The Greek fiscal crisis has receded from the 24-hour news cycle, but unfortunately for Greek citizens, their problems are far from over, especially with strict capital controls still in place and likely to remain so for months. We previously noted how the capital controls were suffocating economic activity and giving rise to parallel currencies such as private scrip. Now many Greeks are resorting to barter as well. It is a very unfortunate situation, but one where we can observe what money is and how it evolves.
We are all familiar with barter, and it may even be something we do from time to time in our daily lives, trading a few small services and goods with friends and family without using cash. It was also this way in Greece until the capital controls arrived. As Reuters notes:
“In the past, [barter] was mostly on a family and individual level, but now it is expanding due to the developments in the banking sector and capital controls. Now it is a more structured and organised phenomenon.”
In fact, it has become so organized that citizens are formalizing it and increasingly using websites to facilitate barter:
“Tradenow, a website started three years ago to facilitate barter of everything from food to technology, says the number of users and the volume of transactions have doubled since capital controls came into effect on June 29.”
Examples of those using the website range from car repair shops exchanging tires and a burglar alarm company trading services for advertising. Another internet company that operates barter on a larger scale is Mermix, which allows farmers to share heavy machinery in return for cash or cashless transactions.
All of this is certainly a step backwards for the Greeks as it slows the gears of exchange. When bartering, it takes longer to calculate what is a fair exchange; it also takes time and energy to find someone who is willing to trade. Economists call this the “double coincidence of wants problem.” Not only do you have to locate the person who has the thing you want, but you also have to make sure you have something the other person wants.
The argument over raising the minimum wage rages on, especially as cities are now looking at increasing the minimum wage above the federal level, with New York City being one of the most recent examples. While this is a contentious topic for workers and employers, the issue has historically been a big yawn for economists. Previously, it was almost unanimously agreed upon by economists that higher minimum wage laws result in increased unemployment. But they are now changing their tune. Unfortunately, this isn’t because the economic profession was wrong on the minimum wage issue. It is because economics today is erroneously being treated like a natural science, rather than a science of logic and deduction.
In 1976, a survey by the American Economic Association found 90% of its members agreed that “increasing the minimum wage raises unemployment among young and unskilled workers.” Fast-forward to 1992 and only 79% agreed; by 2000 only 73.5% agreed and, of this subset, only 45.6% fully agreed with the statement. In a recent debate at FreedomFest, New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman stated he has changed his position on the minimum wage issue, noting “…looking at what are very clear experiments, you cannot find evidence that raising the minimum wage reduces unemployment.”
Krugman is just one example of economists increasingly relying on empirical studies to come to conclusions about the implications of public policies like the minimum wage. These empirical studies attempt to look at the unemployment data where the minimum wage was increased and then compare it to a similar or nearby area where it was not increased. While this may seem simple and intuitive at first, this is not how economic studies should be performed.
Millennials are having a tough time finding an affordable house or apartment to rent as they start their lives and careers. A recent report found most rental homes were unaffordable for millennials in 23 of the largest 50 cities in the U.S. The reason is simply supply and demand. But what is driving the demand for rentals and what, if anything, can you do about it?
1. The homeownership rate is back where it was 20 years ago, before the campaign to encourage homeownership began.
A chart of U.S. homeownership clearly shows the government-influenced boom to get people to own their own homes and then the resulting bust. It appears there may be a natural rate of homeownership due to the fact that some people will always be renters, such as students, those moving to new cities or young people starting their careers. Trying to artificially increase the homeownership rate beyond this natural rate cannot last indefinitely. Once the bubble popped, all those who owned homes – who normally wouldn’t have been homeowners – came rushing back into the rental market.
2. Millennials are now competing with baby boomers for rental units.
As if it wasn’t enough to compete against other millennials and those still scarred from the housing bubble, rental demand is also being driven by baby boomers looking to downsize or have a more convenient lifestyle. According to a recent Bloomberg article, the sheer size of the baby boomer generation is likely to keep up demand on rental units for the foreseeable future.
3. The middle-aged and middle class are renting too.
Households between the ages of 45 and 64 accounted for about twice the share of renter growth as compared to those younger than 35. Also surprising is the fact that households in the upper half of income distribution contributed 43% of the growth. These are the two groups that traditionally are the most likely to own a home. It’s not entirely clear why, but it’s likely it relates to these traditional homeowners getting burned in the last housing bust and choosing to rent while they repair their finances.
China finally updated their official gold holdings on Friday, revealing a 57% increase from the previously reported figure, but less than what most analysts were expecting to see. China’s gold reserves totaled 1,658 tonnes at the end of June of this year, up from 1,054 tonnes reported in April 2009. Bloomberg had previously estimated their holdings could be as high as 3,510 metric tonnes based on trade data. While disappointing to many gold investors, the spot price of gold declined only slightly on Friday.
Although the release was welcomed, as many have been eagerly awaiting an update to China’s data, it may have raised more questions than it answered. For example, China had been “releasing” data previously, but reports showed no change in the gold reserves every single month for six years. Therefore, the data was false. According to their official release, it now looks like China increased their gold reserves by 600 tonnes in one month, which cannot be true as the spot price of gold could not have declined as it did with that much buying.
Last week, the U.S. Mint sold out of its 2015 American Eagle silver bullion coins, citing a ‘significant’ increase in demand, according to Reuters. This also coincided with the drop in silver spot prices from $15.67 per ounce to a low of $14.62 per ounce last Tuesday. Silver hasn’t seen spot prices this low since 2009!
Given the decline in silver prices, it is not surprising to see the surge in demand for physical bullion. Contrary to the actions of futures traders who normally don’t take delivery of the physical metal, bullion investors tend to buy more when the price declines, viewing it as a buying opportunity. Managed futures traders and other money managers may instead be trading based on momentum or other strategies that are not related to an actual desire to own the physical metal.
The U.S. Mint has temporarily run out of silver bullion coins in the past, as they did last November through the end of the year. In this case however, the Mint said they expect sales to resume within a couple of weeks.
Looking at the American Eagle silver coin sales data on the U.S. Mint’s website, we can see demand has indeed been strong in the past two months. In June, the Mint sold 4.84 million 1 ounce silver coins; 80% more compared to June last year. In addition, July sales of 2.7 million ounces have already outpaced last July’s 1.975 million ounces, despite us being only half-way through the month. However, year-to-date silver sales are still slightly behind last year.
Last month we wrote about the Chinese stock market bubble that was being inflated, largely by delusional retail investors and easy access to margin and debt. But it wasn’t as if something was in the water – Chinese Mom-and-Pop investors were being egged on by their government to invest in the market as the central planners tried to juice economic statistics, bail-out heavily indebted state-owned firms and turn attention away from the sagging real estate market.
Unsurprisingly, the government-fueled rally is coming to an end as both the Shanghai and Shenzhen Indices have crashed over 30% in less than one month! Approximately $3.9 trillion has been wiped out, more than the total annual output of Germany and 16 times Greece’s GDP, to put it in perspective.
Over 1,400 Chinese companies have suspended trading, which is almost 50% of the market. Some of this is due to stocks hitting maximum daily decline limits imposed by the exchange, but much is due to the companies themselves halting trading. This is because these companies were using their own corporate stock to collateralize or secure loans from banks.
A correction of 30% would actually be somewhat normal and healthy in any market that has