Enlightened Economics

Economics for an Enlightened Age

Posts Tagged ‘gross domestic product’

• The Economic Statistic US Elites Keep ‘Hush-Hush’

Posted by Ron Robins on June 14, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published June 6, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

It is a simple statistic that continues to warn of huge economic problems ahead for the US. Some economists call it the ‘marginal productivity of debt (MPD).’ It relates the change in the level of all debt (consumer, corporate, government etc.) in a country to the change in its gross domestic product (GDP). However, due to the message it is delivering, most US economists employed in financial institutions, governments and private industry, as well as financiers and politicians, want to ignore it.

And for the US economy and government finances, the MPD (and related variants of it) is continuing to indicate extremely difficult economic times ahead.

I have vague recollections of the MPD concept from my economics classes long ago. But I was re-introduced to it around 2001 by a renowned economist who, during the following few years prior to his passing, became alarmed as to the MPD path of the US. His name was Dr. Kurt Richebächer, formerly chief economist and managing director of Germany’s Dresdner Bank. Dr. Richebächer, was so respected that former US Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker once said of him that, “sometimes I think that the job of central bankers is to prove Kurt Richebächer wrong,” reported the online financial journal, The Daily Reckoning on May 15, 2004.

Investigating Dr. Richebächer’s concern further, I wrote an article on my Enlightened Economics blog on January 23, 2008, titled, Is the Amazing US Debt Productivity Decline Coming to a Bad End? I found that, “for decades, each dollar of new debt has created increasingly less and less national income and economic activity. With this ‘debt productivity decline,’ new evidence suggests we could be near the end-game… ”

Another way of viewing the debt productivity problem is to look at it in terms of how many dollars of debt it took to help create total national income, which is the wages, salaries, profits, rents and interest income of everyone. Again, from my above mentioned article, which quotes Michael Hodges in his Total America Debt Report, that, “in 1957 there was $1.86 in debt for each dollar of net national income, but [by] 2006 there was $4.60 of debt for each dollar of national income – up 147 per cent. It also means this extra $2.74 of debt per dollar of national income produced zilch extra national income. In 2006 alone it took $6.32 of new debt to produce one dollar of national income.”

Such data helps explain why US exponential debt growth—after reaching certain limits—collapsed in 2008 and contributed massively to the global financial crash.

However, whereas the US private sector debt has marginally ‘de-leveraged’ (retrenched) since that crash (which might now be reversing), the US government, as everyone knows, has run up mammoth deficits to purportedly keep the country’s economy from imploding. Thus, the US’s MPD is marching to another, perhaps even more frightening tune, suggesting government financial insolvency and/or debt default.

One fascinating way of looking at the declining MPD of US government debt has just been presented by Rob Arnott on May 9, 2011, in his post, Does Unreal GDP Drive Our Policy Choices? What Mr. Arnott does is to subtract out the change in debt growth from GDP, and refers to this statistic as ‘Structural GDP.’ He finds that, “the real per capita Structural GDP, after subtracting the growth in public debt, remains 10 per cent below the 2007 peak, and is down 5 per cent in the past decade. Net of deficit spending, our prosperity is nearly unchanged from 1998, 13 years ago.”

In its effort to counter the significant economic difficulties since 2008, the US government has added, or will have added, around $4 trillion in deficits (financed by new debt) in its three fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011. Yet, all this massive government deficit spending has failed to really ignite economic growth. Most likely this is because of the enormous dead weight of unproductive and onerous private sector debt, particularly that of consumer debt. Hence, real US GDP will have increased probably less than $1.5trn during these years. Including some further economic benefit in the years thereafter, a total GDP benefit of only about $2trn is probable.

So, $4trn borrowed for $2trn in GDP gains. Thus, in very rough round numbers, each new one dollar of US government debt might only produce $0.50 in new economic activity and probably only about $0.08 in new federal tax revenue. (Federal tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is around 15 per cent.) Therefore, the economic marginal return for each new dollar of US government debt is possibly around -50 per cent! If you loaned someone $10 million and they gave you back $5m, you would not be happy!

Hence, it might not be long before those holding or buying US government bonds perceive the reality that the US government, and US economy, are losing massively on government borrowings. This will result in much, much higher US government bond yields and interest costs. Most importantly, it may make the rollover of US debt and new debt issuance incredibly difficult unless either US taxes rise stratospherically to cover the deficits, and/or the US Federal Reserve money printing goes into hyper-drive to purchase the debt the markets will not buy. (Of course US banks, pension funds etc., could also be forced to buy them.)

Thus, the idea that US government debt continues to be ‘risk-free’ is absurd.

For this, and for many other reasons cited above, is why the US financial and political elites want to keep hush-hush about what the MPD and its variants reveal!

Copyright alrroya.com


Posted in Economic Measurement, Economics, Monetary Policy, Statistics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

• Financial and Economic Modelling – A Waste of Time?

Posted by Ron Robins on May 30, 2011

By Ron Robins. First published April 21, 2011, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

“…both risk models and econometric models… are still too simple to capture the full array of governing variables that drive global economic reality,” wrote Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve in the Financial Times on March 16, 2008. And if anyone should know about the quality and predictive validity of such models, it would be Mr. Greenspan. Time and again it has been shown that reliance on the predictions from such models is foolhardy.

It was the reliance on, and failure of their predictions, that caused enormous global financial and economic carnage in 2008 and 2009. Yet today dependence on these models seems greater than ever. I suggest our overt focus and use of them is often a wasted effort.

A truth that many modellers and their followers seem to have difficulty accepting is that the past—which most modellers use to prognosticate the future—has frequently been shown to be a poor basis upon which to determine future outcomes. Modellers can continue to refine their models in great detail, and then some unusual event occurs with a one in a million chance of happening—such as the US sub-prime mortgage fiasco—and their models fail. Sadly, the variables which may encompass a one in a million event are numerous. Among them are sudden changes of investor attitudes, weather patterns, geological events, and political and social upheavals.

If we look around today from the sudden movements in sovereign bond markets to the extraordinary weather recently in Australia, to the horrific Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear reactor troubles, to the political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East—all are kinds of exogenous events that can trash the predictions of the most exacting risk or econometric model.

Furthermore, a ‘perfect’ econometric model would only be possible, metaphorically speaking, if the modeller had ‘the mind of the creator.’ Only then perhaps, could all be known and predicted. Sadly—and I do not mean any disrespect to the modellers—I do not believe that many (if any) of them have that level of intelligence and consciousness at this time. So those constituencies that trust in these models are doomed to suffer continuing disappointments.

Another problem with these models is how to model for human behaviour, as it is both rational and irrational at different and unpredictable times. Therefore, before such modelling can ever hope to fully succeed, it must completely understand human consciousness: who we are, and how and why we act. And the modellers are a long, long way from such an understanding. Incidentally, there is a branch of economics, ‘behavioural economics,’ that is moving in that direction. I wish them good luck with that!

Economists today, unlike those of earlier eras, seem to believe that the only way they can be perceived as legitimate is to be scientifically oriented. Hence their passion for increasingly complex models and their statistician-like orientation.

The type of economic modelling that incorporates mathematics and statistical relationships to economic data, is termed econometrics. Google econometrics and you will probably find over 5,000,000 links. They are largely links to innumerable academics, research institutions, studies, papers and journals. With so much effort put into this field, any independent observer could conclude that econometrics must be a highly successful and seemingly scientific endeavour. It reminds me of the enormous quest for artificial intelligence (AI) to recreate the abilities of the human mind in computers. At least AI is somewhat plausible as it advances the field of computing and robotics which have many, many practical applications that we all know about.

But unlike AI research, economic and econometric models—with their significant variances and failures—have much less to offer society at this time. Mark Thoma, Professor of Economics at the University of Oregon offers these pertinent remarks in his blog, Economist’s View, on February 8. “Much of the uncertainty in economics derives from our inability to do laboratory experiments, and that includes uncertainty about which model best describes the macroeconomy. When the present crisis is finally over, those who advocated fiscal policy, those who advocated monetary policy, and those who advocated no policy at all will all say ‘I told you so’ based upon their reading of the evidence… the answers you get are only as good as the model used to get them, and considerable uncertainty remains over which macroeconomic model is best.”

In the 19th century’s Europe and North America, there were no econometric models (not in the way we know of them today), yet those continents experienced unprecedented economic growth. And the concept of gross domestic product (GDP)—which is usually a top concern in econometric modelling—was not created and used until World War II.

We know that econometric models are unreliable in providing information on how economies behave as well as their projections of future economic activity. Similarly, modelling for financial risk has been shown to be more than problematic and history shows reliance on risk models brings eventual failure and grief.

Therefore, given the facts, we need to be much, much less anxious about trying to create perfect risk and econometric models—and not rely on these models, generally. After all, it was mostly intuition and drive, not decisions based on risk and econometric models that led our greatest inventors, financiers, entrepreneurs and leaders to great success, thereby creating our modern economies.

Copyright alrroya.com

Posted in Economic Measurement, Economics, Finance & Investing, Statistics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

• Severe Debt Scarcity Coming to US

Posted by Ron Robins on December 30, 2010

By Ron Robins. First published December 26, 2010, in his weekly economics and finance column at alrroya.com

If US consumers believe it difficult to borrow now, just wait! In the next few years credit conditions are likely to go back seventy years when private debt was difficult to obtain. Most Americans intuitively believe there is too much debt at every level of society. But the economic and political vested interests do not want them worried about that. They want to give them credit to infinity to keep this economic mess from imploding. The US Federal Reserve’s new round of quantitative easing (QE2) is clear evidence of that. However, Americans are right about their inordinate debt load, and future economic conditions are likely to create a severe debt scarcity.

The principal reasons for the coming debt scarcity are that ‘debt saturation’—where total income cannot support total debt—has arrived, say some analysts; also, the growing understanding that adding new debt may not increase GDP—it could decrease it; and that the banks and financial system are a train wreck in waiting, eventually being forced to mark their assets to market, thus creating for them massive asset write-downs and strangling their lending ability.

The realization that debt saturation has arrived will not surprise many people. But understanding that new debt can decrease economic activity might surprise them. And the numbers illustrate this possibility. In Nathan’s Economic Edge, Nathan states, “in the third quarter of 2009 each dollar of debt added produced NEGATIVE 15 cents of productivity, and at the end of 2009, each dollar of new debt now SUBTRACTS 45 cents from GDP!”

In fact Nathan also shows that for decades, each new dollar of debt produces less and less in return, from a return of close to $0.90 in the mid 1960s to about $0.20 by 2007. One explanation for this is that as societal debt increased it focused disproportionately on consumption rather than productive enterprise, whose return appears greater.

On the subject of consumption, the renowned economist David Rosenberg in The Globe & Mail on August 16 stated that “U.S. household debt-income ratio peaked in the first quarter of 2008 at 136 per cent. The ratio currently sits at 126 per cent, but the pre-2001 norm was 70 per cent. To get down to this normalized ratio again, debt would have to be reduced by about $6-trillion. So far, nearly $600-billion of bad household debt has been destroyed.” This data reaffirms Americans growing aversion to debt, that debt has become too onerous, and is suggestive of debt saturation.

Replacing declining consumer debt is the exponential growth of US government debt. For 2009 and 2010, the combined US government’s fiscal deficits required or require borrowing an extra $2.7 trillion or so. Yet with all that spending—combined with about $2 trillion of ‘money printing’ from the US Federal Reserve (the Fed)—it created only around $1 trillion in increased economic growth!

One may argue that the phenomenal US government borrowings will provide returns far into the future and that the present low economic returns are due to not funding areas with potentially better returns. Some economists say that spending on infrastructure and education provides the best returns. However, with economists such as Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman and numerous others predicting huge continuing deficits for years ahead, and with a Japan-like slump in economic activity, the odds are likely that any new borrowed dollar will continue to provide only poor returns for years to come.

A further, major reason for the coming debt scarcity will be the tremendously impaired financial condition of the banks. The values assigned to many bank assets are fictional according to numerous experts. QE2 is about many things but one of them is aimed at delaying the potential for implosion of the banking system. In 2009, the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) caved in to government and banking industry lobbyists to allow many bank assets to be ‘marked to fantasy’ and not ‘marked to market.’

This viewpoint is best expressed by highly respected Associate Professor William Black (and formerly a senior regulator who nailed the banks during the savings and loan debacle) and Professor L. Randall Wray, who wrote an article on October 22 in The Huffington Post, entitled, “Foreclose on the Foreclosure Fraudsters, Part 1: Put Bank of America in Receivership.” They wrote that, “FASB’s new rules allowed the banks (and the Fed, which has taken over a trillion dollars in toxic mortgages as wholly inadequate collateral) to refuse to recognize hundreds of billions of dollars of losses. This accounting scam produces enormous fictional ‘income’ and ‘capital’ at the banks.”

However, the Federal Reserve may be realizing that it might not have been such a good idea to buy some of these ‘toxic’ securities. Bloomberg reported on October 19 that, “citing alleged failures by Countrywide to service loans properly… Pacific Investment Management Co., BlackRock Inc. and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York are seeking to force Bank of America Corp. to repurchase soured mortgages packaged into $47 billion of bonds by its Countrywide Financial Corp. unit, people familiar with the matter said.”

Also, on November 2, CNBC reported that Citigroup could be liable for huge amounts of toxic security buy-backs as well. “If all four mortgage acquisition channels turn out to be equally as defective… Citi’s liability for repurchases could soar to about $100 billion dollars at a 60 per cent defect rate – and to around $133 billion dollars at an 80 per cent defect rate.”

Clearly, such numbers are staggering. These, as well as many other banks and financial entities, could collapse. Politically, in the present circumstances, it would be difficult for the US government to provide massive new funds to support the financial system. Therefore, it will be up to the Fed to decide what to do.

If the Fed prints ever increasing amounts of new money to try to moderate the financial collapse, hyperinflation could be the result. If it does not print massive amounts of new money, a deflationary depression could be born.

In high inflationary or hyperinflationary conditions, few will want to lend as they get paid back in dollars that are declining very rapidly in value. In a deflationary episode, lending is reduced due to huge loan losses. Therefore, during either, and/or after such events, debt scarcity will be in full force.

Data indicates that American consumers do not want to increase their debt. Debt saturation is occurring, and with it a declining return on each borrowed dollar—even for the US government. Most significantly, the banks and the financial system will probably soon experience a new round of massive real estate related losses and subsequent financial institutions’ bankruptcies. Thus, a new major financial crisis will likely soon engulf America, greatly impairing its lending facilities and creating a severe scarcity of debt.

Copyright alrroya.com

Posted in Banking, Economics, Monetary Policy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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