Last month I explained how Blue Chip shares offer the man in the street a means of climbing aboard the money express.
Screeds have been written and will continue to be written about the world’s ultra blue-chip shares and what defines them because they clearly offer everyone with a few spare Rands in their pocket probably the easiest way of hitching a ride to future wealth.
If you want to learn more about my systematic arithmetic method of categorizing share market listed companies by the process contained in my ShareFinder share market software, I commend my book The Philosophy of Wealth which you can order online as an e-book: http://www.rcis.co.za/ebook/philosophy-of-wealth/?task=direct_order
Essentially these are companies that have been household names for generations and which have created products which are in everyday use by a large proportion of everyday society. Their share market capitalisation is measured in billions and their shares are traded in the millions every day.
They are quite literally the best of the best and if you own them you can virtually guarantee your future wealth. However, while it is relatively simple to identify them, it is quite another matter to know when best to buy them. Consider if you will the following 20-year graph of one of the world’s greatest Grand Old Favourites; the Coca Cola Bottling Company:
Obviously the best time to have bought the shares was in March 2009 when the shares had fallen to $18.72 following the great global bear market that began as the “Sub-Prime Crisis” of 2008. Had you been able to do so you would have been significantly enriched in the subsequent years as the shares rose, seemingly without any hesitation, to their current $57.17.
Nice if you had been around back then with funds to invest, but that does not help the present-day investor with his saved-up cash who is currently looking to invest in such shares. Should he simply buy now or might there be a better time for doing so? Time then to learn one of the fundamental rules of investment timing. Simply stated, the adage is, “The trend is your friend.”
What this implies is that although every listed share can be observed to enjoy its own price cycle under the influence of a myriad of factors like the dividend date, raw material prices, government legislation and, in the case of Coca Cola, concerns about excessive human sugar intake, the most important single factor is the overall trend of the market. As I have already highlighted, the best moment to have bought Coke shares would have been in the aftermath of the 2008 Sub Prime share market crisis.
Closer to home, Standard Bank is one of South Africa’s own Grand Old Favourites and so, in order to demonstrate how this share closely tracks the overall trend of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, I have created a graph composite comparing the daily prices of Standard Bank shares with that of the JSE Overall Index:
If you cared to compare the two with a magnifying glass you would see that the bank shares reached their lowest point of the past decade or so at R59.49 on March 3 2009, on exactly the same day that the JSE Index bottomed at 179 540. They reached their highest recent point on March 8 2018 at R231 while the JSE Overall Index peaked on March 12 at 597 052.
I could provide dozens more examples of the same correlation so, clearly, if you can forecast the direction of the share market as a whole and both buy and sell accordingly, you should be reasonably successful in buying at the best possible price.
Time now to introduce you to artificial intelligence. My ShareFinder software is the most accurate tool in my own decision-making kit for it employs machine learning to make its forecasts. To explain this, we taught the programme to make future price forecasts based upon price data for the past 30 trading years. Accordingly, each day it projects what is likely to happen to share prices and the following day examines the accuracy of that forecast in the light of what actually happened.
The red lines in the graphs below are what ShareFinder projected would happen to Standard Bank shares and, below it, the JSE Overall Index back on January 24 this year.
And what follows is what actually happened!
On January 22 ShareFinder predicted that Standard Bank shares would start falling on February 9 and continue falling until March 25 and then recover until April 23. Actually they began falling on February 12 and fell until March 23 and then recovered until April 9.
It saw the JSE Overall Index falling until March 26 and then recovering until April 9 whereas it actually fell until March 18 and then recovered until April 14.
Given that nobody else remotely saw the Crash of 2020 coming but I was able to write a book that was published back in October of the previous year warning of its probability is, I would argue, sufficient proof of the remarkable accuracy of the system that we have developed within the ShareFinder programme. That its forecast was out by three days, providing an earlier warning than actually happened and, furthermore, had been so forecasting the decline for nearly a year ahead, makes the claim conclusive.
I have been publishing ShareFinder’s predictions every Friday since January 2002 and, each subsequent Friday I have audited them to see how many were correct. Back then I thought the accuracy rate of 82.83 percent in the first year was remarkable and the following year figure of 84.38 percent clearly better. By the third year of observation, the figure was 86.51 percent and so it has progressed as the programme has steadily fine-tuned itself such that the running average for the past 12 months has been 96.54 percent.
When ShareFinder makes mistakes it then adjusts its own parameters until it achieves greater accuracy. And, as I have explained, it has been learning for the past 30 years with the result that in 96.54 percent of cases its prediction is correct. Overall, since we first started auditing it, the accuracy rate has been an average of 85.73 percent. The difference between the two figures testifies to how much the system has gained from its own internal learning processes as the years have passed.
There is, however a caveat to all this. ShareFinder is almost perfectly precise about predicting and timing future events but rather less so in calculating the magnitude of such movements. Thus, when it made that forecast back in January that Standard Bank shares would bottom on March 25, it calculated a likely price of R157.84 whereas the actual figure proved to be R89.11. Were I thus a would-be buyer of Standard Bank shares, I would be monitoring the projections day by day as the likely bottoming date approached and only set my actual buying price a day or so ahead of the most likely bottoming date, always allowing a little latitude of around five percent.
Furthermore, ShareFinder offers a few more projection tools. So, for example, let us consider the shares of another Blue Chip, JSE Ltd which, ShareFinder suggests peaked on April 7 in the aftermath of their recovery from their March 18 crash bottom and are now trending down once more with, if you consider the graph projection below, another bottoming due on or about June 29. Now, in fact, ShareFinder actually offers three projections of which the most accurate over time is the smoothly-curving green line which becomes red as it becomes a projection. If you examine it, it is still sloping downwards and in fact only bottoms late in September.
The other two projections are the orange-coloured medium-term line which I mostly rely upon when timing my sales and purchase and the mauve-coloured short-term projection. All three are, in fact, manifestations of sine waves moving in different cycles and so the most important fact to take from this is that when all three are moving in the same direction the system is at its most accurate.
Technical analysts tend to talk about the “snake in the tunnel” to describe the different signals that indicators like these tend to offer. Thus, if the long-term green/red line is the tunnel, the other two projections are the snakes taking their own directions within the tunnel. So do notice that the mauve and orange lines do more or less agree with one another inasmuch as, despite their individual writhing, they are nevertheless following the trend of the green/red projection “tunnel” until the orange line dramatically breaks away upwards late in June this year.
Short-term traders who might buy and sell on an almost daily basis would prefer to use the purple line to guide their transactions whereas long-term investors would logically employ the orange projection to pick out June 29 as likely to offer the best buying date for this share. Most auspiciously, as June 29 approaches, do note that mauve and orange lines are aligned However, when the mauve and orange lines are moving in opposite directions, it is best to exercise caution.
Now it is time to step back and allow you to see how the daily price movement of JSE Ltd shares (tracked in blue) represented the medium-term snake frequently bursting beyond the boundaries of the tunnel. Each time this has happened there has been a relatively sharp retraction back to the mean represented by the green long-term wave cycle. And another big aberration is projected to happen in the case of this share – and most of the rest of the market between the end of June and the end of November.
Inevitably it is likely to be followed by the reversion to mean as the share price retraces back to the mean of the red long-term line which, if ShareFinder is correct, implies a bear market lasting until the end of April next year.
Confirming that view, is my final graph drawn by the new ShareFinder 6 software which represents the culmination of years of work to provide its users with even greater forecast accuracy. It pictures New York’s Dow Jones Industrial Index and thus predicts that Wall Street will peak on July 21 and tank down until January 13.
It is not possible to be completely certain of anything. There are, however, degrees of certainty; let’s call them hunches or suspicions. Many people, perhaps all of us, base our understanding of the word on little more than a hunch, a suspicion or a feeling.
Let’s start with me. Mea culpa; I am guilty of reaching conclusions based on a hunch. For starters, I had a good feeling when Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president. My instinct told me that he would quickly consolidate his power, get rid of the corrupt and the incompetent and generally stop the rot in government.
I also had a feeling that the corona crisis would be used to implement some crucial structural adjustments. Similarly, I had a good feeling when Ramaphosa appointed Tito Mboweni as finance minister. Despite an ego and a few annoying habits, Tito is the best the ruling party has to offer. He knows the markets and he’s got the experience. My hunch seemed to be confirmed when he made a few promising sounding comments regarding the SOEs – privatisation, no more bailouts, an overblown wage bill, frugality and so on. These hunches led me to conclude that sanity would return, and that all was not yet lost.
Alas, not long thereafter, I got a hunch that my hunch was wrong, with the evidence emerging plain as the misguided nose on my face: The rot and the rotten remained, the bailouts continued, and Tito now supports the resurrection of SAA. That, for the moment at least, has put paid to any fondness for hunches.
Next stop: Hypothesis. So, I’m ready to aim for the next level; formulating a few hypotheses based on obvious trends and data. After all, in our quest to get closer to the truth, a hypothesis ranks well above a hunch. A hunch is a mere feeling or guess; a hypothesis is at least based on a measure of observation or data. Plus, while a hunch is a baseless deduction, a hypothesis is founded in sound thinking. It may still not be true, but in hierarchical terms it definitely outstrips a hunch.
There are, of course, a plethora of supporting data, emerging and existing trends in the spheres of politics and economics to support the formulation of several hypotheses on the direction in which the world is heading. Here are a few examples: Globally governments are getting bigger and more prying, central banks are getting increasingly powerful, “technology” is omnipresent and consumer patterns are changing.
Now these trends were well on their way before Covid-19 hit our planet somewhere between an animal market in Wuhan and/or, if Trump’s hunch is to be believed, a laboratory in the selfsame city. What the pandemic has managed to do, is to accelerate them to the point of resembling perpetual motion. The corona crisis simply seems to accelerate all these existing trends.
Could this be the beginning of a new era of government radicalisms? The world’s major central banks will continue with their experiments covering the spectrum from ultra-low interest rates, and money printing, to their attempts to fine tune financial markets at any cost. And then what? Inflation, financial collapse, depressions?
Will technology take over our lives? Will overzealous governments use technology to up their control over us, not to mention following our every move? In short, are we entering the era of tech control and the omnipotent bureaucrat?
In addition, based on preliminary data from countries that lifted their lockdowns, consumer and consumption patterns may have been altered permanently by the state of confinement. Despite being allowed to resume their previous lives, people now seem to stay home more, visit restaurants less in favour of food delivery, and shift their consumption even more to online businesses.
These trends pose the risk of a devastating domino effect on some businesses and investments. Many old-fashioned retail shops are likely to go extinct, with far-reaching implications for real estate and rental income, their losses being the gains of online businesses.
Lower costs and lower demand being all but a given, international inflation may fall ever lower in the short term, with implications for monetary policy. Further observable trends seem to suggest that people are likely to travel less in future, accordingly and increasingly making use of an abundance of new applications in the services industry aimed at assisting professionals in fields such as finance, journalism and IT. Conversely, services that cannot be digitised – e.g. hairdressing and vehicle repairs – may evolve into offering the equivalent of the travelling services salesmen, with further implications for real estate and retail space.
On the other hand, certain trends may reverse in future. More people opting to work from home may require more comfortable houses and even much bigger houses to accommodate working families. This points to the need for more and better local community organisations, such as estates and virtual communities.
So what, you may wonder, is going to happen here? These trends suggest to me a likely hypothesis, namely that personal freedoms will be curtailed, various new “controls” will be implemented, and taxes and red tape will increase. We may be reaching the end of the era of individual liberty and a new variation of the Dark Ages, influenced and informed by a form of technological socialism signifying the end of capitalism as we know it.
When it comes to our beloved country, recent trends and economic outcomes support the hypothesis that our political leadership are mostly economic ignorami. This hypothesis is based on several policy decisions (read: data) and comments that will clearly harm the economy. In fact, clear empirical evidence exists of the negative impact of various decisions and comments, varying from threats to nationalise the Reserve Bank and change its mandate to printing money in an effort to “pick up the currency”” and steal private property through various schemes.
These being, as the saying goes, but a few examples, and they are bad enough. But that these observations may well point to an even more ominous hypothesis, namely that our political leadership is well aware of the economic damage of their policies and actions, but press on regardless in their pursuit of certain ideological/social/political objectives.
This distinction is crucial: Is this government just ignorant or are they acting with intent? Spoiler alert: While difference is important, the eventual outcome could be similar. So by now, I’ve probably fed you more than your recommended daily allowance of hunches and hypotheses.
Implying readily evaluated data, and a variety of tested, reviewed and refine hypotheses, theory outranks both hunches and hypotheses. Of course theory can also be wrong and it can change over time, but in terms of our observation of the world, theory is as close as we can get to the truth, until it changes…
Right here and now, however, in terms of existing and generally accepted economic and political theory, South Africans should be particularly concerned. Let’s start with the data, which was clear even before the advent of Covid-19 (although I have a hunch that the virus will be blamed for the majority of our hardships for years to come). The reality is that we have been in a recession for a while.
A long list of undisputed and deeply worrying data prove the point. Herewith, again, but a few examples: per capita income has been falling for years, state debt levels have become unsustainable, the SOEs and local authorities have been financially and operationally all but annihilated, corruption is rife, much of the civil service is incompetent and overpaid and prescribed assets for pension funds are on the table for discussion.
We can only hope that the impact remains to prove a point and not our undoing. Similarly, certain politically worrying trends were apparent before corona: policy uncertainty, double speak, infighting. Interventions more prescriptions, more power to the politicians, and so on, and so forth.
Now double, triple or quadruple that and you get the “inter-corona” picture, not to mention the whole sorry scenario, from ruinous political disunity and a further stumbling to the ideological left, to the whole truth and nothing but the truth regarding the predatory nature of the tripartite alliance.
Of course now we have the lockdown, which means the entire economic and political Pandora’s box is unlocked, leaving hunches and hypotheses in the dust and a stark and grim reality in our collective and personal midst: what is left of the economy will come to a halt, bureaucrats and politicians will grab more power, unemployment and poverty will rise uncontrollably, real hunger will set it and more social tension arise.
Even some institutions that have withstood the attacks from the ignorami, like the Reserve Bank, may eventually also buckle under the pressure. And the theory states clearly enough what will follow then: inflation, very high and damaging inflation!
But theory also tells us that it can be different. It is possible for governments to change track, to protect lives and property, to stamp out corruption, to become efficient and to serve the country. It is possible, but unlikely. And that, I admit, may be just a hunch.
Chief Economist: email@example.com
Today is a time of epidemiologists, central bankers and yes, of schemers too. We will discover in due course whose reputations will have survived the economic crisis better intact.
Central banks have an essential duty to create extra money for a growing economy. They do so on a consistent basis in normal times. Their extra money comes in two forms: as notes and coins and in the deposits private banks keep with their central banks.
The SA Reserve Bank has not failed in its duty to supply more cash to the economy over the past 20 years. For much of the period it might have supplied too much cash. More recently, it can be criticised for supplying too little for the health of the economy as we shall demonstrate.
The sum of the notes and the deposits issued by the SA Reserve Bank (the money base) grew by 7.9 times between 2000 and April 2020, from R35bn to R275bn at an average compound rate of 8.7% a year over 20 years.
With apologies to Edmund Burke, responding to the excesses of the French Revolution: “Today is a time of sophists, economists and schemers.” – Reflections on the French Revolution
The ratio of the broadly defined money supply (M3), which includes bank deposits, to the money base (the money multiplier), reached a peak of nearly 17 before the financial crisis of 2008 and has now stabilised at about 14 times.
The Reserve Bank balance sheet has been updated to April 2020. The money base (notes plus bank deposits) as at the end of April 2020 was in fact R5bn smaller than it was at 2019 year-end, despite the crisis.
The money base fell by R29.4bn between March and April 2020, even though the note issue itself rose by R4.82bn in April, surely in response to crisis fears. The deposits of the banks however fell more sharply, from R103.4bn in March to R77.34bn by April.
The Reserve Bank’s portfolio of government stock, a small part of its asset portfolio, grew from R8.1bn at year-end to R20.6bn in April. This may be compared to loans made by the Reserve Bank for the banking system. They grew from R65.8bn at year-end to R103.9bn by March, but then (surprisingly in the crisis circumstances) fell back to R77.34bn by April month-end.
If the Reserve Bank were to embark on meaningful money supply growth loans to the banking system, its holdings of government stock would have to increase meaningfully. An increase in Reserve Bank lending to the banking system on favourable terms would allow the banks to support extra issues of short-term Teasury obligations at hopefully much lower rates of interest (see figures below for details of the balance sheets of SA banks since 2000 and of the Reserve Bank balance sheet this year).
There is always a temptation for a government to borrow money from its central bank to fund its expenditure by issuing money. Almost zero cost money may be issued as an alternative to raising taxes or paying interest on the debt it raises to fund its expenditure. It is a temptation that is widely (but not always) resisted.
How much money should be created as a service to an economy and its banks that manage the payments system? The answer in very general terms is for a central bank to supply not too much and not too little cash for the economy. Not too much – that is not to supply more than the households, businesses and banks would willingly hold as a reserve of spending power. But to supply enough extra cash to satisfy demands that would grow normally in line with real economic activity.
It is not the supply of money and of associated bank and other credit that represents inflationary dangers or the danger of asset price bubbles that must all end badly for an economy. It is the excess of the supply of money – over the willingness to hold the extra money supplied – that is to be avoided if inflation is to be controlled.
Also to be avoided is to supply too little money. If the supply of extra money is constrained, economic actors would be inclined to cash in assets or save more to build up a cash reserve. This too would not be good for an economy.
The task central banks set themselves is to smooth the business, money and credit cycles by adjusting the cost of the money they supply to the economic system.
They raise the repo or discount rates they charge the banks who borrow from them, when the economy and the supply of bank credit appears to be accelerating too rapidly. They will also lower the cost of their money, reduce the repo or discount rates, to encourage the banks to extend more credit to avoid or overcome a recession. However, this fine balance of additional supplies of and demands for money is seldom achieved. The business cycle has not been eliminated by modern monetary policy.
The business cycle – extended periods of above and then below potential real growth – can be mostly linked to phases of more rapid and then much slower growth in money supply and bank credit. Inflation, for which a central bank usually has a target range, will tend to follow the direction of the business cycle.
The times when the price level takes a course independently of the direction of the business cycle calls for particularly sensitive attention by the monetary authorities. Raising interest rates in response to a supply side shock to the economy that results in temporarily higher prices (for example following a shock to the oil price, food supplies or to the exchange rate) may well prove to be pro- rather than counter-cyclical. It may slow the economy down further than it might otherwise have done.
These norms and objectives for monetary policy do not apply in the extremes of a crisis, when sudden demands for extra cash threaten the banking financial and payments system. The solution for a crisis is for a central bank to supply as much extra cash as is necessary to prevent ordinarily sound businesses and financial institutions from going under and dragging the economy down with them.
Shutting down an economy to fight a pandemic is a new challenge for monetary policy. It also calls for a rapid increase in the supply of central bank money and sharply lower interest rates where there is room to lower them.
Funding extra government spending via loans from the central bank, or funded by a banking system well supported with loans from the central bank, is a helpful form of government finance when spending is growing rapidly to meet an emergency, and correctly so.
Funding with money or near money avoids the long-term burden for taxpayers of funding extra debt issues at high interest rates in an unwilling capital market. And by adding extra money to the system, it makes a much-needed recovery of spending more likely when the economy comes out of lockdown.
The extra money cannot be inflationary until the economy and spending recovers. At that point, the growth in the supply of money and credit can be reduced or reversed in the usual way.
When an economy is forced to its knees, an emphasis on inflation targets makes little sense. SA urgently needs and deserves (proportionately) as much extra money as is being provided in the developed world. By contrast, the money base in the US has been increased by 40% this year with more money on the way.
In Europe, a ruling by the German Constitutional Court that the European Central Bank (ECB) failed to adequately justify a program of asset purchases it began in 2015 is convulsing the political and financial scene. Some suggest it could lead to the unravelling of the euro.
It may be difficult at first glance to understand why. Yes, the purchases were huge—more than 2 trillion euros of government debt. But they were made years ago. And the points made by the court are arcane. So how could a matter like this assume such importance?
The legal clash in Europe matters not only because the ECB is the second-most important central bank in the world and not only because of global financial stability hinges on the stability of the eurozone. It also brings to the surface what ought to be a basic question of modern government: What is the proper role of central banks? What is the political basis for their actions? Who, if anyone, should oversee central banks?
As the COVID-19 financial shock has reaffirmed, central banks are the first responders of economic policy. They hold the reins of the global economy. But unlike national Treasuries that act from above by way of taxing and government spending, the central banks are in the market. Whereas the Treasuries have budgets limited by parliamentary or congressional vote, the firepower of the central bank is essentially limitless. Money created by central banks only shows up on their balance sheets, not in the debt of the state. Central banks don’t need to raise taxes or find buyers of their debt. This gives them huge power.
How this power is wielded and under what regime of justification defines the limits of economic policy. The paradigm of modern central banking that is being debated in the spartan court room in the German town of Karlsruhe was set half a century ago amid the turbulence of inflation and political instability of the 1970s. In recent years, it has come under increasing stress. The role of central banks has massively expanded.
In much of the world, notably in the United States, this has engendered remarkably little public debate. Though the litigation in Germany is in many ways obscure, it has the merit of putting a spotlight on this fundamental question of modern governance. Faced with the hubris of the German court, it may be tempting to retreat into a defense of the status quo. That would be a mistake. Though it is flawed in many ways, the court’s judgment does expose a real gap between the reality of 21st-century central banking and the conventional understanding of its mission inherited from the 20th century. What we need is a new monetary constitution.
The proud badge worn by modern central bankers is that of independence. But what does that mean? As the idea emerged in the 20th century, central bank independence meant above all freedom from direction by the short-term concerns of politicians. Instead, central bankers would be allowed to set monetary policy as they saw fit, usually with a view not only to bringing down inflation but to permanently installing a regime of confidence in monetary stability—what economists call anchoring price expectations.
The analogy, ironically, was to judges who, in performing the difficult duty of dispensing justice, were given independence from the executive and legislative branches in the classic tripartite division. With money’s value unhooked from gold after the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s, independent central banks became the guardians of the collective good of price stability.
The basic idea was that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. Left to their own devices, voters and politicians would opt for low unemployment at the price of higher inflation. But, as the experience of the 1970s showed, that choice was shortsighted. Inflation would not remain steady. It would progressively accelerate so that what at first looked like a reasonable trade-off would soon deteriorate into dangerous instability and increasing economic dislocation. Financial markets would react by dumping assets. The foreign value of the currency would plunge leading to a spiral of crisis.
Under the looming shadow of this disaster scenario, the idea of central bank independence emerged. The bank was to act as a counter-majoritarian institution. It was charged with doing whatever it took to achieve just one objective: hold inflation low. Giving the central bank a quasi-constitutional position would deter reckless politicians from attempting expansive policies. Politicians would know in advance that the central bank would be duty bound to respond with draconian interest rates. At the same time as deterring politicians, this would send a reassuring signal to financial markets. Establishing credibility with that constituency might be painful, but the payoff in due course would be that interest rates could be lower. Price stability could thus be achieved with a less painful level of unemployment. You couldn’t escape the trade-off, but you could improve the terms by reassuring the most powerful investors that their interest in low inflation would be prioritized.
It was a model that rested on a series of assumptions about the economy (there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment), global financial markets (they had the power to punish), politics (overspending was the preferred vote-getting strategy), and society at large (there were substantial social forces pushing for high employment regardless of inflation). The model was also based on a jaundiced vision of modern history and more or less explicitly at odds with democratic politics: first in the sense that it made cynical assumptions about the motivations of voters and politicians but also in the more general sense that in the place of debate, collective agreement, and choice, it favored technocratic calculation, institutional independence, and nondiscretionary rules.
This conservative vision legitimated itself by reference to moments of historical trauma. The German Bundesbank founded after World War II in the wake of two bouts of hyperinflation—during the Weimar Republic and the aftermath of Germany’s catastrophic defeat in 1945—was the progenitor.
The U.S. Federal Reserve made its conversion to anti-inflationary orthodoxy in 1979 under Paul Volcker’s stewardship. The mood music was provided by President Jimmy Carter’s famous speech on the American malaise compounded by global anxiety about the weakness of the dollar after repeated attempts by the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to stabilize prices through government-ordered price regulations and bargains with trade unions and businesses. Democratic politics had failed. It was time for the central bankers to act using sky-high interest rates. That ending inflation in this way would mean abandoning any commitment to full employment, plunging America’s industrial heartland into crisis, and permanently weakening organized labor was not lost on Volcker. There was, in that famous phrase of the era, no alternative.
By the 1990s, an inflation-fighting, independent central bank had become a global model rolled out in post-communist Eastern Europe and what were now dubbed the “emerging markets.” Along with independent constitutional courts and adherence to global human rights law, independent central banks were part of the armature that constrained popular sovereignty in Samuel Huntington’s “third wave of democracy.” If the freedom of capital movement was the belt, then central bank independence was the buckle on the free-market Washington Consensus of the 1990s.
For the community of independent central bankers, those were the golden days. But as in so many other respects, that golden age is long gone. In recent decades, central banks have become more powerful than ever. But with the expansion of their role (and their balance sheets) has gone a loss of clarity of purpose. The giant increase in power and responsibility that has accrued to the Fed and its counterparts around the world in reaction to COVID-19 merely confirms this development. Formal mandates have rarely been adjusted, but there has clearly been a huge expansion in reach. In the American case, where the extension has been most dramatic, it amounts to a hidden transformation of the state, indeed of the U.S. Constitution, that has taken place in an ad-hoc way under the pressure of crisis with precious little opportunity for serious debate or argument.
Conservative economists watch in horror as the paradigm of the 1990s has come apart. Won’t a central bank that intervenes as deeply as modern central banks now do distort prices and twist economic incentives? Does it not pursue social redistribution by the back door? Will it not undermine the competitive discipline of credit markets?
Will a central bank whose balance sheet is loaded with emergency bond purchases not fall into a vicious circle of dependence on the stressed borrowers whose debts it buys?
These concerns are at the root of the drama in Germany’s constitutional court. But to know how to respond to them, we need to start by doing what neither the German court nor the ECB’s defenders have so far done, namely to account for how the familiar model of central bank independence has come apart since the 1990s.
The assumptions about politics and economics that anchored the model of the independent central bank in the 1980s and 1990s were never more than a partial interpretation of the reality of the late 20th-century political economy.
In truth, the alarmist vision they conjured was not so much a description of reality as a means to advance the push for market discipline, away from both elected politicians and organized labor. In the third decade of the 21st century, however, the underlying political and economic assumptions have become entirely obsolete—as much because of the success of the market vision as its failures.
First and foremost, the fight against inflation was won. Indeed, it was won so decisively that economists now ask themselves whether the basic organizing idea of a trade-off between inflation and unemployment any longer obtains. For 30 years, the advanced economies have now been living in a regime of low inflation. Central banks that once steeled themselves for the fight against inflation now struggle to avoid deflation. By convention, the safe minimal level of inflation is 2 percent. The Bank of Japan, the Fed, and the ECB have all systematically failed to hold inflation up to that target. It was the desperate efforts of the ECB to ensure that the eurozone did not slide into deflation in 2015 that led to the drama in the German courtroom this month. The ECB’s giant bond purchases were designed to flush the credit system with liquidity in the hope of stimulating demand.
Long before the lawyers starting arguing, the economics profession has been scratching its head over this situation. The most obvious drivers of so-called lowflation are the spectacular efficiency gains achieved through globalization, the vast reservoir of new workers who were attached to the world economy through the integration of China and other Asian export economies, and the dramatic weakening of trade unions, to which the anti-inflation campaigns, deindustrialization, and high unemployment of the 1970s and 1980s powerfully contributed. The breaking of organized labor has undercut the ability of workers to demand wage increases. This lack of inflationary pressure has left modern central banks unconcerned about even the most gigantic monetary expansion. However much you increase the stock of money, it never seems to show up in price increases.
Nor is it just the economics that are haywire. Whereas the classic model assumed that politicians were fiscally irresponsible and thus needed independent central banks to bring them into line, it turns out that a critical mass of elected officials drank the 1990s Kool-Aid. In recent decades, we have seen not a relentless increase in debt but repeated efforts to balance the books, most notably in the eurozone under German leadership. Contrary to its reputation, Italy has been a devoted follower of austerity, leading the way in fiscal discipline. But so has the United States, at least under Democratic administrations. Politicians campaigned for fiscal consolidation and debt reduction instead of promises of investment and employment. In the agonizingly slow recovery from the 2008 crisis, the problem for the central bankers was not overspending but the failure of governments to provide adequate fiscal stimulus.
Rather than obstreperous trade unions and feckless politicians, what central bankers have found themselves preoccupied with is financial instability. Again and again, the financial markets that were assumed to be the disciplinarians have demonstrated their irresponsibility (“irrational exuberance”), their tendency to panic, and their inclination to profound instability. They are prone to bubbles, booms, and busts. But rather than seeking to tame those gyrations, central banks, with the Fed leading the way, have taken it on themselves to act as a comprehensive backstop to the financial system—first in 1987 following the global stock market crash, then after the dot-com crash of the 1990s, even more dramatically in 2008, and now on a truly unprecedented scale in response to COVID-19. Liquidity provision is the slogan under which central banks now backstop the entire financial system on a near-permanent basis.
To the horror of conservatives everywhere, the arena in which central banks perform this balancing act is the market for government debt. Government IOUs are not just obligations of the tax payer. For the government’s creditors, they are the safe assets on which pyramids of private credit are built. This Janus-faced quality of debt creates a basic tension. Whereas conservative economists anathematize central banks swapping government debt for cash as the slippery slope to hyperinflation, the reality of modern market-based finance is that it is based precisely on this transaction—the exchange of bonds for cash, mediated if necessary by the central bank.
One of the side effects of massive central bank intervention in bond markets is that interest rates are very low, in many cases close to zero, and at times even negative. When central banks take assets off private balance sheets, they drive prices up and yields down. As a result, far from being the fearsome monster it once was, the bond market has become a lap dog. In Japan, once one of the engines of financial speculation, the control of the Bank of Japan is now so absolute that trading of bonds takes place only sporadically at prices effectively set by the central bank. Rather than fearing bond vigilantes, the mantra among bond traders is “Don’t fight the Fed.”
Central bank intervention helps to tame the risks of the financial system, but it does not stem its growth, nor does it create a level playing field. While high-powered fund managers and their favored clients hunt for better returns in stock markets and exotic and exclusive investment channels like private equity and hedge funds, thus taking on more risk, more cautious investors find themselves on the losing side. Low interest rates hurt savers, they hurt pension funds, and they hurt life insurance funds that need to lock in safe long-term returns on their portfolios. It was precisely that constituency that was the mainstay of the litigation in front of the German constitutional court.
The plaintiffs and their lawyers blame the central bank for pushing interest rates down, benefiting feckless borrowers at the expense of thrifty savers. What they ignore are the deeper economic pressures to which the central bank itself is responding. If there is a glut of savings, if rates of investment are low, if governments, notably the German government, are not taking up new loans but repaying debt, this is bound to depress interest rates.
The result of this combination of economic, political, and financial forces is an economic landscape that, by the standards of the late 20th century, can only seem topsy-turvy. Central bank balance sheets are grotesquely inflated, yet prices (except for financial assets) slide toward deflation. Before the COVID-19 lockdown, record low unemployment no longer translated into wage increases. With long-term interest rates near zero, politicians nonetheless refused to borrow money for public investments. The response of central bankers, desperate to prevent a slide into self-sustaining deflation, is to reach again and again for stimulus.
In the United States, at least in this respect, the election of Donald Trump as president helped restore a degree of normality, if with a perverse edge. Egged on by Republicans in Congress, his administration has shown no inhibition about huge deficits to finance regressive tax cuts. Apart from anti-immigrant rhetoric, Trump’s winning card in 2020 would be an economy running hot. In 2019, the Fed seemed to be headed into the familiar territory of weighing when to raise interest rates to avoid overheating. Chair Jerome Powell certainly did not appreciate the president’s bullying against rate hikes, but at least the Fed was not lost in the crazy house of low growth, low inflation, low interest rates, and low government spending that the Bank of Japan and the ECB had to contend with.
Since the 1990s, the Bank of Japan has engaged in one monetary policy experiment after another. And driven by the profound crisis in the eurozone under the leadership of Mario Draghi, the ECB embarked on its own experiments. These efforts proved effective in delivering a measure of financial stability. They made central bankers into heroes. But they also fundamentally altered the meaning of independence. In the paradigm that emerged from the crises of the 1970s, independence meant restraint and respect for the boundaries of delegated authority. In the new era, it had more to do with independence of action and initiative. More often than not, it meant the central bank single-handedly saving the day.
Whereas in most of the world this was accepted in a pragmatic spirit—it was reassuring to think that someone, at least, was in charge—in the eurozone it was never going to be so easy. The way that Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government sold German voters on the abandonment of the Deutsche mark was the promise that the ECB would resemble the Bundesbank as closely as possible. It was barred from directly financing deficits, and, in the hope of limiting undue national influence, it had limited political accountability. Its narrow mandate was simply to ensure price stability.
This was always a gamble, which depended on the willingness of the Italians and French, who also had a voice in the euro system, to go along. Their financial elites pushed for a common currency in part because they were looking for a restraint on their own undisciplined political class—but also because they were gambling that as members of the eurozone they would have a better chance of bending European monetary policy in their direction than they would if their national central banks were forced to follow the Bundesbank by the pressure of bond markets. In the early years of the euro, the compromise worked to mutual satisfaction. But it was always fragile. Once the financial crisis of 2008 forced a dramatic expansion of the ECB’s activity, buying both government and corporate bonds, intervening to cap the interest rates paid by the weakest eurozone member states, pushing bank lending by complex manipulation of interest rates, conflict was predictable. This tension exploded in the German Constitutional Court this month.
For the majority of financial opinion, the ECB’s growing activism is broadly to be welcomed. It is the one part of the complex European constitution that actually functions with real authority and clout as a federal institution. Though grudging in her public support, Chancellor Angela Merkel has rested her European policy on a tacit agreement to let the ECB do what was necessary. Allowing the ECB to manage spreads—the interest rate margin paid by weaker borrowers—was easier than addressing the question of how to make Italy’s debt-level manageable.
But a recalcitrant body of opinion in Germany has never reconciled itself to this reality. For them, the ECB serves as a lightning rod for their grievances about the changing political economy of the last decade. They blame it for victimizing savers with its low interest policy. They blame it for encouraging the debts of their Southern European neighbors.
Exponents of the old religion of German free market economics regard cheap credit as subversive of market discipline. All in all, they suspect the ECB of engaging in a policy of redistributive Keynesianism in monetary disguise, everything that Germany’s national model of the social market economy was supposed to have ruled out. For these Germans, the ECB is an opaque technocratic agency arrogating to itself powers that properly belong to national parliaments, barreling down the slippery slope to a European superstate. And, for them, it is anything but accidental of course that it is all the creation of a Machiavellian Italian with trans-Atlantic business connections, Mario Draghi.
For the body of opinion that had always been suspicious of the euro, Draghi’s commitment to do “whatever it takes” in 2012 was the final straw. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerged in 2013 not originally as an anti-immigrant party but as a right-wing economic alternative to Berlin’s connivance with the antics of the ECB.
As the AfD has consolidated its position as the anti-establishment party of right-wing protest above all in eastern Germany, its agenda has shifted. But Bernd Lucke, one of the founders of the AfD who has since left the party, was among the plaintiffs whose case the German constitutional court decided last week.
Meanwhile, Germany’s influential tabloid Bild pursued a campaign amounting to a vendetta against Draghi, picturing him last September as a vampire sucking the blood of German savers. And even the Bundesbank leadership, both current and emeritus figures, has not been shy about associating itself with public opposition to the expansive course of the ECB. Defending the strength of the euro against the spendthrift, inflationary ways of Southern Europe played well with the patriotic gallery. But so long as Merkel preferred to cooperate with the ECB’s leadership, that opposition remained marginalized.
What has thrown a spanner in the works are the well-developed checks and balance of the German Constitution guarded by the Constitutional Court.
The German Constitutional Court, based in modest digs in the sleepy town of Karlsruhe, has an activist understanding of its role within the German polity, presenting itself as “the citizens’ court” unafraid of upending the political agenda on issues from the provision of child care or means-tested welfare benefits to the future development of the European project. Since the 1990s, the court has been a vigilant check on unfettered expansion of European power. It makes the argument on the basis of defending democratic national sovereignty, insisting on its right to constantly review European institutions for their conformity to the basic norms of the German Constitution.
Each progressive expansion of ECB activism has thus stirred a new round of legal activism. Announced in 2012, Draghi’s instrument of Outright Monetary Transactions, an unlimited bond-buying backstop for troubled eurozone sovereign debtors, was challenged by a coalition of both left-wing and right-wing German plaintiffs. It was not until the summer of 2015 that the court finally and grudgingly ruled it acceptable.
When Draghi finally launched the ECB into large-scale bond buying in 2015, of the type that both the Fed and Bank of Japan had embarked on years before, it too immediately triggered a new round of litigation. In 2017, the court gave a preliminary ruling but referred the case to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). In December 2018, the ECJ declared the program to be in conformity of the European treaties. But the German constitutional judges were not satisfied with the reasoning of the ECJ and held hearings in 2019. After months of deliberation, Karlsruhe was supposed to issue its judgment on March 24, but that was postponed a week beforehand due to the coronavirus pandemic.
That turned out to be opportune because financial markets in March were in crisis. Between March 12 and 18, as the ECB failed to calm the waters, the interest paid by Italy for state borrowing surged. Thanks to massive intervention by the ECB, they have since cooled. Christine Lagarde’s ECB has promised to make an additional round of purchases in excess of 700 billion euros, with more to come if necessary. To calm the markets, what was needed was discretion and largesse—precisely what the German critics of the ECB feared most and had criticized so incessantly in the 2015 bond-buying program.
This made the judgment from Karlsruhe on the 2015 program even more significant. What might the ruling on Draghi’s quantitative easing (QE) signal for possible action against Lagarde’s crisis program? How might the court influence the course of debate in Germany? The initial hearings in 2019 had not sounded favorable to the ECB. The selection of expert testimony by the court was conservative and biased. The court had given full vent to the protests of smaller German banks about the low interest rates that ECB policy permitted them to offer savers. It was as though the court had summoned oil companies, and oil companies only, to give evidence on the question of carbon taxes.
For all the anticipation, the judgment has come as a shock. The question that has ultimately proved decisive is a seemingly conceptual one concerning the distinction between monetary policy and economic policy.
The German Constitutional Court declared that the ECB, in pursuing its efforts to push inflation up to 2 percent, had overstepped the bounds of its proper domain—monetary policy—and strayed into the area of economic policy, which the European treaties reserve for national governments
This is by no means an obvious distinction. It was originally built into the treaties both to protect national prerogatives and to ensure that the ECB’s focus on price stability was shielded against any improper meddling by parties that might prioritize concerns like unemployment or growth. Making this distinction is one of the central dogmas of the German school of economics known as ordoliberalism. But once monetary policy reaches any substantial scale, it in fact becomes meaningless.
The ECJ in Luxembourg reasonably took the view that the ECB has fulfilled its obligation to respect the boundary by justifying its policy with regard to the price objective and following a policy mix typical of modern central banks. It is this casual approach on the part of the ECJ to which Karlsruhe objects. The ECJ waived the case through without assessing the proportionality of the underlying trade-off, the German Constitutional Court thundered. In doing so, it had failed in its duty and acted ultra vires—beyond its authority. It was thus up to the German court to adjudicate the issue, and it duly found that the ECB had not to its satisfaction answered the economic concerns raised by the court’s witnesses. The ECB too was therefore found to have overstepped its mandate.
Since the German court does not actually have jurisdiction over the ECB, the ruling was delivered against the German government, which was found to have failed in its duty to protect the plaintiffs against the overreaching policy of the ECB. As Karlsruhe emphasized, its judgment would not come into immediate effect. The ECB would have a three-month grace period in which to provide satisfactory evidence that it had indeed balanced the broader economic impact of its policies against their intended effects. Barring that, the Bundesbank would be required to cease any cooperation with asset purchasing under the 2015 scheme.
The judgment was delivered to a court room observing strict social distancing, though the judges did not wear face masks. Chief Justice Andreas Voßkuhle, whose 12-year term at the court ends this month, noted that the ruling might be interpreted as a challenge to the solidarity necessary to meet the COVID-19 crisis. So he added by way of reassurance that the ruling applied only to the 2015 scheme. There is no need, therefore, for any immediate change of policy. The markets have so far taken the intervention in stride. But the Karlsruhe decision is, nevertheless, shocking.
It is a spectacular challenge to European court hierarchy. Instead of merely assessing the conformity of the ECB’s policies with the German Constitution, the German court arrogated to itself the right to evaluate the conformity of the ECB actions with European treaty law, an area explicitly left to the ECJ.
This will surely play into the hands of those in Poland and Hungary who are determined to challenge the common norms of the European Union. It did not take long for Poland’s deputy justice minister to signal his enthusiastic support for the Karlsruhe decision. This may end up being the case’s most lasting effect.
But it is spectacular also for another reason. In challenging the ECB to justify its QE policy, the German court has put in question not just a specific policy but the entire rationale for central bank independence. What is more, it has done so not only formally but substantively. It has exposed the political and material basis that lies behind the norm of independence.
The claim that the ECB overstepped the bound between monetary and economic policy is, as an abstract proposition, not so much a scandal as a tautology. Only in an ordoliberal fantasy world could one imagine monetary policy working purely by way of signaling without it having an impact on the real economy. Indeed, to affect real economic activity by lowering the cost of borrowing is precisely the point of monetary policy. Far from failing to consider the economic impact of its monetary policies, this is precisely what the ECB spends its entire time doing.
Nevertheless, by harping on this seemingly absurd distinction the court has in fact registered a significant historic shift. The shift is not from monetary to economic policy but from a central bank whose job is to restrain inflation to one whose job is to prevent deflation—and from a central bank with a delegated narrow policy objective to one acting as a dealer of last resort to provide a backstop to the entire financial system. The German court is right to detect a sleight of hand when the ECB justifies an entirely new set of policies with regard to the same old mandate of the pursuit of price stability. But what the German court fails to register is that this is not a matter of choice on the part of the ECB but forced on it by historical circumstances.
Cutting through the legalese and abstruse arguments, the complaint brought to the court by the plaintiffs is that the world has changed. Europe’s central bank was supposed to be their friend in upholding an order in which excessive government spending was curbed, wage demands and inflation were disciplined, and thrifty savers were rewarded with solid returns. The reality they have confronted for the last 10 years is very different. They suspect foul play, and they blame the newfangled policies of the ECB and its Italian leadership.
Rather than taking the high ground, recognizing the historical significance of this crisis and calling for a general reevaluation of the role of central banks in relation to a radically different economic situation, the German Constitutional Court has made itself into the mouthpiece of the plaintiffs’ specific grievances, linked those to an expression of fundamental democratic rights, and mounted a challenge to the foundation of the European legal order.
Its willingness to assume this role no doubt reflects its resentment at the usurpation of its supremacy by the ECJ. The decision reflects in this sense a concern to defend German national sovereignty. But it also reflects the cognitive shock of failing to come to terms with the role of central banks in a radically changed world.
What this starkly reveals is the limits of existing modes of central bank legitimacy—including the narrative of central bank independence—at the precise moment at which we have become more dependent than ever on the decisive actions of central banks.
To see the head-turning effect of this ruling, imagine an alternative history. Imagine a citizen’s court like that in Karlsruhe convening sometime in the mid-1980s in the United States to evaluate whether or not Volcker’s Fed had adequately weighed the economic impact of its savage interest rate hikes on the steelworkers of the Rust Belt. Or, only slightly more plausibly, imagine a hearing in the Spanish or the Italian constitutional court on the question of whether or not their governments were remiss in not demanding to see the reasoning that justified the ECB’s decision in 2008 or 2011 to raise interest rates just as the European economy was sliding into first one and then a second recession. Were German concerns about inflation at those critical moments weighed against the damage that would be done to the employment opportunities of millions of their fellow citizens in the eurozone? Would Karlsruhe have heard a case brought on those grounds by an unfortunate German citizen who lost his or her job as a result of those disastrously misjudged monetary policy moves?
Of course those decisions were criticized at the time. But that kind of criticism was not considered worthy of constitutional consideration. That was merely politics, and it was the duty of the central bank, and a measure of its independence, to override and ignore such objections.
The political impact of the court ruling has been revealing. On the German side, the business council of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union immediately expressed its support for the court. So too did a spokesperson for the AfD. Friedrich Merz, a possible right-wing successor to Merkel, let it be known that he now considers the German government bound to exercise a precautionary check on any further expansion of the ECB’s range of action.
The reaction of the European Commission and the ECB was no less immediate. They closed ranks around the ECJ. The clear message they sent was that they are bound by Europe’s common law and institutions. After a few days of deliberation, the ECB declared with supreme understatement that it takes note of the judgment from Karlsruhe but intends to ignore it since the ECB answers to the European Parliament and the European court, not the German Constitutional Court. The ECJ ruled in December 2018 on the asset purchase program at the request of the German court. There are no do-overs. The case is closed.
This leaves the German government and the Bundesbank in a tight spot. The German government, for its part, often goes for years without fully implementing the Constitutional Court’s most ambitious judgments. The Social Democrat-led Finance Ministry in Berlin, which cultivates its image as an advocate of pro-European policies, has played down the decision. The neuralgic point will be the Bundesbank. It is both a German agency, answerable to the Constitutional Court, and a member of the euro system—and thus bound by the statutes of the ECB.
An open and irresolvable conflict between the Bundesbank and the Constitutional Court on the one side and the ECB on the other would compound the tensions already being felt within the eurozone over the issue of the funding of the emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis. Resentment in Italy and Spain toward Germany is already at a high pitch. One might take the German court’s call to limit and balance the ECB’s expansion as a call to, instead, expand the reach of European fiscal policy. The ECB has made precisely that argument itself. But unfortunately the same political forces in Germany that brought the case to the Constitutional Court also stand in the way of a major move toward fiscal federalism.
Given the economic conservatism and hubris of the German court and the prospect of a string of challenges from across the EU by even more unfriendly forces, a strong stance from the European side is to be welcomed. But it would be regrettable if the ECB responded to the quixotic German onslaught against the realities of 21st-century central banking by itself retreating into a defensive bunker.
If it was not already evident, the COVID-19 shock has made clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that both the political and economic circumstances out of which the original model of central bank independence emerged have changed, not just in Germany or Europe but around the world. This renders the classic paradigm of inflation-fighting independence obsolete and has thrown into doubt models of narrow delegation. To address the new circumstances in which the real problems are the threat of deflation, the stability of the financial system, and the passivity of fiscal policy, the ECB, like all its counterparts, has indeed been pursuing a policy that goes well beyond price stability conventionally understood. In fact, in Europe the ECB is the only agency engaged in economic policy worthy of the name. Given the limitations of its mandate, this does indeed involve a degree of obfuscation. Despite itself groping in the dark, the Karlsruhe decision has helpfully put a spotlight on the ECB charade.
To respond by doubling down on a defense of independence may be inevitable in the short run. But this too will run its course. The more constructive response would be to advocate for a wider mandate to ensure that the central bank does indeed balance price stability with other concerns; the bank’s second objective should surely be employment and not the interests of German savers. But an open debate about the range of the ECB’s mandate would be a step forward for European politics. The politics of treaty adjustment are not easy, of course. It will take political courage.
But the demand itself should not be presented and dismissed as outlandish. After all the Fed has a dual mandate. Alongside price stability, it is enjoined by the Humphrey-Hawkins Act to aim for the maximum rate of employment possible. As the history of the Fed attests, this is far from being a binding commitment. But since 2008 it has provided the Fed with the latitude necessary to expand its range of activities.
That expansion of activity has in large part been a matter of technocratic discretion. The point of pushing for a discussion of a widening of the ECB’s mandate should be the opposite. The aim should be to encourage a wide-ranging discussion about the wider purpose of central banks. Again, the U.S. example may be an inspiration. The Fed’s dual mandate is, somewhat surprisingly, a legacy of progressive struggles fought in the 1960s and 1970s—specifically, by the civil rights movement under Coretta Scott King’s leadership—to force social equity to the top of the macroeconomic policy agenda. This may seem far-fetched, but progressives cannot shrink from the challenge. They should not allow themselves to be held prisoner to the 1990s mystique of central bank independence.
Two new issues make this pivotal in the current moment. One is the financial legacy of the COVID-19 crisis, which will burden us with gigantic debts. The balance sheet of the central bank is a pivotal mechanism for managing those debts. The other issue is the green energy transition and the need to make our societies resilient to environmental shocks to come. That will require government spending but also a reorientation of private credit toward sustainable investments. In that process, the central bank also has a key role. The current mandates require those concerns to be shoehorned in by way of arguments about financial stability. It is time for a more direct and openly political approach.
The independence model emerged from the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the need to anchor inflation during the Great Inflation of the 1970s. The huge range of interventions currently being pursued by global central banks have emerged out of the crises of a globally integrated financial system. They have been enabled by the absence of inflationary risk. They have succeeded in staving off catastrophe for now. But they lack a positive purpose and updated democratic grounding.
We value price stability, but for better and for worse the forces that once made it an urgent problem are no longer pressing. That objective alone is no longer sufficient to define the mandate of the most important economic policymaking agency. Financial stability is essential, but the current incestuous relationship between central banks and the financial system tends, if anything, to underwrite and encourage dangerous speculation by a self-enriching elite. Meanwhile, slow growth, inequality, and unemployment are at the root both of many of our social ills and by the same token the problem of the debt burden—how we manage government debt depends crucially on how rapidly the economy is growing. Finally, we can no longer deny that we confront fundamental environmental issues that pose a dramatic generational challenge for investment.
These are the policy challenges of the third decade of the 21st century. Money and finance must play a key role in addressing all of them. And central banks must therefore be at the heart of policymaking. To pretend otherwise is to deny both the logic of economics and the actual developments in central banking of recent decades.
We should also acknowledge however that this expansion stands in tension with the current political construction of central banks and particularly the ECB. Defining their position in terms of independence, strictly delimited mandates, and rules limits their democratic accountability. That was the explicit intention of the conservative reaction to the turmoil of the 1970s.
If Europe wants to escape the impasse created by the German court ruling, in which one counter majoritarian institution checks another at the behest of a resentful and self-interested minority, we need to step out from this historical shadow. Doing so is no doubt hedged with risks. But so too is attempting to patch and mend our anachronistic status quo. Half a century on from the collapse of Bretton Woods and the emergence of a fiat money world, 20 years since the beginning of the euro, it is time to give our financial and monetary system a new constitutional purpose. In so doing, Europe would not only be laying to rest its own inner demons. It would offer a model for the rest of the world.
Adam Tooze is a history professor and director of the European Institute at Columbia University. His latest book is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, and he is currently working on a history of the climate crisis.
We live in truly historic times. “There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen,” says a quote usually attributed to Vladimir Lenin. It certainly fits now.
For thousands of years, people who lived through what we call “history” didn’t realize it. We are the exceptions. We’re seeing history and we know it. The Vietnam War was certainly historic, but the coronavirus killed more Americans in the last two months than died in that long conflict.
The Great Depression was historic but by some indicators we are well on the way to matching it. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo missions were historic, but right now even more massive, world-changing technology and biotechnology are being hastily developed under pressure.
What will future generations say of 2020? What clever term will they devise for this period? And what dramatic events will they recall that we, in our time, still haven’t seen? These are unknowable questions for now. We can only speculate.
I’m thinking of history because last week I ran across a powerful essay by Morgan Housel, whom I knew when he wrote for The Motley Fool. He is now a partner at The Collaborative Fund and still writing. His article looks at five lessons from history that, on the surface, have nothing to do with coronavirus, Trump, China, the Fed, or any of our other usual topics. But at the same time, it has everything to do with them.
Today, I’ll share a little of that essay with you, using Morgan’s five points to review the big events unfolding around us. As you’ll see, they aren’t so surprising once you step back and take a long view.
Morgan Housel lists five important lessons, all of which fit like a glove with our present reality. I’ll list them one at a time and then draw some connections.
That sparked a memory. Back in June 2016 I wrote a letter called Thinking the Unthinkable. I talked about the then-unthinkable idea the US would have to monetize its debt and eventually see a worldwide debt jubilee, what I would later call The Great Reset. For me, simply entertaining those thoughts was a giant step. Yet here we are, just four years later, seeing some of them on the horizon. But it doesn’t end there.
In 2020, we’re all thinking unthinkable things. I never expected to endorse the kind of massive fiscal stimulus Congress has unleashed. A bunch of Republican senators and representatives never expected to vote for such bills. And I bet some Democrats never thought they would approve some of the business bailout provisions. Yet they did. Similarly, I doubt Jerome Powell would have ever said having the Fed buy junk bonds was feasible or advisable. Or any non-bank corporate bonds at all, for that matter.
But they aren’t really suffering the kind of “hardship” Morgan means. Unfortunately, many people are. A lot of middle-class workers never thought they would get suddenly furloughed and then have to stand in food bank lines because their unemployment benefits are stuck in bureaucracy. Now it’s happening all over.
April’s headline unemployment rate (U3) came in at 14.7% (and would have been nearly 5 percentage points higher if workers were classified differently during the survey data collection, the BLS noted). The broader U6 unemployment number, which includes people working involuntarily part-time, or not looking for a job because they expect to go back soon, jumped to 22.8%. That’s probably closer to a “real” unemployment number. However, the survey ended in the middle of April. We have seen 10 million more unemployment claims filed since then. The May numbers will be much uglier, with U6 likely over 25%. These are Depression-era numbers. We have never seen a spike like this.
Side note: it is quite clear that the BLS revised its methodology to better reflect the on-the-ground reality of the Covid-19 economy. This is going to draw some criticism, as they are guessing on those numbers. But they are entirely correct in making the attempt.
These things change attitudes and they do it fast. In his essay, Morgan talks about the elections of 1928 and then 1932. Americans elected Herbert Hoover with one of the biggest landslides ever, then voted him out with a landslide the other way. Then the real changes started: gold standard gone, massive public works spending, Social Security, and more. The years 1933–1935 saw some of the most consequential economic changes in history, all because the Great Depression’s hardships made people think the unthinkable. Roosevelt made some good decisions but also some bad ones, sparking another recession. It was a mind-bogglingly bad situation and it can happen again. I think it will.
I fully expect the economy to recover, if over a few years. However, we need to recognize that government decisions and monetary policy can make a bad situation even worse.
Business school doctrine says entrepreneurial business founders rarely make good CEOs after the company attains success. They are two different skill sets. In fact, they aren’t just different; in many ways, they are incompatible. As Morgan puts it, “The same personality traits that push people to the top also increase the odds of pushing them over the edge.”
You can probably think of some example names. I certainly can. But more important, I think we all, collectively, may be in this trap. Maybe the habits and attitudes that built the world economy to what it is (or was a few months ago) are unable to keep it there.
“Resiliency” is suddenly a buzz word. We are seeing how ultra-optimized global supply chains are actually quite fragile when unexpected events occur. We pushed too far in trying to save the last penny. Now we’ll have to not just rebuild, but rebuild differently, and it’s the opposite of everything known to generations of engineers and consultants.
Same for investors. The person who takes big risks for big rewards often has a hard time turning cautious. They stick around too long and eventually the risk-taking catches up with them. I think we’re seeing some of that, too, and it probably won’t end well.
This one is near and dear to my heart. One of my talents is putting the pieces together to see what’s coming. How fast it’s coming is a different question. Usually not as fast as I think.
For instance, I’ve been saying for years that our massive government debt is unsustainable. Ditto for gargantuan private debt. Yet both are here, and in fact growing considerably as this crisis pushes politicians to spend and also pushes the Fed to buy.
For that matter, who thought the Fed could sustain near-zero interest rates for over a decade, and now possibly another decade to go? I’m pretty sure even Ben Bernanke didn’t think it would happen that way.
I keep highlighting the woefully underfunded public employee pensions. Many state and local government plans, weighed down with ridiculously generous benefits for a few high-level bureaucrats while most public servants get crumbs, are doomed by any rational calculation. They were already hurting before this crisis and now will be worse.
As Herb Stein said, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” The question is, of course, when? The euro was a bad idea from the beginning yet they have kicked that can down the road for 20 years now. We may finally be reaching a point where they either have to mutualize the debt or split up into multiple currency zones. Not this year or next, but it is coming. So is a final reckoning for state and local pension plans. Sigh…
Morgan illustrates this lesson with the Wright Brothers airplane quest. Obviously, motorized flight was a hugely consequential, world-changing invention. But strangely, no one paid attention for years after their first flight in 1903. The first major press account wasn’t until 1908. And even then, no one saw the significance. The Washington Post wrote in 1909, “There will never be such a thing as commercial aerial freighters.” Oops.
The kind of personalities who make great discoveries are not the best at promoting. They have to be discovered by someone who can. And even stranger, the greatest inventions are often more about luck than genius. Hence the famous Isaac Asimov quote, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny…’”
Conversely, setbacks happen quickly. We are certainly seeing it now with the coronavirus. We spent a decade thinking the slow-growing economy would eventually take off. Now we would love to have that kind of “progress” back, and it happened in just a couple of months.
I talk a lot about “muddling through.” We have all kinds of problems but we get through them somehow. We adapt to new circumstances and find new answers. I suspect Morgan would agree, but he also makes a distinction between wounds and scars.
The people who muddle through a calamity are, by definition, the ones who survived it. So I can correctly say the US will muddle through the coronavirus, but some 70,000 Americans won’t muddle through because they are dead. That number could rise considerably higher.
Surviving family members will carry emotional scars the rest of their lives. It’s not a small number, either, when you add the families, friends, co-workers, and (God bless them) the healthcare workers heroically fighting this battle for us, and seeing so much suffering and death.
And that doesn’t even account for the scars yet to be earned as we go through recession and a long, slow recovery. People are going to lose their homes as well as their jobs. Children are going to see parents break up. Once-promising careers will be ruined.
We Baby Boomers didn’t see the Great Depression but we heard about it from our parents. We know the scars it left on them and, indirectly, on us. This generation will be scarred too. Not in the same way but scarred nonetheless. The future economy will reflect it.
But let me finish on an optimistic note. There are millions of entrepreneurs around the world. It’s not in their DNA to simply quit. Governments cannot lead us out of this crisis. They can make sure the conditions are favorable, but it is those entrepreneurs who will figure out how to create businesses and jobs in the new world.
This same phenomenon has happened after every major crisis and war since before the Industrial Revolution. There is no reason to think it will be any different this time. What will be different and utterly fascinating will be the new business models and services these entrepreneurs create. They will blend the old knowledge with new technology, giving us something completely different.
Yes, we’ll have to go through Neil Howe’s Fourth Turning and the geopolitical chaos George Friedman predicts, not to mention my own Great Reset, but it will happen at the same time the greatest entrepreneurial and technological boom in the history of humanity is brewing. There will be so much opportunity if you are prepared to take advantage of it. The world is not ending. It is just changing and it’s going to get better.