Infinite Pains

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‘Jesper Koll, from Merrill Lynch (Japan), told a Minerals Council of Australia conference that reports of the imminent collapse of the Japanese banking system were nonsense. Mr Koll said because interest rates were zero, banks were infinitely wealthy to the point they could buy a country.

‘”If Japan wanted to buy Australia, it could buy Australia tomorrow,” he said. “With zero interest rates, Japanese banks can fund any asset, whether it’s a good asset or a bad asset. With zero interest rates and zero funding costs there cannot be a financial crisis because the banks are infinitely wealthy.”‘

~ Asia Pulse

Well, if this were anywhere near being true, of course, rather than taking the deeds to Godzone, 3 million square miles of arid, red dust and fetid jungle with a ring of casinos on the shoreline, they might try buying up Japan (again) first.

After all, even as the estimable Mr. Koll was propagating this Mercantilist nonsense, the Asahi Shimbun was running a story relating how Japanese land prices had fallen at their fastest pace in the near 50-year record, reaching to 1982 levels overall, with land for commercial use at a 30-year low, having dropped by 45% in general, and by 73.5% in the six largest cities, since their early 1990s peak.

Nor would the Nikkei be recovering from levels 80% below the 1989 highs, having recently touched a mark first realized way back in 1981.

Why is it that, unlike the natural sciences — where progress can be admittedly hard-won and where innumerable false trails can still lead to widespread delusion about the mechanics of the Universe — economics seems to be a discipline more akin to market gardening where, for every hour expended nurturing and breeding healthier and more nutritious fruits of knowledge, another two must be spent rooting out same old weeds of error which our fathers strove so hard to eradicate?

Before he trots out such ancient paralogisms, Mr. Koll might do well to reflect that if more money and lower interest rates were the keys to u2018infinite wealth’, Alan Greenspan and his peers should be arraigned before the bar of history for leaving needless billions languishing in servitude and destitution, for, surely, the world’s most pressing problems of scarcity could otherwise have been solved by a combination of a more productive use of Governor Bernanke’s printing press and an enforcement of the Islamic and Mediaeval Christian injunctions against usury!

Though modern central banking is based on a corrupted version of John Law’s (flawed) monetary theories, the great Scots intellectual and gambler himself had the sense to note that u2018money is not the value FOR which goods are exchanged, but the value BY which they are exchanged’ — in other words, that, simply acting as a medium — a conduit, if you like — through which commerce is conducted, just enough money to avoid technical difficulties is a sufficiency beyond which no extra utility can be derived.

To see this in less abstruse terms, consider whether business in general (outside truck manufacturing and the supply of brown overalls) would be enhanced if every freight order had to be carried by law in two, not one, UPS vans, or if the efficacy of global communications traffic would improve by mandate if we reduced e-mail to the byte-size associated with mobile phone SMS texting.

In every time and place of economic difficulty, the cry always goes up for more and cheaper money, but if people were really aware of the forces at play, they would quickly realize that simply by calling in all the bank notes and scribbling an extra nought at the end of the denomination — which is what they effectively want when they clamour for this — nothing would be directly achieved, except the arbitrary transfer of ownership among people bound by contracts enforceable in money terms.

Harder to convey, we might also persuade them that the true, or u2018natural’, rate of interest is the price of time, the cost of u2018waiting’ to defer enjoyment of consumption goods and services.

Thus, it is only likely to become zero when we are readmitted to Paradise, to reside eternally in a land of untrammelled plenty. In other words, that while infinite wealth (and immortality) may bring zero interest rates, to argue the converse is to believe, as certain influential members of American society seem to, that we can forcibly advance the Second Coming by staging a Hollywood rehearsal of the Apocrypha at the head of a column of Bradley fighting vehicles!

Moreover, where making such property-infringing transfers ARE the point of the Grand Illusion (transfers away from creditors and towards debtors, from u2018sticky wage’ employees to importunate employers, from savers to consumers, and from hard-working citizens to parasitical ruling elites), the Court Jesper has still forgotten one basic law of economics — that of marginal utility.

For even if the first extra unit of money could somehow do some real good, the next one would do less, and the next one less, and so on, ad infinitum, until the money, being in infinite supply, becomes a u2018free good’ and is therefore worth nothing — a process most nearly approximated in that wealth destroying pathology known as a u2018hyperinflation’.

Notwithstanding this, there will be no constituency for reducing the torrent of extra money creation and artificially-lowered interest rates anywhere inside the Beltway.

Not when our Overlords have a perpetual war to fight and not when the actuarial scale of their indebtedness is reckoned to be a cool $44 trillion even before they get started on the next member of the Axis.

At least that’s the number whose broaching may have cost Paul O’Neill his job after he commissioned a team, led by Jagadeesh Gokhale, a Federal Reserve senior economist, and Kent Smetters, then deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury, to work out a net present value for the government’s future liabilities using conservative (sic) assumptions regarding future longevity, the growth in federal health expenditures and discretionary spending, and likely labour productivity.

Gokhale and Smetters also calculated how much would taxes have to be raised — or, har-di-har!, expenditures be cut — on an immediate and permanent basis to close this gap and came up with a politically unpalatable menu of (A) raising federal income tax collections by 69 per cent; (B) raising payroll tax collections by 95 percent; or (C) cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits by 56 percent.

Choice (D) was not just politically difficult, but mathematically so, too: cutting federal discretionary spending by more than 100 per cent, though a shut-down of all but the barest, most irreducible minimum of government, followed by a comprehensive privatization of all its assets might, in fact, accomplish just that feat, to our lasting benefit.

(Incidentally, no-one seems to have mentioned that the Cost of Empire — all those troops exciting global animus by manning u2018750 bases in three-quarters of the countries of the earth’ as Niall Ferguson put it — is roughly the same as that incurred by Social Security each year.)

Add to this the dire states-level picture, where tax revenue fell 5.6 percent across all states last year, u2018the worst revenue performance we’ve seen,’ according to the compilers of these numbers at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, who also indicated that the tax take has been flat so far during fiscal year 2003.

This shortfall, compounding the effects of long years of prodigality during the Boom, means that u2018more than 30 US states’ face long-term budget shortfalls, according to another study filed with the National Bureau of Economic Research last year and updated for the Financial Times.

u2018Only 13 out of the 50 US states’ — comprising only around a fifth of the total population — u2018are in a fiscally sustainable situation,’ said one of its co-authors, Daniel Bensendorf.

Thus, with the upcoming retirement of the Baby Boomers — which will soon begin a process of doubling those eligible for welfare payments and thus of crushing the estimated 15% larger working population beneath the car of this grey juggernaut — it is clear the US needs some combination of the generation of more revenues, the lesser payment of beneficiaries and an increase in the scale and ability of the workforce, and it needs it fast.

The peaceful and sustainable means to achieve this is to encourage a sense of realism among the populace about their true status and then to inculcate a sense of personal thrift and responsibility as a remedy, thereby allowing government to bow out of the old age business, while releasing extra real capital resources with which to effect the needed genuine enhancement of the productivity of the labour force.

Unfortunately, that has as much chance of happening as Paul Wolfowitz has of joining the next Haj.

The dishonest means — and the one whose practice is now a reinforced objective of current monetary policy — is to reduce real u2018entitlements’ and to hide the tax and debt burden through a process of inflation and dollar depreciation, whether this impacts wage rates or asset prices, and hence income returns or capital gains receipts.

All in all, another case of infinite money meaning infinite, if concealed, penury.

With even more rapid immigration an unlikely panacea for the shrinking relative size of the workforce, given the inevitable frictions this would entrain, as well as its impact on the self-fuelling paranoia of the Festung Amerika crowd at the AEI/PNAC, this means the indentured workforce must remain abroad even as more are yoked to its plough.

For methods two and three not to conflict, this means that all other nations must be induced into prostituting their own currencies at a rate commensurate with the process at work in the US, so that the dollar’s debasement does not become too objectionable by comparison, else foreign workers will not continue to squander their savings on pampering the Western gerontocracy and their over-consumptive offspring.

There are, indeed, hints that the upshot of the G8 summit — as contained in the various central bank submissions to the ongoing International Monetary Conference in Berlin this week — is that, fearful of the pointed threat of a unilateral dollar devaluation, exactly such a policy will indeed be prosecuted in the coming months.

However, if this relatively non-violent, but no less profound, aggression against individual property rights fails to take hold, further resort will have to be made, by this, as by all previous economically impaired Empires in history, when their characteristic inflation has destroyed their middle-class productive base, to ultima ratio regium — and that which cannot be gained by voluntary exchange will be taken as booty by force of arms.

Infinite money will equate, as ever, to infinite mischief.

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] writes from London on the financial markets, and edits the daily Capital Letter and the Website Capital Insight. He is co-manager of the Bermuda-based Edelweiss Fund.

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