Thursday, March 12, 2009

A Quick Run Down of Why the Economy is Performing So Terribly

OK, OK, so I said that I wouldn't write about any of this. I won't get too specific. Yet, I really couldn't write on much of anything if I didn't address some current issues, so I'm going to write a primer on why booms and busts occur.

How Money Works

There is no such thing in this world anymore as sound money. I would define sound money as a tool of trade available in a relatively stagnant quantity that retains similar value amongst all participants in the economy that allows for the determination of relative valuation of goods and services while they are traded. Sound money is usually tied to a resource in relatively static supply (often gold) to maintain this stagnant quantity. The actual numbers are irrelevant in a sound money system. If Paul and John each have one dollar, and it costs one dollar to buy a loaf of bread, each of them can afford a loaf of bread. If they each have ten dollars, and a loaf of bread is ten dollars, then they can each afford a loaf of bread. In this case, ten times the amount of currency in the system didn't impact the relative value of each man's wealth. The trade for bread could be carried out just as easily in a one dollar world or a ten dollar world. If the value of the money is unchanging, the bread's value may fluctuate over time due to changes in supply and demand, but the specific digits don't matter. Similarly, If the US suddenly stated that every dollar is now ten dollars and in real time multiplied everyone's savings by exactly 10x, and multiplied everyone's debts, obligations, salaries, etc... simultaneously, the result would be inflation to 10x current value with no real change in the economy, as everyone would have 10x as much money.

When we think about it logically, there is no reason to ever multiply everyone's money by 10x. The simple act of creating more digits does absolutely nothing to improve the economy. In the above scenario, the printing of 10x the money supply will simply cause goods and services to increase in cost by 10X. It doesn't make everyone 10x richer.

Let's take what happens in the US. There is no sound money. The US dollar is not attached to a gold, or silver, or platinum, or anything standard. The money supply can change on a whim (and the quick turning on of the printing press by Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve). If all of the money that they printed hit the market at the same time equally in relative proportion to current wealth and all current obligations were changed accordingly, the only impact on the economy would be the excessive waste of paper. However, this doesn't resemble the current situation. Currently, money enters the system at certain points. It goes to banks in the system of fractional reserve banking, and it goes to the government. This gives both banks and the government (along with those well connected to the government) a real time financial advantage. To use the previous example, the banks and the government see their 10x increase before the cost of the bread goes up 10x, giving them greater relative purchasing power. Eventually, the money will even out in the economy, and the bread will rise by whatever percentage increase has occurred, but not before the banks and government have had the opportunity to purchase bread at the lower price with the new money. This allows them to accumulate resources with greater ease than other players in the economy.

The other thing that does not change in the current system is debt obligation. If I make a loan, and I charge a 10% interest rate, the balance of the loan isn't impacted by relative inflation. In other words, if I lend you $100, and the money supply goes up by 2x, you still only have to pay back $100, which is now only half as much money in a relative sense. Lenders cannot automatically determine exactly how the government will mess with the money supply, but an adjustment for inflation must be built into any banks lending portfolio if they want to stay in business. In other words, if I determine that with all risk and cost, that I can profitably lend at 5%, and I assume 3% inflation, I must actually lend at 8%.

Another point is that the relative change in wealth due to the entry points for a non-sound money supply cause distortions in the value of different goods. Things for which the banks lend money, or the government supports, will increase in relative cost to other goods. This can cause all sorts of confusion in the economy. As the money makes its way into the economy at large, inflation will occur in some sectors, while deflation occurs in sectors where the money first hit. In other words, lets say that the government prints an extra 10% of the money supply, which goes primarily to banks through the Federal Reserve. Banks use this to invest in abandoned mines. The relative increase in money initially going towards abandoned mines will be much greater than 10%, as all 10% increase in the money supply is going towards something that was much less than 100% of the economy. This may triple, quadruple, quintuple the cost of an abandoned mine. However, assuming no further distortions, that 10% will eventually work its way into the economy, and the value of all other goods and services should increase in relative proportion by 10% while severe deflation hits the abandoned mine industry and knocks prices down to only about 10% above the original price (and possibly even lower for a time, as its hard to tell exactly where this bottom price is.)

How Does This Apply to the US?

Ever since the creation of the Federal Reserve, the lack of sound money has caused ebbs and flows in economic distortion. As I've already pointed out, increasing the money supply eventually leads to inflation of cost by a similar amount with distortions brought about along the way as the money balances out in the economy. The concept that the government could in some way increase productivity and wealth by printing lots of money is based on the writings of the economist Keynes. It has never worked in action ever, but it is the basis for everything that we've done to bring us to this point. The economic distortions, followed by their corrections, are the likely cause of the business cycle, and the current situation is nothing but an overblown business cycle.

After 9/11, the economy went into a recession. It was not severe, and it made sense. Total economic activity declined in the environment. A sound money economic theory would tell you that the recession was due to a real decline in national productivity and that the solution would be to wait for productivity to pick up again. Instead, Alan Greenspan (chairman of the Federal Reserve at the time) implemented a loose monetary policy. This means that he essentially flooded the market with new money to "jump start" the economy. The tools that he used were primarily aimed at banks. Banks make loans, and the increase in economic activity went towards large capital investments that banks make loans for. This caused a relative expansion in business (one for which there may not have been demand to justify), an increase in cost for higher education, and more conspicuously began to drive up the price of real estate.

This policy became a runaway disaster. At one point, 8% of the entire money supply was being printed annually. As with my example of the abandoned mines, the relative increase in cost in certain industries that are primarily financed by lending was MUCH greater as the relative distortion hit those industries first. In other words, instead of everyone getting 8% more money and paying 8% more for goods, we saw huge increases in wealth amongst a few people and hyperinflation in real estate (and to a lesser extent higher education and large scale business investment products).

People well connected to the government or close to the banks made HUGE amounts of money. Meanwhile, regular individuals became priced out of many housing markets, because they were now trying to purchase the more expensive houses without any increase in personal wealth from the original dollar. The only way to access these things became to borrow money. Real estate debt skyrocketed. Student debt skyrocketed. The relatively loose lending standards that came to exist due to the excess of money at the banks led to easy loans and this brought the distortion into other luxury industries, as people were able to borrow against their hyperinflating real estate values in the form of HELOCs (home equity lines of credit). Labor was also misallocated, as jobs in real estate, construction, lending, etc... took workers that might have worked in other industries.

Then it all ended. As the money has made its way into the economy at large, we are seeing inflation in some goods with a severe deflation in real estate. This is just like the example of the abandoned mines. In many ways this is GOOD. Houses will no longer be out of reach for normal people without exotic bank loans. People will be able to work in industries where they will produce things for which the demand is not artificial.

The problem is that there is a period in which these distortions have to work themselves out. These distortions were severe, and thus the correction is also severe. All of the people who were employed in real estate, construction, lending, etc.. are now unemployed. They are now not producing anything, which causes a real loss of productivity and growth. This reduces demand, which causes other industries to suffer, and the whole thing ripples like a wave through the economy. This doesn't even take into account the simultaneous correction of distortions in business investment and the loss of the luxury distortions due to the HELOC falling out of favor with declining real estate prices. The point really is, that the economy was severely distorted due to the departure from sound monetary practices and now the correction is severe

The end result of all of this should eventually be the new money working its way through the economy and a return to normal relative valuations with the natural fluctuations due to changes in supply and demand. The recession is not permanent. The loss of productivity is not permanent. People will eventually find work again, and the recessionary cycle will unwind.


The Wrong Solution

The current philosophy of the US government is to attempt to print more money to "jump start" the economy again. Bail-out, stimulus, TARP, whatever, it all means the same thing. These pork-laden bills funded again with fake printed money will only cause distortions in favor of whatever is in them, which will lead to future recessions. Instead of a real estate bubble, we could have a green jobs bubble, or an infrastructure bubble, or a health IT bubble. It's all the same concept. Attempts to save the artificially inflated housing market will only distort the market further and delay a recovery to natural prices.

One only needs to look at what other nations have already done. Japan spent trillions trying to save itself from its own real estate bubble in the 80s, and parts of the economy still haven't recovered. In many European nations, with France being my favorite example, bad monetary policy coupled with severe restrictions on business, wages, hiring, and firing creates a distorted environment in which the economy isn't even allowed to adapt. This leads to perpetually high unemployment, as cycles and corrections lay one on top of the other, and nothing resembling a steady state is ever reached.

We should be looking in the exact opposite direction for an effective public policy. STOP DISTORTING THE MARKETS. STOP PRINTING NEW MONEY. Let the economy correct.

That's what's happening in the US, and that is why the economy is performing so terribly.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Stimulus for the Soul

I've been busy lately. Really busy. Home is chaos, the match (the date on which I'll figure out where I'm going to move for the next few years) is less than two weeks away, and I've been pretty busy on my rotations. This has of course occurred just as everything that I've been predicting on this blog for a couple of years has started to happen.

I could write 100 posts on what has occurred in the last six months. We've essentially nationalized the banking industry. The president's forum on healthcare was nothing more than a room full of yes-men parroting back to him the same tired garbage. Things are changing. The inevitable recession is starting to heat up, and we've got atleast 3 different stimulus or bailout packages, aimed at doing everything from bailing out autoworkers to developing Healthcare IT mandates, encompassing trillions of dollars of non-existant money.

I could write about these things, but I won't. It's frankly overwhelming. I couldn't explain it all in any reasonable period of time, and I really don't want to throw up a bunch of rushed half thought out posts on really complex material. Instead, this is going to be a little bit personal and very non-scientific.

As a man, I've always wanted to control my own destiny. You could say that I respond poorly to authority as well. I want to live in the real world. This is a world of consequences and rewards. It is a world in which one has the capacity to reach the peaks of the highest mountains as well as fall into the depths of despair. It is a world in which some people are great, not everyone is created the same, and in which a purpose drives the action of people.

The maddening descent into socialism, that has been slowly gripping this country with an ebb and flow for a century, is disturbing to me on multiple levels. It is a failed system by every objective and nearly every subjective standard imaginable. Yet, this sort of logic becomes circular in a way. It's like saying that the only thing wrong with socialism is that it's bad for society. That sort of argument leaves the door open for new attempt after new attempt to create a more perfect society. No. The reason that socialism bothers me is because it takes away my independence and creates a strain on all of my personal autonomy. My work in both action and reward is never really my own in such a system. It is dehuminizing.

The real world isn't pretty and perfect. No amount of central planning, "hope," or "change" can begin to make it so. The real world is dirty. It is a place where people lie, steal, and cheat. It is a place in which mothers get cancer, people become dependent on drugs, and storms rip away homes and communities. The real world is a world in which people face hardships, struggle, and sometimes fail.

Yet, the real world is also wonderful. Greatness is born out of overcoming hardship and adversity. Generosity and charity are endemic to the human condition. We create new technologies to fight cancers and disasters. We can treat the sick. We can rebuild what is lost. Humans, individual humans, can take this initiative. People fight to better their condition, and they fight to better the condition of their fellow man. I love living in this horrible, twisted, beautiful world.

What disturbs me so much about the events of the last few months is not that I don't know what is going to happen, but that I know exactly what is going to happen. History is riddled with the corpses of attempts to create more perfect societies. We may persistently redefine what it is to be perfect, but outcasting and extermination inevitably follow any attempts at perfection. Many people will inevitably be outside the mold. The USSR, under the premise of trying to create perfect equality, destroyed wealth, killed a few million people, and then became a nation of haves (the politically well connected) and have nots (the not so well connected). The Nazis tried to create the perfect race. A drive for equality inevitably begins to attempt to create sameness, and because no one is the same, chaos inevitably follows. Individuals can never rise to that level of terror, in all of their zeal, without the backing of a coercive state.

In my personal life, I have always strived to do well. I seek excellence. It's not that I'm perfect, but I want to be better. I want to make my situation better, and I want to improve both my personal lot, and that of my family, in this world. I would say that the party line of any socialist government is exactly what I want, but the actions speak differently. Higher earnings become something that needs to be redistributed for equity. Any desire to accumulate wealth or luxury is seen as evil. It's as though the failure of someone to achieve what I have achieved somehow makes me indebted to him. In this world, the only person who is truly free is the one who has nothing. In fact, he is much more free than nature would let him be, because he is fed from the labor of others. Only in this world is the man who works for what he is given judged a villain, an outsider, the one who needs to be cleansed, in favor of every glamorized dreg of society that has wasted his life. Socialism IS wealth redistribution on all levels, monetary and personal. It is throwing success down on the rocks in favor elevating the bottom of the barrel. In this system, I have been a hero while I have been poor, receiving bounties and gifts for my struggles, all the while knowing that I will soon be the villain if all of my struggles allow me to succeed.

Likewise, I have found a passion in medicine, which has become the center of EVERYTHING that is wrong with the way things are done in this country. The only person who is not allowed to make decisions in the current healthcare system is the one who trained appropriately to be able to make them. Autonomy in both training and practice is disappearing at an alarming rate. Physicians have become so worried about their incomes, that they've lost their souls. This was once a profession in which greatness was expected. It was not flawless by any means, and it suffered from all of the problems that training and practice monopolies create, but greatness was expected. Arrogance was common, but it was also often deserved. In a few generations, we went from giving people arsenic for malaise to being able to successfully sew in synthetic pieces of an aorta. I will defend my desire to earn a good income, and I agree with most of my colleagues that this is a problem. Yet, we cower on the steps of the capitol lawn every year begging for a pittance. Our masters usually give, usually with an attached condition that further erodes the profession. Our training now teaches us to pass along responsibility, and we've taken on the mentality of employees. No longer the masters of the hospital domain, we will soon be employees of a government beauracracy led by a nurse or some beauracrat who will dictate exactly what we do in order to continue to collect that ever shrinking pittance.

I want a stimulus. I don't want money beyond what I deserve. The only thing that I want from the government is to stop interfering and let me do my job. If I must be robbed, make it predictable. Take some consistent percentage of my income. Atleast stop trying to make me an outcast for working hard enough to earn enough to have something worth taking. I am a charitable person, but let me decide where to be charitable, and stop creating a situation where generous people cannot afford to be generous because their extras are being confiscated for the "public good." Let me pursue my passion. Let me work towards higher levels of success, discipline, ability, and function without telling me how it must be done. I want to impose nothing on anyone. I'm sick of being a slave to student loans and government payments. I simply want to be able to contract with my patients and engage in mutually beneficial agreements. That would be American. That would be antithetical to socialism. That would truly be a stimulus for my soul.