payments would not be possible in poor and unstable subsistence societies, but mobile phones are actually very common in such places, and means for electronic payments are rapidly becoming the norm:

While Sweden and Denmark may be the two nations that are closest to banning cash outright, the most important testing ground for cashless economics is half a world away, in sub-Saharan Africa. In many African countries, going cashless is not merely a matter of basic convenience (as it is in Scandinavia); it is a matter of basic survival. Less than 30% of the population have bank accounts, and even fewer have credit cards. But almost everyone has a mobile phone. Now, thanks to the massive surge in uptake of mobile communications as well as the huge numbers of unbanked citizens, Africa has become the perfect place for the world’s biggest social experiment with cashless living.

Western NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks, telecom companies and local authorities to replace cash with mobile money alternatives. The organizations involved include Citi Group, Mastercard, VISA, Vodafone, USAID, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In Kenya the funds transferred by the biggest mobile money operator, M-Pesa (a division of Vodafone), account for more than 25% of the country’s GDP. In Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, the government launched a Mastercard-branded biometric national ID card, which also doubles up as a payment card. The “service” provides Mastercard with direct access to over 170 million potential customers, not to mention all their personal and biometric data. The company also recently won a government contract to design the Huduma Card, which will be used for paying State services. For Mastercard these partnerships with government are essential for achieving its lofty vision of creating a “world beyond cash.”

Countries where electronic payment is already the norm would be expected to be among the first places to experiment with a fully cashless society as the transition would be relatively painless (at least initially). In Norway two major banks no longer issue cash from branch offices, and recently the largest bank, DNB, publicly called for the abolition of cash. In rich countries, the advent of a cashless society could be spun in the media in such a way as to appear progressive, innovative, convenient and advantageous to ordinary people. In poor countries, people would have no choice in any case.

Testing and developing the methods in societies with no alternatives and then tantalizing the inhabitants of richer countries with more of the convenience to which they have become addicted is the clear path towards extending the reach of electronic payment systems and the much greater financial control over individuals that they offer:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in its 2015 annual letter, adds a new twist. The technologies are all in place; it’s just a question of getting us to use them so we can all benefit from a crimeless, privacy-free world. What better place to conduct a massive social experiment than sub-Saharan Africa, where NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks and telecom companies to replace cash with mobile money alternatives? So the annual letter explains: “(B)ecause there is strong demand for banking among the poor, and because the poor can in fact be a profitable customer base, entrepreneurs in developing countries are doing exciting work – some of which will “trickle up” to developed countries over time.”

What the Foundation doesn’t mention is that it is heavily invested in many of Africa’s mobile-money initiatives and in 2010 teamed up with the World Bank to “improve financial data collection” among Africa’s poor. One also wonders whether Microsoft might one day benefit from the Foundation’s front-line role in mobile money….As a result of technological advances and generational priorities, cash’s days may well be numbered. But there is a whole world of difference between a natural death and euthanasia. It is now clear that an extremely powerful, albeit loose, alliance of governments, banks, central banks, start-ups, large corporations, and NGOs are determined to pull the plug on cash — not for our benefit, but for theirs.

Whatever the superficially attractive media spin, joint initiatives like the Better Than Cash Alliance serve their founders, not the public. This should not come as a surprise, but it probably will as we sleepwalk into giving up very important freedoms:

As I warned in We Are Sleepwalking Towards a Cashless Society, we (or at least the vast majority of people in the vast majority of countries) are willing to entrust government and financial institutions — organizations that have already betrayed just about every possible notion of trust — with complete control over our every single daily transaction. And all for the sake of a few minor gains in convenience. The price we pay will be what remains of our individual freedom and privacy.