Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Going Negative

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The following article was first published three years ago. Since then the US Federal Reserve has raised interest rates above zero, only to start lowering them again. In the meantime, the total amount of negative-yielding debt in the world has reached $13 trillion (USD). This is more than the combined 2019 federal budgets of USA, China, Germany, France, the UK, Japan, Italy, Brazil and Canada (which, incidentally, are nine of the largest, most overdeveloped and most collapse-prone economies on the planet). It may seem surprising that investors are willing to lend money at a negative interest rate, but it's an offer they can't refuse: they would rather lose their money slowly over time than all at once. Some investors (and central banks) have decided that fiat currency reserves are a bad idea and are buying gold instead, but this won't change the overall economic picture. And overall picture is that global financial collapse has been on pause since 2008, but now somebody hit "play" again. In any case, this seems like an opportune moment to dust off this article and once again look at what negative interest rates are, and what they do.

Previously, I have written about the progression from positive interest rates to zero interest rates (since 2008) and finally to negative interest rates. And I asked my readers a simple question: How will negative interest rates blow up the financial system? And apparently none of you knew the answer. Now, I must confess that to start with I didn’t know the answer either, which is why I asked the question, and my first attempts at finding it were somewhat tentative. But now, having thought about it, I do seem to have found the answer, and it is that…

But first let us back up a bit and answer several preliminary questions:

1. Why did zero interest rates become necessary?
2. Why are negative interest rates now necessary? and,
3. Why are negative interest rates a really excellent idea?*

* if you ignore certain unintended consequences (which is what everyone does all the time, so let’s not worry about them just yet).

1. Interest rates went to zero because economic growth went to zero. If you are just now wondering why that happened, just google “Limits to Growth”. (A public notice about the scheduled end of growth has been on display at your global planning office for four decades now. It is not anyone else’s fault if people of this planet don’t take an interest in their global affairs. I mean, seriously…)

Interest rates and rates of growth are related: a positive interest rate is little more than a bet that the future is going to be bigger and more prosperous, enabling people to pay off the debts with interest. This is an obvious point: if your income increases, it becomes easier to repay your debts; if it stagnates, it becomes harder; if it shrinks, it eventually becomes impossible.

Yes, you can nitpick and split hairs, and claim that there was still some growth, but in the developed economies most of this growth has been in financial shenanigans, fueled by an explosion in debt, and most of the benefits of this last bit of growth accrued to the wealthiest 1%, and did next to nothing for anyone else. Did this growth help support a large, stable and prosperous middle class? No, it didn’t.

In fact, wages in the US, which was once the world’s largest economy, have been stagnant for generations. In response, the Federal Reserve has been continuously reducing interest rates, until they hit zero in 2008. And there they have stayed ever since. But now, it turns out, that’s not good enough. If the Federal Reserve wants to keep the party going, they have to do more, because…

2. Once you are faced with a continuously shrinking economy, just holding interest rates at zero is not sufficient to forestall financial collapse. The interest rates must go negative.

Here are just a couple of particularly striking examples.

Australia has amassed a huge pile of debt—over 120% of GDP—and most of it is mortgage debt on overvalued real estate. Now that Australia’s economy, which was driven by commodity exports to China, has tanked, a lot of this debt is being turned into interest-only loans, because Australians no longer have the money to repay any of the principal. But what if they can’t make the interest payments either? The obvious solution is to refinance their mortgages as interest-only at zero percent; problem solved! Of course, as conditions deteriorate further, the Australians will become unable to afford taxes and utilities. Negative interest rates to the rescue! Refinance them again at a negative rate of interest, and now the banks will pay them to live in their overpriced houses.

Another example: energy (oil and gas) companies in the US have accumulated a fantastic pile of debt. All of this money was sunk into developing marginal and very expensive resources such as shale oil and deep offshore. Since then, energy prices have fallen, making all of these investments unprofitable and dramatically reducing revenue. As a result, energy companies in the US are a few months away from having to spend their entire revenue on interest payments. The solution, of course, is to allow them to roll over their debt at zero percent, and if you want them to ever start drilling again (their production has been falling by around 10% annualized) then please make that interest rate negative.

3. Are you starting to see how this works? Whereas before you had to be careful about taking on debt, and had to have a plan for how you will repay it, with negative interest rates that is simply not a consideration. If your debt pays you, then more debt is always better than less debt. It no longer matters that the economy continuously shrinks because now you can get paid just for twiddling your thumbs!

I made this chart in 2016. Since then the NIRP marker has moved right, but not by much.

But are there any unintended consequences of negative interest rates? Unintended consequences are hard to think about, and most people get a headache even trying. How can it be that clean, plentiful nuclear energy will eventually pollute the whole planet with long-lived radionuclides, resulting sky-high cancer rates? How can it be that wonderful genetically modified seeds will render us sickly and infertile in just a few generations? And how can it be that ingenious mobile computing technology has turned our children into zombies who are constantly twiddling their smartphones as they sleepwalk through life? It’s hard to think about any of this without taking some happy pills; and how can it be that taking those happy pills has… you get the idea.

The unintended consequence of negative interest rates is that they destroy money. This is true in an entirely trivial sense: if you deposit x dollars at -ρ% annual, then a year later you will only have x(1-ρ) dollars because xρ dollars has been destroyed. (In case you prefer to count on your fingers and toes, if you deposit $10 at -10% annual, then a year later you will only have $9 because $1 has been destroyed.) But what I mean is something slightly more profound: negative interest rates erode the very concept of money.

To get at the reason for this, we have to ask a slightly more profound question: What is money? I think that money is the cult of the god Mammon. Look at the following symbols:

€ $ ¥ £

Don’t they resemble religious symbols? In fact, that’s what they are: they are symbols of faith in money. They are also units—dimensionless units, of a peculiar kind. There are quite a few dimensionless units in math and science, such as π, e, %, ppm, but they are all ratios that relate physical quantities to other, identical, physical quantities. They are dimensionless because the units cancel out. For instance, π is the ratio between a circle’s circumference and diameter; length over length gives nothing. But monetary quantities do not directly relate to any physical quantity at all. It can be said that some number of monetary units (let's call them "yarbles") is equivalent to some number of turnips, but that, you see, is a matter of faith. Should the turnip farmer turn out to be an unbeliever, he would be within his rights to say, “I am not taking any of your damn yarbles!” or, if he were a polite turnip farmer, “Your money is no good here, Sir!”

Of course, if our turnip farmer were to do that, he’d land in quite a bit of trouble because, you see, the cult of Mammon is a state cult. You have no choice but to be a believer, because only by worshiping Mammon can you earn the money to pay your taxes, and if you don’t pay your taxes you get jailed. Nor can you produce money on your own, because that right is reserved for Mammon’s high priests, the bankers. Making your own money makes you a heretic, and gets you the modern equivalent of being burned at the stake, which is a $250,000 fine and a 20-year prison sentence.

But it goes beyond that, because the state insists that just about everything there is must be valued in units of its money. And the way everything must be valued is through a mystical legitimizing process that is central to the cult of money: Mammon’s “invisible hand” makes itself apparent within the “free market,” which is Mammon's virtual temple. The “invisible hand” sets the price of everything as a mystical revelation and, as with any revelation, it is beyond criticism. It is a redemptive ritual, in which people acting out of their basest, most antisocial instincts—greed and fear—manage, through Mammon's divine intervention, to serve the common good. The “free market” is also believed to have all sorts of miraculous properties, and as with all miracles it is all a matter of smoke and mirrors and suspension of disbelief. For example, the “free market” is said to be “efficient.” But it sets the price of turnips, and the result is that fully 40% of the food in the US ends up being wasted. That’s definitely not efficient.

This sort of inefficiency can be tolerated while resources are plentiful. Should throwing away 40% of the turnips cause a shortage of turnips develop, turnip producers can grow more turnips and sell them at prices that turnip consumers can still afford. But when resources are no longer plentiful, this trick stops working, and what you end up with is something called market failure. The current state of the global oil industry is a good example: either the price is so high that marginal consumers cannot afford it (as was the case until quite recently), or the price is so low that the marginal producers can’t break even (as is the case now).

And so a bout of supply destruction follows a bout of demand destruction, and then the pattern repeats. Everybody loses, plus this is terribly inefficient. It would be far more efficient to appoint some central planner to calculate the optimum price of oil once a month. Then all the marginal producers would jump out the window, all the marginal consumers would slit their wrists, and equilibrium conditions would prevail. As the oil supply dwindled (it is depleting at around 5% per year), some additional number of producers and consumers would need to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and so on until the last barrel is produced and burned, leaving whatever producers and consumers still remained lying in pools of their own blood.

As natural resources dwindle, our faith in the cult of Mammon is being sorely tested. But what alternatives are there? Well, there is an even older, ancient cult that’s based on idolatry: the worship of precious metals. Gold has some industrial and aesthetic uses, but it is primarily useful for making a golden calf for you to worship (or, if you are former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, a golden toilet). Economists tell us that gold is a “pet rock” or a “barbarous relic,” and they are right, but what is one to do when there is a Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods) going on? Nature abhors a vacuum, and in a Götterdämmerung older pagan deities sometimes emerge and demand virgin sacrifices—such as poisoning entire river ecosystems by mining gold using mercury, or squandering prodigious amounts of fossil fuels in mining, crushing and sifting through millions of tons of hard rock to get at just 3 parts per million of gold.

Negative interest rates are Mammon’s Götterdämmerung. The money cult is bolstered by the idea that its huge and all-powerful deity will be even more huge and all-powerful tomorrow; if the opposite is demonstrably the case, then people’s faith in it begins to falter and fade. Negative interest rates are like an icy-cold bath for Mammon, causing its godhead to shrink a little more with every dip. People see that, and think, “I don’t want to worship his shrinking yarbles.” Then they go and spend their own yarbles on anything they can find—fallow land, vacant houses, golden calves, boxes of brass knobs... They don’t bother investing their yarbles in growing turnips, because what’s the use of turnips if all you can do with them is sell them for even more shrinking yarbles?

Negative interest rates are an excellent idea—and perhaps the only way to keep the financial game going a bit longer—but, given these unintended consequences, they are also a terrible idea. The bankers know that. They want to preserve their cult’s status, and constantly talk about raising interest rates. But they haven’t yet, because they also know that just a small increase will result in trillions of dollars of losses, triggering widespread business failures and ushering in the Greatest Great Depression Ever. This is not a problem for them to solve; this is a predicament. They will delay and pray, and make pronouncements loaded with keywords designed to please the high-frequency trading algorithms that are in charge of artificially levitating the “free market” with judiciously timed injections of “free money.” But in the end all they can do is act brave, wait for a distraction and then… run for the exits!

And your job is to make it to the exits before they do.