Quartermasters of Inflation
That central bankers are the quartermasters of inflation is no longer a controversial assertion. That much was admitted by central banker Alan Greenspan in his speech before the Economic Club of New York on December 19, 2002 (see: www.federalreserve.gov/BoardDocs). He observed that as long as the gold standard was in charge of money-creation the price level was relatively stable. For example, in 1929 it was hardly different from that in 1800. But, after gold was banned and central bankers were put in charge in 1933, the consumer price index nearly doubled in two decades. And in the four decades after that prices quintupled. In other words, under the watch of the gold standard the dollar preserved its purchasing power for a period of one and one third of a century, but under the watch of the central bankers it managed to lose 90 percent of it in half of that time-period.
The Specter of Deflation
Presently the specter of deflation is haunting the world, so much so that central banker Ben Bernanke felt obliged to address the problem in a speech before the National Economists Club in Washington, D.C., on November 21, 2002 (see: www.federalreserve.gov/BoardDocs). He presented a simplistic view of deflation defining it as a general decline in prices. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that deflation manifests itself through a general decline in prices and interest rates. Mr. Bernanke identified the source of deflation as a collapse in aggregate demand — a drop in spending so severe that producers must cut prices on an ongoing basis in order to find buyers. Of course, this is the view of an unreconstructed Keynesian. But Keynesianism has been brain-dead for some three decades, so we ought to feel emancipated from its tyranny. We identify the source of deflation as reluctance of producers to take the loans that bankers try to push on them through ongoing interest-rate cuts. Uncharacteristically, producers are pessimistic about future profit opportunities. Instead of contracting new debt, they scramble to get out of the old, and try to retrench by reducing inventory.
Guided Tour of the Star Chamber
Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke claim that the Federal Reserve has the situation firmly in hand. If deflation were to develop, options for aggressive monetary policy response such as lowering interest rates are available. They admit that the zero lower bound on nominal interest rates presents a problem. Even if debtors were able to refinance loans at zero nominal interest, they may still feel excruciating economic pain caused by high and rising real rates due to the falling price level, as shown by their deteriorating balance sheet. However, Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke reassure us that monetary policy will never lose its ability to stimulate aggregate demand and the economy, zero interest notwithstanding.
Mr. Bernanke gives us a guided tour of the Star Chamber, showing all the instruments of torture and explaining how they are to be used. The first of these is the printing press. Under a fiat money system the central bank generates inflation by this technology allowing it to create as many dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost. But it is not enough to create fiat money; you must also be able to put it into circulation or, at least, to make credible threats (sic!) to do so. Normally the Fed puts newly created fiat money into circulation through asset purchases. This particular torture instrument is used by the Fed to reduce the value of the dollar in terms of goods and services. Under a paper-money system a determined government and its central bank can always generate higher spending and induce positive inflation, we are told.
Pushing on a String
If this has the result of pushing short-term interest rates to zero, the Fed will still not be at the end of its rope. It can further stimulate aggregate spending by expanding the menu of assets that it buys. If we do fall into deflation, we can take comfort in the thought that “the logic of the printing press” will ultimately assert itself. Sufficient injections of new money must eventually reverse a deflation.
So what may the Fed do if its target rate, the overnight federal funds rate, has fallen to zero? Why, it will change the target, that’s what. It will stimulate spending by lowering interest rates further along the maturity spectrum. It will target the two-year rate by committing to make unlimited purchases of securities maturing in two years or less. But suppose that deflation is so stubborn that spending is not stimulated even as the two- year rate is pushed down to zero. Well, then change the target again, this time, say, to the ten-year rate, committing to make unlimited purchases of securities maturing in ten years or less. And so on, ad libitum. Mr. Bernanke says that lower rates over the entire maturity spectrum of public and private securities should strengthen aggregate demand “in the usual ways”, and thus help end deflation.
This betrays our central bankers’ ignorance of the nature of the beast. The Fed may be pushing on a string. People may refuse to spend the money in the “usual ways”. It is one thing to print fiat dollars, and another to make people spend them. No problem, Mr. Bernanke says. If lowering yields on longer-term securities proved insufficient to re- start spending, the Fed might next consider offering fixed-term loans to banks at zero interest, with a wide-range of private assets (including, among others, corporate bonds, commercial paper, bank loans, and mortgages) deemed eligible as collateral.
But the banks may not use the loans at zero interest in the way intended by the Fed. They may not want to make further loans to their clients whose prospects to turn a profit are dim at best. The banks may find it far more attractive to invest in bonds for the capital gains guaranteed by the central bank’s zero-interest policy. Business lethargy may not react to loans offered at ever lower rates. In this case Mr. Bernanke recommends the helicopter-drop of money, an idea first suggested by Milton Friedman. There must be a way to put fiat money into circulation, if not by hook then by crook! A broad-based tax- cut financed by open market purchases of securities by the Fed should do the trick. This “manna from heaven” should re-start spending. The Federal Reserve and other policymakers are far from helpless in the face of deflation, even if the rate of interest is already pushed all the way to zero.
Taking Risks out of Bond Speculation
All this talk is old hat, except for the fact that heretofore it hasn’t been considered polite behavior for central bankers to flaunt their authority to create fiat money in unlimited quantities, and to boast their power to drive down the value of the dollar in terms of goods and services. More interesting than what these gentlemen say is what they don’t say. They studiously avoid reference to the 100 trillion dollar behemoth: the interest-rate derivatives market, and to bond speculation. Derivatives are a tell-tale, revealing the big picture. Far from trying to prevent or to combat it, the Fed is promoting deflation. It does, in fact, act as the quartermaster of deflation. Every one of the torture instruments in the Star Chamber enumerated above is making deflation worse, not better.
What the $100 trillion derivatives market shows is that the main feature of deflation is the invisible but nonetheless real bull market in bonds. Nobody is talking about it, although the bull market in bonds that started in 1980 has been the largest of all bull markets of all kinds in all history. Fabulous fortunes have been made and will be made before it is over, thanks to the Fed that has taken the risk out of bond speculation.
The speeches of Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke are the best example to demonstrate the charge. Speculators are told that the Fed is prepared to buy unlimited quantities of securities across the entire maturity spectrum. What is this if not an invitation to get aboard the bandwagon and share the ride to infinite riches? Come and get the bonds before we snap them up. Fear not, your investment is absolutely safe. Your friendly central banker has made bond speculation risk-free. He underwrites the unlimited capital gains you are going to make on your speculative bondholdings (or on your long positions on bond futures, or on your call options on bond futures). The figure $100 trillion shows the extent to which speculators have rallied to the call of the Pied Piper. It measures bets in the aggregate that speculators have made on ever-increasing bond prices or, what is the same to say, on ever falling interest rates.
Multiplying Asset Values a Thousand-fold
Of course, interest rates will never go to zero. They just keep getting halved. The yield on long-term Treasury bonds was 16% in 1980. It has been halved to 8% and will be halved again to 4%, according to the script of Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke. After that the target at successive halvings will be: 2%, 1%, 0.5%, 0.25%, 0.125%, 0.0625%, etc. As you see, it never gets to 0%. Yet at each halving, the market value of the long-term bond will practically double. Suppose that in 1980 you invested $1,000 in a 30-year bond. Suppose further that the rate of interest would continue to be halved again and again. Your investment after each consecutive halving would increase in value to $2,000, $4,000, $8,000, $16,000, $32,000, $64,000, $128,000, $256,000, $512,000, $1,024,000, etc. On the top of that, by clipping coupons you would be reaping a nice income, too. Thus, as a rule of thumb, the value of your investment would be multiplied by a factor of 1,000 as the rate of interest fell to 0.03%. Although this result cannot be guaranteed, the downside risk is nil, thanks to Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke. (My example is a simplification for purposes of illustration. In the actual case bond speculators may use strip bonds, and they may roll forward the maturity several times.)
Needless to say, bond speculators are very much alive to the risk-free opportunity to multiply the value of their assets 1,000-fold. Already they have amassed wealth greater than any group of speculators has ever done in history. Their combined financial resources exceed that of central banks and governments. Naturally, they have a vested interest, and the financial strength, to keep the merry-go-round going — and they will.
Essence of Deflation
The U.S. government may well be unconcerned about the fact that the liquidation-value of its debt is escalating 1,000-fold due to the falling interest-rate structure. After all, the Fed has the printing press to create dollars with which to liquidate any liability, however large. The producers are not so fortunate. They have to produce more and sell more if they want to get out of debt before maturity. Producing more and selling more in a falling interest-rate environment may not be possible, however. What this shows is that the essence of deflation is not falling prices. Rather, it is falling interest rates, being pushed down by bond speculation that has been made risk-free by the central bank. Falling interest rates bankrupt productive enterprise by rendering it unable to extricate itself from the clutches of debt contracted at higher rates. The debt becomes ever more onerous as its liquidation value threatens to increase 1,000-fold.
What these central bankers don’t understand is that, while they have the power to put unlimited amounts of fiat money into circulation, they have no power to make it flow in the “approved” direction. Money, like water, may refuse to flow uphill. In a deflation money shall not flow to the commodity market to bid up prices as central bankers hope that it will. Instead, it shall flow downhill to the bond market where the fun is, to bid up prices there. When the central bank makes bond speculation risk-free, then the bond market will act like a gigantic vacuum cleaner, sucking up dollars from every nook and cranny of the economy. In putting ever more fiat money into circulation the central bank cuts the figure of a cat chasing its own tail. More fiat money pushes interest rates lower; falling interest rates put more pressure on producers to cut prices, calling for still more fiat money, completing the vicious circle. The interest rate structure and the price level are linked. Subject to leads and lags, they keep moving together in the same direction. It is not funny to watch the Fed chasing its own tail. In doing so it generates a deflationary spiral that may ultimately bankrupt the entire producing sector. Like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the central banker can start the march to zero interest, but it hasn’t got a clue how to stop it when the deflationary spiral gets out of control.
Falling Interest Rates Squeeze Profits
Paradoxically, falling interest rates squeeze profits. Conventional wisdom suggests otherwise: lower interest rates are considered salubrious to business. However, we ought to distinguish between a low interest rate structure and a falling one. Only the former is salubrious; the latter is lethal. Falling interest rates reveal that past investments in physical capital have been made at too high a rate of interest in view of lower rates presently available. Furthermore, even the low rates of today will appear too high tomorrow. This explains business lethargy. Expanding production would appear foolhardy as long as the decline in the rate of interest continued. Falling interest rates make the cost of servicing past investments soar. As bond prices rise, the present value of debt will rise as well. So does the cost of liquidating a liability. These increases hit the profit margin, regardless whether the fact is realized by the producers or not. If not realized, the outcome will be that much worse. As the firm is paying out phantom profits in dividends, it is undermining its own financial strength already weakened by the falling price level. At one point the firm will be unable to pay its bills and will be forced to seek bankruptcy protection. Then there is the matter of the domino-effect. Even perfectly healhy firms are hit by deflation: they may find it impossible to collect their receivables and go under after their debtors have — all because of the falling interest rate structure.
In the view presented here deflation is a huge wealth-transfer scheme from the producing sector to the financial sector, denuding the former of its capital, and enriching the latter with risk-free capital gains. Indeed, the beneficiaries of the falling interest-rate structure, making risk-free profits thanks to the zero-interest policy of the central bank, are the principals of the financial sector, chief among them those of the big money-center banks. Their obscene profits do not come out of thin air. Their wealth is not newly created wealth. It is existing wealth siphoned off the balance sheet of producing enterprise, forced into bankruptcy by the falling interest-rate structure. This is modern vampirism practiced by the financial sector, aided and abetted by the central bank, and its victim is the producing sector.
The bear market in stocks is not the cause but the effect of deflation. The cause is the artificial bull market in bonds financed by the central bank. If you ask the bond speculator about his obscene profits while the rest of the economy crumbles around him, he will shrug: “I play by the rules. And I did not make those rules either.”
Bond Speculation Is No Zero-Sum Game
The proof of complicity of the banks in the bond-speculation-scheme is the $100 trillion derivative monster. No small-time speculators could create such a Moloch. It was created by the big money-center banks, for their own benefit, with complete disregard for the disastrous effect it has on the producers of goods and services. The total face value of outstanding bonds falls far short of the colossal figure of $100 trillion. It is against common sense, and an invitation to disaster, to allow speculative long positions to exceed total supply. Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke have no comment on all this, except to confirm policies that are conducive to further increasing the debt behemoth and further whetting the appetite of the $100 trillion derivatives Moloch.
We are told that the sum of $100 trillion is “only a notional amount”. However, the profits of the bond speculators are not notional. They are payable in cold cash. If indeed interest rates did go down, and the price of bonds did go up, say, one percent, then the speculators’ profit would be $1 trillion in cash. Who is going to pay that?
Economists will tell you that the profit of one bond speculator is the loss of another. Don’t buy that. It would be true only if speculation was a zero-sum game, and it was a case of stabilizing speculation. It is true that some speculative markets answer that description. An example is the commodity market trading agricultural goods. It fits the model of a zero-sum game. This is so because the risks involved in commodity trading are nature-given, having to do with the fickleness of the weather and the unpredictability of natural catastrophes such as a flood or a tornado. Human mortals are not privileged to see the future. Speculators in agricultural commodities make money by resisting the formation of price trends. But in markets where the risks are made (unmade!) by man such as the market for bonds and their derivatives, speculation is not a zero-sum game. There, speculators make money not by resisting price trends but by riding them. This is the case of destabilizing speculation.
But if the profit of one bond speculator is not paid by another, then who is paying it? This is a critical question and it deserves a careful answer. The other side of the bet of A, the bull speculator in bonds, is taken by a banker B for hedging rather than speculative purposes. He has sold the bond to A in order to hedge his exposure in lending money to C, an entrepreneur in the producing sector. His risk is that interest rates might rise before his loan to C matures that would punch a big hole in his balance sheet. With his hedge on, the position of B is neutral with regard to changes in the rate of interest. His position is that of a straddle with a long and a short leg. Losses on one leg are canceled by profits on the other. Therefore, if there is a loss on B’s short leg, as is virtually certain in view of the “threats” made by Mr. Bernanke, then it is simply transferred to C, the counter-party to the long leg of B’s straddle. The loss is charged to C. The profit of bond speculator A is paid by C. This means that, ultimately, the losers paying the $1 trillion in gains to the bond speculators are the producers. To add insult to injury, they are kept in the dark about the existence of Mr. Bernake’s casino where the fleecing takes place.
Power to Create Is Power to Destroy
The producers are sitting ducks in this speculative shoot-out. They have no choice. They must carry the risk of owning productive capital, without which there will be no consumer goods for Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Bernanke, or for you and me. This is an accurate description of the mechanism whereby the capital of the producing sector is surreptitiously siphoned off for the benefit of the financial sector as the rate of interest is driven down to zero. The producing sector is condemned to bankruptcy. It is a victim of plunder sanctioned by the Criminal Code. This is the essence of deflation: speculators aided and abetted by the central bank are allowed to bid bond prices sky-high, in complete disregard for the havoc that falling interest rates will wreak with the capital accounts of the producing sector, not to mention losses inflicted on stockholders. The $100 trillion derivatives market is a monument to the folly of man in delegating unlimited power to the central banker to create as much fiat money as he wishes. Former central banker Paul Volcker knows. He has been there. He is quoted as saying that “the truly unique power of a central bank is to create money and, ultimately, the power to create is the power to destroy.” If the central banker has unlimited power to create, then he has unlimited power to destroy. And destroy he does, especially the savings of ordinary people.
Why Are Economists Silent?
I am aware that my warnings will be received with a great deal of skepticism. The central banker as the quartermaster-general of deflation? Arrant nonsense! Not only does the central bank has its own army of research economists, it also has the benefit of the knowledge and research of the entire profession. There can be no question that the central bank wields its awesome power while enjoying the best economic advice money can buy! Siphoning off wealth from the balance sheet of others is straight out of science fiction, my critics charge. The allegedly injured party, the producing sector, hasn’t complained that its capital is open to pilferage. The media in reporting the crash of Swissair and United did not suggest foul play in plundering the airlines’ balance sheets.
Yet you may dismiss my charges only at your own peril. The awareness is growing that not just the media, but the entire profession of monetary economists has been bought off by the central banking establishment in order to put the best possible spin on our fiat money system. In an interview on December 17, 2002, entitled “Our Dishonest and Corrupt Monetary System” (www.kitco.com), Dr. Larry Parks recalled that John Kenneth Galbraith, the Paul M. Warburg Professor Emeritus of Harvard University, had published a book in 1975 entitled Money, Whence It Came, Where It Went. In this book the professor wrote: “The study of money, above all other fields in economics, is one in which complexity is used to disguise truth or to evade truth, not to reveal it.” In other words, Galbraith is saying that when it comes to money, economists lie! Dr. Parks asks: why do they lie? They have tenure. Why don’t they tell the truth? He concludes that the monetary economists, for the last fifty years or more, have been bought off. With Nobel-prizes, endowed chairs, research grants, board memberships, and other perks. Monetary economists have betrayed their Muse, to serve Mammon.
That the profession of the accountants has been bought off by the financial sector came to light recently in the wake of the Wall Street accounting scandals. But in spite of the great publicity given to these scandals by the media, the problem has not been fixed. A few small-time crooks may have been apprehended, but none of the authors of the scheme whereby banks are allowed to cook their books has been charged. The truth is that banks can carry assets, such as bets in the derivatives markets, “off balance sheet”. They do this in order to find shelter from the scrutiny of depositors, creditors, shareholders; more generally, from the scrutiny of taxpayers at large. Accountants, regulators, and bank inspectors know this, but that’s a different matter. Apparently, they have been bribed, too. They are part of the conspiracy. This is how Dr. Parks describes the fraud:
“Fractional reserve lending is jargon for creating money out of nothing. That’s what that means. In the case of derivatives, these are bets that the banks make. The banks today in the aggregate worldwide have made roughly $110 trillion worth of bets. That’s all they are. Banks are making bets and creating money. One of the things that obscures this for everybody is that banks alone do not have to reveal their entire balance sheets, as all other public companies must do under Securities and Exchange Commission regulations. Banks have the option, with some of their assets, to put them in a basket that they call “held for investment”. When they put assets in that basket (they could be stocks, bonds, or whatever), then those assets are held at historical costs, rather than at market value… Nobody else gets away with this except for them. The reason they get away with it is because they say, in effect: ‘If we had to mark everything to market, there would be too much volatility in our earnings. We don’t want you to find out.’ All this is secret. It’s called bank secrecy… There are winners and there are losers. The losers are the ordinary people who lose their pensions, their savings, their jobs. The winners are the financial guys… These guys have no downside… Do you know what the banks took out of the economy last year? Nearly $400 billion. The Wall Street firms who get transaction fees for moving the newly created money around took another roughly $250 billion. Between them they took out nearly three times the amount of money that the auto industry took out. But from the auto industry we got 20 million cars. What did we get from these guys? We got cancelled checks and bank statements. This is monstrous, don’t you think?”
Playing with Fire
I am not predicting that interest rates will keep falling to zero and that the world economy will succumb to deflation. I just want to sound the alarm that it might, in view of the counter-productive monetary policy of central bankers. Other scenarios, no less frightening, are also possible. Paradoxically, the threat of zero-interest (deflation) and that of infinite-interest (hyperinflation) are separated only by the knee-jerk reaction of the marginal bond speculator. He may get scared by the threats of Mr. Bernanke to undermine the purchasing power of the dollar further. As he becomes persuaded by the “logic of the printing press”, the marginal bond speculator may cut and run. Then other bond speculators, especially those abroad, could dump their U.S. Treasury bonds, too, and run for the exit. Quite possibly Mr. Bernanke thought that he was just “fine-tuning” the purchasing power of the dollar. Under this scenario he would destroy it. When the central banker threatens to reduce the value of the dollar in terms of goods and services, as Mr. Bernanke does, he is playing with fire. After dumping the bonds, people may dump the dollars, too. First the foreign and then the domestic holders. They need not be reminded that the central banker has the card to trump deflation — by triggering hyperinflation. How desperate must the specter of deflation appear to Mr. Bernanke that he has seen it fit to flaunt his possession of that card!
Congress, Not the Fed, Has the Solution
It is not too late for the U.S. Congress to act to fend off disaster. It should immediately take away the unlimited power from Messrs. Greenspan and Bernanke to create as much fiat money as they wish, and to drive down the value of the dollar in terms of goods and services. Not only are the present monetary arrangements blatantly unconstitutional, they are responsible for the destabilization of the rate of interest allowing it to swing from one extreme to the other, causing grievous economic damage along its path. The House of Representatives, to which the Constitution delegated the monetary powers, can rectify this by going back to constitutional money. It should stabilize interest rates without any further delay, and remove the threat of both zero and infinite interest, by opening the Mint to gold and silver. This is a Republic based on checks and balances. It has a government of limited and enumerated powers. Neither arm: not the legislative, not the executive, nor the judiciary may claim to have unlimited powers under the Constitution. Why should officers of the Federal Reserve be allowed to make such claims?
Free coinage, a right of the people enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, would remove the greatest threat this Republic has faced in its entire history up to now, greater even than that of foreign terrorists. This is the threat to destroy the capital of the producing sector, through the machinations of the financial sector, aided and abetted by the Federal Reserve.
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