Friday, 31 October 2008

Byways and Tribal Capitalism

I have been indulging in leisure again. For nine days I backpacked along the ancient Ridgeway, the superhighway of Neolithic Britain and a trade route into the modern era. Starting about 6,000 years ago, (roughly the time Sarah Palin imagines Adam and Eve holding hands in a newly wrought Eden) the Britons occupying the plains either side of the Ridgeway were settling the river valleys to raise crops and herd animals. As the crops and herds increased, and the Iron Age and Bronze Age opened trading opportunities in new technologies, these Britons took strides that set them and their heirs on the road to market capitalism.

The road they followed is the road I walked – the Ridgeway Trail.

The Ridgeway is a geographic feature of Jurassic and Corallian limestone, an 87 mile long spine of rocky downs running through Southern England from Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire to Overton Hill, near Avebury in Wiltshire. It was linked by other routes to ports in the South and on the Channel. The Ridgeway was admirably suited as a commercial highway in early times because the limestone was porous, draining rain away from the high pathway to the plains below. When the tracks below were impassable mires of mud for man and beast, the Ridgeway remained a quick and easy road from one region to another. Being high, with excellent views down the slopes and over the plains, it was also possible to detect and defend against brigands who might beset unwary travellers, with ring forts provided to secure travellers and goods along the route.

Neolithic Britons were secure enough to form large agrarian tribes, planting and harvesting grains and herding sheep. They were prosperous enough to have excess grain and sheep to trade for iron and bronze tools and gold jewellery and other valuable trade goods. They were economically advanced enough to have specialisation, with certain tribes and regions known for their skill in producing iron or bronze or pottery. They were politically advanced enough to have organised militias, with a ‘warrior aristocracy’. They were wise enough to promote collective security and agree byways for safe passage with neighbouring tribes to enable commerce along the Ridgeway.

The Ridgeway reminded me every day we walked along that it is infrastructure, transparency and mutually-enforced rules which secure and grow markets for productive capitalism. Infrastructure provides a common framework for trade to take place. Transparency allows those trading in markets to evaluate each other’s wares and defend against brigands who might wish to ambush the unwary. Rules of safe conduct and fair dealing promote the confidence which encourages those with excess production to bring it to market to trade for their present and future needs. Mutual enforcement ensures that the temptation of any tribe to loot its neighbours is curbed by the risk of finding itself precluded from the trade routes and from access to markets.

I imagine that like many small, agrarian, tribal states, England of the pre-Roman period was organised into settlements relying on militias with only small dedicated military elites. This arrangement, as exists in modern Switzerland, allows the civilian militia to contribute most of its energies under secure conditions to increasing production, growing the surplus which sustains collective prosperity. Although a professional military or ‘warrior aristocracy’ can be useful in providing skilled leadership, if that military gets too large, or the aristocrats too greedy, the incentive to produce a surplus is removed and tribes tend to weaken, grow poor and fail. Prosperity and security require a delicate balance in the social contract.

The Ridgeway also reminded me that prosperity invites looting by aggressors. By the Roman era, England was producing a large enough surplus to be exporting across the Channel, with trade goods from as far afield as the Mediterranean. This has been substantiated by findings of pottery, jewellery, coins and other goods in early Celtic settlements.

It was the prosperity of England as a grain exporter that led Julius Ceasar to covet it for the Roman Empire.

A professional military demands a large production surplus from the civilian population to sustain it. The state expropriates the surplus production and provides it to the military. If the military can secure more resources and more production to the state, the expropriation can increase prosperity of its tribe – or at least the elite that commands it. But if the military fails to secure more resources, then the expropriation from those producing a surplus will gradually erode the incentive to produce a surplus – leading to decline and increasing poverty and political strife.

Ceasar understood that securing the large agricultural surplus of England to finance and feed his armies would help underpin the military strength of the Roman Empire. Naturally, the Romans secured and settled the most prosperous agricultural regions. As a result, there are Roman traces along the Ridgeway – improvements to the roads, the forts, and the commercial links to market towns and ports on the coasts. We walked Roman roads last week too - straight, raised and solid even 2,000 years later.

Following the Romans, the Danes, the Angles, the Saxons and the Normans invaded and occupied the same lands. Throughout the changing political and ethnic mix of tribes and elites, the Ridgeway continued to function as a trade route through prosperous middle England.

Modern markets could usefully reflect on the durable Ridgeway model of market infrastructure. Transparency of assets – whether sheep or shares or CDOs – is critical to the effective function of markets for price discovery and investment. Those who have secured a surplus are unlikely to risk taking their wealth to a market where assets are not open to inspection and proper valuation. Security of trade routes and market towns for merchants and traders is essential to encourage those with a surplus to bring it forward, promoting effective allocation of assets and underpinning growth in production. Mutually-enforced rules of conduct, fair dealing and safe passage are key to building a reputation that attracts both buyers and sellers and ensures a sustained market prosperity.

The modern ‘warrior aristocracy’ could usefully reflect on the fate of societies that deplete the incentives to surplus production and fail to secure commensurate returns from a costly military. Whether a Neolithic tribe, a Celtic settlement, the mighty Roman Empire or the Soviet Union, history proves that a tendency to excess expropriation by the state undermines any incentive to investment and surplus production. Excess expropriation will ultimately weaken the economy supporting the elites and the professional military that secures their privileges and interests.

As the global elites meet in the coming weeks to address the current economic crisis, they could do worse than contemplate the lessons I gleaned from the Ridgeway. Those who provided poor transparency, promoted dishonest market practices, looked the other way or collaborated in the robbing of passing merchants and investors, and otherwise violated the precepts embodied in the Ridgeway model should be held accountable for their failings. The global model going forward must return to the principles embodied in the ancient stone backbone of English commerce.


The Ridgeway (Wikipedia)

The Ridgeway National Trail

Neolithic, Iron Age and Bronze Age Britain (BBC)


Congratulations to Rich H (Miss America) who was to cover for me last Friday and instead secured his own position in the RGE blogroll.

Friday, 17 October 2008

We had to burn the village to save it

The title of this diary is a quote from the Vietnam era that sums up for many the arrogance and pointlessness of American aggression in Asia two generations ago. It keeps coming to mind each time I read President Bush’s (paraphrased) statement this week: We had to nationalise the banks “to preserve the free market.”

There is no free market when the government owns the actors and sets the terms of transactions. There is no village once it has been burned to the ground.

The collapse of the financial sector is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to bankers who have vested careers, status and equity wealth in the disproportionate expansion of the financial sector. It is unacceptable to politicians who have risen to high office doing the bidding of the financial sector in ceding progressively more generous taxpayer subsidy and regulatory forbearance to its chieftains.

And so in the US, UK and EU we have politicians appropriating more petrol to hand to the arsonists who started the conflagration which is consuming our economic and political fabric. The regulators whose forbearance is a root cause of the current conflagration are handing the arsonists fresh zippo lighters. The policies adopted in these debtor nations will fail, must fail, because they destroy what remained of market economies. In the meanwhile, however, the bankers and the politicians and the regulators cannot conceive of failure and so insist on more of the same – ordering hundreds of billions in more incendiaries to fuel the blaze. The same tax breaks. The same housing subsidies. The same regulatory forbearance. The same ill-transparent, off balance sheet, accounting sleight of hand. The same eradication of market incentives to productive, disciplined saving, investment and labour.

Those who would prudently save will be punished with negative real interest rates and asset deflation. Those who would prudently invest in productive industry will be starved of scarce capital and forced into liquidation. Those who would prudently labour for a decent wage will be slowly robbed by inflation and kept docile by the threat of unemployment.

There can be no more iniquitous alliance than to have the politicians at the service of the bankers, unless perhaps it is to have the military at the service of the bankers too. The US seems to have committed itself to this worst of all possible combinations, with Congressmen threatened by the imposition of martial law if they failed to acquiesce to the Paulson Plan. Thankfully the British and EU militaries are too small and ineffective to be leveraged into a similar threat to global or domestic peace and security.

Subsidised banking seems a faster method of going bust than military adventurism, but the two together will see the US bust even more certainly. The $700 billion appropriated for the Paulson Plan and the $840 billion extended in parallel by the Federal Reserve last month are together more than three times the expenditure on US wars for the past five years. The federal borrowing requirement for 2008 is now in excess of $1.02 trillion, and for 2009 is now estimated between $1.5 and $2 trillion.

Such hyperbolic growth in the fiscal deficit and debt is unsustainable, even with such very tolerant creditors as the Japanese, Gulf Arabs, Russians and Chinese. They can see that each dollar added to the Fed’s balance sheet is tinder for burning those already held or denominated in their reserves. They can project the curve forward. At some point, they must react and restrain further debasement of their reserves and investments, either by collectively raising the prices charged for the resources and products they export, the interest charged on existing and future debt, or the forced exchange of debt for equity ownership of real economic assets.

Or all three.

The cycle of debt deflation is just getting rolling. The banks were only the first bailout and already the federal deficits are ballooning unsustainably. What will be the recourse when municipalities and states face default through catastrophic tax and revenue shortfalls? What will be the recourse when large commercial employers, industries and infrastructure confront failure from collapsing consumption expenditure? What will be the consequence when unemployment, homelessness, political disaffection and crime are resurgent and threaten the political fabric?

We are at the end of the beginning. Hank Paulson has played a clever game for the past decade of exporting dodgy paper to the US creditors abroad while forcing a middle class subsidy of the tax exempt corporatists at home. Now he plays a clever game of devaluing all currency and paper assets, exporting the pain to foreign taxpayers and investors. But this is not a game that America can win without the debasement of everything America once represented as holding value in its formerly prosperous market economy.

In my experience, there is nothing so permanent as a temporary expedient. It is hard to see how partially nationlised banks will ever be more than the means of political redistribution of wealth and power, and so corrupt both the economy and political system.

We had to burn the village to save it.

Perhaps someday we will hear a remorseful Mr Paulson or Mr Brown echo Robert McNamara, early architect and aggressive propagator of the Vietnam War: “We were wrong, terribly wrong.”


I will be out of touch for most of the next nine days, but will check in as and when I can. There may be a guest blogger here next Friday who I'm confident will be enthusiastically received, if he accepts.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Turbulence and Trends

A trend is a trend is a trend.

But the question is, will it bend?

Will it alter its course

through some unforeseen force

and come to a premature end?

-- Sir Alec Cairncross

I’ve had a lot of meetings this week, and very little time to reflect on fast moving events. This entry may be light on cites and hyperlinks as I’m in a bit of a rush today. It will also lack much in the way of perspective or insight as I find it impossible to distance myself just now from the swirling turbulence around me.

Here in Britain, several banks were offered partial nationalisation as an alternative to private recapitalisation. Strangely, this seems to have encouraged them to more strenuous efforts to recapitalise. The plan is now being held up as a model as it seems to force managements to confront their undercapitalisation as a problem that they can solve to their advantage or that will be solved for them to their heavy personal cost.

Iceland collapsed. It was more of a hedge fund than a country, with it’s 200,000 population supporting a massive leveraged position in financial markets via risk loving bankers and financiers. There were approximately 200,000 British depositors in accounts offered by Icelandic banks. Local authorities (municipalities) and charities were also big investors, exposed for more than £700 million. As a result, the government has frozen Icelandic-owned assets in the United Kingdom – using terrorism legislation, naturally – to provide the basis for a partial recovery of the losses likely to be incurred. This is causing more stress between the two island nations than they have known since the Cod Wars of the 1980s. Also causing tension is a rumour that Russia might bailout Iceland with $4.5 billion of credit, leading to speculation that the Russians may be eying the vacant airbase formerly used by Americans. This is problematic as Iceland is a member of NATO, and so has spurred efforts toward finding European alternatives.

Europe continues to call for collaboration while each country unilaterally defines and acts on its self-interest. That is the way it should be, and I approve heartily. I would rather not have the European Union making hasty decisions or holding such concentrated powers that it can force a uniform resolution across all member states. Either the EU builds consensus for action in the common interest, or it remains impotent. Either is preferable to too much concentration of power in Brussels.

In an attempt to shut just one stable door in a barn full of bolting horses, the Treasury has laid legislation before Parliament to reform the treatment of UK bank insolvencies and deposit insurance arrangements. Roughly described, the Financial Services Authority will decide if a bank is bust, the Bank of England will be responsible for overseeing its resolution and ensuring financial stability of the system, and the Treasury will oversee a new deposit insurance scheme that no one can currently describe but will make permanent the rise in protection to £50,000 per depositor. Despite the massive failure of Lehman, and the huge losses incurred by investors and hedge fund prime brokerage clients in London, the legislation is completely silent on the insolvencies of investment banks and broker-dealers and other institutions of systemic importance to financial markets. My fear is that the failure to address the systemic issues as a whole will be a vulnerability exploited by US banks and authorities as they try to undermine London as a financial centre, gaming the fragile global markets.

There is still a touching confidence among many in the City that the US authorities will provide the “leadership” to reinforce collapsing markets. As John Plender of the Financial Times quipped, “Gaul votes for Rome to take the strain.” This seems to me to display a total incomprehension of the way US authorities operate to externalise pain and loss to the greatest extent possible in times of crisis. Gaul, after all, was an occupied state that was militarily and economically exploited to Rome’s advantage for centuries before Rome’s collapse. Saving Gaul was never a high priority once Rome was threatened.

Elsewhere in the world, bureaucrats continue to show up at the office in the morning and check to make sure all boxes are ticked, all forms are correctly ordered, and all initiatives in progress continue their stately way forward unimpeded by global chaos. I find this comforting, although much of their efforts will ultimately prove futile and failed.

Finally, an optimistic note. I was reminded yesterday that the vast bulk of “wealth” created during the Greenspan/Bernanke bubble years accrued to the very top percentiles of population – with many in the OECD middle class and lower class either stagnating or getting poorer as they mired themselves in unsustainable debt. While opportunity and employment grew strongly in emerging countries, there too the elites gained disproportionately as income inequalities surged. The crash of global financial markets therefore will have disproportionate effect on the elites, impoverishing them to a far greater extent, although it will be felt throughout society as employment, pensions, investments and public services contract.

Once we hit bottom of this downturn, some years hence in all probability, we may experience a democratisation of wealth and opportunity like none seen since the end of World War II when education reforms and unionisation laid the groundwork for the rise of the American and OECD middle classes. Those who have lost economic and political power during the boom years, are likely to organise and retake authority within economic and political systems during the bust years. The collapse of concentrated wealth in Wall Street will spur more collaborative capital formation and investment throughout the economy. This could provide reorientation of economic progress toward more equitable, sustainable and democratic outcomes in coming generations. I hope so, it’s the only bright spot of the week.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Financial Eugenics: The Paulson Plan for Survivor Bias

As I write this I don’t know the outcome of the attempt to ram through legislation for looting the US Treasury of $700 billion before the end of the Bush administration. I suspect that Congress will force the passage of the bill in some form because the media and political narrative on the necessity of the measure is unremitting and so horribly biased.

No alternatives will be considered.

No constraints on the unilateral executive authority of Hank Paulson will be considered.

No assurances that funds will be used to unlock credit markets or promote lending to the real economy (as opposed to the financial robber barons) will be considered.

Instead, the bill will get laden with an additional 300 pages of pork to sway the dissenters, adding to the tab imposed on the American taxpayer.

Having listened to all 42 minutes of the late night Treasury briefing of investment banks on Sunday, there is no doubt in my mind that this legislation represents the sort of federal largesse for Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase that the Iraq war provided for Halliburton and Blackwater.

The most cynical moment in the call is when the Treasury official confirms, ”our preference would be to help the healthy banks become even healthier” rather than helping troubled banks or illiquid banks.

America is now a centrally planned economy where the Treasury will determine which firms survive and prosper through allocation of scarce capital to an undercapitalised financial sector.

Clearly what is going on here has nothing to do with kick starting the credit markets or stabilising the equity markets or restoring depositor confidence in banks. (Treasury official: “No provision in the legislation that mandates re-lending.”) What is going on here is a blatant attempt to provide government funds to a select cadre of firms (not all banks) which are chosen to be the survivors feasting off the carcasses of their less fortunate and less well-connected brethren as the downturn intensifies in the years to come.

The crash in equities will still happen. The debt deflation of the economy leading to mass commercial and consumer credit defaults will still happen. The collapse of many national, regional and local financial institutions will still happen. The bankruptcy of many municipalities and shortfalls in state budgets will still happen.

This bill is about engineering survivor bias to friends of the Bush administration so that they profit disproportionately from the collapse of these markets using the funds provided by the taxpayer via the unreviewable and unconditional authority of the Secretary of the Treasury.

The basic plan is to set up a federal money laundering operation. Bad assets come in, get laundered by the Treasury and put in a new AAA “wrapper” (as it’s termed on the call), and good assets go out, issued as Treasury guaranteed securities. Whether the final value of the legislation this week is $700 billion or $150 billion is irrelevant as long as the laundering operation can accommodate the throughput, as that number is only a cap on total extensions at any one time.

The SEC will support the plan and survivor bias by relaxing FASB 157 on mark to market accounting. If there is no agreement on what an asset is worth, it is worth whatever the firm holding it says in its Level 3 accounts or the Treasury Secretary accepts in buying it.

The Federal Reserve will support the plan by relaxing the definition of “control stake” in US banks and bank holding companies to allow secretive cabals to hold through private equity and offshore hedge funds. No one knows the beneficial owners of these ill-transparent private equity investors, and so it is the ideal way to reward loyal and helpful insiders, legislators and officials – as well as cede further ownership of American assets to foreign stakeholders who would be politically unacceptable if publicly acknowledged. Many foreign creditors are irate at the losses their funds, banks and pensioners have sustained from investments in the United States, and this plan provides a secret way to buy them off and keep them lending and investing as their own economies are roiled by the deflation to come.

For the past year the survivor bias has been orchestrated from the Federal Reserve, with its extension of innovative credit facilities and selectively engineered rescues or forced mergers. That has been very useful, but that well is now dry. The Fed has no more good assets to trade for the bad assets the banks can offer. And the supply of bad assets just keeps growing as market illiquidity spreads further from the core of the mortgage backed securities market. Instability is now leading to a realistic threat that the Fed and Treasury could lose control of the deflationary process.

Part of the reason the Paulson Plan is so attractive is that it recapitalises the Fed by promoting the unwinding of repos and lending facilities which left the Fed holding toxic assets. As the repos and credit facilities gradually unwind, these toxic assets can now be taken back by the banks and exchanged for good cash. The Fed gets its balance sheet Treasuries and cash back to restore its flexibility to intervene anew.

Favoured private equity and insiders who swap US dollars for equity in the banking system will presumably be aware of the survivor bias being engineered on their behalf. Sovereign wealth funds, investment funds and private equity investors ripped off in the first round of recapitalisation may be willing to come back in once it is clear to them that the next round will benefit from official favouritism. Warren Buffett’s timely stake in Goldman Sachs is clearly linked to his confidence the Paulson Plan will benefit them disproportionately.

A factor which is probably critical but has received little discussion is that literally thousands of Bush administration apparatchiks will need jobs come January, and a fair selection of GOP House and Senate legislators and their aides too. What better way to enahance their CVs in their final months in power than to distribute $700 billion or so in pre-Christmas largesse to the most remunerative employers in the world? And what better way to ensure the corporate largesse is returned to the GOP to win back the White House and Congress in 2012 as the recession fuels public anger?

And then there is a huge arbitrage opportunity as well so that everyone makes money for years to come. According to the conference call, the pricing on offer from the Treasury will be a bit below Level 3 pricing. The toxic assets will be repackaged and resold with a new AAA wrapper, possibly priced well below what the Treasury paid, assuring a huge profit on both immediate liquidation by the banks and ultimate maturity by investors. The Fed gets its cash and Treasuries back; the banks make huge profits; the foreigners and off-shore tax avoiders get disguised ownership of the American financial system; the taxpayer gets ripped off. What’s not to love?

Think back to Fisher’s Theory of Debt Deflation in Great Depressions. Dollars become “bigger” as deflation takes hold because each dollar can buy more assets as assets deflate. That means that as these clowns crash the markets, their $700 billion of liquid cash funnelled to their friends and recycled through the Treasury laundrymat can progressively buy up the rest of the pieces on the gameboard at low discount prices. Game over with those who caused the crash and robbed the bank winning.

Deflation is going to happen – globally. Either we can use the course of deflation to shape healthy economies that will provide growth and employment and productive returns on investment in future, or we can allow deflation to further enrich those miscreants whose irresponsible policies led to the violent financial collapse we are about to experience.

There is a fundamentally healthy economy in America – somewhere underneath all the financial excess and chicanery and all the financial/oil/military/healthcare/developer corruption of local, state and federal politics. It will be a painful and slow process to kill off the metastasising cancerous growths on the economy, but if Americans achieved that, they could embrace a healthier and more productive and more prosperous future.

I would like to believe Americans expressed the courage to change over last weekend when they 25 to 1 rejected an unconstrained and unconditional bailout of Wall Street in favour of cold turkey deleveraging of the economy. I wish I could believe that it mattered in the political calculus, but the result of the House vote on the bill will tell us that.

Fight the survivor bias. It’s not your survival they’re engineering.