The Bubble Finance Cycle: What Our Keynesian School Marm Doesn’t Get, Part 2

In Part 1 of The Bubble Finance Cycle we demonstrated that a main street based wage and price spiral always proceeded recessions during the era of Lite Touch monetary policy (1951 to 1985). That happened because the Fed was perennially “behind the curve” and was therefore forced to hit the monetary brakes hard in order to rein in an overheated economy.

So doing, it drained reserves from the banking system, causing an abrupt interruption of household and business credit formation. The resulting sharp drop in business CapEx, household durables and especially mortgage-based spending on new housing construction caused a brief recessionary setback in aggregate economic activity.

To be sure, that discontinuity and the related unemployment and loss of output was wholly unnecessary and by no means a natural outcome on the free market.

Under a regime of free market interest rates, in fact, the pricing mechanism for credit would have operated far more smoothly and continuously, meaning that credit-fueled booms would be nipped in the bud. Flexible, continuously adjusting money market rates and yield curves would choke off unsustainable borrowing and induce an uptake in private savings due to higher rewards for the deferral of  current period spending.

Accordingly, the recessions of the Lite Touch monetary era were mainly a “payback” phenomenon that reflected the displacement of economic activity in time caused by monetary intervention. That is, the artificial “stop and go” economy lamented by proponents of sound money was a function of central bank intrusion in the pricing of money and the ebb and flow of credit.

During bank credit fueled inflationary booms, businesses tended to over-invest in fixed assets and inventory and to over-hire in anticipation that the good times would just keep rolling along. But when the central bank was forced to correct for its too heavy foot on the monetary accelerator (i.e. the provision of fiat credit reserves to the banking system) and slam on the credit expansion brakes, businesses dutifully went about reeling-in the prior excesses.

The 1972-1973 boom and subsequent steep recession through early 1975 was a classic case in point. But it is essential to recall that this was a monetary boom fueled from the Eccles Building, not the consequence of some nefarious plot by the newly ascendant OPEC cartel or even an “oil shortage” driven breakdown of economic growth.

The problem was not a shortage of petroleum but a flood of credit and the inflated spending which resulted from it. In fact, during the  24 months after Camp David in August 1971 the Fed under Arthur Burns accommodated a 36% expansion of bank credit. This $200 billion blizzard of new bank lending amounted to a staggering 20% of GDP at the time, and represented an unprecedented short term rate of credit growth that was only duplicated once again in the future——that is, by the red suzerains of Beijing after the global trade collapse in the fall of 2008.

In any event, the global economy reached a red hot pace of expansion in 1972-1974, which in the main was due to the locomotive pull of the Nixon-Burns credit and spending boom in the domestic US economy.

For example, non-oil imports to the US rose by 15% the first year after Camp David and then accelerated to 22% growth in 1973 and 28% growth in the 12 months ending in August 1974. These giant gains in imported goods were literally off the charts, and far beyond the capacity of the world market to supply from existing capacity.

So the blistering US demand ignited production booms around the world, factory operating rates rose and supply chain backlogs surged everywhere on the planet.

Thus, it was a storm of money and credit expansion which generated the first commodity bubble after 1971, not the OPEC cartel alone or even primarily. For if the problem had been just the putative rigging of price by the oil cartel—–and the crude price did rise from $1.40 per barrel to $13 during this period—–there is no way to explain the dozens of parallel commodity booms during this same 2-3 year time frame.

To wit, there was no evidence of a cartel arrangement in the markets for rice, copper, pork bellies, iron ore and industrial tallow, for example. Yet between 1971 and 1974, rice rose from $10 to $30 per hundredweight, while pork bellies tripled from $0.30 per pound to $1.

Likewise, the cost of a ton of steel scrap soared from $40 to $140; tin jumped from $2 to $5 per pound; and the price of coffee rocketed up nearly eightfold, from 42 cents to $3.20 per pound. Even industrial tallow caught a tailwind, rising from 6 cents to 20 cents per pound, and pretty much the same order of magnitude gains were reflected in the price of corn, copper, cotton, lead, lumber and soybeans.

In any event, when Nixon went into his terminal Watergate descent, Fed Chairman Arthur Burns——–who as a matter of belief was an inflation hawk but had been a pusillanimous accommodator when it had come to hardball politics in the Nixon White House—-got his nerve back and threw on the monetary brakes.

Accordingly, the double digit bank credit growth described above came to a screeching halt. It grew by only 1.2% in 1975.

The resulting sharp recession was described at the time as the deepest since the 1930s, but there were really not many parallels. Housing construction did suffer a sharp retrenchment owing to the drying up of mortgage credit and business investment spending had also declined moderately.

Yet on the core component of the US economy—consumer spending, which even then accounted for two-thirds of GDP—there was virtually no reduction.

As more fully explained in The Great Deformation, the peak-to-trough decline in real terms was just 0.7 percent.

This was hardly the stuff of a near depression and not even in the same ballpark as the 20% decline in real household consumption which had occurred during the Great Depression. Instead, the heart of the 1974-1975 downturn was a sweeping liquidation of industrial and commercial inventories, which accounted for fully two-thirds of the drop in real GDP.

Moreover, that under underappreciated fact followed exactly from the type of inflationary boom that had now been made possible by the destruction of Bretton Woods.

To wit, during 1972-1973 the drastic escalation of global commodity prices discussed above led to a scramble by businesses to buy forward and accumulate buffer stocks of raw materials, components and finished goods before prices escalated even further.

This forward buying and accumulation of inventories was at the heart of the post-Camp David boom and bust cycle.

When the monetary expansion was finally halted by the Fed in late 1974 and pricing pressures subsided,  businesses then violently disgorged these same inventories during the subsequent correction phase.

Accordingly, what is reported as a deep 3% peak-to-trough decline in real GDP during the 1973-1975 recession cycle was only a 1% decline based on final sales. All the rest of the deep recession reflected the destocking of what had been excessive inventories in the first place.

Stated differently, the GDP numbers for 1972-1973 were bloated by excess inventory production, and then the figures for the following two years were debited by their liquidation. Over any reasonable period of time, nothing was lost and nothing was gained.

This rather persuasive evidence that inflationary monetary policy does not enhance long-term growth but only destabilizes the inventory cycle never sunk in among policy makers.

In fact, when the downturn did break the commodity speculation cycle and cause the rate of CPI increase to temporarily dip under 5%, Burns and the Ford White House did exactly the wrong thing: they launched a new round of “stimulus” and soon rekindled an even more virulent inflation.

In fact, after coming to a screeching halt in 1975 due to the Fed’s  extraction of reserves from the banking system, bank credit expanded by 10% in 1976 and then by 15% each in 1978 and 1979. At length the wage price spiral was off to the races again.

Eventually Paul Volcker had to tame the double digit inflation that resulted from the Burns/Miller credit acceleration.

And while Volcker displayed remarkable finesse and courage in refusing to “accommodate” the raging inflationary spiral with reserve injections——-which had been Burns’ principle sin during 1973-1974—–he only succeeded in sharply dampening the inflationary spiral; he did not end the stop and go cycle of the Lite Touch monetary era.

That was done by Alan Greenspan, but not in a good way. When Mr. Deng discovered the printing presses in the basement of the People’s bank of China and launched his nation into a credit-fueled mercantilist growth model, it was Mao’s former communist colleague, not Milton Freidman disciples at the Fed, who broke the domestic wage and price spiral that had shaped the business cycle and driven the Fed’s reactive behavior during the era of Lite Touch monetary policy.

In a word, Mr. Deng drained China’s rice paddies and their hundreds of million of subsistence laborers, bringing them in a tumultuous rush into an industrial infrastructure complete with gleaming new export factors and port facilities that were constructed overnight with cheap printing press capital.

At the time, the resulting flood of cheap goods on the world market was called the “China price”. It soon became an object of venomous attack by the usual industrialists, labor leaders and professional protectionists who saw vast swaths of the US manufacturing base being outsourced to China. But the putative Ayn Rand disciple at the helm in the Eccles Building didn’t know the difference between free trade and free money.

Accordingly, Greenspan failed to recognize that as the paddies were being drained in China and throughout its EM supply chain that real wages in tradeable goods industries were falling all around the world. If free trade was to be maintained, therefore, domestic US wages had to fall in real terms, and the US cost structure had to be deflated in order to stay competitive in global markets.

The very last thing the US economy needed in the face of this epochal shift in the labor cost curve was easy domestic credit and the maintenance of an artificially high and unsustainable consumption level based on borrowed money. But that was the essence of the entire Greenspan era of 19 years, and puts the lie to his fatuous claim that he had tamed inflation.

Between 1993 when the China export binge got started in earnest and 2006, the US CPI rose by 40% or at nearly a 2.6% annual rate. But given the floodtide of Chinese exports, it should have been falling.

What Greenspan actually did, therefore, was to inflate the main street economy with a tsunami of credit growth that enabled domestic consumption levels to remain well above what could be supported by market clearing wages and salaries. Specifically, total US credit outstanding tripled from $15 trillion to $42 trillion during Greenspan’s last 13 years, while the household leverage ratio was driven almost vertically upward.

The Household Leverage Ratio Is Still Off The Charts - Click to enlarge

The Household Leverage Ratio Is Still Off The Charts – Click to enlarge

Needless to say, all of this emission of new dollar liabilities would have ordinarily resulted in the crash of the US dollar and a surging exchange rate in China and its newly mobilized EM supply chain. But having discovered that communist party power could be better preserved from the end of a printing press rather than the barrel of a gun, as Mao had erroneously preached, the red suzerains of Beijing were not about to allow Milton Friedman’s naïve belief in freely floating currencies to will out.

Instead, they turned the global FX market into the dirtiest float imaginable by means of a massive and continuous effort to peg the RMB at artificially low levels, thereby accumulating trillions of so-called dollar reserves in the process.

Indeed, China’s FX reserves went from essentially zero in 1993 to $4 trillion over the next two decades, but not out of prudent FX management policies. It happened owing to nearly lunatic expansion of its own monetary system and domestic credit.

China’s reciprocal credit binge put an end to the US domestic wage and price spiral because it meant that no amount of dollar liability emissions by the Fed would result in a classic “overheated” domestic economy. That is, the total absorption of US labor supply and manufacturing capacity as had occurred during the business cycles of the 1960s and 1970s.

Now there was nearly unlimited mandufacturing capacity and labor supply in the China/EM supply system and a virtually  bottomless vault in which to sequester unwanted dollars at the People Printing Press of China.

As it happened, in fact, Greenspan’s phony disinflation success led to the Fed’s embrace of fully mobilized and massively intrusive monetary policy in the guise of the Great Moderation and the wealth effects theory of financial asset levitation. In due course, Greenspan’s self-aggrandizing but purely experimental forays of massive central bank intrusion in the financial markets were supplanted by the hard-core Keynesian model of Bernanke and Yellen.

Alas, they operated under the grand illusion that a domestic wage and price spiral would tell them when the domestic GDP bathtub was filled to the full employment brim, and therefore when to lift their foot from the monetary accelerator.

It never happened, and they never did. The era of Lite Touch monetary policy was by now ancient history.

Next: Part 3, The New Catalyst of Recession——-Crashing Financial Assets, Not Spiraling Wages and Prices.