09 Jun 2009

Thinking Outside the Box on Monetary Issues

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Deep Thought #1: Let’s assume for the moment that there really is a cartel of international bankers who basically run the various governments and central banks. Wouldn’t it be to their advantage to reproduce the Japanese lost decade in as many places as possible? You get a bad economy, so the public allows you to impose new regulations and spend tons of money to fix it, and yet you don’t suffer the fallout from rapid price inflation. What’s not to like?

Deep Thought #2: Robert Wenzel has really been spot-on for most of this crisis. At this point, I don’t even bother linking every good post. Suffice it to say, Wenzel is just about the only blogger on the planet who (1) knows Austrian economics, (2) follows financial events like a PI, and (3) has a very cynical view of politicians and big business. (For example, check out his take on banks being able to repay TARP money.)

Anyway, Wenzel has been watching M2 for signs of when US price inflation will kick in, and I decided I had no particular reason for preferring the narrower M1 aggregate (which is what I normally plot on this blog, in addition to the monetary base). So I wanted to check whether M2 in fact has been a good predictor of price inflation. I may have blogged about this before, but if so it bears repeating:

If you didn’t know what those lines above represented, wouldn’t you say they were quite clearly things that moved in opposite directions? It’s not perfect, but they are basically mirror images.

And yet the standard monetarist story is that–with a conveniently difficult-to-falsify “long and variable lag”–high/low M2 growth causes high/low price inflation.

Scott Sumner stole my thunder and mocked the “long and variable lag” notion already; I had a few good zingers myself at my talk at the Mises Circle in Fort Worth. But basically, I don’t think it takes 6 months for the market to adjust to a bunch of new money dumped into it. If the Saudis announce that they are increasing production, oil prices respond almost immediately. So why does it take the market a year or two years to change the price of money (i.e. its purchasing power)?

I think the graph above shows that maybe in practice, given the market forming expectations and the Fed officials trying to operate in that environment, what actually happens is that the rising inflation rate causes the Fed to cut down M2 growth. On the other hand, in periods of tame inflation, the Fed can get away with inflating.

To clarify, I am not denying that an injection of money may lead to higher prices after a lag. But I am saying the mechanism is that the demand for money has increased at first, and then later returns to the old level. So for example, both M1 and M2 have risen at a very fast clip since the fall of 2008. But prices actually fell at first, and now are rising at a much more moderate pace. The answer is that people want to hold higher cash balances than they did before Paulson told them the world was ending. When people stop expecting further price declines, then they will want to reduce the size of their holdings, and you will see prices rise at a higher rate, even if (at that time) M1 and M2 aren’t growing particularly quickly.

In one sense, I’m just quibbling about sloppy language, I suppose. But people say stuff like “it takes a while for new money to have an impact.” No it doesn’t. Price deflation would have been a lot more severe in 4q 2008 had Bernanke kept M1 and M2 level.

09 Jun 2009

NDPC Free Market Forum Video Now Up

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The video for three of the talks at the North Dakota Policy Council’s “Free Market Forum” is now posted. On the right side of the viewer, you can choose which talk to watch. Tom Woods is first, then me, then Michael LaFaive (from the Mackinac Center). At least on my laptop, when I click on a talk I have to wait about a minute for the spinning thingie to stop, so don’t give up hope.

I tell a pretty good Tom Woods anecdote in the beginning of my talk, if that gives you any motivation. Here’s a group photo:

03 Jun 2009

Potpourri

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Bloomberg (HT2LRC) reports that Marc Faber is predicting Zimbabwe for the US economy:

The U.S. economy will enter “hyperinflation” approaching the levels in Zimbabwe because the Federal Reserve will be reluctant to raise interest rates, investor Marc Faber said.

Prices may increase at rates “close to” Zimbabwe’s gains, Faber said in an interview with Bloomberg Television in Hong Kong. Zimbabwe chance to put parts of that nightmare behind us.

Tyler’s not exactly pulling a Kudlow here, but I think it’s close.

* Robert Wenzel sends this story on the Fed no longer seeking the power to issue its own debt. Instead it will rely solely on paying interest on reserves if it wants to contain price inflation without reducing the Fed’s balance sheet.

* What are the chances? There is apparently another consultant named Robert P. Murphy who also works in Nashville. Now I know why I’m still not rich–this guy is obviously intercepting a bunch of my business.

03 Jun 2009

Just-So Darwinism

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[UPDATE below.]

I am not claiming in this brief post that “evolution is bunk” or that the Genesis account is the literal history of the six days of creation. What I am saying is that you will never find such open-ended, anything-goes theorizing in any scientific field other than evolutionary biology.

Consider this article (HT2LRC) on why we bald men are actually very attractive to young women:

Although many scholars have tried to identify a useful function for human hairlessness, they have failed. Indeed Alfred Wallace, the biologist who jointly described evolution with Darwin, concluded that our hairlessness proved the existence of God. Only a supernatural being, unconcerned with natural selection, could have designed it.

But Darwin showed that hairlessness was proof of a different type of evolution, not by natural selection but by sexual selection. Under natural selection, individuals survive if they are adapted to their environments: a brown bear, being conspicuous, would not last long in the Arctic, so it evolves into a polar bear. Sexual selection is not concerned with the environment but with sex: individuals breed only if they find a mate, so animals have to attract one. Consider the peacock.

OK so already we’re in trouble. The guy is going to use the example of a peacock’s plumage to prove why we lost our hair. (!!)

If that were the end of the story, I might say some wise aleck remark like, “If the guy were trying to explain why women had such lush manes, compared to the meager covering of the males, then it might make sense to bring up the peacock.” But I can’t go that route, because the “scientific Darwinian” story gets even more convoluted:

We human beings, too, are highly selected sexually, but in our case it is women who are the peacocks: the more beautiful they are, the greater the number and quality of the men who court them. This is why, some 75,000 years ago, we made our last two evolutionary advances: we lost our body hair and we invented art….

Art and hairlessness co-evolved because they fed off each other. The girl whose skin was least hairy could paint it, tattoo it, decorate it and clothe it more adventurously than could her furry sisters. So she got more and better men. And in consequence her children – even the males, though to a lesser degree – lost their hair too. We had become the naked ape.

OK, you got that? Remember, the whole point of this story is to explain why older men with thinning hair are actually attractive to young women (despite the myths that Rogaine and others would have you believe, and despite all those male models with full heads of hair). So to do that, the story starts out with why evolution made women lose their (body) hair, which then caused their male offspring to lose their (body and scalp?) hair, even though the original motivation (sexual selection a la the peacock) never caused female baldness to become prevalent.

To repeat, I am not saying the above story is impossible. What I am saying is that the exact opposite outcome–namely, a trend of female baldness and men with much thicker hair–would have been a far more natural fit to the proferred Darwinian mechanism.

You see this all the time in pop evolutionary biological accounts, where a plausible Darwinian story is deployed when it just as easily (indeed, often more easily) could have been deployed to fit the reverse set of facts. And a lot of the people who lap this stuff up, would be the first to denounce the non-falsifiability of unscientific Intelligent Design stories.

Sexual selection is the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card for Darwinian theories. “What, that feature makes absolutely no sense and could only hurt the survival fitness of a creature? Well, the females must be turned on by vulnerability. You’ve seen Beaches right?”

UPDATE: OK I went back and re-read the article, and it seems that maybe the guy just took 85% of his space to discuss something completely irrelevant to male pattern baldness. In other words, he might have been offering the above story just to motivate the connection between human hair and sexual selection. When it comes to male pattern baldness, here is the scientific hypothesis:

Men have evolved to attract women. Because only some men go bald, we must assume that different women are attracted differently. Some women will be attracted to young men, but young men are untried and therefore risky, so some women will seek sugar daddies instead. Mating with sugar daddies invokes a different set of risks but the trophy wife is nonetheless making a rational choice – one that may well have been rewarded preferentially in the Stone Age – to which she is in part guided by baldness in her man.

Ah OK, we “explain” male pattern baldness as a response to sexual selection pressures. So why haven’t all men gone bald? Ah, we “must assume that different women are attracted differently.” Apparently conditions in one part of the African savannah favored sugar daddies, but in another part there were trees that yielded giant coconuts to the guys with full heads of hair and who knew how to dance really well.

I’m so glad we have abandoned faith and superstition, and now embrace Reason and Science.

02 Jun 2009

Potpourri

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* Jérémie Rostan alerts us to this WSJ article discussing German Chancellor Merkel’s awesomeness:

“I view with great skepticism the powers of the Fed, for example, and also how, within Europe, the Bank of England has carved out its own small line,” Ms. Merkel said in a speech in Berlin. “We must return together to an independent central-bank policy and to a policy of reason, otherwise we will be in exactly the same situation in 10 years’ time.”

* MercedesRules passes along this Bloomberg article discussing an insurer who is buying gold for the first time in 152 years:

Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., the third-largest U.S. life insurer by 2008 sales, has bought gold for the first time the company’s 152-year history to hedge against further asset declines.

“Gold just seems to make sense; it’s a store of value,” Chief Executive Officer Edward Zore said in an interview following his comments at a conference hosted by Standard & Poor’s in Brooklyn. “In the Depression, gold did very, very well.”

Northwestern Mutual has accumulated about $400 million in gold, and Zore said the price could double or even rise fivefold if the economy continues to weaken. Gold gained 10 percent last month, the most since November. The commodity has more than tripled since 2000, rising for eight straight years. Gold futures for August delivery slipped $4.80 to $975.50 at 4:03 p.m. in New York.

“The downside risk is limited, but the upside is large,” Zore said. “We have stocks in our portfolio that lost 95 percent.” Gold “is not going down to $90.”

However, we need to be careful about the price of gold during the Depression, what with FDR changing the peg from $20.67 an ounce to $35 in about 9 months. I think the basic principle still holds, but it’s a pretty significant institutional difference between then and now.

02 Jun 2009

A Slight Twist on Yglesias’ Defense of Massive Deficits

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Bob Roddis tipped me off to this Yglesias post defending the massive spending contained in the Obama forecast:

[B]y definition some level of deficits has to be “the biggest deficit since World War II.” What we have right now is the most [severe] global downturn since World War II. That seems to me like a perfectly reasonable candidate for biggest deficit since World War II. What would be a better time?

A “better time” for the government to borrow $1.8 trillion would be a year in which Americans were awash in surplus savings, and had just discovered that their homes and stock portfolios were worth twice as much as they thought only two years in the past.

Hey I can play this game too. I think we should round up 85% of all Japanese Americans into internment camps. Can you guess why?

02 Jun 2009

Skit Contest at EPJ

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Over at EPJ, Wenzel had one of his better moments of inspiration and noted that the names (Mr. Liesman, Mr. Bull, and Mr. Dollar) of three people related to Fed/Treasury intrigue recently, would lend itself to a great Abbott & Costello spoof. I got the ball rolling in the comments:

Geithner: I leaked the story to Liesman.

Bernanke: Wait a second, what did you just say?

Geithner: Liesman.

Bernanke: I know you told him lies, of course we agreed to tell bull.

Geithner: No, we gave Bull all the lies about China.

Bernanke: Huh? I thought that’s what Dollar was for!

I suggested that Wenzel offer $$ for the best skit, since it could garner him some hits if it really were funny. Thus Wenzel announced:

Anyone interested in submitting a skit based on the [humorous three names mentioned in the blog post], please forward it to me at my email address, rw@economicpolicyjournal.com. I will post the winner of the skit (Determined by me.) and split 50/50 all advertising revenue that comes to that post.

Wenzel keeps his cards close to the vest, but I think if the winner wrote a really hilarious piece, it would probably pull in a surprising amount of ad revenue.

01 Jun 2009

Tom Woods Says, "Buy Bob’s Book!"

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I think this is the best speech Tom has ever given. (For newcomers, the book link is on the left side of the screen if you’re curious.)