Why the market roars as the economy whimpers and sighs

A couple of weeks ago, I asked you all to explain to me why the stock market is so excited, even as the dollar is weak, unemployment is high, and national debt soars.  Naturally, I got many interesting answers back, with inflation being cited as the chief culprit.  Robert Arvanitis, who already provided an information-packed response, hasn’t forgotten that post, and he sent me an interesting update:

To follow-up prior discussions, here’s an excellent exposition at WSJ on inflation. [Note from BW: This article might be behind a paywall. Both Robert and I have accounts, so we can't tell if it is.]

In short, the Fed is fabricating a trillion dollars a year. Direct inflation is already deadly, but for now is buried at the banks.

Even before we suffer the direct inflation, the monetary failure is already having bad effects.

· The markets no longer give us the right price signals, so vast capital is being misallocated.

· Borrowers, most notably Obama himself, are getting a destructive free ride from low rates. More accurately, I should say Obama is “borrowing 1,000 billion a year.” Too many people don’t realize it’s meaningless for Obama to say “We borrow just one trillion but have cut 10 billion….”

· Meanwhile, any thrift is punished harshly by those low rates. Here the elderly suffer most.

As Glenn Reynolds would say, “But watch the whole thing…”

Bookworm here, with my summary:  Big bubbles, big explosions. Or to shift metaphors, the smart ones should be looking to hop off this merry-go-round. It’s about to break down and there’s not going to be anything romantic about it:

In answer to my question about economic issues…. by guestblogger Robert Arvanitis

In an earlier post, I asked several questions about economic issues that confuse me.  Robert Arvanitis wrote a comprehensive reply, but then couldn’t get the Word Press comment system to accept it.  Because it is so comprehensive and informative, I’m putting it up here as an independent post.  All that I ask of the rest of you is that you don’t let its length and depth dissuade you from chiming in with your own two cents (or, with inflation, four cents) on the subject.  There’s a lot to be said here.

And now . . . Robert Arvanitis:

Why, if the economy is contracting and the labor market is flat-lined, has the stock market gone up?

Will the stock market stay up (long-term and short-term predictions, please)?

In normal times, the stock market is a reflection of true economic activity; stocks typically trade at multiples of earnings from 10 to 14 times. So the yield is the inverse of that — if you pay $10 for $1 yield, that’s a 10% return. Likewise if you invest $14 to get $1 then that’s like a 7% return. That’s the norm, 7-10% for “risky” equities in contrast to the “safe” bond yields of 3-4% or “really safe” bank accounts at 2-3%.

Alas, we are not in a yield-trading market. Rather, we are seeing the impact of inflation caused by printing of money at the Fed. Our GDP, the value of everything we produce, is like $16 trillion. But if we suddenly doubled our money supply, then the GDP would be, nominally, $32 trillion. Same loaves of bread and haircuts, but now “worth” twice as many dollars. Kinda like the story of the boy who sold his dog for a million dollars. Dad asks how he got so much money. Boy replies “No, I got two, $500,000 cats…”

Same with our stock market. Right now up to 14,000 on the Dow, but that’s not any more loaves of bread that the 10,000 Dow of just a few years ago.

Bad news — wealth effect makes people falsely confident, so they go spend and do other stupid things. Good news — at least it’s something of a hedge against inflation. You can still get the same number of (now more expensive) loaves of bread when you’re hungry.

The IRS says that families will be paying $20,000 for health insurance. It also says that the top penalty for failing to buy insurance is less than $3,000. Medical insurance companies can no longer turn away people with pre-existing conditions. This means that people can avoid the $20,000 fee, pay the small penalty, and buy “insurance” only at the time they need it. (Or, more accurately, buy “cost shifting” when they need it.) Can the insurance companies stay solvent under these circumstances?

If insurance companies cannot stay in business with this non-insurance fee structure imposed upon them from above, how will they change? Most are diversified. Will they simply abandon health insurance? They cannot refuse to pay onerous fees, because payments are forced upon them by law.

Will the death of insurance companies create a medical black market, where people pay cash for services? In a way, this wouldn’t be so bad, because it would do away with the moral hazard that comes from both huge insurance companies and government interference. With those huge systems, people have no incentive to shop around for better or more affordable treatment.

Take a step back. We must separate the various functions. First is health care provision. Doctors, nurses, drugs, hospitals, equipment… That is a service sector that will rise with demand and shrink with price-controls. Obamacare = less service, fewer doctors, worse outcomes.

Second is true insurance. You have a one in a hundred risk of losing 100,000 (car crash, home fire, serious illness). Being rationally risk averse you’ll gladly pay $1,000 (expected value of 1% times 100,000) as a premium. Heck, you’ll even pay like $1,500, just to be safe. That extra $500 pays for agents, and underwriters, and insurers’ capital, and all the rest.

Third is what we have today — redistribution masquerading as insurance. Young/healthy should pay a fair premium of like $4,000. Old/ill should properly pay $20,000. But Obamacare, to hide redistribution, says everyone will pay $12,000 each, the average of the high and the low. Insurers wouldn’t care how they get paid, EXCEPT the young/healthy aren’t stupid. They won’t pay $12,000 for insurance worth (to them!) a mere $4,000. Hence the unconstitutional (shut up Roberts!) mandate.

(Side note — this use of phony insurance to hide redistribution is just the latest iteration of the continuing fraud. It starts with “tax Peter to pay Paul.” Steps then include high rates with unfair deductions, borrowing to tax the unborn, inflation to rob lenders and the poor, unfunded mandates, and finally scams like Social Security and Obamacare. Details on request.)

Ok, that’s the real economics. Now the politics. Even with all the arm-twisting, and bribing, and parliamentary cheats, and brief supermajority, Obamacare could NOT pass with anything close to the necessary punitive taxes needed to get the young/healthy. That’s why the penalty is so foolishly low.

But to the left, that’s a feature, not a bug. It’s OK if insurers get squeezed out of health insurance. They’re just capitalist parasites anyway, and we’re one day closer to single-payer, that is, a government-monopoly on when you die.

Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is forcing banks to give unsecured, low-interest home loans again. These loans, and the machinations into which the financial industry entered in order to protect itself from the downside risk of such loans, triggered the 2008 recession. What will happen this time around? Will banks go out of business? Will they come up with some grand new scheme? I assume that, if they do the latter, it will implode. The last time, it took around two decades before the Ponzi scheme collapsed. How long will it take this time?

We have a problem that banks got “too big to fail” because of government distortions of the credit markets. The Fed taught markets that serious losses get “socialized” (fall on taxpayers, not the true failures).

We also have a problem that government misallocated credit via the “Community Reinvestment Act.”

So what does government do? Makes an utterly irrelevant move into more controls. Plus an additional misdirection of credit.

We do not learn from our mistakes. We simply make new and more subtle errors.

It’s like this. A hippo gets into the bathtub. Water overflows everywhere. Hippos declares an emergency and nationalizes all the towels…v

Progressives truly don’t understand the difference between wealth and money

Paul Krugman, looking smug

Paul Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist.  He’s also remarkably ignorant (or stupid or, maybe, both).  Only someone lacking in brains and understanding would think that the U.S. could get out of its debt problem, not by printing paper money, but by minting a platinum coin and then denominating it a “$1 trillion coin.”  Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Krugman proposes.  He thinks (probably wrongly, as it turns out) that there’s a Constitutional loophole that allows the president to “print” a trillion-dollar coin:

Enter the platinum coin. There’s a legal loophole allowing the Treasury to mint platinum coins in any denomination the secretary chooses. Yes, it was intended to allow commemorative collector’s items — but that’s not what the letter of the law says. And by minting a $1 trillion coin, then depositing it at the Fed, the Treasury could acquire enough cash to sidestep the debt ceiling — while doing no economic harm at all.

Did you get that last little bit?  Magically creating a trillion dollars will do “no economic harm at all.”  It’s worth exploring Krugman’s reasoning, to which he helpfully links (since he is, after all, judge, jury, and executioner when it comes to all thinks economic).  I’ll quote him at length, because only then can one fully appreciate his reasoning:

In reality, to pursue the thought further, the coin really would be as much a Federal debt as the T-bills the Fed owns, since eventually Treasury would want to buy it back. So this is all a gimmick — but since the debt ceiling itself is crazy, allowing Congress to tell the president to spend money then tell him that he can’t raise the money he’s supposed to spend, there’s a pretty good case for using whatever gimmicks come to hand.

But leaving the debt ceiling on one side, isn’t it true that since spending can currently be financed by Fed money printing, we shouldn’t care at all about the notional debt owed to the Fed? Alas, no.

It’s true that printing money isn’t at all inflationary under current conditions — that is, with the economy depressed and interest rates up against the zero lower bound. But eventually these conditions will end. At that point, to prevent a sharp rise in inflation the Fed will want to pull back much of the monetary base it created in response to the crisis, which means selling off the Federal debt it bought. So even though right now that debt is just a claim by one more or less governmental agency on another governmental agency, it will eventually turn into debt held by the public.

What those three paragraphs circle around is the magic word: inflation. Krugman believes that magically pulling a trillion dollars out of the air won’t produce inflation but that, at some magical point in the future, President Obama will have borrowed so much money that he will be able to pay back the trillion dollars before inflation occurs.  One suspects that Krugman is envisioning a scheme along the lines of check kiting, with Obama borrowing a trillion from the feds, so he can borrow a trillion from someone else, and then use that second trillion to pay back the first.

Dunce cap

The fundamental flaw with Krugman’s whole theory, of course (which even he acknowledges is a “gimmick”), is that it ignores the difference between money, which merely a symbol of varying value, and wealth, which is the real measure of a healthy, rich economy.  Apparently I need to give Krugman my “Economics 101″ lecture, the same I used when my kids were nine to help explain to them the difference between money and wealth, and the concept of inflation.  Here goes:

In the old days  – the really old days  – there was no money. Instead, there were goods. For example, you might have had wheat to spare, but you needed a cow. I, on the other hand, had a cow and but was short of wheat. The two of us were a match made in heaven, trading our goods to fulfill our desires.

Cow

Problems arose, of course, when I wanted the wheat, which you had, but you wanted a chicken, not a cow. Or perhaps you had wheat, but only a little, and certainly not worth enough to trade for an entire cow.

This old system also had a problem with mobility. It’s simply not feasible to carry bushels of wheat with you wherever you go, unless you have a really big purse. And cows are hard to lead into the pub in exchange for a nice pint o’ beer. Not to mention the fact that you’d need a lot of pints to equal one cow.

Something better needed to come along. And it did: Gold.

Very heavy gold

Gold’s a great substance. It’s beautiful; infinitely malleable; it blends well with other metals; it doesn’t degrade; and it can be replenished, although the effort needed to replenish it ensures the rarity that’s necessary to its value as a commodity.

The only downside to gold is that it’s heavy. Very, very heavy. Get enough gold together, and you’ve suddenly got the weight of that cow to carry around  – and, once again, your purse isn’t big enough.

In all societies, some people, whether through trade, warfare, or outright theft, proved more adept at amassing wealth (whether wheat, cows, or gold) than others did, and they assumed leadership positions. Once in those positions, they tended to demand that their subordinates pay them protection money. These funds protected the hapless payor both from harassment by that same leader and from attacks launched by enemies outside the kingdom.

Bully

Eventually, this protection racket got formalized as taxes. Leaders also discovered that, in addition to providing protection for their subjects, there was a virtue in paying for basic services within the kingdom, such as roads, minimal care for the very poor, etc. A well-run kingdom increased everyone’s wealth.

But back to those grand clumps of heavy, heavy gold. Someone eventually got the idea that, rather than schlepping around gold, it would be a good idea to have currency made from lighter weight metals or even paper. These could be used to purchase myriad things that were worth less than a single gold coin and were easier to transport.

Money

Because you couldn’t have random sheets of paper or chunks of silver or copper roaming around in the guise of currency, these money substitutes were useful only to the extent people believed them to be backed by the genuine gold article — and the only way to ensure that people could trust these substitutes was to delegate to a single entity the task of guarding the real gold and issuing the substitute coinage or paper. The entity that ended up responsible for holding the gold and backing the substitutes is government.

There are two important things to remember at this point: First, the substitute money’s worth is always relative to the gold. If the gold is finite, but you mint more coins or print more paper, each coin or note is worth less as it becomes a smaller fraction of the available gold. Put another way, imagine that over a six month period the government keeps printing notes until it has six times as many notes as it has gold. Milk that cost one piece of paper in January will cost six pieces of paper in June. The milk’s value in gold is the same; it’s the paper that became less valuable. (This, I helpfully explained to my kids, is inflation.)

Second, and this is the really important thing, one must remember that, nowadays, unlike the feudal lord of old who went and out ravaged another country to get gold, today’s governments doesn’t go out and amass gold; they just generate the coins and paper. To the extent the government has wealth, it’s because it uses its police power to demand that its citizens give it their wealth in the form of taxes. The government hasn’t created anything. In today’s America, as in all modern economies, only the people create wealth.

Platinum coin

For Obama to mint a platinum coin does nothing to increase the country’s wealth.  It’s just generating a piece of metal to which the Leftist government assigns an arbitrary value to justify taking on more debt that America cannot afford and cannot repay.  For Paul Krugman to advocate this course of action isn’t just ignorant and stupid, it’s reckless to the point of national economic homicide.  Too bad Krugman is incapable of feeling ashamed of himself.

“Quantum of Easing”

Another American Crossroads ad in a James Bond style, this one attacking Obama’s inflationary policies:

It’s clever, funny, and understandable, so please consider sharing it with others.  The election clock is ticking, and it’s up to citizens to counter the media’s all-out push for Obama.