Thursday, June 19, 2008

Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid

I am pleased to announce that the above-entitled article, written by (non-pseudonymous) me, has been published by The Objective Standard.

The article addresses what went wrong with the electric grid, and traces its problems to a critical failure to secure a vital asset in the earliest days of the industry. That failure, apparent even before Thomas Edison threw the switch to light up America's first commercial electric grid in Lower Manhattan in 1882, haunts the industry to this day. What is that vital asset? Why and how must it be secured? If it is, what kind of future becomes possible?

My answer is here.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Money Unmoored by Gold

A stockbroker friend of mine sent me this chart showing the ratio between the Dow Jones Industrial Average (and its equivalent predecessor index) and the price of gold. Notice the greater amplitude of variation in this ratio after Congress established the Federal Reserve Bank in 1913 and severed the connection between gold and money. After 1913, money could be created in arbitrary fashion by the Federal Reserve Bank. Further sundering the connection between gold and money in the 1930s, FDR's New Deal Congress outlawed the private ownership of gold, and clauses in private contracts that called for payment in gold. Finally, Richard Nixon's Congress severed the last vestige of the gold standard in the late 1960s and early 1970s by suspending the U.S. government's promise to pay in gold to settle international claims.

These moves to unmoor the dollar from gold coincided with the stock market swinging to higher highs and lower lows relative to gold. I interpret the chart as showing the effect of monetary inflation in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1990s, and then the impact of recession/Depression in the 1930s and price inflation combined with recession in the 1970s.

When the stock market was relatively high and gold low, in the 1920s, 1960s, and 1990s, the economy genuinely boomed, but that boom was artificially enhanced by easy money. That is why the ratio soared to higher highs than existed in the pre-1913 gold standard era. The result of that monetary inflation was an economic bust, as the dislocations caused by that monetary inflation harmed the economy. Inevitably, the excess money showed up in price inflation, especially evident during the 1970s "stagflation" when both recession and inflation cursed the nation.

Does this chart tell us anything about the future? The author of the chart would have us believe that we are headed for a 1930s or 1970s style economic catastrophe, as shown by the "Target Zone" marked on the chart. Certainly, the precursors for such a catastrophe have been established, and we are seeing the first signs of economic malaise of the 1970s variety. We had monetary inflation in the 1990s and 2000s, which is now manifesting itself in price inflation and incipient recession.

What is your interpretation of the historical meaning of the graph? What do the highs and lows of the various eras mean? Do you agree with my interpretation? What is your thought of the future? Are we headed to a low Dow/high gold ratio that we last saw in the 1930s and 1970s, or will such an economic disaster be averted? In other words, will our economy muddle along for awhile, or must we endure a true economic disaster before the economy improves?

I will offer my opinion later in the comments section.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

A Short, Speculative Post

Congress is blaming speculators for the barreling rise in the price of oil, as of this writing $126 per barrel.

In late 1998, oil dipped briefly below $10 per barrel. Where were the speculators then? Interestingly, at that time the U.S. dollar had been appreciating for about 4 years. It had appreciated roughly 25% by then from its bottom in 1995. The dollar is not the only factor*, but it is a significant one that explains the oil price. A good deal of today's gain in the price of oil, denominated in dollars, reflects the depreciation of the dollar.

Speculators are agents that transmit fact-based expectations about future supply and consumption trends into present prices. As such, they facilitate economizing between present and future supply/consumption. If the expectation is that future consumption will be high and supplies will be constrained -- or that nominal demand expressed in dollars will be high due to dollar depreciation -- then speculators will bid up the price of oil today. That is happening now.

The opposite happened in the late 1990s, at least with regard to the purchasing power of the dollar. Expectations were that its purchasing power would strengthen relative to the world's currencies. Therefore, speculators bid down the price of oil.

In regard to the general point of whether speculators can manipulate the market, they cannot alter the long-term or fundamental course of markets. Market prices incorporate such fundamental information. If a speculator positioned himself (incorrectly) against the long-term trend, he would be bankrupted very quickly. For example, if a speculator in the mid-1990s incorrectly bet that oil would go up, he would have lost his shirt.

Blaming the speculators is a lot like blaming the gas gauge for showing that your tank is empty, except that the "speculator gas gauge" is even smarter. It accounts not just for the amount of gas in your tank right now, but also for the nearness of a gas station down the road. The "speculator gas gauge" will adjust to reflect the ease with which you can fill up your tank in the future, thus encouraging you to either consume more gas or less right now, depending on those facts.

The speculator's role is very valuable. If the government restricts it, it will make the markets work less efficiently. Ultimately, this will mean less oil availability because it will become more costly to finance oil production and refining. Capital will demand a higher premium to invest in the oil industry if financial liquidity and quality market information about future demand/supply are reduced because speculation has been diminished by law.



*The key fundamental factors keeping oil prices high in real terms (not just nominal terms, which is affected by the value of the U.S. dollar) are restrictions on Western drilling and the nationalization and cartelization of oil over the past 60 years. These two factors have diminished supply by taking it out of the hands of entrepreneurial oil companies and concentrating it in the hands of a smaller number of unproductive, state-run operations.

On the demand side, large new demand from China would act to keep prices high but in the absence of the supply constraints, prices would not have to rise as much as we are seeing, or could even fall. Consider that oil prices in the United States fell for decades during most of the late 19th and 20th centuries even while U.S. economic growth and oil consumption during much of that time grew at a rate comparable to China's growth rate today.