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Strange Bedfellows

February 28, 2015

Here’s a chart illustrating a relationship I can’t explain. The chart shows that over the past three years, every short-term trend and almost every ripple in Japan iShares (EWJ) has been mimicked by London’s FTSE Index.


I have no idea why there has been such a strong positive correlation between the Japanese stock market’s performance in US$ terms and the UK stock market’s performance in Pound terms. Furthermore, it’s not like the relationship is a peculiarity of the past 3 years, as the following chart shows that it goes back at least 10 years.


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Economics Myths

February 27, 2015

This is an update of something I wrote 12 months ago. I began the original piece with the goal of explaining where I agreed and disagreed with an article by Cullen Roche titled “The Biggest Myths in Economics“, but I ended up referring to the Roche article within the context of my own list of economics myths. Here’s my list. Unfortunately, it is by no means comprehensive.

Myth #1: Banks “lend reserves”

This is the second myth in the Roche article. He is 100% correct when he states:

…banks don’t make lending decisions based on the quantity of reserves they hold. Banks lend to creditworthy customers who have demand for loans. If there’s no demand for loans it really doesn’t matter whether the bank wants to make loans. Not that it could “lend out” its reserve anyhow. Reserves are held in the interbank system. The only place reserves go is to other banks. In other words, reserves don’t leave the banking system so the entire concept of the money multiplier and banks “lending reserves” is misleading.

Reserves held at the Fed cannot under any circumstances be loaned into the economy, and any analyst who takes a cursory look at historical US bank lending and reserves data will see that there has been no relationship between bank lending and bank reserves for at least the past few decades. I live in hope that the economics textbooks will eventually be updated to reflect this reality, although compared to some of the other errors in the typical economics textbook this one is minor.

Myth #2: The Fed’s QE boosts bank reserves, but doesn’t boost the money supply

Anyone who believes that the Fed’s QE adds to bank reserves but not the money supply does not understand the mechanics of the asset monetisation process. It’s a fact that for every dollar of assets purchased by the Fed as part of its QE, one dollar is added to bank reserves at the Fed and one dollar is added to demand deposits within the economy (the demand deposits of the securities dealers that sell the assets to the Fed). Refer to “How the Fed’s QE creates money” for more details.

A related myth is that the Fed is powerless to expand the money supply if the commercial banks aren’t expanding their loan books. It is certainly the case that prior to 2008 almost all new money was loaned into existence by commercial banks, but this wasn’t because the Fed didn’t have the ability to directly expand the money supply. From the Fed’s perspective, there was simply no reason to use its direct money-creation ability prior to September of 2008.

Myth #3: The US government is running out of money and must pay back the national debt

This is the third myth in the Roche article. The reality is that no government will ever run short of money as long as its spending and debt are denominated in a currency it can create, either directly or indirectly (via a central bank). The lack of any normal financial limit on the extent of government spending and borrowing is a very bad thing.

Myth #4: The federal debt is a bill that each citizen is liable for

This is similar to the fourth myth in the Roche article, although the Roche explanation contains statements that are either misleading or wrong. Before I take issue with one of these statements, I note that a popular scare tactic is to divide the total government debt by the population to come up with a figure that supposedly represents a liability of every man, woman and child in the country. For example, according to the US Federal debt amounts to about $57,000 per citizen or $154,000 per taxpayer. For most people this is a lot of money, but it doesn’t make sense to look at the government debt in this way. Rightly or wrongly, the government’s debt will never be paid back. It will grow indefinitely, or at least until it gets defaulted on. There are negative indirect consequences of a large government debt, but it is wrong to think of this debt as something that will have to be repaid by current taxpayers or future taxpayers.

The Roche statement that we take issue with is: “…the government doesn’t necessarily reduce our children’s living standards by issuing debt. In fact, the national debt is also a big chunk of the private sector’s savings so these assets are, in a big way, a private sector benefit.

The government doesn’t create wealth and therefore cannot possibly create real savings. To put it another way, real savings cannot be created out of thin air by the issuing of government debt. What happens when the government issues debt is that savings are diverted from the private sector to the government. In any single instance the government will not necessarily use the savings less efficiently than they would have been used by the private sector, but logic and a veritable mountain of historical evidence tells us that, on average, government spending is less productive than private-sector spending. In fact, government spending is often COUNTER-productive.

Myth #5: QE is not inflationary

My fifth myth is the opposite of Cullen Roche’s fifth myth. According to Roche, it’s a myth that QE is inflationary. His argument:

Quantitative Easing (QE) … involves the Fed expanding its balance sheet in order to alter the composition of the private sector’s balance sheet. This means the Fed is creating new money and buying private sector assets like MBS or T-bonds. When the Fed buys these assets it is technically “printing” new money, but it is also effectively “unprinting” the T-bond or MBS from the private sector. When people call QE “money printing” they imply that there is magically more money in the private sector which will chase more goods which will lead to higher inflation. But since QE doesn’t change the private sector’s net worth (because it’s a simple swap) the operation is actually a lot more like changing a savings account into a checking account. This isn’t “money printing” in the sense that some imply.

There is a lot wrong with this argument. For starters, in one sentence he says “when people call QE “money printing” they imply that there is magically more money in the private sector“, and yet in the preceding sentence he states that the Fed adds new money to the economy when it purchases assets. So, there is no need for anyone to imply that there is “magically more money” as a result of QE, because, as Mr. Roche himself admits, the supply of money really does increase as a result of QE. (As an aside, recall that in the previous myth Mr. Roche implied that the government could magically increase the private sector’s savings by going further into debt.)

The instant after the Fed monetises some of the private sector’s assets there will be more money, the same quantity of goods and less assets in the economy. Until the laws of supply and demand are repealed this will definitely have an inflationary effect, because there will now be more money ‘chasing’ the same quantity of goods and a smaller quantity of assets. However, the details of the effect will be impossible to predict, because the details will depend on how the new money is used. We can be confident that the initial effect of the new money will be to elevate the prices of the sorts of assets that were bought by the Fed, but what happens after that will depend on what the first receivers of the new money (the sellers of assets to the Fed) do, and then on what the second receivers of the new money do, and so on. It’s a high-probability bet that the new money will eventually work its way through the economy and lead to the sort of “price inflation” that the average economist worries about, but this could be many years down the track. This type of “price inflation” problem hasn’t emerged yet and probably won’t emerge this year, but the price-related effects of the Fed’s QE should be blatantly obvious to any rational observer. One of the most obvious is that despite being 7 years into a so-called “great de-leveraging”, the US stock market recently traded at the second-highest valuation in its history (by multiple valuation measures with good long-term track records, it was only near the peak of the bubble that the market was more expensive).

Myth #6: Hyperinflation can be caused by factors unrelated to money

This is almost the opposite of Roche’s sixth myth. He argues that hyperinflation is not caused by “money printing”, but is, instead, caused by events such as the collapse of production, the loss of a war, and regime change or collapse.

While the events mentioned by Cullen Roche tend to precede hyperinflation, they only do so when they prompt a huge increase in the money supply. To put it another way, if these events do not lead to a huge increase in the money supply then they will not be followed by hyperinflation.

The fact is that hyperinflation requires both a large increase in the supply of money and a large decline in the desire to hold money. Over the past several years there was a large increase in the US money supply, although certainly not large enough to cause hyperinflation, along with an increase in the desire to hold money that has partially offset the supply increase.

Myth #7: Increased government spending and borrowing drives up interest rates

This is almost the same as Roche’s seventh myth. An increase in government spending and borrowing makes the economy less efficient and causes long-term economic progress to be slower than it would have been, but it doesn’t necessarily drive up the yields on government bonds. This is especially so during periods when deep-pocketed price-insensitive bond buyers such as the Fed and other central banks are very active in the market.

Myth #8: The Fed provides a net benefit to the US economy

It never ceases to amaze me that people who fully comprehend why it would make no sense to have central planners setting the price of eggs believe that it is a good idea to have central planners setting the price of credit.

The real reason for the Fed’s creation is of secondary importance. No conspiracy theory is required, because the fact is that even if the Fed were established with the best of intentions and even if it were managed by knowledgeable people with the best of intentions, it would be a bad idea. This is because the Fed falsifies the price signals that guide business and other investment decisions.

Myth #9: Different economic theories are needed in different circumstances

The myth that different times call for different economic theories, for example, that the valid theories of normal times must be discarded and replaced with other theories during economic depressions, has been popularised by Paul Krugman. However, he has only gone down this track because he is in the business of promoting an illogical theory.

A good economic theory will work, that is, it will explain why things happened the way they did and provide generally correct guidance about the likely future direct and indirect effects of current actions, under all circumstances. It will work for an individual on a desert island, it will work in a rural village and it will work in a bustling metropolis. It will work during periods of strong economic growth and it will work during depressions.

Myth #10: The economy is driven by changes in aggregate demand

The notion that the economy is driven by changes in aggregate demand, with recessions/depressions caused by mysterious declines in aggregate demand and periods of strong growth caused by equally mysterious increases in aggregate demand, is the basis of the Keynesian religion and the justification for countless counter-productive monetary and fiscal policies.

Rising consumption is an effect, not a cause, of economic growth. More specifically, an increase in consumption is at the end of a three-step sequence that has as its first two steps an increase in saving/investment and an increase in production. For higher consumption to be sustainable it MUST be funded by an increase in production. By the same token, an artificial boost in consumption (demand) caused by monetary and/or fiscal stimulus will be both unsustainable and wasteful. It is like eating the seed corn — it helps satisfy hunger in the short-term, but ultimately results in less food.

A related point is that there has never been “insufficient aggregate demand” and there never will be “insufficient aggregate demand”, at least not until everyone has everything they want. In the real world, the ability to demand/consume is limited only by the ability to produce the right things. Consequently, what is typically diagnosed as “insufficient aggregate demand” is actually insufficient production, or, to put it more accurately, a production-consumption mismatch resulting from the economy becoming geared-up to produce too many of some things and not enough of others.

Myth #11: Consumer spending is about 70% of the US economy

This and the previous myth are related, in that the wrong belief that consumer spending is 65%-70% of the total economy lends credence to the wrong belief that economic growth is caused by increasing consumption.

Consumer spending involves taking something out of the economy, so it is mathematically impossible for consumer spending to be more than 50% of the economy. Consumer spending does account for about two-thirds of US GDP, but that’s only because the GDP calculation omits about half the economy (GDP leaves out all intermediate stages of production). Due to the fact that the GDP calculation includes 100% of consumer spending and only about half the total economy, 35% would be a more accurate estimate of US consumer spending as a percentage of the total US economy.

Myth #12: Inflation is not a problem unless the CPI is rising quickly

The conventional wisdom that “inflation” is not a major concern unless the CPI is rising quickly is not only wrong, it is dangerous. It is wrong because monetary inflation affects different prices in different ways at different times, but the resultant price distortions always end up causing economic problems. It is dangerous because it leads people to believe that there are no serious adverse consequences of central-bank money conjuring during periods when the prices included in the CPI are not among the prices that are being driven skyward by the expanding money supply.

Myth #13: Interest rates are the price of money

People who comment on economics and the financial markets often state that the interest rate is the price of money. This is wrong.

The price of money is what money can buy. For example, if an apple is sold for $1, then the price of a unit of money (one dollar) in that transaction is one apple. To put it another way, the price of money is the purchasing power of money. It rises and falls in response to changes in the supply of and the demand for money and changes in the supply of and the demand for the things for which money is traded.

The interest rate, on the other hand, can be correctly viewed as either the price of credit or the price of time. In the case where there is no risk of default and no risk of purchasing-power loss due to inflation, the interest rate will be determined by the perceived benefit of getting money immediately versus getting it at some future time.

Myth #14: Policymakers should try to boost employment and real wages

The conventional wisdom that policies should be put in place to boost employment and real wages confuses cause and effect. Just as rising consumption is an effect, not a cause, of economic growth (refer to Myth #10), rising employment and real wages are effects of economic growth. For example, the rebound in the US economy from its 2009 trough wasn’t unusually weak due to the unusually slow recovery in employment, there was, instead, an unusually slow recovery in employment because the economy’s rebound was much weaker than normal.

Consequently, the best way to get rising employment and real wages is to remove the obstacles to economic progress. The government and the central bank are by far the biggest obstacles, so minimising the government and eliminating the central bank would be effective.

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Volcker’s Undeserved Reputation

February 24, 2015

There is a big difference between the general perception of Paul Volcker’s performance as Fed Chairman and his actual performance.

Volcker is generally considered to have been a hard-nosed inflation-fighter, but based on the annual rate of growth in US True Money Supply (TMS) he currently holds the record as the most inflationary Fed Chairman of the past 60 years. Ben Bernanke is in second place, followed by Arthur Burns (Fed chief during most of the 1970s), Alan Greenspan, and then William McChesney Martin (Fed chief during the 1950s and 1960s). Refer to the following bar chart for specific details.

Note that the chart omits George Miller, who was Fed Chairman for only 17 months during 1978-1979, and Janet Yellen, who hasn’t been in the job for long enough to establish a proper record.

Volcker is widely regarded as a hard-nosed inflation fighter simply because a commodity-price collapse got underway within 6 months of his August-1979 appointment as Fed Chairman. However, thanks to the steep decline in the money-supply growth rate that began in late-1977 and the fact that the US had spent the 6 months prior to August-1979 in monetary DEFLATION (refer to the following TMS chart for details), a commodity price collapse was ‘baked into the cake’ prior to Volcker taking the top job at the Fed .

If a drover’s dog had been appointed Fed chief in August of 1979, the dog would now have the credit for killing inflation. The reason is that by that time “inflation” (using the popular, albeit wrong, meaning of the word) was already dead. Commodity speculators just hadn’t realised it yet, perhaps because they were distracted by what was happening in the Middle East.

In the early 1980s, with a commodity bubble having recently burst and with both stocks and bonds having historically low valuations, the stage was set for the great ‘Volcker inflation’ to boost the prices of financial assets.

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Can the Bear get much worse?

February 23, 2015

First Mining Finance Corp. is the new venture of Keith Neumeyer, the founder of First Quantum Minerals (FM.TO) and First Majestic Silver (FR.TO). I don’t yet have an opinion on the new company’s speculative/investment merits, because I haven’t yet taken a close look at its assets and because I won’t know its market valuation until after it IPOs sometime in the next couple of months (almost any company can be a good investment or a bad investment, depending on the market price of its shares). The reason I’m mentioning the company in this post is that I stole the following chart from its corporate presentation.

Regardless of whether or not the market ends up pricing First Mining Finance Corp. shares at an attractive level, the following chart of the TSX Venture Exchange Composite Index (a proxy for the junior end of the mining sector) suggests that junior Canadian resource shares are now collectively being priced at close to their most attractive levels ever. I didn’t expect that the buying opportunity would get this good, but there it is.

Large profits are likely to be made by speculators who accumulate financially-sound junior resource stocks with economic mineral deposits over the next few months and are prepared to hold for at least a year.


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Why the next stock market collapse won’t be a “black swan”

February 20, 2015

In finance, a “black swan” is a major event that ‘comes out of the blue’. In a 13th February article in the New York Times, Mark Spitznagel succinctly explains why a large stock market decline is coming to the US and why it won’t be a black swan.

The coming large stock market decline won’t be a black swan because, while its timing is unpredictable, the market’s valuation has reached a level that has always been the precursor to a large decline. This point is made in the above-linked article via a chart of Tobin’s Q Ratio (re-produced below), which is similar to a price-to-book ratio for the entire stock market. Since 1900, Tobin’s Q Ratio was only higher than its current level near the peak of the dot-com bubble.


More information on Tobin’s Q Ratio, including the following long-term chart comparison of the “inflation”-adjusted S&P Composite Index and the Q Ratio, can be found in Doug Short’s article posted HERE.


Why does the Q Ratio periodically get so far out of whack? After all, shouldn’t a market economy contain negative feedback that prevents such massive oscillations?

The answer is that we aren’t dealing with a free market; we are dealing with a market subject to intervention by non-market forces, chief among them over the past several decades being the central bank. As neatly explained by Mr. Spitznagel:

When rates are naturally low, caused by an abundance of patient savers, businesses have the incentive to spend on investment and production; this creates a negative feedback on the ratio. When they are artificially low, and savers are impatiently leveraging, businesses instead have the incentive to spend on stock buybacks and dividends in order to attract the investors who yearn for yields beyond what the artificially distorted market is offering. This drives the ratio, and stock markets, ever higher. Bubbles are not natural and inevitable.

Furthermore, it’s not as if the Q Ratio has somehow been skewed such that it is painting a far different picture from other value-based indicators with good long-term track records. For example, the message of the Q Ratio is echoed by the messages of the Shiller P/E ratio (the Cyclically-Adjusted P/E, or CAPE) and the Wilshire5000/GDP ratio, the latter of which is depicted below. Notice that the Wilshire5000/GDP ratio is now about 15% higher than it was at the 2007 major peak, although, like Tobin’s Q Ratio, it hasn’t made it back to the all-time high reached at the crescendo of the dot-com bubble.


The point is that nobody should be surprised when the next bear market in US equities turns out to be of historic proportions. But of course, almost everyone will be surprised.

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How the Fed’s QE creates money

February 16, 2015

One of the most persistent beliefs in the world of economics today is that the Fed’s QE (Quantitative Easing) adds to bank reserves but does not directly boost the US money supply. The popularity of this belief is remarkable considering that anyone who bothers to do a few simple monetary calculations will quickly see that it is completely wrong. The fact of the matter is that every dollar of QE adds one dollar to bank reserves AND one dollar to the economy-wide money supply.

Before I briefly explain the process by which the Fed’s QE injects money directly into the economy, I’ll show the simple calculations that anyone commenting on monetary matters should do. The calculations are based on the fact that new US dollars can only be legally created by the commercial banking system and the Fed.

The commercial banks create money when they make loans or monetise assets. More generally, commercial banks create money via an increase in credit. The increase in total Bank Credit over a period is therefore a rough, but reasonable, estimate of the MAXIMUM amount of new money that could have been created by the commercial banking system over the period. Note that changes in Bank Credit are recorded in the Fed’s H.8 Release.

At the end of August-2008, which was just prior to the start of the Fed’s first QE program, total Bank Credit was around $9T (9 trillion dollars). At the end of January this year it was around $11T. This means that the commercial banks have collectively created a maximum of 2 trillion new dollars since August-2008. They might have created significantly less than 2 trillion new dollars, but they have not created significantly more than that.

Let’s now consider what happened to US True Money Supply (TMS) over the same period, noting first that TMS is the sum of physical currency in circulation, demand deposits at private depository institutions and savings deposits at private depository institutions. TMS only counts money within the economy. It does not count bank reserves.

From the end of August-2008 through to the end of January-2015, TMS increased by $5.1T. Since we know that commercial banks created a maximum of $2T over this period, we know that at least $3.1T came from somewhere other than the commercial banking system. And since we also know that new US dollars can only be created by the commercial banks and the Fed, we therefore know that the Fed’s QE must have directly created a minimum of 3.1 trillion new dollars.

I’ll now move along to the process by which the Fed’s QE boosts the money supply.

The first point that must be understood is that the Fed conducts its asset purchases and sales via Primary Dealers (PDs). In many cases the PDs are banks, but in such cases the PD part of the business is separate. Of particular relevance, the PD part of one bank will maintain demand deposit accounts at other banks and these demand accounts receive the payments when the Fed buys assets from the PD.

Next, for the sake of explanation let’s assume that PDA (Primary Dealer A) is a subsidiary of Bank A and maintains a demand deposit at Bank B. When PDA sells assets to the Fed, the Fed deposits payment in the form of newly-created dollars into PDA’s demand account at Bank B. Since customer deposits are liabilities of banks, if the process ended with the Fed depositing new dollars in PDA’s account at Bank B it would increase Bank B’s liabilities by the amount of the deposit. To make the process balance-sheet-neutral for Bank B and the banking system as a whole, the same amount that was deposited in PDA’s demand account at Bank B is added to Bank B’s reserves at the Fed. In effect, the Fed adds dollars to demand accounts within the economy that are covered by reserves at the Fed.

One dollar of QE therefore involves one dollar being added to a demand deposit within the economy (part of the money supply) and one dollar being added to a reserve account at the Fed.

Let’s now take a look at how the mechanics of the QE process as outlined above explain the change in the money supply since the beginning of the Fed’s QE back in 2008.

I mentioned above that if we only consider the amount of money created by the commercial banks then we find that at least $3.1T is unaccounted for. If my analysis is correct then the Fed’s QE must have directly added a minimum of $3.1T to the money supply.

A very rough approximation of the amount of new money added by the Fed over a period is the change in Reserve Bank Credit, which can be determined by referring to the Fed’s H.4.1 Release. The increase in Reserve Bank Credit from August-2008 until January-2015 was $3.6T, which is in the right ballpark. However, a more accurate calculation of the amount of new money created by the Fed can be done using the knowledge that a) each new dollar added to the economy by the Fed will be associated with one dollar of additional reserves, and b) reserves at the Fed will remain at the Fed unless they are removed by the Fed or they are converted into physical notes/coins (in response to increased demand by the public for physical currency). The amount of money created by the Fed since August-2008 should therefore be equal to the net increase in Non-Borrowed Reserves at the Fed plus the increase in Physical Currency in Circulation over the same period.

The figure comes to $3.4T, which is roughly what it needs to be to explain the increase in True Money Supply.

A separate question is: Why hasn’t the large Fed-promoted increase in the US money supply led to a substantial increase in the ‘general price level’?

This is a question for another time as this post is already too long, but suffice to say right now that:

1) There has been a significant increase in the ‘general price level’ as a result of the monetary inflation, just not as significant as would normally be the case.

2) The general price level’s smaller-than-normal response to the money-supply increase of the past several years is probably related to the Fed’s abnormally-large role in the money-creation process. During more normal (pre-2008) times, almost all new money is created by the commercial banks. Consequently, the first receivers of the new money tend to be within the ‘general public’ (home buyers/sellers, private businesses, etc.). However, during the period since August-2008 about two-thirds of all new money has been directly created by the Fed. This means that the first receivers of most of the new money have been bond speculators, and that the second, third, fourth and fifth receivers of the new money have probably been bond speculators or stock speculators.

In conclusion, when I say that the Fed’s QE directly boosts the money supply I’m not stating an opinion or giving my interpretation of how the monetary system works. I’m stating a fact.

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New gold bull market will make 2008-2011 look tame

February 11, 2015

A few days ago the web site published an interesting interview with Bob Moriarty. The interview is titled “Gold Bottom in, New Bull Market Will Make 2008-2011 Look Tame“, because that’s Bob’s outlook. Bob says a few nice words about me in the interview, but you shouldn’t hold that against him. He’s an astute observer of the markets.

I think Bob’s outlook is plausible, but I’m not expecting anywhere near as much upside in gold-related investments this year as he is. The rebounds from the 2008 bottoms in gold and gold-mining stocks were very quick, but that’s primarily because 2008 was a crash within a continuing cyclical bull market. It wasn’t a cyclical bear market.

The speed with which gold and the mining stocks recover from their 2011-2014 drubbings will be determined by both fundamentals and psychology. Even if the fundamentals become unequivocally gold-bullish in the near future (they are currently either mixed or slightly bullish), history tells me that it could still be at least 12 months before a strong upward trend gets underway. For example, gold’s fundamentals were as bullish as they ever get in early-2001, but the bull market didn’t really get going until 2002.

However, it’s certainly possible that the sentiment shift will happen faster this time around, because the current situation is so far into unprecedented territory that the historical precedents can’t even be seen from here. The mal-investment fostered by central banks over the past several years is simply mindboggling.

For example, the fact that trillions of dollars of government bonds now trade at negative yields reflects mal-investment on a gigantic scale. It means that a huge quantity of wealth has been diverted towards bond speculation and government.

For another example, US corporations have spent hundreds of billions of dollars buying back their own shares instead of investing in business growth. This is a consequence of the perverted incentives created by the Fed.

So, I’m not betting on a rapid change of fortune for gold-related investments, but I can’t rule it out.

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Cambodia, Gresham’s Law and Corruption

February 9, 2015

Over the most recent Christmas and New Year holiday period, one of the places I visited (with wife and 15-year-old son) was Siem Reap in Cambodia. The town of Siem Reap is best known for, and is a popular tourist destination largely because of, its close proximity to the ruins of Angkor, the capital of Cambodia during the Khmer Empire (9th to 15th Century). Angkor contains the — in some cases largely intact or restored — remnants of some huge temples, including Angkor Wat. However, if (like me) you quickly get bored with temple viewing, Siem Reap is still worth visiting. The town is so vibrant and friendly, with so many interesting eating/drinking places, shops and markets, that I actually wouldn’t mind living there. But the purpose of this post isn’t to discuss the things to see and do in Siem Reap, it’s to discuss some economics-related observations I made while visiting that part of the world.

On arriving at the Siem Reap airport and spending about one hour making our way through the chaotic immigration section I was finally at the document-checking counter, where I had all five digits on both hands scanned for prints. After completing the tedious finger-scanning process I offered to provide a urine sample, but apparently it wasn’t necessary. I thought about giving it to them anyway, but then thought better of it.

What a totally counterproductive exercise in a place that is heavily reliant on tourism! Fortunately, it turned out that the airport was the only bad experience we had in Siem Reap. Not coincidentally, the airport is one of the few parts of the town that is totally controlled by the government. The government, by the way, claims to be democratically elected, but in reality Cambodia is a one-party state headed by a former member of the Khmer Rouge.

The main reason to bring up the airport experience isn’t to complain about the ridiculous security measures and the general inefficiency of the place, it’s because this is where I made the novice mistake of exchanging some US dollars for the local currency, known as the Riel. I didn’t convert much money, thinking that the airport exchange rate would be unattractive, but I shouldn’t have converted any. The reason is that everyone in Siem Reap prefers to deal in US dollars. To put it more accurately, they prefer US dollars to the Riel when receiving payment, although they are happy to give you change in Riel. So, in Siem Reap and perhaps all of Cambodia there are two monies: the money generally perceived to be good (the US$) and the money generally perceived to be not so good (the Riel). This leads me to Gresham’s Law. Cambodia is a good example of why the popular understanding of Gresham’s Law, although it might seem reasonable at first or even second glance, often doesn’t apply in practice.

The popular adaptation of Gresham’s Law is: bad money drives out good. This concept seems to make sense, because people will naturally prefer to hoard the good money and part with the bad money when buying things. However, it generally doesn’t work that way in practice because people will naturally prefer to receive the good money when selling things, so for a trade to take place it will often be necessary for the buyer to offer the good money.

That’s the popular understanding of Gresham’s Law, but the actual principle is: “When a government overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation.” That is, Gresham’s Law really only applies in the specific case where there are two equally acceptable types of money and the government fixes the exchange rate between the two. The classic example — and the most relevant example for hundreds of years prior to the last century — is where gold and silver are the most common media of exchange in an economy and the government fixes the gold/silver ratio too high or too low. Actually, even if the ratio is initially set at roughly the right level, changes in the supply of and the demand for the two metals over time will eventually result in one becoming over-valued relative to the other at the official exchange rate. This will lead to the relatively expensive (that is, over-valued) commodity being used progressively more in trade and the relatively cheap (that is, under-valued) commodity being progressively removed from circulation.

In Siem Reap the two types of money aren’t equally acceptable, and although there is an official exchange rate it seemed that people were generally able to trade at whatever rate they deemed appropriate. Consequently, the “bad money” is not driving out the “good money”. On the contrary, the “good money” is thriving as a medium of exchange.

My final Cambodia note is about corruption. Most people believe that all corruption is bad, but in terms of effect on the economy there is both good and bad corruption.

Good corruption is when a government regulation, that for no sensible reason makes it much more difficult for businesses to provide the service that their customers want, can be cheaply ‘got around’ by slipping some money into the pocket of a government rep. In other words, good corruption greases the wheels of commerce. It shouldn’t be required, but in the real world the government puts many unnecessary obstacles in the way of voluntary exchange. An example of good corruption is covered in Jeffrey Tucker’s article about former Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry.

Bad corruption is when representatives of the government greatly increase the cost of doing business for the purpose of enriching themselves. It is Mafia-style extortion that puts additional obstacles in the way of voluntary exchange.

In Cambodia I saw examples of bad corruption that I suspect are just the tip of the iceberg. In particular, although the town of Siem Reap is a little chaotic (in a good way), it seems that a government licence is required for almost everything. Even setting up a stall selling fried grasshoppers by the side of the road well outside the main town requires a licence. This is not necessarily a big deal by itself, but I found out about cases where the requirement to get a licence made the cost of going into business prohibitive due to the amount of money that has to be paid ‘under the table’ in addition to the official licence fee. For example, I was told that to become a travel agent you must get a licence and to get the licence you must first pass an exam, but that regardless of how well you do in the exam you will not be given a passing grade unless you pay a relatively large bribe to the government-appointed examiner. This is bad corruption. Good corruption would entail slipping a small sum of money to someone to avoid the silly requirement of having to sit the exam.

In conclusion, Siem Reap is a part of the world where good and bad money openly compete, which is the way it should be. It is a great place to visit and perhaps even to live for a while, but I get the impression that it wouldn’t be a great place to set up a business.

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Spurred on by the Fed, banks are blowing bubbles again

February 7, 2015

(This post is a modified excerpt from a recent TSI commentary)

The year-over-year pace at which US commercial banks create new credit has accelerated — from a low of 1.2% at the beginning of last year to a recent high of around 8.5%. The relevant chart is displayed below. This is why the US monetary backdrop remained ‘easy’ over the past 12 months despite the gradual winding-down to zero of the Fed’s money-pumping. It is probably also why the US stock market was able to rise last year in the face of some serious headwinds.


Modern-day banking has nothing to do with capitalism. It is, instead, a type of fascism or, to use a less emotive word, corporatism. In essence, this means that it is an unholy alliance between government and private enterprise, which involves the government — directly or via its agents, such as the Federal Reserve in the US — having extensive control over the private enterprise and the private enterprise being given special privileges.

In the US and most other developed countries, the bank-government relationship generally encompasses the following repeating sequence:

1. The government either forces or provides financial incentives to the private banks to expand credit in areas where the government wants more credit to flow. At the same time, the central bank makes sure that there is plenty of scope for banks to profit by borrowing short to lend long.

2. The politically-directed or central-bank-stimulated lending causes booms in some economic sectors. While the boom continues, politicians publicly give themselves pats on the back, central bankers bathe in the glory stemming from general confidence in the financial system, and private bankers pay themselves huge bonuses.

3. The boom inevitably turns to bust, leading to massive loan losses and asset write-offs at most banks. It becomes clear that many banks are bankrupt.

4. The government and its agents provide whatever financial support is needed and implement whatever regulatory changes are needed to ensure that the private banks stay afloat. This is done at the expense of the rest of the economy but is invariably sold to the public as being either helpful to the rest of the economy or a necessary evil to prevent a more painful outcome for the overall economy.

5. The private banks, following their near-death experience, ‘pull in their horns’ and focus on repairing their balance sheets. A result is that commercial bank credit creation grinds to a halt or goes into reverse.

6. The cessation of commercial bank credit expansion is viewed by the government and its agents as a drag on the economy and, therefore, as something that must be fought.

7. Return to Step 1.

There are signs that the US is currently transitioning from Step 2 to Step 3, with the shale-oil industry being the leading edge of the next deluge of commercial bank write-offs. However, it isn’t a foregone conclusion. I know that Step 3 is coming, but the exact timing is unknowable. It’s possible, for example, that the acceleration of bank credit creation in other parts of the economy could mask the effects of the collapsing shale-oil boom.

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Money supply and recession indicators

February 4, 2015

The following chart of euro-zone True Money Supply (TMS) was part of a discussion on monetary inflation in a TSI commentary published last Sunday.

The ECB introduced a new QE program about two weeks ago. This program is scheduled to get underway in March and will add to the euro-zone money supply, but my TMS chart indicates that the euro-zone’s monetary inflation rate has already accelerated. Specifically, the chart shows that the year-over-year (YOY) rate of growth in euro TMS began to trend upward during the second quarter of last year and ended the year above 9%, which is the highest it has been since the first half of 2010. Note that there was a money-supply surge late last year that pushed the YOY growth rate up from 6.4% in October-2014 to 7.3% in November-2014 to 9.3% in December-2014. In other words, the ECB has introduced a new money-pumping program at a time when the money-supply growth rate is already high and rising.

By the way, this is not short- or intermediate-term bearish for the euro. On the contrary, it will be a bullish influence on the euro/US$ exchange rate if it causes European equities to build on their recent relative strength.

The next chart shows the ISM Manufacturing New Orders Index.

The New Orders Index is a US recession indicator. Its message at this time is that a recession is not imminent, although the downturn of the past two months opens up the possibility that a recession signal will be generated within the next couple of months. I currently don’t expect it, but it could happen.


As a recession indicator the historical record of the New Orders Index is good, but not perfect. Sometimes it signals a recession that never comes. However, there is a leading indicator of US recession with a perfect track record, and I’m not talking about the yield curve. This indicator’s current position will be discussed in the next TSI commentary.

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Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse…

February 3, 2015

Sorry to belabor a subject to which I’ve already devoted a lot of blog space, but just when I thought that the gold supply-demand analysis of Mineweb journalist Lawrence Williams couldn’t get any worse, he comes up with THIS. Not satisfied with wrongly portraying, in many articles, the shift of gold from outside to inside China as an extremely bullish price-driving fundamental and representative of an increase in global gold demand, he now wants you to believe that the transfer of gold from one China-based trader to another China-based trader constitutes an increase in overall Chinese gold demand. No, I’m not making that up. Read the above-linked article.

What he is specifically claiming is that an increase in overall Chinese gold demand occurs when someone in China takes delivery of gold from the Shanghai Gold Exchange (SGE). He seems to be oblivious of the fact that all the gold sitting in the SGE’s inventory is owned by someone, so in order for Trader Wong to satisfy an increase in his demand for physical gold by taking delivery, Trader Chang, the current owner of the gold held in the SGE inventory, must reduce his demand for physical gold by exactly the same amount. There can be no net change in demand as a result of such a transaction, and, as discussed in previous posts, the price effect will be determined by whether the buyer (Wong) or the seller (Chang) is the more motivated.

Mr. Williams then goes on to say:

…withdrawals from the [Shanghai Gold] Exchange for the first 3 weeks of the year have come to over 200 tonnes — and with total global new mined gold production running at around 60 tonnes a week according to the latest GFMS estimates, this shows that the SGE on its own is accounting for comfortably more than this so far this year. GFMS has also seen a fall in global scrap supplies — the other main contributor to the total world gold supply — which it sees as continuing through 2015 so the Chinese SGE withdrawal figures so far are, on their own, accounting for around 85% of ALL new gold available to the market. So where’s the rest of the world’s (including India) gold supply coming from?

The answer is that the gold could be coming from almost anywhere. Furthermore, it’s quite likely that most of the gold that ‘flows’ into China and India does not come from the current year’s mine production.

Would someone please point out to Mr. Williams that gold mined 200 years ago is just as capable of satisfying today’s demand as gold mined last month, and that the total aboveground gold inventory is at least 170,000 tonnes and possibly as much as 200,000 tonnes. This aboveground gold inventory, not the 60 tonnes/week of new mine production, is the supply side of the equation.

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Chris Powell goes off on a tangent

February 2, 2015

Chris Powell has written an article in reply to my blog post “Looking for (gold price) clues in all the wrong places“. Actually, that’s not strictly true. He has written an article that purports to be a reply to my blog post, but completely ignores my central point. Instead, he shifts the discussion back to his manipulation hobbyhorse. Was this deliberate misdirection to avoid addressing my argument? You might very well think that; but of course I couldn’t possibly comment.

Here’s a hypothetical situation that will hopefully further explain the main point I’m trying to get across. Assume that Fred is looking for an opportunity to buy 1 million Microsoft shares, that Jack is looking for an opportunity to sell 1M Microsoft shares, that the current share price is $40 and that there is temporarily no one else looking to do a trade in these shares. Initially Jack offers his shares for sale at $42 and Fred bids $38, so no trade takes place. Subsequently, Jack reduces his offer price to $38 and the sale is completed at that price. The fact that the price fell $2 indicates that Jack, the seller, was more motivated than Fred, the buyer, but what if you knew nothing except that 1M shares ‘flowed’ from Jack to Fred? What would this ‘flow’ tell you about the price? The answer is: precisely nothing.

In my hypothetical example, the only way to know whether the buyer or the seller was the more motivated is to look at the price change. It’s the same story in all the financial markets, including the gold market. The price of something could go up on rising volume or it could go up on falling volume or it could go down on rising volume or it could go down on falling volume. In fact, it is possible for the price of something to make a large move in either direction on NO volume.

My point, again, is that the price isn’t determined by the volume or the ‘flow’; it’s determined by the relative eagerness of buyers and sellers. Therefore, from a practical investing/speculating perspective the most useful information is that which provides clues about the likely future intensity of buying relative to selling. In the gold market, these clues will be indicators of confidence in central banks and confidence in the economy.

This point cannot be refuted by quoting Henry Kissinger or a Chinese newspaper. It’s based on logic and economic reality.

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