Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Cash Nexus, Niall Ferguson

"Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700-2000".

I continue to marvel at Ferguson, "erudite" is a word that clearly applies. Hopefully I'll be able to get some blogs out on a series of books to provide myself with perspective of the current financial and political state of the US and the world, and this book is one of the cornerstones.

"This books conclusion is that money does not make the world go round any more than the characters in "Crime and Punishment" act according to logarithm tables. Rather it has been political events --above all wars--that have shaped the institutions of modern economic life: tax collecting, bureaucracies, central banks, bond markets, stock exchanges. Moreover, it has been domestic political conflicts--not only over expenditure, taxation and borrowing, but also over non-economic issues like religion and national identity-- that have driven the evolution of modern political institutions: above all, parliaments and parties."
Niall isn't the most reachable of authors, but he did deliver on that thesis in my opinion.
"In the modern democracy...policy may ultimately be controlled by, and in the interests of, the majority of an electorate consisting mainly of the poorer classes, while revenue is obtained mainly from a minority of wealthy persons."
"The lack of deficits before 1973 also casts doubt on the theory of the inherent "democratic deficit", which predicts that democracies will tend to run deficits because the electorate favors public spending but is averse to taxation". 
Ferguson is British, so Britain gets at least as much scope as the US, but he is trying to be general. Essentially, a lot of the issues come back to the old "gold question". Without a fixed peg, countries and financial systems tend to just float off into speculation, inflation, and finally crash.

"Set in this comparative perspective, the subsequent increase of the debt under Reagan--which at the time caused commentators so much angst--was modest ..."

His point, as is the point of the book, is PERSPECTIVE -- relative to GDP, relative to winning the cold war, relative to historical debt in the US and other countries. One of the main weapons the MSM and especially left politicians like to use is the supposed "primacy of the moment". What is happening TODAY is "special, unique, maybe a "crisis", maybe "the greatest (or worst) ever" ... depending on of course who is in power. For the MSM, deficits under Reagan and under Bush were horrific -- deficits 3-5x as large under Obama? No problem at all, with many talking heads indicating that they "ought to be larger", and "deficits aren't really a problem.
"All these countries are actively encouraging their citizens, by a variety of incentives, to provide for ill health or retirement by investing directly, or through mutual and pension funds, in the stock market. In combination, these forces are causing an unprecedented shift in the balance of financial forces, so that the market capitalization of the NYSE is now for times greater than the stock of US Treasuries."
Er, at least they WERE encouraging (Britain, Germany, US, etc) ... with the failure of trying to start some privatization of FICA and now the add of health care to the never ending list of "entitlements", it appears that the US has lost it's way from this happy approach.
"Since 1899 the price of a loaf of bread in Britain has risen by a factor of 32; the price of an ounce of gold by factor of 38. Indeed, an ounce of gold buys approximately the same amount of bread today as it bought in the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, more than 2,500 years ago."
As I said, I'm reading a series of books on past and present economic and political crisis. The basic bottom line is "get at least 5% of your portfolio in gold -- maybe 10%".  Pay no attention to what looks like "record prices"  --  ratios like the above tell you what you need to know. When governments get stupid, private ownership of gold as a store of value is key, and the time to buy is NOW -- before they make it illegal to own gold, as they did in the past.
"Past experience therefore tends to suggest that asymmetric fiscal problems--often, but not necessarily generated by war--quickly cause monetary unions between politically independent states to dissolve. In the case of present day Europe, it seems quite possible that the strains caused by unaffordable social security and pension systems could have similar centrifugal effects ..."
What is obvious to a historian like Ferguson, and what ought now be obvious to even the most out of touch liberal at this juncture, is that most of the worlds social security, pension, and medical systems are unaffordable. When something can't go on forever, it doesn't.
"further democratization may retard growth because of the heightened concern with social programs and income redistribution"
"...concluded that political instability is more harmful to growth than the absence of democracy".
In other words, investors and business people know they have to deal with "real risk" -- competition, natural disaster, price fluctuations, etc. What  they can't deal with is "created risk" -- what new tax, fee, rule, directive, price control, etc will be randomly hurled down from the idiots in Washington (or London). They know that the "real risk climate" is pretty much a constant and beyond anyone's control, but once they have seen "reasonable government", they are unlikely to invest and create under "activist government".

Excellent work, bit of a tug, but worth the struggle. Not reachable enough for me to recommend to all, but if one is up for a bit of a worthwhile challenge, I have yet to see Niall disappoint.

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