Topic: Finance, Banking & Monetary Policy

North Korea’s Hyperinflation Legacy, Part II

Following North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-il’s death last December, many around the world had high hopes that his successor (and son), Kim Jong-un, would launch much-needed economic and political change. Unfortunately, in the months since the new supreme leader assumed power, little has changed for North Koreans outside of the small, communist upper class. The failed communist state has not delivered on its advertised economic reforms.

One thing it has delivered, however, is weapons, which have flowed through its illegal arms-trafficking pipelines. And, if that’s not enough, North Korea is planning another missile test  in the near future. But, as it turns out, the only thing that is certain to blast off is inflation.

In my recent blog post, I pointed out that one of North Korea’s communist legacies is hyperinflation (in addition to starvation). Indeed, hyperinflation may soon plague North Korea once again.

From what little data are available, it would appear that, in the span of six months, the price of rice has increased by nearly 130%. This is par for the course in North Korea, where the price of rice has increased by roughly 28,500% over the last three years (see the chart below).

 

 While the North Korean government worries about rocket launches and how to supply Syria with weapons, and while its archaeologists “discover” ancient unicorn lairs, its citizens’ food bowls are becoming quite expensive to fill. The supreme leader’s priorities, it would seem, are supremely out of whack.

Teachers — and Unions — Like Profits, Too

By now you’ve probably seen the economically ignorant, Ed Asner-narrated polemic from the California Federation of Teachers that “explains” how the rich hurt everyone because they are just so darn greedy. At one point in the original version the already loathsome Richy Rich actually goes so far as to relieve himself on the middle- and lower-class people above whom he rises  on his pile of cash. Don’t look for that “trickle down” visual now, though. It seems the CFT has edited it out after getting, shall we say, less than positive reviews for it. The rest of the tedious allegory, however, isn’t much more subtle.

It’s the reality-denying hypocrisy of it all, though, that is so grating. You see, teachers and unions want to profit just as much as reviled “Wall Street fat cats.”

“What?!” I can hear the teachers reading this scream. “I don’t do this for the money! How dare you, sir!”

Mr. and Mrs. Teacher, please bear with me for a moment.  I mean you no harm.

First, undertsand what profit is. Basically, it is making more from providing something than it costs to produce it. So if you are a teacher and use your earnings to buy food, housing, cable television, garden gnomes, airplane tickets, plastic surgery – anything – you are making a profit. And on an hourly basis likely a good profit, outpacing accountants and auditors, insurance underwriters, registered nurses, and other professionals. And that is without considering quite generous benefit packages public school employees often get.

Those concrete things, though, are not the compensation limits. There’s also substantial job security that comes with tenure, and in conjunction with teaching not being especially hard to break into, relatively little personal risk. Contrast that to entrepreneurs – you know, people who sometimes become fat cats – who often risk much of what they have to try new things that often end in failure. Such risk is a huge cost teachers simply don’t deal with.

In addition, while working with children is often very challenging, it can also be very rewarding. Who doesn’t get a kick out of the antics, questions, and comments of little kids? (I mean, they say the darndest things, right?) Or enjoy seeing their smiling faces. And when they get older, it can be very gratifying to guide them or inspire them as they contemplate what they want to do with their lives. In contrast, running a business  involves often stultifying detail work such as running payroll, securing office space, keeping “the books,” dealing with detailed government regulations, etc.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is nothing wrong with making a profit! Indeed, being profitable is generally the key to knowing that what you are doing is in demand – that you are providing something that makes other people better off – and, because you are earning more than the cost of production, you are doing something sustainable. So teachers, don’t disdain profits – embrace them!

Perhaps, though, be concerned about how you are getting them.

While there is far too much crony capitalism at work – businesses enriching themselves through government and politics – in general, companies can only make profits by earning the voluntary business of customers. In other words, they have to provide something people want, at a cost they are willing to pay. Payers have to feel they are better off.

Not so for public school teachers. Rather than getting paid by voluntary customers, they are ultimately paid with money extracted through government. Whether taxpayers like it or not, they are forced to pay for public schools. Which is, of course, why teachers’ unions are so deeply involved in politics.  They want to take people’s money no matter what.

The real irony is that many teachers could probably get paid more – in Korea some get MUCH more – were free enterprise rather than socialism allowed to reign. But we have a government monopoly, which is ripe for union control. One system, without any real competition, is best suited to have one employee rep. Allow people to freely choose among autonomous schools, however, and schools would have big incentives to pay the best teachers well because providing a great service – not throwing around political weight – would be the key to success.

Teachers, ultimately, are human beings, and on the whole almost certainly enjoy profit as much as anyone else. That’s not a problem. The problem is how they – and much worse, their unions – make it.

Sports ‘Donations’ a Flagrant College Foul

I love me some Georgetown University basketball, and am happy to pay for the privilege of possessing season tickets. (Well, that is when the Hoyas win pretty regularly and don’t deliver too many abominations like this one.) I’m also more than willing to make the hoops club “donation” that’s required to secure my seats. But it’s high time to end the ludicrous college sports scam—especially in light of our fast-approaching rendezvous with the “fiscal cliff”—that is the tax deduction for ticket-securing “charitable” donations.

My forced giving, to be honest, is pretty small: $100 per seat for some decent, lower bowl (though not center court) seats. But it’s not like I’m spending the dough to support, say, a new science center, or endow a professorship. No, it’s going to support big-time, constantly televised, money-making sports entertainment. And, of course, it is the fun of being an in-person fan—not my selfless desire to, say, engineer mitochondria to better serve humanity—that is animating my “charity.” Nonetheless, 80 percent of my donation is tax deductible.

At many big-time sports schools, and for better seats than mine, such forced philanthropy can be much pricier. At some institutions, such as the University of Texas and the University of North Carolina, it is impossible to nail down just how much people have to donate per seat beyond sticker prices because one accumulates donation points over time. Just to make it onto the UT benefits chart, however, you have to donate at least $150, and the top-line is $25,000. Texas A&M lets you know that for “priority” football tickets you’ll have to give between $45 and $3,900 per seat. And for most of the lower-bowl seats at the University of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena, basketball season tickets require donations of between $850 and $5,000. But don’t worry—part of the price can be handled by corporate matching funds!

If people want to donate generously to college sports programs—including cash-cow football and basketball—that’s fine. And I don’t want government getting any more money than it already has … and flushes down noble-sounding toilets. But giving favored tax status to forced donations for season tickets, as if one were donating to famine relief or cancer research? Even without the nation facing a $16 trillion—and growing—debt, that’s ridiculous.

Cross-posted from SeeThruEdu.com

The UK’s Capital Obsession

Last Thursday, Mervyn King, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, called for yet another round of recapitalization of the major UK banks. For some time, I have warned that higher bank capital requirements, when imposed in the middle of an economic slump, are wrong-headed because they put a squeeze on the money supply and stifle economic growth. So far, bank recapitalization efforts, such as Basel III, have resulted in financial repression – a credit crunch. It is little wonder we are having trouble waking up from the current economic nightmare.

So why would Mr. King want to saddle the UK banking system  with another round of capital-requirement increases, particularly when the UK economy is teetering on the edge of a triple-dip recession? Is King simply unaware of the devastating unintended consequences this would create?

In reality, there is more to this story than meets the eye. To understand the motivation behind the UK’s capital obsession, we must begin with infamous Northern Rock affair. On August 9, 2007, the European money markets froze up after BNP Paribas announced that it was suspending withdrawals on two of its funds that were heavily invested in the US subprime credit market. Northern Rock, a profitable and solvent bank, relied on these wholesale money markets for liquidity. Unable to secure the short-term funding it needed, Northern Rock turned to the Bank of England for a relatively modest emergency infusion of liquidity (3 billion GBP).

This lending of last resort might have worked, had a leak inside the Bank of England not tipped off the BBC to the story on Thursday, September 13, 2007. The next morning, a bank run ensued, and by Monday morning, Prime Minister Gordon Brown had stepped in to guarantee all of Northern Rock’s deposits.

The damage, however, was already done. The bank run had transformed Northern Rock from a solvent (if illiquid) bank to a bankrupt entity. By the end of 2007, over 25 billion GBP of British taxpayers’ money had been injected into Northern Rock. The company’s stock had crashed, and a number of investors began to announce takeover offers for the failing bank. But, this was not to be – the UK Treasury announced early on that it would have the final say on any proposed sale of Northern Rock. Chancellor of the Exchequer Allistair Darling then proceeded to bungle the sale, and by February 7, 2008, all but one bidder had pulled out. Ten days later, Darling announced that Northern Rock would be nationalized.

Looking to save face in the aftermath of the scandal, Gordon Brown – along with King, Darling and their fellow members of the political chattering classes in the UK – turned their crosshairs on the banks, touting “recapitalization” as the only way to make banks “safer” and prevent future bailouts.

In the prologue to Brown’s book, Beyond the Crash, he glorifies the moment when he underlined twice “Recapitalize NOW.” Indeed, Mr. Brown writes, “I wrote it on a piece of paper, in the thick black felt-tip pens I’ve used since a childhood sporting accident affected my eyesight. I underlined it twice.”

I suspect that moment occurred right around the time his successor-to-be, David Cameron, began taking aim at Brown over the Northern Rock affair.

Clearly, Mr. Brown did not take kindly to being “forced” to use taxpayer money to prop up the British banking system. But, rather than directing his ire at Mervyn King and the leak at the Bank of England that set off the Northern Rock bank run, Brown opted for the more politically expedient move – the tried and true practice of bank-bashing.

It turns out that Mr. Brown attracted many like-minded souls, including the central bankers who endorsed Basel III, which mandates higher capital-asset ratios for banks. In response to Basel III (and Basel III, plus), banks have shrunk their loan books and dramatically increased their cash and government securities positions (both of these “risk free” assets are not covered by the capital requirements imposed by Basel III and related capital mandates).

In England, this government-imposed deleveraging has been particularly disastrous. As the accompanying chart shows, the UK’s money supply has taken a pounding since 2007, with the money supply currently registering a deficiency of 13%.

 

How could this be? After all, hasn’t the Bank of England employed a loose monetary policy scheme under King’s leadership? Well, state money – the component of the money supply produced by the Bank of England – has grown by 22.3% since the Bank of England began its quantitative easing program (QE) in March 2009, yet the total money supply, broadly measured, has been shrinking since January 2011.

The source of England’s money-supply woes is the all-important bank money component of the total money supply. Bank money, which is produced by the private banking system, makes up the vast majority – a whopping 97% – of the UK’s total money supply. It is bank money that would take a further hit if King’s proposed round of bank recapitalization were to be enacted.

As the accompanying chart shows, the rates of growth for bank money and the total money supply have plummeted since the British Financial Services Authority announced its plan to raise capital adequacy ratios for UK Banks.

 

In fact, despite a steady, sizable expansion in state money, the total money supply in the UK is now shrinking, driven by a government-imposed contraction in bank money. So, contrary to popular opinion, monetary policy in the UK has been ultra-tight, thanks to the UK’s capital obsession.

Despite wrong-headed claims to the contrary by King, raising capital requirements on Britain’s banks will not turn around the country’s struggling economy – any more than it will un-bungle the Northern Rock affair. Indeed, this latest round of bank-bashing only serves to distract from what really matters – money.

Fed Toys with Ratcheting Up the Credit Crunch

When the Basel I accords, mandating higher capital-asset ratios for banks, were introduced in 1988, they were embraced by the administration of President George H.W. Bush. With higher capital-asset ratios came a sharp slowdown in the money supply growth rate and—unfortunately for President George H. W. Bush and his re-election campaign—a mild recession from July 1990 through March 1991.

Now, we have Basel III and its higher capital-asset ratio requirements being imposed on banks in the middle of a weak, drawn-out economic recovery. This is one of the major reasons why the recovery is so anemic.

How could this be? Well, banks produce bank money, which accounts for roughly 85% of the total U.S. money supply (M4). Mandated increases in bank capital requirements result in contractions in bank money, and thus in the total money supply.

Here’s how it works:

While the higher capital-asset ratios that are required by Basel III are intended to strengthen banks (and economies), these higher capital requirements destroy money. Under the Basel III regime, banks will have to increase their capital-asset ratios. They can do this by either boosting capital or shrinking assets. If banks shrink their assets, their deposit liabilities will decline. In consequence, money balances will be destroyed.

So, paradoxically, the drive to deleverage banks and shrink their balance sheets, in the name of making banks safer, destroys money balances. This, in turn, dents company liquidity and asset prices. It also reduces spending relative to where it would have been without higher capital-asset ratios.

The other way to increase a bank’s capital-asset ratio is by raising new capital. This, too, destroys money. When an investor purchases newly-issued bank equity, the investor exchanges funds from a bank account for new shares. This reduces deposit liabilities in the banking system and wipes out money.

We now learn that the Fed, using the cover of the Dodd-Frank legislation, is toying with the idea of forcing foreign banks that operate in the United States to hold billions of dollars of additional capital  (read: increase their capital-asset ratios).

This will make the credit crunch “crunchier” and throw the U.S. economy into an even more vulnerable position.  The last thing the Fed should be doing is squeezing the banks and tightening the screws on the production of bank money.

Where’s Iran’s Money?

Since I first estimated Iran’s hyperinflation last month , I have received inquiries as to why I have never so much as mentioned Iran’s money supply. That’s a good question, which comes as no surprise. After all, inflations of significant degree and duration always involve a monetary expansion.

But when it comes to Iran, there is not too much one can say about its money supply, as it relates to Iran’s recent bout of hyperinflation. Iran’s money supply data are inconsistent and dated. In short, the available money supply data don’t shed much light on the current state of Iran’s inflation.

Iran mysteriously stopped publishing any sort of data on its money supply after March 2011. Additionally, Iranian officials decided to change their definition of broad money in March 2010. This resulted in a sudden drop in the reported all-important bank money  portion of the total money supply, and, as a result, in the total. In consequence, a quick glance at the total money supply chart would have given off a false signal, suggesting a slump and significant deflationary pressures, as early as 2010

While very dated, at least Iran’s state money, or money produced by the central bank (monetary base, M0), is a uniform time series. The state money picture, though dated, is consistent with a “high” inflation story. Indeed, the monetary base was growing at an exponential rate in the years leading up to the end of the reported annual series.  No annual data are available after 2010 (see the chart below).

Iran is following in Zimbabwe’s well-worn footsteps, trying to throw a shroud of secrecy over the country’s monetary statistics, and ultimately its inflation problems. Fortunately for us, the availability of black-market exchange-rate data has allowed for a reliable estimate  of Iran’s inflation—casting light on its death spiral .

Is Turkey Golden?

Recently, Moody’s Investors Service took some wind from Turkey’s sails, when it declined to upgrade Turkey’s credit rating to investment grade. Moody’s cited external imbalances, along with slowing domestic growth, as factors in its decision. This move is in sharp contrast to the one Fitch made earlier this month, when it upgraded Turkey to investment grade.   Moody’s decision not to upgrade Turkey, and its justification, left me somewhat underwhelmed – given how well the Turkish economy has done in recent years.

Since the fall of Lehman Brothers, Turkey’s central bank has employed a so-called unorthodox monetary policy mix. For example, a little over a year ago, it began to allow commercial banks to purchase gold from Turkish citizens and allowed banks to count gold to fulfill their reserve requirements. Incidentally, this was a remarkable success – from 2010-2012, the Turkish banking sector’s precious metal account increased by over 7 billion USD.

For all the criticism its unconventional monetary policies have garnered, the Central Bank of the Republic of Turkey has, in fact, produced orthodox, golden results. Indeed, as the accompanying chart shows, the central bank has delivered on the only thing that really matters – money.

Turkey’s economic performance has been quite strong (despite some concerns about inflation and its current account deficit) . Turkey’s money supply has been close to the trend level for some time, and it currently stands 2.41% above trend. This positive pattern is similar to that of many Asian countries, who continue to weather the current economic storm better than the West.  And, it stands in sharp contrast to the unhealthy economic picture in the United States and Europe – both of which register significant money supply deficiencies.

So, why would Moody’s not follow Fitch’s lead and upgrade Turkey to investment grade? To understand this divergence, one should examine Turkey’s recent current account activity. Since late 2011, Turkey’s current account has rebounded somewhat (see the accompanying chart).

But, if gold exports are excluded from the current account (on a 12-month rolling basis), a rather significant 47% of this improvement, from the end of 2011 to September 2012, magically disappears.

Where is this gold going? Well, a quick look at the accompanying chart shows just how drastically exports to Iran and the UAE have surged this year.

Taken together, the charts indicate that Turkey is exporting gold to Iran, both directly and via the UAE , propping up their current account in the process. This has put Turkey and the UAE in the crosshairs of proponents of anti-Iranian sanctions.   Those who beat the sanctions drum are now seeking to impose another round of sanctions, aimed at disrupting programs such as Turkey’s gold-for-natural-gas exchange. This proposal clearly highlights some of the problems associated with sanctions, specifically the unintended costs imposed on the friends of the U.S. and EU in the region. Indeed, Dubai has already taken a hit, with its re-exports falling dramatically as a result of the sanctions.

What is the U.S. to do – go against Turkey, its NATO ally? Believe it or not, some in the Senate are allegedly considering such a wrong-headed move.

If these proposed sanctions are implemented, then Moody’s pessimistic outlook on Turkey may turn out to be not so far from the mark, after all – and Turkey will have no one but its “allies” to blame.