Monday, May 17, 2010

The ironic pairing: Globalization and Deficit Terrorism

Globalization - here used synonymously with "free trade" - punishes countries which pay their workers too much. It lets a flood of cheaply manufactured goods into wealthy countries' markets - and these goods are cheaper precisely because of the difference in wages. In other words, each portion of wage in the importing country can capture more than an equal portion of wage in the exporter country.

Since wages are typically paid in national currencies, this effect sees its expression in currency exchange rates. Since currency can only be used to purchase goods within an economy, a nation that imports more than it exports will, ceteris paribus, find that over time its currency will decrease in value relative to those of nations that export more than they import. However, this measure of value is only meaningful if incomes and currency circulation patterns are also taken into account. The simple measure of literal exchange doesn't tell the full story of the value of a currency. If an hours' labor earned worker A 1000 yuan that were each worth 0.25 dollars, while worker B slaved for a pittance of 10 dollars per hour, can one really say that the yuan is a "weaker" currency?

For the typically encountered modern situation where one large consuming nation is served by several satellite nations that function as producers, any additional money entering the hands of an investor will tend to be invested in a satellite nation if it is invested in production and a few other outsourceable functions, and invested in the importer nation for purposes like distribution and retailing. Therefore, a true currency supply expansion, distributed uniformly (such as through tax relief) in an importing country would in part be transmitted to foreign countries and in part into the local economy. This ratio is determined by the nature of the goods that are intended to be produced and by incentive structures that apply to these goods. Thus, such a currency supply expansion will increase the wealth of both the importer and the exporter nation.

However, this effect is moderated - and can even be supplanted completely - by rent-seeking behavior. If wealthy individuals are able to cartelize or monopolize any stream of consumer necessities, acts of currency issuance instead lead to a near seamless increase in the costs of those necessities until the effect of the currency issuance is absorbed. If labor markets are sufficiently slack to keep workers from bargaining effectively, the system will essentially remain as it was, except that the price of goods in the importing country will rise or fall relative to each other, depending on the nature of the rent-seeking. If, on the other hand, labor markets are tight (and not necessarily because of low unemployment but also possibly because of a shortage of qualified workers) inflation will occur as the workers demand greater wages to counter the increase in cost of living and these wages motivate increases in prices. But here it is worth noting that price increases and wage increases in pair do sometimes serve a beneficial equalizing function in the society, if the worst off see these wage increases.

Anti-deficit hysteria hinges on value of currency as expressed not in the wages of workers but in exchange rates. But this means that nations which refuse to devalue their currency through deficit spending are essentially capitulating on trade deficits, agreeing to continue exporting industry and jobs. The sensible policy - indeed what appears to be the strategic equilibrium - is to have every nation locked in a currency devaluation race. Such a race would proceed until full employment was reached.

This strategy will doubtless lead to inflation, especially since workers who depend on cheap imports to maintain a low cost of living will see these imports increase in price due to the inferior exchange rate. However, this inflation should be moderated by the reduction of profits collected by the outsourced companies. The inflation is also beneficial in the sense that it forces workers to bargain for higher wages and undermines the total profits of the wealthy, delaying the rent-seeking behavior that would otherwise lead to increases in the value of real estate and other owner-income-stream-type assets. The inflation is necessary to stimulate the growth of local industry in the importer country - from the perspective of the entrepreneur, inflation has the same effect that tariffs would, except that the upward price trend will tend to make investment more favorable in the long term than tariffs would, especially since tariffs can be much more effectively countered by foreign government policies than currency devaluations.

Therefore, the pairing of Globalization with deficit terrorism is particularly odd. On the one hand, nations are expected to put up no resistance to the exporting of jobs overseas. On the other, expansions of money supply are criticized as irresponsible, even though such expansions would correct the imbalance caused by the strategy of globalization. In fairness, as has been noted before, government borrowing from wealthy investors doesn't really expand the money supply. However, it does effectively increase the money in circulation , but with a much more mild effect than non-parity currency issue. But in their economic ignorance, most deficit terrorists are blind to the actual workings of the money supply anyway. What we should never forgive them for is their willingness to blindly repeat political talking points as if they represent real analysis.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The role of bank capital scarcity on inflation

Increases in interest rates due to bank capital scarcity cannot generally lead to increases in prices, because interest rates are the arbiters of general employment levels which in turn control demand for goods. However, changes in interest rates can precipitate changes to market structure that cause increases in the cost of goods in individual markets, or occasionally precipitate both unemployment and inflation, given that economic growth within a region is sufficiently robust or the general population is sufficiently wealthy. To illustrate, begin with the following example of a single firm within a single industry.

Imperial Widgets (IW) is a widget factory facing capital replacement costs due to depreciation. The company is not profitable (zero net profit) and has no liquid assets that can be sold to finance such a purchase. Therefore, the company must take a loan to cover these replacement costs or cease operations. Supposing that IW takes such loans on a rolling basis and therefore faces similar monthly payments (without loss of generality) in each term.

Further, suppose that IW is making its price and quantity production decisions in a competent fashion, that is to say it is maximizing (or attempting to maximize) its profits. It expects an increase in price charged to lead to a decrease in sales sufficiently large to reduce profits and a decrease in price charged to similarly lead to an insufficiently higher volume of sales; additionally it is not likely to sell additional units produced, the marginal cost of production equals the marginal revenue, or IW is already producing at capacity. In other words, IW's profits would decline were it to maintain current capital stocks but change its price and/or quantity of production.

Now, suppose that interest rates increase. As IW considers its replacement schedule for depreciating capital, it realizes that it faces a change to its cost curve that could alter its price and quantity decisions. Depending on the capital objects to be replaced, IW may either curtail production and increase prices, or simply operate at a loss. In the first case, IW is likely to only obtain a partial replacement of capital, thus it is borrowing less. In the second case, IW is likely to finance these losses, causing an increase in borrowing.

The distribution between these two decisions across all firms is connected in a mutually causative way with the economic trend. At the macro level, some firms will move in one direction and some firms will move in the other, but a third option looms in the shadows. Here, long term expectations become significant - do firms that are operating at a loss hold out for better days or close shop? In any event, employment declines so long as at least one firm either cuts production or goes out of business.

The model case from here on will depend on market structure. It is virtually impossible to conceive of a monopoly enterprise that is not in the first place profitable, so we can focus instead on competitive and near-competitive markets. Within such a market some firms will be facing slightly higher cost curves and others slightly lower curves, but all firms will charge very similar prices for the same good, therefore some firms will be slightly profitable or have liquid asset reserves and some will be operating at a slight loss or have a deficiency in liquid asset reserves. When interest rates increase, some firms will face untenable finance positions and close. Therefore, interest rate increases can cause the breakdown of competitive market structures and lead to monopoly, cartel, or other degenerate market structures. This in turn allows the individual market to come to a higher price equilibrium due to the diminished competition within the market. This higher price equilibrium is generally accompanied by lower output.

However, if similar effects occur across too many markets at the same time, the reduction in employment level and wages that accompanies such restructuring leads to decreases in demand for goods through both revision of consumer budgets and increased incentives to save. In such a situation, the prices charged for goods must decrease as output declines, because prices follow a cost curve that is non-horizontal (due not just to the initial assumption of high interest rates and capital scarcity but also to the reduction in wages). A reduced output level must in turn exert downward pressure on interest rates.

Another under-appreciated aspect of this problem is the role that investment decisions play in the availability of capital to banks. Bank loans are a class of investment that competes with direct investment in corporations. During boom times, the increase of direct investment in corporations is a source of the very capital scarcity that leads to market consolidations as described above. However, during more stagnant economic times, companies cannot raise capital as easily because of the greater risk associated with direct investment. This means that capital is being held in bank accounts, implying a capital surplus - so interest rates should tend to fall as economic conditions deteriorate.

Economies go into crisis when prospects for direct investment become so bleak that essentially no direct investment occurs. Here, individuals will even settle for no interest and keep money in the bank, waiting for better times. These better times are caused by exogenous effects - technologies, government stimulus, and resource discoveries.

In contrast, economies also go into crisis when too few dollars are available for loans. If spending is sufficiently robust, investors will be unwilling to leave any money sitting. Capital for short term adjustments becomes too expensive for firms, and they are forced to curtail production. During times of especially strong demand, this can lead to prices increasing even as unemployment increases. Ultimately, the ability to spend is actually a function of wealth and not of income. Among other things, this explains the enigmatic "stagflation" of the 1970s.

In a previous post I have described these two contrasting situations as "disincentive" and "shortage". It is "shortage" that most closely corresponds with bank capital scarcity scenarios particularly the enigma of stagflation.

It is worth addressing whether such an effect - stagflation - can occur in a less developed country (I cringe and the imperialist heritage of this term. Is it conceptually much different than "less civilized" or "barbarian"?) due to the same forces as in a developed one. Here, banking and capital sources are primarily externally located. This is crucial, because it implies that any growth or decline in local demand will only have a marginal effect on the investing economy. These export economies do not get the benefit of profit capture or control, because the investors are not members of the economy itself and do not have a stake in the local community. It is the destabilization that the interests of the foreign investor bring to the political process that repeatedly dooms efforts at growth and social justice within a developing country. Generally, both loans and direct investment will always be available or unavailable in parity to the developing nation. It is not some economic law - but the political conditions of our time - that leads to suffering throughout the world.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Firefox Double Crashing

Dear firefox feedback,

Firefox is a very predictable product. If something causes it to crash, that same thing will cause it to crash again. Please forgive me for not sounding sophisticated here, but I don't have the statistics that your techie people have access to. This is because firefox is a computer program. It responds in a predictable fashion to the data that is fed into it.

The crash recovery option is designed to store, apparently in cached form rather than reloading them, all of the pages that were being viewed at the time of a crash. In 99.99% of situations, this means that when firefox is restarted, it simply crashes again. I reported this as a bug and was shut down:

Apparently, having a product that crashes a second time after every crash is not a bug but a feature.

So, at the very least, I would like to have an option to turn this "feature" off. I know from searching support that I can go to some internal settings page to fix the problem - and I have. But for everyone else out there who is a loyal firefox user and might not know about this fix, I am asking you and the other tech people to do two things:

1. Come up with a crash recovery procedure that works in a meaningful way.
2. Include an option in preferences that can be checked to disable this feature.

On the first point,

I suggest storing any form data and URLs and simply saving them to a text file in the event of crash. Naturally you can exclude credit card and password info. Then, on recovery, firefox should simply display these contents in a form that makes them easy to copy and paste.

Especially in crashes, your current standard is really unrealistic. Paul Oshannessy said "I'll say that the common case, people just want Firefox to start back up and figure it out on its own. They don't want to be shown this potentially confusing page after Firefox crashes - they want it to 'just work'."

But it doesn't "just work". Common sense indicates that it won't. Programs can't just start back up after crashes with no data loss, because as soon as the program executes that same line of code a second time, the same result occurs! In the case of web content, crashes are the result of errors in the generation of webpage scripts or firefox's interpretation of the contents of those scripts. If firefox doesn't ask the servers that generated the pages to re-generate them, it will simply run the same scripts on those pages that caused the original crash, and because firefox is such a nice and stable product, it will crash again! But even re-generating pages will still cause a lot of crashes, almost as many as loading the cashed pages. What you find, and this is very much CS315, is that each time you strip away a layer of data, that is step back from the most recent page, the fewer crashes there are, until you find the only way to really prevent any crash is to not reload the offending page at all.

That gets back to the comment of the poor user that Paul shut down: Why not let the user choose which tabs to restore on the first restart?

On the second point,

I suggest you make it so that whatever Crash Recovery "solution" you end up implementing, you make it easy to turn off so that grouchy people like me can avoid going batshit insane. Make this an advanced option. That way average users who have no functional literacy won't go bumbling into that option, accidentally turn it off, and subsequently leave nasty messages demanding to know why their firefox doesn't double crash anymore.

Also, I would suggest that you take the time to figure out whose idea this was, because you might want to take future ideas by this same person with a grain of salt. As a general rule, clever marketing comes after the product - it should never motivate the creation of the product itself, unless you intend to defraud consumers.

Thank you. I feel better now.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Business Cycle - another explanation

At a given time t, the total production within an economy is distributed according to payments made by purchasers. Calling the sum of these payments the dollar expression of production, the corresponding goods expression of purchases is the total production expressed as a very large goods bundle. Neither term implies actual value. The only determinant of actual value is a detailed analysis of the goods bundle itself by experts who can evaluate the total social benefit of each good. For sake of simplicity, services provided are also considered part of production. The term "goods" will refer to both goods and services.

Alongside the acts of production are speculative sales. Speculation is defined as "ownership for the purpose other than use or consumption". An object, such as an ox, could be purchased simultaneously for production (use of the ox for plowing), speculation (sell if prices reach a certain level) or consumption (eat if food is not available). Similarly, homes are purchased for both use (to live in) and for resale (under the assumption that property prices will rise). The holding of money, such as in a savings account, or any other asset, is also an act of speculation. The act of holding is, essentially, "exchange with oneself". The sum of production purchases and speculative purchases at time t is the entirety of economic exchange at that time period. Furthermore, the total supply of money within an economy therefore participates in exchange in each time period.

Suppose that the supply of money within an economy increases at a rate greater than the total level of production. Then it must follow that speculation within that economy increases. Similarly, if production booms at a greater rate than expansion of the money supply, the number of speculative exchanges must decrease. Here, "level of production" refers to actual production and not production capacity, while "money supply" refers to actual currency in circulation and bank accounts (m1). It is premature at this juncture to make policy recommendations, because increases in the money supply can be made in a variety of ways, some of which can spur increased production in excess of the increase in money supply.

In any market, some individuals will have large, speculative holdings, and will hereafter be referred to as "wealthy". What conditions must persist over time for these speculative holdings to diminish? Similarly, what conditions must persist for these holdings to increase? Which of the two scenarios are more likely?

These questions are answered by looking at the essential choice that the wealthy have in the investment of their money. Either they invest in a productive enterprise by purchasing capital for use by that enterprise, or they invest in speculative enterprise by purchasing assets that they believe will appreciate in value. The act of simply holding onto money is tantamount to saying that all other investments are inferior, i.e. that money will increase in value.

In a situation where the economy is rapidly expanding, speculative holding tends to fall behind productive investment in terms of profit levels. Therefore, the wealthy can be expected to reduce their speculative holdings during such periods, instead investing in capital. Conversely, the wealthy will tend to withdraw capital and invest in speculative holdings during economic downturns. Despite the use of the term "Speculation" to describe non-productive investments of money, it is speculation that gives more stable (lower risk) returns to the investor, at least with respect to general market trends. Part of this risk equation is the magnification of economic events at the level of production relative to the level of simple wealth holding. The wealthy will obtain peak wealth levels by switching to speculation at the exact point of market reversal. This ensures that even as wages fall for workers, the prices of goods and rental costs do not fall proportionately (due to decreases in number of suppliers and increases in speculation in land). Thus, workers are impoverished and must consume less, leading to a decrease in prices of all speculative assets and eventually uniform deflation. This process of decay continues without any theoretical bottom, however in practice governments change policies, new technologies are developed, or wars and revolutions occur. In a broad sense, the wealthy class will only diminish in wealth concentration as a result of unexpected losses, which are correlated with changes in the direction of the general economic trend - the frequency of which principally depends on government action, as described below.

Two key features of modern economies are the dependence of the vast majority on the market for their subsistence and the use of fiat monetary systems. Historically, two different factors moderated the inescapable spiral described above: 1. The agrarian economic system, and 2. The precious metal economies. These two had particular synergies, such as feudal patterns of land ownership and the "free market" expansion of currency supplies which served to reverse economic trends. However, these counterbalances have now been totally removed from our present economies. Instead, we have a government system in which a fiat money system is implemented in a dishonest way where national governments essentially pretend to be bound by invisible rules which force them to maintain a fairly limited expansion to actual currency supplies. Furthermore, political leaders tend to know little to nothing about the economy, and of course there are virtually no academics who can honestly claim to know much more. It is therefore an operation of pure chance that brings a modern society out of economic slump.

Ironically, the cycles of growth and collapse are initiated by an underappreciated phenomenon called saturation. In a "goods saturation" collapse scenario, additional wages cannot motivate increased purchasing. Wage workers instead become speculators, accelerating any pyramidal effects already occurring within the economy. In a "speculation saturation" growth scenario, available speculative assets suffer from a relative deflation in value due to vastly overinflated prices and widespread cost of living inflation. Investors have no choice but to invest in industry in order to preserve their wealth.

A prescription for our own economy in this situation follows from the identification of our stage within this crisis: we are currently facing a non-inflationary collapse of production capacity. It is a slow moving crisis that in many ways began in the 1980s. To address it, we must devise a way to destabilize the prices of fixed assets like real estate and bonds. A rather painless way to do this is simply to reduce their opportunity cost, that is, to expand the money supply through giveaways as part of social welfare programs. The additional spending that such policies would engender would make productive investment more profitable than mere speculation, and the economic trend could be reversed.