Friday, 9 January 2009

The Descent of Niall Ferguson?

We came close to financial collapse, Wall Streets big Investment banks went bankrupt or were merged into other banks, the IMF bailed out various countries from monetary implosion, Sterling plunged, Governments turned to Socialist solutions, the myth of houses being a 'safe investment' was derailed. In all the turmoil with every asset in sight heading south, historian Niall Ferguson was on our screens again, this time with a series titled "The Ascent of Money" to promote his new book. A six part series that looked at the historical impact of finance within human society and how it has evolved, into the modern system we now use in our economies. I personally enjoy reading Niall Ferguson's books and there are some interesting titles to his name, my favourite being Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. After the last episode there was an open web chat in which he answered peoples questions, which can be found here. Like the television series, Prof Ferguson seemed to have flawed analysis of economic matters, such as deflation and inflation which I wish to explain briefly here. Inflation and deflation is strictly a monetary phenomenon, it is caused by an increase in paper money compared with the goods and services in an economy. This shows up as rising prices, however the goods do not rise in price from market forces, but from monetary expansion. For the sake of this article, I may refer to deflation as falling prices, but technically it is a falling money supply. However I will use this definition to elaborate on Prof Ferguson points in question. I have selected some of the quotes he made in the online discussion that I found interesting.

"Well, right now Ben Bernanke is more worried about deflation than about inflation. But if he's successful we can soon revert to worrying about inflation. As I said in an earlier post, central banks today do not want 0% inflation (i.e. price stability). It limits the room for monetary policy too much. Are we going to see a big surge in inflation after this crisis is over? I frankly doubt it. The Fed can mop up a lot of this excess liquidity quite easily, as the Bank of Japan did after the end of quantitative easing."

The above analysis is flawed, in many aspects. First of all, that we are suddenly worried about deflation. This is a myth, as the past couple of decades have been deflationary. As I've said before market forces are always deflationary, people reinvest capital to increase productive capacity, thus reducing the cost of goods and services. Prof. Ferguson confuses general deflation, with the aspect of deflation that Ben Bernanke is worried about, that is asset price deflation - houses and stocks. As the US and UK have consumption debt based economies, where the 'wealth' is based on the price of the above assets, when these are falling in value then the economy contracts. This is what the Western Central Banks are worried about, as our whole economy revolves around these assets. They will inflate these assets at all costs, hence why they want to print money. History has always shown governments will do this as people want the government to take action. Prof. Ferguson does not mention any of this which is a big omission. He also doesn't mention it in the television series.

Apart from the first episode there is no great mention about inflation. Inflation is a purely monetary phenomenon, which amazingly he doesn't seem to explain in great depth. In order to obtain the 'price stability' he references above, central banks must constantly inflate the currency as the prices of goods and services continue to fall. Achieving price stability is a path to periodic financial crisis. Price stability helped cause the Great Depression, as the FED had to inflate during the 1920's in order to ensure inflation was ticking along, fighting against the deflationary forces of industialisation. Then when the bust came in, they tried to inflate to keep inflation up (i.e. keep wages, agriculture and stock market prices high), however they were beaten in the end by the gold convertibility so deflation won in the end. Rather than the economy resuming normal operation it stagnated for years due to the huge inflation in the proceeding years, accompanied by the draconian measures that were introduced as the government constantly interfered during the bust. It wasn't deflation that made the great depression, it was the inflation in the stock market. Then there was the stagflationary seventies. All currencies were off gold, therefore governments this time could inflate so inflation reached as high as 25% in Britain. Again the result was the same - economic hardship for years. It was inflation again in the 50's and 60's into asset prices that caused this as central banks looked for 'price stability'. Yet again, we are following the same foolhardy decisions, as price stability causes financial instability.

When Dr Ferguson mentions this price stability he says it limits the room for monetary policy. Does he really understand what he is saying here? The only thing it limits is the economies ability to re-deploy its resources efficiently and effectively. It has helped cause the stock market bubbles and the housing bubbles with the recent one, being one of the prime reasons we find ourselves in this mess as Greenspan and Co decided we had to pump cheap money in the system to ensure 'Price Stability' to combat these deflationary forces. They expanded the money supply so much that the West quite simply misallocated its resources in the wrong areas, hence the major correction we are now going into. Capital should always be scarce despite what people say, as it tries to direct a scarce amount of resources in the real economy into the required productive channels.

Then we come onto his other comment regarding if we going to see a big surge in inflation, in which he doubts we will. His reasoning is that we will be able to mop up any excesses like Japan. Like Japan did? As I have mentioned before, and unfortunately our governments have begun implementing this policy, Japan cut interest rates to 0% and tried to inflate to cure their downturn in the 90's but all it did was kill the economy. They also tried the new buzz word in the media "Quantitative Easing" which is effectively printing money, as I have earlier warned about. The reason Japan didn't experience inflation domestically, was that they exported this excess money to the world. Japan exported inflation to the world. You have probably heard of the Yen Carry trade well this is what it was in effect, people buying up huge amounts of Yen at cheap rates and putting the money to use in other countries where the returns were higher. It was also the reason for the Yens surge this year, and the deleveraging we saw in the autumn and winter of 2008 as these returns evaporated and the Yen increased in value against all currencies - people had to sell to cover these loses. This is also one of the causes of our asset booms in the stock market and housing. If it wasn't for this and the fact Japan is a huge creditor nation who have a trade surplus, they would have experienced huge inflation. So then we ask the question, how will the West mop up this excess money if the majority of the worlds economies are doing it? Quite simply, they can't, once this money is in the system along with less goods and services (which is what is happening at the moment as businesses won't invest) inflation is inevitable. The only way to stop it is by raising interest rates to double digits, a policy politicians don't particularly like, as Margaret Thatcher found when she became a demonised figure. Our economy is based around debt, so they are not going to be doing this for some time.

"Don't know the book. But people are always writing things like that. My favourite is William Rees Mogg's Great Depression of the 1990s, which never materialized (rather the reverse). Usually the predicted event doesn't happen. Sometimes it does -- though by 2010 I suspect we'll be out of this hole and Harrison's book will be out of print."

The comments above are in regards to Fred Harrison's book, Boom Bust: House Prices, Banking and the Depression of 2010, this is also a book I have read. Yet if Prof. Ferguson had done sufficient research and indeed read the book before passing judgement, he would have discovered that there is a very set pattern for the gap between each housing boom, specifically 18 years which Fred Harrison shows in his book. The book was also written in 2005, just as the housing market was slowing down and many thought it would collapse, however Fred stated that it would carry on for another two years, the period he terms as the "winners curse". He also said it would carry on with double digit rises, when everyone said it would slow to more moderate growth, as he claimed hysteria would grip the market once more. He also wrote a book back in the early eighties, The Power in the Land, in which he predicted the recession of the early nineties, so this is not a one off.

The assumption that we will be over the worst by 2010 is wrong and sounds like he has been listening to the Labour Government. This stagnation will go on for years in the West. 2009 will be even worse, with more bank failures, huge unemployment, and rising debt. Government finances will be in a hideous state and 2010 will be a grim year too, with in all probability the beginning of what will be years of inflation, as 2009 winds down.

"No, we are in a very different situation from the world in 1929, although the potential was certainly there for a Great Depression 2.0. The key difference is that the Federal Reserve System and the U.S. Treasury are doing everything in their power to combat the collapse of the banking system. And so far they've done a pretty good job. I find it hard to believe that this time next year will be so worried about deflation and depression. The conversation may even have switched to inflation and the need to reverse some of the stimulus that was injected."

The final sentence of the above comment concurs with the first statement in this article, however it is his comments regarding the authorities' interventions that I wish to tackle, as he quite clearly has a incorrect interpretation of history. As I have shown in a previous post the Great Depression was caused by government intervention, the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates from 6% to 1.2% and took all sorts of financial instruments from the banks to prop them up. Prof Ferguson seems to place a belief that they have done a good job, however President Hoover was saying exactly the same at the end of 1930. It wasn't until the second half of 1931 when things really were desperate, and the previous measures had quite clearly had no effect. Governments make the situation worse, which I will dedicate a post at a later date to fully explain why free markets should never be interfered with, even during a bust. He's right in once aspect that later in 2009 we shouldn't be worried about deflation, the monetary expansion along with the depletion of goods should ensure a resurgence in inflation again. We are facing a depression, even if the authorities never admit it, but it will be an inflationary depression.

These were just three of the comments he made in the web chat, I didn't feel the need to choose anymore comments as the post would have been too long. There were some good points regarding the Socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende from various posters and from Prof. Ferguson himself. His successor, General Pinochet was a tyrant and an oppressor of personal liberty, but Allende would not have been the Socialist Utopian alternative, as so many among the left like to believe. Before the coup, Chile was already showing signs of Totalitarianism, along with the classic hallmark of Socialist overspend resulting in the escalation in inflation. There was quite an extensive debate on this subject matter, with some emotions running high.

One of the terms coined in the series is that of "Chimerica", or the union of China and America in recent times. Ferguson paints a rosy picture of this relationship, although he does mention the possibility of a Third World War between the two without the mention of possible alliances. In one of his books "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire", he evidently can see that America is on its way out as the worlds superpower, displaying signs of overstretch and faltering economic growth, similar to Britain's decline, decline that I suspect we will see over the coming decades (as empires always decline in over a long period of time). In the book he doesn't use the term Chimerica but acknowledges the China effect and the deficits that America is running with the rest of the world. This is one point he doesn't make an issue of in the series, which in my view is a major point. Britain, when it began its decline, was a large creditor nation with assets all over the world. America, on the other hand, is a huge debtor nation the largest in history with very little in terms of overseas assets. America, is in a far worse state than Britain was during its decline. Yet Ferguson seems to believe that America will be the main economic powerhouse for years to come. I disagree, and think he has overlooked this fact, or forgot to mention this historic parallel. The globalisation of today is far different to the one before the first world war. He mentions British trade with China, however the Chinese were very restrictive back then, only allowing European merchants to trade at key ports. They had no access to mainland China, and shifted their goods through the local merchants. In this recent revisit of Globalisation, the situation is very different. China now produces and exports huge amounts of goods to the West, and have modern economic capabilities. They are becoming self sufficient, while the West now relies on their productive facilities to make goods. This is why this time it is more experimental, as the West slowly loses its status as the economic center of the world.

In the final series Prof. Ferguson detailed the various financial events of the past two decades, from the Savings and Loans Crisis, the Asian financial crisis, the Russian Government Default, LTCM collapse, the dot com bubble, Enron then finally the housing bubble. Yet he didn't link into what caused these events, and how they kept reoccurring. Again the Federal Reserve has fostered these, and persistently distorted the market causing the major downturn we are now seeing today. All the above is created by Greenspan and Co who kept bailing the markets out. People were amazed that Lehman Brothers went bust last year, but half of those US investment banks should have gone bust 10 years ago, along with LTCM at the time. He instead pins the mistakes on human behaviour and markets. This is not true, as the market would have corrected these excesses long ago, instead the Central Banks kept bailing out everyone. In other words they took the risk out of the free market. The free market therefore did not price risk, which is a reason why the banks have so many issues we see today. This omission was fatal, as it explains the bust we are going into is not a product of the true free market, or the product of Capitalism (as many anti-capitalists have begun prophesying its downfall) but the product of Central Bank intervention. The market would have corrected all the above long before, thus we would have never had house values escalate as high as they did and an economy orientated so heavily towards these asset prices. These banks would have gone bust long before and along with it more sensible lending standards, with a more balanced economy.

After viewing the series I don't think I will be buying the book, and will probably wait until it becomes available at my local library. I was also disappointed that the series did not go into the details of fractional reserve banking, Central Banks and the artificial market forces that China have been exerting in recent years in order to grow their economy quicker. There was also a lack of history towards recent financial events, which would explain more clearly the predicament we find ourselves in. However, Prof. Ferguson is an academic, not an economist. His book Cash Nexus, another book that I have read, he declares gold as an old relic with comments such as "Gold has a future, of course, but mainly as jewelry". This was in 1999, around the bottom in Golds price, since which Gold has increased around 400%-500% in Sterling a decade since these comments. Other recent comments such as "Money is trust, not metal", is true with our modern fiat currency, however only metal ever keeps its value over history. Another historical point Prof. Ferguson misses.

Alan Greenspan, who helped cause the current issues we see, understood the damage central banks and a fiat monetary system can cause. Back in 2002 Ron Paul asked him about Gold and Economic Freedom, an essay he wrote (in which I have taken an extract from), and if he still believed it to be true and valid for today. He responded with "I wouldn't change a single word". It's a shame many mainstream commentators such as Prof. Ferguson can't see the flaws in our current system. Greenspan could.

"But prior to World War I, the banking system in the United States (and in most of the world) was based on gold and even though governments intervened occasionally, banking was more free than controlled. Periodically, as a result of overly rapid credit expansion, banks became loaned up to the limit of their gold reserves, interest rates rose sharply, new credit was cut off, and the economy went into a sharp, but short-lived recession. (Compared with the depressions of 1920 and 1932, the pre-World War I business declines were mild indeed.) It was limited gold reserves that stopped the unbalanced expansions of business activity, before they could develop into the post-World War I type of disaster. The readjustment periods were short and the economies quickly reestablished a sound basis to resume expansion ... In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through inflation. There is no safe store of value."
Alan Greenspan, Gold and Economic Freedom, 1967
Note: The Federal Reserve was established in 1913


  1. I, of course, a newcomer to this blog, but the author does not agree

  2. Dear Phill, Ferguson may have gotten many things wrong but one thing he does get right is the legal nature of money (a claim on production). I cannot see that you bring forward one single argument in support of the gold-bug stance. Would be hapy to see one, though. Best wishes! Arno Mong Daastoel (Oslo)

  3. Hi Arno,

    Money is just a convenient medium to exchange goods rather than bartering with cumbersome goods. It was created by the free market, but Kings took it over and created a money monopoly which governments have now inherited.

    I don't advocate a Gold standard (however it is better than our current system) but rather I think the free market should provide money society needs based on competition and supply and demand. Whether the currencies are based on Gold are irrelevant, people should choose which currencies are sound and which are unsound.