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Money velocity, not quantity, caused the boom'n'bust

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Reading “Extreme Money“, the acclaimed new book by Satyajit Das, has highlighted for me the importance of money velocity.

As Das so clearly demonstrates (pp. 78-80), the banks altered their mortgage lending model in recent years. Instead of lending money and then holding that mortgage to maturity, they would sell it on for a sum that included the discounted value of future interest payments. This returned bank capital and depositors’ money more quickly, which made it available for a new loan. Turning the money over faster massively increased the ratio of net profit to bank capital, so that the yield on banking activities outstripped other, one might say more productive, forms of enterprise. It became almost the only game in town, so that the economy has been skewed towards sterile financial hocus-pocus, instead of providing and exchanging useful goods and services.

The system created a boom, which could only be sustained as long as borrowers could absorb the increased quantity of loaned money. Asset prices boomed as fools sold on to bigger fools, and poorer-quality borrowers were suckered into joining. But we seem to have reached the limit of this pyramid scheme, and having run out of expansion room, the velocity of money is dropping and attention then turns to quantity instead.

The question now being asked – again, since we are in the throes of QE3 – is whether pumping extra cash into banks will balance the equation. If Wikipedia (see “money velocity” link above) quotes him accurately, I think the answer was given more than sixty years ago, by Paul Anthony Samuelson:

In terms of the quantity theory of money, we may say that the velocity of circulation of money does not remain constant. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” You can force money on the system in exchange for government bonds, its close money substitute; but you can’t make the money circulate against new goods and new jobs.

Banks have been given contradictory instructions: lend more, and build up your reserves. No wonder they take government support cash and buy safe, interest-earning government bonds with it. Effectively, the government is funding the gradual repair of bank balance sheets; it would be quicker and more honest if Uncle Sam and John Bull simply gave them enough cash to do the job.

But even that might not get the banks lending again. Would you, in their position?

Let’s assume for a moment, sophisticated investor, that you have decided to stop day-trading because there’s an increasing probability in this shark market that the bigger fool may turn out to be you. What longer-term investment might act as a safe haven for your gains?

  • Western manufacturing industry, with its high costs of labor and regulation?
  • Eastern manufacturing industry, so dependent on the once-profligate but now financially distressed Western consumer?
  • Industrial commodities, which have soared in the busy economic boom but also because of leveraged speculation?
  • Western real estate? Yes, the price-to-income ratio is dropping – but we haven’t yet seen the drop in incomes that will continue the downward trend in nominal terms – especially as the borrower finds more of his limited income going on food and energy bills.
  • Emerging markets real estate? One for the specialists, such as Marc Faber.
  • Bank shares and sovereign debt? Junk bonds? Isn’t that what got us into this mess?
  • Agriculture? Maybe.
  • Gold? Maybe – but what a rise it’s seen in the last few years.
  • Cash? Inflation isn’t hitting everything – big-ticket items have gotten cheaper in real terms for decades. Here in the UK my first new compact car cost me £6,000 in 1989 and I could get another for that price now, with higher specifications. If you can pay your living expenses from income, maybe cash isn’t such a crazy option.

For the way our governments (US/UK) are seeking to shore up the system doesn’t look destined to work. The increased quantity of money, now used so cautiously and unproductively by the banks, is not going to offset the drop in velocity.

Later, if that money stays around and is not withdrawn quickly enough, then when we revive economic activity there will be a rush of general price inflation; but not, I think, for some years yet. Such inflation we’re seeing now has different causes and effects from the type we saw before, and has more to do with physical supply and demand rather than monetary expansion.

So some experts are predicting “troubles ahead“, “unprecedented velocity collapse“, a “double dip recession“, or even a breakdown that will make us envy simpler, more sustainable societies.

I don’t go with that last, but then again, I don’t expect my house to burst into flame and yet I still have smoke detectors and fire insurance; so I do think it’s good to build up easily-accessible emergency reserves against the possibility of temporary disruption.

There is no royal road to predicting economic developments. All the charts in the world are no use when the powers that be decide something different really has to be done. The system is not a machine but a poker game, and a crooked one at that. So I expect the course of events to be determined by a negotiation between the interests of the powerful, which in our democracies also (to some small extent) includes us, the ordinary people.

For now I’m still holding cash and government inflation-linked bonds, but if the consequences of deflation are too painful for the populace, then the rules may well alter. Maybe, in time, we will indeed get hyperinflation, even though these days the currency is managed in a very different way from that of Germany in 1923. Dr Faber noted recently that gold and bonds rose together, a counterintuitive phenomenon he analysed as arising from fear of systemic collapse. This fear may also explain why India and China (among others) are boosting their holdings of physical gold, which is supporting the price even as other commodities deflate.

But that time of game-changing crisis is not, I think, with us yet.

INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: None. Still in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), and missing all those day-trading opportunities.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog.

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