Joe Biden’s Fake Economic Recovery

Joe Biden’s Fake Economic Recovery

The University of Michigan consumer confidence index fell to 82.8 in May, from 88.3 in April. More importantly, the current conditions index slumped to 90.8, from 97.2 and the expectations index declined to 77.6, from 82.7.

Hard data also questions the strength of the recovery. April retail sales were flat, with clothing down 5.1 percent, general merchandise store sales fell 4.9 percent, leisure and sporting goods were down 3.6 percent, with food and drink services up just by 3 percent.

United States industrial production was also almost flat in April, rising just 0.4 percent month on month in April, pushed by a 4 percent slump in motor vehicle production. You may think this is not that bad until you see that industrial capacity utilization came in at 74.7 percent in April, significantly below the prepandemic levels.

Employment also questions the “strong recovery” thesis. Nonfarm employment is still down 8.2 million, or 5.4 percent, from prepandemic levels, yet gross domestic product is likely to show a full recovery in the second quarter.

These figures are important because they come after trillions of dollars of so-called stimulus and because the entire thesis of the V-shaped recovery comes from a view that consumption is going to soar. Reality shows otherwise. In fact, reality shows that retail sales showed an artificial bump due to the wrongly called stimulus checks, only to return to stagnation.

The rise in inflation further calls into question the idea of a consumption boom, certainly for the middle class. Why? If we look at the 4.2 percent rise in the Consumer Price Index in April, it includes a 25 percent increase in energy, a 12 percent increase in utility prices, a 5.6 percent increase in transportation services, a 2.2 percent in medical services, etc. As consumers perceive a higher rise in prices, especially in those essential goods and services that we purchase every day, consumption decisions become more prudent and propensity to save rises. This is something that we have seen in numerous countries. In Japan, years of “official” messages about the risk of deflation clashed with citizens’ perception of cost of living, and tendency to save increased, rightly so. Citizens are not stupid, and you can tell them that there is no inflation or that it is transitory, but they feel the rise in cost of living and react accordingly.

Two things should concern us. First, the weakness of the recovery in the middle of the largest fiscal and monetary stimulus seen in decades, and second, the short and diminishing effect of these programs. A $2 trillion stimulus package creates a very short-term impact that lasts less than five months.

I recently had a discussion with Judy Shelton, and she stated that the recovery would be stronger without stimulus. She is probably right.

Neo-Keynesians will likely say that if the above figures persist, the solution is more stimulus, but it is not. More money to government programs means slower growth and weaker recoveries.

The American consumer is not happy. They do not see the official optimism about the job market or the macro figures, and the current sugar high is likely to lead to an abrupt sugar low.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

Prepare for Negative Interest Rates

Prepare for Negative Interest Rates

Negative rates are the destruction of money, an economic aberration based on the mistakes of many central banks and some of their economists, who all start from a wrong diagnosis: the idea that economic agents do not take more credit or invest more because they choose to save too much and therefore saving must be penalized to stimulate the economy. Excuse the bluntness, but it is a ludicrous idea.

Inflation and growth are not low due to excess savings, but because of excess debt, which perpetuates overcapacity with low rates and high liquidity and zombifies the economy by subsidizing the low-productivity and highly indebted sectors and penalizing high productivity with rising and confiscatory taxation.

Historical evidence of negative rates shows that they do not help reduce debt, they incentivize it. They do not strengthen the credit capacity of families: the prices of nonreplicable assets (real estate, etc.) skyrocket because of monetary excess and because the lower cost of debt does not compensate for the greater risk.

Investment and credit growth are not subdued because economic agents are ignorant or saving too much, but because they don’t have amnesia. Families and businesses are more cautious in their investment and spending decisions, because they perceive, correctly, that the reality of the economy they see each day does not correspond to the cost and the quantity of money.

It is completely incorrect to think that families and businesses are not investing or spending. They are only spending less than what central planners would want. However, that is not a mistake from the private sector side, but a typical case of central planners’ misguided estimates, which come from using 2001–07 as “base case” of investment and credit demand instead of what those years really were: a bubble.

The argument of the central planners is based on an inconsistency: that rates are negative because markets demand them, not because they are imposed by the central bank. If that is the case and the result would be the same, why don’t they let rates float freely? Because it is false.

Think for a moment what type of investment, company, or financial decision is profitable with rates at –0.5 percent but unviable with rates at 1 percent. A time bomb. It is no surprise that investment in bubble-prone sectors is rising with negative rates and that nonreplicable and financial assets are skyrocketing.

Instead of strengthening economies, negative rates make governments more dependent on cheap debt. Public debt trades at artificially low yields, and politicians abandon any reformist impulse, preferring to accumulate more debt.

The financial repression of central banks begins with a misdiagnosis assuming that low growth and below-target inflation is a problem of demand, not of the previous excess, and ends up perpetuating the bubbles that it sought to solve.

The policy of negative types can only be defended by people who have never invested or created a job, because no one who has worked in the real economy can believe that financial repression will lead economic agents to take much more credit and strengthen the economy.

Negative rates are a huge transfer of wealth from savers and real wages to the government and the indebted. A tax on caution. The destruction of the perception of risk that always benefits the most reckless. It is a bailout of the inefficient.

Central banks ignore the effects of demography, technology, and competition on inflation and growth of consumption, credit, and investment, and with the wrong policies generate new bubbles that become more dangerous than the previous ones. The next bubble will again increase countries’ fiscal imbalances. Even worse, when central banks present themselves as the agents that will reverse the effect of technology and demographics, they create a greater risk and bubble.

When this happens, it becomes necessary for to protect one’s savings with gold, silver, inflation-linked instruments, and stocks in sectors that do not suffer from negative rates.

This article was originally featured at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and is republished with permission.

The Fed Panicked, and Its Rate Cut Is Making the Economy Worse

The Fed Panicked, and Its Rate Cut Is Making the Economy Worse

The Federal Reserve’s monumental mistake of cutting rates this past week can only be understood in the context of the rising God complex among central planners: an overwhelming combination of ignorance and arrogance.

Less than a week ago, several members of the Federal Reserve board reiterated—rightly so—that cutting rates would not have a significant impact in a supply shock like the current one. We must also remember that the Federal Reserve already cut rates in 2019 and inflated its balance sheet by 14 percent to almost all-time highs in recent months, completely reversing the virtually nonexistent prior normalization. Only a few days after making calls for prudence, the Fed launched an unnecessary and panic-inducing emergency rate cut and caused the opposite effect of what they desired. Instead of calming markets, the Federal Reserve’s 50–basis point cut sent a message of panic to market participants.

If the jobs and manufacturing figures are better than expected, and the economy is solid, with low unemployment, what message does the Fed’s emergency cut transmit? It tells market participants that the situation is much worse than it seems and that the Fed knows more than the rest of us about how dire everything can be.  It is a communication and policy mistake driven by an incorrect diagnosis: the idea that the market crash would be solved with easy monetary policy instead of understanding the impact on stocks and growth of an evident supply shock due to the coronavirus epidemic.

There is no lack of monetary stimulus in the economy. Global money supply has soared to $81 trillion, an all-time high, in the middle of the epidemic, most leading economies have cut rates and implemented zero and negative real rates. In fact, major central banks were already injecting more than $150 billion a month (PBOC, ECB, Fed, etc.) into a doped economy long before the coronavirus was even in the news.

A supply shock is not solved with demand-side policies. Governments and central banks will generate a deflationary crisis by adding fuel to bubbles and increasing overcapacity in an already bloated economy only to create an artificial boost to GDP.

Cutting rates, printing money, and increasing deficits is the wrong response to a viral short-term shock. Furthermore, if these massive demand-side programs are launched aggressively, the result in the medium term will be a new crisis. We already saw it in 2009 with the misguided response of the eurozone, spending almost 3 percent of GDP in white elephants and adding debt to a financial credit crunch problem. It triggered a worse crisis afterward.

No economic agent is going to consume more or invest more because of an interest rate cut. Banks are not going to lend more into a supply shock and even less at lower rates. However, central banks should consider the massive risk in disguise. With $14 trillion in negative-yielding bonds and $81 trillion in global money supply, the combination of a panic-induced fall in asset prices and massively leveraged bets could generate a rapid financial shock. We must remember that the risks for dangerous corporate loans have hit an all-time high, according to Moody’s, with 87 percent of all leveraged loans — one of the riskiest types of corporate debt — issued with “covenant-lite” clauses. This means almost no protection for investors.

The error of taking extreme monetary measures in an epidemic is to assume that the problem of the economy is an excess of unjustified savings and a lack of demand that must be created artificially via interventionism.

Interest rates are already disproportionately low. To think that companies are going to invest more if rates are cut even further is simply ridiculous. The vast majority of long-term investment decisions by citizens and businesses do not change due to short-term rates. Demand for credit does not increase in the face of an epidemic and a supply shock. However, lower rates are likely to generate two dangerous side effects: a disproportionate increase in refinancing of already nonperforming loans and a credit crunch in the profitable economy. Banks will be forced to refinance and keep bad existing loans as well as finance governments at ultralow rates while seeing no alternative but to cut loans to new customers and small enterprises.

These rate cuts disproportionately benefit recklessly spending governments and existing indebted sectors, no matter how unprofitable, at the expense of small and medium enterprises, families, and productive sectors, which will suffer from the credit crunch and the tax increases that will inevitably follow the government binge on white elephants and unnecessary spending.

The absolute imprudence and irresponsibility of maintaining ultraexpansive policies and deficit spending in a growth period come to bite now.

Now central banks and governments know they have no effective tools that may increase confidence. It is in situations such as this epidemic that the irresponsibility of the European Central Bank in keeping negative rates and increasing the purchase of already massively inflated sovereign bonds, buying billions of government bonds with yields that are absurdly and completely disconnected from reality, is more clearly visible. And it is also at times like these that the irresponsibility of increasing deficits and spending in a growth period becomes clearer. Governments and central banks have exhausted all fiscal and monetary tools to generate a perceptible effect.

The obsession with maintaining and increasing the bubble of sovereign bonds in times of growth has led central banks to a dead end. They are now forced to take even more useless measures and, on top of that, the confidence of financial agents diminishes.

The failure of demand-side policies was already evident in 2019 with the indebted deceleration. Now central planners will do the same again. Fail, repeat.

It has been absolutely imprudent to maintain ultraexpansive policies in a growth period.

The US ten-year bond yield at 0.73 percent is not a sign of confidence or the success of government policies, but an unequivocal sign of fear. Eurozone yields at negative levels are not a sign of strength, but of a bubble.

Of course, there are measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of the coronavirus.

Postpone the payment of taxes for companies in difficulty, reduce bureaucratic burdens, open cooperation between health and scientific organizations, facilitate alternative supply chains by lifting trade barriers and tariffs, and provide working capital financing to SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) at rates that already existed for governments and zombie companies before this unneeded cut. Supply measures to supply shocks. Spending on white elephants to inflate GDP, cutting already obscenely low rates, and buying insanely expensive bonds is not only a bad response, but also the recipe for a guaranteed stagnation spiral. 

Some tell us that the monetary helicopter must be imposed because Hong Kong has done it. I cannot believe it. Hong Kong has huge reserves, a gigantic financial balance and can afford an expense—which in any case will be useless—of $6–7 billion. However, not even that experiment will get Hong Kong out of a problem that was already evident before the onset of the coronavirus, due to social protests, nor will it work in the eurozone.

The idea that if an insane monetary or fiscal policy does not work it is because it was not large enough should have already been dismantled. Repeating the most common Keynesian excuses of “it was not enough,” “it would have been worse,” and “it must be repeated” is already a joke, but generating a recession by implementing headline-grabbing spending and debt measures is irresponsible.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an expert in infectious diseases, pandemics, and biosecurity at the Johns Hopkins Hospital explained this week that governments have a greater impact on the economy than the epidemics themselves, making poor decisions to give the impression that they are doing their job. At a conference this week, he explained that “the virus will be endemic and seasonal, given its resemblance to other coronaviruses” and that the “mortality rate is low and I would expect it to be reduced once the generalized tests for the detection are in place.” “The severity of the virus is very low, but governments will take containment measures such as canceling events to prevent hospitals from collapsing, and these measures will not be effective in containing it,” he said.

It will possible to get a vaccine in a period of about a year, and in the coming months we could see several therapeutic treatments become available, according to the expert. The only thing we can ask of governments and central banks at this point is to do everything possible to avoid grandiose gestures to “calm down,” because the reaction will likely be the opposite. 

Deficit increases using the coronavirus as an excuse and raising already huge current expenses could throw us into a recessionary and deflationary spiral in months. An increase in artificially created excess capacity would be added to a punctual supply shock, generating a double negative effect in the long term.

Increasing current expenditure and adding excess capacity in sectors of very low productivity to solve a global short-term supply problem is lethal in the medium term. The financing capacity of the economy is squandered between demand-side policy errors and rising automatic stabilizers. The latter will soar anyway in economies that are already heavily indebted and doped with low rates. More current spending, in this case, will be less.

Reprinted from the Mises Institute.

Is China a Better Trading Partner for Latin America Than the US?

Is China a Better Trading Partner for Latin America Than the US?

Part of the economic debate in Latin America, particularly in Argentina after the elections, focuses on what type of financial and trade relationship is most convenient for the region, and several discussions consider the merit of strengthening relations with China instead of the United States

The first thing we should understand is that it is a false dilemma. Latin America is not in an economic situation where it can afford to “choose” trading and financial partners. Therefore, the answer is simple: Latin American countries must strengthen their commercial relations with all countries, including China and the United States, and the way to do it is by improving transparency and reliability.

Why do some politicians repeat that their country has to choose between one and the other? There is a misconception among some commentators, who think that entering into aggressive agreements with China is much more beneficial, cheaper, and, in addition, will allow countries like Argentina or Mexico to diversify their position. The most populist politicians talk of China as if the country gave money for nothing. It is a ludicrous and misguided view of relations with China, as if the business partners and Chinese rulers were not going to demand the same conditions as US ones. The evidence from Venezuela, Ecuador, and many African nations is clear: China does not hand out free money. Money for nothing does not exist. The Chinese are neither fools nor amnesiacs.

The experience of decades shows us that many populist rulers believed that they would enter into large trade agreements with China and receive low-cost financing with no burdens attached. The example of Ecuador during Correa period shows us that this idea of ​​enormous financing at no cost is completely false. China is not only as rigorous and demanding as any other trading partner, but — in many cases — has shown that it imposes conditions, especially collateral in natural resources, that sometimes are stricter.

Usually, the idea that China is going to offer favorable, flexible, and even almost-free conditions usually comes from a mistaken perception that the Asian country will finance the expansion of socialist or leftist models without conditions as if it were a donation. Nothing could be more wrong. China is an economy that is extremely dependent on the US dollar and has an elevated debt. Above all, it is an economy with a growing demand for commodities and, as such, usually lends money in exchange for wide access to natural resources. The Chinese economy is not a source of cheap donations and loans. Its companies and rulers have a very clear idea of ​​the risk they take when they lend money to socialist regimes and countries with economic challenges. China always analyzes carefully the real economic return it needs in its business transactions. There is no free money.

We cannot think that China will give Argentina or Mexico free money or investments, or that it will demand less credit security than the United States. Quite the opposite. China, as a business partner, is much more demanding and rigorous than some politicians would prefer.

Sometimes, in the discussion about whether to favor China or the United States, there is a hidden line of thought, which could be summed up as, “Who can we default on without generating a financial crisis? Who will finance the unfinanceable at a low cost?” The answer is simple. Nobody.

The opportunity for Latin America? Open the economy, become an exporting power and attract foreign investment. To achieve this, countries must make legal and investment security the absolute pillars of their commercial and financial policies. Becoming a reliable country with unquestionable credit responsibility is a capital factor for economic recovery.

No country is going to give dollars for cents, or finance insane economic policies for free, as everyone starts with an analysis of risk of devaluation and default when they consider financing options. What Latin American governments must do is eliminate those two risks so that China, the US, and all the countries of the world perceive the enormous potential of the region.

Reprinted from the Mises Institute

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