On The Failure Of Inflation Targeting, The Hubris Of Central Planning, The "Lost Pilot" Effect, And Economist Idiocy

As an ever greater portion of the world succumbs to authoritarian control (whether it is of military disposition, or as we first showed, a small room of economists defining the monetary fate of the future as central banks now hold nearly a third of world GDP within their balance sheets) we can’t help but be amazed as the population simply sits idly by on the sidelines as the modern financial system repeats every single mistake of the past century, only this time with stakes so high not even Mars could bail out the world. Unfortunately, with the world having operated under patently false economic models spread by hacks whose only credibility is being endorsed by the same system that created these models over the past century, the only temporary solution to all financial problem is to “try harder.” Sadly, the final outcome is well known – a global systematic reset, in which the foundation of all modern democracies – the myth of the welfare state (which at last check, was about $200 trillion underfunded on an NPV basis globally and is thus the most insolvent of all going concern entities in existence) is vaporized (there’s that word again) leading to global conflict, misery and war. Sadly that is the price we will end up paying for over a century of flawed economic models, of “borrowing from the future”, of ever more encroaching central planning, and of an economic paradigm so flawed that as Bill Buckler puts it, “Keynes’ response to those who questioned the “longer-term” consequences of his advocacy of credit-creation as a basis for money was – “In the long run, we are all dead”. It is difficult to overemphasize the venal arrogance of this remark or the destructiveness of its legacy.” Alas, the last thing the central planning “fools” (more on that shortly) will admit is their erroneous hubris, which in the years to come will claims millions of lives. In the meantime, we can merely comfort ourselves with ever more insightful analyses into the heart of the broken system under which we all labor, such as this one by SocGen’s Dylan Grice, whose latest letter on Popular Delusions is a call for “honest fools” – “Frequently, when we make mistakes we try to correct them not by changing the flawed thinking which led to the mistake in the first place, but by reapplying the same flawed thinking with even more determination. Behavioral psychologists call it the “lost pilot” effect, after the lost pilot who tried to reassure his passenger: “I have no idea where we’re going, but we’re making good time!” Policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic are treating today’s malaise with the same flaky thinking which created it in the first place. How can that work?” Simple answer: it can’t.

Grice explains why “Trying harder” is the only recourse of a status quo gripped in a confirmation bias so tense that even merely glancing outside the window at the Marriner Eccles building could be sufficient grounds for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down:

[This week I want to think about] the incorrect application of faulty models. In essence, that’s all those studies on confirmation bias are really about. Subjects applied a faulty model – a mental algorithm saying “accept only supporting evidence” – which resulted in a biased assessment of the evidence. “Trying harder” didn’t work because the problem was the faulty model, not the lack of effort, and applying that faulty model with more determination just caused an even bigger error. Psychologists have a name for this. They call it the “lost pilot effect” after the lost pilot trying to reassure his passengers by saying “I have no idea where we’re going, but we’re making good time!”

 

Flawed thinking got us into this mess. But rather than change that flawed thinking, our policy makers are applying it with even more rigor: we have more debt for insolvent borrowers, more financial engineering, more complicated banking regulations, more blaming speculators for everything, more monetary experimentation by central banks. Our policy makers have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, but they’re giving it a go!

“Lost pilot effect” exhibit A – Inflation Targeting, which failed miserably in the past, and will fail miserably again.

The latest from the Fed provides a wonderful example. Undeterred by the latest calamitous failure of CPI targeting regimes (a brief history of which will be presented below), it has announced an explicit 2% inflation target. But why? Would an explicit target have made any difference to the last crisis? Will it prevent the next one? And where did this 2% come from? We don’t know. But we suspect that past uninformed capital market tinkering has failed to control the uncontrollable, and we’re pretty sure these ones will too.

 

In fact, if such tinkering has in the past been the primary causes of crises, then why won’t this latest attempt – the 2% inflation target – be the cause of the next one? There are certainly precedents. Targeting stable “prices” isn’t a new idea. The first experiment was actually conducted in the US in the 1920s, apparently successfully. Indeed, so stable were consumer prices that the authorities assumed there was no inflationary threat. And, this brilliant new idea, that stable consumer prices were both a necessary and sufficient condition for economic stability, proved so appealing that the NY Fed adopted it as a policy objective. On January 11th 1925, then-governor Benjamin Strong wrote to a friend:

 

That it was my belief, and I thought it was shared by all others in the Federal Reserve System, that our whole policy in the future, as in the past, would be directed towards the stability of prices so far as it was possible for us to influence prices.”

 

During the 1927 Stabilization hearings before the Committee on Banking and Currency on a Bill to amend the Federal Reserve Act to provide for the “stabilization of the price level for commodities in general”, the governor was asked if the Fed could stabilize prices more than it had done in the past. Strong replied “I personally think that the administration of the Federal Reserve System since the reaction of 1921 has been just as nearly directed as reasonable human wisdom could direct it toward that very object.”

 

Like a driver focused on the speedometer rather than the speed, oblivious to the risk that the speedometer might be faulty, they kept their foot on the gas until they crashed. So focused were they on the stability of the CPI (first chart below), and so convinced that it was the be all and end all of inflation, they missed what was going on in the credit markets (second chart below).

Oddly enough, nobody discussed “inflation targeting” as one of the potential causes leading to the Great Depression. Why? Simple. Because it would confirm that the status quo’s very basic definition of inflation is fatally wrong; it also means that the entire premise of “economy” is a joke as it is impossible to rely on any of the most “sacred” indicators in existence, and all the so-called economists are literally pilots, flying blind. Grice on just this possibility:

We know that episode didn’t end too well. Yet to this day, on the long list of explanations for what put the “Great” into the 1930s Great Depression, the prior credit bubble which was allowed to develop – and was possibly even caused by the monetary authorities’  undue attention to an arbitrary variable (consumer prices) – and the false sense of security the stability of that variable created, is barely a footnote. Amid the mountains of literature on the “lessons from the 1930s” there doesn’t seem to be much on the danger posed to an economy of allowing a committee of economists to tamper with the natural functioning of the market for capital by letting them decide what interest rates should be.

Why would there be? It would be a confirmation by the same status quo it is based on a completely flawed premise. Yet the blind reliance on CPI did not prevent the Japanese bubble of the late ’80s, when the Nikkei quadrupled in 5 years, yet Y/Y CPI was under 3% the entire time. Same thing with the Nasdaq bubble:

We’ve experienced the same thing with the tech bubble of the late 90s and the real estate bubble we’re still recovering from (see charts below). On each occasion, the monetary authorities were blinded to the runaway inflation in the markets for equities (first chart below) and real estate (second chart below) by stable CPI inflation.

Inflation targeting, it seems, has a history of fostering asset bubbles because the notion that a stable CPI equates to a robust economy contains numerous false premises.

And here we reach the two main errata in all of modern economics.

The first is that inflation is measurable. Einstein once had the words “not everything which can be measured counts, and not everything which counts can be measured” on the desk in his office at Princeton. And although the world might be simpler if it wasn’t so, I believe “inflation” happens to be one of the things which counts but can’t be measured. The fact is that once money is created you don’t know where it ends up. Maybe it will end up in the consumer goods market, maybe it won’t. Or maybe it will be multiplied via the financial system into new credit which will inflate asset prices instead. Even then, we don’t know which assets.

 

But suppose we did know where money would end up, how would you weight the assets together into one index? Should stock prices be included in the CPI? If so, what should the weight be? And if you’re going to add stocks, why not add corporate bonds too? And what should their weight be? And if you’re going to add bonds, why not add house prices, etc., etc.? Isn’t it obvious that the rich concept of – inflation – is unobservable? So who said that proxying it with a narrow sub-category – consumer prices – was a good idea?

Why Ben Bernanke of course, that’s who.

The second is the premise that consumer prices themselves should be as ‘stable’ as possible. But is that correct? Isn’t the natural tendency of our species to do more with less, to lower the cost of a given good or service, to “increase productivity”? In other words, isn’t “deflation” a part of the human condition? Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon famously said there were two types of company in the world, those that work to charge more and those that like to charge less. His company, he said, would belong to the second group.

 

Shouldn’t someone warn him of the folly of pursuing deflation? Of the untold havoc he’s set to unleash by trying to undercut Apples iPad? And how about those guys at Walmart? Surely they deserve a stern ticking off oblivious, it seems, to the downright irresponsibility of their “Everyday Low Prices” strategy? Maybe all the clever economists and Ivy League Nobel Prize winners should make going to Arkansas to explain to the Waltons that they’re playing with fire a matter of urgency?

Some more on the self-deception of hubris:

Or maybe the clever economists aren’t so clever. Maybe they have it all wrong. Maybe deflation is most painful when there is an excess of debt, and so maybe they shouldn’t be encouraging excessive debt accumulation in the first place, by distorting the interest rate market in the pursuit of aims whose consequences they don’t fully understand?

 

This brings us to a third false premise, that there is some “optimal” rate of consumer price inflation. Judging by the targets of most central banks which have them, that rate is around 2%. But why is it 2%? Why not 3%, or 4%, or 6.78384%? What’s so magical about 2%? Where did that number come from?

Grice on exposing faux experts (virtually all of them) using the methodology of one Richard Feynman:

One of my favorite people of the 20th century is Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who, among other things, pioneered the study of quantum electrodynamics. In a fantastic documentary about him for BBC’s Horizon show called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” he said something I found moving and profound. He was talking about the “experts” he saw on TV and how although he didn’t have any expertise in the area they claimed to have expertise in, he felt quite sure that they didn’t know what they were talking about. He said this:

 

“There are myths and pseudo-science all over the place. I might be quite wrong, maybe they do know all this … but I don’t think I’m wrong, you see I have the advantage of having found out how difficult it is to really know something. How careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something. And therefore, I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it. They haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t taken the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know and that they’re intimidating people.”

 

So if I apply Feynman’s test and ask myself how hard most economists worked for their knowledge, I can’t help thinking they haven’t worked hard for it at all. I don’t think they’ve worked hard to know what inflation is, or whether it can or should be targeted. I think they’ve just assumed it, and anyone can do that. As Feynman warned, they’ve fallen into the trap of fooling themselves. They’ve assumed that inflation can be proxied by the CPI because it’s easier to do that, they’ve assumed that 2% is somehow the right rate for it, and they’ve assumed they’re capable of setting interest rates at the ‘appropriate’ level.

And the biggest blasphemy of all: everything economists have been taught, and have taught, was wrong from the very beginning.

But what if those assumptions are wrong? What if, for example, the ‘natural’ rate of consumer price inflation was 0% and so by trying to keep it at the unnaturally high rate of 2% they’ve had to artificially goose up the rest of the economy by setting interest rates at an inappropriately low level? And what if, like force-feeding steroids to a horse because you assume it should be running faster, in doing so you kill it, distorting the credit system so grotesquely as to crash the rest of the economy?

 

They’ve assumed that wouldn’t be a problem, and they assumed that if there was one they’d be able to fix it (Ben Bernanke supposedly promised Milton Friedman that there would never be another great depression because the “lessons” had been learned from the 1930s). But, assuming you know how the animal behaves isn’t the correct way to go about attaining knowledge about how the animal actually behaves. So they don’t attain knowledge about how the animal behaves. So the animal keeps mauling them.

 

But they keep doing it. Now a 2% CPI inflation target is going to make all the difference. And I find it a very strange thing. I just don’t understand why they’re so sure they know all this stuff despite all the evidence to the contrary. I feel like McCarthy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “That’s right Mr. Martini, there is an Easter Bunny.”

Finally, we get to the bottom line: economists, and all those others who are “in charge” really are just a bunch of idiots, or, as Grice puts it far more politely, fools.

Mr. Feynman said something else which I like. He said:

 

“Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools – guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus – that I cannot stand! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!”

 

I think he’s right. Dishonest fools are terrible. It’s a shame they’re in charge.

Yet we keep on giving them Ivy League tenure, and voting them into power…

It’s is probably a bigger shame that the general public continues to refuse to call them out for their endless barrage of lies. Because the time has come to unmask the emperor as not only being naked, but being full of, well, shit.

Bob's World: Monetary Anarchy

Bob’s World: Monetary Anarchy

Since my last note from early January I have spent the last few weeks assessing data and price action, as well as spending a lot of time talking to clients and trying to analyse the words and deeds of policymakers. In no particular order, my takeaways are as follows:

1 – Greece (and the whole eurozone story) continues to lurch about, seemingly perpetually, from Farce to Tragedy. Policy seems to be focused on protecting and preserving vested interests, with little consideration given to the dreadful conditions the people of Greece and other “peripherals” are being forced to live with. However, it seems that eurozone leaders may be about to pour even more taxpayer money down into the black hole that is Greece, primarily to help the banks in Europe, at the expense of perhaps a decade of suffering by the Greek populace. For my part, I am now consigning the Greece/Peripherals/Eurozone story to the box marked “self-serving political debacle” and from here on in I will simplify Europe as follows: Until, and unless, Germany signs up to full fiscal union, a eurozone breakup is likely. And depending on how long we can continue to “kick the can” down the road in order to protect the eurozone banks, the eurozone will be consigned to an extended period of weak growth, which in turn means ever decreasing debt sustainability. Ultimately this means that the end game will simply be more devastating for us all the longer we are forced to wait. Investors should be fully aware that “home” bias amongst real money investors is now “off the charts”. This is not a good development for the eurozone, unless of course our leaders are preparing for break up, or at least considering it as a viable option.

2 – I am staggered at how easily the concepts of Democracy and the Rule of Law – two of the pillars of the modern world – have been brushed aside in the interests of political expediency. This is not just a eurozone phenomenon but of course the removal of elected governments and the instalment of “insider” technocrats who simply serve the interests of the elite has become a specialisation in Europe. Many will think this kind of development is not a big deal and is instead may be what is needed. Personally I am absolutely certain that the kind of totalitarianism being pushed on us by our leaders will – if allowed to persist and fester – end with consequences which are way beyond anything the printing presses of our central banks could ever hope to contain. Communism failed badly. Why then are we arguably trying to resurrect a version of it, particularly in Europe? Are the banks so powerful that we are all beholden to them and the biggest nonsense of all – that defaults should never happen (unless said defaults are trivial or largely meaningless)?

3 – More broadly, with Mr Draghi now in situ, it is clear that I misread and misunderstood two things. First, I am simply stunned that our  policymakers seem so one-dimensional, so short-termist, and so utterly bereft of courage or ideas. It now seems obvious that in response to the financial crisis that has been with us for five years and counting, we are being “told” to double up on these same policy decisions. The crisis was caused by central bankers mispricing the cost of capital, which forced a misallocation of capital, driven by debt/leverage, which was ultimately exposed as a hideous asset bubble which then collapsed, destroying the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of relatively innocent people. Well now, if you listen to the latest from Bernanke and Draghi, it seems that the only solution they can offer up  is to yet again misprice the cost of capital, in the hope that, yet again, through increased leverage/debt, we are yet again “greedy” enough to misallocate capital, which in turn will lead to yet another round of asset bubbles. Such asset bubbles are meant to delude us into believing that we are now “richer”. When – as they do by definition – these bubbles burst, those who have been suckered in will realise that their “wealth” is instead an illusion, which in turn will be replaced by default risk.

Secondly, I have clearly underestimated the ‘market’s’ willingness, nay desperation, to go along with this ultimately ruinous policy path. Personally, I think this is extremely worrying – the number of clients who tell me that they know they are being forced into playing a game that will end in disaster, but who feel they have to play along and who hope they will get out before it turns, is a depressingly familiar old tale. Some such folks hang onto the idea that Draghi/LTRO changed the asymmetry of risk from deeply negative to positive. Yet even these folks know that printing more money/more liquidity/more debt/more leverage is not a viable solution to our ills, and in fact will mean true supply side reform and the search for true competiveness and sustainable growth will be further cast aside, as the focus will be on the “easy gains” to be made in markets.

4 – Assuming that we are in yet another liquidity fuelled rally courtesy of Bernanke and Draghi, then there are some key things to remember. First, such rallies can last days, weeks, months, perhaps we could even extend into 2013. And – to give a proxy guide – the S&P could end up in the high 1500s again if this current binge lasts into 2013. The problem with such liquidity fuelled set-ups is that they can last longer and get bigger than any reasonable logic would dictate. The issue here is not what central bankers say – it now seems clear that Bernanke and Draghi will say whatever it takes to keep the market supplied with ample liquidity – but what they can do. In this respect one either believes that central bankers can do whatever they like whenever they like, or one believes there are limits. I think there are limits to what Bernanke and Draghi can do, and once we hit those limits these bubbles will burst, with increasingly greater consequences the longer we are forced to wait. Do I know when we may hit these limits? I hope that it is sooner rather than later, but I have no real conviction.

Secondly, when looking for where the bubbles may be, realise this: in this current cycle, where central bank balance sheets are at the core, the bubble is everywhere – in stocks, in bonds, in growth expectation, in credit spreads, in currencies, in commodity prices, in most real asset prices – you name it! This is why I think that this current bubble, if it is allowed to fester and develop into 2013, will have such widespread consequences when it bursts that it will make 2008 feel, relatively speaking, like a bull market.

Third, when this bubble bursts, I don’t think there is an easy way out. Who will be the bail-out provider? We already have extraordinarily weak and fragile government balance sheets, ditto banking balance sheets and consumer balance sheets. The big cap corporate balance sheet is sound, but it already worries about how bad the real economy hit will be when the next bubble bursts. As such, the corporate sector – which has a huge degree of “control” over the political classes – will keeps its powder dry until asset prices fall to clearing levels. When this happens they will be the biggest buyer of truly cheap assets in town, but not before then. The really dangerous thing about this next bubble is that it will likely ruin current central bank credibility, as their balance sheet expansion, accumulating ever more “toxic” assets, is at the centre of the current cycle. As a result, the central bank decision-making function is now (increasingly) deeply compromised, if not utterly at odds with its own raison d’être. This of course means that if/when the current cycle implodes, central banks which have seen explosive balance sheet growth will add to the problems, rather than being able to act as credible lenders of last resort. A resulting consequence is that we will, at that point, usher in a new era of central banking and policy settings, where the key will be to regain a semblance of credibility and independence. This will be good news. But we will likely have to go through the “bust” first.

5 – I am not well equipped to navigate bubbles where tactical views and secular views are all thrown into the melting pot together, where there is no visibility, where – as one client put it to me recently – we have Monetary Anarchy running riot, where the elastic band between the ‘real’ economy and the current liquidity-fuelled markets is stretched further and further beyond credulity, and where history tells us that policymakers will happily stand by whilst bubbles are being pumped up, and hope that they are onto their next job before it all comes tumbling down. It seems that the 07/08/09 part of this crisis has resulted in zero lessons learned. In fact it is much worse than that as we are instead being asked to double up on a strategy which I fear will end in failure. As such, clearly my outlook in my last note needs to be re-assessed in terms of the latest developments. Whilst equity market levels are still within the tolerance limits set out in this previous note, my timing is clearly being “stretched”. Unfortunately for me, and as warned in the prior note, if my outlook set out therein is proven to be wrong, it is because I am overly cautious. I say “unfortunately” because the longer we have to wait for the “final” resolution to the global financial crisis, the bigger and more devastating the final leg lower will be. I have an extremely high level of conviction on this point.

6 – So, in terms of markets, be warned. My personal recommendation is to sit in Gold and non-financial high quality corporate credit and blue-chip big cap non-financial global equitiesBond and Currency markets are now so rigged by policy makers that I have no meaningful insights to offer, other than my bubble fears. Real assets are relatively attractive. But I am going to wait for this current central bank bubble to burst before going all in. I may be waiting 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 months, perhaps 5 quarters. It all depends on when and how our central bank leaders are exposed as lacking credibility and/or lacking the mandates to keep pumping liquidity into the system. The end of the bubble will be sign posted by either monetary anarchy creating major real economy inflation or by a deflationary credit collapse (if they run out of pumping “mandates”). The end game is incredibly binary in my view, but in between it is pretty much a random walk. Either way, “bonds are toast” in any secular timeframe (due either to huge inflationary pressures, or due to a deflationary credit collapse), which in turn means that asset bubbles in risky assets will get crushed on a secular basis.

My colleague Kevin Gaynor has a more nuanced view and he feels that we may well avoid the bubble outcome, as political hurdles, political changes, growth and earnings data will all very quickly undermine central bankers and their bubble vision. For all our (long term) sakes, I hope I am wrong when it comes to fearing another round of liquidity-fuelled bubbles, and that he is right that “good sense? will prevail soon.

I will continue to use the Dow/Gold charts to continue to guide me going forward. The USD price of an ounce of gold and the Dow will, I believe, converge at/around 1, at some point over the next 2 years or so. I have extremely high conviction on this. What I am not sure on is whether we converge at 7000+/-, or at 14000+/-. Because I do believe that even Bernanke and Draghi cannot do as they wish and that there are some limits to the recklessness of policymakers, I still lean towards a deflationary resolution at/about 7000 in the next year or two. Pretty vague, I know, buts it’s the best I can do right now, and what is clear is that, in the world I fear ahead, gold is a winner either way – remember, gold is a great (monetary) inflation hedge, and in a deflationary credit collapse gold works as a store of value/wealth as it carries zero credit risk.

As a “credit” guy at heart I see more likelihood in a deflationary credit (i.e., a “real”) collapse rather than a real economy inflationary (nominal) collapse. Either way however, what is clear is that if Bernanke and Draghi are allowed to continue on their current policy path for much longer, then whatever the final outcome will be, it will likely leave a deep scar on us for decades. Which on a ten-year timeframe may not be such a bad thing as it should kill off monetarism and usher in a new era of monetary and fiscal prudence? In the near term, LTRO2 at month-end is the next clear focus for markets, more so than Greece. If LTRO2 is USD1trn or more, the market will take that as a signal to load on more leverage, more risk and more ‘carry’. If LTRO2 is in the order of USD250bn to USD500bn, Risk Off will be the order of the day as markets will start to fear that central bankers are having to reign back-in their current policies, and that as a result we face another period where central bankers and policymakers fall back behind the curve. LTRO1 clearly took policymakers from behind to ahead of the curve, but this is an extremely fluid situation, where doing nothing is, in reality, the same as going backwards. As the skew of expectations is to a large LTRO2, a LTRO2 take-up in between these ranges is likely to be viewed with neutrality/mild disappointment.

On The Failure Of Inflation Targeting, The Hubris Of Central Planning, The "Lost Pilot" Effect, And Economist Idiocy

As an ever greater portion of the world succumbs to authoritarian control (whether it is of military disposition, or as we first showed, a small room of economists defining the monetary fate of the future as central banks now hold nearly a third of world GDP within their balance sheets) we can’t help but be amazed as the population simply sits idly by on the sidelines as the modern financial system repeats every single mistake of the past century, only this time with stakes so high not even Mars could bail out the world. Unfortunately, with the world having operated under patently false economic models spread by hacks whose only credibility is being endorsed by the same system that created these models over the past century, the only temporary solution to all financial problem is to “try harder.” Sadly, the final outcome is well known – a global systematic reset, in which the foundation of all modern democracies – the myth of the welfare state (which at last check, was about $200 trillion underfunded on an NPV basis globally and is thus the most insolvent of all going concern entities in existence) is vaporized (there’s that word again) leading to global conflict, misery and war. Sadly that is the price we will end up paying for over a century of flawed economic models, of “borrowing from the future”, of ever more encroaching central planning, and of an economic paradigm so flawed that as Bill Buckler puts it, “Keynes’ response to those who questioned the “longer-term” consequences of his advocacy of credit-creation as a basis for money was – “In the long run, we are all dead”. It is difficult to overemphasise the venal arrogance of this remark or the destructiveness of its legacy.” Alas, the last thing the central planning “fools” (more on that shortly) will admit is their erroneous hubris, which in the years to come will claims millions of lives. In the meantime, we can merely comfort ourselves with ever more insightful analyses into the heart of the broken system under which we all labor, such as this one by SocGen’s Dylan Grice, whose latest letter on Popular Delusions is a call for “honest fools” – “Frequently, when we make mistakes we try to correct them not by changing the flawed thinking which led to the mistake in the first place, but by reapplying the same flawed thinking with even more determination. Behavioural psychologists call it the “lost pilot” effect, after the lost pilot who tried to reassure his passenger: “I have no idea where we’re going, but we’re making good time!” Policy makers on both sides of the Atlantic are treating today’s malaise with the same flaky thinking which created it in the first place. How can that work?” Simple answer: it can’t.

Grice explains why “Trying harder” is the only recourse of a status quo gripped in a confirmation bias so tense that even merely glancing outside the window at the Marriner Eccles building could be sufficient grounds for the whole house of cards to come tumbling down:

[This week I want to think about] the incorrect application of faulty models. In essence, that’s all those studies on confirmation bias are really about. Subjects applied a faulty model – a mental algorithm saying “accept only supporting evidence” – which resulted in a biased assessment of the evidence. “Trying harder” didn’t work because the problem was the faulty model, not the lack of effort, and applying that faulty model with more determination just caused an even bigger error. Psychologists have a name for this. They call it the “lost pilot effect” after the lost pilot trying to reassure his passengers by saying “I have no idea where we’re going, but we’re making good time!”

 

Flawed thinking got us into this mess. But rather than change that flawed thinking, our policy makers are applying it with even more rigour: we have more debt for insolvent borrowers, more financial engineering, more complicated banking regulations, more blaming speculators for everything, more monetary experimentation by central banks. Our policy makers have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, but they’re giving it a go!

“Lost pilot effect” exhibit A – Inflation Targeting, which failed miserably in the past, and will fail miserably again.

The latest from the Fed provides a wonderful example. Undeterred by the latest calamitous failure of CPI targeting regimes (a brief history of which will be presented below), it has announced an explicit 2% inflation target. But why? Would an explicit target have made any difference to the last crisis? Will it prevent the next one? And where did this 2% come from? We don’t know. But we suspect that past uninformed capital market tinkering has failed to control the uncontrollable, and we’re pretty sure these ones will too.

 

In fact, if such tinkering has in the past been the primary causes of crises, then why won’t this latest attempt – the 2% inflation target – be the cause of the next one? There are certainly precedents. Targeting stable “prices” isn’t a new idea. The first experiment was actually conducted in the US in the 1920s, apparently successfully. Indeed, so stable were consumer prices that the authorities assumed there was no inflationary threat. And, this brilliant new idea, that stable consumer prices were both a necessary and sufficient condition for economic stability, proved so appealing that the NY Fed adopted it as a policy objective. On January 11th 1925, then-governor Benjamin Strong wrote to a friend:

 

That it was my belief, and I thought it was shared by all others in the Federal Reserve System, that our whole policy in the future, as in the past, would be directed towards the stability of prices so far as it was possible for us to influence prices.”

 

During the 1927 Stabilization hearings before the Committee on Banking and Currency on a Bill to amend the Federal Reserve Act to provide for the “stabilization of the price level for commodities in general”, the governor was asked if the Fed could stabilize prices more than it had done in the past. Strong replied “I personally think that the administration of the Federal Reserve System since the reaction of 1921 has been just as nearly directed as reasonable human wisdom could direct it toward that very object.”

 

Like a driver focused on the speedometer rather than the speed, oblivious to the risk that the speedometer might be faulty, they kept their foot on the gas until they crashed. So focused were they on the stability of the CPI (first chart below), and so convinced that it was the be all and end all of inflation, they missed what was going on in the credit markets (second chart below).



Oddly enough, nobody discussed “inflation targeting” as one of the potential causes leading to the Great Depression. Why? Simple. Because it would confirm that the status quo’s very basic definition of inflation is fatally wrong; it also means that the entire premise of “economy” is a joke as it is impossible to rely on any of the most “sacred” indicators in existence, and all the so-called economists are literally pilots, flying blind. Grice on just this possibility:

We know that episode didn’t end too well. Yet to this day, on the long list of explanations for what put the “Great” into the 1930s Great Depression, the prior credit bubble which was allowed to develop – and was possibly even caused by the monetary authorities’  undue attention to an arbitrary variable (consumer prices) – and the false sense of security the stability of that variable created, is barely a footnote. Amid the mountains of literature on the “lessons from the 1930s” there doesn’t seem to be much on the danger posed to an economy of allowing a committee of economists to tamper with the natural functioning of the market for capital by letting them decide what interest rates should be.

Why would there be? It would be a confirmation by the same status quo it is based on a completely flawed premise. Yet the blind reliance on CPI did not prevent the Japanese bubble of the late ’80s, when the Nikkey quadrupled in 5 years, yet Y/Y CPI was under 3% the entire time. Same thing with the Nasdaq bubble:

We’ve experienced the same thing with the tech bubble of the late 90s and the real estate bubble we’re still recovering from (see charts below). On each occasion, the monetary authorities were blinded to the runaway inflation in the markets for equities (first chart below) and real estate (second chart below) by stable CPI inflation.


Inflation targeting, it seems, has a history of fostering asset bubbles because the notion that a stable CPI equates to a robust economy contains numerous false premises.

And here we reach the two main errata in all of modern economics.

The first is that inflation is measurable. Einstein once had the words “not everything which can be measured counts, and not everything which counts can be measured” on the desk in his office at Princeton. And although the world might be simpler if it wasn’t so, I believe “inflation” happens to be one of the things which counts but can’t be measured. The fact is that once money is created you don’t know where it ends up. Maybe it will end up in the consumer goods market, maybe it won’t. Or maybe it will be multiplied via the financial system into new credit which will inflate asset prices instead. Even then, we don’t know which assets.

 

But suppose we did know where money would end up, how would you weight the assets together into one index? Should stock prices be included in the CPI? If so, what should the weight be? And if you’re going to add stocks, why not add corporate bonds too? And what should their weight be? And if you’re going to add bonds, why not add house prices, etc., etc.? Isn’t it obvious that the rich concept of – inflation – is unobservable? So who said that proxying it with a narrow sub-category – consumer prices – was a good idea?

Why Ben Bernanke of course, that’s who.

The second is the premise that consumer prices themselves should be as ‘stable’ as possible. But is that correct? Isn’t the natural tendency of our species to do more with less, to lower the cost of a given good or service, to “increase productivity”? In other words, isn’t “deflation” a part of the human condition? Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon famously said there were two types of company in the world, those that work to charge more and those that like to charge less. His company, he said, would belong to the second group.

 

Shouldn’t someone warn him of the folly of pursuing deflation? Of the untold havoc he’s set to unleash by trying to undercut Apples iPad? And how about those guys at Walmart? Surely they deserve a stern ticking off oblivious, it seems, to the downright irresponsibility of their “Everyday Low Prices” strategy? Maybe all the clever economists and Ivy League Nobel Prize winners should make going to Arkansas to explain to the Waltons that they’re playing with fire a matter of urgency?

Some more on the self-deception of hubris:

Or maybe the clever economists aren’t so clever. Maybe they have it all wrong. Maybe deflation is most painful when there is an excess of debt, and so maybe they shouldn’t be encouraging excessive debt accumulation in the first place, by distorting the interest rate market in the pursuit of aims whose consequences they don’t fully understand?

 

This brings us to a third false premise, that there is some “optimal” rate of consumer price inflation. Judging by the targets of most central banks which have them, that rate is around 2%. But why is it 2%? Why not 3%, or 4%, or 6.78384%? What’s so magical about 2%? Where did that number come from?

Grice on exposing faux experts (virtually all of them) using the methodology of one Richard Feynman:

One of my favourite people of the 20th century is Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist who, among other things, pioneered the study of quantum electrodynamics. In a fantastic documentary about him for BBC’s Horizon show called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” he said something I found moving and profound. He was talking about the “experts” he saw on TV and how although he didn’t have any expertise in the area they claimed to have expertise in, he felt quite sure that they didn’t know what they were talking about. He said this:

 

“There are myths and pseudo-science all over the place. I might be quite wrong, maybe they do know all this … but I don’t think I’m wrong, you see I have the advantage of having found out how difficult it is to really know something. How careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something. And therefore, I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it. They haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t taken the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know and that they’re intimidating people.”

 

So if I apply Feynman’s test and ask myself how hard most economists worked for their knowledge, I can’t help thinking they haven’t worked hard for it at all. I don’t think they’ve worked hard to know what inflation is, or whether it can or should be targeted. I think they’ve just assumed it, and anyone can do that. As Feynman warned, they’ve fallen into the trap of fooling themselves. They’ve assumed that inflation can be proxied by the CPI because it’s easier to do that, they’ve assumed that 2% is somehow the right rate for it, and they’ve assumed they’re capable of setting interest rates at the ‘appropriate’ level.

And the biggest blasphemy of all: everything economists have been taught, and have taught, was wrong from the very beginning.

But what if those assumptions are wrong? What if, for example, the ‘natural’ rate of consumer price inflation was 0% and so by trying to keep it at the unnaturally high rate of 2% they’ve had to artificially goose up the rest of the economy by setting interest rates at an inappropriately low level?And what if, like force-feeding steroids to a horse because you assume it should be running faster, in doing so you kill it, distorting the credit system so grotesquely as to crash the rest of the economy?

 

They’ve assumed that wouldn’t be a problem, and they assumed that if there was one they’d be able to fix it (Ben Bernanke supposedly promised Milton Friedman that there would never be another great depression because the “lessons” had been learned from the 1930s). But, assuming you know how the animal behaves isn’t the correct way to go about attaining knowledge about how the animal actually behaves. So they don’t attain knowledge about how the animal behaves.So the animal keeps mauling them.

 

But they keep doing it. Now a 2% CPI inflation target is going to make all the difference. And I find it a very strange thing. I just don’t understand why they’re so sure they know all this stuff despite all the evidence to the contrary. I feel like McCarthy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “That’s right Mr. Martini, there is an Easter Bunny.”

Finally, we get to the bottom line: economists, and all those others who are “in charge” really are just a bunch of idiots, or, as Grice puts it far more politely, fools.

Mr. Feynman said something else which I like. He said:

 

“Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools – guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus – that I cannot stand! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!”

 

I think he’s right. Dishonest fools are terrible. It’s a shame they’re in charge.

Yet we keep on giving them Ivy League tenure, and voting them into power…

It’s is probably a bigger shame that the general public continues to refuse to call them out for their endless barrage of lies. Because the time has come to unmask the emperor as not only being naked, but being full of, well, shit.

The Great Falsification

On February 4, the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the title: Investors Place Their Money On Fed.

The gist of the article is that the markets in the US – and everywhere else to a greater or lesser degree – are still willing to bet on two things. One is that the Fed will come out with a new round of stimulus spending or “quantitative easing” sometime between now and the end of June this year. The focus of this reliance at present is on the mortgage paper backed by the US Government Sponsored Agencies (GSEs). They are certainly betting on “help” here. In the month since January 3, the rate on 30-year Fannie May mortgage “securities” has plummeted from 2.96 to 2.66 percent. Meanwhile, the various “guesses” for the size of the next tranche of QE range from $US 400 Billion to $US 1 TRILLION or more.

The great blow-out in the Fed’s balance sheet which began in September/October 2008 was largely driven by their actions to monetise the mortgage-backed securities which had fed the real estate bubble. Now, the markets expect the Fed to come “full circle” and start that all over again. Why? According to one US investment firm, the answer is simple: “We know they’re not going to take their foot off the accelerator. We know that they’re not going to want to purchase more Treasuries because they’re running out of Treasuries to purchase. So that leaves mortgages.”

With $US 1 TRILLION plus annual deficits stretching out into the indefinite future, the Fed is certainly not going to “run out of Treasuries to purchase”. On top of that, there is the $US 2.8 TRILLION of maturing Treasury debt which must be rolled over this year. The simple truth of the matter is that ever since they were rescued by QE1 back in March 2009, the markets have become used to the idea that the financial “powers that be” will not let the concept of “risk” return to sully the rewards they now expect.

The “Greenspan put” has turned into a “Bernanke guarantee”. Ben Bernanke reminded the world that the government does have such a thing as a “printing press” way back in 2002. Since he became Fed Chairman, he has left world markets in no doubt of that fact. And that is what they are relying on.

Explaining Modern Finance and Economics Using Booze and Broke Alcoholics

Courtesy of reszatonline, who brings us the following allegory by way of Tim Coldwell, we are happy to distill (no pun intended) all of modern economics and finance in a narrative that is 500 words long, and involved booze and broke alcoholics: in other words everyone should be able to understand the underlying message. And while the immediate application of this allegory is to explain events in Europe, it succeeds in capturing all the moving pieces of modern finance.

From reszatonline

Helga is the proprietor of a bar.

She realizes that virtually all of her customers are unemployed alcoholics and, as such, can no longer afford to patronize her bar.

To solve this problem, she comes up with a new marketing plan that allows her customers to drink now, but pay later.

Helga keeps track of the drinks consumed on a ledger (thereby granting the customers’ loans).

Word gets around about Helga’s “drink now, pay later” marketing strategy and, as a result, increasing numbers of customers flood into Helga’s bar. Soon she has the largest sales volume for any bar in town.

By providing her customers freedom from immediate payment demands, Helga gets no resistance when, at regular intervals, she substantially increases her prices for wine and beer, the most consumed beverages. Consequently, Helga’s gross sales volume increases massively.

A young and dynamic vice-president at the local bank recognizes that these customer debts constitute valuable future assets and increases Helga’s borrowing limit.

He sees no reason for any undue concern, since he has the debts of the unemployed alcoholics as collateral!!!

At the bank’s corporate headquarters, expert traders figure a way to make huge commissions, and transform these customer loans into DRINKBONDS.These “securities” then are bundled and traded on international securities markets.

Naive investors don’t really understand that the securities being sold to them as “AA” “Secured Bonds” really are debts of unemployed alcoholics.

Nevertheless, the bond prices continuously climb!!!, and the securities soon become the hottest-selling items for some of the nation’s leading brokerage houses.

One day, even though the bond prices still are climbing, a risk manager at the original local bank decides that the time has come to demand payment on the debts incurred by the drinkers at Helga’s bar.

He so informs Helga.

Helga then demands payment from her alcoholic patrons, but being unemployed alcoholics they cannot pay back their drinking debts.

Since Helga cannot fulfil her loan obligations she is forced into bankruptcy.

The bar closes and Helga’s 11 employees lose their jobs.

Overnight, DRINKBOND prices drop by 90%. The collapsed bond asset value destroys the bank’s liquidity and prevents it from issuing new loans, thus freezing credit and economic activity in the community.

The suppliers of Helga’s bar had granted her generous payment extensions and had invested their firms’ pension funds in the BOND securities. They find they are now faced with having to write off her bad debt and with losing over 90% of the presumed value of the bonds.

Her wine supplier also claims bankruptcy, closing the doors on a family business that had endured for three generations, her beer supplier is taken over by a competitor, who immediately closes the local plant and lays off 150 workers. Fortunately though, the bank, the brokerage houses and their respective executives are saved and bailed out by a multibillion dollar no-strings attached cash infusion from the government.

The funds required for this bailout are obtained by new taxes levied on employed, middle-class, non-drinkers who have never been in Helga’s bar.