Oct 122017
 
 October 12, 2017  Posted by at 2:26 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  5 Responses »
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Fan Ho East meets west 1963

 

For those of you who don’t know Andy Xie, he’s an MIT-educated former IMF economist and was once Morgan Stanley’s chief Asia-Pacific economist. Xie is known for a bearish view of China, and not Beijing’s favorite person. He’s now an ‘independent’ economist based in Shanghai. He gained respect for multiple bubble predictions, including the 1997 Asian crisis and the 2008 US subprime crisis.

Andy Xie posted an article in the South China Morning Post a few days ago that warrants attention. Quite a lot of it, actually. In it, he mentions some pretty stunning numbers and predictions. Perhaps most significant are:

“only China can restore stability in the global economy”

and

“The festering political tension [in the West] could boil over. Radical politicians aiming for class struggle may rise to the top. The US midterm elections in 2018 and presidential election in 2020 are the events that could upend the applecart.”

Here are some highlights.

 

The bubble economy is set to burst, and US elections may well be the trigger

Central banks continue to focus on consumption inflation, not asset inflation, in their decisions. Their attitude has supported one bubble after another. These bubbles have led to rising inequality and made mass consumer inflation less likely. Since the 2008 financial crisis, asset inflation has fully recovered, and then some.

The US household net worth is 34% above the peak in 2007, versus 30% for nominal GDP. China’s property value may have surpassed the total in the rest of the world combined. The world is stuck in a vicious cycle of asset bubbles, low consumer inflation, stagnant productivity and low wage growth.

Let that sink in. If Xie is right, and I would put my money on that, despite all the housing bubbles elsewhere in the world, the Chinese, who make a lot less money than westerners, have pushed up the ‘value’ of Chinese residential real estate so massively that their homes are now ‘worth’ more than all other houses on the planet. Xie returns to this point later in the article, and says: “In tier-one cities, property costs are likely to be between 50 and 100 years of household income. At the peak of Japan’s property bubble, it was about 20 in Tokyo. “.

We’ll get back to that. But it suggests that Chinese, if they spend half their income on housing, which is probably not that crazy an assumption, must work 100 to 200 years to pay off their mortgages. Again, let that sink in.

The US Federal Reserve has indicated that it will begin to unwind its QE assets this month and raise the interest rate by another 25 basis points to 1.5%. China has been clipping the debt wings of grey rhinos and pouring cold water on property speculation. They are worried about asset bubbles. But, if recent history is any guide, when asset markets begin to tumble, they will reverse their actions and encourage debt binges again. [..] most powerful people in the world operate on flimsy assumptions.

Despite low unemployment and widespread labour shortages, wage increases and inflation in Japan have been around zero for a quarter of a century. Western central bankers assumed that the same wouldn’t happen to them, without understanding the underlying reasons. The loss of competitiveness changes how macro policy works.

The mistaken stimulus has the unintended consequences of dissipating real wealth and increasing inequality. American household net worth is at an all-time high of 5 times GDP, significantly higher than the bubble peaks of 4.1 times in 2000 and 4.7 in 2007, and far higher than the historical norm of three times GDP. On the other hand, US capital formation has stagnated for decades. The outlandish paper wealth is just the same asset at ever higher prices.

That is the very definition of a bubble: “The outlandish paper wealth is just the same asset at ever higher prices.” American household net ‘worth’ is in a huge bubble, some 66% higher than the historical average. And that’s in a time when for many their net worth is way below that average, a time when more than half live paycheck to paycheck and can’t afford medical bills and/or car repair bills without borrowing. And that is the very definition of inequality:

The inflation of paper wealth has a serious impact on inequality. The top 1% in the US owns one-third of the wealth and the top 10% owns three-quarters. Half of the people don’t even own stocks. Asset inflation will increase inequality by definition. Moreover, 90% of the income growth since 2008 has gone to the top 1%, partly due to their ability to cash out in the inflated asset market.

An economy that depends on asset inflation always disproportionately benefits the asset-rich top 1%. [..] Germany and Japan do not have significant asset bubbles. Their inequality is far less than in the Anglo-Saxon economies that have succumbed to the allure of financial speculation.

True, largely, but Japan both has major economic troubles today (deflation), and will have worse ones going forward (demographics). While Germany can unload its losses on the EU periphery (and does). Japan can’t ‘afford’ a housing bubble, its people have refused to raise spending for many years, scared as they are through stagnant wages and falling prices. While Germany doesn’t need a housing bubble to keep its economy growing: it exports whatever’s negative about it to its neighbors. China, however, DOES need bubbles, and blows them with abandon:

While Western central bankers can stop making things worse, only China can restore stability in the global economy. Consider that 800 million Chinese workers have become as productive as their Western counterparts, but are not even close in terms of consumption. This is the fundamental reason for the global imbalance.

Note: as we saw before, while the Chinese may not consume as much as Westerners when it comes to consumer products, they DO -on average- put a far higher percentage of their wages into real estate. And that is because Beijing encourages such behavior. The politburo needs the bubbles to keep things moving. And therefore creates them on purpose. Presumably with the idea that incomes will come up so much that all these homes become more affordable compared to wages. That looks like a big gamble.

Property costs of between 50 and 100 years of household income are not manageable, and rising rates and/or an outright crisis will expose that. And then on top of that, the government wants, needs, an ever bigger take of people’s incomes. Because its whole model is based on its investing in the economy, even if a large part of it is not efficient or profitable.

China’s model is to subsidise investment. The resulting overcapacity inevitably devalues whatever its workers produce. That slows down wage rises and prolongs the deflationary pull. [..] Overinvestment means destroying capital. The model can only be sustained through taxing the household sector to fill the gap.

In addition to taking nearly half of the business labour outlay, China has invented the unique model of taxing the household sector through asset bubbles. The stock market was started with the explicit intention to subsidise state-owned enterprises. The most important asset bubble is the property market. It redistributes about 10% of GDP to the government sector from the household sector. The levies for subsidising investment keep consumption down and make the economy more dependent on investment and export.

In order to prevent a huge real estate crash, Beijing will have to make sure wages rise, across the board, and substantially, for hundreds of millions of people. And there we get back to what Xie said above:

The government finds an ever-increasing need to raise levies and, hence, make the property bubble bigger. In tier-one cities, property costs are likely to be between 50 and 100 years of household income. At the peak of Japan’s property bubble, it was about 20 in Tokyo. China’s residential property value may have surpassed the total in the rest of the world combined.

The 800 million pound elephant here is that what Beijing pushes its citizens to put in real estate, they can no longer spend on other things. Their consumption will flatline or even fall. Unless the Party manages to raise their wages, but it would have to raise them by a lot, because it needs more and more taxes to be paid by the same wages.

And here’s where Andy Xie gets most interesting:

How is this all going to end? Rising interest rates are usually the trigger. But we know the current bubble economy tends to keep inflation low through suppressing mass consumption and increasing overcapacity. It gives central bankers the excuse to keep the printing press on.

In 1929, Joseph Kennedy thought that, when a shoeshine boy was giving stock tips, the market had run out of fools. Today, that shoeshine boy would be a genius. In today’s bubble, central bankers and governments are fools. They can mobilise more resources to become bigger fools. In 2000, the dotcom bubble burst because some firms were caught making up numbers. Today, you don’t need to make up numbers. What one needs is stories.

Those are some pretty impressive insights, and they go way beyond China. Today’s fools are not yesterday’s fools. Only, today’s fools have been given the rights, and the tools, to keep blowing ever larger bubbles. The only conclusion can be that when the bubbles burst, it’ll be much much worse than the Great Depression. And this time, China will blow up along with the west. Take cover!

Hot stocks or property are sold like Hollywood stars. Rumour and innuendo will do the job. Nothing real is necessary. In 2007, structured mortgage products exposed cash-short borrowers. The defaults snowballed. But, in China, leverage is always rolled over. Default is usually considered a political act. And it never snowballs: the government makes sure of it.

Can China continue to roll over its leveraged debt when the west is in crisis, is forced to heavily cut its imports, just as Beijing needs more tax revenue to keep its miracle model alive? WIll it be able to export its over-leverage and over-capacity through the new Silk Road project? It looks very doubtful. And we shouldn’t expect the Party Congress this month to address these issues. They know better.

Xie finishes with most original predictions. Class struggle in the US. It sounds like something straight out of Karl Marx, but perhaps we are already seeing the first signs today.

In the US, the leverage is mostly in the government. It won’t default, because it can print money. The most likely cause for the bubble to burst would be the rising political tension in the West. The bubble economy keeps squeezing the middle class, with more debt and less wages. The festering political tension could boil over. Radical politicians aiming for class struggle may rise to the top. The US midterm elections in 2018 and presidential election in 2020 are the events that could upend the applecart.

Maybe class struggle is something we’ll see first in Europe, both at a national and at a pan-European level. Too many countries keep their systems humming not by being productive, but by encouraging their citizens to sink deeper into debt. Low interest rates may be attractive for signing up to new loans, but the ‘trajectory’ gets shorter all the time, because those same low rates absolutely murder savings and pensions.

The only thing that can keep the whole caboodle from exploding would be absolutely stunning economic growth at least somewhere in the world, but every single somewhere is far too deep in debt for that to happen.

Take cover.

 

 

Oct 092017
 
 October 9, 2017  Posted by at 2:08 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  2 Responses »
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Fan Ho In Paris 1953

 

 

Update: I never did this before, but now I think I must: change the title of an article. “Minsky and Volatility” isn’t nearly as good as “The S&P Is A Bloated Corpse”. Simple, really. The URL will be the same as before

 

 

According to Hyman Minsky, economic stability is not only inevitably followed by instability, it inevitably creates it. Complacent humans being what they are. If he’s right, and would anyone dare doubt it, we’re in for that mushroom cloud on the financial horizon. We know that because market volatility, as measured for instance by the VIX, the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE)’s volatility index, is scraping the depths of the Mariana trench.

Two separate articles at Zero Hedge this weekend, one by NorthmanTrader.com and one by LPLResearch.com, address the issue: it is time to be afraid and wake up. And that is not just true for investors or traders, it’s true for ‘everyone out there’ perhaps even more. Central bank policies, QE and ultra low rates, have distorted the financial system to such an extent -ostensibly in an attempt to save it- that the depressed, compressed volatility these policies have created can only come back to life with a vengeance.

Feel free to picture zombies and/or loss of heartbeat as much as you want; it’s all true. Financial markets haven’t been functioning for years, and there have been no investors either, only gamblers and profiteers, as savers and pensioners have been drawn and quartered. Central bankers have eradicated price discovery, nobody knows what anything is really worth anymore, be it stocks, bonds, housing, gold, bitcoin, you name it.

If you make interest rates ‘magically’ disappear anyone can spend any amount of money on anything they fancy buying. And it’s not just traders and investors either. Scores of people think: look, I can buy a house, others think they can buy a bigger house, many will get into stocks and/or bonds, because prices just keep going up. Even savers and pensioners are drawn into the central bank Ponzi, often in an effort to make up for what they lose when their accumulated wealth no longer pays them any returns. Shoeshine boys are dishing out market tips.

Crypto may or may not be a new tulip, but many Silicon Valley start-ups -increasingly funded by crypto ICO’s- certainly are. There’s so much money sloshing around nobody can tell, or even cares, whether they are actually worth a penny. It’s all based on gossip multiplied by the idea that they will be smart enough to get out in time in case things go awry.

 

People mistakenly think that a market’s heartbeat can be found in for instance rising stock prices, the Dow, the S&P. But that’s simply not true. The S&P is a bloated corpse increasingly filling up with gases that will eventually cause it to explode, with guts and blood and body parts and fluids flying all around.

The US stock market’s heartbeat manifests itself in volatility, and the overall economy’s heartbeat in interest rates. Rising and falling volatility and interest rates is how we know whether a market is in good health, or even alive at all. They are its vital signs.

That follows straight from Minsky. Ultra-low rates and ultra-low volatility, especially if they last for a longer period of time, are signs of trouble. The markets the central banks’ $20+ trillion QE and ZIRP have created are bloated corpses that no longer have a heartbeat. They are zombies. But markets, unlike natural bodies, won’t die, they can’t. They will instead rise from their graves and take over Wall Street, the City, and then everyone else’s street.

Bernanke, Yellen, Draghi and Kuroda are sorcerer’s apprentices and Dr. Frankensteins, who have created walking dead monsters they have no control over. But the monsters won’t turn on them personally; that’s the tragedy here as much as it is the reason why they have worked their sorcery. They themselves won’t go bankrupt, other will. No skin in the game.

Enough with the metaphors. First, here’s NorthmanTrader:

 

Flatliners

In the movie Flatliners aspiring medical doctors tried to unlock the mysteries of death by, well, killing themselves. It was meant to be a controlled death of course, to flat line on the heart rate monitor for a few minutes to find out what wonders where to be found “on the other side” only to then return safe & sound thanks to medical intervention. Well, they soon found out the other side wasn’t everything it was cracked up to be and the main character soon got regular beatings as the sins of his past came back to haunt him.

In my view markets find themselves in a very similar script. The promise of investor nirvana where the pains of real life no longer matter. If you only pay attention to the record highs headlines it all looks rather fantastical these days. [..] any trader staring at the tape knows that we find ourselves in the most compressed price environment in history. This is not normal, there’s no heartbeat:

As I’m writing this I’m fully aware I may be viewed as the bear who cried wolf. After all I’ve been outlining structural risk factors for a while and markets have moved past my technical risk zones of 2450-2500 and most recently 2530. That’s what bubbles do. They blow past anyone’s expectations, they make believers of the unbelievers, make bears look like idiots and the most reckless look like geniuses. But an extreme market that only becomes more extreme is not any less extreme, it is just more extreme. As no risk is apparent these extremes are then dismissed as the new normal. Yet momentum driven price appreciation has absolutely zero predictive value of future price appreciation, it only appears as such at the time.

We find ourselves in a very unique point in history and in a world dominated by false narratives. It is a challenge to keep an analytical grip on reality, but I’ll try to tie a few threads together here to put everything in a macro context. Firstly the underlying base reality: Free money, easy money, whatever you want to call it, permeates everything we see in financial markets. Indeed I would argue price appreciation has been paid for with unprecedented and, in my view, unsustainable volatility compression. A couple of charts really highlight this. Most clearly perhaps is the precise trend line tagging we can observe in the correlated picture of price appreciation and volatility compression since the February 2016 lows:

The $VIX’s corollary, the inverse $XIV, embarked on an explosive near one way journey since the US election coinciding with over $2 trillion central bank intervention in just the first 9 months of 2017:

And it has continued to this day and just made another all time high this past week on a massive negative divergence. It is the magnitude of this volatility compression that explains the current trading environment we find ourselves in.

 

[..] Debt expansion at low rates continues to sustain the illusion of real prosperity for the 90%:

 

And then LPLResearch with another indicator that goes to show we’re dealing with a zombie here: stock prices are not moving, either up or down. Or rather, they’re moving up all the time, but in too small increments. Yeah, like that bloated corpse.

 

Where Did All the Big Moves Go?

There have only been eight moves of at least 1% for the S&P 500 Index so far this year—the least since 13 in 1995. The all-time record was an incredible three in 1963. What about a big move? The last time the S&P 500 moved at least 4% was nearly six years ago. In fact, the S&P 500 had four consecutive days with 4% (or greater) changes in August 2011. Other than 2008 and the crash of ’87, that is the only other time since the Great Depression to see four consecutive 4% changes. That isn’t anything like today’s action.

As the chart below shows, so far in 2017, big moves have been nonexistent; and even 1% changes have been rare. Per Ryan Detrick, Senior Market Strategist, “If you had forecast that the 11 months after the 2016 U.S. presidential election would be one of the least volatile periods ever, you would be in the minority. Then again, the last time we saw a streak of calm like this was the year after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. Once again proving that the market rarely does what the masses expect and usually surprises us.”

You want a heartbeat. That tells you if a body or a market is alive, healthy, functioning. We don’t have one. We haven’t for years. But we will again. Natural bodies can tend towards equilibrium, i.e. death. Markets cannot. They’re doomed to flatline, and then to always come back from near death experiences. They tend to do so in violent ways though. When volatility at last returns, so will price discovery. It won’t be pretty.

 

 

Aug 152017
 
 August 15, 2017  Posted by at 12:53 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  5 Responses »
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Salvador Dali Madrid. Drunk man 1922

 

Harvard professor and chess grandmaster Kenneth Rogoff has said some pretty out there stuff before, in his role as self-appointed crusader against cash, but apparently he’s not done yet. In fact, he might just be getting started. This time around he sounds like a crossover between George Orwell and Franz Kafka, with a serving of ‘theater of the absurd’ on top. Rogoff wants to give central banks total control over your lives. They must decide what you do with your money. First and foremost, they must make it impossible for you to save your money from their disastrous policies, so they are free to create more mayhem.

Prepare For Negative Interest Rates In The Next Recession Says Top Economist

Negative interest rates will be needed in the next major recession or financial crisis, and central banks should do more to prepare the ground for such policies, according to leading economist Kenneth Rogoff. Quantitative easing is not as effective a tonic as cutting rates to below zero, he believes. Central banks around the world turned to money creation in the credit crunch to stimulate the economy when interest rates were already at rock bottom.

Central banks create recessions and crises. Not people, and not economies. Central banks. The next recession, which is inevitable, that’s the one thing Rogoff has right, will come when the bubbles in housing, stocks, bonds, etc., created by central banks’ QE, ZIRP, NIRP, start to pop. And there’s nothing worse than giving central banks even more tools for creating crises. We should take away the tools they have now, not hand them more sledgehammers.

In a new paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives the professor of economics at Harvard University argues that central banks should start preparing now to find ways to cut rates to below zero so they are not caught out when the next recession strikes. Traditionally economists have assumed that cutting rates into negative territory would risk pushing savers to take their money out of banks and stuff the cash – metaphorically or possibly literally – under their mattress. As electronic transfers become the standard way of paying for purchases, Mr Rogoff believes this is a diminishing risk.

Risk? What risk? The risk of people doing with their money what they choose to do, doing what they think is best? Of people trying to save their savings from being burned by central bank policies? What kind of mind comes up with this nonsense? Who is Ken Rogoff to think that he knows better what you should do with the money you worked for than you yourself do? You’d be a fool not to protect you hard-earned earnings from negative interest rates. Rogoff therefore seems intent on creating nations full of fools.

“It makes sense not to wait until the next financial crisis to develop plans and, in any event, it is time for economists to stop pretending that implementing effective negative rates is as difficult today as it seemed in Keynes time”, he said. The growth of electronic payment systems and the increasing marginalisation of cash in legal transactions creates a much smoother path to negative rate policy today than even two decades ago. Countries can scrap larger denomination notes to reduce the likelihood of cash being held in substantial quantities, he suggests. This is also a potentially practical idea because cash tends now to be used largely for only small transactions. Law enforcement officials may also back the idea to cut down on money laundering and tax evasion.

What makes sense is to not create crises. What does not make sense is negative interest rates. Ultra low interest rates have already destroyed trillions in savings and pensions, and now Rogoff effectively says central banks should take this a step further, and target whatever it is you have left. This is insane megalomania. It’s communism in its worst possible form. Oh, and it’s outright theft. Of a form that’s far more insidious and harmful than money laundering.

The key consequence from an economic point of view is that forcing savers to keep cash in an electronic format would make it easier to levy a negative interest rate. “With today’s ultra-low policy interest rates – inching up in the United States and still slightly negative in the eurozone and Japan – it is sobering to ask what major central banks will do should another major prolonged global recession come any time soon,” he said, noting that the Fed cut rates by an average of 5.5 percentage points in the nine recessions since the mid-1950s, something which is impossible at the current low rate of interest, unless negative rates become an option. That would be substantially better than trying to use QE or forward guidance as central bankers have attempted in recent years.

Forcing savers to keep cash in an electronic format would make it easier to steal it. Central banks could dictate that you lose 5% of your money every year. Or at least, that’s what they think. They want you to spend your money, and they got just the way to force you to do that. Or so they think. Well, go ask Abe and Kuroda how that’s worked out in Japan lately. What actually happens is that when you start stealing people’s money, savings etc., they become afraid of losing the rest too, so they start looking for ways to save their savings, not spend them.

In that sense, Rogoff’s suggestions amount to terror, to terrorizing people into doing things that go against their very survival instincts. What gets people to spend money is if they don’t feel terror, when they see their money and savings grow by a few percent per year. That is the exact opposite of what Rogoff wants to do. When people ‘sit’ on their savings, they do so for good reasons. What do you think has happened to Japan?

“Alternative monetary policy instruments such as forward guidance and quantitative easing offer some theoretical promise for addressing the zero bound,” he said, in the paper which is titled ‘Dealing with Monetary Paralysis at the Zero Bound’. “But these policies have now been deployed for some years – in the case of Japan, for more than two decades – and at least so far, they have not convincingly shown an ability to decisively overcome the problems posed by the zero bound.”

No wait, Rogoff is right second time: indeed “they have not convincingly shown an ability to decisively overcome the problems”. Because they’re terribly wrong. Theoretical promise? That’s all? But that means you’re just experimenting with people’s lives and wellbeing. Who gave you that right?

It’s high time, even if it’s very late in the game, to take political power away from central banks- and thereby from the banks that own them. There is nothing worse for our societies than letting these people decide what you can and cannot do with our money. Because as long as they have that power, they will seek to expand it. To prop up their member banks at your expense. And there is only one possible end result: you’ll be left with nothing. They want it all.

Until we take that power away from them, please don’t talk to me about democracy. Talk to me about Orwell and Kafka instead.

 

 

 

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.

Sep 042016
 
 September 4, 2016  Posted by at 1:16 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »
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Irving Underhill City Bank-Farmers Trust Building, William & Beaver streets, NYC 1931

 

 

It’s been a while, but Nicole Foss is back at the Automatic Earth -which makes me very happy-, and for good measure, she starts out with a very long article. So long in fact that we have decided to turn it into a 4-part series, if only just to show you that we do care about your health and well-being, as well as your families and social lives. The other 3 parts will follow in the next few days, and at the end we will publish the entire piece in one post.

Here’s Nicole:

 

 

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.

May 182016
 
 May 18, 2016  Posted by at 8:54 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  3 Responses »
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Russell Lee South Side market, Chicago 1941

US Debt Dump Deepens In 2016 (CNN)
The Humungous Depression (Gore)
Negative Rates Are A Form Of Tax (MW)
The Negative Interest Rate Gap (Dmitry Orlov)
The EU Has “Run Its Historical Course” (ZH)
Italy Wins Brussels’ ‘Flexibility’ On Debt Reduction Targets (FT)
US Raises China Steel Taxes By 522% (BBC)
Chinas Debt Bubble Is Getting Only More Dangerous (WSJ)
China To Curb Shadow Banking Via Checks On Fund House Subsidiaries (R.)
Abenomics: The Reboot, Rebooted (R.)
Trump and Sanders Shift Mood in Congress Against Trade Deals (BBG)
Smugglers Made $5-6 Billion Off Refugees To Europe In 2015 (R.)
Refugees Will Repay EU Spending Almost Twice Over In Five Years (G.)

“There’s still this fear of ‘everything is going to fall apart.'”

US Debt Dump Deepens In 2016 (CNN)

China, Russia and Brazil sold off U.S. Treasury bonds as they tried to soften the blow of the global economic slowdown. They each sold off at least $1 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds in March. In all, central banks sold a net $17 billion. Sales had hit a record $57 billion in January. So far this year, the global bank debt dump has reached $123 billion. It’s the fastest pace for a U.S. debt selloff by global central banks since at least 1978, according to Treasury Department data published Monday afternoon. Treasuries are considered one of the safest assets in the world, but some experts say a sense of panic about the global economy drove the selloff.

“It’s more of global fear than anything,” says Ihab Salib, head of international fixed income at Federated Investors. “There’s still this fear of ‘everything is going to fall apart.'” Judging by the selloff, policymakers across the globe were hitting the panic button often and early in the year as oil prices fell, concerns about China’s economy rose and stock markets were very volatile. In response, countries may be selling Treasuries to prop up their currencies, some of which lost lots of value against the dollar last year. By selling U.S. debt, central banks can get hard cash to buy up their local currency and prevent it from losing too much value.

Also, as investors have pulled money out of developing countries, central bankers seek to replenish those lost funds by selling their foreign reserves. The leader in the selloff: China. “We’ve seen Chinese central bank foreign reserves fall dramatically,” says Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC Financial. “Their currency is under pressure.” Between December and February, China’s central bank sold off an alarming $236 billion to help support its currency, which China is slowly letting become more controlled by markets and less by the government. In March, China sold $3.5 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds, Treasury data shows. Experts say the sell off may be slowing down now that global concerns have eased. If anything, demand is still high for U.S. Treasury bonds – it’s just coming from private investors.

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ZIRP and NIRP feed the casino.

The Humungous Depression (Gore)

Economic depressions unfold slowly, which obscures their analysis, although they are simple to understand. Governments and central banks turn recessions into depressions, which are preceded by unsustainable expansions of debt untethered from the real economy. The reduction and resolution of excess debt takes time, and governments and central banks usually act counterproductively, retarding necessary adjustments and lengthening the adjustment, and consequently, the depression. If one dates the beginning of a depression from the beginning of the unsustainable expansion of debt that preceded it, then the current depression began in 1987. Newly installed chairman of the Fed Alan Greenspan quelled a stock market crash, flooding the financial system with fiat liquidity. It was a well from which he and his successors would draw repeatedly.

Throughout the 1990s he would pump whenever it appeared the market and the US economy were about to dump. In 1999, he pumped because the Y2K computer transition might adversely affect the economy and financial system (it didn’t). If one dates the beginning of a depression from the time when the benefits of debt are, in the aggregate, outweighed by its burdens, the depression began in 2000, with the implosion of the fiat-credit fueled, high-tech and Internet stock market bubble. Unsustainable debt and artificially low interest rates lower the rate of return on productive investment and saving, increasing the relative attractiveness of speculation. Central bankers and their minions refer to this as “forcing investors out on the risk curve,” crawling way out on a limb for fruitful returns. They have no term for when markets saw off the branch, as they did in 2000 and again in 2008.

Most people don’t see 2000 as the beginning of a depression, but Washington and Wall Street cloud their vision. Stock markets were once essential avenues for raising capital and valuing corporations. Since central bankers’ remit was broadened to their care and feeding, stock markets have become engines of obfuscation. The “wealth effect” supposedly justified solicitude for markets: a rising stock market would increase wealth, spending, and economic growth. For seven years a rising market has coexisted with an anemic rebound and one hears little about the wealth effect anymore. The stock market is the preeminent symbol of economic health, so keeping it afloat has become a political exercise. Sure, central bankers and governments know what they’re doing, just look at those stock indices.

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“They impose a levy on the banking system that has to be paid by someone..”

Negative Rates Are A Form Of Tax (MW)

Central banks have slashed interest rates to nothing. They have printed money on a vast scale. Where that has not quite worked, and if we are being honest that is most places, they now have a new tool. Negative interest rates. Across a third of the global economy, money you put in the bank does not only generate nothing in the way of a return. You actually get charged for keeping it there. That is already producing strange, Alice-in-Wonderland economics, where nothing is quite what it seems. Governments want you to delay paying taxes as long as possible, the mortgage company pays you to stay in the house, and cash becomes so sought after there is even talk of abolishing it. But the real problem with negative rates may be something quite different.

As a fascinating new paper from the St. Louis Fed argues, they are in fact a form of tax. They impose a levy on the banking system that has to be paid by someone — and that someone is probably us. That may explain why central banks and governments are so keen on them. Hugely indebted governments are always in the market for a new tax, especially one that their voters probably won’t notice. But it also explains why they don’t really work — because most of the economics in trouble, especially in Europe, are already suffocating under an impossible high tax burden. Negative interest rates have, like a fast-mutating virus, started to spread across the world. The Swiss first tried them out all the way back in the 1970s.

In June 1972 it imposed a penalty rate of 2% a quarter on foreigners parking money in Swiss francs amid the turmoil of the early part of that decade, but the experiment only lasted a couple of years. In the modern era, the ECB kicked off the trend in June 2014 with a negative rate on selected deposits. Since then, they have spread to Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland (again), and more recently Japan, while the ECB has cut even deeper into negative territory. They already cover about a third of the global economy, and there is no reason why they should not reach further. The Fed might be raising rates this year, but it is the only major central bank to do so, and if, or rather when, there is another major downturn, it may have no choice but to impose negative rates as well.

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“..how can an interest rate be negative? Does it become a “disinterest rate”?

The Negative Interest Rate Gap (Dmitry Orlov)

Back in the early 1980s the US economy was experiencing stagflation: a stagnant economy and an inflating currency. Paul Volcker, who at the time was Chairman of the Federal Reserve, took a decisive step and raised the Federal Funds Rate, which determines the rate at which most other economic players get to borrow, to 18%, freezing out inflation. This was a bold step, not without negative consequences, but it did get inflation under control and, after a while, the US economy stopped stagnating. Well, not quite. Wages didn’t stop stagnating; they’ve been stagnant ever since. But the fortunes of the 1% of the richest Americans have certainly improved nicely! Moreover, the US economy grew quite a bit since that time.

Of course, most of this growth came at the expense of staggering structural deficits and an explosion of indebtedness at every level, but so what? Sure, the national debt went exponential and the government’s unfunded liabilities are now over $200 trillion, but that’s OK. You just have to like debt. Keep saying to yourself: “Debt is good!” Because if everyone started thinking that debt is bad, then the entire financial house of cards would implode and we would be left with nothing. But once interest rates peaked in the early 1980s, they’ve been on a downward trend ever since, with little ups and downs now and again but an unmistakable overall downward trend.

The Federal Reserve had to do this in order to, in Fed-speak, “support economic activity and job creation by making financial conditions more accommodative.” Once it started doing this, it found that it couldn’t stop. The US had entered a downward spiral—of sloth, obesity, ignorance, substance abuse, expensive and disastrous foreign military adventures, bureaucratic insanity, massive corruption at every level—and under these circumstances it needed ever-cheaper money in order to keep the financial house of cards from imploding. And then, in late 2008, the Fed finally reached the ultimate target: the Fed Funds Rate went all the way to zero. This is known as ZIRP, for Zero Interest Rate Policy. And, unfortunately, it stayed there.

It stayed there, instead of continuing to gently drift down as before, because of a conceptual difficulty: how can an interest rate be negative? Does it become a “disinterest rate”? How can that work? After all, lenders are “interested” in lending because they get back more than they lend out (accepting some amount of risk); and depositors are “interested” in keeping money in banks because they get back more than they put in. And if these activities become “of zero interest,” why would lenders lend and depositors deposit? They wouldn’t, now, would they? They’d buy gold, or Bitcoin, or bid up real estate.

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As long as we can see things only in terms of money nothing we do has any real value.

The EU Has “Run Its Historical Course” (ZH)

None other than the former head of MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) Richard Dearlove expressed his quite candid thoughts on the immigration crisis, as well as the possibility of a British exit from the EU during a speech recently at the BBC. The speech is well worth the listen. Here are some notable quotes from the speech as it relates to the immigration crisis. The former head of intelligence is quick to point out that despite what the public perception may be, the reality is that there are terrorists already among us.

“When massive social forces are at work, and mass migration is such a force, a whole government response is required, and a high degree of international cooperation.” “In the real world, there are no miraculous James Bond style solutions. Simply shutting the door on migration is not an option. History tells us that human tides are irresistible, unless the gravitational pull that causes them is removed. Edward Gibbon elegantly charted how Rome, with all it’s civic and administrative sophistication and military prowess, could not stop its empire from being overrun by the mass movement of Europe’s tribes.”

“We should not conflate the problem of migration with the threat of terrorism. High levels of immigration, particularly from the Middle East, coupled with freedom of movement inside the EU, make effective border conrol more difficult. Terrorists can, and do exploit these circumstances as we saw recently in their movement between Brussels and Paris, and to and from Syria. With large numbers of people on the move, a few of them will inevitably carry the terrorist virus.” A number of the most lethal terrorists are from inside Europe, including the UK. They are already among us.” “The EU, as opposed to its member states, has no operational counter-terrorist capability to speak of. Many of the European states look to the UK for training.”

“The argument that we would be less secure if we left the EU, is in reality rather difficult to make. There would in fact be some gains if we left, because the UK would be fully master of its own house. Counter-terrorist coordination across Europe would certainly continue, and the UK would remain a leader in the field. The idea that the quality of that cooperation depends in any significant way on our EU membership is misleading.” “Is the EU, faced with the problem of mass migration, able to coordinate an effective response from its member countries. Should the UK stay in and continue struggle for fundamental change, or do we conclude that the effort would be wasted, and that the EU in its extended form has run its historical course. For each of us, this is possibly the most important choice we may ever have to make.”

“Whether we will each be worse off, whether our national security might be damaged, even whether the economy might falter, and sterling be devalued, are subsidiary to the key question, which is whether we have confidence in the EU to manage Europe’s future. If Europe cannot act together to persuade a majority of its citizens that it can gain control of its migrant crisis, then the EU will find itself at the mercy of a populist uprising which is already stirring. The stakes are very high, and the UK referendum is the first roll of the dice in a bigger geopolitical game.”

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Unlike Greece, Italy is so big it can make or break the EU. So goalposts are moved as they go along.

Italy Wins Brussels’ ‘Flexibility’ On Debt Reduction Targets (FT)

Brussels has granted Italy “unprecedented” flexibility in meeting EU debt reduction targets, using its political leeway to the full as it cautiously polices the eurozone’s fiscal rule book. Italy has emerged as a big winner from the European Commission’s latest review of national budget policies, which is set to pull back from — or postpone — painful corrective measures it had the power to impose. The decisions have sparked an intense debate within the commission over what critics see as its record of tolerating fiscal lapses by countries such as France, Italy and Spain. Some officials were on Tuesday pushing to delay parts of the package to avoid punishing Spain and Portugal before Spain’s election on June 26.

The need for the debate on timing shows the commission under Jean-Claude Juncker has acted as a self-described political body, even at the risk of undermining the credibility of the eurozone’s strengthened fiscal regime. After months of heavy lobbying from Matteo Renzi, the Italian premier, Rome secured most of the “budgetary flexibility” it sought, helping it avoid so-called excessive deficit procedures for failing to bring down its debt levels fast enough. Italy would be allowed extra fiscal room equivalent to 0.85%of GDP — or about €14bn — this year compared with the target mandated under EU budget rules. Such “flexibility” approaches the 0.9% of GDP Italy demanded in drawn-out negotiations with Brussels.

Valdis Dombrovskis and Pierre Moscovici, the two European commissioners responsible for eurozone budget issues, said in a letter to Rome that “no other member state has requested nor received anything close to this unprecedented amount of flexibility”. Zsolt Darvas of the Bruegel think-tank said that “if the rules were taken literally” Italy would be placed under the excessive deficit procedure. Overall the EU fiscal rules “have very low credibility”, he added. “Many countries are violating the rules almost constantly from one year to the next.” Mr Renzi’s government is not completely in the clear, however. In exchange for the flexibility, the commission demanded a “clear and credible commitment” that Italy would respect its budget targets in 2017 to reduce the country’s high debt-to-GDP ratio, which stood at 132.7%of GDP last year.

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Brilliant! What’s not to like? Can’t wait for the response.

US Raises China Steel Taxes By 522% (BBC)

The US has raised its import duties on Chinese steelmakers by more than five-fold after accusing them of selling their products below market prices. The taxes specifically apply to Chinese-made cold-rolled flat steel, which is used in car manufacturing, shipping containers and construction. The US Commerce Department ruling comes amid heightened trade tensions between the two sides over several products, including chicken parts. Steel is an especially sensitive issue. US and European steel producers claim China is distorting the global market and undercutting them by dumping its excess supply abroad. The ruling itself is only directed at what is small amount of steel from China and Japan and won’t have much of an impact – but it is the politics of the ruling that’s worth noting.

It is an election year, and US presidential candidates have been ramping up the rhetoric on what they say are unfair trade practices by China. US steel makers say that the Chinese government unfairly subsidises its steel exports. Meanwhile China has been under pressure to save its steel sector, which is suffering from over-capacity issues because of slowing demand at home. China’s Ministry of Finance has not directly responded to the US ruling but on its website this morning it has said that China will maintain its tax rebate policy for steel exports as part of its efforts to help the bloated steel sector recover. These tax rebates are seen as favourable policies to shore up ailing steel companies in China, and to avoid massive job losses. Expect more fiery rhetoric from the US on China’s unfair trading practices soon.

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“..China’s richest man — at least on paper — lost half of his wealth in less than half an hour.”

Chinas Debt Bubble Is Getting Only More Dangerous (WSJ)

It would be like finding out Warren Buffett’s financial empire may have been, quite possibly, a sham. That’s what happened last year when China’s richest man — at least on paper — lost half of his wealth in less than half an hour. It turned out that his company Hanergy may well just be Enron with Chinese characteristics: Its stock could only go up as long as it was borrowing money, and it could only borrow money as long as its stock was going up. Those kind of things work until they don’t. The question now, though, is how much the rest of China’s economy has come down with Hanergy syndrome, papering over problems with debt until they can’t be anymore. And the answer might be a lot more than anyone wants to admit. Although we should be careful not to get too carried away here.

Hanergy is now a nothing that used debt to look like a very big something, while China’s economy actually is a very big something that is using debt to look even bigger. In other words, one looks like a boondoggle and the other a bubble. But in both cases, excessive borrowing — especially from unregulated “shadow banks,” such as trading firms — has made things look better today at the expense of a worse tomorrow. In Hanergy’s case, there will, of course, be no tomorrow. To step back, the first thing to know about Hanergy is that it’s really two companies. There’s the privately owned parent corporation Hanergy Group, and the publicly traded subsidiary Hanergy Thin Film Power (HTF). The latter, believe it or not, started out as a toymaker, somehow switched over to manufacturing solar panel parts, and was then bought by Hanergy Chairman Li Hejun.

And that’s when things really got strange. The majority of HTF’s sales, you see, were to its now-parent company Hanergy — and supposedly at a 50% net profit margin! — but it wasn’t actually getting paid, you know, money for them. It was just racking up receivables. Why? Well, the question answers itself. Hanergy must not have had the cash to pay HTF. Its factories were supposed to be putting solar panels together out of the parts it was getting from HTF, but they were barely running — if at all. Hedge-fund manager John Hempton didn’t see anything going on at the one he paid a surprise visit to last year. It’s hard to make money if you’re not making things to sell. But it’s a lot easier to borrow money and pretend that you’re making it. At least as long as you have the collateral to do so — which Hanergy did when HTF’s stock was shooting up.

Indeed, it increased 20-fold from the start of 2013 to the middle of 2015. But it was how more than how much it went up that raised eyebrows. It all happened in the last 10 minutes of trading every day. Suppose you’d bought $1,o00 of HTF stock every morning at 9 a.m. and sold it every afternoon at 3:30 p.m. from the beginning of 2013 to 2015. How much would you have made? Well, according to the Financial Times, the answer is nothing. You would have lost $365. If you’d waited until 3:50 p.m. to sell, though, that would have turned into a $285 gain. And if you’d been a little more patient and held on to the stock till the 4 p.m. close, you would have come out $7,430 ahead. (Those numbers don’t include the stock’s overnight changes).

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Problem is: curb shadow banks and you curb local governments. Not at all what Xi is looking for.

China To Curb Shadow Banking Via Checks On Fund House Subsidiaries (R.)

China plans to tighten supervision over fund houses’ subsidiaries and rein in the expansion of a sector worth nearly 10 trillion yuan ($1.53 trillion) as regulators target a key channel for so-called shadow banking to contain financial risks, according to a copy of the draft rules seen by Reuters. The Asset Management Association of China (AMAC) will set thresholds for fund houses to establish subsidiaries and use capital ratios to limit the subsidiaries’ ability to expand businesses, the draft rules said. Loosely-regulated subsidiaries set up by mutual fund firms have grown rapidly over the past year, managing 9.8 trillion yuan worth of assets by the end of March, according to the AMAC, and becoming a key channel for shadow banking activities.

Under the proposed rules, fund houses applying to set up subsidiaries must manage at least 20 billion yuan in assets excluding money-market funds, and have a minimum 600 million yuan in net assets. Current thresholds are much lower. The new rules would also require that a subsidiary’s net capital not be lower than the company’s total risk assets, while net assets must not be lower than 20% of its liability, in effect slashing the leverage ratio of the business. China’s prolonged crackdown on riskier practices in the lesser-regulated shadow banking system has taken on fresh urgency amid a growing number of corporate defaults as the economy struggles, and as top policymakers appear increasingly worried about the risks of relying on too much debt-fuelled stimulus.

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You don’t have to watch it to know it’s a failure. That was clear from the start.

Abenomics: The Reboot, Rebooted (R.)

Abenomics has over-promised and under-delivered. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to revive anaemic growth, reverse falling prices and rein in government debt has relied too heavily on the central bank and been sideswiped by a global slowdown. Keeping the project alive now requires fresh boldness. When he took office in December 2012, Abe set out to lift real economic growth to 2% a year, with consumer prices rising at the same rate. His main weapons were the famous “three arrows” of aggressive monetary policy, a flexible fiscal stance, and widespread structural reform. Abe has achieved some success. Unemployment is just 3.2%, a low last seen in 1997. In his first three calendar years in office, the economy expanded about 5% in nominal terms.

A weaker yen has helped deliver record corporate earnings; as of May 13 the Topix stock index had returned 70% including dividends. Prices have inched upwards. But the core targets remain out of reach. The IMF expects Japan’s GDP to grow just 0.5% this year. Even after cutting out volatile prices for fresh food and energy, the Bank of Japan’s preferred measure of inflation is running at just 1.1%. And the central bank keeps delaying its deadline for hitting the 2% target, which it now expects to reach in the year ending March 2018. Analysts still think that optimistic. Meanwhile, the yen has rallied unhelpfully and the BOJ faces accusations it is ineffective, after unexpectedly making no change to policy at its last meeting.

One snag is psychological: the deflationary mindset is hard to shake. Firms can borrow very cheaply yet hoard lots of cash and resist big pay rises. Workers are not pushy about wage hikes, and reluctant to spend. There were errors, too. Abe faced concerns that Japan’s government debt, at 2.4 times GDP, could become unsustainable. So he kept fiscal policy relatively orthodox, promising that taxes would cover public spending, excluding interest payments, by 2020. He hiked the country’s sales tax in 2014, denting growth and confidence. And he relied heavily on BOJ Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, whose institution now buys an extraordinary 80 trillion yen a year ($740 billion) of bonds. Meanwhile, structural reforms remain far from complete – in everything from encouraging more women into the workforce to reconsidering a deep aversion to immigration.

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We can hope…

Trump and Sanders Shift Mood in Congress Against Trade Deals (BBG)

Congress has embraced free trade for two generations, but the protectionist bent of the 2016 election campaign may mark the end of that era. The first casualty may be the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was already facing a skeptical Congress. A European trade pact in the works may also be in trouble. Lawmakers from both parties are taking lessons from the insurgent campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, which have harnessed a wave of discontent on job losses by linking them to free-trade deals. Even Hillary Clinton has stepped up criticism of the pacts. While past presidential candidates have softened their stance on trade after winning election, the resonance of the anti-free-trade attacks among voters in the primaries may create a more decisive shift. Opponents of these deals are already sensing new openings.

“The gravity has shifted,” said Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat. She said it could give new traction to proposals like one she’s put forth that would reopen trade deals with nations that have a trade deficit of $10 billion with the U.S. for three years in a row. The success of Trump and Sanders in Rust Belt states and elsewhere will make it even harder, if not impossible, for Congress to back TPP, even in a lame-duck session after the election. Lawmakers say it could also hamper a looming agreement between the U.S. and the EU if it looks like the next president would change course. “It’s a very heavy lift at this point,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican and longtime free-trade advocate, noting that all three remaining presidential contenders have expressed reservations about the TPP.

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We never stood a chance. They’re oh so cunning and devious: “..smugglers ran their proceeds through [..] grocery stores..”. My question would be: how much of this went to the Erdogan family?

Smugglers Made $5-6 Billion Off Refugees To Europe In 2015 (R.)

People smugglers made over $5 billion from the wave of migration into southern Europe last year, a report by international crime-fighting agencies Interpol and Europol said on Tuesday. Nine out of 10 migrants and refugees entering the European Union in 2015 relied on “facilitation services”, mainly loose networks of criminals along the routes, and the proportion was likely to be even higher this year, the report said. About 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015. Most paid 3,000-6,000 euros ($3,400-$6,800), so the average turnover was likely between $5 billion and $6 billion, the report said. To launder the money and integrate it into the legitimate economy, couriers carried large amounts of cash over borders, and smugglers ran their proceeds through car dealerships, grocery stores, restaurants or transport companies.

The main organisers came from the same countries as the migrants, but often had EU residence permits or passports. “The basic structure of migrant smuggling networks includes leaders who coordinate activities along a given route, organisers who manage activities locally through personal contacts, and opportunistic low-level facilitators who mostly assist organisers and may assist in recruitment activities,” the report said. Corrupt officials may let vehicles through border checks or release ships for bribes, as there was so much money in the trafficking trade. About 250 smuggling “hotspots”, often at railway stations, airports or coach stations, had been identified along the routes – 170 inside the EU and 80 outside.

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People understand things only when expressed in monetary terms. Maybe we need a real deep collapse to change that. Meanwhile, it looks like refugees make everyone rich except for themselves.

Refugees Will Repay EU Spending Almost Twice Over In Five Years (G.)

Refugees who arrived in Europe last year could repay spending on them almost twice over within just five years, according to one of the first in-depth investigations into the impact incomers have on host communities. Refugees will create more jobs, increase demand for services and products, and fill gaps in European workforces – while their wages will help fund dwindling pensions pots and public finances, says Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the president of the European commission. Simultaneously refugees are unlikely to decrease wages or raise unemployment for native workers, Legrain says, citing past studies by labour economists.

Most significantly, Legrain calculates that while the absorption of so many refugees will increase public debt by almost €69bn (£54bn) between 2015 and 2020, during the same period refugees will help GDP grow by €126.6bn – a ratio of almost two to one. “Investing one euro in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two euros in economic benefits within five years,” concludes Refugees Work: A Humanitarian Investment That Yields Economic Dividends, a report released on Wednesday by the Tent Foundation, a non-government organisation that aims to help displaced people.

A fellow at the London School of Economics, Legrain says he hopes the report will dispel the myth that refugees will cause economic problems for western society. “The main misconception is that refugees are a burden – and that’s a misconception shared even by people who are in favour of letting them in, who think they’re costly but it’s still the right thing to do,” said Legrain in an interview. “But that’s incorrect. While of course the primary motivation to let in refugees is that they’re fleeing death, once they arrive they can contribute to the economy.” While their absorption puts a short-term strain on public finances, Legrain says, it also increases short-term economic demand, which acts as a welcome fiscal stimulus in countries where demand would otherwise be low.

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May 032016
 
 May 3, 2016  Posted by at 9:14 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  1 Response »
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DPC French Market, New Orleans 1910

The EU Exists Only To Become A Superstate (Lawson)
US Dollar Falls To 1-Year Low (BBG)
Yen Under Pressure to Extend World-Beating Rally Against Dollar (BBG)
Kuroda Kollapse Kontinues As USDJPY Nears 105 Handle (ZH)
BOJ Chief Kuroda Warns Current Yen Strength Risks Harming Recovery (BBG)
China Factory Activity Contracts for 14th Straight Month In April (CNBC)
Fed’s Williams Sees Big Drop In Asset Prices As Systemic Risk (R.)
Apple’s Losing Streak Is Nearing Historic Levels (BBG)
No Alternative To Low Rates For Now, Draghi Says (R.)
ECB Report Says Investors May Be Profiting From Leaked US Data (FT)
Six Counterpoints About Australian Public Debt (Stanford)
‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ Behind 25% Of British Mortgages (G.)
Dominoes: Vanishing Arctic Ice Shifts Jet Stream, Which Melts Glaciers (WaPo)
Germany Wants To Extend Border Controls For Another 6 Months (AP)
Denmark Extends Controls On German Border (EN)
EU States Face Charge For Refusing Refugees (FT)
90,000 Unaccompanied Minors Sought Asylum In EU In 2015 (R.)

I don’t think I have much in common with Nigel Lawson -aka Lord Lawson of Blaby-, but it’s important that this ‘little fact’ be known and exposed. Even a superstate needs values if it is to survive. The EU ain’t got any left. Who wants to belong to that?

The EU Exists Only To Become A Superstate (Lawson)

For Britain, the issue in the coming European referendum is not Europe, with its great history, incomparable culture, and diverse peoples, but the European Union. To confuse the two is both geographically and historically obtuse. European civilisation existed long before the coming of the EU, and will continue long after this episode in Europe’s history is, hopefully, over. On the European mainland it has always been well understood that the whole purpose of European integration was political, and that economic integration was simply a means to a political end. In Britain, and perhaps also in the US, that has been much less well understood, particularly within the business community, who sometimes find it hard to grasp that politics can trump economics. The fact that the objective has always been political does not mean that it is in any way disreputable.

Indeed, the most compelling original objective was highly commendable. It was, bluntly, to eliminate the threat to Europe and the wider world from a recrudescence of German militarism, by placing the German tiger in a European cage. Whether or not membership of the EU has had much to do with it, that objective has been achieved: there is no longer a threat from German militarism. But in the background there has always been another political objective behind European economic integration, one which is now firmly in the foreground. That is the creation of a federal European superstate, a United States of Europe. Despite the resonance of the phrase, not one of the conditions that contributed to making a success of the United States of America exists in the case of the EU. But that is what the EU is all about. That is its sole raison d’être. And, unlike the first objective, it is profoundly misguided.

For the United Kingdom to remain in the EU would be particularly perverse, since not even our political elites wish to see this country absorbed into a United States of Europe. To be part of a political project whose objective we emphatically do not share cannot possibly make sense. It is true that our present Prime Minister argues that he has secured a British “opt-out” from the political union, but this is completely meaningless. “But,” comes the inevitable question, “what is your alternative to membership of the EU?” A more absurd question it would be hard to envisage. The alternative to being in the EU is not being in the EU. And it may come as a shock to the little Europeans that most of the world is not in the EU – and that most of these countries are doing better economically than most of the EU.

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Why don’t I see nobody accuse the US of currency manipulation?! That still the Shanghi Accord legacy?

US Dollar Falls To 1-Year Low (BBG)

The dollar fell to an 18-month low against the yen and touched its weakest since August versus the euro amid speculation that the U.S. won’t raise interest rates any time soon. The U.S. currency has lost ground versus most major peers over the past month as traders lowered expectations for a rate increase by the Federal Reserve in June to 12%. The Bloomberg Dollar Spot Index headed for the lowest close in almost a year, after a report showed manufacturing in the U.S. expanded less than forecast. Persistent weakness dragged the dollar down against the euro for a third straight month in April – its longest losing streak since 2013 – amid signs U.S. policy makers aren’t convinced the global and domestic economies can withstand higher borrowing costs.

It fell on Tuesday against Australia’s currency as Chinese equities climbed by the most in nearly three weeks. The U.S. has posted disappointing growth data as nascent signs of recovery emerge in Europe and China’s growth momentum accelerates. “The Fed is completely out of the picture now for the next few weeks – even with the June meeting, there’s got to be a lot of doubt about whether the Fed can raise rates,” said Shaun Osborne at Bank of Nova Scotia in Toronto. “The dollar has just not done particularly well over the past few weeks as the Fed has moved toward delaying rate hikes, and that’s a situation that definitely will continue, certainly for the near term.”

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Abe must be going nuts.

Yen Under Pressure to Extend World-Beating Rally Against Dollar (BBG)

The yen’s world-beating rally against the dollar looks to be gathering momentum, as central bank inaction on both sides of the Pacific Ocean leaves inflation expectations to drive the exchange rate. Japan’s currency extended its climb to an 18-month high Monday after Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda refrained from adding to stimulus on Thursday. That took its gain this year to 13%, the most among developed-market peers. The BOJ’s decision came just hours after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen frustrated dollar bulls by reiterating she’s in no rush to cool the economy by raising interest rates. JPMorgan sees further yen gains after the U.S. put Japan on a new currency watch list.

With consumer price pressures building in the U.S. and dissipating in Japan, that narrows the gap in so-called real yields – the returns an investor can expect after accounting for inflation – supporting yen strength. If both central banks stay on the sidelines, Credit Suisse projects Japan’s currency could rapidly appreciate toward 90 per dollar. “So long as the Fed signals that they are being cautious in raising rates, real yields in the U.S. will decline, leading the dollar weaker,” said Hiromichi Shirakawa, the Swiss lender’s chief Japan economist and a former BOJ official. “The currency market is in a rather dangerous zone.” The BOJ’s benchmark for measuring progress toward its 2% target showed prices retreated at an annual 0.3% pace in March, the biggest decline since April 2013, the month that Kuroda initiated his stimulus program.

It had previously hovered near zero for more than a year. By contrast, the Fed’s preferred measure of inflation, based on the prices of goods and services consumers buy, rose 0.8% in the year through March. The so-called core measure, which strips out food and energy prices, climbed 1.6%. That’s seen a Treasury market gauge of inflation expectations over the coming decade – called the break-even rate – jump to 1.7% from as low as 1.2% in February. The equivalent measure in Japan is languishing at 0.3%. Benchmark 10-year Treasury Inflation Protected Securities yield around 0.1%, compared with about minus 0.5% for equivalent Japanese notes.

Japan met two of three criteria used to judge unfair practices in the U.S. report: a trade surplus with the U.S. above $20 billion, and a current-account surplus amounting to more than 3% of gross-domestic product. The third would be a repeated depreciation of the currency by buying foreign assets equivalent to 2% of gross domestic over a year. Meeting all three would trigger action by the U.S. president to enter discussions with the country and seek potential penalties. China, Germany, South Korea and Taiwan also made the watch list.

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“..Perhaps Jack Lew’s “currency manipulation” report was enough to stall the Japanese currency war for now?..”

Kuroda Kollapse Kontinues As USDJPY Nears 105 Handle (ZH)

Either The BoJ steps in soon and intervenes (even by just “checking levels”) or Kuroda-san is truly terrified of The G-20. USDJPY has now crashed 7 handles since last Thursday’s shock BoJ disappointment crashing to within 5 pips of a 105 handle tonight for the first time in 18 months…

 

 

Erasing the entire devaluation post-Fed, post QQE2…

 

Perhaps Jack Lew’s “currency manipulation” report was enough to stall the Japanese currency war for now? Or is China greatly rotating its Yuan devaluation pressure against another member of its basket…?

 

Charts: Bloomberg

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1) What recovery? 2) Abe and Kuroda are powerless prisoners to America’s dollar manipulation

BOJ Chief Kuroda Warns Current Yen Strength Risks Harming Recovery (BBG)

Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda warned that the yen’s biggest rally since Abenomics began risks harming the nation’s economic recovery. Speaking to reporters in Frankfurt Monday, Kuroda also reiterated that BOJ policy makers won’t hesitate to expand monetary stimulus in order to achieve their 2% inflation target. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the same day in Paris that rapid movements in exchange rates are undesirable, according to national broadcaster NHK. “There is a risk that the yen’s current appreciation brings an unwelcome impact on the economy,” Kuroda said on the sidelines of an annual gathering of finance chiefs from members of the Asian Development Bank, which he used to lead.

“We will be closely monitoring the impact of financial markets on the real economy and prices.” A weaker currency has been a linchpin of Abe’s program to stoke growth and exit deflation. Japan’s economy is at risk of sliding into its second recession in two years after contracting in the final three months of 2015, while inflation remains far from the BOJ’s target. One gauge showed consumer prices retreated at an annual 0.3% pace in March, the biggest decline since April 2013, the month that Kuroda initiated his stimulus program. The yen has climbed 13% against the dollar this year, the best performance among its developed-market peers. That has chipped away at the 36% decline over the previous four years, which was triggered by Abe’s pledge of unlimited monetary easy to correct yen strength.

Kuroda and his board left policy settings unchanged at a meeting Thursday, spurring a nearly 5%, two-day surge in the yen against the dollar. It reached an 18-month high of 106.05 per greenback on Tuesday, before trading at 106.19 as of 9:54 a.m. in Singapore. Japanese markets are closed for holidays Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week.

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Beyond salvation.

China Factory Activity Contracts for 14th Straight Month In April (CNBC)

Activity in China’s manufacturing sector unexpectedly declined further in April, a private survey showed Tuesday, reviving doubts over the health of the world’s second-largest economy. The Caixin Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to 49.4 in April from 49.7 in March, according to Markit, which compiles the index. A reading above 50 indicates expansion; one below indicates contraction. The Caixin PMI, which focuses on smaller and medium-sized enterprises, was last in expansionary territory in February 2015. The official PMI, which targets larger companies, printed at 50.2 in April, the second successive month of expansion, figures released over the weekend showed. The survey findings follow recent economic data that appeared to suggest that China’s economy was slowly regaining its poise after a torrid 12 months.

China’s exports rose at their fastest clip in a year in March, while industrial profits also picked up in the first quarter. A flurry of rate cuts and easing of reserve requirement have helped bolster sentiment, while the capital outflows that had unnerved sentiment at the start of the year have slowed. The Caixin survey, however, cast a more somber picture. Respondents reported stagnant new orders, while new export work fell for a fifth month running. Companies shed staff as client demand was muted. “The fluctuations indicate the economy lacks a solid foundation for recovery and is still in the process of bottoming out. The government needs to keep a close watch on the risk of a further economic downturn,” said He Fan at Caixin Insight Group.

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What blows up must blow down.

Fed’s Williams Sees Big Drop In Asset Prices As Systemic Risk (R.)

San Francisco Fed President John Williams reiterated Monday his view that the U.S. economy is ready for higher interest rates, but flagged the risk of broad-based declines in asset prices as a result. “It makes sense for us to be moving interest rates gradually back to more a normal level over the next couple years,” Williams said. “I actually think that’s a sign of strength for the global economy.” Speaking at a panel on systemic risk at the Milken Institute Global Conference, Williams said the biggest systemic financial risk currently is the possibility that “broad sets of assets are going to see big movements downward” as interest rates rise. “That’s an area that I think is a potential risk.” Williams did not suggest he sees another crisis brewing, adding that U.S. regulators have made “amazing” progress in shoring up banks against potential future failure.

“What I worry a lot more about is when people forget about the financial crisis, when they forget about the terrible things that happened,” he said, suggesting that may not happen for another five or ten years. The Fed raised interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade last December, but has held off raising them any further amid global stock volatility and worries over a decline in global growth. Even after the Fed resumes raising rates, Williams said, it will not be able to lift them as high as it has in the past. Most Fed officials currently think that the rate at which the economy can sustain healthy employment and steady prices has probably fallen to about 3.25% in the long run, a full %age point lower than was the case before the crisis. But there are significant downside risks to that estimate, Williams said.

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No. 1 US stock for years.

Apple’s Losing Streak Is Nearing Historic Levels (BBG)

So far in 2016, Apple is the dog of the Dow. After an underwhelming earnings report led to the shares’ worst week since January 2013, Apple stock extended its losses to kick off May, closing down 0.18% on Monday. The benchmark index’s laggard has declined by nearly 11% so far this year heading into today’s session: Bespoke Investment Group notes that Monday’s negative close marks eight straight sessions in the red for Apple—something that last happened in July 1998, and has now happened only four times in the company’s history. More than $79 billion in Apple’s market capitalization has been erased over the past eight sessions.

The company’s heavy weighting in major sector and benchmark indexes, coupled with the stock’s terrible two-week stretch, has made $4 billion in assets of exchange-traded funds evaporate over this stretch. “Smart beta” ETFs are poised to trounce their more popular peers, Bloomberg’s Eric Balchunas observes, in the event that this span of underperformance continues. There’s a possible silver lining for Apple bulls, and investors who own those market-cap-weighted ETFs: The stock tends to bounce back in earnest following these rare stretches of rotten performance. “Two of the three eight-day streaks saw the stock fall on day nine as well, but the stock has never experienced a losing streak longer than nine trading days,” Bespoke writes. “While the next day and next week returns following eight-day losing streaks lean negative, the stock has been higher over the next month all three times for a median gain of 8.01%.”

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Well, there is, but Draghi’s masters don’t want it.

No Alternative To Low Rates For Now, Draghi Says (R.)

Low interest rates are not harmless but they are only the symptom, not the cause of an underlying problem across major economies, ECB President Mario Draghi said on Monday, arguing that there was no alternative for now. “Thus the second part of the answer to raising rates of return is clear: continued expansionary policies until excess slack in the economy has been reduced and inflation dynamics are sustainably consistent again with price stability,” Draghi told a conference. “There is simply no alternative to this today.” “The only potential margin for maneuver is in the composition of the policy mix, that is, the balance of monetary and fiscal policy,” he added.

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Corruption is not a deficiency, it’s the MO.

ECB Report Says Investors May Be Profiting From Leaked US Data (FT)

US investors may be profiting from leaked economic data releases that allow them to front-run market-moving news, according to a research paper published by the ECB. Macroeconomic news announcements can move markets, as traders watch for indications about how the economy is performing. The data are released to everyone at the same time to ensure fairness but ECB researchers said they had found evidence of “informed trading” ahead of US data releases. Of the 21 market-moving announcements analysed, seven “show evidence of substantial informed trading before the official release time”, according to the paper, including two releases from the US government. The pre-release “price drift” accounts for about half of the overall price impact from the announcement.

The researchers looked at the impact on futures tracking the S&P 500 stock index and the 10-year Treasury bond for the 30 minutes preceding the announcement. The researchers also note that the price impact has become worse since 2008, and estimate that since 2008 profits in the S&P “e-mini” futures market alone amount to about $20m per year. “These results imply that some traders have private information about macroeconomic fundamentals,” said the report. “The evidence suggests that the pre-announcement drift likely comes from a combination of information leakage and superior forecasting based on proprietary data collection and reprocessing of public information.”

The paper raises questions about the safeguards used to ensure data are protected up until scheduled release time. Important economic indicators in the US are subject to the “Principle Federal Economic Indicator” guidelines, but the report notes that many distributors of the data are not subject to the same rules. “To ensure fairness, no market participant should have access to this information until the official release time,” the report added. “Yet, in this paper we find strong evidence of informed trading before several key macroeconomic news announcements.”

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Household debt is a much bigger factor is some countries than others. In Australia, it’s far bigger than government debt. But the latter is what all political talk is about. “Pumping up fear of government debt is always an essential step in preparing the public to accept cutbacks in essential public services.”

Six Counterpoints About Australian Public Debt (Stanford)

In the lead-up to today’s pre-election Commonwealth budget, much has been written about the need to quickly eliminate the government’s deficit, and reduce its accumulated debt. The standard shibboleths are invoked liberally: government must face hard truths and learn to live within its means; government must balance its budget (just like households do); debt-raters will punish us for our profligacy; and more. Pumping up fear of government debt is always an essential step in preparing the public to accept cutbacks in essential public services. And with Australians heading to the polls, the tough-love imagery serves another function: instilling fear that a change in government, at such a fragile time, would threaten the “stability” of Australia’s economy.

However, this well-worn line of rhetoric will fit uncomfortably for the Coalition government, given its indecisive and contradictory approach to fiscal policy while in office. The deficit has gotten bigger, not smaller, on their watch, despite the destructive and unnecessary cutbacks in public services imposed in their first budget. Their response to Australia’s fiscal and economic problems has consisted mostly of floating one half-formed trial balloon after another (from raising the GST to transferring income tax powers to the states to cutting corporate taxes), with no systematic analysis or framework. And their ideological desire to invoke a phony debt “crisis” as an excuse for ratcheting down spending will conflict with another, more immediate priority: throwing around new money (or at least announcements of new money), especially in marginal electorates, in hopes of buying their way back into office.

In short, the politics of debt and deficits will be both intense and complicated in the coming weeks. To help innoculate Australians against this hysteria, here are six important facts about public debt, what it is – and what it isn’t.

1. Australia’s public debt is relatively small

3. Other sectors of society borrow much more than government

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Somone should explain to these people what’s going on. Mum and Dad will lose their shirts AND their skirts. Ironically, some insist more homes must be build. Ironoc, because that would mean even steeper losses for those buying into today’s craze.

‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ Behind 25% Of British Mortgages (G.)

The “Bank of Mum and Dad” will help finance 25% of UK mortgage transactions this year, according to research. Parents are set to lend their children £5bn to help them on to the property ladder. If the lending power was of all these parents was combined, it would be a top 10 mortgage provider. Nigel Wilson, chief executive of Legal & General, which carried out the research, said the data showed a number of issues, including house prices being “out of sync with wages”. The research estimated that the Bank of Mum and Dad will provide deposits for more than 300,000 mortgages. The homes purchased will be worth £77bn and the average contribution is £17,500 or 7% of the average purchase price.

But relying on parental support might soon be unsustainable as parents could be giving away more than they can afford. Wilson said that in London the funding method was reaching “tipping point” already as parental contributions made up more than 50% of the wealth (excluding property) of the average household in the capital. He said: “The Bank of Mum and Dad plays a vital role in helping young people to take their early steps on to the housing ladder.” Not all young people have parents who can afford to help them and some who do still do not have enough to buy a place of their own, he said. He added: “We need to fix the housing market by revolutionising the supply side – if we build more houses, demand can be met at a sensible level and prices will stabilise relative to wages.”

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Positive feedback.

Dominoes: Vanishing Arctic Ice Shifts Jet Stream, Which Melts Glaciers (WaPo)

Investigating the factors affecting ice melt in Greenland — one of the most rapidly changing places on Earth — is a major priority for climate scientists. And new research is revealing that there are a more complex set of variables affecting the ice sheet than experts had imagined. A recent set of scientific papers have proposed a critical connection between sharp declines in Arctic sea ice and changes in the atmosphere, which they say are not only affecting ice melt in Greenland, but also weather patterns all over the North Atlantic. The new studies center on an atmospheric phenomenon known as “blocking” — this is when high pressure systems remain stationary in one place for long periods of time (days or even weeks), causing weather conditions to stay relatively stable for as long as the block remains in place.

They can occur when there’s a change or disturbance in the jet stream, causing the flow of air in the atmosphere to form a kind of eddy, said Jennifer Francis, a research professor and climate expert at Rutgers University. Blocking events over Greenland are particularly interesting to climate scientists because of their potential to drive temperatures up and increase melting on the ice sheet. “When they do happen, and they kind of set up in just the right spot, they bring a lot of warm, moist air from the North Atlantic up over Greenland, and that helps contribute to increased cloudiness and warming of the surface,” Francis said. “When that happens, especially in the summer, we tend to see these melt events occur.” Now, two new studies have suggested that there’s been a recent increase in the frequency of melt-triggering blocking events over Greenland — and that it’s likely been fueled by climate change-driven losses of Arctic sea ice.

A paper set to be published Monday in the International Journal of Climatology reveals an uptick in the frequency of these blocking events over Greenland since the 1980s. A team of researchers led by the University of Sheffield’s Edward Hanna used a global meteorological dataset relying on historical records to measure the frequency and strength of high pressure systems over Greenland all the way back to the year 1851. Previous analyses had only extended the record back to 1948, so the new study is able to place recent blocking events in a much larger historical context. When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that the increase in blocking frequency over the past 30 years is particularly pronounced in the summer, the time of year when blocking events are likely to have the biggest impact on ice melt.

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Clueless, rudderless, valueless.

Germany Wants To Extend Border Controls For Another 6 Months (AP)

Germany and some other EU countries are planning to ask the European Commission for an extension of border controls within the Schengen passport-free travel zone for another six months because they fear a new wave of migrants. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizere’s spokesman says a letter is being sent Monday asking for an extension of the controls on the German-Austrian border, which were implemented last year when thousands of migrants crossed into Germany daily. De Maizere has expressed concern before that an increasing number of migrants will try to reach Europe this summer by crossing the Mediterranean Sea from lawless Libya to Italy, then travel north to Austria and Germany. Germany registered nearly 1.1 million new arrivals last year and is keen to bring the numbers down in 2016.

Germany’s defense minister, meanwhile, said it was up to Italy to protect its borders but other European countries must be ready to help if needed. Ursula von der Leyen’s comments Monday touched on the potential problems Italy could have with increased arrival of migrants looking for an alternative route into the EU now that the West Balkans route is closed and Turkey has committed to taking back those arriving illegally to Greece. She said a solution must be found “together with Italy.” Austria plans to impose border controls at its main border crossing with Italy to prevent potential attempts by migrants to enter, and with Austria bordering Germany, von der Leyen’s comments indicate her country’s concern that it also may have to deal with new waves of migrants seeking entry.

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“..We have to protect ourselves against the Islamic State group..”

Denmark Extends Controls On German Border (EN)

Denmark has extended temporary controls on its border with Germany, first imposed in January to help regulate an influx of migrants. The measures have been prolonged by another month until the beginning of June. The European Commission, struggling to prevent the collapse of the Schengen agreement, has confirmed it will soon authorise more such extensions. The Danish government says it has joined several countries in writing to the Commission asking for a two-year extension. “Together with the Germans, the French, the Austrians and the Swedes I have today sent a letter to the EU commission asking for the possibility to extend the border control for the next two years,” said Inger Støjberg, Danish minister of immigration and integration.

“I have done so because we need to look out for Denmark. We have to protect ourselves against the Islamic State group, who are trying to take advantage of the situation where there are holes in borders. But also as protection against the influx of refugees coming through Europe.” The Commission could give the green light as early as Wednesday to countries within the passport-free Schengen zone wishing to extend exceptional border controls. The five countries have taken the measures because of the influx of migrants and refugees heading north via the so-called Balkans route after entering Europe via the Greek shores. Although the crisis has eased, the governments say many migrants are still camped along the route and in Greece.

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The cattle trade continues unabated. Europeans are as immoral as their leadership.

EU States Face Charge For Refusing Refugees (FT)

European countries that refuse to share the burden of high immigration will face a financial charge of about €250,000 per refugee, according to Brussels’ plans to overhaul the bloc’s asylum rules. The punitive financial pay-off clause is one of the most contentious parts of the European Commission’s proposed revision of the so-called Dublin asylum regulation, due to be revealed on Wednesday. It represents the EU’s most concerted attempt to salvage an asylum system that collapsed under the weight of a million-strong migration to Europe last year, endangering the principle of passport-free travel in the Schengen area. In recent weeks migrant flows to Greece have fallen due to tighter controls through the western Balkans and a deal with Turkey to send-back asylum seekers arriving on Greek islands.

However, the EU remains as politically divided as ever over strengthening the bloc’s asylum rules. While acknowledging these political constraints, the commission’s reforms aim to gradually shift more responsibility away from the overwhelmed frontline states, such as Greece, in future crises, primarily through an automatic system to share refugees across Europe if a country faces a sudden influx. Crucially, this is backed by a clause that allows immigration-wary countries to pay a fee — set at a deliberately high level — if they want to avoid taking relocated asylum seekers for a temporary period. According to four people familiar with the proposal, this contribution was set at €250,000 per asylum seeker in Monday’s commission draft. But those involved in the talks say it may well be adjusted in deliberations over coming days.

“The size of the contribution may change but the idea is to make it appear like a sanction,” said one official who has seen the proposal. Another diplomat said in any event the price of refusing to host a refugee would be “hundreds of thousands of euros”. Eastern European states such as Poland and Hungary would welcome alternatives to mandatory asylum quotas but will balk at the high penalties suggested. At the commission’s recommended rate, Poland would need to pay around €1.5bn to avoid its existing 6,200 quota to relocate refugees from Italy and Greece. These financial contributions are in part designed to fix incentives around migrant quotas, which have badly failed and proved almost impossible to implement even once agreed in law. The commission proposal builds on the EU’s flagship emergency scheme to relocate 160,000 refugees, which has barely redistributed 1% of its target since it was agreed last year.

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And how many did you say are unaccounted for, Europe?

90,000 Unaccompanied Minors Sought Asylum In EU In 2015 (R.)

Some 88,300 unaccompanied minors sought asylum in the EU in 2015, 13% of them children younger than 14, crossing continents without their parents to seek a place of safety, EU data showed on Monday. More than a million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa reached Europe last year. While that was roughly double the 2014 figure, the number of unaccompanied minors quadrupled, statistics agency Eurostat said. Minors made up about a third of the 1.26 million first-time asylum applications filed in the EU last year. EU states disagree on how to handle Europe’s worst migration crisis since World War II and anti-immigrant sentiment has grown, even in countries that traditionally have a generous approach to helping people seeking refuge.

Four in 10 unaccompanied minors applied for asylum in Sweden, where some have called for greater checks, suspicious that adults are passing themselves off as children in order to secure protection they might otherwise be denied. Eurostat’s figures refer specifically to asylum applicants “considered to be unaccompanied minors,” meaning EU states accepted the youngsters’ declared age or established it themselves through age assessment procedures. More than 90% of the minors traveling without a parent or guardian were boys and more than half of them were between 16 and 17 years old. Half were Afghans and the second largest group were Syrians, at 16% of the total. After Sweden, Germany, Hungary and Austria followed as the main destinations for unaccompanied underage asylum seekers.

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