Inequality And Macroeconomics At A Crossroads
“If you don’t know, the thing to do is not to get scared, but to learn.”
“Man’s mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not.”
“I like to deal with somebody who has no illusions about getting favors.”
Red-blooded Americans read these lines and, if in polite company, resist the urge to beat their chests. These mantras say all that need be said of the virtues of honesty, integrity, productivity, grit, independence, pride and liberty itself. Accurately attribute the quotes to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, however, and some pause for a moment of reticence, gently reminded of the need to be politically correct.
The need to be ‘PC’ was not even in accepted vernacular back in 1957, when Rand’s book was being vilified by critics. The tome was labeled a testament to hatred and cruelty, a soulless slaying of the welfare state. As fate would have it, a rich rebuttal in the form of a letter to the editor of the New York Times would make history: “‘Atlas Shrugged is a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting. Creative individuals and undeviating purpose and rationality achieve joy and fulfillment. Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”
That the vehement defense was penned by one Alan Greenspan might go down as one of the most malevolent mockeries writ from an era in central banking heralded by the Rand acolyte himself. It rings as impolite in its bluntness, but it was Greenspan who most bastardized Rand’s basic premise, that innovators and producers build model economies.
Every tragedy has a beginning. At the outset of this particular saga was the moral hazard born of Greenspan’s fascination with the stock market. He was literally in awe of those Rand would have characterized as perfect producers, Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe who consumed what they killed. It’s one thing to admire, but quite another to allow yourself to be intimidated when you are tasked with regulating the world in which the Masters reside.
And yet, in the weeks and months that followed the crash of 1987, the newly minted Federal Reserve Chairman directed the New York Fed to leak to bond trading desks the Fed’s plans to inject liquidity into the system. By sanctioning the front running of the Fed, Greenspan had effectively invited the Wall Street’s foxes into the hen house to feast on preordained profits.
Stop and think for a moment about the regime change this heralded, the alteration thrust upon the principle of risk-taking, of markets’ duty-bound and noble tradition of price discovery. Greenspan flipped the very law of nature on its head for those who had been schooled to live and die off the consequences of their trades, come what may. To be shielded from the ramifications of their actions denunciated everything Wall Street did and should represent.
And yet, here we are, 30 years later. Thanks to the bounteous harvest of moral hazard sown by Greenspan’s original sin, far too many of Wall Street’s innovative producers have devolved into the looters Rand so decried in her tribute to capitalism. Rather than create anything of lasting value, today’s Wall Street leeches what it can from the bottomless, fetid supply of the moral hazard manufactured by central bankers.
If only it just ended there, it would be bad enough. But politicians long ago opted to tie their fates and fortunes to the same poisoned central bank dealer. As far as they’re concerned, the monies that keep them in office need be fungible and nothing else.
And so, the Stygian tale turns, sustained by trillions upon trillions of dollars of debilitating debt taken on along the way. The central banks print money. The investment banks pocket fees. The tab swells. Add it all up and global credit sums to $220 trillion today, up from $150 trillion at the onset of the financial crisis. Narrow your focus to the four largest developed markets, those most active on the money-printing stage, and you find that $34 trillion of debt has amassed since then. Call the chart below simple if you will, but sometimes, one line says more than enough.
Sum of Central Bank Balance Sheets and Cumulative Budget Deficits for the United States, Eurozone, the United Kingdom and Japan ($Trillions)
In the words of the Deutsche Bank analysts who created the graph:
Another way of looking at this is the extra amount of stimulus over and above living within our means (no money printed, no deficits) seen since the Great Financial Crisis. In the end, $34 trillion of stimulus and Quantitative Easing has delivered very low growth, subdued inflation and sky-high asset prices around the globe. This is unprecedented territory and how can anyone estimate what the fallout will be when we normalize again?
In all actuality, the very same Deutsche analysts answered their own question in the same report that produced that daunting chart above, of debt built to nowhere, akin to that pork-financed bridge, also to nowhere, so pilloried in the media years ago. The fallout will be anger – unprecedented, immeasurable levels of unrequited anger among the masses that know all too well that the economy’s designated producers have become looters, robbing them of a passageway out of the hell on earth they’ve come to know as subsistence care of entrepreneurship and innovation succumbing to slow, sad deaths.
Populism itself is coming home to roost and it will present itself as the macroeconomic challenge of the ages.
No doubt, ‘populism’ is a subjective force, all but impossible to quantify. Thankfully, that didn’t stop the Deutsche analysts from giving it a go. To wit, they weighed populist votes and population size in seven large countries over the last century, specifically those of France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany and the presidential elections within the United States. Qualifiers included parties that espouse communism, nationalist policies tied to immigration and militarism and leaders with dominating, charismatic personalities rather than well-defined policy positions. In Europe, anti-NATO and Euro-skeptic tendencies were also captured while in the United States, anti-corporate progressives that defied the establishment made the cut.
It’s noteworthy that these general themes, in one form or another, have withstood the test of time, answering the question as to whether we can’t all just get along. (Apparently not.)
Discount what you will. Net out what you like. No matter how you slice it, prior to the last decade, populism is off the charts. No period in modern history compares to what we’re witnessing today save the epoch set off by the stock market crash of 1929 that culminated with World War II, with, by the way, the Great Depression sandwiched in between.
Populism Index Against the Backdrop of Developed Market Financial Crises
Hats off to the team at Deutsche for resisting hyperbole in the face of the immutable message delivered in the graph:
“While the consequence of the recent rise in populism hasn’t yet destabilized financial markets, the level of uncertainty will surely remain high while such parties remain realistic power brokers in major national elections. (Populism’s) rise surely increases the risk to the current world order and could set off a financial crisis at some point soon.”
It’s that last point that finally brings this week’s subtitle into context. The gravity of populism’s root cause, inequality, is no longer purely political tinder. It’s all about the economy.
The good news is the beginnings of an epiphany are dawning on the have’s. Mega hedge fund magnate Ray Dalio in particular, a man whose net worth crests $17 billion, has voiced concern. In a recent interview, Dalio said that he thought inequality was the most daunting challenge on the horizon, one on par with the period from 1935 to 1940.
“If you carve out that lower 40 percent, not only has there been no income growth, but death rates are rising because of opiate use, suicide and because they’re losing jobs,” Dalio said. “This is the biggest issue of our time – the biggest economic issue, the biggest political issue and the biggest social issue.”
Dalio is right. And though he’s gone as far as saying the Fed is poised to commit a policy error akin to 1937, he’s not vociferous enough in his criticism of Fed policy for engineering the fine mess in which the country finds itself.
Thankfully, I’m not alone in my indictment of the Fed. In the words of an economist worthy of the deepest respect, Judy Shelton, Janet Yellen’s concern for the plight of the forgotten masses is, “rich.” I recently caught up with Shelton and she had this to say, in a clear rebuttal of the fawning accolades being showered on Yellen as her time at the Fed comes to a blessed end: “While it’s nice that Janet Yellen cares about the issue, I think she should have been more forthcoming in acknowledging the Fed’s own role.”
Shelton’s eloquence shines through in Beware a Magnanimous Fed, an opinion piece she wrote three years ago in reaction to the following naïve statement made by Yellen: “Although we work through financial markets, our goal is to help Main Street, not Wall Street.” Shelton’s reply follows.
The problem with Yellen’s public display of benevolent concern over income and wealth inequality is that it implies she means to do something about it. This is worrisome because she views the Fed as a force for good rather than as a distorting government interloper into private-sector credit markets whose clumsy efforts skew financial rewards to savvy corporate strategists and sophisticated investors.
If Yellen wants to restore the free-market values rooted in our nation’s history, she needs to pay heed to the telling correlation between wealth inequality – at its highest level in the past 100 years, higher than for much of American history before then – and the creation of the Federal Reserve in 1913. It’s unbecoming to preach the virtues of equality of opportunity when Americans see only too well who most benefits from monetary favoritism and who is most punished by the inequality of access to vital financial capital.
It’s doubtful Ayn Rand herself could have said it better. Shelton’s refutation of Yellen’s premise is all the more prescient given the results of the presidential election. The masses may not be able to identify zero interest rate policy and quantitative easing as culprits by name. But their actions speak volumes to their shared revelation that the enemy has been identified and it is indeed within.
As for any aspirations to attain the American Dream, they’ve long since been crushed by repeated iterations of subprime debt illusions ending in tears. Call the two dichotomous headlines from the November 15th issue of the Wall Street Journal Exhibits A & B: Household Debt Hits a New High and More Americans Feel Like a Million Dollars.
If you haven’t yet got the picture, it might be time for a courtesy call to your friendly neighborhood ophthalmologist. As for what lies ahead, populism appears to be taking a nasty turn for the worse. And though the problem is clearly as close to home as it can be, our shared national dilemma is anything but local.
Look no further than my paternal family’s homeland. Radical no longer suffices for the long-repressed Italians seeking relief at the polls. The far right, it would appear, is now rearing its hateful, ugly head. Be on the lookout for more of these headlines as oppression spreads in the way only nasty infestations can.
On a more practical level, it strikes me as untoward to bandy about investment ideas while pondering such heavy prospects. If you’ll indulge me some grace, it’s safe to say defense contractors will have no challenge keeping the lights on in the years to come.
In the end, our collective deliverance can only come from strong leadership that refuses to balk at the grave challenges that lie ahead. To call one last time on Rand’s sagacity, “Evil is impotent and has no power but that which we let it extort from us.”