Monday, January 26, 2009

The Case for Gold - AKA, It's the End of the World as We Know It

These days, I think it's wise to read up on the Great Depression and the history of the Fed.

I'm currently in the middle of Murray Rothbard's "The Mystery of Banking". It addresses a lot of what we are facing now. It had been out of print for a few decades, but a 2nd edition was recently published. It's also available for free online in pdf format.

Below is a great clip from the book on the time lag for inflationary and/or deflationary expectations to set in.

However, before you get to that, I've included a link below to the St. Louis Fed's website. The link is to the Monetary Base of the United States (i.e., the amount of "money" we have that excludes the creation of money from fractional reserve banking and the like). Click it now before going on as it is a must see.

As I've been saying, it took the Fed about 100 years (through August) to get to where it was, it's taken about five months to do it all over again (more than double the monetary base). Remarkable.

What's amazing is that if you look at the "Observations" data below the graph, the pace of money printing is not slowing whatsoever. The argument for doing this is that GDP = Money Supply * Velocity ("Velocity" being a plug which loosely represents the some balance of demand for or supply of money) and since Velocity has obviously fallen off a cliff, if you offset that by increasing the Money Supply....well, you can do the math. Call me Skeptical as to the efficacy of this "cure".

Here is the long cut and paste from pages 68-74 of the "Mystery of Banking" (it references a handful of supply/demand graphs, but I think the point is made in the text in any case):
During the 1920s, Ludwig von Mises outlined a typical inflation process from his analysis of the catastrophic hyperinflation in Germany in 1923—the first runaway inflation in a modern, industrialized country. The German inflation had begun during World War I, when the Germans, like most of the warring nations, inflated their money supply to pay for the war effort, and found themselves forced to go off the gold standard and to make their paper currency irredeemable. The money supply in the warring countries would double or triple. But in what Mises saw to be Phase I of a typical inflation, prices did not rise nearly proportionately to the money supply. If M in a country triples, why would prices go up by much less? Because of the psychology of the average German, who thought to himself as follows: “I know that prices are much higher now than they were in the good old days before 1914. But that’s because of wartime, and because all goods are scarce due to diversion of resources to the war effort. When the war is over, things will get back to normal, and prices will fall back to 1914 levels.” In other words, the German public originally had strong deflationary expectations. Much of the new money was therefore added to cash balances and the Germans’ demand for money rose. In short, while M increased a great deal, the demand for money also rose and thereby offset some of the inflationary impact on prices. This process can be seen in Figure 5.3.

In Phase I of inflation, the government pumps a great deal of new money into the system, so that M increases sharply to M′. Ordinarily, prices would have risen greatly (or PPM fallen sharply) from 0A to 0C. But deflationary expectations by the public have intervened and have increased the demand for money from D to D′, so that prices will rise and PPM falls much less substantially, from 0A to 0B.

Unfortunately, the relatively small price rise often acts as heady wine to government. Suddenly, the government officials see a new Santa Claus, a cornucopia, a magic elixir. They can increase the money supply to a fare-thee-well, finance their deficits and subsidize favored political groups with cheap credit, and prices will rise only by a little bit!

It is human nature that when you see something work well, you do more of it. If, in its ceaseless quest for revenue, government sees a seemingly harmless method of raising funds without causing much inflation, it will grab on to it. It will continue to pump new money into the system, and, given a high or increasing demand for money, prices, at first, might rise by only a little.

But let the process continue for a length of time, and the public’s response will gradually, but inevitably, change. In Germany, after the war was over, prices still kept rising; and then the postwar years went by, and inflation continued in force. Slowly, but surely, the public began to realize: “We have been waiting for a return to the good old days and a fall of prices back to 1914. But prices have been steadily increasing. So it looks as if there will be no return to the good old days. Prices will not fall; in fact, they will probably keep going up.” As this psychology takes hold, the public’s thinking in Phase I changes into that of Phase II: “Prices will keep going up, instead of going down. Therefore, I know in my heart that prices will be higher next year.” The public’s deflationary expectations have been superseded by inflationary ones. Rather than hold on to its money to wait for price declines, the public will spend its money faster, will draw down cash balances to make purchases ahead of price increases. In Phase II of inflation, instead of a rising demand for money moderating price increases, a falling demand for money will intensify the inflation (Figure 5.4).

Here, in Phase II of the inflation, the money supply increases again, from M′ to M′′. But now the psychology of the public changes, from deflationary to inflationary expectations. And so, instead of prices rising (PPM falling) from 0B to 0D, the falling demand for money, from D′ to D′′, raises prices from 0D to 0E. Expectations, having caught up with the inflationary reality, now accelerate the inflation instead of moderating it.

There is no scientific way to predict at what point in any inflation expectations will reverse from deflationary to inflationary. The answer will differ from one country to another, and from one epoch to another, and will depend on many subtle cultural factors, such as trust in government, speed of communication, and many others. In Germany, this transition took four wartime years and one or two postwar years. In the United States, after World War II, it took about two decades for the message to slowly seep in that inflation was going to be a permanent fact of the American way of life [TTB note: culminating in the 1970s].

When expectations tip decisively over from deflationary, or steady, to inflationary, the economy enters a danger zone. The crucial question is how the government and its monetary authorities are going to react to the new situation. When prices are going up faster than the money supply, the people begin to experience a severe shortage of money, for they now face a shortage of cash balances relative to the much higher price levels. Total cash balances are no longer sufficient to carry transactions at the higher price. The people will then clamor for the government to issue more money to catch up to the higher price. If the government tightens its own belt and stops printing (or otherwise creating) new money, then inflationary expectations will eventually be reversed, and prices will fall once more—thus relieving the money shortage by lowering prices. But if government follows its own inherent inclination to counterfeit and appeases the clamor by printing more money so as to allow the public’s cash balances to “catch up” to prices, then the country is off to the races. Money and prices will follow each other upward in an ever-accelerating spiral, until finally prices “run away,” doing something like tripling every hour. Chaos ensues, for now the psychology of the public is not merely inflationary, but hyperinflationary, and Phase III’s runaway psychology is as follows: “The value of money is disappearing even as I sit here and contemplate it. I must get rid of money right away, and buy anything, it matters not what, so long as it isn’t money.” A frantic rush ensues to get rid of money at all costs and to buy anything else. In Germany, this was called a “flight into real values.” The demand for money falls precipitously almost to zero, and prices skyrocket upward virtually to infinity. The money collapses in a wild “crack-up boom.” In the German hyperinflation of 1923, workers were paid twice a day, and the housewife would stand at the factory gate and rush with wheelbarrows full of million mark notes to buy anything at all for money. Production fell, as people became more interested in speculating than in real production or in working for wages. Germans began to use foreign currencies or to barter in commodities. The once-proud mark collapsed.

The absurd and disastrous way in which the Reichsbank—the German Central Bank—met the crucial clamor for more money to spend immediately in the hyperinflation of the early 1920s is revealed in a notorious speech delivered by Rudolf Havenstein, the head of the Reichsbank, in August 1923. The Reichsbank was the sole source of paper money, and Havenstein made clear that the bank would meet its responsibilities by fulfilling the increased demand for paper money. Denominations of the notes would be multiplied, and the Reichsbank would stand ready to keep its printing presses open all night to fill the demand. As Havenstein put it:

"The wholly extraordinary depreciation of the mark has naturally created a rapidly increasing demand for additional currency, which the Reichsbank has not always been able fully to satisfy. A simplified production of notes of large denominations enabled us to bring ever greater amounts into circulation. But these enormous sums are barely adequate to cover the vastly increased demand for the means of payment, which has just recently attained an absolutely fantastic level, especially as a result of the extraordinary increases in wages and salaries.

"The running of the Reichsbank’s note-printing organization, which has become absolutely enormous, is making the most extreme demands on our personnel."

During the later months of 1923, the German mark suffered from an accelerating spiral of hyperinflation: the German government (Reichsbank) poured out ever-greater quantifies of paper money which the public got rid of as fast as possible. In July 1914, the German mark had been worth approximately 25 cents. By November 1923, the mark had depreciated so terrifyingly that it took 4.2 trillion marks to purchase one dollar (in contrast to 25.3 billion marks to the dollar only the month before).

And yet, despite the chaos and devastation, which wiped out the middle class, pensioners and fixed-income groups, and the emergence of a form of barter (often employing foreign currency as money), the mark continued to be used. How did Germany get out of its runaway inflation? Only when the government resolved to stop monetary inflation, and to take steps dramatic enough to convince the inflation-wracked German public that it was serious about it. The German government brought an end to the crackup boom by the “miracle of the Rentenmark.” The mark was scrapped, or rather, a new currency, the Rentenmark, was issued, valued at 1 trillion old marks, which were convertible into the new currency. The government pledged that the quantity of Rentenmarks issued would be strictly limited to a fixed amount (a pledge that was kept for some time), and the Reichsbank was prohibited from printing any further notes to finance the formerly enormous government deficit. Once these stern measures had been put into effect, the hyperinflation was brought to an end. The German economy rapidly recovered. Yet, it must be pointed out that the German economy did not escape a posthyperinflation recession, called a “stabilization crisis,” in which the swollen and unsound investments of the inflationary period were rapidly liquidated. No one complained bitterly; the lessons of the monstrous inflation were burned into everyone’s heart.

Only a clear and dramatic cessation of the spiraling expansion of the money supply can turn off the money tap and thereby reverse the accelerating inflationary expectations of the public. Only such a dramatic end to monetary inflation can induce the public to start holding cash balances once again.

Thus we see that price levels are determined by the supply and the demand for money, and that expansion of the money supply—a function solely of government—is the prime active force in inflation. [end cut and paste]

Scary times. All of this seems to add up to an argument for gold. I personally prefer the physical version to the ETF version, but the GLD ETF is better than nothing.

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