Could post-Brexit Credit Downgrades save Britain from the next Crash?

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After last Thursday’s decision by the British public to leave the European Union (a decision which I endorsed and stand by), reports emerged in the press almost immediately of the imminence of a downgrade in the UK government’s perceived creditworthiness. And sure enough, several downgrades have occurred in the days since the referendum. First to act was ratings agency Moody’s, who assigned a negative outlook to Britain’s Aa1 rating on government debt the day after the referendum. Shortly afterwards, Standard & Poor’s downgraded the British government’s creditworthiness from AAA to AA+, while Fitch went even further, downgrading the government’s credit rating to AA. Significantly, S&P has also, in the past few hours, downgraded the credit rating of the EU itself from AA+ to AA.

Grim sounding stuff, upon a cursory glance, and certainly perfect headline content for the many doomsayers and pro-EU commies of the fourth estate. However, the long-term implications of such downgrades might not be as negative as we’re all being led to believe. Indeed, increasing doubtfulness of the government’s creditworthiness could help to cushion the blow for Britain somewhat, when the next crash inevitably arrives.

First of all, these downgrades theoretically make it more difficult for the British government to sell bonds to private investors, and hence more difficult for it to borrow money, which to me at least makes the downgrades a positive, almost regardless of their other consequences. With UK public sector debt at over 80% of GDP and Osbourne still failing to achieve even his own lax targets for reducing the deficit, I’m pretty sure that if fire rained from the sky and Beelzebub ascended from hell to eat Mark Carney’s legs, I would still hail the event as a positive if it made it more difficult for the government to borrow money. One might argue that the downgrades actually won’t affect the total amount that the government can borrow, because even if they dissuade private investors from buying government bonds, the Bank of England can theoretically pick up the slack by simply buying government bonds with money created out of thin air. However, with interest rates at record lows since 2009, the threat of high inflation might prevent the bank from completely offsetting a reduction in demand for government bonds, and so it’s possible that the total amount of money the government can borrow may indeed decrease.

However, far more important is the fact that these downgrades may help to deflate the government debt bubble which we are currently living through, and which will in all likelihood be the cause of the next crash. In the aftermath of the Dot-com crash of 2000-2001, central bankers’ pursuit of artificially low-interest rates encouraged speculation and a scramble to borrow and invest, during a time in which the economy should have been allowed to readjust and learn the lessons of the crisis it had just been through. Instead of allowing the Dot-com bubble to fully deflate so that the economy could start building on a solid foundation again, they merely rolled the bubble over into another section of the economy: housing. The reason why housing became the area of the next bubble was because it was seen as an extremely safe area of the economy, with  relatively predictable rates of expected return, and only a small chance of failure. When the housing bubble finally did burst, central bankers made all the same mistakes again that they had in 2000, sledgehammering interest rates into the earth’s mantle and consequently causing a scramble to invest in the area that had replaced housing as the universally accepted “safest” investment in town: government debt. However, with Puerto Rico facing an historic debt default just this very week, and many other countries not far behind, the signs are beginning to emerge that the government debt market of today is just as “safe” as the housing market of 2006 was.

If the above is true, and if we really are on the verge of a government debt crash that will dwarf the housing crash just as much as the housing crash dwarfed the dot-com crash, then we should all be thanking the ratings agencies for trying to steer UK investors away from becoming more heavily invested in government debt. Will it completely shield us from the effects of the crash? Absolutely not. But we can at least assume that, come the crash, the British public and its institutions will likely find themselves at least somewhat less heavily invested in the failing government bonds than they would have been, had they retained their unimpeachable AAA ratings.

So thank you again to the British public for voting for Brexit, and thank you to Moody’s, Fitch, and S&P for downgrading your assessment of our government’s creditworthiness; in exchange for a little short-term uneasiness, you may have put Britain in a stronger position to weather the coming storm, perhaps without even having realised it.

It’s Time To Leave, and Take Back our Ancient Liberties.

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Before we all vote today, I think it’s important to remind ourselves of what it is that we’re actually directly voting on, particularly after a campaign with this many misdirections and red herrings. This referendum on our membership of the European Union has no direct impact on trade or economic policy, it has no direct impact on immigration, and it certainly has no bearing whatsoever on wishy-washy concepts such as “co-operation” and “fellowship” with Europeans. What we are directly voting on today is whether or not laws should be imposed upon us by 28 European Commissioners whom no one has ever elected, and whom none of us will ever be able to vote against. It’s as simple as that. When you find yourself with the ballot paper in front of you later today, you should at least be aware of exactly what concrete thing it is that you’re giving your moral seal of approval to. If you put your X in the remain box, understand that you’re not voting for “tolarance”, or for trade and co-operation with Europe, or against any unsavoury types you might find on the other side. The real, concrete thing that you’re actually consenting to is the idea that supreme legislative and executive power over 64 million Britons should be combined in the hands of 28 people who no one ever voted for. Really think about that when the ballot paper is sitting in front of you. Trade, immigration, defence, culture: these are all secondary issues which we can argue and re-argue, decide and re-decide another day. Today, however, is our one chance to stand up for our democracy; to stand up for the principle which previous generations laid down their lives for, back through the World Wars, the English Civil War, Magna Carta, and even beyond. Will we turn our backs on our legacy of democracy today, or will we pass it on safely to our children, and generations yet unborn? Today is our one chance. Don’t let yourselves down. #VoteLeave

Brief, Spoiler-Free Atlas Shrugged Review

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Someone on my Tumblr blog asked me to give a brief, spoiler-free review of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, to advise them on whether or not to buy it. Bearing in mind that, in terms of sheer number of copies read, Atlas may well be the single most influential libertarian work ever published, I thought the subject matter of my review was pertinent enough to the subject of this blog to warrant reposting. So here follows my brief, spoiler-free review of Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book which for me, as for many libertarians, was the book which “converted” them to begin with, and remains one of the most important influences on my thought:

 

Have you read Atlas Shrugged? (and if so give us a quick review)

Yes I have, and simply put, it is the greatest novel ever written.

It crafts an extraordinarily broad, living, breathing world, which drips with a level of rich detail and atmosphere rarely found outside literary masterpieces of similar stature, such as War and Peace. Through this world it weaves an immensely satisfying plot, which positively charges forward with an intriguing inexorability and an intangible sense of vague dread which makes it almost impossible to put down. All this accomplishes the remarkable feat of transforming an extremely weighty book (both in length and subject matter) into a bona fide page turner.

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The cover of the First Edition

The plot tears through a baffling number of “the big questions” with a breathtaking level of clarity and a laser precision that I’ve never seen equalled before or since, and touches on almost every conceivable aspect of the human experience. It populates its dystopian, 1950s wasteland of a world with a cast of characters so broad, diverse, and immensely memorable that each reader will find themselves identifying most with someone slightly different, and it’s rare to find two people with exactly the same favourite character.

If I had to offer one cautionary note though, it would also be on the subject of the characters. Rand believed her job as a novelist was to present the world as it could and should be, not as it actually was. When she created a character therefore, she was not trying to create a realistic depiction of the sort of person you might actually meet in the street, but was rather trying to pluck a particular idea or abstract concept out of the air, and solidify it into the mould of a person. Now that’s all well and good, particularly when you understand where she’s coming from, but to a reader who prefers more “realistic” characters it can be distinctly jarring. To a sympathetic and appreciative reader her characters appear highly stylised but nevertheless intriguing and compelling, but to a critic or a reader who just doesn’t “get it”, they might appear wooden, “absurdly unrealistic”, or at times even inhuman.

But putting aside the unconventional characterisation and Ayn Rand’s own obnoxious character flaws, Atlas Shrugged is nevertheless an absolute monolith of English literature, philosophy, and politics, and a book that everyone should read at least once. The fact that it was deemed to be the second most influential book in America, behind only the Bible, pretty much says it all (and bearing in mind the borderline ridiculous number of people you’ll hear saying “Atlas Shrugged changed my life”, or “It was like I finally understood who I really was for the first time when I read Atlas Shrugged”, I can understand why it was judged to be so.)

Read that book!

Why Austrian Economics?

The other day someone sent me a question over on my Tumblr blog: “Why Austrian economist? I thought you were English. Aren’t you a British national?”

The question highlights the fact that, despite its resurgence and speedy growth in recent years, the “Austrian School” of economics is still seen by many as part of what Keynes would have called the economic “underground”. Indeed, the Austrian tradition lies so firmly outside the mainstream of economic thought that, for the inaugural post on this blog, perhaps I should repeat here a somewhat expanded version of the answer I gave to that confused Tumblr follower. What is “Austrian” economics? Why is it unique? And why is it so vital that it’s message be understood in these troubled economic times?

As I highlighted in the “About” page of this blog, I’m still a relative newcomer to Austrian ideas, and my hope is that the level of understanding displayed on this blog will increase as time goes on. So the reader should temper their expectations somewhat for this very first post, as it likely won’t be the most exhaustive or masterful exposition of Austrianism ever. Nevertheless, it should still serve to single out some of the most fundamental ideas in the Austrian tradition, as well as those which strike me as most important to the state of economics today.

So first thing’s first, forget about the “Austrian” part. Austrian economics doesn’t refer to supply and demand in Vienna, or inflation in Salzberg, and too many people get confused thinking it must have something to do with the actual country of Austria itself. In fact, most “Austrian” economists today live and work in North America and, as the great economist Murray Rothbard quipped, “there are very few ‘Austrians’ left in Austria.”  Austrian Economics is rather a school of thought, a body of ideas and theories, which were first explored by Carl Menger in the 1860s.

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Carl Menger (1840-1921)

During his time as a financial journalist in central-Europe, Menger noticed that the received wisdom of Classical Economics did not match-up with how he observed prices being formed on real-world markets. This prompted him to write his Principles of Economics (1871) which demolished the archaic “labour theory of value” favoured by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and Karl Marx, and ushered in the “Marginal Revolution” of the 1870s. (Incidentally, its genesis in Menger’s 1871 work makes Austrian Economics the oldest continuously-existing school of economic thought in the world.) For about a decade after the publication of the Principles, there was no “Austrian school”, there was only Menger. However, in the mid-1880s Menger came under attack by the dominant school of economic thought in the area at that time, the so-called “German Historical school”. The Germans disdained Menger’s abstract theorising, instead favouring pragmatism and reference to historical knowledge as the correct approach to the economy. At this point in history, Germany was considered the cultural and intellectual centre of Europe, and so adherents to the German Historical school began referring to Menger and his ideas as mere “Austrian economics”, in an attempt to brush them aside as unrefined and parochial. Despite being intended as an insult, the name stuck and, as Menger’s ideas gained an increasing following throughout the 1880s, including brothers-in-law Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914) and Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926), the “Austrian school” of economics was born.

From that time until this the Austrian school, despite its ostracism from most of academia, has nevertheless developed a host of key economic ideas, some of which have even been accepted into the corpus of acceptable mainstream opinion. These include Menger’s subjective marginal utility theory of value, Böhm-Bawerk’s positive time-preference theory of interest, and Wieser’s concept of opportunity cost. Other adherents to the Austrian tradition, whose names might be more familiar to the lay reader, include: the extremely eminent economist Friedrich von Hayek (1899-1992), whose political writings, such as the famous Road to Serfdom, influenced British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), economist and founding father of the political ideology now known as anarcho-capitalism; and three-time US Presidential candidate Ron Paul (1935- ).

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Ludwig von Mises (1881 – 1973)

However, I’m many ways, the central figure to the modern Austrian tradition was the brilliant economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Although he made extraordinarily important and extensive contributions to the theories of money and credit, the problem of economic calculation in planned economies, and our understanding of the business cycle, perhaps Mises’s most important contribution to economic thought was in the rarely-traversed field of methodology. Mises devoted a large part of his career to explicating and systematising the method which had been implicitly used by previous Austrian economists, as well as by proto-Austrian figures such as J.B. Say and A.R.J. Turgot.

Looking at the academic world around him in the early- to mid-20th century, Mises became increasingly concerned by what he saw as the grave methodological bankruptcy of modern economics. Ever greater numbers of economists, particularly those in the penumbra of the logical positivist movement, were beginning to believe that the best way to gain insights into the economy was simply by  measuring and gathering its empirical data, and then discerning the mathematical relations between the various variables. While this is undoubtedly a fruitful way to approach the natural sciences, such as Physics, Mises believed that its use in the distinctly human science of economics introduced an unacceptable element of error, in particular due to its inability to account for two factors which he called “finality” and “ideas”.

What he means by “finality” is the understanding that human action, unlike the movement of atoms or the reaction of chemicals, takes place in the pursuit of individually chosen goals. Because people chose the outcomes they would like to achieve, this means the range of different behaviours they exhibit in the face of external forces is much wider and less predictable. Not only are the goals people aim at as numerous and varied as the human race itself, but any person or number of people in the economy could change the goals they’re aiming at at any time, in any way, and any number of times, and could do so for reasons completely unknown to anyone but themselves, least of all to the economist and his calculator. This peccadillo of human nature and (apparent) free will, leads to a potentially infinite number and variety of future changes in the economic system, which severely restricts the predictive power of mere data-gathering and mathematical methods.

What he means by “ideas” is the fact that different people have very different ways of looking at the world, which cannot be empirically measured or modelled for. These different world-views, beliefs, and constellations of abstract concepts which exist within each individual mind, cause different people to react in unforeseeably different ways when confronted with the same external circumstances.

Mises argued that the failure of (what is now) the mainstream economic method to account for these two human factors, finality and ideas, as well as the impossibility of truly controlled experiments in economics, renders the empirical/mathematical method useful only as tools of economic history, able to blandly state what happened in the past, but little more. For the purposes of devising economic theories, on the other hand, to actually explain the past and predict the results of future changes, Mises had to create an entirely new field of study: Praxeology.

Praxeology is the value-free, objective science of human action, of which Economics is the most well-developed branch. In order to overcome the extreme variety and unpredictability of human action, Mises sought a few core statements about it which are undeniably true under all circumstances: axioms. The most important praxeological axiom is the Action Axiom: the statement that human beings select particular outcomes which they would like to achieve, and then pursue those outcomes by chosen means. In a word, humans “act.” This is axiomatically true, because any attempt to disprove it would be to select a preferred outcome, and then to pursue it by chosen means. That might seem banal, but because these axioms are undeniably true under all circumstances, that must mean that any statement that can be correctly deduced from them logically must also be true under all circumstances. Any economic statement correctly deduced in this way, would therefore also be universally true, and hence would have overcome the obstacles of finality, ideas, and the sheer complexity of the economy.

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Six key “Austrian” Economists, and some of their notable ideas and works.

Therefore, Mises argued that a priori logical deduction from axioms about human action was the only method by which undeniable economic truths could be discovered. Misesian Austrians argue that this method equips the economist with the ability to make a narrower range of predictions, but to do so with absolute certainty. An Austrian economist doesn’t believe they can predict what the price of crude oil will be in a year, or by how much a certain tax hike will raise government revenue. Rather they believe their system allows the economist to make absolutely certain statements, like “Other things being equal, people will always value acquiring the ‘n’-th unit of a good, more than they value the ‘n+1′-th unit of the same good”,  or “Other things being equal, a rise in the price of a particular good will always cause people to prefer buying a smaller amount of that good than they otherwise would have.”

Mises further understood that, if an economic law really is true under all circumstances, as a result of having been correctly deduced from praxeological axioms, that law would therefore be invulnerable to supposed empirical evidence against it. Indeed, if economic laws can be deduced aprioristically in this way, asking to prove or disprove them with empirical evidence wouldn’t even make sense; to compare economics to another purely aprioristic science, it would be like asking a mathematician to go out into the real world and gather empirical evidence to prove that the 2 is never the same number as 7. Naturally, their complete rejection of supposed empirical evidence, as well as their increasingly unfashionable lack of interest in mathematical analysis, has made the Austrians extremely unpopular in academic circles, and they have consequently been relegated to well outside the mainstream since at least the Keynesian devolution of 1936 onward.

However, there has been a somewhat increasing level of interest in the Austrian school in recent decades, and certainly since the Great Recession. It didn’t go unnoticed that a disproportionate number of the people who accurately predicted the 2008 financial crash in advance were Austrians, and this has led to growing interest in perhaps the most important Austrian theory for our times: the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle.

I’m conscious that this post is already so long that it could easily be mistaken for the average modern-day cinematic release, and with a roughly equivalent proportion of the audience proffering unanswered pleas to God for mercy at this point. Furthermore, I’m sure I’ll have many other chances to relay this elegant theory in future posts, so I won’t go into it in any great depth here. But basically, the absolute bare bones of the Austrian business cycle theory, which was first outlined by Mises and then fleshed out by Hayek, is the idea that interest rates coordinate production across time. If the interest rate is high, it will be more expensive to borrow money for a long time, so businesses will tend to invest more in enterprises which will yield profits quickly, i.e. consumers’ goods. Conversely, if the rate is low, it will appear more profitable for businesses to invest in producers’ goods and other projects which won’t yield profits for a long time. On a free market, the rate is determined by supply and demand of credit, i.e. how much people are saving. This coordinates things beautifully, because banks will offer high rates (and hence stimulate investment in consumers’ goods) when people are saving least (and hence demonstrating their desire to consume now), and banks will offer low rates (and hence stimulate long-run investment) precisely when people are saving most (and hence demonstrating their preference for spending in the future.) However, the Austrian theory shows that the business cycle is kicked-off when the interest rate is pushed artificially low, usually by a government central bank. The artificially low rate incentivises consumers to save less and spend more in the present, while at the same time incentivising businesses to produce less in the present and invest more in long-term projects. This disco-ordination leads to lots of spending, lots of construction, lots of investment, and outwardly that all looks great, but under the hood it’s merely the boom or “bubble” that precedes the crash. When the government eventually has to raise interest rates again, to avoid severe inflation, all these long-term projects which had the illusion of profitability at the artificially low rate, will be revealed to have actually been unprofitable all along. Therefore all the resources businesses sunk into such projects are shown to have been wasted, resulting in economy-wide losses, the bursting of the bubble, and the resulting inevitable crash.

I understand that that’s an extremely oversimplified version of the Austrian theory, which is actually quite a lot more complex and nuanced than most other explanations of the business cycle, but hopefully I’ll be able to do it a little more justice in future posts.

Anyway, I should probably finish this utter behemoth of a first post here. Hopefully though that will have given pretty good outline of why I think the Austrian school stands so far apart from the crowd, and why I consider its method and business cycle theory so important to the current state of economics today. If you’d like to learn more, I’d heartily encourage you to check out the absolute wealth of educational materials that the Mises Institute puts out, both on their website and on YouTube. They, in their extraordinary generosity, have made practically every major work of Austrian economics available as free PDFs, and sometimes even as free audiobooks, alongside all sorts of other goodies they offer on their website, so you’ll do yourself an immense favour by checking them out. In general though, if you want to learn more I hope you’ll continue to follow the output on this blog in the future, as I certainly look forward to writing more on this fascinating subject, as well as on libertarianism and current events in general.