Our Financial Future

Interest rates should be the rental cost of money. The greater the opportunities to make profits, the more people will be willing to pay for the available money to invest in further profitable ventures and the interest rates go up. That is reinforced in that if more people are trying to borrow the same limited supply of money the rental price of it must increase, to shake out the less determined borrowers. However, it does not quite work like that. If an economic boom comes along, who wants to kill good times when you can print more money? However, eventually interest rates begin to rise, and then spike to restrict credit and suppress speculation. Recessions tend to follow this spike, and interest rates fall. Ideally, the interest rate reflects what the investor expects future value to be relative to present value. All of this assumes no external economic forces.

An obvious current problem is that we have too many objectives as central banks start to enter the domain of policy. Quantitative easing involved greatly increasing the supply of money so that there was plenty for profitable investment. Unfortunately, what has mainly happened, at least where I live, is that most of it has gone into pre-existing assets, especially housing. Had it gone into building new ones, that would be fine, but it hasn’t; it has simply led to an exasperating increase in prices.

In the last half of the twentieth century, interest rates positively correlated strongly with inflation. Investors add in their expectation of inflation into their demand for bonds, for example. Interest rates and equity values tend to increase during a boom and fall during a recession. Now we find the value of equities and the interest rates on US Treasuries are both increasing, but arguably there is no boom going on. One explanation is that inflation is increasing. However, the Head of the US Federal Reserve has apparently stated that the US economy is a long way from employment and inflation goals, and there will be no increase in interest rates in the immediate future. Perhaps this assumes inflation will not take off until unemployment falls, but the evidence of stagflation, particularly in Japan, says you can have bad unemployment and high inflation, and consequently a poorly performing economy. One of the problems with inflation is that expectations of it tend to be self-fulfilling. 

As a consequence of low inflation, and of central banks printing money, governments tend to be spending vigorously. They could invest in new technology or infrastructure to stimulate the economy, and well-chosen investment will generate a lot of employment, with the consequent benefits in economic growth and that growth and profitability will eventually pay for the cost of the money. However, that does not seem to be happening. There are two other destinations: banks, which lend at low interest, and “helicopter money” to relieve those under strain because of the virus. The former, here at least, has ended up mainly in fixed and existing assets, which inflates their price. The latter has saved many small companies, at least for a while, but there is a price.

The US has spent $5.3 trillion dollars. The National Review looked at what would be needed to pay this back. If you assume the current pattern of taxation depending on income holds, Americans with incomes (in thousand dollars) between $30 – 40 k would pay ~$5,000; between $40 – 50 k would pay ~$9,000; between $50 – 75 k would pay ~$16,000; between $75 – 100 k would pay ~$27,000; between $100 – 200 k would pay ~$51,000. For those on higher incomes the numbers get out of hand. If you roll it over and pay interest, the average American family will get $350 less in government services, which is multiplied by however much interest rates rise. If we assume that the cost of a dollar raised in tax is $1.50 to allow for the depressed effects on the economy, the average American owes $40,000 thanks to the stimulus. Other countries will have their own numbers.I know I seem to be on this issue perhaps too frequently, but those numbers scare me. The question I ask is, do those responsible for printing all this money have any idea what the downstream consequences will be? If they do, they seem to be very reluctant to tell us.

The Future is Coming

The question then is, what will it be? I have just been reading a book by a number of futurists and it was remarkably timid, with a lot of conditional subjunctives and a bit of wishful thinking. Superficially, we should do better with the clues out there. Or can we? Are there too many unknowns? Is any part of the future impossible to predict with any reliability? Certainly, around here the professionals seem to make predictions on a par with the way I make them, that is, most of them are rubbish. About three years ago, economists were recommending New Zealand invest a lot more in tourism. OK, Covid 19 could be regarded as a Black Swan Event, but as soon as the virus struck, economists were advising that there would be unemployment of at least 11% by now, even with strong government financial support for the flailing industries. Accordingly, the Reserve Bank brought interest rates way down and began a major program of quantitative easing. The latest unemployment figures here are 4.5%, and thanks to floods of low interest money house prices have got out of control. Of course, the Reserve Bank will no doubt claim credit for the low unemployment (in part because anyone who can be of use at house building is employed) and ignore the house prices. So, what next? As usual, I have no idea.

Between 2008 and 2020, it appears the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan and the People’s Bank of China have been printing $1 trillion per year, and using this to buy government bonds. The governments have pushed the money into society with extremely low interest rates to encourage industries to employ more people and bring new things to market. Do you see this happening? No? So what will happen? Surely, if you keep pumping air into a tyre, eventually something will give. Quantitative easing has currently reached about 30% of various nations annual GDP, that is, 30% more than was needed to run the economies previously, yet they continue with greater enthusiasm. 

So what has happened? The reserve banks buy bonds from commercial banks, who then have managers that have to do something with the money. They lend to the wealthy and more to the rich to buy assets. Thus suppose you have an asset that yields 6% per annum. You use that as collateral to borrow money at 2%, or maybe even at 1% interest and buy another asset yielding 6%. Now you are starting to make more money and since you got rich by doing this sort of thing, you know what you are doing. As long as you make good investments and have fixed interest contracts, you cannot lose, leaving aside a massive disaster, and even then you will be in a better place than most others. The lesser wealthy either buy smaller assets, or stock. The net result is an overall increase in prices of these assets. If the asset is a house, the rent gets raised to accommodate the increased price. Those who sell or do not wish to buy assets put the money into banks or bonds, where it sits out of circulation, thus keeping the working money supply down. The extreme is when huge amounts of money are secreted away in tax havens.

So the poor get poorer because they have to rent, and their income has stayed the same because there is allegedly no inflation. Why is there no inflation? Because asset prices, housing, etc, do not count in most inflation indices. They do not count because it makes the establishment look so much more in control if they ignore these minor problems. Accordingly, the poor have to buy fewer consumables. That is why there is a shortage of productive investment: sales are static or, with this virus, are going down. The poor have less money, they buy less, hence industries do not expand. In fact, industries tend to contract. Last year, our national airline let go a third of its workforce. Quite high-earning people end up chasing much lower-paid jobs. They also suspended the purchase of new aircraft, so that is less income somewhere else. In such times, it is the higher salaried people let go unless they are essential, so we see even more hollowing of the middle class. The future is coming, but it is less clear from the financial point of view what it will hold. All that money effectively doing nothing is both a potential crisis and an enormous opportunity. Anyone who can think of an original way to capture some of that could become seriously rich.

Unaffordable Houses

In New Zealand, house prices are rising at an uncomfortable rate, partly aided by a shortage of stock. Somewhere about the late 1980s a number of houses were built to “look desirable and be cheap”, but unfortunately they were built badly. Why? Because a nominal “Labour” party was hijacked by right-wingers who made the likes of Thatcher look almost left wing. Regulations were cut, the market ruled, and buildings are hard to tell how well made they are until some number of years later, when they started to fall to pieces. The consequence was that local government and a changed central government pushed out regulations, and with amendments, and from then on it became a bit of a nightmare to build. Further, Councils put restrictions on land use so developers began land banking, thus raising the price of available land to high levels. Prices rose dramatically, but houses were immediately bought because interest rates tumbled. I thought we might be unusual here, but I recently found an article in The Economist” on house prices. Apparently the New Zealand situation is occurring across most Western countries. Germany apparently has had an increase of 11% over the previous year, while South Korea and parts of China have had to tighten rules for buyers.

The Economist stated monetary policy is partly to blame. Cutting interest rates mean borrowers can afford bigger mortgages and others find it easier to manage existing loans. On the other hand obtaining the mortgage is far from easier as the banks are worried about the long-term effects of the virus. In America 60% of bank loan officers have tightened the requirements for borrowing. However, landlords are willing to pay more because the perceived return on other assets has fallen. That is why stock prices are rising, despite the fact that economies are in deep trouble. The quantitative easing is sending money into the economies, but too much is going to those who wish to invest rather than to those who want to buy consumables. Investing in new companies or new construction would be virtuous, but these guys want a quick effort-free result, in which case there is nowhere else for that money to go other than existing assets. Meanwhile the moderately richer people can liquidate some other assets, and particularly bank deposits, which now return very little and pay more for houses. Sorry, poor, but your rent will go up because these guys are not running a charity.

It should be noted that many governments claim that quantitative easing is not inflationary. Actually, it is, but we must recall relativity. It devalues the money relative to what would have happened had it not happened. Keynes would argue that is a highly desirable outcome, but only if the debt so generated is paid back when times improve.

Fiscal policy is also a problem. In a normal recession, people lose their jobs and as their income is insufficient, foreclosures drag house prices down, which leaves ex-homeowners with a blemish on their credit history, making further borrowing harder. Thus the supply of houses increases and the number of people able to get a mortgage falls, which leads to cheaper houses. However, this time the richer countries have preserved household incomes, at least for a while, through wage subsidies, furlough schemes and expanded welfare benefits. Apparently in the G7 countries, in the second quarter disposable incomes were $100 bn higher than before the pandemic. Go figure! A number of countries have also allowed borrowers to suspend or defer all or parts of their repayments, and some have even banned foreclosures. The governments are protecting those in debt, at the expense of those who save or are young.

There is also possibly a third factor: since it has now become desirable to work from home, many office workers are looking to buy a bigger home. This is not a bad thing regarding the poor, but it boosts the price statistics of larger houses. Accordingly, this creates an illusory aspect to house price increases, to add to the real increases elsewhere.Which raises the question, where to from here? Governments have to wind down the fiscal stimulus, and we can expect increasing unemployment to reduce demand, but supply may also decrease as investment for new houses becomes more difficult to obtain. Very low interest rates may lead to increased purchases, but it also leads to decreased savings, which means that other than printing money and inflating the economy, after the initial “sugar high” the investment needed to build new houses may dry up. As the Chinese curse reminds us, we are living in interesting times.

The Poor in a Democracy

One issue that is finally coming to public notice is the issue of inequality. When the virus started to make an impression, Jeff Bezos’ net wealth increased by tens of billions of dollars and that was effectively a free result of the increased significance of Amazon. Yes, Bezos did very well to set it up and he deserves a life of wealth, but that much? At the same time, a very large number of small businesses around the world were going bankrupt, workers were being fired, and in lands of plenty, very large numbers of people cannot afford a proper place to live, they struggle to buy enough food and electricity, and their children are hampered because they do not have the money to use internet technology for their learning. 

Let’s forget the virus. Before that, if the nation’s GDP went up, the lower incomes remained stationary; if there was a recession, the poor’s net wealth, if they had any, gets obliterated, and if they get sick they are in real trouble. The State makes policies that favour the rich, the bankers, and so on, and it is the poor who pay for it. How does this happen in a democracy? That it happens is shown by India, the world’s largest democracy. It is now a middle-income country, according to statistics, but it has the world’s largest number of extreme poor and the third largest number of billionaires.

A recent article on democracy in the journal Science used water as an example of 

a resource in limited supply. Suppose there is just enough for everyone to drink and wash. Now the rich can pay for huge private swimming pools so they make political donations, they get their water, and the poor get rationed through water meters and charging. The costs are trivial for the rich, but the poor cannot pay for the cost of the meter and the bureaucracy associated with charging and have enough income left over to pay for children’s education. So why did this situation occur? Essentially because the politicians permit it. The simple answer would be to ban swimming pools, but the rich will never permit that, and their power lies in the fact they fund the politicians’ election programs. There may be sufficient voters to have the overall power, but they cannot organise that advantage.

Further, politicians and parties become weaker if information flows improve. One of the first things you find out about governments is they seldom come clear with what they are doing. Politicians make grandiose generalized statements that sound good, but seldom show what is really occurring with any accuracy. That comment is sparked by the fact that New Zealand is having an election soon, and one thing that happens is there are TV slots in which senior politicians are asked questions from the public. Very seldom is a question answered properly. If you think that is just New Zealand, consider the debate (??) between Trump and Biden last night. Trust me, the NZ debates shine very brightly compared with that chaotic fiasco.

Nevertheless, when the word inequality was raised here, it got swiftly deflected. A recent question related to the effect of low interest rates. Strictly speaking, our government has no say in these – they are set by the Reserve Bank, but nevertheless the argument produced was that lower interest rates means less is paid on mortgages, and hence the poor get the benefit of easier accommodation, with money left over to buy food, etc. 

Yeah, right! Lower interest rates tends to lead to an increase in house prices. First, those with money see less return on bank deposits so take the money to buy assets. Accordingly, you get a booming house market and stock markets have record highs, even though thanks to the virus, businesses are not necessarily doing better business. That means house prices rise, so anyone buying simply pays a similar fraction of their income to the bank in interest, but their capital debt is higher. Because house prices rise, rent rises. The poor have just as little money to spend, or even less, business does not turn over better, while the rich stock up on assets, and probably work out ways to get tax relief for them. Thus lower interest rates are yet again another way to transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. Those who have houses tend to benefit, but they are not the poor.

We also have parties promising lower taxes. The poor would get enough to buy the odd extra loaf of bread a week, while the rich get serious increases because these tax reductions tend to be proportional to the tax. Rent/housing costs increase and that extra loaf of bread is gobbled up by the bankers, plus a lot more. Worse, we have quantitative easing. Either that has to be paid back (and that will not be paid by the rich, even though they are the only ones to benefit) or it will inflate the currency, at which time again the poor lose because the rich have their wealth tied up in assets. If you don’t believe the rich don’t pay tax, see the recent fuss over a certain Donald Trump.So why do the poor put up with this? There seem to me to be two reasons. The first is the poor cannot get themselves organised. They tend to be the ones who don’t vote. They say no party cares about them, but if they are not going to turn up and vote, guess why the parties concentrate on those who will vote. Another interesting point is that parties that nominally favour the poor usually have politicians who are quite wealthy. Getting elected by the poor might be easy, but getting nominated for a party with any show is hideously difficult. Parties pick candidates that will be trouble-free. Donors must not be upset. Which ends up with getting politicians whose major skill lies in getting elected. Asking them then to do something creative, as opposed to doing what the lobbyists want, is too much. Asking for a conscience is just plain silly. It ain’t goin’ to happen any time soon.

Government bails them out, but then what?

In New Zealand, I am far from certain that anyone knows what to do when our lockdown ends. The economist thinks that the money supply will fix all things and reserve bank has done what it has not done before: embarked on quantitative easing, Many other governments have done the same and the world will be awash with money. Is this a solution? It is supposed to compensate for the lockdown Two questions: is the lockdown worth it, and is the money supply the answer? To the first question, here the answer appears to be so, if you value lives. After two weeks of lockdown, the number of new cases per day were clearly falling, and by Good Friday the number of new cases had dropped to almost a third of their peak. They continue to drop and the day before this post, there were only 20 new cases. However, if we look at the price, our Treasury Department has predicted the best case is something like 10% unemployment, and if the lockdown lasts significantly longer than the four weeks, unemployment may hit 26%.

To the second question, the jury is out. Around the world, Governments think yes. The US Congress has prepared a gigantic fiscal stimulus of $2 trillion, which is roughly 10% of GDP. Some European countries have made credit guarantees worth as much as 15% of GDP to stop a cascade of defaults. New Zealand is rather fortunate because its national debt was only about 28% of GDP prior to the virus. Some predict the stimulus may reach 22% of GDP, but it has room to move before reaching the heights of some other countries. However, it is far from clear that it will successfully prevent a raft of defaults.

First, defaults always happen. In the OECD about 8% of businesses go bust each year, while 10% of the workforce lose their jobs. Of course, since economies have been expanding there was an equal or greater creation of business and jobs before this virus. That won’t happen post virus. Take restaurants as an example. Restaurants closing down may well re-open under new management, without the old debt, and not so many workers. That may not happen post-virus because people under financial strain or fear that unemployment might be imminent will not eat out, and the tourists, who have to eat out, will not be here. Therein lies the problem. If people fear there will be a slump, there will be; such fear is self-fulfilling. 

There will be changes, and some may be guided by the virus problem. Some businesses will cut costs by specializing in home delivery, and they should be doing that now because first in that performs well probably wins. For manufacturing, the relief of the lockdown may well retain heavy restrictions, such as expecting people to devise a way for working so they remain two meters away from others. That requires significant investment to do this. Will it be worth it? It seriously raises costs, so will people buy the more expensive products? But will this happen? The basic problem for small business is that it is almost a waste of time planning until the government makes its future laws and regulations clear, and once stated, sticks to them. I have run a small business since 1986, and the one thing that has always made things difficult is a change of rules. You get to know how to operate in one set of rules, but when those change the small business has too many things for too few people to do, and a successful small business is light on management. The owner tends to do everything, and I found new regulations to be a complete pest.

Meanwhile, the governments of the world have some interesting choices. Historically, when governments intervene, they seldom let things go back to where they were. If governments get used to regulating, will they let go? If you prefer to leave it to market forces, will that lead to greater wealth for all? As I heard one man say on the radio today, those with money will be looking to buy up assets, i.e. company shares that have become somewhat undervalued. Unfortunately, while that makes some richer, it does nothing for the general public.All of which raises the question, what should they do? That depends on what is required to get out of the slump. The obvious answer is to start additional businesses to replace what has failed, but how do you do that? One of the things that is critically required is money, but while that is necessary, it is not sufficient.  Throwing money at such things is usually a waste. A business needs three basics: technology (more broadly, how to make whatever you are selling), the ability to sell whatever you are making, and management, which is essentially getting the best us of your money, staff, and other assets. Only a very moderate number of people are skilled in even one of those, very few can handle two, and nobody can cover all three well. This is why so many small businesses fail. And that raises the possibility that what governments need to do is to somehow bring the required people together. And that is something with which governments have no experience.

Where to now, economy?

While I write futuristic novels, none of them involve trying to predict the future; rather I use the future as an excuse to formulate a situation that has little merit other than to be the background to a story that is really looking at something else. However, like most people, I am curious about what could be coming. That includes wondering where the economy is going.

Some time ago I saw an interview with Mervyn King, an ex-Governor of the Bank of England. According to him, in a market economy banking crises are endemic because a market economy cannot provide all the required price and investment signals. This is effectively a statement that there is an inherent failure in the market economy, and it arises because nobody can predict the future, and there are the problems of positive feedback (where the effects of the problem make it worse) and hunting (where the correction dramatically overshoots and causes the opposite problem). Thus suppose commodity A suddenly has a shortage. Prices rise, the masses start acquiring A and the price rises further, but there is no fundamental reason for the rise. When reality strikes, prices drop, and keep dropping.

I recall in my youth the price of potatoes tanked, and farmers found themselves dumping them. My father immediately began renting land, and with a trailer, went around the potato dumps and picked up free seed. Next season, because everyone had got out of potatoes, and also partly because of adverse weather in places, prices leaped five times above average. At that point, my father made a lot of money, but immediately got out of potatoes, on the grounds that next year everyone would be back into them. Now, King’s point is, bankers lend to farmers, but they cannot know what next season’s prices will be, and hence cannot know whether the farmer will prosper or go bust. In New Zealand there are a number of dairy farmers who got into it with expensive farm conversions when prices were very high a couple of years ago. When the world became swimming in milk, the debts still had to be serviced.

The question then is, can anything be done about this? My guess is, so far there are no signs that anything better would work. A long time ago I was in the old USSR, a command economy, and basically it was not working at all well. Prices were stable, by command. I went into a restaurant and picked up a menu that was printed twenty years before and the prices held! The problem was, I also went into a major store to see an array of empty shelves. The prices might have been stable, but if the goods were not available, their price was irrelevant. In one of my trilogies, I proposed an economy that was stable, BUT there is no evidence it would actually work. The proposal was simply background to make the rest of the story easier to follow, and in any case, there were price rises due to resource shortages. However, there was no possibility of major recessions, or major booms. Perhaps I was dreaming?

Another one of King’s points was that while central banks avoided a catastrophe in 2007 – 2008, since then, the basic fundamentals have not been corrected. In particular, there is a serious disequilibrium between saving and debt, largely due to very low interest rates. The problem is, the longer this goes on, the harder it will be to return to some desirable “normal”.

King was also somewhat skeptical about the European Union, and noted that a single interest rate imposed on countries with varying rates of wage and cost inflation leads inexorably to divergence in competitiveness. Well, yes, it would. German banks would seem to have to take some major losses, but they seem reluctant to do so. (Note that Germany itself has defaulted on debt before.)

King’s way out is to boost productivity and growth, and he was enthusiastic about the TPP trade agreement. My guess is that Trump will kill that option.

The problem I see with that analysis is that King thinks society in the future will be more or less the same as now. I am less convinced. In many western countries, the biggest problem is that local manufacturing has been exported, and this has led to the hollowing out of middle classes. While the very top corporations are raking in huge profits (and paying increasingly less tax) the wage earners tend to find their wages actually reduced. Governments are compensating by increasing their borrowing, thus taking advantage of lower interest rates. The problem here is, with the exception of the US and others undertaking quantitative easing, while central banks might offer low interest rates, they do not lend because to do so without borrowing is simply to enlarge the money supply. The US has got away with quantitative easing largely because trillions of dollars have been secreted away in foreign banks as a consequence of tax avoidance. However, the debts remain.

For the general economies of countries like New Zealand, while the Reserve Bank recently lowered interest rates, the commercial banks actually slightly raised them. The reason: they need deposits, and as interest rates have dropped, people have gone searching for yield elsewhere. Here, a lot has gone into housing, largely because there is a shortage of houses, but this has not created a lot of new houses. Instead, as King would have noted, this must lead to a bubble happily fermenting, although because of the underlying shortage (which is politician induced) it may not burst. Here, politicians are the problem through sending perverse signals and regulations to the market. Money has also fled towards stocks, but again that tends to raise the price when more money goes there than into new ventures. Now, what happens if this bubble bursts? Governments are in so much debt they have little room to maneuver. By itself, politicians might consider that as merely unfortunate, but the problem then is the consequences, one of which I included in my novel ‘Bot War. I hope that consequence does not come to pass, but I am far from confident.

The stock market dives. Woe! Woe! Woe!

The news this week appears to be focused on the stock markets around the world seemingly going into a dive. One of the things that puzzles me is why this is regarded as such a disaster. I accept that if some investor actually badly needs money and has to sell, this is not good news, but apart from that, and apart from speculators getting it wrong (and here I have little sympathy) what is the problem? If the number of people employed stays the same, the amount produced stays the same, the wages and salaries stay the same, what is important stays the same. What matters in a business is cash flow. If raw materials are available, if costs are stable, if interest rates are low, and if sales are constant, variations in stock prices seem to me to be irrelevant.

Maybe we are all a bunch of wailers! Recall that as oil prices kept rising, there was a general wailing that energy costs would stifle the market. Well, now oil prices seem to be as low as ever, thanks to fracking, and there is general wailing, seemingly because the oil merchants are no longer able to extort such high profits from everyone. (Although, from the price of petrol locally, I rather fancy oil companies are doing rather well out of this too. Prices go up very quickly, and down rather slowly.) It seems to me quite probable that if oil prices stayed the same, there would also be general wailing.

In the alleged “bad news” column, growth in China is falling. The most pessimistic prediction I have seen is that it will fall to (horrors) 5 % this year. So, there may be problems. Thus the Australian mining sector will suffer because construction in China is slowing to a more sustainable level. So? Who else is growing at 5%? If growth were universally zero, would not things be the same as last year? Was last year that bad?

So the European economies are falling backwards. The Greek financial mess is at least partly the fault of the rest of Europe. The huge number of asylum-seekers from the muslim regions also hardly helps, but surely that is a problem Europe has to face. The sanctions against Russia is self-imposed. Cutting off your biggest markets carries a price, and politicians should have made preparations for those consequences, but they did not. The inability to make good predictions and then act on them was also a failure. Consider the dairy industry. A year or so ago there were very high prices. However, the sanctions against Russia removed one of the bigger consumers, and worse, only too many farmers thought the dairy prices were so high they had to get into it. A major reduction in the market size, and a major increase in production meant that prices would collapse. All the money you pay in taxes and that leads to information gathering might have been analysed and appropriate advice given. Of course this presupposes governments are interested in their citizens.

I suspect reality has little to do with the collapse. Quantitative easing pushed too much money into the system for too long. Low interest rates have forced people to invest in stocks because they are one of the few assets that would normally give much better returns in period of low interest. There was too much cash chasing too few stocks, and the prices rose to ridiculous levels. The price to earnings ratios of many mature shares exceeded 17, and that was in a period of high earnings. Those who know would have decided this could be the time to liquidate. The problem is, once some start selling, everyone wants to sell and the stock prices tank, an issue compounded by computerized trading.

Is this all that bad? If you are a long term investor, or a value investor, this is good, because as the prices tumble, there are bargains out there if you know what you are doing. Those that get hurt are the greedy ones who do not know what they are doing, and surely there is some justice in that.