November 13, 2017

Now, ten years after, have not all quantitative easing and low interest rates just kicked the crisis can down the road?

Sir, Martin Wolf writes: “A… criticism is that easy money policies have worsened inequality, especially of wealth. But keeping the post-crisis economy in recession in order to reduce wealth inequality would have been insane. In any case, wealth inequality matters less than inequality of incomes, where the effect of raising asset prices is to lower returns for prospective owners, so improving inequality in the longer term. Above all, the worst form of inequality is to leave millions of people stuck unnecessarily in prolonged unemployment.” "Unusual times call for unusual strategies from central banks" November 13.

We are now into ten years of post-crisis. How can Mr. Wolf be so sure that if painkillers like Tarp and quantitative easing had not been prescribed, that we would now be in a worse position in terms of unemployment and in terms of inequality? Perhaps that all just kicked the can down the road, a can that could begin to violently roll back on us.

Sir, in August 2006 you published a letter of mine titled “Long-term benefits of a hard landing”. In it I wrote: 

“Why not try to go for a big immediate adjustment and get it over with? Yes, a collapse would ensue and we have to help the sufferer, but the morning after perhaps we could all breathe more easily and perhaps all those who, in the current housing boom could not afford to jump on the bandwagon, would then be able to do so, and take us on a new ride, towards a new housing boom in a couple of decades.

This is what the circle of life is all about and all the recent dabbling in topics such as debt sustainability just ignores the value of pruning or even, when urgently needed, of a timely amputation.”

I agree with that “wealth inequality matters less than inequality of incomes” but when Wolf then holds that “the effect of raising asset prices is to lower returns for prospective owners, so improving inequality in the longer term”, it would seem he would also agree with the benefits of a hard landing… that is as long as it is not on his watch.

In my Venezuela we have seen how millions of citizens who had reasonable expectations for the future, are now in desperate conditions. They have learned the hard way that no matter how much they might hold in assets, this means little if at the time you want to convert your assets into actual street purchasing capacity, there is no one there to buy these. And, as we sure have learned, to move from very good to very bad can be lightning fast. 

And I will keep on arguing… if government and regulators prioritize the financing of the sovereigns and of houses so much more than the financing of SMEs and entrepreneurs, we will be heading to a future of much poverty, lived out in an abundance of less and less maintained houses.

Wolf ends with: “given the instability of finance, today’s low neutral interest rates and the unwillingness of governments to use fiscal policy, the willingness of central banks to adopt unconventional policies may be all we have to manage the next big downturn.

Yes we might be in dire need of “unconventional policies”, but not necessarily from the central banks.

For instance we should urgently think of creating decent and worthy unemployments, to face the possibility of a structural lack of jobs. For that I would begin studying how to tax robots and artificial intelligence, and or how to reduce the margins of the redistribution profiteers, in such a way that it permits us to design and fund a universal basic income.

The UBI could initially be small, perhaps just US$ 100 per month, something to help you get out of bed, not so large as to help you stay in the bed, but the system has to be in place before social fabric breaks down, or before populists make hay of our problems.