Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_CategoryWalker::start_lvl() should be compatible with Walker::start_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 71

Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_CategoryWalker::end_lvl() should be compatible with Walker::end_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 71

Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_CategoryWalker::start_el() should be compatible with Walker::start_el(&$output, $object, $depth = 0, $args = Array, $current_object_id = 0) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 71

Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_CategoryWalker::end_el() should be compatible with Walker::end_el(&$output, $object, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 71

Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_PageWalker::start_lvl() should be compatible with Walker::start_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 127

Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_PageWalker::end_lvl() should be compatible with Walker::end_lvl(&$output, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 127

Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_PageWalker::start_el() should be compatible with Walker::start_el(&$output, $object, $depth = 0, $args = Array, $current_object_id = 0) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 127

Strict Standards: Declaration of mystique_PageWalker::end_el() should be compatible with Walker::end_el(&$output, $object, $depth = 0, $args = Array) in /home3/mmsuser/public_html/wp-content/themes/mystique/lib/core.php on line 127
Archive for August 2014

Archive for August, 2014

Outside the Box: Employers Aren’t Just Whining: The “Skills Gap” Is Real

 

Paul Krugman and other notables dismiss the notion of a skills gap, though employers continue to claim they’re having trouble finding workers with the skills they need. And if you look at the evidence one way, Krugman et al. are right. But this week an interesting post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network by guest columnist James Bessen suggests that employers may not just be whining, they may really have a problem filling some kinds of jobs.

Unsurprisingly, the problem is with new technology and the seeming requirement that workers learn new skills on the job – you know, like when the student pilot has to take the helm of a 747 in a disaster movie. Perhaps there’s not quite the same pressure in the office or on the factory floor, but the challenges can be almost as complex. Most of us have had the experience of needing to learn completely new ways of doing things, sometimes over and over again as the technology for whatever we’re doing keeps changing.

The proverb about old dogs and new tricks is being reversed, as old dogs are required to learn new tricks to keep up with the rest of the old dogs, not to mention the new pups. It’s either that or go sit on the porch. What follows is not a very long Outside the Box, but it’s thought-provoking.

There hasn’t been much happening in Uptown Dallas chez Mauldin. Lots of reading, routine workouts, long phone conversations with friends, and the occasional appearance of offspring. The amount of material hitting my inbox has slowed down considerably as well, although I know that will change in a week as everyone comes back from holidays. And even if we’re not on vacation, there is a certain slack we seem to cut ourselves in late summer.

Growing up, Labor Day marked the beginning of a brand new school year. Even though many school districts have pushed the start time back a few weeks, Labor Day seems to be a sort of national mental reset button that tells us we must refocus our attention on the tasks in front of us.

So, even with a somewhat reduced schedule, deadlines loom, and I have to do research on secular stagnation. It’s an interesting topic, but the stuff I’m reading about it reminds me to wonder why economists and investment writers feel they have to write in a way that is utterly stultifying and bone-sapping. A course or two in creative writing, with a focus on the creation of a narrative and some attention paid to the concept of a slippery slope ought to be requirements for an economics degree. Not that I have one – and maybe that’s my advantage.

Have a great week, and enjoy these last few days of August.

Your worried about how our kids will deal with the changing work landscape analyst,

Have a great week, and remember that robots need jobs too.

Your wanting more automation in his life analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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Employers Aren’t Just Whining – the “Skills Gap” Is Real

By James Bessen   |   10:00 AM August 25, 2014
Harvard Business Review HBR Blog Network

Every year, the Manpower Group, a human resources consultancy, conducts a worldwide “Talent Shortage Survey.” Last year, 35% of 38,000 employers reported difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent; in the U.S., 39% of employers did. But the idea of a “skills gap” as identified in this and other surveys has been widely criticized. Peter Cappelli asks whether these studies are just a sign of “employer whining;” Paul Krugman calls the skills gap a “zombie idea” that “that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.” The New York Times asserts that it is “mostly a corporate fiction, based in part on self-interest and a misreading of government data.” According to the Times, the survey responses are an effort by executives to get “the government to take on more of the costs of training workers.”

Really? A worldwide scheme by thousands of business managers to manipulate public opinion seems far-fetched. Perhaps the simpler explanation is the better one: many employers might actually have difficulty hiring skilled workers. The critics cite economic evidence to argue that there are no major shortages of skilled workers. But a closer look shows that their evidence is mostly irrelevant. The issue is confusing because the skills required to work with new technologies are hard to measure. They are even harder to manage. Understanding this controversy sheds some light on what employers and government need to do to deal with a very real problem.

This issue has become controversial because people mean different things by “skills gap.” Some public officials have sought to blame persistent unemployment on skill shortages. I am not suggesting any major link between the supply of skilled workers and today’s unemployment; there is little evidence to support such an interpretation. Indeed, employers reported difficulty hiring skilled workers before the recession. This illustrates one source of confusion in the debate over the existence of a skills gap: distinguishing between the short and long term. Today’s unemployment is largely a cyclical matter, caused by the recession and best addressed by macroeconomic policy. Yet although skills are not a major contributor to today’s unemployment, the longer-term issue of worker skills is important both for managers and for policy.

Nor is the skills gap primarily a problem of schooling. Peter Cappelli reviews the evidence to conclude that there are not major shortages of workers with basic reading and math skills or of workers with engineering and technical training; if anything, too many workers may be overeducated. Nevertheless, employers still have real difficulties hiring workers with the skills to deal with new technologies.

Why are skills sometimes hard to measure and to manage? Because new technologies frequently require specific new skills that schools don’t teach and that labor markets don’t supply. Since information technologies have radically changed much work over the last couple of decades, employers have had persistent difficulty finding workers who can make the most of these new technologies.

Consider, for example, graphic designers. Until recently, almost all graphic designers designed for print. Then came the Internet and demand grew for web designers. Then came smartphones and demand grew for mobile designers. Designers had to keep up with new technologies and new standards that are still changing rapidly. A few years ago they needed to know Flash; now they need to know HTML5 instead. New specialties emerged such as user-interaction specialists and information architects. At the same time, business models in publishing have changed rapidly.

Graphic arts schools have had difficulty keeping up. Much of what they teach becomes obsolete quickly and most are still oriented to print design in any case. Instead, designers have to learn on the job, so experience matters. But employers can’t easily evaluate prospective new hires just based on years of experience. Not every designer can learn well on the job and often what they learn might be specific to their particular employer.

The labor market for web and mobile designers faces a kind of Catch-22: without certified standard skills, learning on the job matters but employers have a hard time knowing whom to hire and whose experience is valuable; and employees have limited incentives to put time and effort into learning on the job if they are uncertain about the future prospects of the particular version of technology their employer uses. Workers will more likely invest when standardized skills promise them a secure career path with reliably good wages in the future.

Under these conditions, employers do, have a hard time finding workers with the latest design skills. When new technologies come into play, simple textbook notions about skills can be misleading for both managers and economists.

For one thing, education does not measure technical skills. A graphic designer with a bachelor’s degree does not necessarily have the skills to work on a web development team. Some economists argue that there is no shortage of employees with the basic skills in reading, writing and math to meet the requirements of today’s jobs. But those aren’t the skills in short supply.

Other critics look at wages for evidence. Times editors tell us “If a business really needed workers, it would pay up.” Gary Burtless at the Brookings Institution puts it more bluntly: “Unless managers have forgotten everything they learned in Econ 101, they should recognize that one way to fill a vacancy is to offer qualified job seekers a compelling reason to take the job” by offering better pay or benefits. Since Burtless finds that the median wage is not increasing, he concludes that there is no shortage of skilled workers.

But that’s not quite right. The wages of the median worker tell us only that the skills of the median worker aren’t in short supply; other workers could still have skills in high demand. Technology doesn’t make all workers’ skills more valuable; some skills become valuable, but others go obsolete. Wages should only go up for those particular groups of workers who have highly demanded skills. Some economists observe wages in major occupational groups or by state or metropolitan area to conclude that there are no major skill shortages. But these broad categories don’t correspond to worker skills either, so this evidence is also not compelling.

To the contrary, there is evidence that select groups of workers have been had sustained wage growth, implying persistent skill shortages. Some specific occupations such as nursing do show sustained wage growth and employment growth over a couple decades. And there is more general evidence of rising pay for skills within many occupations. Because many new skills are learned on the job, not all workers within an occupation acquire them. For example, the average designer, who typically does print design, does not have good web and mobile platform skills. Not surprisingly, the wages of the average designer have not gone up. However, those designers who have acquired the critical skills, often by teaching themselves on the job, command six figure salaries or $90 to $100 per hour rates as freelancers. The wages of the top 10% of designers have risen strongly; the wages of the average designer have not. There is a shortage of skilled designers but it can only be seen in the wages of those designers who have managed to master new technologies.

This trend is more general. We see it in the high pay that software developers in Silicon Valley receive for their specialized skills. And we see it throughout the workforce. Research shows that since the 1980s, the wages of the top 10% of workers has risen sharply relative to the median wage earner after controlling for observable characteristics such as education and experience. Some workers have indeed benefited from skills that are apparently in short supply; it’s just that these skills are not captured by the crude statistical categories that economists have at hand.

And these skills appear to be related to new technology, in particular, to information technologies. The chart shows how the wages of the 90th percentile increased relative to the wages of the 50th percentile in different groups of occupations. The occupational groups are organized in order of declining computer use and the changes are measured from 1982 to 2012. Occupations affected by office computing and the Internet (69% of these workers use computers) and healthcare (55% of these workers use computers) show the greatest relative wage growth for the 90th percentile. Millions of workers within these occupations appear to have valuable specialized skills that are in short supply and have seen their wages grow dramatically.

This evidence shows that we should not be too quick to discard employer claims about hiring skilled talent. Most managers don’t need remedial Econ 101; the overly simple models of Econ 101 just don’t tell us much about real world skills and technology. The evidence highlights instead just how difficult it is to measure worker skills, especially those relating to new technology.

What is hard to measure is often hard to manage. Employers using new technologies need to base hiring decisions not just on education, but also on the non-cognitive skills that allow some people to excel at learning on the job; they need to design pay structures to retain workers who do learn, yet not to encumber employee mobility and knowledge sharing, which are often key to informal learning; and they need to design business models that enable workers to learn effectively on the job (see this example). Policy makers also need to think differently about skills, encouraging, for example, industry certification programs for new skills and partnerships between community colleges and local employers.

Although it is difficult for workers and employers to develop these new skills, this difficulty creates opportunity. Those workers who acquire the latest skills earn good pay; those employers who hire the right workers and train them well can realize the competitive advantages that come with new technologies.

More blog posts by James Bessen

More on: Economy, Hiring

James Bessen

James Bessen, an economist at Boston University School of Law, is currently writing a book about technology and jobs. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: A Nation of Shopkeepers

 

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”
– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

One of the great pleasures of writing this letter is the fascinating correspondence and the relationships that develop along the way. The internet has allowed me to meet a wide range of people all over the world – something that never happened to me pre-1999. Not only do I get to meet a wide variety of people, I also come into contact with an even wider range of knowledge and ideas, much of which comes my way from readers who send me work they think I’ll have an interest in. I have a bountiful, never-ending source of thoughtful material, thanks to you.

This week’s letter emanates from a rather provocative email I received from David Brin. Science-fiction aficionados will immediately recognize him as the many-time winner of every major sci-fi writing award and an inductee into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Non-SF junkies might remember the movie The Postman (with Kevin Costner). Brin’s 2002 book Kiln People is one of my favorites, and I think it’s one of the more important books for trying to understand the impact of technology in our future. Will the science he describes be available? Probably not. But different technological variations on it will be, I think. And the book has a great plot. (David is also something of an expert on the role of and loss of privacy, which is a central theme of the book.)

David is something of a polymath. His degrees are in astrophysics and space science (Caltech and UCSD), but like many science fiction writers he is interested in almost everything. He frequently takes me to task, always constructively, sometimes publicly, about my writing. He is also a bit of an Adam Smith junkie.

I am going to use his latest complaint as a launching point for today’s letter. He was responding to last week’s Outside the Box, about the future of robotics and automation, which I introduced with a shot off the bow at the reigning Keynesian paradigm. He objects.

Today’s letter will be more philosophical in nature than most – we won’t be looking for technical signals; but it’s August – half the trading world is on vacation (except for the unsleeping computers run by high-frequency traders, which create the bulk of the volume these days), and so any technical signal we picked out this week would be suspect. Yes, August is a great time to think philosophical thoughts about the political economy. So, without further ado, let’s see what has my close friend Dr. Brin so upset.

Supply-Side (Voodoo) Economics?

John, excellent missive on automation.  I share your overall optimism.

Still… although Keynesianism deserves lots of criticism for the 30% of the time that it has proved wrong… and Hayek had a lot of good and important things to say… it remains disappointing that you do not use your influence to help hammer nails into the coffin of the Rentier Caste’s catechism… Supply Side (Voodoo) Economics (SSVE), which is not just 30% wrong. It has proved to be almost 100% diametrically opposite to right, with every forecast that SSVE ever made having proved to be calamitously wrong.

Adam Smith might have had some problems with Keynes… and some with Hayek. But Smith warned us incessantly about the horrific economic effects of favoring monopolistic-collusive rent-seeking oligarchs, who destroyed freedom and markets in 99% of human cultures. When the Olde Enemie – who wrecked freedom and markets across 6000 years… the enemy Smith warned against and the US Founders rebelled against… comes roaring back… aren’t you behooved to help raise the hue and cry?

Some Thoughts on Adam Smith

David,

You will perhaps forgive me if I use you as a straw man to draw out a few principles for my readers. And I’m sure you’ll have an eloquent answer posted within a few hours. (Interested readers will be able to find that at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ along with fascinating commentary on all matters technological and philosophical. David relishes his role as self-appointed uber-contrarian.)

Your comments on Keynesianism and supply-side economics are so wrong that I think I will hold my tongue and save my criticisms of them for next week. You are expressing a common meme that totally buys into the reigning economic nonsense that passes for thinking about economic theory – a sin you’re usually not guilty of. But I’m not about to respond to you (not anymore!) with an off-the-top-of-my-head analysis, so I will spend the bulk of my week thinking about secular stagnation and the causes of growth, and then respond.

Neither is what follows totally off the top of my head; there was some work involved. What I would like to take up is Adam Smith views on the rentier class, which, for me at least, is a far more intellectually interesting topic than Keynesianism versus… SSVE. You keep quoting Adam Smith at me as if somehow Adam Smith’s is a gospel that must be adhered to. And I admit to being a serious Adam Smith enthusiast. Smith demonstrates an amazing amount of intellectual prowess. I stand in awe. His insight seems even more profound when you put the man in the context of his times.

And Smith was totally a man of his times. He was making observations about the changing nature of the economy and wealth in mid-18th-century Scotland and England, and his thoughts were disturbing to many of his associates at the top – the 1%, in modern parlance. He described a political economy in such stunning detail that it has influenced minds for almost 250 years. Yet, he was an early explorer in a land (that of the political economic landscape) that was not yet much trodden. He did however come along at a time when people were trying hard to understand the changes erupting around them. England especially and Scotland to some extent were transforming from a feudal agrarian society (which Smith clearly did not like) to one that was more commercial, as the Industrial Revolution took root and began to send forth green shoots.

Smith welcomed change, but with some reservations that are not often talked about. We’ll look at some of them today. As we will see, Smith was a complicated person. But he is best understood if we put him back into his times and recognize that he is not penning his observations on the “wealth of nations” to deal with our situation today, though many of his insights are timeless.

Over the last 200 years, the ways scholars have looked at Adam Smith have changed. There have been Adam Smith fads. While the fact is not much discussed in modern-day polite society, Smith was a clear influence on Hegel, who of course informed Marx. As hard as it is to understand today, there were those along the way who thought Smith was foundational to Marxism. In the 19th century, socialists and neoliberals of all stripes approvingly cited Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Smith was not held in much favor by classical economists, though that has changed. Who can forget Margaret Thatcher moaning that she could not win the hearts and minds of Scotland, “‘home of the very same Scottish Enlightenment which produced Adam Smith, the greatest exponent of free enterprise economics till Hayek and Friedman.” Yet only a few years later Gordon Brown (a Scot and English Prime Minister) offered up a speech in which he claimed that Adam Smith (who lived in the region Brown represented in Parliament) would in fact be center-left, were he on the scene today.

You, David, are seemingly part of a coterie described by Neil Davidson in “The Battle for Adam Smith” in the Scottish Review of Books. (Note: Davidson makes some points I categorically disagree with, but I think he has an excellent handle on the history.)

Finally, there have been attempts, perhaps surprisingly from the radical left, to discern in Smith’s work a model of a ‘real free market’ which has been violated by ‘the global corporate system’. As John McMurty writes, ‘every one of Smith’s classical principles of the free market has been turned into its effective opposite’. This is an attractively counter-intuitive idea, which challenges the neoliberals on their own terms. Other writers, like the late Giovanni Arrighi have gone further and argued, not only that the market system envisaged by Smith can be distinguished from capitalism, but that ‘market-based growth’ distinct from ‘capitalist growth’ is now embedded in Chinese or perhaps East Asian development more generally.

[Sidebar: American readers may be puzzled to learn that neoliberalism is a label for “economic liberalism which advocates under classical economic theory support for economic liberalization, privatization, free-trade trauma, open markets, deregulation, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector of the economy.” Who knew that the large fraction of my readers who consider themselves conservative thinkers are actually neoliberals? Sadly, the word is now generally used pejoratively by the left. Personally, I think it is more fun to think of oneself as a neoliberal than as an Austrian.]

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: A Nation of Shopkeepers

 

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”
– Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations

One of the great pleasures of writing this letter is the fascinating correspondence and the relationships that develop along the way. The internet has allowed me to meet a wide range of people all over the world – something that never happened to me pre-1999. Not only do I get to meet a wide variety of people, I also come into contact with an even wider range of knowledge and ideas, much of which comes my way from readers who send me work they think I’ll have an interest in. I have a bountiful, never-ending source of thoughtful material, thanks to you.

This week’s letter emanates from a rather provocative email I received from David Brin. Science-fiction aficionados will immediately recognize him as the many-time winner of every major sci-fi writing award and an inductee into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Non-SF junkies might remember the movie The Postman (with Kevin Costner). Brin’s 2002 book Kiln People is one of my favorites, and I think it’s one of the more important books for trying to understand the impact of technology in our future. Will the science he describes be available? Probably not. But different technological variations on it will be, I think. And the book has a great plot. (David is also something of an expert on the role of and loss of privacy, which is a central theme of the book.)

David is something of a polymath. His degrees are in astrophysics and space science (Caltech and UCSD), but like many science fiction writers he is interested in almost everything. He frequently takes me to task, always constructively, sometimes publicly, about my writing. He is also a bit of an Adam Smith junkie.

I am going to use his latest complaint as a launching point for today’s letter. He was responding to last week’s Outside the Box, about the future of robotics and automation, which I introduced with a shot off the bow at the reigning Keynesian paradigm. He objects.

Today’s letter will be more philosophical in nature than most – we won’t be looking for technical signals; but it’s August – half the trading world is on vacation (except for the unsleeping computers run by high-frequency traders, which create the bulk of the volume these days), and so any technical signal we picked out this week would be suspect. Yes, August is a great time to think philosophical thoughts about the political economy. So, without further ado, let’s see what has my close friend Dr. Brin so upset.

Supply-Side (Voodoo) Economics?

John, excellent missive on automation.  I share your overall optimism.

Still… although Keynesianism deserves lots of criticism for the 30% of the time that it has proved wrong… and Hayek had a lot of good and important things to say… it remains disappointing that you do not use your influence to help hammer nails into the coffin of the Rentier Caste’s catechism… Supply Side (Voodoo) Economics (SSVE), which is not just 30% wrong. It has proved to be almost 100% diametrically opposite to right, with every forecast that SSVE ever made having proved to be calamitously wrong.

Adam Smith might have had some problems with Keynes… and some with Hayek. But Smith warned us incessantly about the horrific economic effects of favoring monopolistic-collusive rent-seeking oligarchs, who destroyed freedom and markets in 99% of human cultures. When the Olde Enemie – who wrecked freedom and markets across 6000 years… the enemy Smith warned against and the US Founders rebelled against… comes roaring back… aren’t you behooved to help raise the hue and cry?

Some Thoughts on Adam Smith

David,

You will perhaps forgive me if I use you as a straw man to draw out a few principles for my readers. And I’m sure you’ll have an eloquent answer posted within a few hours. (Interested readers will be able to find that at http://davidbrin.blogspot.com/ along with fascinating commentary on all matters technological and philosophical. David relishes his role as self-appointed uber-contrarian.)

Your comments on Keynesianism and supply-side economics are so wrong that I think I will hold my tongue and save my criticisms of them for next week. You are expressing a common meme that totally buys into the reigning economic nonsense that passes for thinking about economic theory – a sin you’re usually not guilty of. But I’m not about to respond to you (not anymore!) with an off-the-top-of-my-head analysis, so I will spend the bulk of my week thinking about secular stagnation and the causes of growth, and then respond.

Neither is what follows totally off the top of my head; there was some work involved. What I would like to take up is Adam Smith views on the rentier class, which, for me at least, is a far more intellectually interesting topic than Keynesianism versus… SSVE. You keep quoting Adam Smith at me as if somehow Adam Smith’s is a gospel that must be adhered to. And I admit to being a serious Adam Smith enthusiast. Smith demonstrates an amazing amount of intellectual prowess. I stand in awe. His insight seems even more profound when you put the man in the context of his times.

And Smith was totally a man of his times. He was making observations about the changing nature of the economy and wealth in mid-18th-century Scotland and England, and his thoughts were disturbing to many of his associates at the top – the 1%, in modern parlance. He described a political economy in such stunning detail that it has influenced minds for almost 250 years. Yet, he was an early explorer in a land (that of the political economic landscape) that was not yet much trodden. He did however come along at a time when people were trying hard to understand the changes erupting around them. England especially and Scotland to some extent were transforming from a feudal agrarian society (which Smith clearly did not like) to one that was more commercial, as the Industrial Revolution took root and began to send forth green shoots.

Smith welcomed change, but with some reservations that are not often talked about. We’ll look at some of them today. As we will see, Smith was a complicated person. But he is best understood if we put him back into his times and recognize that he is not penning his observations on the “wealth of nations” to deal with our situation today, though many of his insights are timeless.

Over the last 200 years, the ways scholars have looked at Adam Smith have changed. There have been Adam Smith fads. While the fact is not much discussed in modern-day polite society, Smith was a clear influence on Hegel, who of course informed Marx. As hard as it is to understand today, there were those along the way who thought Smith was foundational to Marxism. In the 19th century, socialists and neoliberals of all stripes approvingly cited Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Smith was not held in much favor by classical economists, though that has changed. Who can forget Margaret Thatcher moaning that she could not win the hearts and minds of Scotland, “‘home of the very same Scottish Enlightenment which produced Adam Smith, the greatest exponent of free enterprise economics till Hayek and Friedman.” Yet only a few years later Gordon Brown (a Scot and English Prime Minister) offered up a speech in which he claimed that Adam Smith (who lived in the region Brown represented in Parliament) would in fact be center-left, were he on the scene today.

You, David, are seemingly part of a coterie described by Neil Davidson in “The Battle for Adam Smith” in the Scottish Review of Books. (Note: Davidson makes some points I categorically disagree with, but I think he has an excellent handle on the history.)

Finally, there have been attempts, perhaps surprisingly from the radical left, to discern in Smith’s work a model of a ‘real free market’ which has been violated by ‘the global corporate system’. As John McMurty writes, ‘every one of Smith’s classical principles of the free market has been turned into its effective opposite’. This is an attractively counter-intuitive idea, which challenges the neoliberals on their own terms. Other writers, like the late Giovanni Arrighi have gone further and argued, not only that the market system envisaged by Smith can be distinguished from capitalism, but that ‘market-based growth’ distinct from ‘capitalist growth’ is now embedded in Chinese or perhaps East Asian development more generally.

[Sidebar: American readers may be puzzled to learn that neoliberalism is a label for “economic liberalism which advocates under classical economic theory support for economic liberalization, privatization, free-trade trauma, open markets, deregulation, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector of the economy.” Who knew that the large fraction of my readers who consider themselves conservative thinkers are actually neoliberals? Sadly, the word is now generally used pejoratively by the left. Personally, I think it is more fun to think of oneself as a neoliberal than as an Austrian.]

On the other hand, conservative British Parliament members of the Whig Party were castigated by one observer for superstitiously worshipping Smith. And certainly, (conservative) neoliberal thinkers have quoted Smith appreciatively.

Thus, it turns out that Smith can be read in many different ways. “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” Let’s take a look at some context.

In Book 1 of The Wealth of Nations, Smith noted that the division of labor was changing the character of commercial society. In his classic analysis of the manufacturing of pins (probably from French sources), he wrote about the amazing productivity possible when different aspects of the manufactory process were divided among artisans (laborers). (He decided there were 18 different processes involved, although current scholarship would suggest there were as few as nine, but his point is still made.) He saw the same dynamic at work in a variety of industries, and he approved. He really did not like the feudal system and “overlords” (rentiers) who benefited from association with the king and other authorities, living on “rents” for which they performed no useful work. He valued productive activity far more than anything else, apparently.

I think it will be useful here to pull a few paragraphs from Book 1 of Wealth of Nations. (Interested readers can find the whole book for free at The Library of Economics and Liberty.)

To take an example, therefore, from a very trifling manufacture; but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of the pin-maker; a workman not educated to this business (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade), nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion), could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving, the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

In every other art and manufacture, the effects of the division of labour are similar to what they are in this very trifling one; though, in many of them, the labour can neither be so much subdivided, nor reduced to so great a simplicity of operation. The division of labour, however, so far as it can be introduced, occasions, in every art, a proportionable increase of the productive powers of labour. The separation of different trades and employments from one another seems to have taken place in consequence of this advantage.

But that classic observation and explanation of productivity gains from the division of labor and free markets is a long way from the laissez-faire capitalism of Hayek and Friedman.

Let’s return to Neil Davidson:

Anachronistic misconceptions concerning his work could of course be corrected by the radical expedient of actually reading The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, preferably after situating them in their historical context, namely Scotland’s emergence from feudalism. When Smith attacked unproductive labour, he was not making some timeless critique of state employees, but thinking quite specifically about Highland clan retainers. When he opposed monopolies, he was not issuing a prophetic warning against the nationalisation of industries in the twentieth century, but criticising those companies which relied for their market position on the possession of exclusive royal charters in the eighteenth. Above all, unlike his modern epigones, he did not see the market as a quasi–mystical institution that should be made to penetrate every aspect of social life; but rather as a limited mechanism for liberating humanity’s economic potential from feudal and absolutist stagnation.

We have to remember that Adam Smith was writing The Wealth of Nations in 1776 – prior to Watt and the steam engine. The Industrial Revolution was in its infancy. The pin manufacturing process described in Smith’s Book 1 produced about 5000 pens a day for each laborer’s work. By 1820 there were 11 pin factories in Gloucester alone, yet 119 years later (in 1939) there were only 12 in all of England. By the late 1970s there were only two. But the productivity of the manufacturing process had grown to 800,000 pins per day per person! That is an increase of 160 times. Of course that is using automated and computer-driven machines. Not that I would suggest it, but if you start searching for information on pin manufacturing today, you quickly get bogged down in the intricacies of manufacturing procedures for hundreds of different types of pins, all of which are ridiculously cheap. My guess is that productivity has leapt significantly further in the last few decades.

Smith was troubled by some of the implications that he saw in early manufacturing jobs. Remember when you read the excerpt from Wealth of Nations below that this is from one of the leading lights of what was called the Scottish Enlightenment. If someone were to say those things today, we would question his enlightenment. Just saying. Back to Davidson (emphasis mine):

Even so, the advocacy of Smith and his colleagues for what they called ‘commercial society’ was very conditional indeed. He intuited, long before capitalist industrialisation began in earnest, that it would lead to massive deterioration in the condition of labourers and their reduction to mere ‘hands’. Understood in the context of the Scottish Enlightenment conception of human potential, the description of pin manufacture at the beginning of The Wealth of Nations, reproduced from 2007 on £20 banknotes, not only celebrates the efficiency of the division of labour, but also shows the soul-destroying repetition that awaited the new class of wage labourers. In Book V, in contrast to the more frequently cited Book I, Smith explicitly considered the way in which the division of labour, while increasing the productivity of the labourers, did so by narrowing their intellectual horizons:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to assert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging; and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war.… His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues.

Smith contrasts this unhappy state of affairs with that existing under earlier modes of subsistence – modes which, remember, he was committed to transcending:

It is otherwise in the barbarous societies, as they are commonly called, of hunters, of shepherds, and even of husbandmen in that rude state of husbandry that precedes the improvement of manufactures, and the extension of foreign commerce. In such societies, the varied occupations of every man oblige every man to exert his capacity, and to invent expedients for removing difficulties which are continually occurring. Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity, which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of the people…. Every man, too, is in some measure a statesman, and can form judgments concerning the interest of the society, and the conduct of those who govern it.

I have a fantasy about bringing Adam Smith into the world of 2014. I think he would be overwhelmed, totally fascinated, and at times horrified to see what his intellectual children have done in the last 238 years. But what he would also see is the massive improvement in the standard of living for even those we consider to be poor, at least in the developed world. Overall, he would have to be pleased.

Yet, to show him pictures of the factories that have developed over the centuries or to take him to some of the manufacturing companies in Asia, where thousands of workers sit on benches doing the same thing day after day after day, would disturb him. And yet, there are lines of workers waiting to take those jobs.

[As an aside, David, one of my great hopes for robotics and automation (which I think was apparent in last week’s Outside the Box) is that they will help relieve humanity of mind-numbingly repetitive work and allow us to explore more interesting, life-fulfilling options. Granted, that means we have to figure out how to allow people to make a living in the process. But the transformation of technology in any particular field has always been a rather messy business in regards to labor. Going from an agrarian society to where, in the US, only 1% work in agriculture today (yet feed much of the world) was tumultuous and at times violent. Change is not easy.

It appears that the new generation of robots is allowing companies in the US (and the rest of the developed world) to be far more competitive and is actually increasing the number of jobs in the US as manufacturing is brought back here. While that trend is good for our workers, it means workers somewhere else are being squeezed. But back to our original theme.]

Adam Smith, Revolutionary

I agree with Milton Friedman in the essay he presented at the Adam Smith Institute on its bicentennial in St. Andrews:

Adam Smith was a radical and revolutionary in his time – just as those of us who today preach laissez faire are in our time. He was no apologist for merchants and manufacturers, or more generally other special interests, but regarded them as the great obstacles to laissez faire – just as we do today.

Friedman went on to note that contemporary free-marketers would have to extend their categories of special interests, broadening “the tribes of monopolists to include not only enterprises protected from competition but also trade unions, school teachers, welfare recipients, and so on and on.”

Let’s move on to your point about the depredations of crony capitalism and the use of government to create special opportunities for profit not available to ordinary citizens as one of the main sources of headwinds to growth (Will get back to your critique of supply-side economics. What you called the Olde Enemie.) I think one of the primary roles of government should be to create a level playing field. I think we can agree on this. And we can find further agreement in examining the original thinking of Adam Smith in its historical context, rather than in trying to apply it to the current structure of capitalism.

Sadly, politics as it operates today is the art of employing highly paid lobbyists and other insiders to get governments to enact laws that you favor. We can’t entirely get away from that system (as some of my libertarian anarchist friends would like to do), as we do need a government that will provide and enforce rules and regulations so that the playing field can remain level. But special benefits are not part of a level playing field.

You focus on what I like to call crony capitalism. That is just one aspect of your critique, but let’s deal with it first.

One simplistic way to subvert cronyism would be to lower the corporate tax rate to something like 15%, making the US as competitive as any nation in the world, but at the same time eliminate all of the 3000-odd tax benefits doled out to various corporations. When you and I personally pay more in income taxes than General Electric, something is seriously wrong. Start the corporate tax at $100,000. The form is a postcard. How much your corporation makes minus $100,000 times 15% is your tax. Income generated outside of the United States is taxed at 10%. End of story.  I understand that 15% might seem low to most people, but it would dramatically increase the amount of taxes that we actually collect.

Whoever is the next president should direct (in concert with Congress) the various federal departments to take another look at rules that favor one company or group over another and figure out how to eliminate them. That is not just corporations. I agree with Friedman: include trade unions and other associations. Get rid of the barriers of entry to industries and jobs. Credentials are all well and fine, but not barriers to entry.

(I would also restructure the personal income tax code in such a way as to eliminate almost all deductions, but that is an argument for another letter.)

Next week I’ll deal with your confusion about the roles of supply-side economics and Keynesianism in steering the economy. This is actually a very important topic, as it relates to the current economic discussion about secular stagnation (to which a passing reference in the robotics letter probably caught your attention). You are confusing correlation with causation.

What to do about economic growth is perhaps the single most important question of our time, as the demographics of the developed world are shifting in such a way is that we will simply not have enough money for us all to be able to retire in the style to which we have been accustomed by our governments. An extra 1-2% of growth per year, however, can cover a multitude of structural secular sins. Just as true stagnation would transform even minor sins into those worthy of capital punishment.

As Dr. Woody Brock frequently notes, growth is a choice. And most of the choices that drive growth or hobble it have nothing to do with monetary policy. Monetary policy is just one part of the equation. The banter today about structural secular stagnation is more about making excuses for the failure of theoretical positions than it is about how to actually apply the mechanisms that would allow the “invisible hand” of Adam Smith to produce growth.

And, in this, Adam Smith is 100% relevant: “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

By “raising up a people of customers” Smith means that focusing on overall economic growth and specifically on the growth of the income of individuals should be at the forefront of the social project. A government that does not allow for increases in productivity and thus an improvement in lifestyles will not be one in which the citizens are happy.

We’ll close with that thought for now, but let me offer a precursor to next week, from a recent essay by Woody:

1. Northern Europe Pre- and Post-Industrial Revolution circa 1700-1850: The growth in productivity is estimated to have been zero, on average, in the period 1000 BC to 1700 AD. Productivity growth did not increase, nor did living standards, nor did life expectancy. This continued to be the case worldwide after 1700, except in Northwestern Europe where the Dutch Republic and England (after its Glorious Revolution of 1688) adopted new policies including patent protection, the rule of law, respect of property rights, and so forth. Nations that did not follow suit stagnated.

2. China Pre- and Post-1979: Growth during the Cultural Revolution was negative. It then exploded to over 10% for twenty years. Why this reversal? It was largely because entrepreneurial behavior was de‐criminalized. Recall Premier Deng’s legendary mandate, “It is now glorious to go get rich.” Additionally, the government adopted a massive infrastructure plan that represented productive investment spending in contrast to the unproductive spending that occurred during 2008-2012 (“see-through cities”).

San Antonio, Washington DC, NYC(?), and Training Day

I have been enjoying my time at home these last few weeks. Right now I am scheduled to be nowhere else until I head to San Antonio for the Casey Research Summit September 19-21. My next trip after that falls at the end of the month, when I head to Washington DC for a private conference and a few meetings. That is all that is on my schedule for the next 60 days, and then it gets a little busy. I can’t recall having this much time at home for a decade or two, at least.

Bill Dunkelberg, the chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business, came to see me last week, and we spent the day trying to decide whether to write a book about the future of work. It is a complicated project, but it is part and parcel of the theme we discussed today, which is economic growth and the division of labor. If the work landscape shifts under the feet of an increasingly large number of people as their jobs are automated, then that means we have to help people transition. And better yet, train them in disciplines that have very little chance of being automated in the next 30 or 40 years. From the perspective of the Long View, our education system is completely broken. We are not training our children to deal with the future, and we are not helping people transition into sustainable independence. Our welfare and disability rolls are growing faster than new jobs are being generated. Dunk and I are trying to come up with an outline and research topics over the next few weeks, just to see if we even think we have the capability to write on the topic. I’ll let you know.

One of the benefits of being home is the opportunity to get to the gym on a regular schedule. I can feel and see the results. Plus, it is easier to adhere to a stricter diet plan (basically shunning all extraneous carbs), and that is helping, too. It seems strange to me, but I will be turning 65 in another month (on October 4). My goal is to be able to do 65 push-ups and to be close to my target ideal weight by then. I am getting into the gym nearly every day and trying to schedule a trainer for six days out of seven each week. Some part of my body is sore pretty much all the time; the trainer just makes sure it’s a different part every day. Getting out of shape was just not a good idea.

I was having lunch today with some of my kids and was surprised to learn the Labor Day is next weekend. Where has the summer gone? And speaking of summer vacation, I note that Senator Rand Paul spent some time in Guatemala performing eye surgeries. I read that he also visited with some patients he treated there 15 years ago. Journalists and political commentators are always talking about optics. Sen. Paul is doing something about optics in a tangible way. His patients will be able to line up a putt with their own eyes. Optics indeed.

I smile at the small irony that I will be writing about growth and labor productivity next week, on Labor Day weekend. I didn’t plan it that way, but it does make it more fun. Have a great week.

Your trying to increase his personal productivity analyst,

John Mauldin
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

Things That Make You Go Hmmm: Thinker, Trader, Holder, Why?

 

By: Grant Williams

Sometimes, just sometimes, you need to stop for a second, take a step back, and reconsider the simplest pieces of any puzzle.

David John Moore Cornwall was a real-life spy. A spook. An agent. He worked for Britain’s MI5 and, later, MI6 intelligence services.

Whilst there, Cornwall began a little hobby that, in today’s world, would be unthinkable for a serving intelligence officer: writing novels about the secret world in which he lived and worked.

He chose a nom de plume with a certain je ne sais quoi: John le Carré. The hero of le Carré’s first two novels, Call for the Dead andA Murder of Quality, was George Smiley, a somewhat ordinary spy who grew up in a middle class family and attended an “antiquated Oxford college of no real distinction” but who, apparently, had“the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin.”

Smiley was everything other spies of the time — fictional ones, at least — weren’t:

(Wikipedia): The spy novel writing of John le Carré stands in contrast to the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond thriller established by Ian Fleming in the mid 1950s; the le Carré Cold War features unheroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological more than physical drama. They experience little of the violence typically encountered in action thrillers, and have very little recourse to gadgets. Much of the conflict is internal, rather than external and visible.

Unlike the moral certainty of Fleming’s British Secret Service adventures, le Carré’s Circus spy stories are morally complex. They emphasise the fallibility of Western democracy and of the secret services protecting it, often implying the possibility of East-West moral equivalence…

In 1979, the BBC adapted what is perhaps le Carré’s most famous novel for television, casting the great Alec Guinness as Smiley in a seven-part miniseries that changed the face of television.

The series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, was a smash hit in a time before box sets and gratuitous action scenes; and despite its measured, almost glacial pace, millions tuned in each week to watch le Carré’s masterpiece of cross and double-cross unfold before their eyes.

The fictional Smiley operated during the very real Cold War between NATO and signatories to the Warsaw Treaty Organization of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance. (Those communist countries LOVED a good, long title. We in the West called it the Warsaw Pact, and it essentially included the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, East Germany, Hungary, and Poland. You know, all the powerhouses.)

Looking back on it now, the Cold War was more Ali vs. Cooperman than Batman vs. Superman; but at the time, the world lived in fear of a cataclysmic resolution to the conflict. It seems like a lifetime ago; but those years between 1946 and 1991, when communism finally gave up the ghost, were fraught with fears over a rogue USSR.

Throughout the entire episode, the price of gold — the ultimate barometer of fear — performed as one would have expected it to — once Richard Nixon removed the shackles on August 15, 1971, of course.

Fear of conflagrations along the borders of the Soviet Union led to consistent buying of gold year after year and decade after decade. Yes, there were flare-ups, during which gold saw large spikes; but as “immediate” dangers eased, so did the price — exactly as one would expect.

To be fair, it wasn’t all about “those darn Russkies.” No. The gold price was certainly helped higher by an irritating inflation problem (as you can clearly see from the chart on the previous page). Once Nixon closed that damn window, gold wasted no time in playing catch-up and responding to inflationary pressure as well as to perceived Cold War threats; but either way, once the downward pressure of a fixed price was removed, gold exploded higher — rising 82% in the first 12 months and 419% in the space of 4 years.

There are a couple of interesting points to make about the action of the gold price during those darkest of postwar days (points I’ve made before, but will expand upon this week).

Let’s begin with Asia.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Asian central bank reserves (particularly gold reserves) were nothing to write home about. Thanks to the IMF and the World Bank, we can see exactly what they were:

As you can see, the huge run-up in the gold price during the 1970s occurred against a highly inflationary backdrop and the ongoing Cold War; but, crucially, WITHOUT THE PARTICIPATION OF ASIAN CENTRAL BANKS. (The IFC — part of the World Bank — classifies “East Asia & The Pacific” as China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as the Pacific Islands).

If we switch our focus to those same countries’ total reserves, however, a completely different story emerges. From the mid-1990s onwards, total currency reserves soared from $300 billion in 1994 to $5.8 trillion by the end of 2013.

That relentless climb has given Asian nations two things they didn’t have the last time we saw gold being chased higher by the terror of surging inflation and the spectre of a large-scale conflict between opposing blocs: extraordinary purchasing power and the need to diversify their massive holdings of US dollars.

If we throw India into the picture (India is classified as part of South Asia by the IFC/World Bank, along with Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka — countries we will leave out of this discussion for now), we can see a microcosm of that build-up in purchasing power laid out very clearly indeed:

Indian reserves doubled between 2008 and 2009, and by 2012 they had tripled to almost $300 billion.

Why is India so important on its own? Well, for one very good reason:

Click here to continue reading this article from Things That Make You Go Hmmm… – a free newsletter by Grant Williams, a highly respected financial expert and current portfolio and strategy advisor at Vulpes Investment Management in Singapore.

Outside the Box: AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

 

This past week several reports came across my desk highlighting both the good news and the bad news about the future of automation and robotics. There are those who think that automation and robotics are going to be a massive destroyer of jobs and others who think that in general humans respond to shifts in employment opportunities by creating new opportunities.

As I’ve noted more than once, in the 1970s (as it seemed that our jobs were disappearing, never to return), the correct answer to the question, “Where will the jobs come from?” was “I don’t know, but they will.” That was more a faith-based statement than a fact-based one, but whole new categories of jobs did in fact get created in the ’80s and ’90s.

However, a new Wall Street Journal poll finds that three out of four Americans think the next generation will be worse off than this generation.

Barack Obama’s former chief economist Larry Summers began this chant of “secular stagnation.” It’s a pessimistic message, and it’s now being echoed by Federal Reserve Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer. He agrees with Summers that slow growth in “labor supply, capital investment, and productivity” is the new normal that’s “holding down growth.” Summers also believes that negative real interest rates aren’t negative enough. If Fischer and Fed chair Janet Yellen agree, central bank policy rates will never normalize in our lifetime. (National Review Online)

As the above-cited article asserts (and I agree), the term secular stagnation is a cover-up for the failure of Keynesian policies which, as my friends Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore note, began in the Bush years and were doubled down on by the current administration.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is pursuing a career as a social commentator after dominating the NBA boards for so many years, tells us that Ferguson (which is on all the news channels all the time) is not just about systemic racism; it’s about class warfare and how America’s poor are held back.

Jared Dillian over at the Daily Dirtnap notes that the militarization of the nation’s police forces has been an issue for a number of people for a long time. Exactly why does some small community in Connecticut need grenade launchers? Seriously? But he does make a point about the news cycle and trading:

The key here is the press. Journalism is such a powerful force, a force for good or bad (often bad), but if you look at Radley Balko, here was a journalist who had a pet issue (which really made him a polemicist) and he kept writing about this issue over and over again, but nobody really cared. He had a small, but loyal following. Now he has a very large following, because this issue just blew up on national TV, and now everyone is interested in it, like, why does my police department have a tank? And so on. So it went from being a non-issue to a big issue – overnight.

So this is what happens: now that it is at the forefront of the consciousness of the press, any time they hear about an incident like this, they will report on it. And it will seem like police militarization is everywhere. Before it seemed like it was nowhere. The only difference is that now, people will be reporting on it! It’s not like this wasn’t an issue before Ferguson. It was a huge issue before Ferguson. But now, everyone is talking about it. People are interested in hearing about it. And journalists will report on things that people like to hear about.

But here is the great part. Our friend Radley Balko, the expert on police militarization, the guy who has studied it his whole adult life, wrote a book on it, is the leading authority, does he get to be the leading voice on police militarization? No. There are plenty of other opportunists around who just latch on to whatever is the new new thing and position themselves as the expert on it. I guess what I am trying to say is that the guy who is short the whole way up and is finally right at the top is actually worse off than the guy who is just right at the top. Think about the financial crisis. The cemeteries are full of the bodies of money managers who were smart and early and short all the way up. It really is about being in the right place at the right time.” (The Daily Dirtnap)

I think having a national conversation about the militarization of police is probably a good thing. We all support the police, but more than a few of us are becoming a little uncomfortable with the number of SWAT teams in our communities. A little balance here and there might be a useful thing.

But to bring us back to robotics and automation, Kareem and others do point out that the social fabric of this country (and of the entire developed world) is more fragile than we would like it to be. And while the country had 50-70+ years to adapt to increasing automation on farms from the 1870s onward, and survived that transition, the radical restructuring of what we think of as work that is going to happen in the next 20 years is going to be far more difficult. Especially when everything is on the news.

The report that is today’s OTB is from Pew Research and Elon University and runs to 67 pages. I have excerpted about six of those pages, which highlight some of the key takeaways from thought leaders among the 1,896 experts the authors consulted with, some of whom think robotics will be a huge plus and others who are deeply concerned about our social future.. (You can find the whole study at http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/08/06/future-of-jobs/ plus links in the first few pages of the report to other fascinating subjects on the future. Wonks take note.)

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

The countries that are winners in the coming technological revolution will be those that help their citizens organize themselves to take advantage of the new technologies. Countries that try to “protect” jobs or certain groups will find themselves falling behind. This report highlights some of the areas where not just the US but other countries are failing. Especially in education, where we still use an 18th-century education model developed to produce factory workers for the British industrialists, putting students into rows and columns and expecting them to learn facts that will somehow help them cope with a technological revolution.

Finally, I note that our views on the future impact of robotics and automation have a tendency to take on a religious tone. While everyone can marshall their “facts,” the facts mostly get used to conjure up speculations about the future. This is not unlike some of the arguments I heard in seminary. Are you post-millennial or pre-millennial? Do you see a William Gibson post-apocalyptic world coming, or a bright Ian Banks future where technology is our servant and has freed us of the mundane drudgery of needing to work to survive ?

The transition we are engaged in is likely to be volatile, no matter what your religious (I mean scientific) opinion of it is. But one of the joys of my life – and I hope of yours –is that I get to live through it. This week’s Outside the Box is my hopefully helpful way of getting you think about these important issues.

This weekend was only partially aided by automation. We went out to my friend Monty Bennett’s ranch in East Texas, where he runs a wildlife game reserve. He has animals from all over the world. I think I saw more gemsbok at his ranch than I did when I was last on a South African safari. And to my great delight I saw a red Indian deer that had one of the most magnificent racks of antlers I’ve ever seen on any animal anywhere. And if the local redneck hunters knew about the size of the racks on his whitetail deer, he would have trouble keeping said two-leggeds from climbing the 8-foot fence that surrounds the property. (Please note, I grew up not far from Monty’s neck of the woods, where redneck was not a pejorative term.)

Have a great week, and remember that robots need jobs too.

Your wanting more automation in his life analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs

By Aaron Smith and Janna Anderson

Key Findings

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

Key themes: reasons to be hopeful:

1) Advances in technology may displace certain types of work, but historically they have been a net creator of jobs.

2) We will adapt to these changes by inventing entirely new types of work, and by taking advantage of uniquely human capabilities.

3) Technology will free us from day-to-day drudgery, and allow us to define our relationship with “work” in a more positive and socially beneficial way.

4) Ultimately, we as a society control our own destiny through the choices we make.

Key themes: reasons to be concerned:

1) Impacts from automation have thus far impacted mostly blue-collar employment; the coming wave of innovation threatens to upend white-collar work as well.

2) Certain highly-skilled workers will succeed wildly in this new environment—but far more may be displaced into lower paying service industry jobs at best, or permanent unemployment at worst.

3) Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.

Some 1,896 experts responded to the following question:

The economic impact of robotic advances and AI—Self-driving cars, intelligent digital agents that can act for you, and robots are advancing rapidly. Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?

Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

These two groups also share certain hopes and concerns about the impact of technology on employment. For instance, many are concerned that our existing social structures—and especially our educational institutions—are not adequately preparing people for the skills that will be needed in the job market of the future. Conversely, others have hope that the coming changes will be an opportunity to reassess our society’s relationship to employment itself—by returning to a focus on small-scale or artisanal modes of production, or by giving people more time to spend on leisure, self-improvement, or time with loved ones.

A number of themes ran through the responses to this question: those that are unique to either group, and those that were mentioned by members of both groups.

The view from those who expect AI and robotics to have a positive or neutral impact on jobs by 2025

JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com, offered a number of reasons for his belief that automation will not be a net displacer of jobs in the next decade: “The effects will be different in different economies (which themselves may look different from today’s political boundaries). Driven by revolutions in education and in technology, the very nature of work will have changed radically—but only in economies that have chosen to invest in education, technology, and related infrastructure. Some classes of jobs will be handed over to the ‘immigrants’ of AI and Robotics, but more will have been generated in creative and curating activities as demand for their services grows exponentially while barriers to entry continue to fall. For many classes of jobs, robots will continue to be poor labor substitutes.”

Rangaswami’s prediction incorporates a number of arguments made by those in this canvassing who took his side of this question.

Argument #1: Throughout history, technology has been a job creator—not a job destroyer

Vint Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, said, “Historically, technology has created more jobs than it destroys and there is no reason to think otherwise in this case. Someone has to make and service all these advanced devices.”

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher for Microsoft, concurred: “Technology will continue to disrupt jobs, but more jobs seem likely to be created. When the world population was a few hundred million people there were hundreds of millions of jobs. Although there have always been unemployed people, when we reached a few billion people there were billions of jobs. There is no shortage of things that need to be done and that will not change.”

Michael Kende, the economist for a major Internet-oriented nonprofit organization, wrote, “In general, every wave of automation and computerization has increased productivity without depressing employment, and there is no reason to think the same will not be true this time. In particular, the new wave is likely to increase our personal or professional productivity (e.g. self-driving car) but not necessarily directly displace a job (e.g. chauffeur). While robots may displace some manual jobs, the impact should not be different than previous waves of automation in factories and elsewhere. On the other hand, someone will have to code and build the new tools, which will also likely lead to a new wave of innovations and jobs.”

Fred Baker, Internet pioneer, longtime leader in the IETF and Cisco Systems Fellow, responded, “My observation of advances in automation has been that they change jobs, but they don’t reduce them. A car that can guide itself on a striped street has more difficulty with an unstriped street, for example, and any automated system can handle events that it is designed for, but not events (such as a child chasing a ball into a street) for which it is not designed. Yes, I expect a lot of change. I don’t think the human race can retire en masse by 2025.”

Argument #2: Advances in technology create new jobs and industries even as they displace some of the older ones

Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, wrote, “Robots and AI make compelling stories for journalists, but they are a false vision of the major economic changes. Journalists lost their jobs because of changes to advertising, professors are threatened by MOOCs, and store salespeople are losing jobs to Internet sales people. Improved user interfaces, electronic delivery (videos, music, etc.), and more self-reliant customers reduce job needs. At the same time someone is building new websites, managing corporate social media plans, creating new products, etc. Improved user interfaces, novel services, and fresh ideas will create more jobs.”

Amy Webb, CEO of strategy firm Webbmedia Group, wrote, “There is a general concern that the robots are taking over. I disagree that our emerging technologies will permanently displace most of the workforce, though I’d argue that jobs will shift into other sectors. Now more than ever, an army of talented coders is needed to help our technology advance. But we will still need folks to do packaging, assembly, sales, and outreach. The collar of the future is a hoodie.”

John Markoff, senior writer for the Science section of the New York Times, responded, “You didn’t allow the answer that I feel strongly is accurate—too hard to predict. There will be a vast displacement of labor over the next decade. That is true. But, if we had gone back 15 years who would have thought that ‘search engine optimization’ would be a significant job category?”

Marjory Blumenthal, a science and technology policy analyst, wrote, “In a given context, automated devices like robots may displace more than they create. But they also generate new categories of work, giving rise to second- and third-order effects. Also, there is likely to be more human-robot collaboration—a change in the kind of work opportunities available. The wider impacts are the hardest to predict; they may not be strictly attributable to the uses of automation but they are related…what the middle of the 20th century shows us is how dramatic major economic changes are—like the 1970s OPEC-driven increases of the price of oil—and how those changes can dwarf the effects of technology.”

Argument #3: There are certain jobs that only humans have the capacity to do

A number of respondents argued that many jobs require uniquely human characteristics such as empathy, creativity, judgment, or critical thinking—and that jobs of this nature will never succumb to widespread automation.

David Hughes, a retired U.S. Army Colonel who, from 1972, was a pioneer in individual to/from digital telecommunications, responded, “For all the automation and AI, I think the ‘human hand’ will have to be involved on a large scale. Just as aircraft have to have pilots and copilots, I don’t think all ‘self-driving’ cars will be totally unmanned. The human’s ability to detect unexpected circumstances, and take action overriding automatic driving will be needed as long and individually owned ‘cars’ are on the road.”

Pamela Rutledge, PhD and director of the Media Psychology Research Center, responded, “There will be many things that machines can’t do, such as services that require thinking, creativity, synthesizing, problem-solving, and innovating…Advances in AI and robotics allow people to cognitively offload repetitive tasks and invest their attention and energy in things where humans can make a difference. We already have cars that talk to us, a phone we can talk to, robots that lift the elderly out of bed, and apps that remind us to call Mom. An app can dial Mom’s number and even send flowers, but an app can’t do that most human of all things: emotionally connect with her.”

Michael Glassman, associate professor at the Ohio State University, wrote, “I think AI will do a few more things, but people are going to be surprised how limited it is. There will be greater differentiation between what AI does and what humans do, but also much more realization that AI will not be able to engage the critical tasks that humans do.”

Argument #4: The technology will not advance enough in the next decade to substantially impact the job market

Another group of experts feels that the impact on employment is likely to be minimal for the simple reason that 10 years is too short a timeframe for automation to move substantially beyond the factory floor. David Clark, a senior research scientist at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, noted, “The larger trend to consider is the penetration of automation into service jobs. This trend will require new skills for the service industry, which may challenge some of the lower-tier workers, but in 12 years I do not think autonomous devices will be truly autonomous. I think they will allow us to deliver a higher level of service with the same level of human involvement.”

Jari Arkko, Internet expert for Ericsson and chair of the Internet Engineering Task Force, wrote, “There is no doubt that these technologies affect the types of jobs that need to be done. But there are only 12 years to 2025, some of these technologies will take a long time to deploy in significant scale…We’ve been living a relatively slow but certain progress in these fields from the 1960s.”

Christopher Wilkinson, a retired European Union official, board member for EURid.eu, and Internet Society leader said, “The vast majority of the population will be untouched by these technologies for the foreseeable future. AI and robotics will be a niche, with a few leading applications such as banking, retailing, and transport. The risks of error and the imputation of liability remain major constraints to the application of these technologies to the ordinary landscape.”

Argument #5: Our social, legal, and regulatory structures will minimize the impact on employment

A final group suspects that economic, political, and social concerns will prevent the widespread displacement of jobs. Glenn Edens, a director of research in networking, security, and distributed systems within the Computer Science Laboratory at PARC, a Xerox Company, wrote, “There are significant technical and policy issues yet to resolve, however there is a relentless march on the part of commercial interests (businesses) to increase productivity so if the technical advances are reliable and have a positive ROI then there is a risk that workers will be displaced. Ultimately we need a broad and large base of employed population, otherwise there will be no one to pay for all of this new world.”

Andrew Rens, chief council at the Shuttleworth Foundation, wrote, “A fundamental insight of economics is that an entrepreneur will only supply goods or services if there is a demand, and those who demand the good can pay. Therefore any country that wants a competitive economy will ensure that most of its citizens are employed so that in turn they can pay for goods and services. If a country doesn’t ensure employment driven demand it will become increasingly less competitive.”

Geoff Livingston, author and president of Tenacity5 Media, wrote, “I see the movement towards AI and robotics as evolutionary, in large part because it is such a sociological leap. The technology may be ready, but we are not—at least, not yet.”

The view from those who expect AI and robotics to displace more jobs than they create by 2025

An equally large group of experts takes a diametrically opposed view of technology’s impact on employment. In their reading of history, job displacement as a result of technological advancement is clearly in evidence today, and can only be expected to get worse as automation comes to the white-collar world.

Argument #1: Displacement of workers from automation is already happening—and about to get much worse

Jerry Michalski, founder of REX, the Relationship Economy eXpedition, sees the logic of the slow and unrelenting movement in the direction of more automation: “Automation is Voldemort: the terrifying force nobody is willing to name. Oh sure, we talk about it now and then, but usually in passing. We hardly dwell on the fact that someone trying to pick a career path that is not likely to be automated will have a very hard time making that choice. X-ray technician? Outsourced already, and automation in progress. The race between automation and human work is won by automation, and as long as we need fiat currency to pay the rent/mortgage, humans will fall out of the system in droves as this shift takes place…The safe zones are services that require local human effort (gardening, painting, babysitting), distant human effort (editing, coaching, coordinating), and high-level thinking/relationship building. Everything else falls in the target-rich environment of automation.”

Mike Roberts, Internet pioneer and Hall of Fame member and longtime leader with ICANN and the Internet Society, shares this view: “Electronic human avatars with substantial work capability are years, not decades away. The situation is exacerbated by total failure of the economics community to address to any serious degree sustainability issues that are destroying the modern ‘consumerist’ model and undermining the early 20th century notion of ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.’ There is great pain down the road for everyone as new realities are addressed. The only question is how soon.”

Robert Cannon, Internet law and policy expert, predicts, “Everything that can be automated will be automated. Non-skilled jobs lacking in ‘human contribution’ will be replaced by automation when the economics are favorable. At the hardware store, the guy who used to cut keys has been replaced by a robot. In the law office, the clerks who used to prepare discovery have been replaced by software. IBM Watson is replacing researchers by reading every report ever written anywhere. This begs the question: What can the human contribute? The short answer is that if the job is one where that question cannot be answered positively, that job is not likely to exist.”

Tom Standage, digital editor for The Economist, makes the point that the next wave of technology is likely to have a more profound impact than those that came before it: “Previous technological revolutions happened much more slowly, so people had longer to retrain, and [also] moved people from one kind of unskilled work to another. Robots and AI threaten to make even some kinds of skilled work obsolete (e.g., legal clerks). This will displace people into service roles, and the income gap between skilled workers whose jobs cannot be automated and everyone else will widen. This is a recipe for instability.”

Mark Nall, a program manager for NASA, noted, “Unlike previous disruptions such as when farming machinery displaced farm workers but created factory jobs making the machines, robotics and AI are different. Due to their versatility and growing capabilities, not just a few economic sectors will be affected, but whole swaths will be. This is already being seen now in areas from robocalls to lights-out manufacturing. Economic efficiency will be the driver. The social consequence is that good-paying jobs will be increasingly scarce.”

Argument #2: The consequences for income inequality will be profound

For those who expect AI and robotics to significantly displace human employment, these displacements seem certain to lead to an increase in income inequality, a continued hollowing out of the middle class, and even riots, social unrest, and/or the creation of a permanent, unemployable “underclass”.

Justin Reich, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, said, “Robots and AI will increasingly replace routine kinds of work—even the complex routines performed by artisans, factory workers, lawyers, and accountants. There will be a labor market in the service sector for non-routine tasks that can be performed interchangeably by just about anyone—and these will not pay a living wage—and there will be some new opportunities created for complex non-routine work, but the gains at this top of the labor market will not be offset by losses in the middle and gains of terrible jobs at the bottom. I’m not sure that jobs will disappear altogether, though that seems possible, but the jobs that are left will be lower paying and less secure than those that exist now. The middle is moving to the bottom.”

Stowe Boyd, lead researcher at GigaOM Research, said, “As just one aspect of the rise of robots and AI, widespread use of autonomous cars and trucks will be the immediate end of taxi drivers and truck drivers; truck driver is the number-one occupation for men in the U.S.. Just as importantly, autonomous cars will radically decrease car ownership, which will impact the automotive industry. Perhaps 70% of cars in urban areas would go away. Autonomous robots and systems could impact up to 50% of jobs, according to recent analysis by Frey and Osborne at Oxford, leaving only jobs that require the ‘application of heuristics’ or creativity…An increasing proportion of the world’s population will be outside of the world of work—either living on the dole, or benefiting from the dramatically decreased costs of goods to eke out a subsistence lifestyle. The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?”

Nilofer Merchant, author of a book on new forms of advantage, wrote, “Just today, the guy who drives the service car I take to go to the airport [said that he] does this job because his last blue-collar job disappeared from automation. Driverless cars displace him. Where does he go? What does he do for society? The gaps between the haves and have-nots will grow larger. I’m reminded of the line from Henry Ford, who understood he does no good to his business if his own people can’t afford to buy the car.”

Alex Howard, a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C., said, “I expect that automation and AI will have had a substantial impact on white-collar jobs, particularly back-office functions in clinics, in law firms, like medical secretaries, transcriptionists, or paralegals. Governments will have to collaborate effectively with technology companies and academic institutions to provide massive retraining efforts over the next decade to prevent massive social disruption from these changes.”

Point of agreement: the educational system is doing a poor job of preparing the next generation of workers

A consistent theme among both groups is that our existing social institutions—especially the educational system—are not up to the challenge of preparing workers for the technology- and robotics-centric nature of employment in the future.

Howard Rheingold, a pioneering Internet sociologist and self-employed writer, consultant, and educator, noted, “The jobs that the robots will leave for humans will be those that require thought and knowledge. In other words, only the best-educated humans will compete with machines. And education systems in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world are still sitting students in rows and columns, teaching them to keep quiet and memorize what is told to them, preparing them for life in a 20th century factory.”

Bryan Alexander, technology consultant, futurist, and senior fellow at the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, wrote, “The education system is not well positioned to transform itself to help shape graduates who can ‘race against the machines.’ Not in time, and not at scale. Autodidacts will do well, as they always have done, but the broad masses of people are being prepared for the wrong economy.”

Point of agreement: the concept of “work” may change significantly in the coming decade

On a more hopeful note, a number of experts expressed a belief that the coming changes will allow us to renegotiate the existing social compact around work and employment.

Possibility #1: We will experience less drudgery and more leisure time

Hal Varian, chief economist for Google, envisions a future with fewer ‘jobs’ but a more equitable distribution of labor and leisure time: “If ‘displace more jobs’ means ‘eliminate dull, repetitive, and unpleasant work,’ the answer would be yes. How unhappy are you that your dishwasher has replaced washing dishes by hand, your washing machine has displaced washing clothes by hand, or your vacuum cleaner has replaced hand cleaning? My guess is this ‘job displacement’ has been very welcome, as will the ‘job displacement’ that will occur over the next 10 years. The work week has fallen from 70 hours a week to about 37 hours now, and I expect that it will continue to fall. This is a good thing. Everyone wants more jobs and less work. Robots of various forms will result in less work, but the conventional work week will decrease, so there will be the same number of jobs (adjusted for demographics, of course). This is what has been going on for the last 300 years so I see no reason that it will stop in the decade.”

Tiffany Shlain, filmmaker, host of the AOL series The Future Starts Here, and founder of The Webby Awards, responded, “Robots that collaborate with humans over the cloud will be in full realization by 2025. Robots will assist humans in tasks thus allowing humans to use their intelligence in new ways, freeing us up from menial tasks.”

Francois-Dominique Armingaud, retired computer software engineer from IBM and now giving security courses to major engineering schools, responded, “The main purpose of progress now is to allow people to spend more life with their loved ones instead of spoiling it with overtime while others are struggling in order to access work.”

Possibility #2: It will free us from the industrial age notion of what a “job” is

A notable number of experts take it for granted that many of tomorrow’s jobs will be held by robots or digital agents—and express hope that this will inspire us as a society to completely redefine our notions of work and employment.

Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz, founders of the online community Awakening Technology, based in Portland, Oregon, wrote, “Many things need to be done to care for, teach, feed, and heal others that are difficult to monetize. If technologies replace people in some jobs and roles, what kinds of social support or safety nets will make it possible for them to contribute to the common good through other means? Think outside the job.”

Bob Frankston, an Internet pioneer and technology innovator whose work helped allow people to have control of the networking (internet) within their homes, wrote, “We’ll need to evolve the concept of a job as a means of wealth distribution as we did in response to the invention of the sewing machine displacing seamstressing as welfare.”

Jim Hendler, an architect of the evolution of the World Wide Web and professor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, wrote, “The notion of work as a necessity for life cannot be sustained if the great bulk of manufacturing and such moves to machines—but humans will adapt by finding new models of payment as they did in the industrial revolution (after much upheaval).”

Tim Bray, an active participant in the IETF and technology industry veteran, wrote, “It seems inevitable to me that the proportion of the population that needs to engage in traditional full-time employment, in order to keep us fed, supplied, healthy, and safe, will decrease. I hope this leads to a humane restructuring of the general social contract around employment.”

Possibility #3: We will see a return to uniquely “human” forms of production

Another group of experts anticipates that pushback against expanding automation will lead to a revolution in small-scale, artisanal, and handmade modes of production.

Kevin Carson, a senior fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society and contributor to the P2P Foundation blog, wrote, “I believe the concept of ‘jobs’ and ‘employment’ will be far less meaningful, because the main direction of technological advance is toward cheap production tools (e.g., desktop information processing tools or open-source CNC garage machine tools) that undermine the material basis of the wage system. The real change will not be the stereotypical model of ‘technological unemployment,’ with robots displacing workers in the factories, but increased employment in small shops, increased project-based work on the construction industry model, and increased provisioning in the informal and household economies and production for gift, sharing, and barter.”

Tony Siesfeld, director of the Monitor Institute, wrote, “I anticipate that there will be a backlash and we’ll see a continued growth of artisanal products and small-scale [efforts], done myself or with a small group of others, that reject robotics and digital technology.”

A network scientist for BBN Technologies wrote, “To some degree, this is already happening. In terms of the large-scale, mass-produced economy, the utility of low-skill human workers is rapidly diminishing, as many blue-collar jobs (e.g., in manufacturing) and white-collar jobs (e.g., processing insurance paperwork) can be handled much more cheaply by automated systems. And we can already see some hints of reaction to this trend in the current economy: entrepreneurially-minded unemployed and underemployed people are taking advantages of sites like Etsy and TaskRabbit to market quintessentially human skills. And in response, there is increasing demand for ‘artisanal’ or ‘hand-crafted’ products that were made by a human. In the long run this trend will actually push toward the re-localization and re-humanization of the economy, with the 19th- and 20th-century economies of scale exploited where they make sense (cheap, identical, disposable goods), and human-oriented techniques (both older and newer) increasingly accounting for goods and services that are valuable, customized, or long-lasting.”

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Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

 

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.
– Albert Einstein

Genius is a rising stock market.
– John Kenneth Galbraith

Any plan conceived in moderation must fail when circumstances are set in extremes.
– Prince Metternich

I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky, Then like my dreams they fade and die
Fortune’s always hiding, I’ve looked everywhere
I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air

Burr and Campbell

You can almost feel it in the air. The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It’s exhilarating, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over. There’s nothing like a rising market to lift our moods. Unless of course, as Prof. Kindleberger famously cautioned (see below), we are not participating in that rising market. Then we feel like losers. But what if the rising market is … a bubble? Are we smart enough to ride it high and then bail out before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.

My friend Grant Williams thinks the biggest bubble around is in complacency. I agree that is a large one, but I think even larger bubbles, still building, are those of government debt and government promises. When these latter two burst, and probably simultaneously, that will mark the true bottom for this cycle now pushing 90 years old.

So, this week we’ll think about bubbles. Specifically, we’ll have a look at part of the chapter on bubbles from Code Red, my latest book, coauthored with Jonathan Tepper, which we launched late last year. I was putting this chapter together about this time last year while in Montana, and so in a lazy August it is good to remind ourselves of the problems that will face us when everyone returns to their desks in a few weeks. And note, this is not the whole chapter, but at the end of the letter is a link to the entire chapter, should you desire more.

As I wrote earlier this week, I am NOT calling a top, but I am pointing out that our risk antennae should be up. You should have a well-designed risk program for your investments. I understand you have to be in the markets to get those gains, and I encourage that, but you have to have a discipline in place for cutting your losses and getting back in after a market drop.

There is enough data out there to suggest that the market is toppy and the upside is not evenly balanced. Take a look at these four charts. I offer these updated charts and note that some charts in the letter below are from last year, but the levels have only increased. The direction is the same. What they show is that by many metrics the market is at levels that are highly risky; but as 2000 proved, high-risk markets can go higher. The graphs speak for themselves. Let’s look at the Q-ratio, corporate equities to GDP (the Buffett Indicator), the Shiller CAPE, and margin debt.

We make the case in Code Red that central banks are inflating bubbles everywhere, and that even though bubbles are unpredictable almost by definition, there are ways to benefit from them. So, without further ado, let’s look at what co-author Jonathan Tepper and I have to say about bubbles in Chapter 9.

Easy Money Will Lead to Bubbles and How to Profit from Them

Every year, the Darwin Awards are given out to honor fools who kill themselves accidentally and remove themselves from the human gene pool. The 2009 Award went to two bank robbers. The robbers figured they would use dynamite to get into a bank. They packed large quantities of dynamite by the ATM machine at a bank in Dinant, Belgium. Unhappy with merely putting dynamite in the ATM, they pumped lots of gas through the letterbox to make the explosion bigger. And then they detonated the explosives. Unfortunately for them, they were standing right next to the bank. The entire bank was blown to pieces. When police arrived, they found one robber with severe injuries. They took him to the hospital, but he died quickly. After they searched through the rubble, they found his accomplice. It reminds you a bit of the immortal line from the film The Italian Job where robbers led by Sir Michael Caine, after totally demolishing a van in a spectacular explosion, shouted at them, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

Central banks are trying to make stock prices and house prices go up, but much like the winners of the 2009 Darwin Awards, they will likely get a lot more bang for their buck than they bargained for. All Code Red tools are intended to generate spillovers to other financial markets. For example, quantitative easing (QE) and large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) are meant to boost stock prices and weaken the dollar, lower bonds yields, and chase investors into higher-risk assets. Central bankers hope they can find the right amount of dynamite to blow open the bank doors, but it is highly unlikely that they’ll be able to find just the right amount of money printing, interest rate manipulation, and currency debasement to not damage anything but the doors. We’ll likely see more booms and busts in all sorts of markets because of the Code Red policies of central banks, just as we have in the past. They don’t seem to learn the right lessons.

Targeting stock prices is par for the course in a Code Red world. Officially, the Fed receives its marching orders from Congress and has a dual mandate: stable prices and high employment. But in the past few years, by embarking on Code Red policies, Bernanke and his colleagues have unilaterally added a third mandate: higher stock prices. The chairman himself pointed out that stock markets had risen strongly since he signaled the Fed would likely do more QE during a speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2010. “I do think that our policies have contributed to a stronger stock market, just as they did in March of 2009, when we did the last iteration [of QE]. The S&P 500 is up about 20 percent plus and the Russell 2000 is up 30 percent plus.” It is not hard to see why stock markets rally when investors believe the most powerful central banker in the world wants to print money and see stock markets go up.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

Important Disclosures

Thoughts from the Frontline: Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere

 

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.
– Albert Einstein

Genius is a rising stock market.
– John Kenneth Galbraith

Any plan conceived in moderation must fail when circumstances are set in extremes.
– Prince Metternich

I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air
They fly so high, nearly reach the sky, Then like my dreams they fade and die
Fortune’s always hiding, I’ve looked everywhere
I’m forever blowing bubbles, Pretty bubbles in the air

Burr and Campbell

You can almost feel it in the air. The froth and foam on markets of all shapes and sizes all over the world. It’s exhilarating, and the pundits who populate the media outlets are bubbling over. There’s nothing like a rising market to lift our moods. Unless of course, as Prof. Kindleberger famously cautioned (see below), we are not participating in that rising market. Then we feel like losers. But what if the rising market is … a bubble? Are we smart enough to ride it high and then bail out before it bursts? Research says we all think that we are, yet we rarely demonstrate the actual ability.

My friend Grant Williams thinks the biggest bubble around is in complacency. I agree that is a large one, but I think even larger bubbles, still building, are those of government debt and government promises. When these latter two burst, and probably simultaneously, that will mark the true bottom for this cycle now pushing 90 years old.

So, this week we’ll think about bubbles. Specifically, we’ll have a look at part of the chapter on bubbles from Code Red, my latest book, coauthored with Jonathan Tepper, which we launched late last year. I was putting this chapter together about this time last year while in Montana, and so in a lazy August it is good to remind ourselves of the problems that will face us when everyone returns to their desks in a few weeks. And note, this is not the whole chapter, but at the end of the letter is a link to the entire chapter, should you desire more.

As I wrote earlier this week, I am NOT calling a top, but I am pointing out that our risk antennae should be up. You should have a well-designed risk program for your investments. I understand you have to be in the markets to get those gains, and I encourage that, but you have to have a discipline in place for cutting your losses and getting back in after a market drop.

There is enough data out there to suggest that the market is toppy and the upside is not evenly balanced. Take a look at these four charts. I offer these updated charts and note that some charts in the letter below are from last year, but the levels have only increased. The direction is the same. What they show is that by many metrics the market is at levels that are highly risky; but as 2000 proved, high-risk markets can go higher. The graphs speak for themselves. Let’s look at the Q-ratio, corporate equities to GDP (the Buffett Indicator), the Shiller CAPE, and margin debt.

We make the case in Code Red that central banks are inflating bubbles everywhere, and that even though bubbles are unpredictable almost by definition, there are ways to benefit from them. So, without further ado, let’s look at what co-author Jonathan Tepper and I have to say about bubbles in Chapter 9.

Easy Money Will Lead to Bubbles and How to Profit from Them

Every year, the Darwin Awards are given out to honor fools who kill themselves accidentally and remove themselves from the human gene pool. The 2009 Award went to two bank robbers. The robbers figured they would use dynamite to get into a bank. They packed large quantities of dynamite by the ATM machine at a bank in Dinant, Belgium. Unhappy with merely putting dynamite in the ATM, they pumped lots of gas through the letterbox to make the explosion bigger. And then they detonated the explosives. Unfortunately for them, they were standing right next to the bank. The entire bank was blown to pieces. When police arrived, they found one robber with severe injuries. They took him to the hospital, but he died quickly. After they searched through the rubble, they found his accomplice. It reminds you a bit of the immortal line from the film The Italian Job where robbers led by Sir Michael Caine, after totally demolishing a van in a spectacular explosion, shouted at them, “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!”

Central banks are trying to make stock prices and house prices go up, but much like the winners of the 2009 Darwin Awards, they will likely get a lot more bang for their buck than they bargained for. All Code Red tools are intended to generate spillovers to other financial markets. For example, quantitative easing (QE) and large-scale asset purchases (LSAPs) are meant to boost stock prices and weaken the dollar, lower bonds yields, and chase investors into higher-risk assets. Central bankers hope they can find the right amount of dynamite to blow open the bank doors, but it is highly unlikely that they’ll be able to find just the right amount of money printing, interest rate manipulation, and currency debasement to not damage anything but the doors. We’ll likely see more booms and busts in all sorts of markets because of the Code Red policies of central banks, just as we have in the past. They don’t seem to learn the right lessons.

Targeting stock prices is par for the course in a Code Red world. Officially, the Fed receives its marching orders from Congress and has a dual mandate: stable prices and high employment. But in the past few years, by embarking on Code Red policies, Bernanke and his colleagues have unilaterally added a third mandate: higher stock prices. The chairman himself pointed out that stock markets had risen strongly since he signaled the Fed would likely do more QE during a speech in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in 2010. “I do think that our policies have contributed to a stronger stock market, just as they did in March of 2009, when we did the last iteration [of QE]. The S&P 500 is up about 20 percent plus and the Russell 2000 is up 30 percent plus.” It is not hard to see why stock markets rally when investors believe the most powerful central banker in the world wants to print money and see stock markets go up.

Investors are thrilled. As Mohamed El-Erian, chief executive officer at Pacific Investment Management Company, said, “Central banks are our best friends not because they like markets, but because they can only get to their macro objectives by going through the markets.”

Properly reflected on, this is staggering in its implications. A supposedly neutral central bank has decided that it can engineer a recovery by inflating asset prices. The objective is to create a “wealth effect” that will make those who invest in stocks feel wealthier and then decide to spend money and invest in new projects. This will eventually be felt throughout the economy. This “trickle-down” monetary policy has been successful in creating wealth for those who were already rich (and for the banks and investment management firms who service them) but has been spectacularly a failure in creating good jobs and a high-growth economy. The latest quarter as we write this letter will be in the 1 percent gross domestic product (GDP) range.

And to listen to the speeches from the majority of members of the Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, their prescription is more of the same. Indeed, when Bernanke merely hinted this summer that QE might end at some point, something that everyone already knows, the market swooned and a half-a-dozen of his fellow committee members felt compelled to issue statements and speeches the next week, saying, “Not really, guys, we really are going to keep it up for a bit longer.”

We’ve seen this movie before. In the book When Money Dies, Adam Fergusson quotes from the diary of Anna Eisenmenger, an Austrian widow. In early 1920 Eisenmenger wrote, “Speculation on the stock exchange has spread to all ranks of the population and shares rise like air balloons to limitless heights. … My banker congratulates me on every new rise, but he does not dispel the secret uneasiness which my growing wealth arouses in me … it already amounts to millions.” Much like after the initial Nixon Shock in the 1970s, stock prices rise rapidly when a currency weakens and money supply grows. Not surprisingly, the 1970s led to bubbles in commodities.

This chapter will show how to spot bubbles when they form, how to profit from them, and how to avoid the dire consequences when they burst.

Excess Liquidity Creating Bubbles

As we write Code Red, stock prices are roaring ahead. In fact, many asset classes are looking like bubbles from our cheap seats. (While we expect a correction at some point, when the Fed or the Bank of Japan creates money, it has to go somewhere.)

One area that stands out as particularly bubbly is the corporate bond market. Investors are barely being compensated for the risks they’re taking. In 2007, a three-month certificate of deposit yielded more than junk bonds do today. Average yields on investment-grade debt worldwide dropped to a record low 2.45 percent as we write this from 3.4 percent a year ago, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Global Corporate Index. Veteran investors in high-yield bonds and bank debt see a bubble forming. Wilbur L. Ross Jr., chairman and CEO of WL Ross & Co. has pointed to a “ticking time bomb” in the debt markets. Ross noted that one third of first-time issuers had CCC or lower credit ratings and in the past year more than 60 percent of the high-yield bonds were refinancings. None of the capital was to be used for expansion or working capital, just refinancing balance sheets. Some people think it is good there is no new leveraging, but it is much worse. This means that many companies had no cash on hand to pay off old debt and had to refinance.

One day, all the debt will come due, and it will end with a bang. “We are building a bigger time bomb” with $500 billion a year in debt coming due between 2018 and 2020, at a point in time when the bonds might not be able to be refinanced as easily as they are today, Mr. Ross said. Government bonds are not even safe because if they revert to the average yield seen between 2000 and 2010, ten year treasuries would be down 23 percent. “If there is so much downside risk in normal treasuries,” riskier high yield is even more mispriced, Mr. Ross said. “We may look back and say the real bubble is debt.”

Another bubble that is forming and will pop is agricultural land in many places in the United States (although agriculture in other countries can be found at compelling values). The bubble really started going once the Fed started its Code Red policies. Land prices in the heart of the Corn Belt have increased at a double-digit rate in six of the past seven years. According to Federal Reserve studies, farmland prices were up 15 percent last year in the most productive part of the Corn Belt, and 26 percent in the western Corn Belt and high plains. Iowa land selling for $2,275 per acre a decade ago is now at $8,700 per acre. As you can see from Figure 9.2, the increase in farmland prices beats almost anything the United States saw during the housing bubble. A lot of banks in the Midwest will have problem with their lending.

Why are we seeing so many bubbles right now? One reason is that the economy is weak and inflation is low. The growth in the money supply doesn’t go to driving up prices for goods like toothpaste, haircuts, or cars. It goes to drive up prices of real estate, bonds, and stocks.

Excess liquidity is money created beyond what the real economy needs. In technical terms, Marshallian K is the difference between growth in the money supply and nominal GDP. The measure is the surplus of money that is not absorbed by the real economy. The term is named after the great English economist Alfred Marshall. When the money supply is growing faster than nominal GDP, then excess liquidity tends to flow to financial assets. However, if the money supply is growing more slowly than nominal GDP, then the real economy absorbs more available liquidity. That’s one reason why stocks go up so much when the economy is weak but the money supply is rising.

It is also why stock markets are so sensitive to any hint that the Fed might ease off on QE. Real players know how the game is played. You can listen to the business media or read the papers and find hundreds of “experts” saying that stock prices are rising based on fundamentals. You can take their talking points and change the dates and find they are essentially the same as 1999 and 2006–2007. (More on the implications of this in Part II when we talk about investing.)

The rise in real estate, bonds, and stocks does not count toward any inflation measures. On the desk in his office at Princeton, Einstein once had the words “not everything which can be measured counts, and not everything which counts can be measured.” Inflation happens to be one of the things that counts but can’t be measured (except in very narrow terms). Excess liquidity flows from asset class to asset class. As you can see from Figure 9.3, booms and busts around the world happen whenever central banks tighten or loosen monetary policy.

Humans Never Learn

Financial bubbles happen frequently. In the 1970s, gold went from $35 to $850 before crashing. In the 1980s, the Japanese Nikkei went from 8,000 to 40,000 before losing 80 percent of its value. In the 1990s, the Nasdaq experienced the dot-com bubble and stocks went from 440 to 5,000 before crashing spectacularly in 2000. The Nasdaq lost 80 percent of its value in less than two years. Many housing bubbles over the past decade in the United Kingdom, United States, Ireland, Spain, and Iceland saw house prices go up 200 and even 500 percent and then lose over half their value in real terms.

The U.S. market has had frequent crashes: 1929, 1962, 1987, 1998, 2000, and 2008. Every time, the bubble was driven by different sectors. In 1929, radio stocks were the Internet stocks of their day. In 1962, the electronic sector crashed. The previous year, most electronic stocks had risen 27 percent, with leading technology stocks like Texas Instruments and Polaroid trading at up a crazy 115 times earnings. In 1987, the S&P had risen more than 40 percent in less than a year and over 60 percent in less than two years. In 1998, it was strong expectation on investment opportunities in Russia that collapsed. In 2000, the Internet bubble was so crazy that companies with no earnings and often no real revenues were able to go public, skyrocket, and then crash. Eventually, in all bubbles fundamental values re-assert themselves and markets crash.

Economists and investors have spilled a lot of ink describing bubbles, yet central bankers and investors never seem to learn and people get caught up in them. Peter Bernstein in Against the Gods states that the evidence “reveals repeated patterns of irrationality, inconsistency, and incompetence in the ways human beings arrive at decisions and choices when faced with uncertainty.”

What is extraordinary is how much bubbles all look alike. The situations were similar in many ways. In the 1920s, the financial boom was fueled by new technologies such as the radio that supposedly would change the world. In the 1990s, the stock market rose on the rapid adoption of the Internet. Both technologies were going to fundamentally change the world. Stocks like RCA in the 1920s and Yahoo in the 1990s were darlings that went up like rockets. Figure 9.4 plots the two charts against each other. The similarities and timing of market moves are uncanny.

If you look at Figure 9.5, you can see the gold bubble in the 1970s. (Some academics have noted that the surge in gold prices closely followed the increase in inflation in the late 1970s, reflecting its value as a hedge against inflation. When inflation fell in the 1980s, gold prices followed. So it is an open question whether gold in the 1970s should be considered a bubble.)

Fast-forward 10 years, and you can see from Figure 9.6 that the bubble in the Japanese Nikkei looked almost exactly the same.

Bubbles happen again and again. The same basic ingredients are found every time: fueled initially by well-founded economic fundamentals, investors develop a self-fulfilling optimism by herding that leads to an unsustainable accelerating increase in prices. And each time people are surprised that a bubble has happened. As billionaire investor George Soros once said about financial cycles: “The only surprise is that we are always surprised.”

For example, the corporate bond market appears to be in another bubble. “We have a hyper-robust bond market right now,” Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher, a former investment manager, said in an interview. These robust markets are part of the Fed’s policy intent, he said, but the credit market jump has put him on guard for a new destabilizing credit boom. “You don’t sit on a hot stove twice.”

Economists and investors, though, repeatedly sit on hot stoves. Economic researchers have managed to create bubbles in laboratories. Economist Reshmaan N. Hussam and his colleagues not only managed to create bubbles once, they managed to bring the same subjects back in for the same experiment and still managed to reproduce bubbles. It didn’t matter if people were given fundamental information regarding what was available or not. It didn’t matter how financially sophisticated the participants were either: corporate managers, independent small business people, or professional stock traders. No one was immune from re-creating bubbles.

It seems that everyone is born a sucker. As humans, we developed our instincts dodging lions and chasing antelopes on the African savannah over hundreds of thousands of years. Now it seems we chase asset prices. It is as if we are hard-wired to respond to movement in what market we are following. The conclusion from repeated experiments shows that it doesn’t matter if people live through one bubble or even two, they’ll likely fall for bubbles again. The smarter people learn from bubbles. But they don’t learn to avoid them; they participate again and simply think they’re smart enough to know when to get out. This has been showed many times in trading experiments conducted by Vernon Smith, a professor at George Mason University who shared in the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. As Smith said, “The subjects are very optimistic that they’ll be able to smell the turning point. They always report that they’re surprised by how quickly it turns and how hard it is to get out at anything like a favorable price.”

Anatomy of Bubbles and Crashes

There is no standard definition of a bubble, but all bubbles look alike because they all go through similar phases. The bible on bubbles is Manias, Panics and Crashes, by Charles Kindleberger. In the book, Kindleberger outlined the five phases of a bubble. He borrowed heavily from the work of the great economist Hyman Minsky. If you look at Figures 9.7 and 9.8 (below), you can see the classic bubble pattern.

(As an aside, all you need to know about the Nobel Prize in Economics is that Minsky, Kindleberger, and Schumpeter did not get one and that Paul Krugman did.)

Stage 1: Displacement

All bubbles start with some basis in reality. Often, it is a new disruptive technology that gets everyone excited, although Kindleberger says it doesn’t need to involve technological progress. It could come through a fundamental change in an economy; for example, the opening up of Russia in the 1990s led to the 1998 bubble or in the 2000s interest rates were low and mortgage lenders were able to fund themselves cheaply. In this displacement phase, smart investors notice the changes that are happening and start investing in the industry or country.

Stage 2: Boom

Once a bubble starts, a convincing narrative gains traction and the narrative becomes self-reinforcing. As George Soros observed, fundamental analysis seeks to establish how underlying values are reflected in stock prices, whereas the theory of reflexivity shows how stock prices can influence underlying values. For example, in the 1920s people believed that technology like refrigerators, cars, planes, and the radio would change the world (and they did!). In the 1990s, it was the Internet. One of the keys to any bubble is usually loose credit and lending. To finance all the new consumer goods, in the 1920s installment lending was widely adopted, allowing people to buy more than they would have previously. In the 1990s, Internet companies resorted to vendor financing with cheap money that financial markets were throwing at Internet companies. In the housing boom in the 2000s, rising house prices and looser credit allowed more and more people access to credit. And a new financial innovation called securitization developed in the 1990s as a good way to allocate risk and share good returns was perversely twisted into making subprime mortgages acceptable as safe AAA investments.

Stage 3: Euphoria

In the euphoria phase, everyone becomes aware that they can make money by buying stocks in a certain industry or buying houses in certain places. The early investors have made a lot of money, and, in the words of Kindleberger, “there is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich.” Even people who had been on the sidelines start speculating. Shoeshine boys in the 1920s were buying stocks. In the 1990s, doctors and lawyers were day-trading Internet stocks between appointments. In the subprime boom, dozens of channels had programs about people who became house flippers. At the height of the tech bubble, Internet stocks changed hands three times as frequently as other shares.

The euphoria phase of a bubble tends to be steep but so brief that it gives investors almost no chance get out of their positions. As prices rise exponentially, the lopsided speculation leads to a frantic effort of speculators to all sell at the same time.

We know of one hedge fund in 1999 that had made fortunes for its clients investing in legitimate tech stocks. They decided it was a bubble and elected to close down the fund and return the money in the latter part of 1999. It took a year of concerted effort to close all their positions out. While their investors had fabulous returns, this just illustrates that exiting a bubble can be hard even for professionals. And in illiquid markets? Forget about it.

Stage 4: Crisis

In the crisis phase, the insiders originally involved start to sell. For example, loads of dot-com insiders dumped their stocks while retail investors piled into companies that went bust. In the subprime bubble, CEOs of homebuilding companies, executives of mortgage lenders like Angelo Mozillo, and CEOs of Lehman Brothers like Dick Fuld dumped hundreds of millions of dollars of stock. The selling starts to gain momentum, as speculators realize that they need to sell, too. However, once prices start to fall, the stocks or house prices start to crash. The only way to sell is to offer prices at a much lower level. The bubble bursts, and euphoric buying is replaced by panic selling. The panic selling in a bubble is like the Roadrunner cartoons. The coyote runs over a cliff, keeps running, and suddenly finds that there is nothing under his feet. Crashes are always a reflection of illiquidity in two-sided trading—the inability of sellers to find eager buyers at nearby prices.

Stage 5: Revulsion

Just as prices became wildly out of line during the early stages of a bubble, in the final stage of revulsion, prices overshoot their fundamental values. Where the press used to write only positive stories about the bubble, suddenly journalists uncover fraud, embezzlement, and abuse. Investors who have lost money look for scapegoats and blame others rather than themselves for participating in bubbles. (Who didn’t speculate with Internet stocks or houses?) As investors stay away from the bubble, prices can fall to irrationally low levels.

A Few Good Central Bankers

Space suggests we need to cut it off there. You can read the rest of the chapter here. I invite you to visit the Code Red website to get the book.

Jack Rivkin at His Best

Earlier this year I shared with you a tremendous resource from my friend and Altegris CIO Jack Rivkin. Since joining Altegris in December, Jack has been offering commentary about global economic and political events, trends, investing, and alternative investments in his “CIO Perspectives” at Altegris.com. If you were able to read some of his articles, you know that he has been remarkably accurate in his predictions for the first half of the year. I highly recommend you take a moment to read his recent Mid-Year Update, which offers a valuable look at an eventful last six months and his expectations for the second half of 2014 and beyond as we get closer to the end of QE .

For more reading from Jack, I suggest his piece on the opportunities for investing in credit, “The Illiquidity Premium.” Qualified investors interested in learning more can register for the Mauldin Circle to get access to the exclusive Altegris private placement platform.

Dallas, San Antonio, and Washington DC

I am enjoying my respite from travel. Right now I’m not scheduled to get on a plane until the middle of September, when I go to the Texas Hill Country near San Antonio for the Casey Research Summit, which you should check out if you’re looking for a great conference this fall.

I did work in a quick trip to Washington DC at the end of the month; but now I’m home again for a spell, although partners and friends are beginning to notice that I have some time in my schedule, and I’m sure that New York will have to appear on my schedule at least once in the next two months.

We celebrated my mother’s 97th birthday party last night here at the apartment, and many of her friends and family showed up. My brother told me she had been focused on the party for the last month or so, and she was certainly happy with everything last night. Her regular nurses (who come to her home to see her) told me that she is getting visibly weaker, and I was already seeing that; but she was certainly “all there” for her party. There were a few poignant moments. “I would hug you, but I can’t make my arms work,” she told Tiffani. And indeed she has lost much of her arm movement. The ambulance service brought her in on a stretcher and moved her around the apartment to visit with her friends.

I have to confess the evening made a bit of an emotional impact on me, as I realized when I was going to bed that evening. I really lost my desire to have a conversation, lost in my own thoughts. Mother is “only” some 32.867 years older than I am, and unless there are some significant advantages in biotechnological medicine, I may not make it past 100, either. So the final future was brought home in a fairly stark way. Perhaps, I thought to myself, part of the reason that I so strongly believe in a biotechnological revolution happening in my lifetime is that I want/need it to happen. But then, I considered again the data that tell me it really is happening, and I got up the next morning to go dance with The Beast (my trainer) at 8:15.

Sunday I go to deep East Texas to visit the weekend home/ranch of my good friend Monty Bennett. Monty grew up in the hotel business and runs a large hotel REIT and associated companies. He gives me insights into the hotel business, and we talk macro. Turns out he is an economics junkie, and I am part of his “fix.” I keep running into successful businessmen who also pay attention to macroeconomics and how it affects the business cycle of their particular worlds. The hotel gig is about as countercyclical as you can get. While that makes intuitive sense, it does require a certain type of contrarian nature to be successful at hotel investing. And that nature becomes suspicious of bubbles. So we have some fodder for an interesting conversation this week as we drive through Monty’s ranch, which is really an international wildlife preserve. He has all sorts of exotic deer and sheep and such from all continents of the world – ibex, gemsbok, sable antelope, red kangaroos, and something called a Barasingha deer, which I really hope to see. And all sorts of sheep that I have only read about and seen in National Geographic magazines.

Have a great week. And enjoy each and every moment you have.

Your enjoying his summer analyst,

Outside the Box: Low and Expanding Risk Premiums Are the Root of Abrupt Market Losses

 

Risk premiums. I don’t know anyone who seriously maintains that risk premiums are anywhere close to normal. They more closely resemble what we see just before a major bear market kicks in. Which doesn’t mean that they can’t become further compressed. My good friend John Hussman certainly wouldn’t argue for such a state of affairs, and this week for our Outside the Box we let John talk about risk premiums.

Hussman is the founder and manager of the eponymous Hussman Funds, at www.Hussmanfunds.com. Let me offer a few cautionary paragraphs from his letter as a way to set the stage. I particularly want to highlight a quote from Raghuram Rajan, who impressed me with his work and his insights when we spent three days speaking together in Scandinavia a few years ago. At the time he was a professor at the University of Chicago, before he moved on to see if he could help ignite a fire in India.

Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India and among the few economists who foresaw the last financial crisis, warned last week that “some of our macroeconomists are not recognizing the overall build-up of risks. We are taking a greater chance of having another crash at a time when the world is less capable of bearing the cost. Investors say ‘we will stay with the trade because central banks are willing to provide easy money and I can see that easy money continuing into the foreseeable future.’ It’s the same old story. They add ‘I will get out before everyone else gets out.’ They put the trades on even though they know what will happen as everyone attempts to exit positions at the same time.”

As a market cycle completes and a bull market gives way to a bear market, you’ll notice an increasing tendency for negative day-to-day news stories to be associated with market “reactions” that seem completely out of proportion. The key to understanding these reactions, as I observed at the 2007 peak, is to recognize that abrupt market weakness is generally the result of low risk premiums being pressed higher. Low and expanding risk premiums are at the root of nearly every abrupt market loss. Day-to-day news stories are merely opportunities for depressed risk premiums to shift up toward more normal levels, but the normalization itself is inevitable, and the spike in risk premiums (decline in prices) need not be proportional or “justifiable” by the news at all. Remember this, because when investors see the market plunging on news items that seem like “nothing,” they’re often tempted to buy into what clearly seems to be an overreaction. We saw this throughout the 2000-2002 plunge as well as the 2007-2009 plunge.

Yesterday evening, another astute market observer in the form of my good friend Steve Cucchiaro, founder of Windhaven, joined a few other friends for an entertaining steak dinner; and then we talked long into the night about life and markets. It is difficult to be “running money” at a time like this. The market is clearly getting stretched, but there is also a serious risk that it will run away for another 10 or 15%. If you are a manager, you need to be gut-checking your discipline and risk strategies. If you’re a client, you need to be asking your manager what his or her risk strategy is. It’s not a matter of risk or no risk but how you handle it. What is your discipline? What non-emotional strategy instructs you to enter markets and to exit markets? Is it all or nothing, or is it by sector? Are you global? If so, do you have appropriate and different risk premiums embedded in your strategies? Just asking… John’s piece today should at least get you thinking. That’s what Outside the Box is supposed to do.

It’s an interesting week around the Mauldin house. All the kids were over Sunday, and we grilled steaks and later ended up in the pool, shouting and horsing around, all of us knowing that three of the seven would be off to different parts of the country the next day. I know that’s what adult children do, and as responsible parents we all want our children to be independent, but the occasion did offer a few moments for reflection. Sunday night we just told stories of days past and laughed and tried not to think too much about the future.

A friend of mine just came back from California and Oregon complaining about the heat. Dallas has been rather cool, at least for August. If this weather pattern somehow keeps up (and it won’t), I can see lots of tax refugees streaming into Texas from California.

Tomorrow (Thursday) my mother turns 97, and we will have an ambulance bring her to the apartment, where she wants to have her birthday party. She is bedridden but is absolutely insisting on this party, so my brother and I decided to let her have her way. Which isn’t any different from the way it’s always been. Have a great week.

You’re rich in family and friends analyst,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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Low and Expanding Risk Premiums Are the Root of Abrupt Market Losses

By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.

Through the recurrent bubbles and collapses of recent decades, I’ve often discussed what I call the Iron Law of Finance: Every long-term security is nothing more than a claim on some expected future stream of cash that will be delivered into the hands of investors over time. For a given stream of expected future cash payments, the higher the price investors pay today for that stream of cash, the lower the long-term return they will achieve on their investment over time.

The past several years of quantitative easing and zero interest rate policy have not bent that Iron Law at all. As prices have advanced, prospective future returns have declined, and the “risk premiums” priced into risky securities have become compressed. Based on the valuation measures most strongly correlated with actual subsequent total returns (and those correlations are near or above 90%), we continue to estimate that the S&P 500 will achieve zero or negative nominal total returns over horizons of 8 years or less, and only about 2% annually over the coming decade. See Ockham’s Razor and The Market Cycle to review some of these measures and the associated arithmetic.  

What quantitative easing has done is to exploit the discomfort that investors have with earning nothing on safe investments, making them feel forced to extend their risk profile in search of positive expected returns. The problem is that there is little arithmetic involved in that decision. For example, if a “normal” level of short-term interest rates is 4% and investors expect 3-4 more years of zero interest rate policy, it’s reasonable for stock prices to be valued today at levels that are about 12-16% above historically normal valuations (3-4 years x 4%). The higher prices would in turn be associated with equity returns also being about 4% lower than “normal” over that 3-4 year period. This would be a justified response. One can demonstrate the arithmetic quite simply using any discounted cash flow approach, and it holds for stocks, bonds, and other long-term securities. [Geek's Note: The Dornbusch exchange rate model reflects the same considerations.]

However, if investors are so uncomfortable with zero interest rates on safe investments that they drive security prices far higher than 12-16% above historical valuation norms (and at present, stocks are more than double those norms on the most reliable measures), they’re doing something beyond what’s justified by interest rates. Instead, what happens is that the risk premium – the compensation for bearing uncertainty, volatility, and risk of extreme loss – also becomes compressed. We can quantify the impact that zero interest rates should have on stock valuations, and it would take decades of zero interest rate policy to justify current stock valuations on the basis of low interest rates. What we’re seeing here – make no mistake about it – is not a rational, justified, quantifiable response to lower interest rates, but rather a historic compression of risk premiums across every risky asset class, particularly equities, leveraged loans, and junk bonds.

My impression is that today’s near-absence of risk premiums is both unintentional and poorly appreciated. That is, investors have pushed up prices, but they still expect future returns on risky assets to be positive. Indeed, because all of this yield seeking has driven a persistent uptrend in speculative assets in recent years, investors seem to believe that “QE just makes prices go up” in a way that ensures a permanent future of diagonally escalating prices. Meanwhile, though QE has fostered an enormous speculative misallocation of capital, a recent Fed survey finds that the majority of Americans feel no better off compared with 5 years ago.

We increasingly see carry being confused with expected return. Carry is the difference between the annual yield of a security and money market interest rates. For example, in a world where short-term interest rates are zero, Wall Street acts as if a 2% dividend yield on equities, or a 5% junk bond yield is enough to make these securities appropriate even for investors with short horizons, not factoring in any compensation for risk or likely capital losses. This is the same thinking that contributed to the housing bubble and subsequent collapse. Banks, hedge funds, and other financial players borrowed massively to accumulate subprime mortgage-backed securities, attempting to “leverage the spread” between the higher yielding and increasingly risky mortgage debt and the lower yield that they paid to depositors and other funding sources.

We shudder at how much risk is being delivered – knowingly or not – to investors who plan to retire even a year from now. Barron’s published an article on target-term funds last month with this gem (italics mine): “JPMorgan’s 2015 target-term fund has a 42% equity allocation, below that of its peers. Its fund holds emerging-market equity and debt, junk bonds, and commodities.”

On the subject of junk debt, in the first two quarters of 2014, European high yield bond issuance outstripped U.S. issuance for the first time in history, with 77% of the total represented by Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. This issuance has been enabled by the “reach for yield” provoked by zero interest rate policy. The discomfort of investors with zero interest rates allows weak borrowers – in the words of the Financial Times – “to harness strong investor demand.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg reports that pension funds, squeezed for sources of safe return, have been abandoning their investment grade policies to invest in higher yielding junk bonds. Rather than thinking in terms of valuation and risk, they are focused on the carry they hope to earn because the default environment seems “benign” at the moment. This is just the housing bubble replicated in a different class of securities. It will end badly.

Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India and among the few economists who foresaw the last financial crisis, warned last week that “some of our macroeconomists are not recognizing the overall build-up of risks. We are taking a greater chance of having another crash at a time when the world is less capable of bearing the cost. Investors say ‘we will stay with the trade because central banks are willing to provide easy money and I can see that easy money continuing into the foreseeable future.’ It’s the same old story. They add ‘I will get out before everyone else gets out.’ They put the trades on even though they know what will happen as everyone attempts to exit positions at the same time.”

While we’re already observing cracks in market internals in the form of breakdowns in small cap stocks, high yield bond prices, market breadth, and other areas, it’s not clear yet whether the risk preferences of investors have shifted durably. As we saw in multiple early selloffs and recoveries near the 2007, 2000, and 1929 bull market peaks (the only peaks that rival the present one), the “buy the dip” mentality can introduce periodic recovery attempts even in markets that are quite precarious from a full cycle perspective. Still, it’s helpful to be aware of how compressed risk premiums unwind. They rarely do so in one fell swoop, but they also rarely do so gradually and diagonally. Compressed risk premiums normalize in spikes.

As a market cycle completes and a bull market gives way to a bear market, you’ll notice an increasing tendency for negative day-to-day news stories to be associated with market “reactions” that seem completely out of proportion. The key to understanding these reactions, as I observed at the 2007 peak, is to recognize that abrupt market weakness is generally the result of low risk premiums being pressed higher. Low and expanding risk premiums are at the root of nearly every abrupt market loss. Day-to-day news stories are merely opportunities for depressed risk premiums to shift up toward more normal levels, but the normalization itself is inevitable, and the spike in risk premiums (decline in prices) need not be proportional or “justifiable” by the news at all. Remember this because when investors see the market plunging on news items that seem like “nothing,” they’re often tempted to buy into what clearly seems to be an overreaction. We saw this throughout the 2000-2002 plunge as well as the 2007-2009 plunge.

As I’ve frequently observed, the strongest expected market return/risk profile is associated with a material retreat in valuations that is then joined by an early improvement across a wide range of market internals. These opportunities occur in every market cycle, and we have no doubt that we will observe them over the completion of the present cycle and in those that follow. In contrast, when risk premiums are historically compressed and showing early signs of normalizing even moderately, a great deal of downside damage is likely to follow. Some of it will be on virtually no news at all, because that normalization is baked in the cake, and is independent of interest rates. All that’s required is for investors to begin to remember that risky securities actually involve risk. In that environment, selling begets selling.

Remember: this outcome is baked in the cake because prices are already elevated and risk premiums are already compressed. Every episode of compressed risk premiums in history has been followed by a series of spikes that restore them to normal levels. It may be possible for monetary policy to drag the process out by helping to punctuate the selloffs with renewed speculation, but there’s no way to defer this process permanently. Nor would the effort be constructive, because the only thing that compressed risk premiums do is to misallocate scarce savings to unproductive uses, allowing weak borrowers to harness strong demand. We don’t believe that risk has been permanently removed from risky assets. The belief that it has is itself the greatest risk that investors face here.

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Thoughts from the Frontline: Transformation or Bust, Part 2

 

In last week’s Thoughts from the Frontline (“Transformation or Bust”), my young colleague Worth Wray and I continued our groundbreaking series exploring the risks posed by China’s rapid private sector debt growth and its consumption-repressing, investment-heavy growth model that is quickly running out of steam. China is the true conundrum in the global economy. It is an outlier in the history of development, with no true analogues. And while there is much to be appreciative of and admired about China, there are clear danger signals.

As we have repeatedly explained in recent letters (“China’s Minsky Moment,” “Looking at the Middle Kingdom with Fresh Eyes,” & “Can Central Planners Save China’s Economic Miracle”), China’s overcapacity and over-indebtedness is not just the unfortunate consequence of hurried post-crisis stimulus, but an inherent, and one can even say necessary, by-product of the command and control approach that has underpinned China’s development since the days of Deng Xiaoping.

Worth and I have gone back and forth over this letter. He wrote the first draft; but as his thinking has continued to evolve during the editing process, Worth has struggled to see any happy path forward for China’s reformers, its 1.3+ billion citizens, or those economies and investors around the world who depend on the Middle Kingdom’s continued prosperity… at least not in the short term.

I sympathize with him, because as we worked through the issues I was reminded of my initial reactions when I began to explore the depths of the problems that constituted the subprime crisis. In that case there was not as much research to go through (the research on China is massive in content and scope), but mulling the evidence spurred the dawning awareness that subprime was going to be a problem unlike anything we had seen before, where everything seemed to be connected and you could clearly see that the situation would not end well; yet the extent of the problem was still not clear, at least early on. While my early estimates of losses were viewed as gloom and doom by almost every commentator, it turned out that I was overly optimistic.

Here, too, when you look at the depth and breadth of the problems and the difficulty of fixing them, it can be easy to get lost in the weeds. Envisioning a clear path through the issues from where we are today is not easy, though China certainly has more options than the world had with subprime by the middle of 2008, when there was so much toxic waste on the balance sheets of banks all over the world and there was no turning back. As we have emphasized in the past and will do today, China does have options. But each of the options has costs associated with it, and those costs are going up every day. Who pays and when is the simple question that most readers want to have answered, but therein lies the conundrum.

But rather than frame the issues further, let’s jump into this week’s letter (again noting that Worth is responsible for the bulk of the writing, with your humble analyst offering edits and suggestions here and there. Typically, the use of the pronoun “I” means Worth, and if I’ve chimed in with edits, you’ll see “us” or “we” instead. My goal was to keep this from turning into a three-part letter – though the topic deserves at least a book. )

Transformation or Bust, Part 2

After decades of marshaling resources, building out a modern infrastructure, and educating its workforce, China has amassed building blocks for economic development in abundant supply (in fact, they are in oversupply)… but the institutions and incentive structures underlying China’s socialist market economy are deeply and inherently skewed in favor of vested interests at all levels of government. If the People’s Republic has any hope of working through its growing debt burden, rebalancing to a more sustainable growth model, and becoming a truly developed economy in which innovation and entrepreneurship drive rising living standards over time, then old power structures and vested interests must give way to the rule of law and market-based incentives.

What happens next depends largely on the economic wisdom and political resolve of China’s reformers, who must find a way to gradually deleverage overextended regional governments and investment-intensive sectors while simultaneously rebalancing the national economy toward a more sustainable consumption-driven, service-intensive model. The trouble is, their efforts may be too little too late to slowly let the air out of a massive debt bubble, and even rapid productivity growth from “new-economy” sectors may not be enough to rebalance the debt equation.

History suggests that – even with a major wave of liberalizing reforms and a series of positive surprises – China’s economic “miracle” could end with a long period of painfully slow growth or with a banking crisis and sudden collapse. The extent to which the Chinese economy will go on being “manageable” (and we put that word in quotes because living through a Category 5 hurricane is manageable but not a great deal of fun and generally expensive) will depend a great deal on when the Chinese government decides to embrace the necessary reforms.

And now even the IMF is concerned about the escalating risks of a hard landing sometime between now and 2020 unless Beijing moves forward with its urgent reform agenda – reforms the IMF says should be specifically designed to prevent that hard landing. Echoing our own recently published thoughts, an IMF staff report published last week stated that China’s reliance on credit expansion and fixed-asset investment is becoming increasingly dangerous. Total social financing (the broadest official measure of domestic lending in the People’s Republic, as you can see in the graph below) has grown by 73% of GDP over the past five years, ranking China’s ongoing credit boom (which the IMF admits could be understated) among the top five most explosive instances of lending growth anywhere in the world since WWII.

 

Looking at a sample of 43 major economies over the last fifty years, IMF economists Giovanni Dell’Ariccia, Deniz Igan, and Luc Laeven can find only four other cases of comparable lending growth… and each of those countries experienced a banking crisis and/or a sharp recession within three years of their respective booms.

 

In other words, there are no cases in modern history where an economy has managed to avoid an outright bust after experiencing rapid lending growth anywhere in the neighborhood of China’s ongoing credit boom. NONE. And even if we look to the 48 instances over the last 50 years where total social finance expanded by as little as 30% over five years (less than half the magnitude of China’s credit explosion), there is still a 50% chance of a banking crisis or an abrupt fall in growth during the post-boom period.

Moreover, the model for a “typical credit boom” (outlined in Dell’Ariccia, Igan, Laeven, & Tong’s 2012 paper “Policies for Macrofinancial Stability: How to Deal with Credit Booms”) suggests that painful post-boom adjustments tend to occur when the pace of credit growth simply cools back toward its long-term median (as opposed to outright deleveraging)… and that cooling process is already well advanced in the Middle Kingdom.

Notice, in the charts below, that China’s year-over-year growth rate in total social finance since 2004 basically looks like a more extreme version of the typical credit boom.

No one should EVER expect the IMF to come right out and say, “China is teetering on the edge of a crisis, and it has already wasted its opportunity to reform”; but the team of IMF staff economists was clearly not afraid to acknowledge how easily China’s risky “web of vulnerabilities” could tip into a full-blown financial crisis if measures to address them are implemented too abruptly. They highlight five sectors: real estate, corporations, local governments, banks, and in particular shadow banking. In almost every sector, the specter of significant to massive overleveraging is noted. It does not take a sophisticated analyst to be able to read between the lines of this report. For a bunch of sedate economists, this is the equivalent of standing on their desks and screaming.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

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Outside the Box: Money: How the Destruction of the Dollar Threatens the Global Economy

 

Forbes Editor-in-Chief and longtime friend Steve Forbes leads off this week’s Outside the Box with a sweeping historical summary – and damning indictment – of the “cheap money” policies of the US executive branch and Federal Reserve. Four decades of fiat money (since Richard Nixon and his Treasury Secretary, John Connally, axed the gold standard in 1971) and six years of Fed funny business have led us, in Steve’s words, to an era of “declining mobility, great inequality, and the destruction of personal wealth.”

And of course the damage has not been limited to the US; it is global. Steve reminds us that “The bursting of the subprime bubble put in motion a collapse of dominoes that started with the U.S. financial sector and European banks and led to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, the Greek bankruptcy crisis, and the banking disasters in Iceland and Cyprus.” To make matters worse, the fundamentally weak dollar (and fiat currencies worldwide) have contributed a great deal to record-high food and energy prices that are spurring serious social instability.

As I showed in Code Red and as Steve notes here, we now face the looming specter of a global currency war. Steve reminds us that the real bottom line is that

Money is simply a tool that measures value, like a ruler measures length and a clock measures time. Just as changing the number of inches in a foot will not increase the building of houses or anything else, lowering the value of money will not create more wealth. The only way we will ever get a real recovery is through a return to trustworthy, sound money.  And the best way to achieve that is with a gold standard:  a dollar linked to gold.

Today’s Outside the Box is from Steve’s latest book, which is simply called Money.

I think it’s Steve’s best book in years. Get it for your summer reading. While there is more than one solution to reining in the current abuses by the major global central banks, Steve highlights the problems as well as anyone. This situation really has the potential to end badly. Just this morning the Wall Street Journal noted that “Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan warned Wednesday that the global economy bears an increasing resemblance to its condition in the 1930s, with advanced economies trying to pull out of the Great Recession at each other’s expense.” Rajan is one of the more highly respected economists in the world.

I am back in Dallas for an extended period of time (at least extended by my standards), where my new apartment is paying off in a less hectic lifestyle – people seem to be coming to me for the next few weeks. Tomorrow my good friend Bill Dunkelberg, the Chief Economist of the National Federation of Independent Business, will drop by for a day. We’re going to talk about the future of work, what kind of jobs will be there for our kids (and increasingly our fellow Boomers), what policies should be developed to encourage more jobs, and a host of other issues.

I’m still trying to absorb what I learned in Maine. We enjoyed the most beautiful weather we’ve had in the last eight years, and the conversations seemed to take it up a notch. I fished more than usual, too, which gave me more time to think. On Sunday, however, my thought process was not disturbed by so much as a nibble on my hook. That was after the previous two days, when the fish were practically jumping into the boat.

We had a discussion on complexity theory and why complexity actually had a hand in bringing down more than 20 civilizations. I understand the argument but think there is more to it than that. Something can be complex but continue to work smoothly if information is allowed to run “noise-free.” I began to ponder whether our government has become so complex that it has begun to stifle the flow of information. Dodd–Frank. The Affordable Care Act. Energy policy. The list goes on and on and on. Are we taking all of the profit out of the system in order to comply with complex rules and regulations? Not for large companies, necessarily, but for small ones? When we are losing companies faster than new ones are being created, that should be a huge warning flag that something is wrong in the system. The data in this chart ends in 2011, but the pictures is not getting better.

It will be good to see my old friend Dunk, and perhaps he can shed some light on my continually confused state. Enjoy your August.

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box
subscribers@mauldineconomics.com

 

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The following book excerpt is adapted from Chapter One of Money: How The Destruction of the Dollar Threatens The Global Economy – and What We Can Do About It, by Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames

The failure to understand money is shared by all nations and transcends politics and parties. The destructive monetary expansion undertaken during the Democratic administration of Barack Obama by then Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke began in a Republican administration under Bernanke’s predecessor, Alan Greenspan. Republican Richard Nixon’s historic ending of the gold standard was a response to forces set in motion by the weak dollar policy of Democrat Lyndon Johnson.

For more than 40 years, one policy mistake has followed the next.  Each one has made things worse. The most glaring recent example is the early 2000s, when the Fed’s loose money policies led to the momentous worldwide panic and global recession that began in 2008. The remedy for that disaster? Quantitative easing—the large monetary expansion in history.

One of the reasons that QE has been such a failure was a distortionary bond-buying strategy that was part of QE known as “Operation Twist.” The Fed traditionally expands the monetary base by buying short-term Treasuries from financial institutions.  Banks then turn around and make short-term loans to those businesses that are the economy’s main job creators. But QE’s Operation Twist focused on buying long-term Treasuries and mortgage-backed securities. This meant that instead of going to the entrepreneurial job creators, loans went primarily to large corporations and to the government itself.

Supporters insisted that Operation Twist’s lowering of long-term rates would stimulate the economy by encouraging people to buy homes and make business investments. In reality this credit allocating is cronyism, an all-too-frequent consequence of fiat money.  Fed-created inflation results in underserved windfalls to some while others struggle.

Unstable Money:  Odorless and Colorless

Unstable money is a little bit like carbon monoxide:  it’s odorless and colorless.  Most people don’t realize the damage it’s doing until it’s very nearly too late.  A fundamental principle is that when money is weakened, people seek to preserve their wealth by investing in commodities and hard assets. Prices of things like housing, food, and fuel start to rise, and we are often slow to realize what’s happening. For example, few connected the housing bubble of the mid-2000s with the Fed’s weak dollar.  All they knew was that loans were cheap. Many rushed to buy homes in a housing market in which it seemed prices could only go up. When the Fed finally raised rates, the market collapsed.

The weak dollar was not the only factor, but there would have been no bubble without the Fed’s flooding of the subprime mortgage market with cheap dollars.  Yet to this day the housing meltdown and the events that followed are misconstrued as the products of regulatory failure and of greed. Or they are blamed on affordable housing laws and the role of government-created mortgage enterprises Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The latter two factors definitely played a role.  Yet the push for affordable housing existed in the 1990s, and we didn’t get such a housing mania. Why did it happen in the 2000s and not in the previous decade?

The answer is that the 1990s was not a period of loose money. The housing bubble inflated after Alan Greenspan lowered interest rates to stimulate the economy after the 2001 – 2002 recession. Greenspan kept rates too low for too long. The bursting of the subprime bubble put in motion a collapse of dominoes that started with the U.S. financial sector and European banks and led to the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, the Greek bankruptcy crisis, and the banking disasters in Iceland and Cyprus.

Other Problems Caused by the Weak Dollar

Many may not realize it, but the weakening of the dollar is at the heart of many other problems today:

High Food and Fuel Prices

As with the subprime bubble, the oil price rises of the mid-2000s (as well as the 1970s) were widely blamed on greed.  Yet here, too, no one bothers to ask why oil companies suddenly became greedier starting in the 2000s.  Oil prices averaged a little over $21 a barrel from the mid-1980s until the early part of the last decade when there was a stronger dollar, compared with around $95 a barrel these days.  Rising commodity prices spurred by the declining dollar have also driven up the cost of food. Many shoppers have noticed that the prices of beef and chicken have reached record highs. This is especially devastating to developing countries where food takes up a greater portion of people’s incomes.  Since the Fed and other central banks began their monetary expansion in the mid-2000s, high food prices wrongly blamed on climate shocks and rising demand have caused riots in countries from Haiti to Bangladesh to Egypt.

Declining Mobility, Great Inequality, and the Destruction of Personal Wealth

The destruction of the dollar is a key reason that two incomes are now necessary for a middle-class family that lived on one income in the 1950s and 1960s. To see why, one need only look at the numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. What a dollar could buy in 1971 costs $5.78 in 2014.  In other words, you need almost six times more money today than you did 40 years ago to buy the equivalent goods and services. Say you had a 2014 dollar and traveled back in time to 1971. That dollar would be worth, according to the CPI calculator, a mere 17 cents. What has this meant for salaries?  According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, a man in his thirties or forties who earned $54,163 in 1972 today earns around $45,224 in inflation adjusted dollars –a 17% cut in pay. Women have entered the workforce in much larger numbers since then, and women’s incomes have made up the difference for families. As Mark Gimein of Bloomberg.com points out, “The bottom line is that as two-income families have replaced single-earner ones, the median family has barely moved forward. And the single-earner family has fallen behind.”

Increased Volatility and Currency Crises

The 2014 currency turmoil in emerging countries is just the latest in a succession of needless crises that have occurred over the past several decades as a consequence of unstable money. Today’s huge and often-violent global markets, in which a nation’s currency can come under attack, did not exist before the dollar was taken off the gold standard. They are a direct response to the risks created by floating exchange rates. The crises for most of the Bretton Woods era were mild and infrequent. It was the refusal of the United States to abide by the restrictions of the system that brought it down.

The weak dollar has also been the cause of banking crises that have been blamed on the U.S. system of fractional reserve banking. Traditionally, banks have made their money by lending out deposits while keeping reserves to cover normal withdrawals and loan losses.  The rule of thumb is that banks have $1 of reserves for every $10 of deposits.  In the past, fractional reserve banking has been criticized for making these institutions unnecessarily fragile and jeopardizing the entire economy. Indeed, history is replete with examples of banks that made bad loans and went bust.  Historically, the real problems have been bad banking regulations.  In the post-Bretton Woods era, however, the cause has most often been unstable money. Misdirected lending is characteristic of the asset bubbles that result when prices are distorted by inflation. This has been true of past booms in oil, housing, agriculture, and other traditional havens for weak money.

The Weak Recovery

This bears repeating:  the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing, the biggest monetary stimulus ever, has produced the weakest recovery from a major downturn in American history.  QE’s Operation Twist has not been the only constraint on loans to small and new businesses.  Regulators have also compounded the problem by pressuring banks to reduce lending to riskier customers, which by definition are smaller enterprises.

In 2014 the Wall Street Journal reported that this credit drought had caused many small businesses, from restaurants to nail salons, to turn in desperation to nonbank lenders—from short-term capital firms to hedge funds—that provide loans at breathtakingly high rates of interest. Interest rates for short-term loans can exceed 50%.  Little wonder there are still so many empty storefronts during this period of supposed recovery.  Monetary instability encourages a vicious cycle of stagnation: the damage it causes is usually blamed on financial sector greed. The scapegoating and finger-pointing bring regulatory constraints that strangle growth and capital creation.  That has long been the case in countries with chronic monetary instability, such as Argentina.  Increased regulation is now hobbling capital creation in the United States as well as in Europe, where there is growing regulatory emphasis on preventing “systemic risk.”  Regulators, the Wall Street Journal noted, “are increasingly telling banks which lines of business they can operate in and cautioning them to steer clear of certain areas or face potential supervisory or enforcement action.”

In Europe, this disturbing trend toward “macroprudential regulation” is turning central banks into financial regulators with sweeping arbitrary powers. The problem is that entrepreneurial success stories like Apple, Google, and Home Depot—fast-growing companies that provide the lion’s share of growth and job creation—all began as “risky” investments. Not surprisingly, we’re now seeing growing public discomfort with this increasing control by central banks. A 2013 Rasmussen poll found that an astounding 74% of American adults are in favor of auditing the Federal Reserve, and a substantial number think the chairman of the Fed has too much power.

Slower Long-Term Growth and Higher Unemployment

Even taking into account the economic boom during the relatively stable money years of the mid-1980s to late 1990s, overall the U.S. economy has grown more slowly during the last 40 years than in previous decades. From the end of World War II to the late 1960s, when the U.S. dollar had a fixed standard of value, the economy grew at an average annual rate of nearly 4%.  Since that time it has grown at an average rate of around 3%.  Forbes.com contributor Louis Woodhill explains that this 1% drop means a lot. Had the economy continued to grow at pre-1971 levels, gross domestic product (GDP) in the late 2000s would have been 56% higher than it actually was.  What does that mean?  Woodhill writes: “Our economy would have been more than three times as big as China’s, rather than just over twice as large. And, at the same level of spending, the federal government would have run a $0.5 trillion budget surplus, instead of a $1.3 trillion deficit.”  And what if the United States had never had a stable dollar? If America had grown for all of its history at the lowest post-Bretton Woods rate, its economy would be about one-quarter of the size of China’s.  The United States would have ended up much smaller, less affluent, and less powerful.

Unemployment has also been higher as a consequence of the declining dollar. During the World War II gold standard era, from 1947 to 1970, unemployment averaged less than 5%. Even with the economy’s ups and downs, it never rose above 7%.  Since Nixon gave us the fiat dollar it has averaged over 6%:  it averaged 8.5% in 1975, almost 10% in 1982, and around 8% since 2008. The rate would have been higher had millions not left the workforce. The rest of the world has also suffered from slower growth, in addition to higher inflation, since the end of the Bretton Woods system. After the 1970s, world economic growth has been a full percentage point lower; inflation, 1.5% higher.

Larger Government with Higher Debt

By enabling endless monetary expansion, the post-Bretton Woods system of fiat money has helped propel the unchecked growth of government. In 1971 the total U.S. federal debt stood at $436 billion.  Today it is more than $17 trillion. It’s no coincidence that the federal debt has doubled since 2008, the same year that the Fed started implementing QE.

The Keynesian and monetarist bureaucrats who today set the monetary policies of the Fed and other central banks are like pre-Copernican astronomers who subscribed to the notion that the sun revolved around the earth. They are convinced that government can successfully direct the economy by raising and lowering the value of money. Yet, over and over again, history, and recent events, has shown that they are wrong.

What they don’t understand is that money does not “create” economic activity. Money is simply a tool that measures value, like a ruler measures length and a clock measures time. Just as changing the number of inches in a foot will not increase the building of houses or anything else, lowering the value of money will not create more wealth. The only way we will ever get a real recovery is through a return to trustworthy, sound money.  And the best way to achieve that is with a gold standard:  a dollar linked to gold.

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