The Jackson Hole gathering of central bankers and other economics big shots is on again. They all still like themselves very much. Apart from a pesky inflation problem that none of them can get a grip on, they publicly maintain that they’re doing great, and they’re saving the planet (doing God’s work is already taken).
But the inflation problem lies in the fact that they don’t know what inflation is, and they’re just as knowledgeable when it comes to all other issues. They get sent tons of numbers and stats, and then compare these to their economic models. They don’t understand economics, and they’re not interested in trying to understand it. All they want is for the numbers to fit the models, and if they don’t, get different numbers.
Meanwhile they continue to make the most outrageous claims. Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said in early July that What do you say to that? Do you take him on a tour of Britain? Or do you just let him rot?
Fed head Janet Yellen a few days earlier had proclaimed that While we wish her a long and healthy life for many years to come, we must realize that we have to pick one: it has to be either a long life, or no crisis in her lifetime.
Just a few days ago, ECB President Mario Draghi somehow managed to squeeze through his windpipe that . Even though everybody -well, everybody who’s not in Jackson Hole- knows that QE has blown huge bubbles in lots of asset classes and caused severe damage to savings and pensions, problems that will reverberate through economies for a long time and rip entire societies apart.
But they really seem to believe what they say, all of them. Which is perhaps the biggest problem of all. That is, either they know better and lie straight-faced or they are blind to what they’re doing. Which might be caused by the fact that they are completely blind to what goes on in their countries and societies, and focus exclusively on banking systems. But that’s not where financial crises reside, or at least not only there.
How do we know? Easy. Try this on for size.
Haven’t seen anything as ironic in a long time as having a company called CareerBuilder report on this. But more importantly, when almost 4 out of 5 people live paycheck to paycheck, that is a financial crisis right there. Just perhaps not according to the models popular in Jackson Hole. What do they know about that kind of life, anyway? So why would they care to model it?
Yellen’s Fed proudly report almost full employment -even if they felt forced to abandon their own models of it. But what does full employment constitute, what does it mean, when all those jobs don’t allow for people to live without fear of the next repair bill, the next hospital visit, their children’s education?
What does it mean when banks are profitable again and pay out huge bonuses while at the same time millions work two jobs and still can’t make ends meet? How is that not a -financial- crisis? In the economists’ models, all those jobs must lead to scarcity in the labor market, and thus rising wages. And then inflation, by which they mean rising prices. But the models fail, time and time again.
Moreover, talking about inflation without consumer spending, i.e. velocity of money, is empty rhetoric. 78% of Americans will not be able to raise their spending levels, they’re already maxed out at the end of each week, and 71% have debts on top of that. So where will the inflation, rising wages, etc., come from? When nobody has money to spend? Nobody can put that Humpty Dumpty together again.
An actual -as opposed to theoretical- recovery of wages and inflation will certainly not come from QE for banks, that much should be clear after a decade. And that is exactly where the problem is. That is why so many people work such shitty jobs. The banks may be more resilient (and that comes with a big question mark), but it has come at the cost of the economies. And no, banks are not the same as economies. Moreover, ‘saving’ the banks through asset purchases and ultra low rates has made ‘real economies’ much more prone to the next downturn.
The asset purchases serve to keep zombie firms -including banks- alive, which will come back to haunt economies -and central banks- when things start falling. The ultra low rates have driven individuals and institutions into ‘investments’ for which there has been no price discovery for a decade or more. Homes, stocks, you name it. Everyone and their pet hamster overborrowed and overpaid thanks to Bernanke, Yellen and Draghi, and their ‘policies’.
QE for banks didn’t just not work as advertized, it has dug a mile deep hole in real economies. No economy can properly function unless most people can afford to spend money. It’s lifeblood. QE for banks is not, if anything it’s the opposite.
Another -joined at the hip- example of what’s really happening in -and to- America, long term and deep down, and which will not be a discussion topic in Jackson Hole, is the following from the Atlantic on marriage in America. And I can hear the disagreements coming already, but bear with me.
Both the above 78% paycheck to paycheck number and the Atlantic piece on marriage make me think back of Joe Bageant. Because that is the world he came from and returned to, and described in Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War. The Appalachians. I don’t believe for a moment that Joe, if he were still with us, would have been one bit surprised about Trump. And reading this stuff, neither should you.
This is not something that is new, or that can be easily turned around anymore. This is the proverbial oceanliner which requires a huge distance to change course. Victor Tan Chen’s piece is a worthwhile read; here are a few bits:
Today, though, just over half of women in their early 40s with a high-school degree or less education are married, compared to three-quarters of women with a bachelor’s degree; in the 1970s, there was barely a difference. [..] Fewer than one in 10 mothers with a bachelor’s degree are unmarried at the time of their child’s birth, compared to six out of 10 mothers with a high-school degree.
And then you make education so expensive it’s out of reach for a growing number of people… Insult and injury.
But what’s at the core of those changes is a larger shift: The disappearance of good jobs for people with less education has made it harder for them to start, and sustain, relationships. What’s more, the U.S.’s relatively meager safety net makes the cost of being unemployed even steeper than it is in other industrialized countries—which prompts many Americans to view the decision to stay married with a jobless partner in more transactional, economic terms.
This is the erosion of social cohesion. And there is nothing there to fill that void.
The perks of globalization. Opioids, anyone?
It’s not only Joe Bageant. These are also the people Bruce Springsteen talked about when he was still the Boss.
By now it’s all Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town. That album is some 40 years old. That’s -at least- how long this has been going on. And why it’ll be so hard to correct.
This next bit is painful: life ain’t gonna get any better, so we might as well have kids.
Tan Chen follows up with a comparison of European and American safety nets, and suggests that , but I don’t find that too relevant to why I found his piece so touching.
It describes a dying society. America is slowly dying, and not all that slowly for that matter. The Fed is comfortably holed up in Jackson Hole after having handed out trillions to bankers and lured millions of Americans into buying -or increasingly renting- properties that have become grossly overpriced due to its ZIRP policies, and congratulating itself on achieving “full employment”.
Why that ever became part of its mandate, g-d knows. I know, ML King et al. But. Thing is, when full employment means 78% of people have such a hard time making ends meet that they can’t afford to keep each other in a job by spending their money in stores etc., you’re effectively looking at a dying economy. Maybe we should not call it ‘full’, but ’empty employment’ instead.
Yeah, I know, trickle down. But instead of wealth miraculously trickling down, it’s debt that miraculously trickles up. How many Americans have mortgages or rents to pay every month that gobble up 40-50% or more from their incomes? That’d be a useful stat. Model that, Janet!
The article on marriage makes clear that by now this is no longer about money. The 40+ year crisis has ‘transcended’ all that. If and when money becomes too scarce, it starts to erode quality of life, first in individuals and then also in societies. It erodes the fabric of society. And you don’t simply replace that once it’s gone, not even if there were a real economic recovery.
But there will be no such recovery. As bad as things are for Americans today, they will get a whole lot worse. That is an inevitable consequence of the market distortion that QE has wrought: a gigantic financial crisis is coming. And the crowd gathered at Jackson Hole will be calling the shots once more, and bail out banks, not people. What’s that definition of insanity again?