Theory of Interest and Prices in Paper Currency Part I (Linearity)

Under gold in a free market, the theory of the formation of the rate of interest is straightforward.[1] The rate varies in the narrow range between the floor at the marginal time preference, and the ceiling at the marginal productivity. There is no positive feedback loop that causes it to skyrocket (as it did up until 1981) and subsequently to spiral into the black hole of zero (as it is doing now). It is stable.

In irredeemable paper currency, it is much more complicated. In this first part of a multipart paper presenting my theory, we consider and discuss some of the key concepts and ideas that are prerequisite to building a theory of interest and prices. We begin by looking at the quantity theory of money. In our dissection, we will identify some key concepts that should be part of any economist’s toolbox.

This theory proposes a causal relationship between the quantity of money and consumer prices. It seems intuitive that if the quantity of money[2] is doubled, then prices will double. I do not think it is hyperbole to say that this premise is one of the cornerstones of the Monetarist School of economics. It is also widely accepted among many who identify themselves as adherents of the Austrian School and who write in critique of the Fed and other central banks today.

The methodology is invalid, the theory is untrue, and what it has predicted has not come to pass. I am offering not an apology for the present regime—which is collapsing under the weight of its debts—but the preamble to the introduction of a new theory.

Economists, investors, traders, and speculators want to understand the course of our monetary disease. As we shall discuss below, the quantity of money in the system is rising, but consumer prices are not rising proportionally. Central bankers assert this as proof that their quackery is actually wise currency management.

Everyone else observing the Fed knows that there is something wrong. However, they often misplace their focus on consumer prices. Or, they obsess about the price of gold, which they insist should be rising in lockstep with the money supply. The fact that the price of gold hasn’t risen in two years must be prima facie proof that there is a conspiracy to suppress it. Gold would have risen, except it’s “manipulated”. I have written many articles to debunk various aspects of the manipulation theory.[3]

The simple linear theory fails to explain what has already occurred, much less predict what will happen next. Faced with the fact that some prices are rising slowly and others have fallen or remained flat, proponents insist, “Well, prices will explode soon.”

Will the price of broccoli rise by the same amount as the price of a building in Manhattan (and the same as a modest home in rural Michigan)? We shall see. In the meantime, let’s look a little closer at the assumptions underlying this model.

Professor Antal Fekete has written that the Quantity Theory of Money (QTM) is false, on grounds that it is a linear theory and also a scalar theory looking only at one variable (i.e. quantity) while ignoring others (e.g. the rate of interest and the rate of change in the rate of interest).[4]  I have also written about other variables (e.g. the change in the burden of a dollar of debt).[5]

It is worth noting that money does not go out of existence when one person pays another.  The recipient of money in one trade could use it to pay someone else in another.  Proponents of the linear QTM would have to explain why prices would rise only if the money supply increases.  This is not a trivial question. Prices rise whenever a buyer takes the offer, so no particular quantity of money is necessary for a given price (or all prices) to rise to any particular level.

In any market, buyers and sellers meet, and the end result is the formation of the bid price and ask price. To a casual observer, it looks like a single “price” has been set for every good. It is important to make the distinction between bid and ask, because different forces operate on each.

These processes and forces are nonlinear. They are also not static, not scalar, not stateless, and not contiguous.

Nonlinear

First let’s consider linearity with the simple proposal to increase the tax rate by 2%. It is convenient to think it will increase government tax revenues by 2%. Art Laffer made famous a curve[6] that debunked this assumption. He showed that the maximum tax take is somewhere between 0 and 100% tax rate. The relationship between tax rate and tax take is not linear.

Another presumed linear relationship is between the value of a unit of currency and the quantity of the currency outstanding.  If this were truly linear, then the US dollar would have to be by far the least valuable currency, as it has by far the greatest quantity. Yet the dollar is one of the most valuable currencies.

“M0” money supply has roughly tripled from 2007, “M1” has roughly doubled, and even “M2” has risen by 50%.[7] We don’t want to join the debate about how to measure the money supply, nor do we want to weigh in on how to measure consumer prices. We simply need to acknowledge that by no measure have prices tripled, doubled, or even increased by 50%.[8] It’s worth noting an anomaly: on the Shadowstats inflation[9] chart, the inflation numbers drop to the negative precisely where M0 and M1 rise quite sharply.

Consider another example, the stock price of Bear Stearns. On March 10, 2008 it was $70. Six days later, it was $2 (it had been $170 a year prior). As Bear collapsed, market participants went through a non-linear (and discontiguous) transition from valuing Bear as a going concern to the realization that it was bankrupt.

Dynamic

Some people today argue that if the government changed the tax code back to what it was in the 1950’s then the economy would grow as it did in the. This belief flies in the face of changes that have occurred in the economy in the last 60 years. We are now in the early stages of a massive Bust, following decades of false Boom. Another difference was that they still had an extinguisher of debt in the monetary system back then. I wrote a paper comparing the tax rate during the false Boom the Bust that follows[10]. The economy is not static.

By definition and by nature, when a system is in motion then different results will come from the same input at different times. For example, if a car is on the highway at cruising speed and the driver steps on the accelerator pedal, engine power will increase. The result will be acceleration. Later, if the car is parked with no fuel in the tank, stepping on the pedal will not cause any increase in power. Opening the throttle position does something important when the engine is turning at 3000 RPM, and does nothing when the engine is stopped.

Above, we use the word dynamic as an adjective. There is also a separate but related meaning as a noun. A dynamic is a system that is not only changing, but in a process whereby change drives more change. Think of the internal combustion engine from the car, above. The crankshaft is turning, which forces a piston upwards, which compresses the fuel and air in the cylinder, which detonates at the top, forcing the piston downwards again. The self-perpetuating motion of the engine is a dynamic. This is a very important prerequisite concept for the theory of interest and prices that we are developing.

Multivariate

It is seductive to believe that a single variable, for example “money supply”, can be used to predict the “general price level”. However, it should be obvious that there are many variables that affect pricing, for example, increasing productive efficiency. Think about the capital, labor, time, and waste saved by the use of computers. Is there any price anywhere in the world that has not been reduced as a consequence? The force acting on a price is not a scalar; there are multiple forces.

It should be easy to list some of the factors that go into the price of a commodity such as copper: labor, oil, truck parts, interest, the price of mineral rights, government fees, smelting, and of course mining technology. One or more of these variables could be moving in the opposite direction of the others, and as a group they could be moving in the opposite direction as the money supply.

Perhaps even more importantly, the bid on copper is made by the marginal copper consumer (the one who is most price-sensitive). At the risk of getting ahead of the discussion slightly, I would like to emphasize that today the price of copper is set by the marginal bid more than by the marginal ask. The price of copper has, in fact, been in a falling trend for two years.

Stateful

Modeling the economy would be much easier if people would respond to the same changes the same way each time—if they didn’t have memories, balance sheets, or any other device that changes state as a result of activity. Even Keynesians admit the existence of human memory (ironically, they call this “animal spirits”[11]), which makes someone more cautious to walk into a pit a second time after he has already learned a lesson from breaking his leg. People are not stateless.

Stateless, and its antonym stateful, is a term from computer software development. It is much simpler to write and understand code that produces its output exclusively from its inputs. When there is storage of the current state of the system, and this state is used to calculate the next state, then the system becomes incalculably more complex.

In the economy, a business that carries no debt will respond to a change in the rate of interest differently from one that is struggling to pay interest every month. A company which does not have cash flow problems but which has liabilities greater than its assets would react differently still.

An individual who has borrowed money to buy a house and then lost the house to foreclosure will look at house price combined with the rate of interest quite differently than one who has never had financial problems.

It is important not to ignore the balance sheet or human memory (especially recent memory) when predicting an outcome.

Discontiguous

Markets (and policy outcomes) would be far more predictable, and monetary experiments far less dangerous, if all variables in the economy moved according to a smooth curve.

A run on the bank, as is occurring right now in Cyprus (in slow motion due to capital controls), is a perfect example of a discontiguous phenomenon. One day, people believe the banks are fine. The next day there may not be a measurable change in the quantity of anything, and yet people panic and try to withdraw their money. If the bank is insolvent, they cannot withdraw their money, it was already lost.

A common theme in my economic theories is asymmetry. In the case of a run on the bank, there is no penalty for being a year early, but one takes total losses if one is an hour late. This adds desperate urgency to runs on the bank, and desperate urgency is one simple cause of an abrupt and large change, i.e. discontiguity.

Ernest Hemingway famously quipped that he went bankrupt, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”[12] It’s not a smooth process.

There are many other examples, for instance a scientific breakthrough may enable a whole new industry because it reduces the cost of something by 1000 times. This new industry in turn enables other new activities and highly unpredictable outcomes occur. As an example, the invention of the transistor eventually led to the Internet. The Internet makes it possible for advocates of the gold standard to organize and coordinate their action into a worldwide movement that demands honest money. The gold standard in this example would be a discontiguous effect caused by the invention of the transistor.

My goal in Part I was to introduce these five key concepts. While not writing directly against the Quantity Theory of Money, I believe that a full grasp of these concepts and related ideas would be sufficient to debunk it.

In Part II, we will discuss the dynamic process whereby the rate of interest puts pressure on prices and vice versa. I promise it will be a non-linear, multivariate, stateful, dynamic, and discontiguous theory.


[2] We do not distinguish herein between money (i.e. gold) and credit (i.e. paper)

[3] Full disclosure: when I am not working for Gold Standard Institute, I am the CEO of Monetary Metals, which publishes a weekly picture and analysis of the gold basis. One can see through the conspiracy theories using the basis: http://monetary-metals.com/basisletter/

[9] I don’t define inflation as rising prices, but as an expansion of counterfeit credit: Inflation: an Expansion of Counterfeit Credit

[12] The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, 1926

24 thoughts on “Theory of Interest and Prices in Paper Currency Part I (Linearity)

  1. mrsachindixit

    dear sir , there is a feature where by people can subscribed to your site and get emails every time you post a new article . Can we please as ur wordpress admin to enable that feature . It will help people like me not miss what u write .

    Reply
    1. Keith Weiner Post author

      Thanks for your interest in my blog.

      There is a button on the lower right corner of the window that says “+ Follow”. Click that and it will give you a chance to enter your email address to receive notifications. Please let me know if it works for you. I am new to WordPress, having just migrated from Posterous so I am not very familiar with its features yet.

      Reply
  2. allenching

    In Ref #4, Prof Fekete said “(To be sure, on occasion, the Fed may be a seller of Treasury paper but, on a net basis, it has been a buyer every single year.)”. Could you explain why the Fed has to be net buyer of Treasury paper in every single year in the past 30 years?

    Reply
    1. Keith Weiner Post author

      The very purpose of the central bank is to enable the government to borrow more, at lower cost, than it could if we had a free market in money and credit. Therefore job #1 is to suppress the rate of interest. Post 2008, their job #2 is to lend to the government whatever the market does not want to lend (aka monetizing the debt). Both jobs are about buying bonds.

      Reply
      1. Greg Jaxon

        Another part of the answer is that the Federal Reserve Act requires the Fed to post collateral with the Federal Reserve Agent (an Executive branch post) for any dollars they wish to print (as FRNs) and also, I believe, for any dollar-denominated deposit credits held in the FR system. The collateral is limited in type to something close to classical “Good Banking” reserve assets – there is an enumerated list in the Act. In order to increase M1 at all, assets must (first😉 be purchased on the open market (to establish the dollar-equivalent FMV of said collateral).

        Growing M1 is an essential aspect of capturing the economic activity in a growing Gross Planetary Product. Also, similar to Fekete’s point about the large “stocks to flows” ratio of gold (which makes its quantity more certainly stable), irredeemable currency monetarists may be hoping that a large stock of M1 will be a Good Thing. Of course when you see flows like 2008-9, the all important /ratio/ drops thus sabotaging that line of argument.

      2. Joseph Goodman

        Mr. Weiner, In lieu of the recent admission of gold and silver market manipulation by Deutsche Bank, how do you explain your position on precious metals manipulation? You are obviously skilled in the finance/economic arena, and I’m just an IT geek. With that said, what I’ve known since 2007 is that no other commodities trade the high multiples of annual world production each month. None. No other commodities show the clear daily sell pattern if/when they have a daily price increase of 1%. None. No other commodities are termed “bubble” by mainstream media and economists when they represent less than 1% of the available investment capital. None. It appears to me that rather than seeing “through” the conspiracy theories using the basis, you used the basis as an excuse to look past them.

      3. Keith Weiner Post author

        Mr. Goodman,

        Here’s what Deutsche did not say: “we sold massive amounts of metal short, to push and keep the price far below where it should be.” I have so far only seen them say “we are cutting a deal with prosecutors”. It would not surprise me if the final agreement neither admits nor denies guilt on any charges.

        Also, it is relevant to look at the London gold trader (I think he was at Barclay’s if I recall) who was actually convicted of gold manipulation. He did not push and hold the price of gold below the market. He nudged the price down 50 cents (iirc) for 10 minutes so the fix could come in below the strike of an option he had sold. He bought back the gold right after the fix. He lost money selling the gold and then buying it back, but he saved quite a bit more by not paying on the option.

        No other commodities have accumulated inventories over thousands of years. In copper or crude, all mining or drilling production is for consumption immediately. Inventories are a few months’ worth of consumption. In gold, mankind has been accumulating it since at least ancient Egypt and virtually all of that old gold is still in human hands.

      4. Joseph Goodman

        Point(s) taken Sir. DB hasn’t admitted to any specific action, and gold is hoarded over millennia. I’m not sure how relevant that second point is when COMEX and LBMA physical inventory is far less than 10% of volume traded in any given month. Silver however is a significantly different story. There are to my knowledge, no more large silver stockpiles. Neither central banks nor sovereigns hold it, even though it also has a long history as a monetary metal. It’s an absolute essential component in most electronics and many other products too numerous to list here. It has smaller above ground stockpiles than gold, is currently mined at a ratio of between 8 and 10 to 1 (depending on who you ask), is found in the earth’s crust at a ratio of 17.5 to 1 (per USGS) and is currently priced between 70 and 80 to 1. Everything I stated in my earlier post concerning trading patterns applies to silver as well. If it isn’t manipulated, it sure throws stones at the “efficient market” theory.

      5. Keith Weiner Post author

        Mr Goodman: Two points. One, if silver stocks have been depleted then that means silver is no longer money. The market has demonetized it and it’s nothing more than an industrial commodity like platinum, palladium, titanium, tungsten, etc.

        I do not believe this.

        Two, if the banks don’t have any silver then the only way to manipulate its price is to sell futures. Well the basis data disproves that.

      6. Joseph Goodman

        Mr. Weiner, The COMEX delivered physical silver on less than 0.37% of contracts in 2015. In 2015 the average open interest was 171,401.6 contracts representing 857,008,182 ounces of silver. Per the World Silver Institute world production in 2015 was 886.7 million ounces. Open interest per month was, on average 96.6% of annual world production. No other “commodity” trades at such ridiculous multiples. With respect to your skills sir, even good analysis produces faulty results when bad data is input. The basis data proves nothing to me.

      7. Keith Weiner Post author

        Mr. Goodman:

        If futures are being sold hard, then the price of a future would be pushed down. According to the manipulation theory, that is the point of selling them. The basis shows that the price of a future is well above the price of the metal.

        You say no other commodity trades at a volume multiple of its annual production (other than gold, presumably). That’s because no other commodity has such vast inventories. In wheat, no one hoards the stuff. It is not possible to sell wheat that was produced 5,000 years ago. However in silver (and gold), we still own metal that was produced millennia ago. In silver and gold, the “supply” consists of all that hoarded metal *PLUS* new mine production. In all other commodities, the supply is just new production.

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  8. DirkH

    Don’t forget that the USD is the reserve currency.
    The USA is in a unique role as she is the issuer of the current reserve currency.
    She has to satisfy the demand of the world for Dollars to make sure she keeps the reserve issuer role.
    As new Dollars are backed with government debt in the US monetary system, this requires creation of new government debt. Some perverse incentives there; a variation of a prisoners dilemma – you want to keep the reserve issuer role and the overconsumption it allows, but it’s like an addiction where you have to increase the dose all the time and you know the end is death.

    Aside from that, you characterize the complexity very well. I like the asymmetry description of the bank run.

    Reply
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