An age-old relationship between interest rates and prices

February 15, 2017

The chart displayed near the end of this discussion is effectively a pictorial representation of what Keynesian economists call a paradox* (“Gibson’s Paradox”) and Austrian economists call a natural and perfectly understandable relationship.

Gibson’s Paradox was the name given by JM Keynes to the observation that interest rates during the gold standard were highly correlated to wholesale prices but had little correlation to the rate of “inflation”, that is, that interest rate movements were connected to the level of prices and not the rate of change in prices. It was viewed as a paradox because most economists couldn’t explain it. According to conventional wisdom, interest rates should have been positively correlated with the rate of “price inflation”.

The problem is that most economists did not — and still do not — understand what interest rates are.

First and foremost, interest rates are the price of time. They reflect the fact that, all else being equal, humans place a higher value on getting something now than on getting exactly the same thing at some future time. Interest rates transcend money, because they exist even when money does not. With or without money and all else being equal, getting something now will always be worth more than getting the same thing in the future**. This is called time preference.

Time preference is the root of interest rates and the natural interest rate is a measure of societal time preference. That is, the natural interest rate is a measure of the general urgency to consume in the present or the amount that would have to be paid, on average, to make saving (the postponement of consumption) worthwhile. For example, the average 7-year-old child has a very high time preference, in that if you give the kid a choice between getting a desirable toy today or getting something more in 3 months’ time, the “something more” option won’t be chosen unless it is a LOT more, whereas a middle-aged adult with substantial savings is likely to have low time preference.

When interest rates are properly understood it becomes clear that the paradox named after Gibson is no paradox at all. The reason is that if the money is sound, as it mostly was under the Gold Standard, both interest rates and prices will move in the same direction in response to changes in societal time preference.

To further explain, during a period of rising time preference, that is, during a period when there is an increasing desire to consume in the present, the prices of goods will rise (on average) due to increasing demand and it will take a higher interest rate to encourage people to delay their spending. During a period of falling time preference, that is, during a period when there is an increasing desire to save, the prices of goods will fall (on average) and people will generally accept a lesser incentive (interest rate) to delay their spending.

In a nutshell, there is no paradox because, when the money is sound, interest rates don’t drive prices and prices don’t drive interest rates; instead, on an economy-wide basis*** both prices and interest rates are driven by changes in societal time preference.

That’s all well and good, but we no longer have sound money. Moreover, we have massive, continuous manipulation of interest rates by central banks. The signal that interest rates should send is therefore now being overwhelmed by central-bank-generated noise to the point where it’s a miracle (a testament to the resilience of entrepreneurial spirit, actually) that we still have a functioning economy. Quite remarkably, though, signs of the age-old relationship between interest rates and the price level can still be found if you know where to look.

The signs aren’t apparent when interest rates are compared with an official wholesale price index, because a great effort is expended by the central planners to ensure that the official money loses purchasing power year-in and year-out regardless of what’s happening in the world. However, the signs are apparent when interest rates are compared to a wholesale price index based on gold.

The commodity/gold ratio is the price of a broad-based basket of commodities in gold terms. In essence, it is a wholesale price index using gold as the monetary measuring stick. Although gold is no longer money in the true meaning of the term (it is no longer the general medium of exchange), it is still primarily held for what can broadly be called ‘monetary purposes’ and in many respects it trades as if it were still money. According to the age-old relationship discussed above and labeled “Gibson’s Paradox” by a confused JM Keynes, the commodity/gold ratio should generally move in the same direction as risk-free interest rates.

The risk-free US interest rate that is least affected by the direct manipulation of the Fed is the yield on the 30-year T-Bond, so what we should see is a positive correlation between the commodity/gold ratio and the T-Bond yield. Or, looking at it from a different angle, what we should see is a positive correlation between the gold/commodity ratio and the T-Bond price. That’s exactly what we do see.

Using the Goldman Sachs Spot Commodity Index (GNX) to represent commodities, the following chart shows that the age-old relationship has worked over the past 10 years when gold is the monetary measuring stick. It has also worked over the past 20 years, although there was a big divergence — possibly due to the ‘China effect’ on commodity prices or the ECB’s aggressive money pumping — in 2005.

I like this chart because it makes economic sense and because it can be helpful when trying to anticipate the next important turning point for the gold/commodity ratio and/or the T-Bond.

GCvsUSB_140217

*As a general rule, if your theory leads to a paradox then your theory is wrong.

    **There are many real-life examples of a premium being paid to receive a good in the future rather than the present, but in such cases all is not equal. That is, in such cases there will be a difference between the future good and the present good that makes the future good more valuable. For example, an oil refiner will generally pay more for a barrel of oil to be delivered in six months’ time than a barrel of oil to be delivered immediately, because if it doesn’t plan to refine the oil until 6 months from now it can save 6 months of storage costs by purchasing oil for future delivery. To put it another way, in this oil-refiner example a barrel of oil for immediate delivery is priced at a discount because it comes with 6 months of storage-related baggage.

    ***For any specific interest-rate-related transaction, credit risk will be very important. As a result, at any given time there will be a wide range of interest rates within an economy even if the money has no “inflation” risk. However, it is reasonable to think of time preference as an interest-rate floor that rises and falls. In effect, time preference determines the interest rate that would apply on average throughout the economy if there were no credit or inflation risks.

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A trade deficit is never a problem

February 13, 2017

It’s not just Donald Trump. Many political leaders around the world operate under the misconception that a trade deficit is a problem to be reckoned with. This misconception has been the root of countless bad policies over the centuries.

Trade, by definition, is not an adversarial situation resulting in a winner and a loser. Rather, both parties believe that they are benefiting, otherwise the trade would not take place. Most of the time, both parties do benefit. In general, one side wants a particular product more than a certain quantity of money and the other side wants the quantity of money more than the product. When the exchange takes place, both sides get the thing to which they assign the higher value at the time.

All the hand-wringing about international trade deficits is based on the ridiculous notion that the side receiving the money is the winner and the side receiving the product is the loser, but how could this be? If the side receiving the product was losing-out then it wouldn’t enter into the trade. Furthermore, given that today’s money is created out of nothing, if a trade were to be viewed as a win-lose situation then surely it’s the side receiving the product that should be viewed as the winner.

That being said, I don’t want to confuse the argument by asserting that it makes sense to view the side receiving the product as the winner in the exchange of money for product. Both sides are winners, because both sides get what they prefer at the time of the exchange.

For example, if you shop at Wal-Mart then you run a trade deficit with Wal-Mart. Is this trade deficit a problem for you? Obviously not, otherwise you wouldn’t shop there. Would it make sense for the government to step in and slap a tax on all Wal-Mart products, thus forcing you to buy less products from Wal-Mart and thereby reducing your trade deficit with that company?

Some will claim that a trade deficit is only a problem when it happens between different countries, but countries aren’t entities that trade with each other. People trade with each other, and political borders don’t determine what is and isn’t economically beneficial. If John and Bill have been trading with each other for years to their mutual benefit within the same political region, placing a political border between them wouldn’t mysteriously alter the mutually-beneficial nature of their trading.

Another point that should be understood is that a “trade deficit” for a country results in an investment surplus for that country. The reason is that the monetary surplus on the trade account doesn’t disappear or get placed under a mattress, it gets invested in securities (stocks and bonds), real estate, businesses and projects. A trade deficit therefore isn’t associated with a net flow of money out of the economy, it is associated with a re-routing of money within the economy. There is no good reason to expect that this re-routing will lead to a net loss of jobs. In fact, the opposite is the case.

Unfortunately, while a so-called trade deficit is not a problem, the taxes, tariffs, subsidies and other government measures that are implemented to reduce a trade deficit definitely do cause problems.

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Charts of Interest

February 10, 2017

Here are a few of the charts that currently have my attention:

1) The industrial metals bottomed (in price) as a group early last year. They were then led higher as a group by iron-ore, the metal that according to many analysts had the most bearish fundamentals and could therefore not sustain a rally.

The following chart (from barchart.com) shows that the iron-ore price has more than doubled since its early-2016 bottom. It made a marginal new high this week, so there is no evidence yet that the rally is over.

When the iron-ore price eventually reverses it will be a warning that the broad-based industrial-metals rally is close to an end.

ironore_090217

2) The following chart compares the euro with the difference in yield between 10-year German Government bonds and 10-year US Treasury notes. The euro has tracked this interest-rate differential quite closely over the past two years and very closely over the past 6 months.

The implication is that for the euro to extend its short-term rebound, German yields will have to remain in an upward trend relative to US yields. How likely is that?

euro_yielddiff_090217

3) The Dow Transportation Average (TRAN) traded comfortably above its November-2014 high during December-2016 and January-2017, but in each case it failed to give a monthly close above the November-2014 close. This means that TRAN still hasn’t broken above its 2014 peak on a monthly closing basis, which represents an interesting non-confirmation of the breakouts achieved by other indices.

Will TRAN finally break out on a monthly basis this month?

TRAN_090217

4) In early-July of last year the Commitments of Traders (COT) data indicated that speculators were as bullish as they ever get on long-dated Treasury securities. This set the stage for an important price top. By December the sentiment situation had shifted 180 degrees, with the COT data indicating that speculators were as bearish as they ever get on long-dated Treasury securities. The stage was therefore set for an important price bottom.

The recovery from the December-2016 bottom is probably not yet close to being over.

TLT_090217

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The illogical world of GATA

February 8, 2017

In response to the 3rd January blog post in which I pointed out the straightforward fact that evidence of market manipulation is not necessarily evidence of price suppression, a reader sent me a link to a year-old GATA article. The GATA article was presented by the reader as a refutation of what I had written.

It is certainly possible to construe the aforelinked GATA article as having at least partly refuted what I wrote, but only if you take the article’s headline (“State Dept. cable confirms gold futures market was created for price suppression”) and conclusion (“…[the cable confirms] the assertions by GATA and others in the gold-price suppression camp that futures markets function largely as mechanisms of commodity price suppression and support for government currencies”) at face value and give no further thought to what is being presented and asserted.

However, if you take the time to read the excerpt from the 1974 State Dept. cable included in the GATA article you will see that it does NOT say that the gold futures market was created for price suppression; it says that re-legalising private gold ownership in the US (it had been illegal since 1933) would result in the formation of a large and liquid futures market. In effect, it says that the formation of a futures market would be a natural consequence of the gold market becoming freer.

The State Dept. cable does express an opinion that large-volume futures dealing would create a highly volatile market, and that the volatile price movements would diminish the initial demand for physical holding and most likely reduce the long-term hoarding of gold by U.S. citizens. This opinion is certainly debatable, as a good argument can be made that futures markets tend to bring about LESS long-term volatility in the price of a commodity. In any case, it is just an opinion as to the price-related consequences of a naturally-occurring futures market.

It is also worth mentioning that the cable is from an embassy bureaucrat with no say in government policy.

So, in no way does the State Dept. cable do what the author of the GATA article claims it does. Moreover, the assertion that “futures markets function largely as mechanisms of commodity price suppression and support for government currencies” is not only in no way backed-up by the evidence presented, it is so illogical as to be laughable. There have been futures markets for many widely-traded commodities for hundreds of years. These markets were not created by and do not exist for the benefit of governments.

Sometimes, no specialised knowledge is needed to figure out that a conclusion doesn’t follow from the information presented. For example, detailed knowledge of the gold futures market is not needed to see that the State Dept. cable cited in the GATA article does not come remotely close to confirming GATA’s assertions. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a modicum of logic.

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