Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (2)

6 09 2016

Raul is keeping Nicole Foss’ articles coming thick and fast, with this second part of the four part series published today on the Automatic Earth…… part 1 is here……

I find the looming war on cash rather worrisome myself…. a financial crisis happening right now would really put a spanner in my plans!

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Closing the Escape Routes

nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

History teaches us that central authorities dislike escape routes, at least for the majority, and are therefore prone to closing them, so that control of a limited money supply can remain in the hands of the very few. In the 1930s, gold was the escape route, so gold was confiscated. As Alan Greenspan wrote in 1966:

In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through monetary inflation. There is no safe store of value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding illegal, as was done in the case of gold. If everyone decided, for example, to convert all his bank deposits to silver or copper or any other good, and thereafter declined to accept checks as payment for goods, bank deposits would lose their purchasing power and government-created bank credit would be worthless as a claim on goods.

The existence of escape routes for capital preservation undermines the viability of the banking system, which is already over-extended, over-leveraged and extremely fragile. This time cash serves that role:

Ironically, though the paper money standard that replaced the gold standard was originally meant to empower governments, it now seems that paper money is perceived as an obstacle to unlimited government power….While paper money isn’t as big impediment to government power as the gold standard was, it is nevertheless an impediment compared to a society with only electronic money. Because of this, the more ardent statists favor the abolition of paper money and a monetary system with only electronic money and electronic payments.

We can therefore expect cash to be increasingly disparaged in order to justify its intended elimination:

Every day, a situation that requires the use of physical cash, feels more and more like an anachronism. It’s like having to listen to music on a CD. John Maynard Keynes famously referred to gold (well, the gold standard specifically) as a “barbarous relic.” Well the new barbarous relic is physical cash. Like gold, cash is physical money. Like gold, cash is still fetishized. And like gold, cash is a costly drain on the economy. A study done at Tufts in 2013 estimated that cash costs the economy $200 billion. Their study included the nugget that consumers spend, on average, 28 minutes per month just traveling to the point where they obtain cash (ATM, etc.). But this is just first-order problem with cash. The real problem, which economists are starting to recognize, is that paper cash is an impediment to effective monetary policy, and therefore economic growth.

Holding cash is not risk free, but cash is nevertheless king in a period of deflation:

Conventional wisdom is that interest rates earned on investments are never less than zero because investors could alternatively hold currency. Yet currency is not costless to hold: It is subject to theft and physical destruction, is expensive to safeguard in large amounts, is difficult to use for large and remote transactions, and, in large quantities, may be monitored by governments.

The acknowledged risks of holding cash are understood and can be managed personally, whereas the substantial risk associated with a systemic banking crisis are entirely outside the control of ordinary depositors. The bank bail-in (rescuing the bank with the depositors’ funds) in Cyprus in early 2013 was a warning sign, to those who were paying attention, that holding money in a bank is not necessarily safe. The capital controls put in place in other locations, for instance Greece, also underline that cash in a bank may not be accessible when needed.

The majority of the developed world either already has, or is introducing, legislation to require depositor bail-ins in the event of bank failures, rather than taxpayer bailouts, in preparation for many more Cyprus-type events, but on a very much larger scale. People are waking up to the fact that a bank balance is not considered their money, but is actually an unsecured loan to the bank, which the bank may or may not repay, depending on its own circumstances.:

Your checking account balance is denominated in dollars, but it does not consist of actual dollars. It represents a promise by a private company (your bank) to pay dollars upon demand. If you write a check, your bank may or may not be able to honor that promise. The poor souls who kept their euros in the form of large balances in Cyprus banks have just learned this lesson the hard way. If they had been holding their euros in the form of currency, they would have not lost their wealth.

 

Even in relatively untroubled countries, like the UK, it is becoming more difficult to access physical cash in a bank account or to use it for larger purchases. Notice of intent to withdraw may be required, and withdrawal limits may be imposed ‘for your own protection’. Reasons for the withdrawal may be required, ostensibly to combat money laundering and the black economy:

It’s one thing to be required by law to ask bank customers or parties in a cash transaction to explain where their money came from; it’s quite another to ask them how they intend to use the money they wish to withdraw from their own bank accounts. As one Mr Cotton, a HSBC customer, complained to the BBC’s Money Box programme: “I’ve been banking in that bank for 28 years. They all know me in there. You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

In France, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks there, several anti-cash measures were passed, restricting the use of cash once obtained:

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin brazenly stated that it was necessary to “fight against the use of cash and anonymity in the French economy.” He then announced extreme and despotic measures to further restrict the use of cash by French residents and to spy on and pry into their financial affairs.

These measures…..include prohibiting French residents from making cash payments of more than 1,000 euros, down from the current limit of 3,000 euros….The threshold below which a French resident is free to convert euros into other currencies without having to show an identity card will be slashed from the current level of 8,000 euros to 1,000 euros. In addition any cash deposit or withdrawal of more than 10,000 euros during a single month will be reported to the French anti-fraud and money laundering agency Tracfin.

Tourists in France may also be caught in the net:

France passed another new Draconian law; from the summer of 2015, it will now impose cash requirements dramatically trying to eliminate cash by force. French citizens and tourists will only be allowed a limited amount of physical money. They have financial police searching people on trains just passing through France to see if they are transporting cash, which they will now seize.

This is essentially the Shock Doctrine in action. Central authorities rarely pass up an opportunity to use a crisis to add to their repertoire of repressive laws and practices.

However, even without a specific crisis to draw on as a justification, many other countries have also restricted the use of cash for purchases:

One way they are waging the War on Cash is to lower the threshold at which reporting a cash transaction is mandatory or at which paying in cash is simply illegal. In just the last few years.

  • Italy made cash transactions over €1,000 illegal;
  • Switzerland has proposed banning cash payments in excess of 100,000 francs;
  • Russia banned cash transactions over $10,000;
  • Spain banned cash transactions over €2,500;
  • Mexico made cash payments of more than 200,000 pesos illegal;
  • Uruguay banned cash transactions over $5,000

Other restrictions on the use of cash can be more subtle, but can have far-reaching effects, especially if the ideas catch on and are widely applied:

The State of Louisiana banned “secondhand dealers” from making more than one cash transaction per week. The term has a broad definition and includes Goodwill stores, specialty stores that sell collectibles like baseball cards, flea markets, garage sales and so on. Anyone deemed a “secondhand dealer” is forbidden to accept cash as payment. They are allowed to take only electronic means of payment or a check, and they must collect the name and other information about each customer and send it to the local police department electronically every day.

The increasing application of de facto capital controls, when combined with the prevailing low interest rates, already convince many to hold cash. The possibility of negative rates would greatly increase the likelihood. We are already in an environment of rapidly declining trust, and limited access to what we still perceive as our own funds only accelerates the process in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. More withdrawals lead to more controls, which increase fear and decrease trust, which leads to more withdrawals. This obviously undermines the perceived power of monetary policy to stimulate the economy, hence the escape route is already quietly closing.

In a deflationary spiral, where the money supply is crashing, very little money is in circulation and prices are consequently falling almost across the board, possessing purchasing power provides for the freedom to pursue opportunities as they present themselves, and to avoid being backed into a corner. The purchasing power of cash increases during deflation, even as electronic purchasing power evaporates. Hence cash represents freedom of action at a time when that will be the rarest of ‘commodities’.

Governments greatly dislike cash, and increasingly treat its use, or the desire to hold it, especially in large denominations, with great suspicion:

Why would a central bank want to eliminate cash? For the same reason as you want to flatten interest rates to zero: to force people to spend or invest their money in the risky activities that revive growth, rather than hoarding it in the safest place. Calls for the eradication of cash have been bolstered by evidence that high-value notes play a major role in crime, terrorism and tax evasion. In a study for the Harvard Business School last week, former bank boss Peter Sands called for global elimination of the high-value note.

Britain’s “monkey” — the £50 — is low-value compared with its foreign-currency equivalents, and constitutes a small proportion of the cash in circulation. By contrast, Japan’s ¥10,000 note (worth roughly £60) makes up a startling 92% of all cash in circulation; the Swiss 1,000-franc note (worth around £700) likewise. Sands wants an end to these notes plus the $100 bill, and the €500 note – known in underworld circles as the “Bin Laden”.

 

Cash is largely anonymous, untraceable and uncontrollable, hence it makes central authorities, in a system increasingly requiring total buy-in in order to function, extremely uncomfortable. They regard there being no legitimate reason to own more than a small amount of it in physical form, as its ownership or use raises the spectre of tax evasion or other illegal activities:

The insidious nature of the war on cash derives not just from the hurdles governments place in the way of those who use cash, but also from the aura of suspicion that has begun to pervade private cash transactions. In a normal market economy, businesses would welcome taking cash. After all, what business would willingly turn down customers? But in the war on cash that has developed in the thirty years since money laundering was declared a federal crime, businesses have had to walk a fine line between serving customers and serving the government. And since only one of those two parties has the power to shut down a business and throw business owners and employees into prison, guess whose wishes the business owner is going to follow more often?

The assumption on the part of government today is that possession of large amounts of cash is indicative of involvement in illegal activity. If you’re traveling with thousands of dollars in cash and get pulled over by the police, don’t be surprised when your money gets seized as “suspicious.” And if you want your money back, prepare to get into a long, drawn-out court case requiring you to prove that you came by that money legitimately, just because the courts have decided that carrying or using large amounts of cash is reasonable suspicion that you are engaging in illegal activity….

….Centuries-old legal protections have been turned on their head in the war on cash. Guilt is assumed, while the victims of the government’s depredations have to prove their innocence….Those fortunate enough to keep their cash away from the prying hands of government officials find it increasingly difficult to use for both business and personal purposes, as wads of cash always arouse suspicion of drug dealing or other black market activity. And so cash continues to be marginalized and pushed to the fringes.

Despite the supposed connection between crime and the holding of physical cash, the places where people are most inclined (and able) to store cash do not conform to the stereotype at all:

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens responding rationally to monetary policy. The Swiss National Bank introduced negative interest rates in December 2014. The aim was to drive money out of banks and into the economy, but that only works to the extent that savers find attractive places to spend or invest their money. With economic growth an anemic 1%, many Swiss withdrew cash from the bank and stashed it at home or in safe-deposit boxes. High-denomination notes are naturally preferred for this purpose, so circulation of 1,000-franc notes (worth about $1,010) rose 17% last year. They now account for 60% of all bills in circulation and are worth almost as much as Serbia’s GDP.

Japan, where banks pay infinitesimally low interest on deposits, is a similar story. Demand for the highest-denomination ¥10,000 notes rose 6.2% last year, the largest jump since 2002. But 10,000 Yen notes are worth only about $88, so hiding places fill up fast. That explains why Japanese went on a safe-buying spree last month after the Bank of Japan announced negative interest rates on some reserves. Stores reported that sales of safes rose as much as 250%, and shares of safe-maker Secom spiked 5.3% in one week.

In Germany too, negative interest rates are considered intolerable, banks are increasingly being seen as risky prospects, and physical cash under one’s own control is coming to be seen as an essential part of a forward-thinking financial strategy:

First it was the news that Raiffeisen Gmund am Tegernsee, a German cooperative savings bank in the Bavarian village of Gmund am Tegernsee, with a population 5,767, finally gave in to the ECB’s monetary repression, and announced it’ll start charging retail customers to hold their cash. Then, just last week, Deutsche Bank’s CEO came about as close to shouting fire in a crowded negative rate theater, when, in a Handelsblatt Op-Ed, he warned of “fatal consequences” for savers in Germany and Europe — to be sure, being the CEO of the world’s most systemically risky bank did not help his cause.

That was the last straw, and having been patient long enough, the German public has started to move. According to the WSJ, German savers are leaving the “security of savings banks” for what many now consider an even safer place to park their cash: home safes. We wondered how many “fatal” warnings from the CEO of DB it would take, before this shift would finally take place. As it turns out, one was enough….

….“It doesn’t pay to keep money in the bank, and on top of that you’re being taxed on it,” said Uwe Wiese, an 82-year-old pensioner who recently bought a home safe to stash roughly €53,000 ($59,344), including part of his company pension that he took as a payout. Burg-Waechter KG, Germany’s biggest safe manufacturer, posted a 25% jump in sales of home safes in the first half of this year compared with the year earlier, said sales chief Dietmar Schake, citing “significantly higher demand for safes by private individuals, mainly in Germany.”….

….Unlike their more “hip” Scandinavian peers, roughly 80% of German retail transactions are in cash, almost double the 46% rate of cash use in the U.S., according to a 2014 Bundesbank survey….Germany’s love of cash is driven largely by its anonymity. One legacy of the Nazis and East Germany’s Stasi secret police is a fear of government snooping, and many Germans are spooked by proposals of banning cash transactions that exceed €5,000. Many Germans think the ECB’s plan to phase out the €500 bill is only the beginning of getting rid of cash altogether. And they are absolutely right; we can only wish more Americans showed the same foresight as the ordinary German….

….Until that moment, however, as a final reminder, in a fractional reserve banking system, only the first ten or so percent of those who “run” to the bank to obtain possession of their physical cash and park it in the safe will succeed. Everyone else, our condolences.

The internal stresses are building rapidly, stretching economy after economy to breaking point and prompting aware individuals to protect themselves proactively:

People react to these uncertainties by trying to protect themselves with cash and guns, and governments respond by trying to limit citizens’ ability to do so.

If this play has a third act, it will involve the abolition of cash in some major countries, the rise of various kinds of black markets (silver coins, private-label cash, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin) that bypass traditional banking systems, and a surge in civil unrest, as all those guns are put to use. The speed with which cash, safes and guns are being accumulated — and the simultaneous intensification of the war on cash — imply that the stress is building rapidly, and that the third act may be coming soon.

Despite growing acceptance of electronic payment systems, getting rid of cash altogether is likely to be very challenging, particularly as the fear and state of financial crisis that drives people into cash hoarding is very close to reasserting itself. Cash has a very long history, and enjoys greater trust than other abstract means for denominating value. It is likely to prove tenacious, and unable to be eliminated peacefully. That is not to suggest central authorities will not try. At the heart of financial crisis lies the problem of excess claims to underlying real wealth. The bursting of the global bubble will eliminate the vast majority of these, as the value of credit instruments, hitherto considered to be as good as money, will plummet on the realisation that nowhere near all financial promises made can possibly be kept.

Cash would then represent the a very much larger percentage of the remaining claims to limited actual resources — perhaps still in excess of the available resources and therefore subject to haircuts. Not only the quantity of outstanding cash, but also its distribution, may not be to central authorities liking. There are analogous precedents for altering legal currency in order to dispossess ordinary people trying to protect their stores of value, depriving them of the benefit of their foresight. During the Russian financial crisis of 1998, cash was not eliminated in favour of an electronic alternative, but the currency was reissued, which had a similar effect. People were required to convert their life savings (often held ‘under the mattress’) from the old currency to the new. This was then made very difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people, and many lost the entirety of their life savings as a result.

A Cashless Society?

The greater the public’s desire to hold cash to protect themselves, the greater will be the incentive for central banks and governments to restrict its availability, reduce its value or perhaps eliminate it altogether in favour of electronic-only payment systems. In addition to commercial banks already complicating the process of making withdrawals, central banks are actively considering, as a first step, mechanisms to impose negative interest rates on physical cash, so as to make the escape route appear less attractive:

Last September, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, openly pondered ways of imposing negative interest rates on cash — ie shrinking its value automatically. You could invalidate random banknotes, using their serial numbers. There are £63bn worth of notes in circulation in the UK: if you wanted to lop 1% off that, you could simply cancel half of all fivers without warning. A second solution would be to establish an exchange rate between paper money and the digital money in our bank accounts. A fiver deposited at the bank might buy you a £4.95 credit in your account.

 

To put it mildly, invalidating random banknotes would be highly likely to result in significant social blowback, and to accelerate the evaporation of trust in governing authorities of all kinds. It would be far more likely for financial authorities to move toward making official electronic money the standard by which all else is measured. People are already used to using electronic money in the form of credit and debit cards and mobile phone money transfers:

I can remember the moment I realised the era of cash could soon be over. It was Australia Day on Bondi Beach in 2014. In a busy liquor store, a man wearing only swimming shorts, carrying only a mobile phone and a plastic card, was delaying other people’s transactions while he moved 50 Australian dollars into his current account on his phone so that he could buy beer. The 30-odd youngsters in the queue behind him barely murmured; they’d all been in the same predicament. I doubt there was a banknote or coin between them….The possibility of a cashless society has come at us with a rush: contactless payment is so new that the little ping the machine makes can still feel magical. But in some shops, especially those that cater for the young, a customer reaching for a banknote already produces an automatic frown. Among central bankers, that frown has become a scowl.

In some states almost anything, no matter how small, can be purchased electronically. Everything down to, and including, a cup of coffee from a roadside stall can be purchased in New Zealand with an EFTPOS (debit) card, hence relatively few people carry cash. In Scandinavian countries, there are typically more electronic payment options than cash options:

Sweden became the first country to enlist its own citizens as largely willing guinea pigs in a dystopian economic experiment: negative interest rates in a cashless society. As Credit Suisse reports, no matter where you go or what you want to purchase, you will find a small ubiquitous sign saying “Vi hanterar ej kontanter” (“We don’t accept cash”)….A similar situation is unfolding in Denmark, where nearly 40% of the paying demographic use MobilePay, a Danske Bank app that allows all payments to be completed via smartphone.

Even street vendors selling “Situation Stockholm”, the local version of the UK’s “Big Issue” are also able to take payments by debit or credit card.

 

Ironically, cashlessness is also becoming entrenched in some African countries. One might think that electronic payments would not be possible in poor and unstable subsistence societies, but mobile phones are actually very common in such places, and means for electronic payments are rapidly becoming the norm:

While Sweden and Denmark may be the two nations that are closest to banning cash outright, the most important testing ground for cashless economics is half a world away, in sub-Saharan Africa. In many African countries, going cashless is not merely a matter of basic convenience (as it is in Scandinavia); it is a matter of basic survival. Less than 30% of the population have bank accounts, and even fewer have credit cards. But almost everyone has a mobile phone. Now, thanks to the massive surge in uptake of mobile communications as well as the huge numbers of unbanked citizens, Africa has become the perfect place for the world’s biggest social experiment with cashless living.

Western NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks, telecom companies and local authorities to replace cash with mobile money alternatives. The organizations involved include Citi Group, Mastercard, VISA, Vodafone, USAID, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In Kenya the funds transferred by the biggest mobile money operator, M-Pesa (a division of Vodafone), account for more than 25% of the country’s GDP. In Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, the government launched a Mastercard-branded biometric national ID card, which also doubles up as a payment card. The “service” provides Mastercard with direct access to over 170 million potential customers, not to mention all their personal and biometric data. The company also recently won a government contract to design the Huduma Card, which will be used for paying State services. For Mastercard these partnerships with government are essential for achieving its lofty vision of creating a “world beyond cash.”

Countries where electronic payment is already the norm would be expected to be among the first places to experiment with a fully cashless society as the transition would be relatively painless (at least initially). In Norway two major banks no longer issue cash from branch offices, and recently the largest bank, DNB, publicly called for the abolition of cash. In rich countries, the advent of a cashless society could be spun in the media in such a way as to appear progressive, innovative, convenient and advantageous to ordinary people. In poor countries, people would have no choice in any case.

Testing and developing the methods in societies with no alternatives and then tantalizing the inhabitants of richer countries with more of the convenience to which they have become addicted is the clear path towards extending the reach of electronic payment systems and the much greater financial control over individuals that they offer:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in its 2015 annual letter, adds a new twist. The technologies are all in place; it’s just a question of getting us to use them so we can all benefit from a crimeless, privacy-free world. What better place to conduct a massive social experiment than sub-Saharan Africa, where NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks and telecom companies to replace cash with mobile money alternatives? So the annual letter explains: “(B)ecause there is strong demand for banking among the poor, and because the poor can in fact be a profitable customer base, entrepreneurs in developing countries are doing exciting work – some of which will “trickle up” to developed countries over time.”

What the Foundation doesn’t mention is that it is heavily invested in many of Africa’s mobile-money initiatives and in 2010 teamed up with the World Bank to “improve financial data collection” among Africa’s poor. One also wonders whether Microsoft might one day benefit from the Foundation’s front-line role in mobile money….As a result of technological advances and generational priorities, cash’s days may well be numbered. But there is a whole world of difference between a natural death and euthanasia. It is now clear that an extremely powerful, albeit loose, alliance of governments, banks, central banks, start-ups, large corporations, and NGOs are determined to pull the plug on cash — not for our benefit, but for theirs.

Whatever the superficially attractive media spin, joint initiatives like the Better Than Cash Alliance serve their founders, not the public. This should not come as a surprise, but it probably will as we sleepwalk into giving up very important freedoms:

As I warned in We Are Sleepwalking Towards a Cashless Society, we (or at least the vast majority of people in the vast majority of countries) are willing to entrust government and financial institutions — organizations that have already betrayed just about every possible notion of trust — with complete control over our every single daily transaction. And all for the sake of a few minor gains in convenience. The price we pay will be what remains of our individual freedom and privacy.

Part 3 is here





Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

5 09 2016

Nicole Foss, one of my gurus, has not written much since going on a world speaking tour. This article, split into a four part series by Raul Ilargi of the Automatic Earth where this was first posted because of its length, is so important it must be widely shared….. people must wake up to what the powers that be are up to in the vain attempt of keeping business as usual going in the increasingly obvious Limits to Growth wall we are approaching at very high speed…..

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nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

As momentum builds in the developing deflationary spiral, we are seeing increasingly desperate measures to keep the global credit ponzi scheme from its inevitable conclusion. Credit bubbles are dynamic — they must grow continually or implode — hence they require ever more money to be lent into existence. But that in turn requires a plethora of willing and able borrowers to maintain demand for new credit money, lenders who are not too risk-averse to make new loans, and (apparently effective) mechanisms for diluting risk to the point where it can (apparently safely) be ignored. As the peak of a credit bubble is reached, all these necessary factors first become problematic and then cease to be available at all. Past a certain point, there are hard limits to financial expansions, and the global economy is set to hit one imminently.

Borrowers are increasingly maxed out and afraid they will not be able to service existing loans, let alone new ones. Many families already have more than enough ‘stuff’ for their available storage capacity in any case, and are looking to downsize and simplify their cluttered lives. Many businesses are already struggling to sell goods and services, and so are unwilling to borrow in order to expand their activities. Without willingness to borrow, demand for new loans will fall substantially. As risk factors loom, lenders become far more risk-averse, often very quickly losing trust in the solvency of of their counterparties. As we saw in 2008, the transition from embracing risky prospects to avoiding them like the plague can be very rapid, changing the rules of the game very abruptly.

Mechanisms for spreading risk to the point of ‘dilution to nothingness’, such as securitization, seen as effective and reliable during monetary expansions, cease to be seen as such as expansion morphs into contraction. The securitized instruments previously created then cease to be perceived as holding value, leading to them being repriced at pennies on the dollar once price discovery occurs, and the destruction of that value is highly deflationary. The continued existence of risk becomes increasingly evident, and the realisation that that risk could be catastrophic begins to dawn.

Natural limits for both borrowing and lending threaten the capacity to prolong the credit boom any further, meaning that even if central authorities are prepared to pay almost any price to do so, it ceases to be possible to kick the can further down the road. Negative interest rates and the war on cash are symptoms of such a limit being reached. As confidence evaporates, so does liquidity. This is where we find ourselves at the moment — on the cusp of phase two of the credit crunch, sliding into the same unavoidable constellation of conditions we saw in 2008, but on a much larger scale.

From ZIRP to NIRP

Interest rates have remained at extremely low levels, hardly distinguishable from zero, for the several years. This zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) is a reflection of both the extreme complacency as to risk during the rise into the peak of a major bubble, and increasingly acute pressure to keep the credit mountain growing through constant stimulation of demand for borrowing. The resulting search for yield in a world of artificially stimulated over-borrowing has lead to an extraordinary array of malinvestment across many sectors of the real economy. Ever more excess capacity is being built in a world facing a severe retrenchment in aggregate demand. It is this that is termed ‘recovery’, but rather than a recovery, it is a form of double jeopardy — an intensification of previous failed strategies in the hope that a different outcome will result. This is, of course, one definition of insanity.

Now that financial crisis conditions are developing again, policies are being implemented which amount to an even greater intensification of the old strategy. In many locations, notably those perceived to be safe havens, the benchmark is moving from a zero interest rate policy to a negative interest rate policy (NIRP), initially for bank reserves, but potentially for business clients (for instance in Holland and the UK). Individual savers would be next in line. Punishing savers, while effectively encouraging banks to lend to weaker, and therefore riskier, borrowers, creates incentives for both borrowers and lenders to continue the very behaviour that set the stage for financial crisis in the first place, while punishing the kind of responsibility that might have prevented it.

Risk is relative. During expansionary times, when risk perception is low almost across the board (despite actual risk steadily increasing), the risk premium that interest rates represent shows relatively little variation between different lenders, and little volatility. For instance, the interest rates on sovereign bonds across Europe, prior to financial crisis, were low and broadly similar for many years. In other words, credit spreads were very narrow during that time. Greece was able to borrow almost as easily and cheaply as Germany, as lenders bet that Europe’s strong economies would back the debt of its weaker parties. However, as collective psychology shifts from unity to fragmentation, risk perception increases dramatically, and risk distinctions of all kinds emerge, with widening credit spreads. We saw this happen in 2008, and it can be expected to be far more pronounced in the coming years, with credit spreads widening to record levels. Interest rate divergences create self-fulfilling prophecies as to relative default risk, against a backdrop of fear-driven high volatility.

Many risk distinctions can be made — government versus private debt, long versus short term, economic centre versus emerging markets, inside the European single currency versus outside, the European centre versus the troubled periphery, high grade bonds versus junk bonds etc. As the risk distinctions increase, the interest rate risk premiums diverge. Higher risk borrowers will pay higher premiums, in recognition of the higher default risk, but the higher premium raises the actual risk of default, leading to still higher premiums in a spiral of positive feedback. Increased risk perception thus drives actual risk, and may do so until the weak borrower is driven over the edge into insolvency. Similarly, borrowers perceived to be relative safe havens benefit from lower risk premiums, which in turn makes their debt burden easier to bear and lowers (or delays) their actual risk of default. This reduced risk of default is then reflected in even lower premiums. The risky become riskier and the relatively safe become relatively safer (which is not necessarily to say safe in absolute terms). Perception shapes reality, which feeds back into perception in a positive feedback loop.

 

The process of diverging risk perception is already underway, and it is generally the states seen as relatively safe where negative interest rates are being proposed or implemented. Negative rates are already in place for bank reserves held with the ECB and in a number of European states from 2012 onwards, notably Scandinavia and Switzerland. The desire for capital preservation has led to a willingness among those with capital to accept paying for the privilege of keeping it in ‘safe havens’. Note that perception of safety and actual safety are not equivalent. States at the peak of a bubble may appear to be at low risk, but in fact the opposite is true. At the peak of a bubble, there is nowhere to go but down, as Iceland and Ireland discovered in phase one of the financial crisis, and many others will discover as we move into phase two. For now, however, the perception of low risk is sufficient for a flight to safety into negative interest rate environments.

This situation serves a number of short term purposes for the states involved. Negative rates help to control destabilizing financial inflows at times when fear is increasingly driving large amounts of money across borders. A primary objective has been to reduce upward pressure on currencies outside the eurozone. The Swiss, Danish and Swedish currencies have all been experiencing currency appreciation, hence a desire to use negative interest rates to protect their exchange rate, and therefore the price of their exports, by encouraging foreigners to keep their money elsewhere. The Danish central bank’s sole mandate is to control the value of the currency against the euro. For a time, Switzerland pegged their currency directly to the euro, but found the cost of doing so to be prohibitive. For them, negative rates are a less costly attempt to weaken the currency without the need to defend a formal peg. In a world of competitive, beggar-thy-neighbour currency devaluations, negative interest rates are seen as a means to achieve or maintain an export advantage, and evidence of the growing currency war.

Negative rates are also intended to discourage saving and encourage both spending and investment. If savers must pay a penalty, spending or investment should, in theory, become more attractive propositions. The intention is to lead to more money actively circulating in the economy. Increasing the velocity of money in circulation should, in turn, provide price support in an environment where prices are flat to falling. (Mainstream commentators would describe this as as an attempt to increase ‘inflation’, by which they mean price increases, to the common target of 2%, but here at The Automatic Earth, we define inflation and deflation as an increase or decrease, respectively, in the money supply, not as an increase or decrease in prices.) The goal would be to stave off a scenario of falling prices where buyers would have an incentive to defer spending as they wait for lower prices in the future, starving the economy of circulating currency in the meantime. Expectations of falling prices create further downward price pressure, leading into a vicious circle of deepening economic depression. Preventing such expectations from taking hold in the first place is a major priority for central authorities.

Negative rates in the historical record are symptomatic of times of crisis when conventional policies have failed, and as such are rare. Their use is a measure of desperation:

First, a policy rate likely would be set to a negative value only when economic conditions are so weak that the central bank has previously reduced its policy rate to zero. Identifying creditworthy borrowers during such periods is unusually challenging. How strongly should banks during such a period be encouraged to expand lending?

However strongly banks are ‘encouraged’ to lend, willing borrowers and lenders are set to become‘endangered species’:

The goal of such rates is to force banks to lend their excess reserves. The assumption is that such lending will boost aggregate demand and help struggling economies recover. Using the same central bank logic as in 2008, the solution to a debt problem is to add on more debt. Yet, there is an old adage: you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make him drink! With the world economy sinking into recession, few banks have credit-worthy customers and many banks are having difficulties collecting on existing loans.
Italy’s non-performing loans have gone from about 5 percent in 2010 to over 15 percent today. The shale oil bust has left many US banks with over a trillion dollars of highly risky energy loans on their books. The very low interest rate environment in Japan and the EU has done little to spur demand in an environment full of malinvestments and growing government constraints.

Doing more of the same simply elevates the already enormous risk that a new financial crisis is right around the corner:

Banks rely on rates to make returns. As the former Bank of England rate-setter Charlie Bean has written in a recent paper for The Economic Journal, pension funds will struggle to make adequate returns, while fund managers will borrow a lot more to make profits. Mr Bean says: “All of this makes a leveraged ‘search for yield’ of the sort that marked the prelude to the crisis more likely.” This is not comforting but it is highly plausible: barely a decade on from the crash, we may be about to repeat it. This comes from tasking central bankers with keeping the world economy growing, even while governments have cut spending.

Experiences with Negative Interest Rates

The existing low interest rate environment has already caused asset price bubbles to inflate further, placing assets such as real estate ever more beyond the reach of ordinary people at the same time as hampering those same people attempting to build sufficient savings for a deposit. Negative interest rates provide an increased incentive for this to continue. In locations where the rates are already negative, the asset bubble effect has worsened. For instance, in Denmark negative interest rates have added considerable impetus to the housing bubble in Copenhagen, resulting in an ever larger pool over over-leveraged property owners exposed to the risks of a property price collapse and debt default:

Where do you invest your money when rates are below zero? The Danish experience says equities and the property market. The benchmark index of Denmark’s 20 most-traded stocks has soared more than 100 percent since the second quarter of 2012, which is just before the central bank resorted to negative rates. That’s more than twice the stock-price gains of the Stoxx Europe 600 and Dow Jones Industrial Average over the period. Danish house prices have jumped so much that Danske Bank A/S, Denmark’s biggest lender, says Copenhagen is fast becoming Scandinavia’s riskiest property market.

Considering that risky property markets are the norm in Scandinavia, Copenhagen represents an extreme situation:

“Property prices in Copenhagen have risen 40–60 percent since the middle of 2012, when the central bank first resorted to negative interest rates to defend the krone’s peg to the euro.”

This should come as no surprise: recall that there are documented cases where Danish borrowers are paid to take on debt and buy houses “In Denmark You Are Now Paid To Take Out A Mortgage”, so between rewarding debtors and punishing savers, this outcome is hardly shocking. Yet it is the negative rates that have made this unprecedented surge in home prices feel relatively benign on broader price levels, since the source of housing funds is not savings but cash, usually cash belonging to the bank.

 

The Swedish property market is similarly reaching for the sky. Like Japan at the peak of it’s bubble in the late 1980s, Sweden has intergenerational mortgages, with an average term of 140 years! Recent regulatory attempts to rein in the ballooning debt by reducing the maximum term to a ‘mere’ 105 years have been met with protest:

Swedish banks were quoted in the local press as opposing the move. “It isn’t good for the finances of households as it will make mortgages more expensive and the terms not as good. And it isn’t good for financial stability,” the head of Swedish Bankers’ Association was reported to say.

Apart from stimulating further leverage in an already over-leveraged market, negative interest rates do not appear to be stimulating actual economic activity:

If negative rates don’t spur growth — Danish inflation since 2012 has been negligible and GDP growth anemic — what are they good for?….Danish businesses have barely increased their investments, adding less than 6 percent in the 12 quarters since Denmark’s policy rate turned negative for the first time. At a growth rate of 5 percent over the period, private consumption has been similarly muted. Why is that? Simply put, a weak economy makes interest rates a less powerful tool than central bankers would like.

“If you’re very busy worrying about the economy and your job, you don’t care very much what the exact rate is on your car loan,” says Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank’s chief international economist in New York.

Fueling inequality and profligacy while punishing responsible behaviour is politically unpopular, and the consequences, when they eventually manifest, will be even more so. Unfortunately, at the peak of a bubble, it is only continued financial irresponsibility that can keep a credit expansion going and therefore keep the financial system from abruptly crashing. The only things keeping the system ‘running on fumes’ as it currently is, are financial sleight-of-hand, disingenuous bribery and outright fraud. The price to pay is that the systemic risks continue to grow, and with it the scale of the impacts that can be expected when the risk is eventually realised. Politicians desperately wish to avoid those consequences occurring in their term of office, hence they postpone the inevitable at any cost for as long as physically possible.

The Zero Lower Bound and the Problem of Physical Cash

Central bankers attempting to stimulate the circulation of money in the economy through the use of negative interest rates have a number of problems. For starters, setting a low official rate does not necessarily mean that low rates will prevail in the economy, particularly in times of crisis:

The experience of the global financial crisis taught us that the type of shocks which can drive policy interest rates to the lower bound are also shocks which produce severe impairments to the monetary policy transmission mechanism. Suppose, for example, that the interbank market freezes and prevents a smooth transmission of the policy interest rate throughout the banking sector and financial markets at large. In this case, any cut in the policy rate may be almost completely ineffective in terms of influencing the macroeconomy and prices.

This is exactly what we saw in 2008, when interbank lending seized up due to the collapse of confidence in the banking sector. We have not seen this happen again yet, but it inevitably will as crisis conditions resume, and when it does it will illustrate vividly the limits of central bank power to control financial parameters. At that point, interest rates are very likely to spike in practice, with banks not trusting each other to repay even very short term loans, since they know what toxic debt is on their own books and rationally assume their potential counterparties are no better. Widening credit spreads would also lead to much higher rates on any debt perceived to be risky, which, increasingly, would be all debt with the exception of government bonds in the jurisdictions perceived to be safest. Low rates on high grade debt would not translate into low rates economy-wide. Given the extent of private debt, and the consequent vulnerability to higher interest rates across the developed world, an interest rate spike following the NIRP period would be financially devastating.

The major issue with negative rates in the shorter term is the ability to escape from the banking system into physical cash. Instead of causing people to spend, a penalty on holding savings in a banks creates an incentive for them to withdraw their funds and hold cash under their own control, thereby avoiding both the penalty and the increasing risk associated with the banking system:

Western banking systems are highly illiquid, meaning that they have very low cash equivalents as a percentage of customer deposits….Solvency in many Western banking systems is also highly questionable, with many loaded up on the debts of their bankrupt governments. Banks also play clever accounting games to hide the true nature of their capital inadequacy. We live in a world where questionably solvent, highly illiquid banks are backed by under capitalized insurance funds like the FDIC, which in turn are backed by insolvent governments and borderline insolvent central banks. This is hardly a risk-free proposition. Yet your reward for taking the risk of holding your money in a precarious banking system is a rate of return that is substantially lower than the official rate of inflation.

In other words, negative rates encourage an arbitrage situation favouring cash. In an environment of few good investment opportunities, increasing recognition of risk and a rising level of fear, a desire for large scale cash withdrawal is highly plausible:

From a portfolio choice perspective, cash is, under normal circumstances, a strictly dominated asset, because it is subject to the same inflation risk as bonds but, in contrast to bonds, it yields zero return. It has also long been known that this relationship would be reversed if the return on bonds were negative. In that case, an investor would be certain of earning a profit by borrowing at negative rates and investing the proceedings in cash. Ignoring storage and transportation costs, there is therefore a zero lower bound (ZLB) on nominal interest rates.

Zero is the lower bound for nominal interest rates if one would want to avoid creating such an incentive structure, but in a contractionary environment, zero is not low enough to make borrowing and lending attractive. This is because, while the nominal rate might be zero, the real rate (the nominal rate minus negative inflation) can remain high, or perhaps very high, depending on how contractionary the financial landscape becomes. As Keynes observed, attempting to stimulate demand for money by lowering interest rates amounts to ‘pushing on a piece of string‘. Central authorities find themselves caught in the liquidity trap, where monetary policy ceases to be effective:

Many big economies are now experiencing ‘deflation’, where prices are falling. In the euro zone, for instance, the main interest rate is at 0.05% but the “real” (or adjusted for inflation) interest rate is considerably higher, at 0.65%, because euro-area inflation has dropped into negative territory at -0.6%. If deflation gets worse then real interest rates will rise even more, choking off recovery rather than giving it a lift.

If nominal rates are sufficiently negative to compensate for the contractionary environment, real rates could, in theory, be low enough to stimulate the velocity of money, but the more negative the nominal rate, the greater the incentive to withdraw physical cash. Hoarded cash would reduce, instead of increase, the velocity of money. In practice, lowering rates can be moderately reflationary, provided there remains sufficient economic optimism for people to see the move in a positive light. However, sending rates into negative territory at a time pessimism is dominant can easily be interpreted as a sign of desperation, and therefore as confirmation of a negative outlook. Under such circumstances, the incentives to regard the banking system as risky, to withdraw physical cash and to hoard it for a rainy day increase substantially. Not only does the money supply fail to grow, as new loans are not made, but the velocity of money falls as money is hoarded, thereby aggravating a deflationary spiral:

A decline in the velocity of money increases deflationary pressure. Each dollar (or yen or euro) generates less and less economic activity, so policymakers must pump more money into the system to generate growth. As consumers watch prices decline, they defer purchases, reducing consumption and slowing growth. Deflation also lifts real interest rates, which drives currency values higher. In today’s mercantilist, beggar-thy-neighbour world of global trade, a strong currency is a headwind to exports. Obviously, this is not the desired outcome of policymakers. But as central banks grasp for new, stimulative tools, they end up pushing on an ever-lengthening piece of string.

 

Japan has been in the economic doldrums, with pessimism dominant, for over 25 years, and the population has become highly sceptical of stimulation measures intended to lead to recovery. The negative interest rates introduced there (described as ‘economic kamikaze’) have had a very different effect than in Scandinavia, which is still more or less at the peak of its bubble and therefore much more optimistic. Unfortunately, lowering interest rates in times of collective pessimism has a poor record of acting to increase spending and stimulate the economy, as Japan has discovered since their bubble burst in 1989:

For about a quarter of a century the Japanese have proved to be fanatical savers, and no matter how low the Bank of Japan cuts rates, they simply cannot be persuaded to spend their money, or even invest it in the stock market. They fear losing their jobs; they fear a further fall in shares or property values; they have no confidence in the investment opportunities in front of them. So pathological has this psychology grown that they would rather see the value of their savings fall than spend the cash. That draining of confidence after the collapse of the 1980s “bubble” economy has depressed Japanese growth for decades.

Fear is a very sharp driver of behaviour — easily capable of over-riding incentives designed to promote spending and investment:

When people are fearful they tend to save; and when they become especially fearful then they save even more, even if the returns on their savings are extremely low. Much the same goes for businesses, and there are increasing reports of them “hoarding” their profits rather than reinvesting them in their business, such is the great “uncertainty” around the world economy. Brexit obviously only added to the fears and misgivings about the future.

Deflation is so difficult to overcome precisely because of its strong psychological component. When the balance of collective psychology tips from optimism, hope and greed to pessimism and fear, everything is perceived differently. Measures intended to restore confidence end up being interpreted as desperation, and therefore get little or no traction. As such initiatives fail, their failure becomes conformation of a negative bias, which increases the power of that bias, causing more stimulus initiatives to fail. The resulting positive feedback loop creates and maintains a vicious circle, both economically and socially:

There is a strong argument that when rates go negative it squeezes the speed at which money circulates through the economy, commonly referred to by economists as the velocity of money. We are already seeing this happen in Japan where citizens are clamouring for ¥10,000 bills (and home safes to store them in). People are taking their money out of the banking system to stuff it under their metaphorical mattresses. This may sound extreme, but whether paper money is stashed in home safes or moved into transaction substitutes or other stores of value like gold, the point is it’s not circulating in the economy. The empirical data support this view — the velocity of money has declined precipitously as policymakers have moved aggressively to reduce rates.

Physical cash under one’s own control is increasingly seen as one of the primary escape routes for ordinary people fearing the resumption of the 2008 liquidity crunch, and its popularity as a store of value is increasing steadily, with demand for cash rising more rapidly than GDP in a wide range of countries:

While cash’s use is in continual decline, claims that it is set to disappear entirely may be premature, according to the Bank of England….The Bank estimates that 21pc to 27pc of everyday transactions last year were in cash, down from between 34pc and 45pc at the turn of the millennium. Yet simultaneously the demand for banknotes has risen faster than the total amount of spending in the economy, a trend that has only become more pronounced since the mid-1990s. The same phenomenon has been seen internationally, in the US, eurozone, Australia and Canada….

….The prevalence of hoarding has also firmed up the demand for physical money. Hoarders are those who “choose to save their money in a safety deposit box, or under the mattress, or even buried in the garden, rather than placing it in a bank account”, the Bank said. At a time when savings rates have not turned negative, and deposits are guaranteed by the government, this kind of activity seems to defy economic theory. “For such action to be considered as rational, those that are hoarding cash must be gaining a non-financial benefit,” the Bank said. And that benefit must exceed the returns and security offered by putting that hoarded cash in a bank deposit account. A Bank survey conducted last year found that 18pc of people said they hoarded cash largely “to provide comfort against potential emergencies”.

This would suggest that a minimum of £3bn is hoarded in the UK, or around £345 a person. A government survey conducted in 2012 suggested that the total number might be higher, at £5bn….

…..But Bank staff believe that its survey results understate the extent of hoarding, as “the sensitivity of the subject” most likely affects the truthfulness of hoarders. “Based on anecdotal evidence, a small number of people are thought to hoard large values of cash.” The Bank said: “As an illustrative example, if one in every thousand adults in the United Kingdom were to hoard as much as £100,000, this would account for around £5bn — nearly 10pc of notes in circulation.” While there may be newer and more convenient methods of payment available, this strong preference for cash as a safety net means that it is likely to endure, unless steps are taken to discourage its use.

Part 2 is here





After capitalism, what comes next? For a start, ethics

31 07 2015

Jenny Cameron, University of Newcastle; Katherine Gibson, University of Western Sydney, and Stephen Healy, University of Western Sydney

If the comments generated by the recent publication of excerpts from Paul Mason’s forthcoming book, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, are anything to go by, its release at the end of the month should kick up a storm.

Mason’s book is about a seismic economic shift already underway, one that is as profound as the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. In the excerpts, Mason observes that:

… whole swaths of economic life are beginning to move to a different rhythm.

The shift is evidenced by developments such as collaborative production and the sharing economy. Mason attributes this economic transformation to advances in information technology, particularly the global networks of people and ideas that are now possible.

Such large-scale pronouncements inevitably generate an equally strong pushback, albeit in very different ways. For example, some comments on the published excerpts align with Fredric Jameson’s observation that sometimes for the Left:

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Other comments are more aligned with climate-change denialism and the sentiment that “it is easier to desire the end of the world than to desire the end of capitalism”.

For those of us who research and practise in the area of what might be called “diverse economies”, Mason’s provocations are welcome. They help to shed light on the array of economic activities that are usually ignored in discussions about economics and they provide an opportunity to debate our economic future.

Enabling but not guaranteeing a better future

Mason’s is a technologically focused vision of transformation. Information technology provides both the catalyst and the means for transitioning from capitalism to a new post-capitalist world. This world will be characterised by “a new way of living” and “new values and behaviours” as unrecognisable to us today as the gritty world of belching factories and waged work would have been to the landed gentry and tenant farmers of pre-industrial Europe.

But there is one important difference between Mason’s post-capitalism and the capitalist and feudal systems that preceded it. The reshaped economic system will, according to Mason, offer hitherto unrealised economic freedoms and liberties with:

… the whole of human intelligence one thumb-swipe away.

There is no doubt that information technology is transforming the lives we can now lead. But technology does not in and of itself guarantee a better future. The much-vaunted “successes” of the sharing economy do not necessarily improve the precarious and exploitative working conditions of those who sign up. For instance, drivers are finding this with Uber, the app-based ride-service that is networked across 58 countries and had, in December 2014, an estimated value of US$41 billion.

Where information technology is generating better futures it seems to rest on explicit ethical commitments that are developed independent of online apps and cyber networks.

For example, in Japan, Fureai Kippu (literally “ticket for a caring relationship”) is based on a commitment to caring for the elderly. Volunteers earn “time credits” by providing care to elderly people. They can transfer these credits to relatives or friends who need care, or they can save the credits for their own future use.

Fureai Kippu emerged in the 1980s, building on a tradition of volunteerism and reciprocal assistance. Technological advances have enabled the network to spread geographically. There are now schemes in London, Los Angeles and Switzerland, and credits earned in these locations can be transferred to relatives or friends elsewhere, including Japan.

Mayumi Hayashi talks about the successes of Fureai Kippu in providing elderly care in Japan.

Technology is augmenting relations of care for others. Technology does not bring these relations into being.

The ethics of the new economies

In our research on the diverse economic practices that exist outside the purview of mainstream economics, we find people are forging new types of economies around six ethical concerns:

  • What do we need to survive well?
  • What happens to surplus, or what is left over after our survival needs have been met?
  • How do we act responsibly to those whose inputs help us to survive well (whether other people or the environment)?
  • How much and what do we consume in order to survive well?
  • How do we care for the commons – the gifts of nature and intellect that we rely on?
  • How do we invest so that future generations can also live well?

For us, these are the different rhythms around which new forms of economic life are taking shape. Like Mason we see these new forms as the building blocks of a “post-capitalist” world (as we wrote about almost ten years ago in A Postcapitalist Politics). Unlike Mason, we see innovations in information technology and networking as supporting rather than driving the economic changes that will be needed.

Our route to post-capitalism foregrounds the ethical dimensions of economic life, and how technologies and regimes of governance might:

  1. Foster less “me”- and “now”-focused subjects of history;
  2. Support more responsible interactions with the ecologies in which we live.

Mason rightly points out that post-capitalism calls forth new types of human beings. He looks to:

… young people all over the world breaking down 20th-century barriers around sexuality, work, creativity and the self.

While we too welcome the widespread acceptance of transformations that feminist and queer politics initiated, there is a worrying undertone of hyper-individualism and libertarianism if we limit ourselves to these examples.

We find glimpses of post-capitalist subjects on a wider canvas of how people are transforming the ways they take responsibility for other humans and “earth others” (or what Pope Francis calls our common home). Think, for example, of the workers in Argentina who, after recovering rundown factories in the 2000s, said things such as:

The factory isn’t ours. We are using it, but it belongs to the community … The profits shouldn’t go to us … but to the community.

We find glimpses in how the people of Norway manage their sovereign wealth fund by foregrounding the well-being of future generations. As one Norwegian economist explained:

We cannot spend this money now; it would be stealing from future generations.

Instead funds are invested for the future and increasingly in investments, such as clean-energy technologies, that will also benefit environmental futures.

Technology and networks in themselves are not liberation. But they can serve to sensitise us to the indivisible nature of people and planet, and to amplify our capacities to empathise, work together and find a way forward on a planet that is damaged, but not beyond repair. In our view, this is the post-capitalism our present circumstances require.

The Conversation

Jenny Cameron is Associate Professor, School of Environmental and Life Sciences at University of Newcastle.
Katherine Gibson is Professor of Economic Geography, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney.
Stephen Healy is Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society at University of Western Sydney.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.





Global Economic Red Alert revisited

9 07 2015

Hot on the heels of publishing Global Economic Red Alert, this pops up over on ZeroHedge, an article from Phoenix Capital Research which gets a guernsey in this morning’s post too….

Greece is Just the First of MANY Countries That Will Be Going Belly-Up

Red-Alert-Button-460x306ALL of the so called, “economic recovery” that began in 2009 has been based on the Central Banks’ abilities to rein in the collapse.

The first round of interventions (2007-early 2009) was performed in the name of saving the system. The second round (2010-2012) was done because it was generally believed that the first round hadn’t completed the task of getting the world back to recovery.

However, from 2012 onward, everything changed. At that point the Central Banks went “all in” on the Keynesian lunacy that they’d been employing since 2008. We no longer had QE plans with definitive deadlines. Instead phrases like “open-ended” and doing “whatever it takes” began to emanate from Central Bankers’ mouths.

However, the insanity was in fact greater than this. It is one thing to bluff your way through the weakest recovery in 80+ years with empty promises; but it’s another thing entirely to roll the dice on your entire country’s solvency just to see what happens.

In 2013, the Bank of Japan launched a single QE program equal to 25% of Japan’s GDP. This was unheard of in the history of the world. Never before had a country spent so much money relative to its size so rapidly… and with so little results: a few quarters of increased economic growth while household spending collapsed and misery rose alongside inflation.

This was the beginning of the end. Japan nearly broke its bond market launching this program (the circuit breakers tripped multiple times in that first week). However it wasn’t until late 2014 that things truly became completely and utterly broken.

We are, of course, referring to the Bank of Japan’s decision to increase its already far too big QE program, not because doing so would benefit the country, but because it would bring economists’ forecast inline with governor Kuroda’s intended inflation numbers.

This was the “Rubicon” moment: the instant at which Central Banks gave up pretending that their actions or policies were aimed at anything resembling public good or stability. It was now about forcing reality to match Central Bankers’ theories and forecasts. If reality didn’t react as intended, it wasn’t because the theories were misguided… it was because Central Bankers simply hadn’t left the paperweight on the “print” button long enough.

At this point the current financial system was irrevocably broken. We simply had yet to feel it.

That is, until, January 2015, when the Swiss National Bank lost control, breaking a promise, and a currency peg, losing an amount of money equal to somewhere between 10% and 15% of Swiss GDP in a single day, and showing, once and for all, that there are problems so big that even the ability to print money can’t fix them.

This process is now accelerating in Europe where a country that comprises less than 2% of the EU’s total GDP (Greece) has managed to be FIVE-YEAR problem that cannot be resolved through more debt or money printing.

The ECB and EU have tried everything to kick the Greek “can” down the road. History has shown us time and again that Central Banks first attempt to deal with a debt problem by printing money… but eventually the debt default/haircut has to occur.

This process has now begun in Greece. The fact the markets are imploding should give you an idea of how fragile the system is. One can only imagine what will happen when a larger player such as Spain or France or even Japan goes belly up.

The Big Crisis, the one in which entire countries go bust, has begun. It will not unfold in a matter of weeks; these sorts of things take months to complete. But it has begun.





Is there a solar revolution? Time for data, not adjectives

26 06 2015

twitter

Robert Wilson

Reblogged from Robert Wilson’s site, Carbon Counter

In reality solar power’s heavily subsidized growth is nowhere close to being the revolutionary force some of its advocates claim it already is. It is also not growing exponentially, as anyone could see if they checked the meaning of the term exponential growth and actual statistics for year on year growth rates.

Globally, solar grew by 93% in 2011, 60% in 2012, 39% in 2013, and 38% in 2014. Meanwhile, in the countries with the most developed solar sectors, absolute growth has in fact slowed.

Germany added 7.5 and 7.6 GW of new capacity in 2011 and 2012 respectively. In 2013 and 2014 the figures had gone down to 3.3 and 1.9 GW. The same goes for Italy, where new capacity additions went from 9.3 to 0.38 GW between 2011 and 2014.

In fact, the current growth of European solar is not even vaguely exponential. Instead, growth is declining overall. In 2011, 22.4 GW was added throughout Europe; in 2012 17.4 GW was added, in 2013 10.4 GW was added, and in 2014 7.2 GW was added. Absolute growth of solar capacity in Europe is now one third of what it what it was in 2011.

Anyone confidently predicting continued exponential growth of solar will have a hard time accounting for the actual decline in growth in Europe.

Growth of solar can be put in further perspective by comparing the annual growth (in TWh) with the total electricity consumption of a country. Let’s imagine that in a single year a country went from 0 to 1% of electricity generation being from solar panels. That would mean it would take roughly 100 years to get to 100% solar.

Obvious caveat: we don’t know what to do when the sun goes down, but you get the thrust.

So, how quickly is solar growing globally? Below is a chart showing the top 25 countries in terms of solar growth last year. Growth is measured by comparing absolute growth of solar (in TWh) with total electricity generation (in TWh).

Top20growth_elec

Number 1 is Greece. Now, exactly why heavily indebted Greece is number one in the growth of a heavily subsidized source of energy generation can be debated, but the fact remains.

Most importantly, no major economy is above 1%. At current rates of solar additions they are all many many decades away from solar power taking over. And remember: many of these countries, e.g. Germany, are now seeing reduced rates of absolute solar additions.

Growth in solar energy in China now attracts a lot of optimistic headlines. However, the increase in solar energy last year represented only 0.2% of total electricity generation. In other words, if China kept increasing solar’s share at that rate it would take half a millennium to get to 100% solar electricity. Keep this in mind when you see misguided headlines about solar power having a major influence on Chinese air pollution.

Focusing on electricity generation alone of course is problematic. The underlying reason to switch to solar power is climate change. And the majority of fossil fuels are not used for generating electricity, but for heating, flying, shipping, making steel, and so on. What we really should look at is total energy consumption.

The growth of solar is much slower in terms of total primary energy consumption. Growth in solar in 2015 was less than 0.5% of total primary energy consumption in all major economies.

Top20growth_primThese numbers should make it clear how far we are away from a solar revolution. The figure for China and the US is 0.1%. If China and the US added solar at a rate ten times greater than they are today, then, it would take them a century to get to 100% solar.

In Germany, where a supposed solar revolution has occurred, the figure was 0.29%. 100% solar is a mere three centuries away in that high latitude, cloudy country……. where the sun still goes down.





BP Data Suggests We Are Reaching Peak Energy Demand

25 06 2015

Some people talk about peak energy (or oil) supply. They expect high prices and more demand than supply. Other people talk about energy demand hitting a peak many years from now, perhaps when most of us have electric cars.

Neither of these views is correct. The real situation is that we right now seem to be reaching peak energy demand through low commodity prices. I see evidence of this in the historical energy data recently updated by BP (BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015).

Growth in world energy consumption is clearly slowing. In fact, growth in energy consumption was only 0.9% in 2014. This is far below the 2.3% growth we would expect, based on recent past patterns. In fact, energy consumption in 2012 and 2013 also grew at lower than the expected 2.3% growth rate (2012 – 1.4%; 2013 – 1.8%).

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

Recently, I wrote that economic growth eventually runs into limits. The symptoms we should expect are similar to the patterns we have been seeing recently (Why We Have an Oversupply of Almost Everything (Oil, labor, capital, etc.)). It seems to me that the patterns in BP’s new data are also of the kind that we would expect to be seeing, if we are hitting limits that are causing low commodity prices.

One of our underlying problems is that energy costs that have risen faster than most workers’ wages since 2000. Another underlying problem has to do with globalization. Globalization provides a temporary benefit. In the last 20 years, we greatly ramped up globalization, but we are now losing the temporary benefit globalization brings. We find we again need to deal with the limits of a finite world and the constraints such a world places on growth.

Energy Consumption is Slowing in Many Parts of the World 

Many parts of the world are seeing slowing growth in energy consumption. One major example is China.

Figure 2. China's energy consumption by fuel, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Based on recent patterns in China, we would expect fuel consumption to be increasing by about 7.5% per year. Instead, energy consumption has slowed, with growth amounting to 4.3% in 2012; 3.7% in 2013; and 2.6% in 2014. If China was recently the growth engine of the world, it is now sputtering.

Part of China’s problem is that some of the would-be buyers of its products are not growing. Europe is a well-known example of an area with economic problems. Its consumption of energy products has been slumping since 2006.

Figure 3. European Union Energy Consumption based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 Data.

I have used the same scale (maximum = 3.5 billion metric tons of oil equivalent) on Figure 3 as I used on Figure 2 so that readers can easily compare the European’s Union’s energy consumption to that of China. When China was added to the World Trade Organization in December 2001, it used only about 60% as much energy as the European Union. In 2014, it used close to twice as much energy (1.85 times as much) as the European Union.

Another area with slumping energy demand is Japan. It consumption has been slumping since 2005. It was already well into a slump before its nuclear problems added to its other problems.

Figure 4. Japan energy consumption by fuel, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

A third area with slumping demand is the Former Soviet Union (FSU). The two major countries within tithe FSU with slumping demand are Russia and Ukraine.

Figure 5. Former Soviet Union energy consumption by source, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy Data 2015.

Of course, some of the recent slumping demand of Ukraine and Russia are intended–this is what US sanctions are about. Also, low oil prices hurt the buying power of Russia. This also contributes to its declining demand, and thus its consumption.

The United States is often portrayed as the bright ray of sunshine in a world with problems. Its energy consumption is not growing very briskly either.

Figure 6. United States energy consumption by fuel, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014.

To a significant extent, the US’s slowing energy consumption is intended–more fuel-efficient cars, more fuel efficient lighting, and better insulation. But part of this reduction in the growth in energy consumption comes from outsourcing a portion of manufacturing to countries around the world, including China. Regardless of cause, and whether the result was intentional or not, the United States’ consumption is not growing very briskly. Figure 6 shows a small uptick in the US’s energy consumption since 2012. This doesn’t do much to offset slowing growth or outright declines in many other countries around the world.

Slowing Growth in Demand for Almost All Fuels

We can also look at world energy consumption by type of energy product. Here we find that growth in consumption slowed in 2014 for nearly all types of energy.

Figure 7. World energy consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Looking at oil separately (Figure 8), the data indicates that for the world in total, oil consumption grew by 0.8% in 2014. This is lower than in the previous three years (1.1%, 1.2%, and 1.1% growth rates).

Figure 8. Oil consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

If oil producers had planned for 2014 oil consumption based on the recent past growth in oil consumption growth, they would have overshot by about 1,484 million tons of oil equivalent (MTOE), or about 324,000 barrels per day. If this entire drop in oil consumption came in the second half of 2014, the overshoot would have been about 648,000 barrels per day during that period. Thus, the mismatch we are have recently been seeing between oil consumption and supply appears to be partly related to falling demand, based on BP’s data.

(Note: The “oil” being discussed is inclusive of biofuels and natural gas liquids. I am using MTOE because MTOE puts all fuels on an energy equivalent basis. A barrel is a volume measure. Growth in barrels will be slightly different from that in MTOE because of the changing mix of liquid fuels.)

We can also look at oil consumption for the US, EU, and Japan, compared to all of the rest of the world.

Figure 9. Oil consumption divided between the (a) US, EU, and Japan, and (b) Rest of the World.

While the rest of the world is still increasing its growth in oil consumption, its rate of increase is falling–from 2.3% in 2012, to 1.6% in 2013, to 1.3% in 2014.

Figure 10 showing world coal consumption is truly amazing. Huge growth in coal use took place as globalization spread. Carbon taxes in some countries (but not others) further tended to push manufacturing to coal-intensive manufacturing locations, such as China and India.

Figure 10. World coal consumption by part of the world, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Looking at the two parts of the world separately (Figure 11), we see that in the last three years, growth in coal consumption outside of US, EU, and Japan, has tapered down. This is similar to the result for world consumption of coal in total (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Coal consumption for the US, EU, and Japan separately from the Rest of the World, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Another way of looking at fuels is in a chart that compares consumption of the various fuels side by side (Figure 12).

Figure 8. World energy consumption by fuel, showing each fuel separately, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Consumption of oil, coal and natural gas are all moving on tracks that are in some sense parallel. In fact, coal and natural gas consumption have recently tapered more than oil consumption. World oil consumption grew by 0.8% in 2014; coal and natural gas consumption each grew by 0.4% in 2014.

The other three fuels are smaller. Hydroelectric had relatively slow growth in 2014. Its growth was only 2.0%, compared to a recent average of as much as 3.5%. Even with this slow growth, it raised hydroelectric energy consumption to 6.8% of world energy supply.

Nuclear electricity grew by 1.8%. This is actually a fairly large percentage gain compared to the recent shrinkage that has been taking place.

Other renewables continued to grow, but not as rapidly as in the past. The growth rate of this grouping was 12.0%, (compared to 22.4% in 2011, 18.1% in 2012, 16.5% in 2013). With the falling percentage growth rate, growth is more or less “linear”–similar amounts were added each year, rather than similar percentages. With recent growth, other renewables amounted to 2.5% of total world energy consumption in 2014.

Falling Consumption Is What We Would Expect with Lower Inflation-Adjusted Prices

People buy goods that they want or need, with one caveat: they don’t buy what they cannot afford. To a significant extent affordability is based on wages (or income levels for governments or businesses). It can also reflect the availability of credit.

We know that commodity prices of many kinds (energy, food, metals of many kinds) have been have generally been falling, on an inflation adjusted basis, for the past four years. Figure 13 shows a graph prepared by the International Monetary Fund of trends in commodity prices.

Figure 9. Charts prepared by the IMF showing trends in indices of primary commodity prices.

It stands to reason that if prices of commodities are low, while the general trend in the cost of producing these commodities is upward, there will be erosion in the amount of these products that can be purchased. (This occurs because prices are falling relative to the cost of producing the goods.) If, prior to the drop in prices, consumption of the commodity had been growing rapidly, lower prices are likely to lead to a slower rate of consumption growth. If prices drop further or stay depressed, an absolute drop in consumption may occur.

It seems to me that the lower commodity prices we have been seeing over the past four years (with a recent sharper drop for oil), likely reflect an affordability problem. This affordability problem arises because for most people, wages did not rise when energy prices rose, and the prices of commodities in general rose in the early 2000s.

For a while, the lack of affordability could be masked with a variety of programs: economic stimulus, increasing debt and Quantitative Easing. Eventually these programs reach their limits, and prices begin falling in inflation-adjusted terms. Now we are at a point where prices of oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium are all low in inflation-adjusted terms, discouraging further investment.

Commodity Exporters–Will They Be Next to Be Hit with Lower Consumption?

If the price of a commodity, say oil, is low, this is a problem for a country that exports the commodity. The big issue is likely to be tax revenue. Governments very often get a major share of their tax revenue from taxing the profits of the companies that sell the commodities, such as oil. If the price of oil, or other commodity that is exported drops, then it will be difficult for the government to collect enough tax revenue. There may be other effects as well. The company producing the commodity may cut back its production. If this happens, the exporting country is faced with another problem–laid-off workers without jobs. This adds a second need for revenue: to pay benefits to laid-off workers.

Many oil exporters currently subsidize energy and food products for their citizens. If tax revenue is low, the amount of these subsidies is likely to be reduced. With lower subsidies, citizens will buy less, reducing world demand. This reduction in demand will tend to reduce world oil (or other commodity) prices.

Even if subsidies are not involved, lower tax revenue will very often affect the projects an oil exporter can undertake. These projects might include building roads, schools, or hospitals. With fewer projects, world demand for oil and other commodities tends to drop.

The concern I have now is that with low oil prices, and low prices of other commodities, a number of countries will have to cut back their programs, in order to balance government budgets. If this happens, the effect on the world economy could be quite large. To get an idea how large it might be, let’s look again at Figure 1, recopied below.

Notice that the three “layers” in the middle are all countries whose economies are fairly closely tied to commodity exports. Arguably I could have included more countries in this category–for example, other OPEC countries could be included in this grouping. These countries are now in the “Rest of the World” category. Adding more countries to this category would make the portion of world consumption tied to countries depending on commodity exports even greater.

Figure 1- Resource consumption by part of the world. Canada etc. grouping also includes Norway, Australia, and South Africa. Based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015 data.

My concern is that low commodity prices will prove to be self-perpetuating, because low commodity prices will adversely affect commodity exporters. As these countries try to fix their own problems, their own demand for commodities will drop, and this will affect world commodity prices. The total amount of commodities used by exporters is quite large. It is even larger when oil is considered by itself (see Figure 8 above).

In my view, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 occurred indirectly as a result of low oil prices in the late 1980s. A person can see from Figure 1 how much the energy consumption of the Former Soviet Union fell after 1991. Of course, in such a situation exports may fall more than consumption, leading to a rise in oil prices. Ultimately, the issue becomes whether a world economy can adapt to falling oil supply, caused by the collapse of some oil exporters.

Our Economy Has No Reverse Gear

None of the issues I raise would be a problem, if our economy had a reverse gear–in other words, if it could shrink as well as grow. There are a number of things that go wrong if an economy tries to shrink:

  • Businesses find themselves with more factories than they need. They need to lay off workers and sell buildings. Profits are likely to fall. Loan covenants may be breached. There is little incentive to invest in new factories or stores.
  • There are fewer jobs available, in comparison to the number of available workers. Many drop out of the labor force or become unemployed. Wages of non-elite workers tend to stagnate, reflecting the oversupply situation.
  • The government finds it necessary to pay more benefits to the unemployed. At the same time, the government’s ability to collect taxes falls, because of the poor condition of businesses and workers.
  • Businesses in poor financial condition and workers who have been laid off tend to default on loans. This tends to put banks into poor financial condition.
  • The number of elderly and disabled tends to grow, even as the working population stagnates or falls, making the funding of pensions increasingly difficult.
  • Resale prices of homes tend to drop because there are not enough buyers.

Many have focused on a single problem area–for example, the requirement that interest be paid on debt–as being the problem preventing the economy from shrinking. It seems to me that this is not the only issue. The problem is much more fundamental. We live in a networked economy; a networked economy has only two directions available to it: (1) growth and (2) recession, which can lead to collapse.

Conclusion

What we seem to be seeing is an end to the boost that globalization gave to the world economy. Thus, world economic growth is slowing, and because of this slowed economic growth, demand for energy products is slowing. This globalization was encouraged by the Kyoto Protocol (1997). The protocol aimed to reduce carbon emissions, but because it inadvertently encouraged globalization, it tended to have the opposite effect. Adding China to the World Trade Organization in 2001 further encouraged globalization. CO2 emissions tended to grow more rapidly after those dates.

Figure 14. World CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, based on data from BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2015.

Now growth in fuel use is slowing around the world. Virtually all types of fuel are affected, as are many parts of the world. The slowing growth is associated with low fuel prices, and thus slowing demand for fuel. This is what we would expect, if the world is running into affordability problems, ultimately related to fuel prices rising faster than wages.

Globalization brings huge advantages, in the form of access to cheap energy products still in the ground. From the point of view of businesses, there is also the possibility of access to cheap labor and access to new markets for selling their goods. For long-industrialized countries, globalization also represents a workaround to inadequate local energy supplies.

The one problem with globalization is that it is not a permanent solution. This happens for several reasons:

  • A great deal of debt is needed for the new operations. At some point, this debt starts reaching limits.
  • Diminishing returns leads to higher cost of energy products. For example, later coal may need to come from more distant locations, adding to costs.
  • Wages in the newly globalized area tend to rise, negating some of the initial benefit of low wages.
  • Wages of workers in the area developed prior to globalization tend to fall because of competition with workers from parts of the world getting lower pay.
  • Pollution becomes an increasing problem in the newly globalized part of the world. China is especially concerned about this problem.
  • Eventually, more than enough factory space is built, and more than enough housing is built.
  • Demand for energy products (in terms of what workers around the world can afford) cannot keep up with production, in part because wages of many workers lag thanks to competition with low-paid workers in less-advanced countries.

It seems to me that we are reaching the limits of globalization now. This is why prices of commodities have fallen. With falling prices comes lower total consumption. Many economies are gradually moving into recession–this is what the low prices and falling rates of energy growth really mean.

It is quite possible that at some point in the not too distant future, demand (and prices) will fall further. We then will be dealing with severe worldwide recession.

In my view, low prices and low demand for commodities are what we should expect, as we reach limits of a finite world. There is widespread belief that as we reach limits, prices will rise, and energy products will become scarce. I don’t think that this combination can happen for very long in a networked economy. High energy prices tend to lead to recession, bringing down prices. Low wages and slow growth in debt also tend to bring down prices. A networked economy can work in ways that does not match our intuition; this is why many researchers fail to see understand the nature of the problem we are facing.





Richard Wolff on the coming crash…….

30 05 2015

Of course, zero mention of Limits to Growth here………