Central banks: can they control the economy?
The UK decided to join the EEC in 1973, just as today it has decided to exit the European Union. Both were difficult times.
The world had enjoyed continuous economic growth from 1945 to 1973 – what the French called the ‘Trente Glorieuses’. But in the 70s, the world trading platform started to stutter and break up. Productivity fell to low levels and what had driven the impetus for growth – the profound desire, after the 1930s, to ensure full employment – meant that wage increases now became inflationary in a way they hadn’t before. A system which was collectivist in construction – government and big businesses – started to crack, especially after the oil price rose 400% on the back of the Arab/Israeli conflicts. The problem was that governments were obsessed with the fact that nothing should be done to endanger employment and this gave the trade unions all the power and allowed inflation to continue to rise.
Just when the communist revolutionaries were expecting the system to break up, capitalism fought back. The problem behind the lack of productivity was that governments were in charge of the show. Let markets dictate asset allocation and society live under a regime of free markets and all will be better. By 1979, in Reagan and Thatcher, there were politicians willing to take on the unassailable unions and risk higher unemployment.
The effect was electric, but what ensured that it was to last for over 30 years was that at the same time market forces were allowed to act, there was the privatisation of credit.
Before 1979, by and large, credit was available to government and big businesses, and with exchange controls in place, savings were largely tortured and torched within their own countries.
The effect of privatising credit was that individuals could become better off, even if their incomes did not rise, from a growing balance sheet. Globalisation followed, but with it competition became ever more fierce. Societies were forced to change to compete or risk falling behind – a uniformity and conformity to economies the world over became observable, which has involved great pain.
Now we come to today.
By 2009, we in the developed world were running out of the benefits of credit growth. Asset prices were just too high for incomes – the young could not afford to buy houses – falling interest rates had already created asset bubbles. Productivity was falling and suddenly banks were endangered by over-leveraged unwise lending. Interest rates fell to zero in 2009. Six years later and it is becoming obvious that "Houston has a problem". Productivity is not only around zero in most developed countries but falling into negative territory. Market forces are no longer driving investment decisions on the allocation of resources – driven out by governments using central bankers as their conduit for extending credit.
Just as in the 70s, the unthinkable was rising unemployment and for six years governments were willing to watch rising inflation rather than address the issue. So from 2009 onwards, ‘recession’ is the word that is not allowed.
Central banks do their master’s bidding and governments tell them ‘stop recession at any price’.
They can control asset prices by printing money, but can they control the economy? ‘No’. So what we have now is a world in which the 'have-nots' are rising in number and, thanks to the workings of central banks, see the 'haves' still seemingly enjoying themselves on the back of rising asset prices.
It is no wonder that politics are moving fast to the extremes. The politicians and the central bankers are serving each other but not the common purpose.
In such an environment you must expect ‘Brexit’ to win, Trump to succeed. In such an environment, whither the Euro? Remember the Euro has ensured the Spanish, Italians and Greeks, who before were able to pursue a lifestyle which was protected by currency devaluation, now, with a fixed exchange rate, the competition is felt immediately and the southern state employees are forced to become ‘German’.
Why do I write this? Because capitalism is now being blamed for something that they are not party to. This is etatism and the central bankers are the trade unions of this debacle. No wonder Trump is determined to get rid of the Fed. Just as in 1979, politicians realised they had to turn on the unions, so today the central banks with their endless printing of money need to be stopped, or capitalism will be blamed for consequences not of its making.
June 2016 fund update