The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

The Fed’s Ten Trillion Dollar Problem

If anyone should have been prepared for the credit crunch it was Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke (pictured right). Much of his academic reputation, which is immense, was built upon his work on the causes of depressions and, specifically, the Great Depression.

Although central bankers and economists assumed that advances in economic understanding — a significant portion of which came from Bernanke — had made depressions avoidable, Japan’s oft-discussed lost decade of deflation raised some uncomfortable questions.

Here was a nation not unlike the US and large Western European countries, with a powerful industrial base, sophisticated financial sector, and a modern, mature economy, which became mired in monetary quicksand, unable to exfiltrate itself from economic stagnation, despite following the playbook economists throught could avoid just such scenarios. Why?
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Ask and Ye Shall Receive

The Parallax Brief argued on these e-pages a couple of days ago that simply because recent recessions have been relatively short and ‘V-shaped’, there is no guarantee that the terrible crisis we’re currently living through will follow the same pattern. Humans are far more likely to base their predictions on recent memory than to delve back far into history or consider the possibility that something new and unseen could occur.

That’s one of the reasons irrational exuberance and panic pervades the markets still.

But actually, as the Parallax Brief argued in his article, we don’t really have to invent a new and cataclysmic economic Black Swan to get an idea of just how bad this recession could get: we simply need to look back further than 1938. Hot on the heels of the Parallax Brief’s article on this matter, Matthew Yglesias argues the same point (better) on his 100% superfly blog:

“Between the end of [the Great Depression] and the beginning of our current troubles, the National Bureau of Economic Research has identified eleven additional recessions, the longest of which (in the mid-seventies and in the early-eighties) lasted 16 months each. NBER doesn’t have data for the first half of the nineteenth century, but in the second half of the nineteenth century there were eleven recessions of which fully seven were longer-lasting than any of our post-Depression recessions.”

Note in particular the so-called “Long Depression” set off by the Panic of 1873. This was a five year, two month recession followed by a 34 month expansion followed by a new 38 month contraction. In other words, we had an eleven plus year span during which the economy was contracting over 75 percent of the time. That’s no good. And in addition to the direct economic harms of that sort of thing, you can have some very nasty political consequences in these situations. But that’s the world of passivity in the face of economic calamity.

Yglesias is far smarter than the Parallax Brief (he has a magna cum laude philosophy degree from Harvard, the Parallax Brief has a certificate of membership for the GI Joe Club), and it is hoped that his argument might be more persuasive than the Parallax Brief’s for those who don’t yet grasp quite how bad this could all get.

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Why It Could All Go L-Shaped

When not writing this blog, the Parallax Brief posts on a couple of superb Russia-based forums aimed at Expats, and uses them to shamelessly promote the content of these electronic pages. However, after linking to his most recent post, on the events likeliest to precipitate a Great Depression of the Twenty Tens, the Parallax Brief took a little heat for his pessimistic views.

Of course, it can be debated ad nauseum just how bad this recession is, but the Parallax Brief’s attention was caught by one post on the RedTape.ru forum which was strongly representative of a view held by pundits and analysts from across the political spectrum:

“It’s a recession. It shall take its course…But then the global economy will start to recover and we shall be, once again, in the “7 years of plenty” stage… until the next recession.”

There is something deeply comforting and commonsensical about this idea that the economy mirrors the waxing and waning of the seasons; the idea that no matter how miserable your life is trudging through streets of slush and treacherous ice in the Moscow winter, eventually summer will return, and those streets will be bounteously filled with Russian girls in (very little) warm weather clothing.

One reason for this is that reality has more of less mirrored this model as far back as we can remember. Recessions in the last sixty years have not reached depression levels, and have usually worked their course in relatively quick order, in the classic V-shape.

Unfortunately, just because we have grown accustomed to this kind of recession in the last sixty years, doesn’t mean this crisis will follow the pattern, and, in fact, things weren’t always as they have been since the end of the war.

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The Next Shoe to Drop on the Road to financial Armageddon?

In an enlightening speech to the American press club on December 8th, Paul Krugman was asked if there were “any more shoes to drop?” He responded that “in this kind of crisis, anything that can go wrong usually does go wrong.”

Certainly, a little over two months after the conference, the situation has worsened considerably.

But what other shoes are likeliest to drop? Well, as Krugman said, everything, but the Parallax Brief has two main contenders.

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World Economy at One Minute to Midnight

Over the last week, portents of doom have enveloped the Parallax Brief. Increasingly, a Great Depression of the Twenty Tens looks to be the fate of the world. Lest we forget, the economic turmoil between 1914 and 1945 led to political upheaval almost unimaginable now, and unleashed the horrors of total war on the developed world.

Why do I feel so pessimistic?

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Dr Ros Altmann is an Idiot and is Dangerous

One aspect of this terrible crisis that has consistently astonished me is how many so-called economists and financial experts can be so very wrong about even the simplest disciplines within their supposed field of expertise.

Quite apart from the terminally orthodox men of the ECB, who seem intent to fiddle while Rome burns, a gaggle of galloping morons with letters after their names have been remunerated by a variety of newspapers to peddle some of the most egregious bullshit I’ve ever read.

This would be irritating in milder climes, but in the current hellhole of an economy it becomes outright dangerous.

One such ‘economist’ and ‘financial advisor’ is Dr Ros Altmann. Upon the news that the Bank of England had reduced rates to 1%, Dr Ros penned an article offering ‘Five reasons why a rate cut is wrong’. There is nothing in monetary policy theory to suggest that easing rates is the wrong thing to do. NOTHING. In fact, most serious experts suggest that the Bank of England is dragging its feet and should have been at zero long ago.

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Financial Crisis: 2009 Equals 1931?

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard (pictured right) is the Stephen King of financial columnists: his articles and blogs for the Daily Telegraph (London) are terrifying.

Evans-Pritchard reports on each new squall of dire financial news with élan and wit, and his remaining readers (surely, I assume, many must have liquidated their assets, bought gold, and fled for the hills) have been rewarded with what has been one of the most prescient columns around: Evans-Pritchard foretold the armageddon long before the true reality of this horrific mess hit home to the rest of us.

This makes is latest column petrifying – and perhaps relieving:

“Barack Obama inherits an economy already contracting at an annual rate of 6pc, much like the mid-Depression year of 1931 (-6.4pc). This may beat Germany (-7pc) Japan (-12pc) and Korea (-22pc) over the fourth quarter. But that merely underlines the dangers ahead as the collapse of global trade chokes the mini-boom in US exports, setting off another stage of the crisis.

The US is losing 500,000 jobs a month. Brazil lost 650,000 in December. Beijing says 10m Chinese have lost their jobs since the crunch began. Japan’s exports fell 35pc last month, year-on-year. The central bank is printing money furiously, buying bonds to prevent a relapse into deflation.

It is like early 1931… But it is not yet like 1933.”

Evans-Pritchard paints an arresting picture of the America Franklin D. Roosevelt took over in March 1933, and in doing so provides a startling allegory for the dangers facing us now. Those libertarians and Hoover-Mellon acolytes still appalled by the brazen use of budgetary deficits and monetary easing should read on to get a picture of what happened the last time we did things your way:

“That second leg down [between ’31 and ‘33] was the result of “liquidation” policies by a Dickensian leadership blind to the dangers of debt deflation. By then the Gold Standard had degenerated into an instrument of torture. It forced the Fed to raise rates from 1.5pc to 3.5pc in October 1931 to stem gold loss, with predictable results for shattered banks.

It is worth glancing at the front page of New York Times on Monday March 6, 1933 to see what the world looked like three days after Franklin Roosevelt moved into the White House.

The newspaper splashed with the story that FDR had closed the US banking system – invoking the Trading with Enemies Act – and ordered the confiscation of private gold. From left to right, the headlines read: “Hitler Bloc Wins A Reich Majority, Rules Prussia”; “Japanese Push On In Fierce Fighting, China Closes Wall, Nanking Admits Defeat”; “City Scrip To Replace Currency”; “President Takes Steps Under Sweeping Law of War Time”; “Prison For Gold Hoarders”.

President Obama faces a happier world. The liberal economic order is still in tact, if fraying at the edges. Capital and ships move freely. North America and Europe talk the same political language. China has so far proved a dependable pillar of the international system.

Roosevelt took over a country where the economic machinery had completely broken down. The New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade had closed. Thirty-two states had shut their banks. Texas had restricted withdrawals to $10 a day.

Few states could borrow on the bond markets. Illinois and much of the South had stopped paying teachers. Schools closed for months. An army of 25,000 famished war veterans squatting in view of Congress had been charged by troopers of the 3rd US cavalry with naked sabres – led by a Major George Patton.

Armed farmers threatening revolution had laid siege to a string or Prairie cities. A mob had stormed the Nebraska Capitol. Minnesota’s governor was recruiting Communists only for the state militia. Lawyers attempting to enforce foreclosures were shot.”

We must not allow the second leg to happen again.

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