Tuesday, November 3, 2009

It's capacity, not liquidity, stupid

Economic issues are best left to the economists, right? Wrong. They've got them wrong most of the time. Most economists, including well known pop economist Paul Krugman, can't predict economic events, not even anything remotely approximating the eventual outcome. They can only do so when the event is coming close to hand by which time the outcome is fairly obvious. Even their reasoning on the causation of the event is suspect.

The problem is that they are blinkered from the big picture by their eagerness to fall back on their mathematical formulas to model reality. Unlike the physical sciences which are amenable to formulas, social sciences, which include economics, have to account for human behaviours, cultures and emotions; factors not easily translated into mathematical variables.

The distinguished economic historian, the late Charles P. Kindleberger was dismissive of mathematical models because the models could never incorporate the myriad variables extant in the real world. Aside from the human quirks, we have to contend with war, politics, demographics and technologies, just to name a few. Yet Kindleberger had good predictive ability. Those of his breed are first and foremost economic historians. Historians look for patterns, not fancy formulas. Like war generals, they think subjectively. If war can be boiled down to formulas, everybody can be a general but war would have been unnecessary because the outcome can be deduced from the formulas before the first shot is fired. Good historians, like good generals, must have a keen sense of observation in order to root out the relevant from the irrelevant.

The present Grand Depression is the latest example of how brilliant economists are getting it wrong on the real cause of the crisis. It's not at all surprising since economists are schooled in the art of the monetary flow and not in the field of technologies. So the first conclusion that they have agreed on is that the crisis has been brought about by the abundant liquidity splurging in the monetary system. I have no argument with this except that abundant liquidity is merely a second order cause.

The real mastermind culprit is still out there on the loose; what they have caught is just his accomplice. Several narratives blaming the overflowing liquidity as the cause of the recession (most economists mistakenly regard this crisis as just a worse-off recession) have been or are about to written. This is a grave mistake, one that will later cast serious doubts on the credibility of its many authors.

The publication on the Great Depression of the 1930s authored by Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz titled, A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960, equally blamed the lack of liquidity for the depression. Big mistake. Poor Ben Bernanke, in a speech in 2002 honouring Friedman's 90th birthday, he apologised on behalf of the Fed for its monetary policy error in the 1930s. He shouldn't have to; instead, he should have ticked off Friedman and Schwartz for misleading policymakers for almost 40 years and still continuing to do so.

Let's get back to nailing our main culprit. If we look at the chart of global economic growth (see below) from 1600 to 2003, we can see that beginning 1820, the per capita GDP started breaking away from the static zero growth line that had characterised the global economy since AD 1, that is, the time of the Roman Empire.

The shift in the global per capita growth coincides with the start of the Industrial Revolution. It also marks the beginning of a volatile era typified by periodic boom and bust cycles. The main cause is the lagged effect of mobilising and demobilising of production resources. In the early part of the cycle, demand races ahead of supply because it takes time to set up plants or mines. Prices rise but gradually as supply catches up, everything stabilises. After some time, as production resources multiply, supply capacity outstrips demand.

To make matters worse, the production resources cannot be easily decommissioned since much capital has been invested in them. Prices start falling. To sustain demand in order to absorb the excess supply, policymakers increase the money supply by easing on the credit. Most of this money however goes towards speculating on assets, such as houses, and commodities, such as oil. Eventually, the whole charade can no longer be prolonged and gives way. Prices collapse ensues and businesses with high gearing, particularly banks begin falling like dominoes.

From the narrative, it is obvious that the liquidity surge kicks in later in order to pick up the demand slack. Policymakers are inclined towards easing liquidity since that's what society demands of them. Otherwise they'll be criticised for constraining growth.

The real culprit triggering the meltdown is actually surplus production capacity. Technological advances create the conditions for supply to increase tremendously yet using lesser number of people. It's not strange that the US jobless are fast becoming the hard-core unemployed. They have no chance of getting a job, ever. Once you globalise, the wages have to converge. For the American workers, it means they have to let their wages match those of the Chinese. This is very unlikely.

Also, in the past three technology cycles, the demographics were favourable to absorb the increased supply. However, the demographics, the growth of which closely tracks the per capita GDP line above, are reaching the end of its S-curve. The world's maximum population is expected to peak at 9 billion by 2050. Moreover, the last time around, we had Hitler, who despite his many evil deeds, managed to slip in one good deed of a massive destruction of the production resources of Western Europe which set the stage for their major rebuilding.

Therefore despite protestations to the contrary by leaders and policymakers, the current crisis is indeed a Grand Depression, the likes of which we have not undergone and probably the future generations will never experience. Its shape is neither V nor W but more of a staircase going all the way downhill.

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