Why the Dow’s rise isn’t a sign of President Trump’s great policy for me

The featured photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 International license, and was taken by Gage Skidmore.

Characteristically, President Trump has recently been all about showing off how well he’s performed in his first year as one of the most powerful people on Earth. While for myself and some others his first year has been unsuccessful (to put it mildly), Trump is dead set on proving us naysayers wrong largely by using the sustained rise in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (an index showing how shares in 30 of the US’ largest companies have traded over periods of time) during his presidency. While at first glance well-performing large companies may seem to indicate that the economy as a whole is performing well (which it is currently), in this article I will make and support two propositions: firstly that the current US economic boom is unsustainable (assuming the Dow is a good measure of current economic performance), and secondly that the Dow, either way, isn’t a very good reflection of how the economy is doing.

Looking more in depth at our first strand of argument, while business spending increases have allowed the US economy greater than 3% economic growth over the past two quarters, the Trumpian tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy run the risk of actually increasing the American budget deficit (exactly the opposite of what many Republican deficit hawks campaigned for). Politically, this becomes very difficult for the Republicans to justify, but more than that, the fact that that according to the Tax Policy Centre Trump’s plan actually would hurt the lower 50% of income earners represents a decrease in future consumption and thus a decrease in US short run (and long run if firms then stop investing) economic growth arising from this set of policies. Essentially, then, the point I’m trying to make here is that hurting the little guy may boost growth in the short term, but in the long term when real after-tax incomes and consumption fall, the economy might not be doing so great. This is because the rich consume less than the poor for an equal addition to income, so even though the rich get richer, it might not actually boost consumption and growth all that much. So Trump can be happy with the buoyant Dow and economy for now, but he should know it may not last long.

Taking the issue from another perspective weakens Trump’s Dow-focused point further. If we look at who the Dow Jones’ rise actually helps, we see that it serves to increase income inequality further. A NYU report in 2013 showed that the richest 20% of Americans owned 92% of stocks, indicating that the benefits from the Dow’s rise are not equally distributed. Even if we look at the Dow’s rise in isolation as a sign that the economy is doing well, we still see numerous faults with the theory. By seeing what the Dow actually is, and how it may have been affected by recent news, we can see that it may have been buoyed by Trump’s plans to cut business taxes and not actually an improving economy. Within this plan, Trump has also presented changes to the individual tax code that disproportionately benefit the wealthy, but although the American middle and lower economic classes may not actually benefit from his plans, the Dow is rising. This one example shows the divorce that may exist between the performance of large companies and the economy in general; income inequality worsens the economy through decreasing growth, but tax cuts boost large corporations’ after-tax profits. Hence, through this example we can see that the Dow Jones may not be able to accurately gauge US economic performance, putting another dent in the logic behind some of Trump’s recent tweets.

To summarise and conclude, I have established in this piece why I think that President Trump using the Dow Jones Industrial Average to cement his claim to doing well in his new job is flawed. This is both for reasons relating to economic unsustainability, and also because the Dow doesn’t actually tell us how the economy performs all that well. On another, slightly related note, this sort of issue is why I think that the backlash against experts these days is so unhelpful. The things I’m saying here would be much more credible if an actual expert was saying it, but without experts there are no credible voices to inform people that their President may not actually be doing the wonders for the economy that they think he is. I sincerely hope that in the future we can arrive in a world where experts are given the respect they deserve, and are able to call out any figure for saying something potentially wrong without being disregarded because they can’t predict a world that is fundamentally unpredictable. Without it, well, we’ll have lost one crucial, perhaps vital, check on people in positions of great power.

On money and its value

Money (a good that acts as a medium of exchange in transactions, among other things) is the blood that flows through the veins of any capitalist economy. As Lord King proclaims in his book The End of Alchemy, money helps us to cope with an unknowable future by enabling us to hold a store of generalised purchasing power with which to buy goods and services that might not yet exist. A capitalist economy is inherently dynamic; after all, the innovation of economic agents is what drives its existence. Generally, the free market mechanism (using money) works to maximise sales of the goods that we feel maximise our utility, or satisfaction, with relation to their cost. Returning to King’s book, however (after reading it last year), I was struck by some of the examples the ex-Bank of England chief used to illustrate some key points about what gives money its value. Most notably, the example of the different Iraqi dinars used in two parts of Iraq before Saddam Hussein was deposed piqued my interest. Rather than trying to explain it better than Lord King did, I implore all the readers of this article to read about it in The End of Alchemy. The example, though, got me thinking – what backs the paper money of today, giving it value?

The easiest way for me to think about this was to ponder what has historically given money its value, and draw parallels with today. In the past, the widely-used gold standard meant that you could exchange your paper currency for a specific quantity of gold, essentially meaning the paper money was backed by the relevant authority’s gold reserves. Such a system was commonplace, used in both the UK and the USA. The last time we saw the pound or dollar being convertible on demand to gold (either directly or indirectly) was in the Bretton Woods system of the late 20th century, which collapsed in 1971, and it’s a relatively safe bet to say that we won’t see another gold standard anytime soon. We can see how gold is valuable, though; it can be used for a variety of things, from piping to jewellery. So, holding a quantity of gold means that we hold something of value, and exchanging a claim on this value for goods and services gives someone else a claim to that value. Perhaps, then, money must be backed with something valuable to the real economy.

What, of value, backs the paper money we use today? For one, an independent central bank (or an equivalent branch of government), present in much of the developed world today. History has shown us that central banks can, and have recently been successful in taming inflation (see below). This alleviates the probable fear that holding fiat money means rapidly decreasing purchasing power from one year to the next. Good governance, then, may give money its value. That may perhaps be why we are so quick to accept that what a central bank says is £5 is actually £5; we have confidence in the entity issuing the notes and can trust that it will continue to be worth roughly £5. This also explains why countries with questionable governance, such as Venezuela, are suffering such extreme bouts of hyperinflation (although it’s not the whole story). But is the backing of dependable monetary governance really “value”? We can’t build pipes or make jewellery with it. What we can do, however, is convince others to buy our goods and services with paper money, assuring them with reasonable certainty that the value of the money will not suddenly appreciate through a sharp bout of deflation. We trust our notes and coins to not rapidly appreciate or depreciate in value, and that’s why we make and receive payments when we do.

If trust is present, then, do we need a central bank or government to “back” the currency? History says no. Take a look back at the example above – in one part of Iraq whose currency was the so called “Swiss dinar”, there was no credible system of government or central bank, however the Swiss dinar broadly retained its value.  This proves by contradiction that we do not actually need any sort of centralised authority to give our fiat money its value. We can see, though, that we still need the trust that a centralised authority can instil.

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Source: Reproduced by moneyandbanking.com from Alesina and Summers, “Central Bank Independence and Macroeconomic Performance: Some Comparative Evidence,” Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, May 1993.

Concluding, then, it’s clear that our paper money isn’t backed by something as physically valuable as gold, and for the flexibility of our monetary policy’s sake, that’s probably a good thing in my opinion. What I would say here is that our fiat money, today, is backed by trust, namely trust that our money will broadly retain its value from one day to the next, and continue to be widely used in transactions. Can this be instilled by centralised government or a central bank? Definitely; we’ve seen that in the UK and the USA. Does it have to be? Iraq tells us no. Social cohesion and/or a record of money previously maintaining its value, among other things, could deliver the trust that is essential to preserve money as the lifeblood of a thriving capitalist economy. Such an arrangement connecting money and trust is fragile, yes, and it is scary to think of the impact on our economy should we lose our trust in money’s ability to retain its value. It is for this very reason that I believe that sound social institutions and governance are some of the most important prerequisites for a successful capitalist economy to form. Without them, people lose trust in money, and without money as we know it, we see the end of our brand of capitalism.

 

 

How could we curb Venezuela’s hyperinflation?

Think of a note worth 10,000 bolívars. That seems like a lot, right? I’m a nice guy; I’ll give it to you. Go buy yourself a nice TV or something.

What’s that? They said you don’t have enough money?

Precisely.

As of July 27, 2016, this seemingly valuable note is worth just over ten dollars (it’s almost definitely worth less by the time you’ll read this). In the UK, it wouldn’t be enough to buy you a takeaway dinner. This is because of the rapid hyperinflation that’s occurring in the South American country, leaving it in a tumultuous spiral of poverty, with some not even having enough to pay for essentials such as food or heating. A recent Bloomberg report even suggested that the Venezuelan government is running out of money to print money, such is the state of the country. An analyst at Nomura even predicts that a $200 oil price is needed before the Venezuelans can balance their budgets. Estimates for the rate of decrease of prices range from 400% to 720%, meaning that Venezuelans are eager to spend their money before its worth dramatically decreases just a few weeks later. It seems that policymakers are unable to come up with a solution to the problems that Hugo Chávez’s government largely created. Is the country doomed?

Not quite.

The Venezuelan government needs to learn from the lessons of German, Zimbabwean and Brazilian hyperinflation in order to put a stop to the inflationary pressure that has roiled its economy. Fundamentally, the problem is that, due to the pegging of the bolívar against the dollar, there is an “official” exchange rate of bolívars to dollars, and then there is a black market rate, which is a cause of the hyperinflation. Officially, the bolivar trades competitively against the US currency, however on the black market, it is estimated that 10,000 bolívars are worth just over one dollar. The solution? Officially unpeg the Venezuelan currency from the dollar, and allow it to float freely, so that both the government and the people of Venezuela are on the same side: there is now only one exchange rate, and this makes the problem much easier to solve – we need only one bullet, rather than two, so to speak. In addition, this allows Nicolas Máduro and his government to significantly reduce their fiscal deficit, that came about through them getting significantly less bolívars from overseas for every unit currency than the people got through black market transactions using the unofficial exchange rate.

Now that we have a reduced fiscal deficit, the Venezuelans need to stop printing money in order to finance deficit spending. This would stabilise the aggregate money supply in the economy, reducing the potential for a further reduction in the value of money. Logic dictates that the reduced inflation will disincentivise Venezuelans from spending their money in anticipation of a coming decrease in value, which would in turn lead to an increase in savings. Aggregate demand for goods and services would therefore reduce, causing a corresponding decrease in demand-pull inflation (inflation as a result of aggregate demand outmatching aggregate supply). This leads to a continuous cycle whereby more and more people save more and more money rather than investing it, and combined with the stable money supply, inflation will continue to decrease. Years of hyperinflation have battered the Venezuelan people’s expectations, however, so it may take a long time for them to be convinced that their currency will hold its purpose as a store of value, enabling inflation to decrease substantially. While this may allow the national debt of the country to increase, it is a price worth paying for the country to return to a period of long term economic sustainability, during which tight fiscal policy (increasing taxes and cutting government spending) can help bring this debt down.

The final prong of this three-pronged attack on inflation is that when inflation decreases substantially, the likelihood is that it will still be relatively high; inflation ranging from 400% to 720% can’t simply be swatted away. Therefore, the government needs to maintain interest rates at a level such that the nominal interest rate is far higher than inflation, causing the real interest rate to be high and positive. Intuitively, this means people will see it as beneficial to further save their money rather than invest it immediately, curbing the cycle that increases demand-pull inflation. As the rate of inflation continues to decrease, the central bank should gradually decrease nominal interest rates, while keeping them high above inflation, until they have reached a level of inflation that they see as sustainable, at which point real interest rates could potentially come down.

The sad state of Venezuela is a reminder of the dangers that letting inflation go out of control can provide; Hugo Chávez has failed his country immensely. Despite this, the policies outlined above should go a long way to cut out the plague of hyperinflation, and restore peace and prosperity to the Venezuelan people.

What do you think?

Shrey Srivastava, 16

The American Dream: Detroit’s resuscitation

If one could epitomise the phrase “could have been” in one simple image, it would indubitably be the image of Detroit. The unyielding forces of time have taken a once great city and denigrated it to the status of one of not only one of America’s most economically destitute, but also one of its most dangerous regions. Nowadays, Detroit carries many of the hallmarks of the lesser developed countries of the world, especially with roughly 47% of the population being described as “functionally illiterate” by The National Institute for Literacy, a rate only 13.8% higher than that of Afghanistan. Despite this, Detroit still carries as much, if not more potential as it did in the 20th century, and is simply crying out for some economic solutions to its varied and diverse range of problems. Continue reading “The American Dream: Detroit’s resuscitation”

Why Hillary Clinton is the woman America needs for 2016

With the soap opera of the Republican nominations taking over the U.S. political scene, the Democrats have been somewhat overshadowed. The few who are focusing on the Democratic elections have seen a clear frontrunner come through: Hillary Clinton. Despite the astonishing rise of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton still remains the overwhelming favourite to be the Democratic candidate for 2016, and for good reason. Continue reading “Why Hillary Clinton is the woman America needs for 2016”