Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the work of the Austrian/British economist Friedrich Hayek. In particular, I’m intrigued with how his views are closely aligned with a passion of mine, Taoist philosophy.
Hayek is the most prominent 20th century champion of a concept known as Spontaneous Order – the theory that systems, such as economic markets, naturally self-correct and function most efficiently when not meddled with. This essence is captured in the French term laissez faire which means ‘allowing things to take their own course without interference.’
Hayek went on to suggest that complex systems are best created not through design, planning or force, but via synergies facilitated among micro-elements that operate in accordance with a set of basic principles or rules. According to Hayek, this market-based spontaneous order allows things like prices to ebb and flow unencumbered through the process of supply and demand. This natural rhythm is the true essence of how the world works, when left alone.
Just the other day, I was reflecting on how these views can be applied to the art of governing. Amid all the rancor in the U.S. surrounding this election year, there appears to be little in the way of acknowledgment among our political candidates of the virtue of self-restraint. I would argue that good government requires a healthy dose of laissez faire restraint to allowing issues to naturally resolve themselves, a technique that has stood the test of time.
Contrary to the belief of many, Hayek concurred that certain structures and rules were necessary to enforce agreements and resolve disputes. He believed that the foundational patterns and order of a civil society naturally emerge when we, the actors, play by the rules. Furthermore, he argued that these rules, which give rise to structural markets, are not due to government planning but rather they ensue from a somewhat mysterious socio-cultural evolution that naturally brings the pieces together into a whole. In the end, Hayek and his counterpart, Adam Smith, supported this concept of spontaneous order not as a means of opposition to the government, but to argue against intrusively meddling with the economy. “
Readers of this blog will be familiar with the Austrian School of Economics; the school of economic thought whose name derives from the fact that many of its early scholars came from Vienna. The school adheres to the individual as the basic unit of economic analysis, and it focuses on the market process.
The Austrian School is noted for some of the fundamental concepts that endure in mainstream economics today, and one of its prominent scholars, F.A. Hayek, received a Nobel Prize in economics. But does the school have anything to offer in terms of investment advice?
Enter the recent book Austrian School for Investors: Austrian Investing between Inflation and Deflation. Continuing with the theme here at Anthem Vault of being financially responsible by reading and continuing one’s education, I was delighted to read through this book, a volume that sits at the crossroads of my two main intellectual interests: Austrian economics and investments.
If you feel like recent economic developments concerning central bank quantitative easing, negative interest rates and government stimulus programs are leaving you confused as to how to invest your money, then this book is for you.
The financial markets are increasingly acting like spoiled kids. On Thursday, March 10, the European Central Bank announced new measures aimed at boosting inflation and economic activity. Markets rallied initially, but quickly declined after hints of not getting further negative rate cuts. The fact markets are not even fazed by promises of more free money shows the situation is getting dire.
So what new monetary stimulus measures did the ECB announce? First, an additional 20 billion euros of bond purchases per month, bringing the total monthly purchases up to 80 billion from the current 60 billion. Further, the program is expected to extend into 2017, which should push the ECB balance sheet to over 3 trillion euros.
Remember the Fed tried rounds of QE that reached a similar $80 billion per month, with the same intention of lowering interest rates and trying to spur spending, credit, and growth. It was a grand experiment, which has subsequently been shown to have little benefit and may even have sown the seeds for future problems.
Second, the ECB will expand its quantitative easy program to include high-rated corporate bonds. Yes, the ECB will be purchasing company bonds; in other words, loaning money directly to private corporations with freshly printed money.
The idea of negative interest rates has been given renewed attention with the Bank of Japan being the latest central bank to actually implement negative rates on some deposits. Recently, Bloomberg Business published a cute cartoon featuring Janet Yellen and bunnies to explain the theory of how negative interest rates are supposed to work. Unfortunately, this theory is fatally flawed and a more apt cartoon illustration would be Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back.
We covered negative interest rates a year ago when European bonds started trading at yields below 0%; so for a crash course or refresher on what negative interest rates are and how they work, check out our previous article first.
Bloomberg’s cartoon starts with the fact central bankers want negative interest rates to incentivize spending and borrowing and to deter people from hoarding money. People are not dumb, and if they are charged money on their savings in a bank, they will take it out and stick it under a mattress rather than pay for it to sit in a bank.
Central banks, the theory goes, should instead focus on the big players: the banks. Since they have so much money and need to keep some of it in electronic form with the Federal Reserve, they won’t be able to ‘stick it under a mattress’. If central banks charge them on the margin (in other words, a portion of deposits, but not necessarily all of their deposits), then it should incentivize the big banks to hand out more loans.
More loans will spur businesses to invest, grow and hire more people. In addition, negative rates will drive down the value of the dollar, making exports cheaper, which will also fuel growth. Sounds like cute bunnies and sunshine right? Not quite.
The Reality: The Cat in the Hat Comes Back
The foundational flaw to this entire approach is the Keynesian idea of jump-starting the economy by trying to increase aggregate demand: borrowing and spending is the ultimate goal for central bankers. But sustainable spending can only come after savings, production and wealth creation.
Investors are always looking for indications of an oncoming economic recession, whether it be electricity consumption, Super Bowl wins or even ladies hemlines. However, one indicator that seems to make some intuitive sense is the Skyscraper Index, also known as the Skyscraper Curse.
This theory states that the emergence of record-breaking skyscrapers presages economic recessions. If true, should we be worried that China recently capped the world’s second largest tower, while the world’s next record-breaker is currently rising near the Red Sea?
What Exactly is the Skyscraper Curse?
The Skyscraper Index began with research by property analyst Andrew Lawrence in 1999. He noticed that over the past 100 years in the U.S., record-breaking skyscraper construction correlated to economic recessions, panics and crises. He began his analysis with the Singer Building and Metropolitan Life building, completed in 1908 and 1909 respectively, which were concurrent with the panic of 1907.
How exactly do record-breaking skyscrapers coincide or even predict economic crises? Economist Mark Thornton extended this analysis in 2005, demonstrating that the link between the two is artificially low interest rates. Interest rates are suppressed or kept low due to monetary policies as well as fiscal policies designed to increase credit in an economy. This increase in credit is ‘artificial’ because it is not due to people saving more and consuming less in the present; rather it is effected through money-printing or legislation that distort credit markets.
Two big central bank decisions this past week sent the markets down one day and then blasted them higher at the end of the week. I am talking about the Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan announcements, of course. Although the market had different reactions, I believe both point to more central bank easing to come this year.
First, the Federal Reserve concluded its two-day meeting this past Wednesday, deciding to keep rates unchanged. In its statement, the Fed noted that recent data suggest labor markets are improving but economic growth has slowed, while inflation continues to run below their 2% target.
The rest of the statement was quite dovish, hinting at a more accommodative policy, especially noting that the committee is “closely monitoring global and financial developments.” This suggests the Fed is worried about the recent market turmoil and stock market declines in the U.S. and China. Somewhat surprisingly, the markets sold off a bit more than 1%, indicating traders either wanted even more accommodation or at least more clarity.
I previously noted that the Fed’s last rate increase was due to their concern about keeping credibility intact, rather than the Fed actually believing a recovery was under way. The latest move to stay put and not increase seems to confirm this. If economic conditions and data continue to deteriorate, we could easily see a move back to zero or even more quantitative easing.